Saturday, January 21, 2006

R. I. P. Tarzan Rocks

Today was a tragic milestone in Disney World history: The very last performance of the Tarzan Rocks stage show. After seven years of performances, this high-energy combination of live rock music, acrobatics, and daredevil skating has been permanently retired. The official party line is that it's been shut down so the Theater in the Wild, where it was housed, can be fully enclosed. But when it opens again with a new show, I'll bet a big sum of money that it will feature a much smaller cast. After all, a full troupe of skilled performers means more and larger paychecks, and Disney's current trend is to revamp attractions into low-maintenance shows that can be manned by the smallest number of cast members possible.

Don't believe me? Case in point #1: The Lion King show at Magic Kingdom, which became Mickey's Philharmagic a few years back. Lion King featured a live Rafiki in the pre-show and a host of puppeteers who brought the story to life in the theater. Philharmagic is a run-of-the-mill herd-'em-in-and-push-the-button 3-D show.

Case in point #2: Does anyone remember Superstar Television? It was a show at Disney-MGM that magically put members of the audience into classic TV shows like "I Love Lucy" and "Cheers" via blue screen trickery. It was a very labor-intensive show, but for me, it was the essence of the sort of attraction that should be in a studio. Alas, it is long gone, as is another old favorite, the Monster Sound Show. That one featured lots of audience participation, too; it went through two versions (the second one had a Saturday morning cartoon theme) before being dumbed down into Sounds Dangerous, a non-interactive, stare-at-a-screen offering.

Of course, Disney-MGM has little resemblence to a real working studio these days. The death knell was the shutdown of the Orlando animation branch. I remember the early days, when they had a real animation tour where guests could peer through the windows at real artists working on the latest Disney animated features. Now, the artists are long gone, and the "tour" is a clone of the dull California offering.

Disney World has introduced a few innovative attractions in recent years, such as the technologically amazing Turtle Talk where Crush actually converses with the audience, Test Track (a giant slot car set with an enjoyable burst of speed) and the nausea-inducing Mission: Space. Wishes and the Illuminations holiday show are also spectacles to behold. But overall the minor instances of innovation have been overshadowed by a major trend toward mediocrity.

I've also noticed a tendency toward shortening the theme park shows. Besides its big cast, I'm sure that the half hour length of Tarzan was another strike against it. Years ago, the Beauty and the Beast show was pared down in length, and the same was done to The Little Mermaid after its last rehab. The new ADD versions are mere shadows of the originals, but they are a sad reflection of entertainment in the new millenium. ADD isn't a disorder...it's a tragic cultural trend (and I say that as a doctor of psycholgy). Pretty soon, thinking in short bursts will be the norm, and people who can focus for any length of time will be seen as the ones with a "problem."
Having seen so many of our beloved old favorites shuttered and replaced with A-ticket schlock, my husband decided that he wanted to see Tarzan Rocks one last time. Today was the very last day; it was cloudy, with a threat of rain, so we kept our fingers crossed that the weather would hold and the crowd wouldn't be too bad.

We arrived before noon, and the next show was scheduled for 1:45, so I decided to grab a bite to eat before heading to the theater. First, we got Fast Passes for Kilimanjaro Safaris so I could look for the elusive cheetah. We figured we could eat, catch Tarzan, and then do the safari before we left. The wait times were all at least 30 minutes, so we didn't plan on doing anything else. Florida residents are a spoiled lot...we won't wait more than 10 or 15 minutes for a ride because we can always come back during the off season.

We hiked back to Africa to pick up our safari Fast Passes. As we worked our way through the park, I was shocked at the crowd density. Now that the holidays are over, I expected a fairly light crowd, but the people were shoulder to shoulder. Of course, the walkways in the Animal Kingdom are narrow to begin with, and they're made more challenging by the looky-loos who love to stop dead in the middle of the path. Someday there's going to be a pile-up like the elephant smash-up scene in The Jungle Book.

We managed to make it to the back of the park without any major collisions and picked up our Fast Passes. Happily, the timing would work out perfectly with Tarzan. Next, we stopped off in Asia, where I hope to nosh on potstickers from the chicken stand. The queue line was packed and trailing out onto the walkway. We joined in with some trepidation, as we wanted to get to Tarzan early. Sure, we had over an hour and a half till showtime, but at the rate the food line was moving, we saw that it might not be enough. There were two windows...a guest's order would be taken at one, and then their food would be disgorged at the second. But only one party's order would be taken, and the next party wouldn't be served until the previous party had received their grub. This meant that the line moved at the pace of a crippled snail. Compounding the delay was the fact that every time a person paid with their room key card, it took two or three cast members and several additional minutes to figure out how to process it.

It looked like we might eventually be served by default, as the people in front of us were bailing out of the neverending line in droves. But as the delays compounded, we decided to head off to Dinoland in search of a dining alternative. That's where the Theater in the Wild is located, so we figured that we could (hopefully) find a food cart with a shorter line and then jump into line for Tarzan.

As we arrived at Dinoland, I heard a cast member yelling, "The line for Tarzan is back there! Get in line now! We will be loading the theater early." I glanced where she was pointing and saw a conga line of people snaking along the perimeter of Dinoland. It was over an hour to showtime, but apparently half the population in the park had the same idea as we did. They were going to make sure they saw Tarzan one last time before its final curtain call.

We joined the line, hoping that the theater wouldn't be full before we made it to the entrance. Besides the usual array of park-goers, there was a heavy population of cast members. They had come for the cast preview of Expedition Everest, the new roller coaster, and apparently most of them were also stopping by to give Tarzan a jam-packed farewell.

They did, indeed, open the theater early, and we inched our way towards the entrance, hoping that we would be able to squeeze in. If not, there was only one more chance, at 3:15, and then Tarzan Rocks would be gone forevermore. Fortunately, we made it in with plenty of room to spare. Our choice of seats was somewhat limited, but we were able to sit in the middle section. We were pretty far back, but that was partially due to the fact that a good chunk of the center was reserved for family members of the Tarzan cast. It was sad enough for my husband and I to know we were seeing the show for the last time; I can only imagine how melancholy it must have been for the people associated with the show as they watch the final performances.

The people kept piling into the theater like clowns pouring out of a circus car. They would disappear down the aisle, and I have no idea where they went since the rows were packed like a salmon stream. Shortly before showtime, the remaining space in the "family" section was opened up to the general public, and a last burst of bodies crammed into the final block of seats.

The show started right on time, and it was just as good as I remembered it (we hadn't been to Animal Kingdom in a while). One of my favorite things about it was that it featured a live band. Live music is becoming a rarity; even Broadway theaters tried to move to canned music a few years ago until union musicians backed them down with strike. I love the Tarzan soundtrack, and the Tarzan Rocks band brought high energy and excitement to the familiar songs.

But Tarzan Rocks wasn't just a "concert." It featured arial maneuvers and a troupe of skaters performing amazing acrobatics and jumps. The show was fast paced and fun, ending with Terk leading the audience in a particpative finale.

As I watched the show for the last time, I tried to view it from an economic standpoint. Instead of a stage full of performers, I pictured each person as a paycheck. Cutting back on cast-intensive shows is good for the bottom line, but for me it narrows the gap between Disney and other theme parks. Once upon a time, Disney set the standard and others tried to play catch-up. Now, it's less about the "show" and more about squeezing every last nickle out of the teaming masses while cutting costs to the bone. The decline in quality is glaring; that's why we prefer Disney Cruise Line to visiting the parks. Onboard the Wonder and Magic, the old "Disney difference" is still hanging on.

Even though it was the last day, and the second to last show, the performers gave it their all. Since the theater was packed with their family members and a high percentage of fellow cast members, the energy was amazing. The only slight annoyance was a foreign family behind us. Apparently the father was the only one who understood English, so he spent the whole time"translating" in a bellow that even managed to rise above the pulsing rock concert volume of the music.

Every time I've seen the show, the performers have earned many rounds of applause as they twirl through the air, turn backflips, and execute daring leaps on their skates. Today, the applause was much more enthusiatic, as though the audience was trying to pack seven years worth of approval into the final sendoff. It ended with a thunderous standing ovation for the talented troupe of performers.

As we filed out of the theater, people were already lining up for the 3:15 performance, even though it was only 2:15. In just 90 minutes, the last chords of music would fade from the Theater in the Wild and Tarzan Rocks would enter the annals of Disney World history.

We headed to Kilimanjaro for our safari, which was amazingly good. Most of the animals were out in the viewing areas, and I saw not one but three cheetahs! And they weren't hiding among the foliage where I could barely spot them...one was lying sprawled in the grass, one was sitting up, and the third was casually strolling along as though we was showing off for us.

We also saw two baby elephants, in addition to the usual menagerie of hippos, warthogs, rhinos, giraffes, crocodiles, ostriches, gazelles, and the like. After the safari we called it a day, heading out of the park and off to Cracker Barrel for an early dinner. Hubby had a taste for country fried steak, but he was quickly tempted away by their steak tip special. He wavered between his original choice and the succulent beef tidbits smothered in cheese, onions, and baby portobello mushrooms. I solved his dilemma by offering to order one of those two dishes while he ordered the other; that way, we could share them and have a little of both.

I enjoy the hearty meals at Cracker Barrel, and the service is always attentive. I hadn't eaten breakfast, and at Animal Kingdom I'd only managed to grab a raspberry iced tea for lunch, so my rumbling stomach welcomed the influx of food.

All in all, the day was enjoyable but tinged with an overlay of melancholy. I wasn't quite as sad as my husband...I liked the Tarzan show and I'll miss it, but it was one of his top favorites. I could feel his pain, as I remember the last time I saw the original Journey Into Imagination. I loved Figment and Dreamfinder, and I never got tired of journeying into their world of music, color, art, and science. The travesty that exists with the same name now has no resemblence to the wonderful original. On that last day many years ago, I rode it several times and had hubby videotape it twice so it was memorialized from every angle. Few things make me cry, but watching that old tape of Journey is one of them. For me, it sums up the memory of the Disney World that once was, before cost cutting pared it down from a special place into Six Flags Florida.

Perhaps that's a bit harsh...yes, I do still enjoy the parks, and I'm not ready to turn in my annual pass just yet. But I hope they'll do a turnaround now that the Disney company is under new management. Next week is the Expedition Everest preview for annual passholders, so I'm hoping that the sadness of Tarzan's demise will be offset by the discovery of a new favorite.

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1 comment:

Cheryl said...

I am also a resident of Central Florida. My friend is one of the lead singers in the Tarzan Rocks show. It's sad to see it go, but it's time for someting new. He will remain on at the Festival of the Lion King. The 'leads' get paid well...even if they only work 2 shows, they are paid for a full 8 hour day.

Do you remember the Hunchback Show? That was my absolute favorite production. It was so colorful and amazing. He was also Clopain in that show.

I've heard that the Tarzan theatre is going to be a new Nemo show. It will probably take at least six months to get that built and ready to go.

I've also noticed an increase in park occupancy. It's been crazy for January. We went to MGM last weekend and the lines were unreal and forget about food.

We went to ride the monorail on Saturday (I have a 2 yr old who thinks it's a train) from the Contemporary but decided not to board when we saw bodies packed in like sardines. No seats available. We decided to enjoy a boat ride instead to Wilderness Lodge.

AK was probably extra busy due to the preview of Everest. Good business for Disney this time of year, but strange for us, as locals expecting smaller crowds.