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While researching an unrelated piece, I began realizing that for a number of years, Falcon’s Creative Group has been at the forefront of redesigning the aquarium and marine life park experience – through virtual worlds, real animals, or a combination of the two – ranging from an interpretive coral reef experience at the Florida Aquarium (above) to a concept for an innovative live killer whale exhibit (below).

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Following are a gallery of photos, videos, and conceptual artwork for some of the biggest marine life projects to come from this Orlando-based creative design and media production company.

TurtleTrek, SeaWorld Orlando

Following a journey through two aquariums, one with rescued manatees, the other with rescued sea turtles, guests experience a 360 degree dome presentation in 3D showcasing the life of a turtle, encouraging them to become everyday heroes in protecting the environment.

Manta, SeaWorld San Diego

After visiting a gallery with real rays, guests board a roller coaster car and are launched from a media tunnel where they experience life under the sea with a school of animated mantas. The launch tunnel was overseen by Falcon’s.

Media Canopy, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

Five distinct storylines appear on the 300 foot long, 100 foot wide media screen that covers the entrance to this Chinese marine life park.

Deep Sea Odyssey, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

The ride attraction integrated into Chimelong’s world record-breaking aquarium tank, Deep Sea Odyssey combines animatronics, animation, projection mapping, and real whale sharks into a single experience.

Ocean Odyssey, National Geographic Encounter

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENCOUNTER is a first-of-its kind immersive entertainment experience that harnesses ground-breaking technology in new ways to transport guests on an incredible underwater journey. Visitors walk through the experience with friends and family, journeying across the Pacific Ocean to interact with and encounter the ocean’s greatest wonders and mightiest creatures. Guests will come face-to-face with humpback whales and great white sharks, Humboldt squid and sea lions, and animals you’ve never dreamed of…in ways they’ve never seen. Opening October.

Atlantis Sanya Resort

A joint project of Chinese company FUSON (owner of Club Med and Cirque du Soleil – Blue Man Group) and Kerzner International (Atlantis The Palms Dubai), this is one of three marine life parks currently under construction in the Sanya resort area of China’s Hainan Island. In addition to the traditional Atlantis animal attractions of a swim with dolphins program and a waterslide descent through an aquarium tank, Sanya will feature a number of firsts for the brand – including belugas, whale sharks, and a dolphin performance arena. Opening 2018.

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ABOVE: Rescue efforts at The Texas Zoo. Source – San Antonio Zoo

There are a number of ways to help attractions, museums, zoos and aquariums, and their staff who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, along with ways to help others effected in Texas and Louisiana.

If you’re looking for ways to contribute to the people in Texas and Louisiana directly impacted by Harvey, Charity Navigator has a list of reputable charities providing support in the aftermath, for both humans and animals:

https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=5239&from=homepage

IAAPA encourages donations to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and to the Macau Red Cross for relief efforts in Hong Kong, Macau, and Zhuhai, which received a direct hit from Typhoon Hato on August 23.

http://www.iaapa.org/news/hurricane-harvey-and-typhoon-hato-update

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is encouraging support of efforts by both the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).

http://www.aam-us.org/about-us/media-room/2017/american-alliance-of-museums-calls-for-the-field-to-support-museums-ravaged-by-hurricane-harvey

AASLH has set up a cultural relief fund and is seeking those trained or experienced in dealing with disasters to volunteer in assisting museums and heritage sites in the region. Additionally, attendees to the AASLH annual conference Sept 6-9 in Austin are encouraged to sign up for volunteer trips to help in the storm damaged areas.

http://blogs.aaslh.org/hurricane-harvey-cultural-relief-fund/

ACM has set up a fund to assist local children’s museum staff who may have been personally impacted by the storm. This includes staff from Galveston Children’s Museum, The Woodlands Children’s Museum, Children’s Discovery Museum of the Golden Crescent, Children’s Museum of Houston, Beaumont Children’s Museum, and The Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley.

http://childrensmuseums.org/acm-harvey-relief-fund

The San Antonio Zoo has been spearheading efforts with other Texas zoos and aquariums to save animals at the Downtown Aquarium Houston and The Texas Zoo in Victoria, both of which were isolated by storm water and suffered facility damage. My interview with the Zoo’s Executive Director Tim Morrow, which includes a link where you can donate to the effort, is below:

http://www.inparkmagazine.com/texas-zoo-aquarium-rescue-efforts/

The AZA has also set up a fund to assist those Texas zoo and aquarium staff and their families personally impacted by the storm.

https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/azarelief

For those of you new to the blog, welcome. For those of you returning, you’ll notice a few changes.  Instead of doing a blog post on one or two topics, I’m switching over to a new format, which I’m calling “The Other Side of the News.” This format, which will run monthly (and on occasion, more frequently than that), will look at attractions industry news items you may not be aware of, or elements of news stories typically not covered in conventional media.

This blog is notorious for its sarcastic and sardonic approach, and that will remain, although it will be toned down a bit in order to concentrate on the news at hand. The Other Side of the News should not be considered a news article. It’s an opinion piece and is based on my analysis of the facts publicly available (unless stated or implied otherwise). There’s a disclaimer tab at the top of the page and I recommend taking a look before proceeding because…well…lawyers gotta be paid for something.

EPCOT’S CHANGING! WALT MUST BE ROLLING IN HIS GRAVE!

Some big news coming out of Disney’s D23 Expo was that Universe of Energy (AKA Ellen’s Energy Adventure) is being removed to make room for a Guardians of the Galaxy Ride. Almost immediately, Disney fans started protesting and griping all over the Al Gore Webosphere.  So here are some of their arguments and why they’re wrong:

Walt would have never changed an attraction like this during his lifetime.

NOT ONE single Disneyland attraction that opened in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s retains its original appearance – and a number of these changes happened during Walt’s lifetime. If it wasn’t the attraction’s narrative or scenic elements, it was via improvement in lighting, sound, show control, animatronics, or safety systems. Imagineers from the very beginning have had a long history of removing elements that haven’t worked and of looking for ways to improve attractions wherever they could.

They can’t get rid of the dinosaurs! Those are a part of EPCOT!

Tell that to Dreamfinder. Regardless of the fact that these are NOT the original 1964 World’s Fair dinosaurs, which reside on the Disneyland Railroad in Anaheim, Disney has a history of recycling its attractions. They could end up in Animal Kingdom, fleshing out the Dinosaur ride that’s already there. Perhaps they’ll be donated to a science museum. My money’s on them being reskinned as alien beasts and staying in the attraction.

A movie franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy has no place in EPCOT

In 1987, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was the West Coast’s Epcot Future World of its day, with semi-fact based attractions such as Circle-Vision, America Sings, Mission to Mars, and the Submarine Voyage. Then a certain attraction called Star Tours opened, replacing the semi-educational Adventure through Inner Space. The moral: It’s happened before. And you loved it.

The stars of the latest incarnation of the Universe of Energy, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, are as relevant today, if not more, than they were at the time of the attraction’s opening in 1996. But today, they’re relevant for different reasons. Ellen is no longer a sitcom star. She’s become an iconic trailblazer for civil rights and the oppressed. Jamie Lee Curtis was still a few years off her sexy turn in James Cameron’s “True Lies.” She now encourages women to embrace their bodies and their natural beauty. Bill Nye has moved on from children’s science shows to become CEO of The Planetary Society. And Alex Trebek died a few ago and was replaced by a semi-autonomous android designed by IBM’s Watson supercomputer. All four have expressed concern with climate change and with the continued use of fossil fuels, so it makes no sense to continue having them in an attraction that actually espouses the merits of coal mining, fracking, and oil drilling.

Look, change happens all the time at theme parks. It’s part of the evolutionary process and necessary for enticing new guests to visit while encouraging existing guests and passholders to return. If you can’t retain guests, you can’t stay in business. Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe and Dave Cobb have written a fantastic blog piece on the importance of theme park change as a reflection of changing social mores. And remember, each Cobb Salad you buy at Denny’s gives Dave Cobb double frequent flyer points! (see disclaimer, top of page)

SPEAKING OF REMOVED THEME PARK DINOSAURS….WHOOPIE GOLDBERG!

2006 was a huge year for Whoopie Goldberg. Having been banished years before from Superstar Limo, Califia herself became the new on-screen host of the the Universal Studios Tour. So for a brief few years, Whoopie could be seen on screen at two competing Southern California parks. But of course you know that, so it’s not surprising that Whoopie just did something highly commendable across the street from her old “Golden Dreams” theater.

While being interviewed during the Disney Legend (also known as the One Arm Bandit) induction at D23, Whoopie brought up the Disney films “Dumbo” and “Song of the South,” stating that it’s time they be embraced and discussed for what they are. I have to agree.

There’s been a double standard at Disney where “Song of the South” has never been released on DVD and “The Martins and the Coys” segment of “Make Mine Music” was removed for being stereotypically offensive, while at the same time the limited edition DVD series “Walt Disney Treasures” contained cartoons offensive to modern standards (such as Pluto appearing in blackface as Aunt Jemima). But I guess that’s ok, as long as your limited run of DVD’s is only being bought by fans and cinephiles and includes an explanatory video introduction about how times were different back then by Leonard Maltin.

I want to go one step further than Ms. Goldberg (who I do hold in high regard).

James Baskett’s status as a Disney Legend (2010) is overshadowed by the continued withholding of his most famous work. 

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He needs to be recognized for it. Yes, doing so will necessitate Disney releasing “Song of the South” on video, a film for which he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1948, and it will necessitate discussion in a public forum. It’s important, in this time and age when we as a society explore race, race relations, and racial heritage, that children understand the song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” did not come from a bunch of animatronic animals on a teetering showboat viewed from flume logs. It was Mr. Baskett who introduced the song into American culture – it was on the shoulder of Uncle Remus, the character he played in the film, that Mr. Bluebird landed. Seems to me it’s a lot easier to deal with a bluebird on your shoulder than to continue dealing with a monkey on your back (and I’m going to be preemptive because I know there are some who will see what I just wrote and be astounded that I allowed such a racial epithet to go through, when in fact it’s not. The phrase “monkey on your back” derives from the Fifth Voyage of Sinbad in the 12th century version of the Arabic classic “One Thousand and One Nights,” wherein “The Old Man of the Sea” attaches himself to Sinbad’s shoulders and will not let go. Eventually, Sinbad is able to get the Old Man to loosen his grip and he promptly smashes his head. The 1893 English language children’s version of the book, “Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights,” edited by E. Dixon – which actually mentioned the head smashing – featured an illustration by J.D. Batten of the Old Man as a grotesque ape like creature. Whether Mr. Batten’s conception was rooted in the racism of the era is not known – I could not find any indication of racist leanings. However, this is why it’s important to maintain open discussion on art – and film – and to make the original material available to review in context.)

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THE MUSEUM DOESN’T WANT ITS IMAX. MUST….SAVE….ITS….IMAX!

I recall the one trip I made to the Johnson IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. I was there for an industry preview of the IMAX film “Coral Reef Adventure” and I remember three things vividly: First, it was 2002 and the theater, only three years old at the time, was absolutely beautiful, and even had a retractable stage. Second, they took away our wine as we left the atrium and entered the theater. They would not allow us to carry it inside. Third, Jean-Michel Cousteau sauntered up to the podium with a glass of wine in hand. I remember being very upset and wishing that one day they’d tear down the IMAX and expand the cafeteria.

Well, unfortunately, my wish has come true as the Smithsonian plans to do just that, claiming that the theater is often only at 20% capacity. I know the people who manage it and the people who market it, so I can’t really conceive why this is happening. But I do have a couple of general ideas of developments that may have contributed:

  • The vast majority of giant screen films available to smaller digital 3D theaters and planetariums are of the same natural history variety shown in the Johnson theater, while aerospace-themed giant screen films tend have a smaller foothold, mainly aerospace museums and science centers. Oversaturation in the overall market affects tourist choices when time is limited (why should we see Dinosaurs Alive! in the IMAX theater when we just saw it on the much smaller screen at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science?)
  • As a longtime giant screen veteran reminded me, at a certain point, the programming and operation of giant screen theaters went from being  mission-based to being profit-based. A programming model where a film might run a full year has given way to rapid turnover, especially with Hollywood fare. From a financial standpoint, it’s a necessity to remain competitive against an ever-increasing number of smaller 3D theaters, high definition full dome planetaria, and HD television channels. From an educational standpoint, it makes things more difficult as more resources must now be expended to accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time.

The group Save Our IMAX is fighting to stop the closure. I completely applaud them and encourage you to join their cause. However, the campaign is far from perfect and I would like to offer the following suggestions in this open format:

  1. With the exception of Diane Carlson, who recently retired from the Pacific Science Center, all the principals involved in the Save Our IMAX campaign are film directors or producers. This creates a bit of confusion as to who exactly the theater “belongs” to.
  2. This should really be a community campaign. Community educators and leaders from around the DC region should have an equal say in the campaign. Instead of it being the filmmakers’ IMAX, make it the community’s IMAX. Or better yet, the Nation’s IMAX. Perception is everything. Now, you do have the great Christ Palmer, a local university professor, on board, but he’s also the producer of such IMAX classics as “Wolves,” “Bears,” “Snails,” and “Dolphins.”
  3. Make sure this is about content being available in the DC marketplace and not about losing a single IMAX theater, especially important as we just lost another IMAX theater in Tampa as MOSI downsizes.
  4. The Smithsonian is a government agency. ENGAGE CONGRESS!!
  5. If the issue of closure is one of content in the marketplace, request the Smithsonian look into constructing a smaller venue. If it’s one of format, there’s always that Bible museum opening up the street. Maybe they’ll build an IMAX and show the Darwin film.
FOR SEAWORLD, IT’S NOT A BLUE WORLD. IT’S NOT A GREEN WORLD EITHER.

SeaWorld canceled its Blue World Project, a series of huge killer whale tanks, and instead did this thing called Orca Encounter in San Diego, which is a show, but it’s not really a show. It’s a documentary film accompanied by live whales, and it’s not working. Neither is Ocean Explorer, the park’s attempt to compete against LEGOLAND California and its SEA LIFE aquarium. I know this because during the recent Q2 earnings call, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said the company does not expect to see a return on investments on the California attractions.

Here’s some other exciting things I picked up on during that earnings call:

  • SeaWorld’s new virtual reality coaster in Orlando, Kraken Unleashed, is having throughput issues with far fewer people than projected being able to ride (as a side note, may I suggest parks considering a VR overlay to their existing coasters also expand the load station to be able to handle two trains at once).
  • Going into the future, the company expects 1/3 of its cost savings to come from reduced attendance and revenues. The simplest way to interpret this is that the money-losing San Diego park will transform from a year-round to a seasonal operation, similar to the San Antonio park.
  • The company is spending less money to build more rides and attractions and is no longer competing with Disney and Universal, doing its own thing in its own way.

I noticed two things really missing from the press release and earnings call, although one was very explicitly addressed in the SEC filing.  There was barely any mention of Zhonghong, the Chinese company that had just purchased Blackstone’s 21% stake in the company. Manby basically told analysts if they had questions about Zhonghong, they should contact Zhonghong, adding that the two Zhonghong directors on SeaWorld’s board were well engaged and a pleasure to work with.  Something felt off. Something was missing.

Then I was told by a source who would be in a position to know, speaking on grounds of anonymity (see disclosure tab at top of page) that Zhonghong had at the last minute decided against tendering for the time being an offer to buy SeaWorld, which required SeaWorld to make sure no documentation had any indication of any buyout, and all at the last minute. Which is why the press release for the second quarter financials came out almost two hours after its usual wire service distribution time, and why the SEC filing was not done until end of day the following day, almost thirty-six hours later.

Just prior, Zhonghong had placed a $3 billion acquisition of Brookdale Senior Living on hold after Chinese banks (if you’re a Chinese company, you must secure financing through Chinese banks) downgraded the company’s credit rating to “unfavorable,” resulting in Zhonghong being unable to secure financing to complete the Brookdale acquisition.  Scouring the ChinaWeb, I’ve come across a document which is either a complaint or a legal filing (not sure yet which), alleging fraud on Zhonghong’s part with a 2016 residential development near Beijing. The claims are eerily similar to a 2016 SEC fraud investigation regarding Comcast’s purchase of DreamWorks Animation (DWA). Although Zhonghong is not mentioned as being investigated or as a defendant in the SEC case, it is mentioned by name as a co-suitor to purchase DWA with one of the defendants. Although I can’t be certain any fraud investigation has affected Zhonghong’s purchase of American companies, Zhonghong certainly has been effected by the same Chinese government investigation on lending for foreign investment that saw Dalian-Wanda group drastically reinvent itself. My source also tells me that both Manby and Board Chair David D’Alessandro will stay on through at least the end of the year, by which time the acquisition is expected to be back on and nearing completion.

At the same time, private investment firm Hill Path Capital continues to buy shares of SeaWorld, to the point that it is in the top four in terms of company ownership. According to a Merlin Entertainments call the day before SeaWorld’s call, Hill Path is pushing SeaWorld’s management to sell off the two Busch Gardens parks in order to obtain immediate revenue. SeaWorld was very explicit in its Q2 SEC filing that it wants Hill Path to have no part whatsoever in any board or management decisions.

These past forty-five days have been difficult for SeaWorld, with the stillbirth of a beluga calf, the death of what was advertised as “the last SeaWorld orca born in captivity,” and the euthanasia of one of the company’s most revered orcas. I’m not going to discuss welfare or health issues here. If that’s your cup of tea, there are plenty of other sites on the interweb covering both sides of the argument. One in particular caught my attention.

Michael Mountain writes on the Whale Sanctuary Project website about the death of the killer whale Kasatka. He schools SeaWorld for their interpretation of the term “family,” disputes the company’s healthcare and medical diagnoses, questions if her trainers loved her, and then implores SeaWorld to release their whales into a sanctuary, perhaps the very one his group plans on building.

I felt like I was reading a SeaWorld of Hate piece – you know, PETA’s anti-SeaWorld page, since this followed the traditional PETA anti-Seaworld layout – call out SeaWorld on everything they do, then implore them to move their whales to a sanctuary.

I don’t think it was a wise move for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and here’s why.

You need whales for your whale sanctuary and there’s only two ways you’re going to get them – through the courts or building bridges with the whales’ owners. You can have Kiska in Canada, but right now the law prohibits her being moved out of Ontario. You could have had Lolita in Miami, but certain lawsuits and Endangered Species Act recognition means lots more red tape and hurdles to jump through.  I’m pretty sure you want Morgan from Loro Parque, but first you’ve got to figure out just who owns her (I’ve seen Loro Parque say she’s a ward of the Dutch government, their whale, and SeaWorld’s whale. Guess it depends on the day). That leaves the SeaWorld whales. And with posts like this, you’re burning necessary bridges far faster than you can get the materials to build new ones.

A MARINELAND VIDEO SENT ME TO THE BATHROOM.

Marineland of Canada released quite a few press releases last week. One was about the death of the beluga calf Gia.  Along with it was a link to a video on Marineland’s animal husbandry. I recognized the licensed music in the video. It was the same selection that Comcast’s customer service office uses. I found myself automatically headed to the bathroom thinking I was going to be on hold for 20 minutes.

But what Marineland’s doing is far more interesting than listening to a pre-recorded ad for Comcast’s Xfinity internet service play eighty times in a row while you’re internet’s down. Marineland has chosen it’s enemy as it’s become confrontational with the Ontario SPCA, going so far as to state in January:  “The OSPCA is continuing a publicity campaign at the behest of a band of discredited activists with little relevant expertise or knowledge, in an effort to avoid further embarrassment related to an ongoing investigation into the OSPCA’s perceived failure to protect animals that is being led by the same activists they are now firmly in bed with.”

Yes, the OSPCA is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, much like many other SPCA’s or humane societies throughout the world. What makes it unique is that in addition to being a charitable organization, it is also the government mandated enforcement agency overseeing animal welfare issues in the province of Ontario.

Whereas something like a complaint being filed by, say PETA or the Animal Welfare Institute against a zoo or animal-based theme park would be a civil complaint, a complaint from the OSPCA is a criminal complaint. It is up to the Crown prosecutor to act on the charges and, in the most recent case, the charges were dropped.

Marineland continues to counter the OSPCA’s claims through press releases over the wire services, even callign the OSPCA’s Senior Manager of Communications a “self-proclaimed ‘PR (public relations) pro & writer by trade’ with no actual involvement in delivering Ontario SPCA’s animal welfare mandate.”

So, after treatment of this kind in the media by Marineland and other private zoo owners, it’s not a surprise that the OSPCA released an announcement that:

The Ontario SPCA believes that animals on exhibit in zoos solely for commercial gain is an antiquated business model that must be stopped. The time to begin working towards this goal is now, if we work together to ensure our expectations are clear for elected officials.

The Ontario SPCA advocates that the Government of Ontario put in place the following, on behalf of animals in zoos:

  1. Develop and proclaim‎ new or amended legislation to regulate zoos permitted to operate in the province, prohibiting any zoo exhibiting animals solely for commercial gain,
  2. Provide at least four Crown Attorneys to specialize in animal welfare law so that charges are seen through to justice and the public interest is served,
  3. Provide sufficient funding and resources for increased and ongoing inspections of zoo facilities, and for the eventual closure of zoos that exist solely for commercial gain,
  4. Allow the current Provincial Zoo & Aquarium Registry to be made public and available on the Government of Ontario’s website.

So…the gloves are off….on both sides.

IS CEDAR FAIR HEADED BACK TO ITS ROOTS?

Christian Dieckmann and Howard Newstate have left Cedar Fair (to 3D Live and Holovis, respectively). What does this mean for the chain? Well, we’re likely to see less of the high tech attractions (VR is still gonna be around) like Iron Reef, Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, Mass Effect, and Plants v Zombies.

So what’s taking their place?

I’ve spoken extensively with the management of California’s Great America and with Clayton Lawrence, who was recently promoted from his post at Great America to become Cedar Fair’s Corporate Manager of Live Show Development. The company’s taking a back to basics approach. It’s looking back at the history of its parks and the communities in which those parks exist and honoring both. Food service is being upgraded, accommodations are being improved. The company will present a whole slate of live entertainment with a unified standard across all parks. And most exciting of all, festivals and events are going to be a special emphasis, from craft beer festivals to beach parties, Haunt, and Winterfest, Cedar Fair will be creating multiple reasons to visit year round as they put the amusement back in the park (yep, there’s a disclaimer at top of page).

SIX FLAGS JOINS THE APPEASEMENT BANDWAGON.

Six Flags Over Texas was named after the six flags that at various times flew over the state of Texas –  Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America.  In light of the recent events in Virginia and elsewhere, Six Flags opted to remove the Confederate flag from its flagpole. Then they did one better – they removed four more of the flags and replaced them all with American flags.

In Canada, after a mother posted a Facebook photo of a carousel horse at La Ronde, Six Flags’ theme park on the Expo 67 site in Montreal, the company agreed to remove the horse, which featured the severed head of a Native American. While America deals with its racial unrest, Canada is dealing with its own legacy of abuse of First Nations tribal members. The history is a long and hard one that spans from the forced relocation to and abuse at residential schools – an attempt to “educate” the native out the native culture – to today’s epidemic of young aboriginal women disappearing and being killed.

I applaud Six Flags and its individual park management for doing the right thing.

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The day after Thanksgiving 2016, large crowds resulted in average lines of between one and two hours per attraction at both of the Disneyland Resort’s parks.  As I was nearing the halfway point of a ninety minute queue for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, I began to hear shrieks and screams – not from the tower hidden above me behind a brown construction tarp, but from two young children in line behind me.

“I’m scared,” said one.  “I don’t want to do this,” chimed in the other.

The young lady accompanying them did her best to reassure them.  “It’s a frog hopper,” she told them, “Just like at the fair.  Except here they’re going to do some magic tricks to make it seem scarier than it really is.”

As we entered the lobby, the Silver Lake Sisters, a trio of beauties belting out hits from the 30’s, livened up what was otherwise a decrepit and abandoned space.  Then it was on to the library for the intro video, followed by the Tower’s boiler room.  After that, everything was abnormal.

With just over a month left before the attraction’s closure, the park was offering “Late Check-Out.”  When the doors opened to the two visual effects rooms on the ride, everything was dark.  I could hear the soundtrack and see the outline of the screen and the physical props, but not a single light shone.  It was disconcerting. I felt like the ride was malfunctioning.  For the first time on any of the Tower of Terror attractions, I held onto my handle for dear life.

As I stood in the exit hallway, looking at my pose in the souvenir photo, the two children showed up.  Both were shaking, but both had a big grin from one cheek to the other.  They had survived the Tower.

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A PARK IN NEED OF PEOPLE

When I first visited California Adventure in 2002, the park was much different.  If EPCOT was the Disney Imagineers’ version of a permanent World Expo, then California Adventure was their concept of a state fair. Most guests entered the park missing out on its biggest illusion. If you knew where to stand in the esplanade between the parks and what you were looking at, you’d realize that the giant letters spelling CALIFORNIA in front of the entrance, the murals on each side, the condensed Golden Gate Bridge crossed by the monorail and the giant sun sculpture at the end of the entrance walkway all combined to form a giant postcard.

To the right, past the entrance corridor, known as Sunshine Plaza, and its 1950’s train, was the Golden State zone, comprised of Bountiful Harvest Farm, Pacific Wharf, Golden Vine Winery, Pacific Wharf, Bay Area, Grizzly Peak Recreation Area, and Condor Flats.  Past Golden State was Paradise Pier, the park’s homage to seaside amusement parks.  On the left side of Sunshine Plaza was Hollywood Studios Backlot, the park’s representation of a Hollywood studio, with backlot sets and soundstages.  There was no thematic connection between the Backlot Studios and the rest of the park, with the giant sun sculpture placed between it and Golden State.  This would later be remedied with the 2012 redesign of Sunshine Plaza into Buena Vista Street and small cosmetic overlays that converted the movie studio motif of much of Hollywood Studios Backlot into Hollywoodland, with the two linked not only by architecture, but by a new electric railcar that traversed both lands.

In 2002, there was no Tower of Terror. If you were looking for a tower thrill ride, it was the Maliboomer, an S&S Space Shot with the unique addition of plexiglass face shields to quell rider’s screams.  This ride was one of many attractions throughout the park where themed off-the-shelf rides existed without story (a giant orange called the Orange Stinger with swings inside themed to bees being another).  As a result, attendance at California Adventure after its first year of operation was far below predicted numbers and Disney was doing all it could to build up visitation.  That Summer, a dirt arena was built next to Pacific Wharf with a motocross exposition themed to ESPN. The roar of the engines could be heard throughout the park.  A concert series was set up on the shores of Paradise Lagoon.  On the day I visited, the narration of Whoopi Goldberg as Califia, the Spirit of California, in the park’s flagship film Golden Dreams (its version of American Adventure) was drowned out by the spirited tunes of Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones just outside the theater’s exit doors.

Disney knew that motocross exhibitions and concert series would not be enough to turn around attendance and work began immediately on two big money projects – Bug’s Land, which would take up the majority of Bountiful Harvest Farm, and a new version of a Walt Disney World favorite, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

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SHAFT WITH A VIEW

Opened in the Summer of 2004, The original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the focal point and terminus of that park’s Sunset Boulevard expansion.  Much like the Haunted Mansion, which is a guided tour of a haunted house and graveyard, the Tower involves riders as participants in a “lost episode” of the classic television show “The Twilight Zone.”  After queuing through the lobby, guests enter a library where an introduction to the episode, about the disappearance of part of the Hollywood Hotel and five guests in an elevator, is told by series host Rod Serling.  They then enter the hotel’s boiler room and board one of the service elevators for their own trip into the Twilight Zone.  As the doors open, the five elevator passengers of the storyline appear, then disappear into a flash of electric charges.  Seconds later, the room turns into a starfield and a special effect from the show’s opening credits appears.  One floor up, the elevator, actually an autonomous vehicle, leaves the shaft and travels forward through the Fifth Dimension room to enter the drop shaft, where it goes up and down via random programming, with doors opening at the top of the shaft for a view of the entire park.

In Florida, four boarding/show shafts merge into two Fifth Dimension rooms leading to two drop shafts, which end at the ride exit.  The vehicle then returns unoccupied to the boarding position. At California Adventure, the Fifth Dimension room was dropped in favor of three single shafts.  Boarding took place on two levels, with the ride vehicle traveling a few feet back and forth between the single load/unload position and the elevator shaft.  This allowed two vehicles to operate per shaft – one loading on either the first or second floor while the other was in the shaft going through the ride cycle.  A second effects room was also added, this one with a mirror showing the attraction’s riders, who suddenly disappear in a visual effect.  The California Adventure layout is also used in the Tower of Terror attractions at Walt Disney Studios Paris and Tokyo DisneySea, which has a unique storyline involving an evil idol and the disappearance of hotel owner and international explorer Harrison Hightower, who also makes an appearance at Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor.

On January 2, 2017, California Adventure’s Tower of Terror took its final riders into The Twilight Zone.  It will be replaced in the Summer with a new attraction themed to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  This is not the first time that the Disneyland Resort has conducted a thematic layover to the existing infrastructure of an attraction, be it promotional (Disney Afternoon Avenue), seasonal (Haunted Mansion Holiday), or permanent (Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage).  It is, however, the first time in decades that an E-Ticket attraction will open in sync with the film it promotes, a somewhat rare occurrence these days.

When the Tower first opened in 2004, it was a bit out of place.  Hollywood Studios Backlot was a cacophony of concepts and attractions (about half of it still is), evocative of what one would find on an actual Hollywood studio lot.  Take a stroll to the end if its main thoroughfare and one encounters the Broadway-caliber Hyperon Theatre.  What appears to be the theater entrance at the end of the road isn’t real, it’s a façade, and there’s no grand lobby like one would find at the Pantages in Hollywood.  Instead, there’s an outside courtyard on the right side of the building where guests wait for the doors to open, with stairs on the exterior side of the building to take them to higher levels of the auditorium.

By contrast, the Hollywood Tower Hotel, the Tower of Terror’s alter ego, wasn’t designed as a recognizable physical illusion. It was fully imagineered to convey its story and ambiance, both in its external queue and within the building itself.  When it opened, it was an outcast on the far edge of the park, with only the vague notion of Hollywood linking it to the rest of its land.  One could argue that the Tower was the first stage in the evolution of the park, a move away from creating suggestive theme out of limited symbols and icons to creating a solid place with a backstory all its own.  It was followed by the redesign of Paradise Pier, the integration of Condor Flats into Grizzly Peak, and the new lands of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street.  It was the catalyst for the transformation of a Hollywood Studio (for half the land at least) into Hollywood itself.

There is a running line in the film “The Big Lebowski” concerning a stolen rug – “It tied the room together.”  In many ways, the Tower tied the park together, especially after the 2012 opening of Buena Vista Street.  No matter where you saw it from, it just seemed to fit.  It fit perfectly behind the Carthay Circle Theater.  And it fit perfectly seen from Bug’s Land, ironically not because of the film “A Bug’s Life” on which the land was based, but a competing studio’s film about ants – “ANTZ.”  The Dreamworks/PDI film ends with the camera zooming out, where we learn that the ants live in the middle of Central Park and that it’s surrounded by tall towers.  Had that been California, the Hollywood Tower Hotel could easily have been one of them.

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MORE PIPES THAN UNIVERSAL’S SUPER NINTENDO WORLD

The new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction threatens this synergy.  Even though architecturally the building does seem to fit the Hollywoodland theme with its strange pipe-encrusted art deco design, something feels off.  Marvel executives and Imagineers are quick to point out that in the Marvel universe, anyone and anything can suddenly appear out of nowhere from anywhere in time and space, adding that such is the case here.  But, if I understand properly from reading the comics and watching the film over and over, this attraction will take place during modern times in a futuristic outer space environment supported by an 80’s rock music soundtrack, all in a land designed to evoke Hollywood of the 1930’s.

There’s little doubt the ride will be a hit.  As such, it could be the catalyst for even more change at the park – such as the conversion of Hollywoodland into a Marvel land.  The newly opened Iron Man Experience in Hong Kong would be quite easy to port over with a California-centric film.  The Animation building has the space for such a ride and precedent exists for closing a popular animation attraction, such as the one at Walt Disney World, which was replaced by a Star Wars showcase.  As for the role of a Hyperion Theatre in a Marvel land – Spider-man seems to be popular in the musical genre (“Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway and “Spider-man Rocks” at Universal Studios Hollywood), while a new effects laden Doctor Strange stage show will be premiering in the Disney Cruise Line’s Walt Disney Theatre during Marvel Day at Sea.

Of all the lands at California Adventure, Hollywoodland, where only half the land has a coherency, is the one most in need of direction.  Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout has the potential to become the template of a new land of adventures and discoveries in much the same way the Tower of Terror redefined the entire park.  Whatever happens, one thing won’t be changing.  Young kids will still be scared to ride, and they’ll still exit shaking and grinning.

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In 1915, the Panama Canal opened, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through center of the Americas. To celebrate this momentous milestone, the city San Diego held a glorious world’s fair.  Here, the exotic animals that would become the basis of the San Diego Zoo could be found in cages for visitors to see up close.  As could aboriginal men, part of an analysis (true to scientific thought of the day) of what caused mankind to change from savagery to civilization.  Yes, men were on display in cages as a scientific display one hundred years ago.

WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO MUSEUMS

Last month I attended the California Association of Museum’s annual conference in Sacramento, as a journalist intent on learning what the latest trends are in the museum community.  I found common themes of inclusion, race, diversity – not ironically the same themes that will appear over and over again at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting next month in St. Louis.

During a session titled “The Work Inside: Case Studies in Developing Conversations about Race, Equity and Inclusion,” Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Public Engagement at the San Diego Museum of Man spoke about the radical transformation that the museum has undergone in the past few years – from being about what biologically makes us “human” to what entails “humanity.”  Playing a major role in this revised mission is an exploration of race and racism, with a permanent installation of the American Anthropological Association’s exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” as its centerpiece.

Combined with the former traveling exhibit are artifacts showcasing the history of race and race perception in San Diego – among these, a photo of an anthropological exhibit of live men in cages during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Humankind has always been beleaguered by beliefs of superiority of one group over others – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender, gender identification, height, weight, hairstyle, piercings….the list goes on.

This behavior is not unique to humans. In the natural world, prejudices exist within other species as well.  There is ageism, discrimination against the disabled, against those that look different, against those who act different.  One of the biggest differences between animals and humans is that we, as a species, take those prejudices and code them into law – be it religious, civil, or a combination of both.

It is not a coincidence therefore that both the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit on the Black Panther movement featured redline maps of their respective cities.  Instituted in 1934 by the newly established Federal Housing Administration, the practice of redlining utilized “residential security maps,” where ethnic and minority communities were distinguished on the map as being ineligible for financial services, resulting in continued impoverished conditions while artificially inflating home and property values in white neighborhoods.

Museums are now looking at the past to create dialogue about our present and our future. One could say this is a response to the Trump presidency.  Certainly, there have been plenty of cries of racism during Trump’s first few months in office.  But racism did not begin with him.  Ferguson and Black Lives Matter took place under a different president.  Women’s equality did not begin with him.  The SONY hacks showing unequal pay took place under a different president.  Native American rights did not begin with him. The protests at Dakota Access happened under a different president. And countless incidents on the same topics happened before under numerous governments going back decades, if not centuries, within the United States and around the world.

As keynote speakers Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg of Lord Cultural Resources showed, museums are changing their missions and the design of their exhibits as they shift from a hard power to a soft power philosophy of operation.  The difference is night and day and comes from the world of international affairs, where “hard power” refers to military action, while “soft power” refers to diplomacy.  In the museum world, the “hard power” model has a collection made of animal and artifact trophies collected around the world, explores the traditional hierarchies of empires, and the “great men” of note in history.  A “soft power” museum influences through persuasion, attraction, or agenda setting.  It becomes the catalyst for activism and community change on one end and discussion within the community on the other.  Most “soft power” museums fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.

Museums are not the only place “soft power” can have an effect.  In just a few days, a “soft power” moment will be taking place with the world’s leading themed entertainment designers.

WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO THEMED ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN

As has been discussed previously on this blog, there can easily be confusion between museum exhibit design and themed entertainment design.  Themed entertainment is often equated with the fun to be had at theme parks.  But it’s much more, and museum exhibit design is actually a subset of themed entertainment design.  A theme is a topic or a setting.  Entertaining is another way of saying engaging – engaging the mind through sensory or intellectual stimulation.*

If there’s a theme to this blog post, it’s intolerance and how we examine it. On Thursday, themed entertainment producer Kile Ozier will be sitting down with Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis during the 2017 TEA Summit to discuss the fact that being HIV positive in many nations where TEA members do business is illegal, and could result in prison (thus the men in cages analogy) and career destruction.  Kile goes into more detail of his own issues working within the UAE in this excellent blog post.

But the HIV restrictions in the UAE, a theological monarchy, are not just for health purposes.  They are a way of circumventing a human rights issue.

As a teenager growing up during the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, I was taught there were three ways you could get the HIV virus – homosexual sex, needles, and sitting on a public toilet.  Yes, we were actually taught in public school the importance of keeping our rear ends suspended at least an inch above the toilet seat.

By my twenties, it was well known that anyone could contract the virus.  I recall seeing a fax to a government official staying at a hotel I was working at.  Without disclosing the most confidential of details, the one line that caught my attention stated simply: “Magic Johnson is going to announce tomorrow that he’s HIV positive.”

Later that year, one of my co-workers was hospitalized and passed away.  We didn’t know until afterwards that he had died of AIDS.  We found out only because his wife sued the hospital.  According to her, he had been afraid to disclose the HIV to his family, co-workers, or his congregation because in the Conservative, Bible-thumping South, he feared that they would associate it with the lowest rungs of their perceived moral ladder – homosexuality, drug abuse, adulterous sex.  The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, showed that he had acquired it through tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident.

But saying that HIV doesn’t affect just the gay community poses the same risks as saying “All Lives Matter,” when such a statement evades four hundred years of civil rights oppression among the African-American community.  HIV has had an altering effect both within the gay community as an epidemic and all too real threat and from without as an associated tool for bias.

As a straight man, I’ve had gay friends, gay co-workers and bosses, and gay relatives all my life, but I didn’t understand HIV’s effect on the community until about a decade ago.  It took the collaborative efforts of a playwright, director, actors, production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, and dozens of craftspeople and crew – a collaboration of the creative and the technical arts – for me to understand.

When I was the Audience Services Director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, we suddenly changed our last production of the season to Steve Yockey’s play “Octopus.”  The plot is simple – an older gay couple has a one night tryst with a younger couple.  One of the older men acquires AIDS and dies.  But the anguish of both the surviving partner and that of the dead one – floating forever in an undersea abyss fighting off the eight-tentacled monster of the disease encircling him – are forever etched in my mind.

The arts and themed entertainment design have an ability to bring people together, to let them discover others and themselves in new and inventive ways.  From Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook’s “Foresta Lumina,” which uses universal concepts of folklore, to the moving 7/7 tribute and dance number during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (not seen in the USA as NBC opted to switch to paid advertising during this segment), there is an ability to transgress boundaries.

It would be great if theme parks could take on the great issues of our day.  But outside of conservation and environmentalism, they’re prone to leave societal issues to museums.  Even Epcot, founded as a showcase of the great power of humanity working together, years ago eliminated two attractions where questions of race and inclusion could be discussed – Electronic Forum and Wonders of Life.

What Kile is doing is a first step – and I applaud him on that.  He’s creating a dialogue within the creative community.  If it succeeds – if the industry can place pressure on governments or become a political force and encourage the US, Canada, and European governments to exert the pressure – the soft power moves towards advocacy.  And it can lead to advocacy on many other things.  Once the foot is in the door, it has two ways to go.  It can back out.  Or it can go further.

And maybe one hundred years from now,  a man with HIV in a cage won’t be a reality, but a photo of antiquated practices of the past in a display about humanity in a UAE museum.

*One important differentiating factor of themed entertainment, which is why it is inclusive of museums, is the OOH! Factor (trademark pending).  It takes place Out Of Home in an environment where strangers can congregate for a shared experience.

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On Friday March 24, it was announced that Blackstone will sell its 21% ownership of SeaWorld Entertainment to China’s Zhonghong Group for $23.00 per share, a markup of more than 30% over market value on the day of the announcement.  Zhonghong can purchase additional shares, buying up to 24.9%, and even own 30% or higher with board approval.

So who is Zhonghong?

Zhonghong is a real estate investment firm based in Beijing and founded in 1995.  In 2010, the company hired American themed entertainment design firm Thinkwell Group to develop a large-scale Monkey Kingdom theme park, based on the famed Journey to the West folklore story. Monkey Kingdom was scheduled to open in 2014 in Huairou, Beijing, but was put on hold due to a number of factors, among them a temporary ban enacted in late 2011 on the construction of new theme parks throughout China and a later re-zoning of Beijing that allows only one amusement park per district.  According to Chinese media, Monkey Kingdom is back on track to open, but in a new location – Jinan, Shangdong, about five hours to the south from its original location.  It is slated to open in 2020.

Zhonghong’s largest shareholder is Qilu Securities Shanghai Assets Management (QSSAM), which owns 20.5%. Other Zhonghong owners include a number of international hedge funds and institutional investors, many connected with or owned by the Chinese government. QSSAM is an affiliate company of Zhongtai (China and Thailand) Securities, which is controlled by Laiwu Iron & Steel Group, a government-owned steel manufacturing and distribution company. This should not be surprising, as every business in China, by law, is partially owned by a government-related entity.

Without discussing the complexities of international business law, the Chinese government will soon be a part-owner of SeaWorld Entertainment.

Now, this certainly isn’t the first time the Chinese have purchased an American entertainment company.  Dalian-Wanda Group, which just backed out of a deal to purchase Dick Clark Productions, owns AMC Entertainment, North America’s largest cinema chain. Wanda, which is one of China’s leading leisure companies, has also committed billions of dollars to new theme park projects in India and France.

But what does this mean for SeaWorld?  Well, one thing’s for certain – a lot of work is coming for the company’s Deep Blue Creative design studio and its partners, at least overseas.  But other than that, it’s time to put on the speculation hat:

CHINA WANTS PUBLICITY

Chinese multinationals often invest heavily in foreign companies or provide infrastructure services (such as rail, dams, sewage) to other countries as an example of the country’s economic might. A Chinese-owned SeaWorld Entertainment could see huge economic investment in the US parks, allowing the theme park company to finally be on a competitive level with Disney and Universal. Duplication of attractions in the US and China could provide similar attractions for different audiences on different continents, reducing design and production costs. How much investment are we looking at here? In 2011, it was announced that Monkey Kingdom would cost around US$1.5 billion.  That’s US$150 million more than SeaWorld’s entire revenue for its 11 parks and other corporate ventures during all of 2016. And I’m not adjusting for inflation.

CHINA WANTS REAL ESTATE

SeaWorld could sell of its US properties and exit its San Diego lease, segueing into a company that develops and operates parks in Asia and the Middle East, where the political climate is friendlier to animal-based entertainment companies. Under this scenario, those animals not restricted to export by the Endangered Species Act, along with the company’s coasters, would be shipped overseas.

The Orlando park is still beset by reduced attendance from Brazil.  Although a number of park critics have questioned this factor as just being an excuse to hide from the reality of fewer people wanting to attend the parks, state tourism figures issued by the State of Florida do show reduced visitation across the state from Latin America, along with lower hotel occupancy for 2016.

Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a number of San Diego hoteliers. One was willing to speak on the record, but requested anonymity. As I have not confirmed her statement through other channels, please consider it as opinion and with some skepticism:

There’s been a bit of confusion in the market since SeaWorld announced that One Ocean closed.  Most of our guests think the park doesn’t have orcas any more. Some ask our staff if they were shipped to Orlando. It doesn’t help that SeaWorld until just recently stopped calling them killer whales. So now, when one of our guests comes up to the desk and asks if they still have killer whales, we tell them they still have the orcas, and they say ‘No, I didn’t ask about orcas. I asked about killer whales.’ What I do know for certain is that more and more of our guests are avoiding SeaWorld because they think the orcas are gone.

San Antonio appears to be the one SeaWorld-branded park where attendance is stabilizing.  It, along with Orlando, are two properties the company owns outright, which either could be sold for a huge profit or developed. Don’t forget – Zhonghong also develops housing.

CHINA WANTS ORCAS

Two companies in China currently have orcas. There are nine at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai and six at Haichang Ocean Park’s Linyi (Tiger Beach) Polar Ocean Park. Some of the Haichang orcas are scheduled to relocate to the Goddard Group-designed Shanghai Polar Ocean World when it is complete.  Other companies have announced plans to exhibit orcas in new or existing parks. None of the fifteen orcas have been on public display.

Chinese companies obtained their orcas through Russia’s TINRO Center, a quasi-government fisheries institute headquartered in Vladivostok.  Earlier this month, the head of TINRO was arrested and charged with the illegal capture and export of belugas and orcas to China. Although the arrest is tied in with a major initiative to increase offshore drilling in the Sea of Okhotsk, where the orcas are captured, it also creates a hardship for Chinese parks, as it dries up their only source.

Currently, the only state SeaWorld operates in with a prohibition on the export of orcas is California. The prohibition was signed into law on September 13, 2013 as part of the state budget. Violating the prohibition on breeding or export in California is a misdemeanor offense and carries a maximum fine of US$100,000, not a big fee for a company spending US$429 million on SeaWorld stock.

Representative Adam Schiff, who you can see nightly on the news dealing with one sort of catastrophe or another, introduced HR 1584 last week, which would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to prohibit on a national level the import or export of orcas for public display, along with breeding. Violations under the MMPA are treated much stronger than those under the California law and could lead to felony convictions and jail time. The Schiff bill presents a time constraint issue for exporting orcas.

So, under this third scenario, the parks remain in the US, along with heavy investment in the American parks, and only the orcas are removed.

Yet questions remain – what about SeaWorld’s commitment not to breed orcas at any of its parks, including international locations?

Company policy changes – often in only a few months. In December, SeaWorld was preparing to take the California Coastal Commission to court over a permit ruling that would have banned orca breeding at the park. Three months later, the company’s new CEO Joel Manby announced a voluntary end to the practice, one that to some may have appeared to be animal welfare driven, but by all accounts, was fiscally based.

Yet, the company’s stock value (under US$20 for quite some time), attendance, and profits continue to drop. If they continue to fail to increase, especially with new ownership on board, we likely could see yet another management change at SeaWorld. And often, with new management, policies change.

As Zhonghong acquires 1/5 of SeaWorld Entertainment, along with its two seats on the Board of Directors, we’ll get an indication of how much control the company wants to exert on its American acquisition. What will happen with the relationship Manby established with the Humane Society of the United States, an organization often critical of Chinese policies?  What will happen to the American parks, including the two Busch Gardens parks?  What future lies in store for the animals?

If SeaWorld’s animals are relocated to China, there’s one single line in Chinese law to keep in mind. In the United States, animals within theme parks are private property.  Even that large talking mouse.

Allow me to introduce you to Article 3 of the Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, as revised in 2016:

Wildlife resources shall be owned by the state.

Yes, you read that correctly. If SeaWorld sends its animals to China, they will be owned by the Chinese government.

And it all kind of makes sense, because when Blackstone’s sale goes through, the Chinese government will be an owner of SeaWorld as well.

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When I was six years old, I saw Annie Hall.  It wasn’t until I watched it again in my 20’s that I recognized the complex relationships and fully formed persona of Oscar winner Diane Keaton’s title character.  In the intermittent years, if you asked me about Annie Hall, the only thing I could remember was Woody Allen’s memory of growing up in a house underneath Coney Island’s famed Thunderbolt coaster.

The same year, 1977, I also saw Star Wars. We went to three theaters before we finally found one that had tickets – and it was standing room only.  For much of the film, I sat on my dad’s shoulders in the back of the theater, taking in every breathtaking moment.  From the age of six on, I could recite almost every line in that film.  I related to Luke, to Han, to the droids, to the Wookie, and even to Leia.  But as a young boy, I lacked something.  I couldn’t relate to Leia as a girl would.

When Carrie Fisher passed away this week (my piece relating her performance to that of mother Debbie Reynolds in How The West Was Won can be found on InPark Magazine’s website), Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe posted her perspective on what this meant to her as a woman on Facebook, which I hereby republish without her permission, because such is the ThemedReality way.

Two really important things happened to me within the same horrible year of junior high, which shaped me immeasurably. One, my school librarian slipped me “The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’, whispering to me to not let my particularly humorless about girls reading ‘boyish’ things principal see me with them. Two, I finally got to see the entire Star Wars (original) trilogy.

Combined, they rocked my world. Girls could be heroes. *Girls could be heroes*. Girls could be self-rescuing princesses. Girls could be smart, and crafty, and clever. They could be snarky and sarcastic. They could have complicated love lives. They could be actual well-rounded characters, instead of window dressing. They could be the masters of their own destinies. I couldn’t quite verbalize it at the time, why seeing Leia in a slave bikini pissed me off so damn much, but even then it did. Nice try, stuffing her back in the window dressing box, guys.

As a child, I appreciated Carrie Fisher’s characters. As an adult, her wit, wisdom, audacity. She opened the door for me to talk about addiction and mental health with my kid. You can keep your ‘when I am old I shall wear purple’ simpering crap. When I’m old, I wanna have Carrie Fisher’s total willingness to live out loud, unfiltered, no bullshit. A year ago I sat in a darkened movie theatre, behind my child, and though I had seen stills and clips, nothing prepared me for the moment that General Organa filled the screen. Older. Battle hardened. Not a magic sparklepony force user. No, a woman who had lead the resistance through loss after loss (both personal and sweeping). My hands flew to my face and I must have gasped, because Sean craned around in his seat and eyeballed me. I watched her weary face and no nonsense demeanor and saw countless female execs, professors, political leaders who’ve been through a similar grind. Carrie Fisher once again was representing so many of us. Not pretty. Not perky. Not conventional. *Competent*. Good- nay, great- at what we fucking do. And thoroughly done with bullshit.

David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher. I can draw an arc through and with all of them, all people who profoundly shaped what it meant to embrace yourself, to live life unapologetically, to be authentic in a visceral, norm-defying kind of way. They were our generation’s torch bearers, who lit the way for those of us who didn’t quite fit inside neat boxes. And while I felt the first three keenly, it’s the loss of Carrie Fisher that makes my face crumple. Maybe because of what next year will bring. Maybe because it feels like we haven’t come that far from 1977 when a princess who could wield a blaster was so boundary breaking.

I was so moved by Cynthia’s piece that I tracked her down to the private island in Indonesia that she calls her winter home and invited to join me for a conversation about Fisher and Leia over that second of grandest inventions by Al Gore (following global warming) – the internet.

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If you’re not familiar with Cynthia, she is the Prinicipal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and as such oversees the development of all educational programming. She has worked on three projects that have received the prestigious Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, including that Harry Potter studio tour that the Mrs. keeps insisting I fly her to London to visit.  And this is why our discussion moved into theme parks.

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TR: I’d like to discuss how Carrie Fisher’s performance had a profound impact on the Disney heroines that followed, creating an empowered generation of young girls, which in turn changed the way Disney approached its shows and attractions

CS: Well, Princess Leia – and later, General Organa- certainly had an enormous impact even thought at the time of her creation, Leia wasn’t a Disney property.

When she first filled the big screen, most of our film heroines of a certain age were of a type. They were objects of romance, or scream queens. They were pretty and not the drivers of their own destiny, often. Princess Leia was a princess with a blaster! She had agency, skill, wit, and was- forgive my language- a badass. She wasn’t solely defined by her relationships to other men.

Despite the occasionally cheesy hairstyles, lack of bras in space, or that god awful slave bikini, you can draw a direct line from Leia screaming through the forests of Endor on a speeder to Merida galloping through the forests on her horse, or Anna taking off to find Elsa.

TR: One thing I’ve noticed is that much like Leia, the Disney princesses seemed to transform from damsels in distress needing a man to save them to empowered women that were considered equals.

CS: Exactly. And it makes sense. I’m of the same generation as Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songwriter, along with her husband, of Frozen). We are the generation who finally had a strong heroine in pop culture: Leia.

So it stands to reason that the women who came of age watching Leia and the strong female characters who followed her would want to continue to push that forward for a new generation of little girls in plush theatre seats.

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TR: As the Disney parks are very character-centric, how have you seen this change in female character design affect the design of attractions in parks?

CS: Great question. I’ll admit there are ways in which I think they haven’t pushed it enough (I, for one, would burn every fastpass I could on a Brave ride rather than just a character meet-n-greet). But, having said that, we see it in ways both big and small. Re-skinning Maelstrom into Frozen could have been the equivalent of the Journey of the Little Mermaid- a rehash of the movie – to satisfy the need. Instead, it is bar none one of the smartest dark rides I’ve seen in ages. It’s thoughtful, witty, emotional- the use of that track is brilliant- and it *advances the story of the two sisters more*. They continue to be the heroines of their world.

On the ‘Small’ side- it won’t be small for long, given the Star Wars land work- but the gender parity and inclusion we see in Star Wars events in park is great. You don’t see only male staff in character- you see men and women and there’s absolutely no ‘well you can only be a princess’ exclusion of girls. Leia kicked butt. Rey kicked butt. There’s room for girls now and Disney is embracing that as fast as they can, given the realities of how long it takes to build a ride or land.

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TR: A modern actress that I see having many of the same traits of Leia up on screen is Zoe Saldana. In 2017, we’ll see a new Disney attraction and a whole land based on franchises she starred in – Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. Will having lands or attractions based on films with strong female characters result in attractions that give a strong empowering message to young girls?

CS: I think so. It plain makes good business sense. When we look at the statistics of who drives disposable income spending in families, tweens have huge, huge influence- over 70B USD, on everything from what movie the family goes to on a weekend, to what car mom gets, to where they vacation. Tweens and teens are embracing films and characters where girls are empowered, are shaping the action and are right there in the thick of it. And this generation doesn’t hesitate to call out what they see as unfair or not doing justice to source material. Simply put: if you’re doing a land or attraction on a property with a strong female character, you had better get her right, or you’re going to hear about it from the fan base and you’re not going to get their (or their parents’) income and attention as thoroughly as you want.

TR: One last question – what are your thoughts about her scene in Rogue One and the timing of the film’s release being so close to her death?

CS: I think it’s actually going to be way harder to watch the next film- I understand she was done filming- than to see Rogue One again. Because in the next film she’s General Organa. She’s Princess Leia after Seeing It All, Losing So Much, Pushing Through The Horror. I personally felt from a storytelling standpoint it was important to end Rogue One- which, wow, it’s not like you didn’t know what kind of a mood it had to set – on a note that brings it full circle to the ‘start’ of the mythos and the opening of A New Hope.

The reminder that after all of this horror, after so much loss, there’s still hope- that was an important beat. But, personally? I think the punch of watching General Organa and knowing she’s gone will be much, much harder.

I’ll start off by sharing with you that I’m not stoned. In fact, I don’t partake in drugs at all. But I am tossing this blog post back and forth with a couple of stoners, Tim and Robbie, and as I write it, their feedback will affect its direction.  I really have no idea what’s about to take place or how successful this will be.  Consider this my first stoner crowdsourced post.  So before we continue, a warning. There will be drug references throughout.  So guys, anything to add?

TIM: You’re a couple of days late on this dude.

Yeah, I know.  I missed posting it on 4/20.  But I’m actually a year late in posting it.  It was formulating in my mind May of last year.

ROBBIE: Who’s this Hettema?

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Phil Hettema

Phil Hettema is a very tall guy.  At a recent TEA mixer, I was standing between Maris Ensing and Shane Grammer, feeling grossly inadequate about myself.  As I was looking up (imagine a sea lion in a zoo looking at someone holding a fish), I began to feel very insecure.  I started imagining that if Phil Hettema and, for the sake of imagination, Craig Hannah on stilts, were to join them, that I would be like a Hobbit surrounded by wizards.

TIM: They’d send you to chase the dragon.

ROBBIE: What if Craig Hannah was a beautiful woman?

 

 

If I were surrounded by Maris Ensing, Shane Grammer, Phil Hettema, and Kelly Ryner, I would feel like Chimelong Ocean Kingdom or Hong Kong Disneyland – surrounded by tall mountains on three sides and the beautiful ocean on the fourth (Kelly introduced me to Craig, who, off the top of his head, came up with the most remarkable attraction for my museum – just listening to him was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had.  Unfortunately, we did not have the budget, but I can never thank Kelly enough and am so happy for her new role in Asia).

ROBBIE: OK. Wait. I’m confused. Hannah.  Hettema.  Hannamahta.  Hannama. Panama. I’m really confused. Start over.

The idea for this post started last Summer.  I received a call from a graphic designer who I shall keep nameless to protect his job, who lives in a city that had installed a giant observation wheel sometime in the past five years.  I shall also keep the name of the city and the name of the wheel confidential since that might reveal this person’s identity.

TIM: Mission Impossible

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Random generic-ish giant wheel used for illustrative purposes of the type of attraction anonymous complainer might be complaining of

Sure.  So he called me one day concerned about this giant wheel.  “It’s an eyesore,”  he told me.  “The thing looks like a big carnival wheel.  It doesn’t fit in here.  When you go on it, there’s some canned narration that’s just really boring and makes you feel like you’re on one of those inter-terminal trains at the [name omitted] airport.  I don’t like it.  I don’t get it.  Where did they go wrong.”

I had only one answer for him.

“They didn’t hire The Hettema Group.”

TIM: OK, man.  I think I get Hettema.  But I don’t really GET Hettema.  Help me out.

I first met Phil Hettema in his office in the long white building on the Universal Studios backlot back in 1999.  I had just left Texas, where I had worked on the IMAX Ridefilm simulator and was wanting to know more about how one could give the backstory and feel for a simulator ride that one couldn’t see from outside the building.  A great contact I made at the 1998 IAAPA Attractions Management School put me in touch with Phil, who had played a pivotal role in both the Back to the Future rides and the design of Islands of Adventure which featured the Spider-man hybrid dark ride simulator.

TIM: Did he ever do anything for you.

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What goes up…..

Phil gave me a poncho from the grand opening of Jurassic Park: The Ride.  I am forever grateful as that was an extremely wet experience I was unprepared for.  But that attraction also showcased something special about Phil Hettema: through effects and light and sound and animatronics, your adrenaline and anticipation build up, making the drop much more exciting.  He understands that a change in elevation can be more than an action.  It can be a complete experience unto itself.

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More bang for your buck

Regardless of whether it’s virtual, as with the aerial dogfights and flyover of the globe in Beyond All Boundaries at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, or real, like a ride on the Ferris wheel at Zhejiang, China’s Hello Kitty Park, where an intricately designed landscape of bright colors and geometric shapes begins to appear below, Hettema and his company get it.

ROBBIE: Hello…….Kitty.

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I would say “meow,” but Sanrio told me she’s a human schoolgirl from London and to stop sending catnip

There is always that one project that a company undertakes for which they are known forever….the culmination of all its employees’ experience and skill into one landmark attraction.  When I think BRC – I think of the Saturn V Center or Mystery Lodge.  With Thinkwell, it’s the Warner Bros Studio Tour in London.  Whenever I hear JRA, I think of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.  PGAV brings to mind Chimelong Ocean Kingdom.  Everyone has their own preference, but to me these are the attractions these particular organizations worked on that are masterpieces.  There are, of course, many more such projects and the companies that perfected them.

ROBBIE: Have you been on that boat ride with the monsters at Six Flags?

Here are some of the ingredients for the ultimate Hettema attraction:

  • the excitement of a Universal attraction
  • the interactivity of Dragon’s Wild Shooting
  • the story of an entire people as in America I Am
  • the personal stories such of those told in Beyond All Boundaries
  • the integration of small theaters as in the Russian Jewish Museum
  • the international touch of the USA Pavilion at EXPO 2012

ROBBIE: Hello……Kittie?

It’s in there.  At One World Observatory, just like Hello Kitty Park starts to spread out beneath you on the Ferris wheel, the city of New York begins to appear beneath you as you head towards the observation decks aboard the world’s fastest elevators.  These are, however, not normal elevators.  On the ride up, floor to ceiling screens on each wall show the city evolving beneath you as you rise from swampland to the metropolis you see today. Going down…..

TIM: “Going down….hahahahaha.  Aerosmith.”

Going down, the elevators take on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Great Glass Elevator dimension as they appear to fly around the tower.  The experience of One World begins in the basement and continues at the highest levels.  This is not a story about 9/11.  There’s a separate museum on the grounds that tells that story.  One World tells the story about its own tower, and about the city and the people of New York.

Las Vegas is as distant a state of mind as it is miles from New York.  New York has always been a hodepodge – the rich and the poor, ethnic communities, theater, finance, and leading universities – all within reach of the average tourist.

Las Vegas has these too, but they’re hidden behind the glitz of the Downtown and the Vegas Strip.  You have to be a local or head off the beaten path to find the reality of Vegas, and the majority of tourists don’t.  Why seek out a local greasy spoon when Gordon Ramsey has a burger joint in your hotel?

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What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless it’s captured on camera by the person in the capsule next to you.

About a block off the Strip lies LinQ, a somewhat new shopping/dining/entertainment complex owned by Caesars and right in the middle of it is the High Roller, the world’s largest observation wheel.

ROBBIE: Are you talking about Link from the Zelda games?

Hettema created the show, taking its cue from the Vegas Strip.  It has the same high energy in the queue and preshow as a Las Vegas casino, which then continues into the capsules.

ROBBIE: Like pills?

TIM: Is this like Tylenol?

This is where things differ from that other observation wheel the graphic designer complained to me about.  Unlike a canned narration (although I’ve heard that may have changed sometime in the past year), local comedian Lucas Dick (son of Andy Dick), was chosen to guide visitors on their spin around the Vegas skyline.  It’s got a youthful feel, it’s hip, and irreverent.

TIM: Andy Dick. Remember when he was dating Drew Barrymore?

That was Tom Green, but I see how you can confuse the two.

ROBBIE: I don’t get it, man.  This has nothing to do with drugs.  So why are we talking about drugs? I don’t get it.

I thought it was a funny joke.  “Getting high” and “taking a trip” and all that.

ROBBIE: OK, but where’d you come up with this idea man?

I actually got the idea from a Hettema attraction:

And that folks was my first and last stoner crowdsourced blog post.

 

 

 

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Is IMAX planning to install a version of its theater systems inside fitness clubs and gyms?  Could this be the next BIG fitness craze?

IMAX Corporation currently has a pending patent application for IMAX FIT, described simply as “providing fitness and exercise facilities.”

I’ll keep you updated as my gym installs its massive one story screen.

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I recently finished a book called Beneath the Surface.  When I was done, I was certain that Michael Phelps deserved every single of one of his Olympic medals, no matter how under the influence of pot he was at the time.  Then I came across another book, also called Beneath the Surface. This one is the new memoir and anti-captivity diatribe by former SeaWorld San Antonio killer whale trainer John Hargrove.  It was interesting to say the least and certainly not what I expected.  And that’s my official review.

I’m not going to discuss the controversial practices that Mr. Hargrove alleges SeaWorld conducts. Those that have read my coverage of the film Blackfish know that I tend to shy away from such matters, referring the reader instead to the hundreds of websites that portend to offer an answer on the subject one way or another.  Rather, I’m going to look at the aspect of the book just about everyone seems to have overlooked as they concentrated on food deprivation, trainer deaths, and mother/calf separation – the fact that John Hargrove has a horrible memory and is piss-ass poor when it comes to dates.

Many of Hargrove’s errors rest in his memories of that first trip to Orlando in 1980, at the age of six. In the book, he tells us:

Summer vacation for me always meant a road trip with my parents. And in 1980, my mother and my stepfather decided we’d all go to Orlando.  We couldn’t afford to fly so we drove the nearly 900 miles from our home among the bayous of east Texas to the theme park capital of America. The contrast was dramatic: Orange, Texas was a monotonous, flat swampland while Orlando was punctuated with architectural extravagance, from Cinderella’s castle in Walt Disney World to the adamantine giant golf ball of EPCOT Center.  And then there was SeaWorld.

The adamantine giant golf ball of Epcot Center, Spaceship Earth, in summer 1980.  The park opened October 1, 1982.

The adamantine giant golf ball of Epcot Center, Spaceship Earth, in summer 1980. The park opened October 1, 1982.

Hargrove continues:

We joined the crowds headed into Shamu Stadium.  The coliseum for killer whales was already the largest animal performance space in the marine park, far bigger than the theaters built for the dolphins or the sea lions and otters.

SeaWorld Orlando's first Shamu Stadium.  Construction completed 1984, fully operational 1985.

SeaWorld Orlando’s first Shamu Stadium. Construction completed 1984, fully operational 1985.

Kotar performing with

Kotar performing with “friends” in the Whale and Dolphin stadium. Killer whales and dolphins performed together in the single stadium through 1985, when Shamu Stadium opened on the opposite side of the park.

Kotar at Sea World of Florida's Whale and Dolphin stadium

Kotar at Sea World of Florida’s Whale and Dolphin stadium

Map of Sea World of Florida, 1980.  This would have been the park as encountered by a six year old John Hargrove on his first visit.  Note no Shamu Stadium to be seen during that visit as described in

Map of Sea World of Florida, 1980. This would have been the park as encountered by a six year old John Hargrove on his first visit. Note no Shamu Stadium to be seen during that visit as described in “Beneath the Surface.”

So how is it that an author that goes into excruciating detail on the history of the marine mammal display industry could get this simple fact wrong about Shamu Stadium?  There are two possibilities at play here.

First, based on the fact that the writing the writing style in the section about killer whale captures differs greatly from the remainder of the book and matches word for word similar descriptors in recent lawsuits filed against SeaWorld (this is not the first time wording has been reused. Both the Washington state House and Senate anti-cetacean captivity bills are verbatim duplicates of California’s AB-2140 killer whale bill), it appears to have been written by a third party.

Second, Hargrove has never been a SeaWorld fan.  A true die hard SeaWorld fan would know that for close to fifteen years, the killer whales and dolphins performed together in a single tank and that there was no dedicated killer whale stadium until 1985.  Hargrove’s colleagues John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre are aware of this, writing in a recent paper titled “Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival,” which was published in the April 20, 2015 issue of Marine Mammal Science:

In 1985 an enlarged pool (completed in 1984) marked the beginning of improved captive killer whale breeding by enabling adequate nursing behavior between a mother and captive-born calf.

For Hargrove, there was no true dedication to the company nor to its philosophy.  He was like a Jungle Cruise fanatic who couldn’t care less about the rest of the Disney empire.  The parks were nothing more than a way to a means for fulfilling his addictive dream of swimming and performing with killer whales.

To counter Hargrove’s book, SeaWorld released a five year old cell phone video of a very intoxicated Hargrove wearing a SeaWorld shirt stating racial epithets about African-Americans.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on the video by a number of people.  I lived in Texas for close to a decade, a couple of hours from where Hargrove grew up.  I give everyone the same response: “It’s a drunk white Texan saying what drunk white Texans say.”   People who have not lived in East Texas often find it hard to recognize that racism is embedded in the local culture – especially in the small towns.  Hargrove appears to agree, writing:

The one real thing that always got people excited was the football rivalry between the two local high schools: Little Cypress Mauriceville versus West Orange Stark.  My cousin Tracy remembers my trailing along to all her pep rallies.  The underlying ugliness was that Little Cypress was the white school and West Orange was the predominantly black one.  In my town, in the 1980’s, the races still lived apart, coming together only to clash via football – with all the combined awfulness of sports fanaticism and bigotry.  Orange, however, had nothing on the notoriety of the city of Vidor, just about 20 miles away.  The Ku Klux Klan marched there well into the 1980’s; and when black families moved into public housing in Vidor during that decade, they were greeted with burning crosses. [Blogger’s note: the cross burnings continued through August 1993, the month before Hargrove’s swim test at SeaWorld.  The Klan would be represented in court by an African-American attorney appointed by the ACLU – big news in Texas]

For a book whose secondary theme is persecution of the author as a gay man, I’m surprised that the issues of rascism, homophobia, and sexism were not addressed more in the text.

Is John Hargrove a racist?  Yes.  Becoming an animal rights advocate or surrounding yourself with decent people does not remove racism.  That requires a life altering experience, often with someone you would typically have racist leanings against.  Hargrove has yet to experience that.  Until then, a part of him will retain the racism that is built into his hometown’s DNA.

Even though they might not be racists, every one of the SeaWorld trainers that was present when that video was filmed is complacent in racism for doing and saying nothing.

And the theme park industry itself has a racist history.  It was not until 15 years ago, when Terry Prather, now one of SeaWorld’s highest ranking executives, took the reigns at Jazzland park in New Orleans, that an African-American was given the title of “General Manager” of a major US theme park.

Much has been made about the lack of black trainers at SeaWorld and other marine life parks.  Part of this is an aesthetic that goes back to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when theme parks catered primarily to white audiences.

However, a recent five year study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that African-American children were five times at risk of drowning as their white counterparts, up from three times in the prior five year study.  According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children lack the ability to swim, compared to 40 percent of caucasians.  The reason: racism.

I’ve been asked why I don’t like John Hargrove and the truth is I do like John.  But I don’t like the John I’ve seen since just before the book came out.  Watch John in this interview, then listen to his presentation to the Commonwealth Club.  Everything he says, word for word, in these two recordings and in hundreds of other audio and print interviews, is exactly the same.  It’s canned.  He’s become like a killer whale repeating the same tricks over and over for his handlers.

I miss the John Hargrove that I performed dolphin necropsies with in 1993.  And I miss the John Hargrove I spoke with extensively before he testified at the AB-2140 hearing.  I miss the John Hargrove that was free to speak his mind.  This isn’t him.  This is an automaton.

And yes, he is a racist automaton, but thank goodness he’s not a pedophile.

There are reasons why parks such as LEGOLAND restrict adults from entering if not accompanied by minors.

In 2011, a Kentucky man named Ronald Thompson was arrested at SeaWorld San Antonio’s waterpark for taking indecent photos.  Prosecutors discovered more than 70 photos on his camera – all closeups of the breast and buttocks areas of young children.  Thompson was charged under Texas’s new “improper photography” law and the ruling by a Texas Appellate Court in September 2014 not only set him free, but struck down the law as a violation of First Amendment rights.

So, in Texas, you might be served fries by a Klan member in your local McDonalds, and that man taking photos up your skirt at the mall or getting too close to your children with his camera in order to later gratify himself, has every Constitutional right to express himself in such a manner under the law.

Welcome to the Lone Star State – racists and pedophiles to the front of the line.