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Why For?

In an update so big, it took a few extra days to complete, Jim answers your questions about “Song of the South,” reveals the real story about Epcot’s “Person of the Century” poll, as well as unveils which books Mr. Hill might have in the works.

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First of all, let me offer up an apology for this latest “Why For” being delayed. But some personal stuff came up toward the middle of last week which took priority over updating the site.

“What sort of personal stuff?” you ask. Well, I had to go into work with Nancy and help her pack up her office. You see, after 23 years of working for Digital Equipment Corporation (which was swallowed by Compaq in 1998, and then in turn swallowed by HP just last year), Nancy got laid off this week.

So — what with comforting my significant other (who was understandably blue after losing a job that she’d had for more than two decades) as well as schlepping Nancy’s enormous Donald Duck collection out to the car — there wasn’t a whole lot of time left for churning out a new “Why For” this past Thursday afternoon.

Still, as I was hauling boxes through the halls of ZKO1 (and keeping an eagle eye out for Mike Scopa. You know, the guy who writes those great “‘Scoping’ The Parks” pieces for MousePlanet? Well — as it turns out — Mike also works for HP, in the very same facility that Nancy works at … er … used to work at … Anyway …), I did manage to stumble across one interesting bit of info.

There — in the middle of this huge HP self-promotional mural that decorates the first floor of Nancy’s old building — was this poster-sized reproduction of a WDI concept painting for Epcot’s soon-to-be-opening “Mission: Space” attraction. In the upper right hand corner of the poster was this description of the attraction:

“It’ll be the most sophisticated theme park attraction in the world. “Mission: Space” at Epcot in Disney World is a collaboration between Disney, NASA and HP. Our technology will help bring the experience of space flight to life. It’s the closest thing to space travel most of us on earth will ever get. Lift off in Summer 2003.”

This reproduction of the WDI concept painting (which shows a space shuttle-like craft — which clearly has the number “X-2” painted on one of its wings — rocketing through the cosmos) was in the “Disney + HP” section of this self-promotional mural. Which (obviously) was intended to make HP employees aware of the many different ways that the company’s technology is currently being used by its clients.

So — at least according to the folks at HP — the “Mission: Space” attraction at Epcot’s Future World section will officially be opening sometime later this summer. Now, where this gets interesting is that … well, that “Summer 2003” opening that was listed on that HP “Mission: Space” poster is at least three to four months earlier than when WDW’s publicity department is claiming this new Epcot thrill ride will open.

According to members of the Mouse’s marketing staff that I’ve spoken with, “Mission: Space” will only be doing test-and-adjust stuff this summer. Which means that this new Future World attraction is only slated to be open on a sporadic basis July – September. It won’t actually be ’til October 1st of this year that “Mission: Space” will have its official unveiling (as part of WDW’s annual birthday bash / press event) and then officially be open to the public.

So keep that in mind if you’re making plans to visit WDW this year. If you really want to make sure that you can blast off on “Mission: Space,” maybe you’d better hold off on scheduling your Disney World vacation ’til well after the first week of October.

Okay. Enough with the self indulgent, personal crud. Let’s get started with answering your letters and e-mails, shall we?

First up, Ryan R. writes in to ask:

Jim:

I just discovered your site and love your insights and tidbits. I was just wondering if you know anything about if we will ever see “Song of the South” again. I recognize that it not politically correct, but for those of us who grew up in the eighties who have only heard about it, it would be a wonderful treat to see this title …

Thanks for your time and all the info,

Rrapier 33

Ryan:

Jeese. I don’t know what to tell you here, Ryan. Given that Buena Vista Home Entertainment is really beginnng to scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the Disney film vault (Coming soon from BVHE to a retailer near you: “The Don Knotts Collection.” As if there are really people out there who are truly desperate to add the DVDs of “Gus” and “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again” to their collection), I know that they’d really love to put a title like “Song of the South” out there in the marketplace. A movie that Disneyana fans and animation buffs have been begging for for years now. A title that would be sure to sell 10-12 million units easy.

But — that said — seriously wonder if Disney will ever dare to put “Song of the South” out on home video and DVD in Region 1 (I.E. the United States and Canada). I mean, if the former head of Disney Feature Animation Thomas Schumacher is to be believed, “SOTS” is now supposedly on permanent moratorium.

And what exactly is “permanent moratorium?” Is it the Disney-esque equivalent of Dean Wormer’s infamous “Double Secret Probation?” Actually, what “permanent moratorium” supposedly means (in this case, anyway) is that the Walt Disney Company has no intentions to ever put “Song of the South” back into theatrical release here in the U.S. Nor does the corporation have any plans to release this live action / animated feature in the home video or DVD format here in North America.

Which is unfortunate. Not to mention hypocritical. After all, Disney’s “Song of the South” has been readily available for purchase in the Orient for years now. (Why else do you think that all those video versions of “Song of the South” that sell on eBay have Japanese subtitles? That’s because they’re direct dubs off of the “SOTS” laser disc.)

Why exactly would Disney make “Song of the South” available for sale in Asia but not in North America? Basically BVHE’s international arm believes that there aren’t many African-Americans there who would complain about the film’s portrayal of blacks.

Which is kind of a two faced policy, don’t you think? That Disney pretends to care about the feelings of its black customers here in North America … then abandons that pretense in the Orient.

But this sadly has become standard operating procedure with the modern Walt Disney Company: to give the impression that the company actually cares about something, rather than actually caring.

This actually reminds me of the last time that Walt Disney Studios put “Song of the South” out in theaters here in the U.S. That was back in 1986. Just two years after Michael Eisner took control of the Mouse House.

If the Walt Disney Company is really so concerned about the feelings of African Americans, then why did the studio put this allegedly offensive film back into theaters?

Well, actually there’s kind of an interesting story associated with that particular re-release of “Song of the South.” You see, Tony Baxter and the Imagineers who were working on “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah River Run” (a new flume ride that was being proposed for construction at Disneyland in the late 1980s) were leaning heavily on Eisner to allow them to use the characters and settings from “Song of the South” to help theme this attraction.

And Uncle Michael actually liked the idea of adding a flume ride to Disneyland. It’s just that Disney’s CEO was somewhat squeamish about the attraction’s proposed subject matter. Eisner was worried that a ride that was built around Uncle Remus might unintentionally offend African-Americans. Which might result in Disneyland being picketed by the NAACP.

Still the Imagineers persisted, insisting that this proposed Disneyland flume ride wouldn’t work unless they were allowed to build “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah River Run”‘s storyline around the “Song of the South” characters and settings.

This is why — as sort of a litmus test for this attraction — Eisner ordered that “Song of the South” be put into an extremely limited release in the Fall of 1986. If I’m remembering correctly, the film was only out in theaters for two weeks. Three weeks max. Before “SOTS” was quickly pulled and put back in the vault.

Given that no one wrote to the Walt Disney Company while “Song of the South” was playing in theaters here in the U.S. to complain about the film’s portrayal of its black characters (and — more importantly — given that “SOTS” actually did pretty well at the box office during its limited re-release), Eisner finally gave the Imagineers the okay to use the movie’s characters and settings in their proposed Disneyland flume attraction.

However, just to play it safe, Uncle Michael ordered that all references to Uncle Remus be removed from the ride; that’s why the narrator in the queue area is clearly identified as Brer Frog. Eisner also asked that — to further distance this thrill ride from the somewhat controversial “Song of the South” — that WDI drop the name “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah River Run” in favor of something a bit more generic. Which is how Disneyland’s flume ride ended up being called “Splash Mountain.”

Anyway … Rick, you asked me if Disney has any plans to release “Song of the South” on home video and DVD. Well, given this “permanent moratorium” nonsense, the Mouse is now insisting that this particular film will never ever see the light of day again … at least here in the United States.

Which is really interesting. Given that — as recently as three years ago — Buena Vista Home Entertainment was actively exploring ways they could release “SOTS” on home video and DVD here in the U.S.

Of course, in order to make this title palatable to the general public during these increasingly politically correct times, BVHE knew that it had to package this film just right. Which is why (for a time) Disney toyed with the idea of selling a version of “Song of the South” that would have been preceded by a showing of Walt Disney Feature Animation’s new short, “John Henry.”

You see, Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s idea was to persuade a prominent African-American like James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman or Dr. Maya Angelou to serve as the MC on this DVD / home video. Someone who could introduce “Song of the South,” explaining the film’s historical significance as well as re-enforcing the idea that “SOTS” was a product of a less enlightened time in Hollywood.

Then — once “Song of the South” finished being shown — the film’s host would then introduce “John Henry.” Which (hopefully) would demonstrate the great strides that the Walt Disney Company had made in its depiction of and attitudes toward African-Americans.

It seemed like a pretty fool-proof scheme. Using the device of a prominent African-American narrator to help put “Song of the South” in proper perspective. A framework which would (hopefully) make “SOTS” more palatable (or — at the very least — less distasteful to) African American consumers.

The only problem was … Buena Vista Home Entertainment reportedly approached the wrong African American first. The way I keep hearing this story, the very first person that BVHE went to in their quest to recruit a narrator / host for their “Song of the South” / “John Henry” home video and DVD project was poet Maya Angelou. Angelou supposedly loved “John Henry” when WDFA screened the short for her, but was deeply offended by “SOTS.” The noted author then allegedly told the reps at Buena Vista Home Entertainment that — if they ever dared to put “Song of the South” up for sale in the United States — that she personally would take part in the protests.

That threat was reportedly enough for the Walt Disney Company to order “Song of the South” back into the vault … never to see the light of day again.

And that framing device that Buena Vista Home Entertainment dreamed up for its proposed “Song of the South” / “John Henry” combo release? That concept actually ended up being used on BVHE’s “American Legends” release. That home video and DVD (which was released back in 2001) featured James Earl Jones as its host/narrator. In which the noted African American actor introduced “John Henry,” “Johnny Appleseed,” “Paul Bunyan” and Casey Jones, “The Brave Engineer.”

Still — as Buena Vista Home Entertainment struggles to find other older Disney film titles to put up for sale on home video and DVD — you have to wonder if the temptation to release “Song of the South” will eventually become too great. That — even with the outcry from African-Americans that is almost certain to accompany the re-release of this film — that this still could end up being a profitable venture for the Mouse. That — if BVHE were eventually able to move 10-12 million units of “SOTS” — that all of the agita and anxiety associated with this movie’s home video and DVD release would ultimately be worth it.

My advice, Ryan? Keep an eye on Buena Vista Home Entertainment. If this division of the Walt Disney Company’s upcoming releases — “Treasure Planet,” “Atlantis II: Milo’s Return,” and the colorized version of “The Absent Minded Professor” — don’t exactly set the retail world on fire, BVHE execs may feel that they have no choice but to revisit the company’s decision to put “SOTS” on permanent moratorium.

After all, this was the corporation that said that Disneyland’s “Main Street Electric Parade” was ” … glowing away forever.” So — if that parade can come back to Anaheim — chances are pretty good that “Song of the South” won’t actually be stuck in Disney’s film vaults forever.

So just be patient, Ryan. The smart money is on a video and DVD version of “Song of the South” actually being available for purchase long before this decade is out.

Next, Jay writes in to ask:

Jim,

Could you please shed some light on whatever happened to the whole “Person of the Century” electronic polls that you could take while visiting Epcot?

Thanks,

Jay

Ah yes … Epcot’s “Person of the Century” poll. For those of you out there who don’t recall this intriguing Future World attraction, let me do a quick recap.

On January 14, 1990, the Walt Disney Company (with much hoopla) launched its “Person of the Century” poll. An unique “election” in which Disney theme park visitors were supposed to determine who the most influential individual over the past 90 years was.

The idea was that Disney would tabulate the votes of Epcot visitors right up until January 1, 2000. The results of this unique “election” would then be revealed on a TV special, during which Michael Eisner was supposed to have presented the one-and-only “Person of the Century” award to that person (or his or her descendants).

Sounds like a pretty intriguing idea, doesn’t it? Well, the Imagineers set up the “Person of the Century” polling stations in the Electronic Forum area of Future World’s Communicore East, turned on the machines and then …

Well, for a time, Disney made regular announcements about which candidates had emerged as the favorites in its “Person of the Century” poll. As of April 1990, the top candidates were (listed alphabetically, not in order of placement) the Beatles, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Mikhail Gorbachev, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But then — toward the end of 1990 — Disney stopped talking about its “Person of the Century” poll. And sometime in March 1991, the Imagineers quietly unplugged those polling machines in Epcot’s Communicore area, packed them away and … well, that’s the last that anyone ever heard about the “Person of the Century” poll.

Why did Disney pull the plug? Well, for years now, rumors have circulated that WDW officials were uncomfortable with the number of votes that Adolph Hitler had been getting. Or that Mouse House officials were embarrassed by how many votes Walt Disney was getting (which was unfairly skewing the results of the poll).

But the REAL reason that WDW officials shut down this Future World attraction was because a prank that was being played by Epcot cast members kind of got out of hand.

To explain: those of you who remember voting on the “Person of the Century” electronic polling system may recall that you could either vote for a pre-selected candidate (one of the names that was already listed on the touch-sensitive screen) or you could type in the name of your very own candidate. Well, some Epcot employees noticed the system had this “type in your own candidate” feature and thought: “Wouldn’t it be funny if we made (some really popular cast member’s name – let’s call him Bob) our write-in candidate for ‘Person of the Century’?”

So these folks began typing in Bob’s name and noticed that — the more people who typed in Bob’s name each day — the further up in the daily results for Epcot’s “Person of the Century” poll Bob’s name moved. So these Epcot cast members began recruiting other WDW employees to — as a goof — drop by Communicore every workday and type in Bob’s name.

And some of these WDW cast members were truly dedicated to the “Make Bob the ‘Person of the Century'” project. I mean, they’d devote their entire lunch hour to repeatedly typing in Bob’s name over and over and over. Some people would even come in on their days off and type in Bob’s name for hours on end.

The end result was … first Bob’s name made it in the poll’s top 100. Then the top 50. Then the top 10.

It was just about this time that Epcot managers began to notice that a WDW cast member had somehow turned up as a top candidate for Disney’s “Person of the Century” award. And they were reportedly livid at the idea that an hourly employee had managed to rack up more votes than Albert Schweitzer and Pope John Paul II.

Which is why Epcot officials allegedly threatened to fire Bob (who — truth be told — had absolutely nothing to do with this prank) and any other WDW employees that they found typing in a cast member’s name at a “Person of the Century” polling station.

So — having put the kibosh on this prank — the Epcot officials then turned to the Imagineers and asked them if there was any way that WDI could remove Bob’s name from the “Person of the Century” poll’s running tally. Thereby eliminating all of those bogus votes.

The Imagineers responded that they could do this. The only problem was — once they shut down the polling machines in order to take Bob’s name off the tally board — the master computer that kept track of all of the other “Person of the Century” votes would then automatically wipe the slate clean. Effectively erasing a year and a half’s worth of votes.

Realizing that they now had a PR nightmare on their hands (after all, how could Disney claim — in January 1, 2000 — that they were announcing the one-and-only “Person of the Century” as voted by WDW guests if the company had thrown out the first 18 months worth of votes?), Disney did what it always does when it’s faced with a crisis. Which is: pretend that it never happened.

Which is why Disney unplugged those “Person of the Century” polling machines in late 1991 and packed them away. Never to see the light of day again. (I imagine that Disney has these Communicore voting machines stored in the same vault where they’re keeping all of those old film prints of “Song of the South.)

Our next question comes from Rick G.:

Hi Jim,

I’m going to try this again. Don’t get me wrong. It was a thrill to see my question in print (Kind of. It was the internet, after all). But here are some questions that I’m sure you’ll be able to answer.

1) What did happen with the “Project Atlantis” sign in Tomorrowland? What you said in answer to my previous question intrigued me about the Imagineers getting into a shouting match with other Disney employees. Please tell us that story.

2) My second question. Was there at one point talk about another land at Disneyland? I’ve heard something about the expansion being in the area between Tomorrowland and Main Street. That’s something I’ve always wondered.

Again, thanks for such a great site.

Rick G.

Rick –

Thanks for the compliments. Which is why it really pains me to tell you that you’re going to have to wait a while for an answer on both of those questions.

You see — in order to tell the “Project: Atlantis” shouting match story properly — I’ll have to delve into the on-going battle between WDI and the operations staff at the various Disney theme parks. To explain: WDI wants all of the rides and attractions that it creates to always be operated in a careful, thoughtful manner. With the cast members who actually run these shows to do everything that they can to preserve and maintain the magic of a Disney theme park experience.

Whereas the park’s operations staff … well, their goal is to have Disney’s theme parks always working at peak efficiency. Which means loading as many people as possible on every attraction for as many hours as that park is open each day. With precious little thought to preserving the magic. All these guys care about is keeping each area’s rides-per-hour rates as high as possible.

So — in order to fully explore and explain this on-going battle between these two opposing forces in the Disney theme park empire — I’m probably going to have to write a feature, Rick. Not just some quick blip of an answer in one of my weekly “Why For” columns.

Then — if you really want me to start writing about all of the lands that have been talked about as possible additions to Disneyland that were ultimately never built — well, that’s a series, Rick. I mean, just describing all the ideas that the Imagineers have proposed for that small patch of land out behind Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland (I.E. International Street, followed by Liberty Street, Edison Square, Chinatown, Liberty Square and Hollywoodland) would be a multi-part saga.

And let’s not even get started on all the other additions that were proposed for other parts of the park. Mythia. Big City U.S.A. World Holiday Land. Discovery Bay. Dumbo Circus. The list goes on and on …

That’s also a series, Rick. A big multi-part story that will probably end up making my “Remembering Light Magic” series look like a pamphlet.

Which is why I guess I’m going to have to ask for your patience here, Rick. The short answer questions, I’m perfectly happy to deal with here in my “Why For” column. Whereas the bigger, more involved questions (which — of course — call for more elongated answers) … I’d like to reserve those for the series treatment here at the site.

So, my apologies for putting you off yet again, Rick. I hope you’ll understand. And I promise that I’ll personally give you a heads-up once I finally get around to answering the above questions in a feature-length form. With lots and lots of info. With stories that seem to go on for days.

And — speaking of days — it feels like I’ve been answering “Why For” questions for about a week now. So how’s about I answer just one more question and then wrap this up for this week?

James S. of Bridgewater, MA. writes to say:

Dear Jim –

First of all, let me tell you how glad I was to find out that you now had your own web site. Best of luck.

Second, you mentioned on your site last week that you had a few $10.00 off coupons for the Disney Catalog Outlet Store. Enclosed, please find a self addressed envelope & thanks.

Third, just two quick questions: How’s your unofficial WDW book coming and do you ever think you’ll have time to host a tour of WDW for Disney fans.

Thanks again,

Jim S.

Jim S.

Thanks for the kind words regarding JimHillMedia. It’s honestly nice to hear that people really appreciate the crud that I churn out here.

Regarding those $10.00 off coupons for the Disney Catalog Outlet Stores: I put two of them in the mail to you yesterday afternoon. So — with luck — those coupons should turn up in your mailbox on Monday. Tuesday at the latest.

(By the way: Thanks to all of you who chose to take part in JHM’s Disney Catalog Outlet Store coupon giveaway. Reader response to this special limited time offer was overwhelming. Better than we ever could have hoped for! Unfortunately, Jim S. just snagged my last two $10.00 off coupons. Hopefully, sometime in the not-so-distant future, we’ll be able to do something like this again. Offer up a cool perk to JHM readers. Here’s hoping anyway …)

Now, regarding your question about my unofficial history of the Walt Disney World resort: Unfortunately, Jim S., I’ve decided to table that book project for a while. You see, given all that’s involved with getting a brand new web site up out of the ground (not to mention creating new content for JHM two or three times a week) has really been eating into my outside writing time.

Then there’s David Koenig’s upcoming WDW book. A follow-up to his highly successful, very entertaining “Mouse Tales” books. Only this time, David turns his attention to Disney’s Central Florida resort.

I consider Koenig to be a colleague and a friend. Which is why I really wouldn’t want my unofficial WDW history to end up competing with his new book. Based on recent conversations that I’ve had with David, his Disney World book should (hopefully) be ready to hit store shelves in late 2004.

So — to insure that our two unofficial histories of the WDW resort don’t wind up crowding each other off of book store shelves — I’m probably going to hold off on fielding my own Disney World book ’til the Fall of 2006 (Just in time to cash in on all the hoopla surrounding WDW’s 35th anniversary).

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that all you loyal JHM readers are going to have to wait three years ’til you get the chance to hold a really-for-real Jim Hill book in your hot little hand. You see, I actually already have two other literary projects well under way.

First up will be “Whale of a Tale.” Which will detail the colorful history of Pleasure Island, a theme park that was built up here in New England in 1959 by some of the very same folks who built Disneyland back in 1954 / 1955. C.V. Wood (ehe infamous “Master Builder of Disneyland”) plays a very prominent role in this tale, which (hopefully) will make this book something all of you Disneyana fans out there might want to check out.

If all goes according to plan, I’ll finish writing “Whale of a Tale” in the late Spring / early Summer of this year. Which means that the book should be available for purchase sometime around Thanksgiving.

After that comes “Movin’ Right Along,” which will actually be a radically expanded version of that “When You Wish Upon a Frog” Henson / Disney series that I did over at LaughingPlace.com back in the Summer of 2001. Once the Jim Henson Company finally gets sold to someone sometime next month, I’ll also finally have an end for my book. So look for that one to be available for sale sometime in the latter part of 2004.

After that … well, I’m also toying with putting together a collection of stories to be released in the Summer of 2005 to commemorate and celebrate Disneyland’s 50th anniversary. I’ve also had a few conversations about possibly churning out another book in 2004 which would take a fond look back at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (on the occasion of the Fair’s 40th anniversary).

So — as you can see, Jim S. — I’ve got a busy couple of years ahead of me. I’m actually going to try and burp out at least one new book each year from here on in (as well as create new content for JimHillMedia each week). In my free time … well, I was hoping that I might be able to squeeze in a little eating, sleeping and bathing.

Which — getting to your final question now, Jim — doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for giving tours of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts.

Still, I’ve been getting so many requests lately to give tours of the parks that I thought “Oh, what the hell …”

So — if you’d like to be part of the grand experiment (Why is this a grand experiment? Because I’ve never actually given an official-type tour of the parks before) — mark your calendars now. For I’m going to be out in LA in the middle of March (to help celebrate my daughter Alice’s 9th birthday). And that when I plan on hosting the first (and possibly the last) JimHillMedia tour of the Disneyland Resort around then.

Saturday, March 22nd will be the day I lead a tour of Disneyland. Sunday, March 23rd will be the day I cover DCA and Downtown Disneyland.

I should warn you, though, that space for these tours will be extremely limited. 10 slots each day, tops. I’m also figuring that we’ll be doing a 3-to-4 hour walking tour of each park. So please be sure to wear a pair of comfortable shoes.

As for pricing … jeese, I don’t know. Given that I’ve never done anything like this before, I’m kind of reluctant to charge big bucks for these tours. I mean, what happens if I really suck at this?

Tell you what. For what basically amounts to the beta test of the JimHillMedia Disneyland Resort tours, I’m going to charge $25 per person per tour. But keep in mind that you have to cover your own admission to the park as well as any meals and snacks. That sound fair to you?

Those of your who are interested in taking part in this tryout of the JHM tour (God help you), drop me a line at my stadlerhill@mindspring.com address and I’ll get a list started.

And I promise, Jim S., that — if these Disneyland Resort tours work out — I’ll look into maybe doing a couple of WDW theme park tours sometime later this year.

And — since I’ll be out at the park anyway that weekend — why don’t we finally try to have that JimHillMedia.com get-together that Roger Colton keeps trying to set up? I’m thinking … late Saturday afternoon and/or late Sunday afternoon. Anyone have any ideas about a suitable meeting spot and/or a place where we can go to to sit and chat afterwards?

Also — before I close here — I should also acknowledge that, due to the fact that last week’s “Why For” ended up running today, the very first installment of my revised “Remembering ‘Light Magic'” series ended up getting bumped. So my apologies to those of you who dropped by JHM today specifically to see that story. Look for the first chapter of this radically reworked story (which delves into the history of Disneyland’s Main Street Electric Parade and why the entertainment staff at that park ultimately decided to shut down that fan favorite) to pop up on the site this Wednesday.

Okay, that pretty much wraps it up for this week, kids …

Oops. Almost forgot. JHM editor Michelle Smith (AKA the Fabulous Disney Babe) wanted me to thank all of you most generous people who kicked in a few bucks last week to help keep JimHillMedia alive and kicking. I genuinely appreciate your generosity as well as the good faith you folks continue to show in our little website.

Okay, that’s it from the Frozen North. Thanks for your continued patronage.

jrh

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse‘s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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