Yes, it's true, as any of my green-with-envy colleagues will be happy to complain about, I spent last week in Disney World - again - mutilating Mickey Mouse by cutting up various edible items in his image and seeing a number of Epcot attractions for the first time and . . . and I'm not sorry.
You may recall that in April of '89 your friendly neighborhood film critic accepted a trip to Disney World - his first visit to Florida, the land of soggy skin.This was what is known in the trade as a junket, in this case a trip for entertainment journalists to see and interview the principals for "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Peter Pan" and "Dead Poets Society," as well as the opening of Disney World's newest amusement park, the movie-oriented Disney-MGM Studios.
Disney paid all expenses for two. My wife, Joyce, and I stayed in one of Disney World's many luxury hotels, dined on rich meals and even richer desserts, used free passes to see attractions at all three Disney World parks - Epcot Center, the Magic Kingdom and the Disney-MGM Studios - and felt so smug afterward that no one back home could stand us for about three weeks.
This wasn't just open generosity on Disney's part, of course. This was shrewd promotion work. Hundreds of journalists from all over the world gave Disney World and those three movies an enormous amount of media coverage.
It worked so well, in fact, that the folks at Disney decided to do it again this year. The 1990 version of this junket included inaugurating some new attractions at the Disney-MGM Studios, welcoming the Muppets into the Disney fold and paying homage to the late Jim Henson, opening a brand-new hotel and showing us three new movies - "Dick Tracy," "Betsy's Wedding" and "Arachnophobia - along with accompanying interviews.
It was a much busier trip this year, and a cynic might conclude that Disney kept us all working hard so we wouldn't have time to check out the competition - the Universal Studio Florida park that was celebrating its grand opening just a few miles away. Good thing I'm not a cynic.
Anyway, Disney again paid passage for two, this time putting us up in the newest hotel - the Dolphin - and again giving us free admission to the parks, leaving loads of little freebie trinkets in our room - a Kermit The Frog baseball cap, a Dick Tracy fedora, a couple of T-shirts, a basket of fruit, etc. - and feeding us so well that we'd be forced to buy new wardrobes for our chubbier selves. (The idea obviously being to fatten us up quickly so we'd have to buy Mickey Mouse clothes before we left.)
Disney does know how to spoil the press, no question about it.
Various stories about specific events will follow in weeks to come, but here are some general observations from this year's gettting-to-be-annual Disney trek:
- When we got to the airport to catch our Delta flight to Orlando, we were told we were on standby - which was quite a surprise. "Well, it's not really standby," we were told. "You're just on the list." Joyce and I did get on the plane, but our seats were not together. I asked a Delta official why this was the case, since we had made reservations a couple of weeks earlier and were told we were booked on the flight. He just shrugged. So I said, "Shouldn't the ticket agent tell us we're going to be on standby?" He replied, "Not unless you ask." Believe me, next time we'll ask. We'll ask United.
- Rob Weller, host of TV's "Win, Lose or Draw," hosted the "world premiere" of "Dick Tracy" at the AMC 10-plex movie theater near Disney's Pleasure Island, an adult attraction full of shops and nightclubs. Weller wore a tux and a Tracy fedora, calling out the names of celebrities as they arrived - from Warren Beatty to Dustin Hoffman and so on. My favorite moment was when he pointed out R.G. Armstrong, the veteran character actor who plays Pruneface in the movie, talking about him as if they were longtime friends. Unfortunately, he repeatedly called him "R.J. Armstrong."
- For those of you who think Beatty's charm is exaggerated, this testimony from Joyce, who is rather conservative and doesn't usually say such things but couldn't help herself after an up-close and personal look at him: "He's pretty awesome."
- There were actually two premiere showings of "Dick Tracy," one at 3 in the afternoon and the other at 6:30. The 6:30 show had all the stars. The earlier show was held because there were simply too many members of the press to accommodate in a single screening. In essence, however, it separated the major press, who sat with the stars, from the minor press, who sat with each other. I won't tell you which screening I attended, but I was not sharing popcorn with Madonna.
- All the members of the press were instructed to wear black "Dick Tracy" T-shirts to the premiere, along with the Tracy fedoras. Everyone tried to look like Warren Beatty, but the truth is most of us looked more like "Night Court's" Harry Anderson.
- The first celebrity down the red carpet, by the way, was Monty Hall, who is producing a new "Let's Make a Deal" show for Disney. The audience applauded enthusiastically, but I heard a couple of people near me say, "Who?"
- Would you believe the concessions at the premiere screenings were also free, with popcorn, candy, hot dogs, nachos and drinks being handed out over the counter? That savings alone could make my house payment.
- The Roger Rabbit cartoon "Roller Coaster Rabbit" was shown separately, in its own showcase at a theater in the Disney-MGM Studios park. (It's very funny, by the way, but contains a couple of vulgar jokes and carries its own PG rating; and as a point of trivia, a couple of the sight gags seem to rip off Lou Costello in the climactic roller coaster scene of "Abbott & Costello in Hollywood.")
- Having interviewed Dustin Hoffman three times now, I wonder if he realizes that every time we meet he says the same thing: "Salt Lake City - I swam in the Great Salt Lake, years ago."
- Several of the celebrities interviewed over the course of the week unintentionally referred to Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg as "Eisenberg."
- Would you believe Disney World employs 31,500 people, with everyone from dancers to waiters referred to as "cast members," and every one is incredibly cheerful? When they pass you in the hall, they smile and greet you. It may sound like a silly, contrived thing to do, but it's actually very pleasant and most effective for the company's public relations.
- Disney World is so big - 28,000 acres, 6,600 of them developed - that it has its own transportation system, with 25 bus routes!
- At one of the Disney-MGM Studio shows there is a complex computer board with switches and levers, operated by no fewer than six computer wizards. But on the board Joyce noticed a Rubik's Cube, which was not even close to being solved. That made me feel better about the one that's been in my basement for 10 years.
- Roaming the parks now, in addition to the expected actors in Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Chip 'n' Dale and "Little Mermaid" costumes, are actors in Muppet costumes - Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the whole gang. But you may be surprised to also see actors as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! They rise from a manhole during the Disney-MGM Studio backlot tour.
- Overheard in the audience at the Dolphin Hotel celebration during Gladys Knight's rousing show, referring to Knight's backup singers: "Are those the Pips?"
- The design of the Dolphin Hotel - and to a lesser extent its sister hotel across the way, the Swan, which opened six months earlier - was quite controversial, because of its unconventional look. Perhaps the best description is that it's both cartooney and very busy. Even the logo designs, showing dolphins lying on their faces with tails in the air, are quite bizarre - and they're everywhere.
- Overheard from a guest passing by our room at the Dolphin Hotel: "The guy who designed this place must have been angry at somebody."
- The minimum room cost at the Dolphin: $195 per night. Thank goodness Disney paid for all this.
- Celebrities involved in the movies weren't the only stars visiting Disney World; Danny DeVito was spotted in a hotel elevator.