Saturday, July 02, 2005

4th of July, Part 1: Tugger Comes to Town

The holiday weekend festivities started early in Celebration this year. The long-awaited (some might say long-dreaded) premiere of "Tugger" came to town on July 2nd. Far from a mob scene of 60,000 crazed Tugger/Jim Belushi fans, it was an orderly event on the scale of a typical Celebration Fourth of July.

If you're wondering just who/what Tugger is, visit In a nutshell, he's a World War II Jeep that dreams of flying like an airplane. His computer-generated story was created by former Disney animators who formed a company called Genesis Orlando, which is located in Celebration. In a very real sense, Tugger is a hometown creation. The cartoon that premiered this year is the first in a planned series.

My husband and I had volunteered to work at one of the merchandise booths, so we were scheduled to report downtown at 2 p.m. In the morning, we had lots of errands to run, so we took our "Tugger" pass and headed out in Canyonero. One of the more controversial aspects of this event was the closing down of the entrances to town. In order to drive into Celebration, you had to be a resident or worker. Otherwise, you were routed to the Celebration Place parking lot, where you paid five bucks a pop and were shuttled into town. There were lots of online complaints about the inconvenience about having to show a pass. Personally, I rather liked the idea; perhaps it can be a blueprint for future events, since downtown parking is always at a premium.

I had been a bit worried because I'd seen postings from people who had received their "Tugger" passes, but mine hadn't come before my last trip to Chicago. Thankfully, they were waiting in the mailbox when I returned. A few people didn't get theirs, but thanks to the Front Porch intranet, people with extras were able to share.

As it turned out, we didn't even need the pass. There were flashing signs warning that the roads would be shut down by noon, but when we got home around 1 p.m., there was no one checking. I did see a "Road Closed" sign that was being totally ignored. We took one of the "back" entrances, so perhaps they didn't start controlled access there until later.

As the appointed time approached, we donned our yellow "Volunteer" shirts and headed out. Normally, we walk downtown for special events, but the sky looked somewhat threatening so we decided to drive. After all, if the parking plan was going smoothly, we figured we'd be able to find a decent spot. We didn't look all that hard for a prime spot, as I don't mind walking a bit. We easily found a space on Campus Street and hiked over to town hall to sign in. We spotted Tugger himself sitting nearby, so my husband snapped some photos.

One we had taken care of the formalities, we headed over to the booth, which was located between Seito and Herman's. It sold a variety of Tugger merchandise, including hats, t-shirts, beach towels, a storybook, bracelets, and coloring books. We also had soda, bottled water, and popcorn, but the non-edibles were definitely the most popular sellers.

Even though the event didn't officially start until 3 p.m., people started trickling in almost immediately. We made nearly $100 in sales before we even got our cash box. I was a seller and my husband was a runner who was supposed to get us more merchandise, if needed. Since we didn't run out of anything, he stayed just outside of the booth and kept an eye out for shoplifters. But trouble wasn't too likely, as the sheriffs had a very visible presence. The dire prediction of 60,000 people didn't materialize, but if it had, there were plenty of police officers to keep the peace.

While manning the booth, we saw many friends and acquaintances. It amazed me how many people we've gotten to know in less than a year. I also noticed that among the customers, there were certain "Frequently Asked Questions." Number One: Do you take credit cards? Answer: No, cash only. I did get a couple of people who seemed clueless about the whole Tugger concept and who asked what the festivities were all about. Perhaps they had come to Celebration expecting a typical day and had stumbled into our big event. Fortunately, I'd been following the Tugger saga on the internet, so I was able to spiel a pretty decent version of the Jeep's backstory and the tale of Genesis Orlando, our hometown animators.

My most interesting interaction was with an obnoxious tourist who obviously hadn't spend enough time at Disney World. He was raising a little fuss because we were selling bottled water for $2. Come on, dude, it's for a good cause! (Frequently Asked Question Number Three: Where does the money go? Answer: Arnold Palmer Hospital). He kept ranting about how he gets water for free out of the lake back home. I resisted an urge to hand him a straw, point to the lake across the street, and say, "Go for it!" Instead, I pointed out that it's still cheaper than the theme parks. Finally he relented and ponied up.

The crowd started out at a trickle when we first arrived at our post, but by the time we left, there was a steady, heavy stream of people pouring into town. My husband bought a "Tugger World Premiere" towel (it was very cute; I wish they had that logo on a t-shirt), and we headed over to the Columbia for some salad and sangria. For us, no downtown event is complete without at least one serving of sangria (the salad is optional).

We walked down to the end of the road to see which booths had been set up. I got a nice, new airforce coffee mug, and we headed back toward downtown. On the way, we noticed that Columbia also had a seafood paella, so we bought a plate. I discovered that, in addition to clams and mussels, it also contained chicken. Not good, since hubby is allergic to chicken meat. I picked out all the offending poultry, while he focused on the sea creatures.

There was so much going on; my favorites were Uncle Sam on stilts and the Celebration Players cast members from the production "1776," who were walking around in period costumes. I felt like I was at the Naper Settlement back in Illinois, or Greenfield Villlage in Michigan. I don't mind the crowds; specials events were one of the reasons that we moved to Celebration. Fourth of July is always a big bash, but this year we were getting two full days of fun, courtesty of Genesis and Tugger.

A black, threatening cloud was lurking overhead, and workers covered the electrical equipment with plastic. But I knew that we were safe from the rain because my husband had packed two plastic ponchos and I'd slipped a portable umbrella into my fanny pack. As long as we were prepared, the rain would never come. If we'd left the rain gear at home, it surely would have poured.

By this time, the crowd had grown quite formidable. With no small effort, we worked our way towards the hotel and then down Market Street towards Town Hall. Apparently, some sort of parade was about to begin, as barriers and ropes had been erected to make a clear path between the end of the street and the main stage by the lake. Since Tugger himself was sitting right at the start of the pathway, my husband predicted that he'd been heading to the stage. Like lemmings, we joined the other people thronged around the barricades, waiting for something exciting to happen.

In theory, the festivities were supposed to start at five thirty. There was an announcement that the parade would begin in five minutes...nearly half an hour passed, and I grew quite restless and impatient, along with the people crowded around me. Meanwhile, music continued to blare from the main stage. I knew that I was a true Celebration resident when the song "Celebration," by Kool and the Gang, blasted over the loudspeakers and I cringed. I live in the constant hope that I'll hear the Chumbawamba version at an event someday, but no such luck.

Soon, my husband and I began betting each other a quarter on whether there would be another song or whether the festivities would begin. Finally, the hostess from one of the local news stations stepped up to the microphone to kick things off. At first, she was totally confused about just what she was supposed to be announcing, but soon everything was sorted out. She announced the names of Celebration military veterans as they walked up on stage.

Then, finally, the moment we'd been waiting for. Surely someone or something interesting would be coming down that roped-off walkway. The crowd leaned forward in breathless anticipation. Would it be Jim Belushi and Carrot Top driving Tugger at top speed? Would the little Jeep that could use the path as a runway and soar over the lake? No, it was a group of Air Force recruits. They were joined by a color guard...and that was it. Bummer. After 30 minutes of wait time, I felt as let down as if I'd joined a line at Disney World, expecting to eventually get to a ride, and had found out it was only for the restroom.

The new recruits were sworn in on stage, and then there was singing and performances by the 1776 cast. The clock was rapidly ticking down to the premiere of the Tugger movie, which would be projected onto giant screens throughout the downtown area, and the nightcap of fireworks. Jim Belushi was also slated to perform with his band, the Sacred Hearts, but I wasn't too interested in that. I figured that during the concert we could drop the car off at home, pick up our camp chairs, and walk back to town.

A friend told me that there was a booth taking Tugger photos; you stand in front of a green screen, and your image is superimposed into the Jeep. There were some performances still going on on-stage, so my husband and I slipped over to the booth while a lot of the crowd was still occupied. Sure enough, the line was quite manageable. The photo booth was sponsored by Shell Oil, a prominent sponsor of Tugger; amazingly, the pictures were free. My husband and I posed in front of the green screen and were given a card with a number, which we could use to download our photo later. Pretty slick!

Shell also had a booth where you could apply for their charge card. The free premium they were giving away was absolutely perfect: mini portable camp chairs. Ideal for viewing the movie, concert, and fireworks! Personally, we already have enough (too many) credit cards, so we took a pass.

A lot of people must have taken advantage of the offer, as we saw droves of them sitting in their freebie chairs around the Tugger Jumbo-Trons. It was like a drive-in movie without the cars. We were going to stake out a spot to stand near the Town Hall screen, but as we slipped past the Town Tavern to cut across the parking lot, we spotted some friends in the crowd. They had chairs to spare, so we settled in with a perfect view of the screen in front of Barnies. Finally, it was time for the Main Event, the reason for all of the controvery and festivities. Tugger was about to make his big-screen debut.

Here are my personal thoughts about the movie, written from a perspective of a person with no children (those with probably have a better idea of how well it will hold the attention of the Pee Wee crowd):

The story is rather simple: Tugger is a WWII Army Jeep who was wounded in combat, resulting in an airplane propeller being installed in place of his fan. As a result, Tugger dreams of flying like the airplanes that he tugs on the runways every day. He works at an airfield where he ended up after the war, with Chief (a cranky ex-military man) as the unsympathetic boss. Chief's dog, Max, is an ugly, obnoxious lump of fur that loves to chew tires and chase poor Tugger. The Jeep's best friend is Shorty the short-wave radio, and he also has various animated object buddies such as Ma and Pa Pump (two old-fashioned gas pumps), an old war plane, and a superstitious ladder truck.

The message is a positive one, i.e. follow your dreams, even if they are impractical. Poor Tugger doesn't lose hope, even when he is exiled to a semi-abandoned hanger for five years. The animation is not Shrek-quality, but it's certainly adequate for a kids' video/DVD. My only wonderment is whether contemporary kids will relate to the World War II theme; it's ancient history to most of them. It made me feel quite old to realize that my dad had fought in WWII. I know what Shorty is supposed to be, but I think children are going to peg him as some sort of Fisher Price toy. (Well, actually, I was wondering about the magical air base where all the inanimate objects talk, too...I'd feel much safer on my semi-regular Chicago trips if I knew that the 737 was alive, sentient, and consciously wanting to avoid a crash).

I didn't like the song in which the birds join in with Tugger; the rest of the soundtrack was okay, but for some reason that one really grated on me. Donny Osmond was originally pegged to be Tugger's voice, so I wonder if I would have liked it better with him in the role. Jim Belushi's singing isn't in the same league with Donny's; I still have fond memories of seeing Donny in downtown Chicago performing in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." When not singing, Belushi did fine in the voiceovers, and Carrot Top fit the role of Shorty quite nicely. The radio sidekick tosses in silly jokes that are not unlike Carrot Top's own brand of humor, although he didn't plug AT&T.

Ironically, the sound went out during that song, and the movie had to be stopped temporarily while the technical glitch was fixed. Tugger was rewound so we wouldn't miss anything, so I got to hear my "favorite" song yet again.

One company that did receive lots of plugs was Shell. On one hand, the product placement fit, since you need gas pumps in a place where lots of vehicles are working. On the other hand, the number of times that the Shell logo was shown seemed a bit distracting. But kids might not even notice, and I'm wondering if there is perhaps a bigger tie-in in the works. In the past, Shell sold Charlie Brown videos at their gas stations, so offering Tugger DVDs would be a natural promo opportunity.

Kids will like the simple, easy to follow story, but as a sadistic adult, there was one additional plot twist that I would have enjoyed. I am an animal lover, but the dog, Max, was so nasty and obnoxious that I was rooting for Tugger to turn him into a grease spot on the runway. Normally, I'm not fond of cruelty to animals, but if Max had bought the farm, I would have cheered. But other than that, Tugger had the requisite happy ending; after a short flight under his own power (and his subsequent exile), the little Jeep soars triumphantly into the blue with his buddy, Shorty, in the cargo hold of a plane as he heads off to join the Blue Angels.

All in all, I'm proud that Genesis Orlando is located in Celebration. I hated it when Disney shut down the real working studio over at Disney MGM and turned the tour into a clone of the lame California Adventure version. Now, we have former Disney animators working right here in town. Hopefully Tugger will be the start of a long string of movies. I'd love to see a premiere every Fourth of July weekend (the next movie slated in the series is "Tugger and the Kansas Twister"); otherwise, only having one day of festivities is going to seem like a let-down now that we've been spoiled.

After the movie, my husband and I headed back to East Village to pick up our camp chairs. We missed the Jim Belushi concert, but that's okay...I was worried that he might perform the "bird song," and twice was quite enough. I guess our rain ponchos really were keeping the rain at bay, because after we left, the downtown area had a quick downpour. Oddly enough, there was no rain by our house. We left the car at home and hiked down the walking trails, arriving just in time for the fireworks.

Below is a picture of Jim with the intrepid leader of the Celebration Bunny Brigade. She has a talent for meeting up with celebrities, but even though she spoke highly of Jim, all of Celebration knows that Davy Jones is her true love:

Some friends had staked out a great lakeside spot, so we set up our chairs and settled in for the light show. What can I say? It was awesome! The fireworks were set to the Tugger soundtrack (yay, I got to hear the bird song again), and it was so cool that at several points I thought I was seeing the finale, only to realize that the show was far from over. The sky continued to blaze with color as the explosions rocked the lakefront. When the finale did come, there was no mistaking it. The only thing I've ever seen to rival it was the Christmas addition to Illuminations at Epcot. It was a nuclear explosion of white fireworks that just kept coming and coming. The sight was absolutely mesmerizing.

Ironically, although I love fireworks, I have a condition called hyperacusis that makes their pitch painful to my ears. I have shooters' headphones (which electronically deaden the sound), but I forgot to bring them, so I resorted to my old fashioned method, i.e. covering my ears. During the earthshaking finale, I experienced a curious mixture of pleasure and pain. My hands were clamped firmly against my head while my eyes were riveted on the amazing sight in the sky.

Normally, after a downtown event, we are like salmon swimming upstream when we try to walk home. This time, it was no challenge to get to the walking path. I don't think we were anywhere near the drastic predictions of huge, Disney-sized crowds. The parking/shutting seemed to work smoothly, so hopefully Tugger will serve as a prototype for future events.

Now, let's hope Fourth of July goes as smoothly! We've already been to the parade this morning, so it will be time for dinner and the fireworks soon. Watch for my next post, "4th of July, Part 2," for details.

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