"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Together In The Dream": Authentic Magic

As I enjoyed this series of remembrances, smiling away at the humor and the love and the wonder of working INSIDE the magic of Disney's Magic Kingdom, the one thing I thought might be a concern was a risk other readers may find this book too cute, too happy, too positive to be believable. Suzanne and R.J. Ogren titled their collaborative work "Together In the Dream" because working at Disney was the realization of a dream for both of them, and they lived it and enjoyed it and appreciated it as the incredible opportunity it was. That really comes through in all the tales here, but the authors also exhibit a love and respect for each other that is obvious and heartwarming. I just wonder if, with all the cynicism I see floating around social media today, people may be tempted to see this as affected, as put on, as too "perfect" to be true. It's not. If I had to review this book with just one word, that word would be "Authentic." Let me tell you how I know this.

The book ends, and I don't think I'm really giving anything away here, with Suzanne and R.J. looking forward to celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to Walt Disney World. Earlier in the book, Suzanne talks about how the Grand Floridian is their favorite resort and their love of visiting Mizner's Lounge. This is where Lisa and I had the great good fortune to meet this one-of-a-kind couple.

We had come to Mizner's as the first stop on our Monorail Bar Tour because we were hungry and I'd been told to not miss the pork belly appetizer they serve. There were no tables so we grabbed a couple seats at the bar and ordered drinks from a very busy, but very friendly bartender. The bartender, I wish I wrote down her name because she was wonderful, noticed and commented on our Happy Anniversary buttons. Within a few minutes the last couple of seats at the bar, right next to us, were occupied by another couple, also wearing Happy Anniversary buttons. The bartender pointed this out to all of us and we all introduced ourselves. Now, I can strike up a conversation with anyone, but it's not my favorite thing and I was pretty exhausted from a long drive, so I wasn't looking to get into any kind of deep conversation. Then we found out they were on a special anniversary trip just like us, that they had worked at Disney and were returning because of all the fond memories and an abiding love of the Disney Magic. OK, maybe these WERE our kind of people.

The Mizner's bar sits directly behind the little stage where the jazz band plays, making it a bit loud. We managed, despite this, to find out that R.J worked in animatronic painting and Suzanne in entertainment, that we all four worked with community theatres and that R.J. had served as a Navy combat photographer, possibly in some of the very same places my dad served with the Marines in Vietnam. I was entralled.

A table opened up and we moved there, ordered more drinks and some food (the pork belly is every bit as good as I'd been told), and continued chatting about R.J.'s adventures in the backstage of our favorite Magic Kingdom attractions, discussing the happy difference in the way troops are treated returning from today's conflicts versus what my dad and R.J. faced, wallowing in the joys of being married to our best friends, and sharing stories and photos on cell phones from our theatre productions (turns out we'd both worked on Into the Woods and 39 Steps recently). Before we knew it, a few hours had passed and Lisa and I had say our goodbyes if we were to make our tour complete and hit Trader Sam's Grog Grotto before closing.

During those hours we heard several of the stories you'll read in "Together In The Dream" straight from the proverbial horse's mouth. R.J. and Suzanne are in person just as excited about their time at Disney as they "sound" in the book. They appreciate the opportunities presented by their time at Disney, the people they got to meet and work with, and the behind-the-scenes secrets they were a part of. They love each other in such a sincere and obvious way that the joy they share was contagious. R.J. took obvious joy in requesting Suzanne's favorite songs from the band, Suzanne expressed nothing but loving admiration for R.J. and both were completely happy to let Lisa and I share in their evening. I was blown away to be sitting across from a man who not only had "cobwebbed" the Haunted Mansion, but had told me how to do it myself if I ever worked on a haunted house again. That was the magic of that evening, magic strong enough that I spent the next few hours in a sort of "did that really just happen?" state.

But it did happen, because R.J. and Suzanne are real, and really cool, people. And now YOU can meet them in the pages of this book. It's set up with Suzanne and R.J. writing alternating chapters, a device that works very well. They keep the pace uninterrupted and the timeline is basically smooth (and in all cases easy to follow even when it skips a bit or overlaps). They operate like runners in well-run relay race. Each writer has his and her own style, but both are conversational and interesting, with details that will leave Disney fans thrilled several times over. This isn't a "brag book." Things fell together and apart, there were successes and failures and both R.J. and Suzanne ended up leaving Disney to look for adventures elsewhere, but there is no bitterness or negativity of any kind.

These two had an adventure, lived a dream that many of us share, and they appreciate what that means to themselves.....and to their readers. The "Together" in the book's title means more than they may have intended, more than just R.J. and Suzanne finding theirs side by side with each other. They bring us, their readers, along for the ride, so we all get to experience the dream. Together.

Together In The Dream is available in both paperback and Kindle editions via Amazon here

You can also purchase direct from the publisher, Theme Park Press  here

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Old Dog, New Laptop

So this blog tends to be about getting out there and trying new things, expanding horizons, opening new doors. I'm a huge fan of all that. But I have to admit in some ways I'm about as resistant to change as a person can be. It's always something silly, but I can cling to the old and familiar sometimes with a death grip. The funny thing is, it's usually (or I guess I should say always) Lisa and John who drag me kicking and screaming away from my comfort zone. That's funny because in many if not most ways those two are much more conservative than me. Here's the most recent example.

I sit here writing this on a brand new, touch screen laptop computer. Lisa is next to me on the couch, I'm comfortable and relaxed with a coffee in easy reach. The TV is on a cooking show that she and I are both half watching and talking about (she's also on her laptop.) It's great. It's also been pretty normal for most of America for years. Laptops are everywhere and the desktop PC is about dead in the home. But in a very old man get-off-of-my-lawn kind of way, I've been completely dismissive of and even hostile to laptop computers since they appeared.

I didn't have a good reason. They were just "new" and I was used to my desktop and, and, and......well, I really can't think of anything else. It's totally unreasonable unless maybe you look at it in the wider context of technological advancement coming so fast it can be a bit scary to a 45 year old. Lisa had a laptop assigned to her when she worked for the State Port Pilot, like ten years ago, so I've seen it work and seen her use and love using it. She and John both got new ones a year or so ago and teased me for not even wanting one. I just dug in my heels.

We'd look at the laptops in Best Buy and I'd poo poo them. When the touch screen versions came out I was especially poo poo-y about THAT feature. What a gimmick, right? How entirely silly and useless.

Then Lisa ordered a Bluetooth keyboard for our Kindle tablet. I never would have bought one. But I tried it out when it came. well, more like a week or two after it came. I'm stubborn. I downloaded the Yahoo Mail app and used the Kindle to check my email. The keyboard came with a nifty little case that allows you to prop up the tablet with the keyboard laid out in front. I used my finger to scroll and select emails and the keyboard to type responses. It was entirely intuitive and natural, I guess because we all have been using touch screen phones for so long. But it was beyond intuitive, it was.......fun. I loved the combo of keyboard and touch screen, and no mouse. It dawned on me, no, it STRUCK me, that a touch screen laptop would be like this all the time.

I kind of sheepishly, for me, hinted around to Lisa that I was looking at these things. Lisa, much to her credit, did not do the HA! I told ya so! Dance. Instead, we stopped into Best Buy last weekend and found a reasonably priced touch screen laptop and bought it. And I LOVE it. I use it on my lap. I just reach up and touch whatever I want to see or do. I swipe and scroll and click. I can write on this blog without bansishing myself to the other room. I can reach over and poke Lisa in the side whenever I like. See, I just did :-) This is great!

I kinda feel like I'm living in Star Trek.

Kirk out.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

So, How'd Those Resolutions Work Out?

Last year about this time I wrote a post about some New Year's resolutions I planned to make stick. It's fun to look back to a year ago and see what you expected or hoped to happen. It's kind of like a mini-cyber-time capsule of sorts. Cracking this one open might make for a fun post to begin 2016, so here we go.

So that's what I'm resolving to do. I'm going to spend more time watching TV. It sounds like an anti-resolution, doesn't it? But it's symbolic of how this year will be different from last. I'm not a huge television guy, but there are amusing things on there I'd like to enjoy, things friends watch that I'd like to be able to discuss, things our whole family can sit and get into together, things Lisa and I can experience as a couple. It starts Sunday night with ABC's Galavant, which looks hilarious and Lisa and John have both expressed interest in. No more writing press releases or answering a dozen inane emails or updating the website or editing and sharing photos or balancing the BLT checkbook as first priority. I'll get around to the things I agree to continue to do, but it won't be as fast or as consistent. It won't be first on the list, and I regret that it ever was.

I DID watch some TV last year. We saw all the Galavant shows (and watched the season 2 premier Sunday night, it's soooooo good). I discovered Star Wars Rebels on On Demand and Clone Wars and Daredevil on Netflix. But the TV watching thing was really kind of tongue in cheek. What it represented was spending more time in the living room and less in the office with the computer. As far as that went, mission accomplished.

The theatre board involvement sort of worked itself out, though not in a way I'd have expected this time last year. As 2015 began, it fell to myself and another board member, my friend Melanie, to do all the behind the scenes organizational stuff that allows a show to become reality. From Winnie The Pooh (which turned out to be one of my favorite shows ever) to a murder mystery party, to Godspell JR to a "directors' challenge" comedy show, to a Broadway revue in the park, to Shrek the Musical, Mel and I kept insanely busy making sure i's were dotted and t's crossed, making sure publicity happened and tickets were sold and rooms for rehearsals were assigned. There is A LOT beyond the jobs you see in a show's program that needs to happen, and Mel and I made sure it did. Then, about halfway through the year, we were each told to consider what roles we wanted to pursue in Brunswick Little Theatre. We were told that maybe being on the board wasn't a good idea as involved in shows as we were. Basically, we were told we were too involved in community theatre to serve on the community theatre board. We both resigned. I mean, who wants to be a part of THAT sort of thinking, right? If the board was no longer to be in the business of theatrical performing arts, I really had no interest.

Where that leaves the organization as a whole remains to be seen. This year they've scaled back considerably, choosing to drop the popular park show and the Big Summer Musical in favor of a slate of small-cast, small-crew, inexpensive-to-license, simple-set and -tech shows that can be easily produced in the converted church they rent as a home base. Those shows will all likely sell out (everything in there does, no matter what it is), but even so will reach fewer audience than just the park show and big summer musical alone typically bring in, which is a shame given their desire to raise enough funds to purchase the space they currently rent. Fewer souls with be reached, either as participants or audience, this year than any year in BLT's recent past. Be that as it may, it's no longer my problem, and that is liberating.

I'm also going to read. I am part way through about 8 books and I'm going to finish them all. Stephen King's "Revival" is gripping me right now, and I've devoted time to it the last week or so, so I have a head start on that one. I'm going to buy a new handheld GPS and begin geocaching again. It gets us out of the house together, it shows us the world and it leads to paths full of roses to smell. I'm going to walk on the beach again. I'm going to play our new Disney Infinity game. I'm going to take naps, dig out the computer room and plan weekend or day trips to new places. I'm going to write on this blog much more. 

The reading thing was middling successful. I loved "Rivival." I finished the rest of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles (though I see the next is out right about now), I read a new Star Wars novel. I pecked away at several Disney-related nonfiction books. I'm sitting on quite a few of them still, plus some new ones and this year they WILL get read, along with more fiction. I love to read and need to do it more.

I did buy that new GPS unit but have used it very little. This was a very inactive Geocaching year, something I once again hope to change in 2016.

I played a good bit of Disney Infinity in the first couple months of 2016. I did not get to the beach much at all. I didn't nap much, did clean out the computer room and did take a good number of day trips (even if many of them were band parent-related). I had the least productive year ever writing on this or my other blog.

What's this year have in store, you ask? Or you don't, it doesn't matter, I'm gonna tell you anyhow.

Even though BLT isn't doing anything that holds any interest for me, I've not left theatre behind. I'm organizing a BLT contingent to travel to Raleigh and participate in a marathon reading of all of Shakespeare's plays in conjunction with the NC Museum of History. I didn't give BLT any choice in the matter. Well, in my defense I DID forward the email to the board president and simply took lack of a "no" response as an endorsement of the idea and went ahead. That should be fun.

I'm also joining the Shrek creative team in exploring ways to keep the kinds of shows BLT did in the past but no longer seems (for now at least) interested in pursuing alive in Brunswick County. Can't say much more about that, but it's been fun brainstorming with two men who I admire so much. I'm really excited about the possibilities.

But it will be, I think, mostly groundwork-building. It certainly won't be devoting months of my life and my family's lives to a show this summer. It will leave time for the beach, something we tend to sadly neglect during "show summers." We'll be making trips to visit colleges, a sort of bitter-sweet thing as we prepare to send John off into the world. In the fall, Halloween to be exact, we'll be indulging in one last family trip to Disney World, including a behind the scenes tour, something I've wanted to share with Lisa and John for years.

Who knows what else lies in store. I certainly hope (once again) to be writing on this blog more and to begin again writing on Liberty's Harbor (I mean it IS an election year and all). I'm curious to know what this will look like in hindsight as I read it in January 2017, but I'm not so excited I want to rush it. 2016 could be a year of giving ourselves the time to enjoy simply living the Stites Life, and that would be perfect.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Great 2015 Stites Monorail Bar Tour

This has been on our Disney bucket list for a while. If you're unfamiliar with the concept (and I feel sorry for you if you are), this involves taking the Disney monorail around the resort loop and drinking at The Contemporary, The Grand Floridian and The Polynesian resorts. I suppose if you're a purist you should hit ALL the bars in each resort, and I'd love to try, but we settled for the Readers' Digest version and just hit one in each.

The Monorail Bar Tour was first on our list of Things-To-Do for this trip. We planned to (and did) arrive around dinner time and figured we'd just settle into our room and then begin the adventure. I briefly considered a trip to Downtown Disney (it was still called that) to try out Jock Lindsey's Hanger Bar before our monorail journey, but decided against it for time concerns. That was wise. Our timing ended up being PERFECT!

An unexpected bonus was our Monorail Tour Tour night being a Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party night, so we were accompanied on all our journeys by all manner of costumed partiers. We stepped off the elevator in our Pop Century building and ran smack into a 4 foot tall Darth Vader and Storm Trooper. We about died of cute before we even began, ya know? The whole night was sprinkled with costumes, mostly homemade and awesome. I kind of wanted to take photos of some, but it would be creepy shooting photos of strangers, wouldn't it? I thought so. Anyhow, off we went on our bus from Pop Century to the Magic Kingdom to catch the monorail.

Now, the logical thing to do would be to just hit the monorail resorts in order--Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Polynesian. But no, we were hungry and our friend Jen had raved about the pork belly appetizer at Mizners Lounge, so we headed there first.
Mizners is way in the back there

These guys were great!

The lobby of the Grand Floridian is breathtaking, and Mizners is situated in a rather cozy manner on the second floor opposite the entrance from the monorail behind a bandstand. If you're lucky, a band will be playing and you can sit at the bar, as we did, and feel all tucked away in another world. When the band IS playing, it's a bit loud at the bar, but it's still really cool to be in such a fancy place sipping a Manhatten and listening to live jazz. Which is what I did (Lisa chose the Cosmopolitan) and we had a great, relaxing first stop.

The bartender noticed our Happy Anniversary buttons and when another couple came and sat down next to us, she noticed theirs as well and sort of set the four of us to talking. Turns out they were celebrating 50 years and were both former cast members at Walt Disney World. We got talking to this couple, R.J. and Suzanne Ogren, and it made our night. R.J. had been an animatronic artist in WDW's early days and Suzanne had been a character actor and later supervisor in the live entertainment department. They've just published a book about their experiences called Together in the Dream: The Unique Careers of a Husband and Wife in the Early Decades of Walt Disney World. I've got my copy (though not read it yet, review forthcoming after I have) and you can get yours on Amazon here, in either paperback or Kindle edition. R.J's stories about the Haunted Mansion and other attractions from the "inside" were enthralling, but as sometimes happens, we found out we had much more in common. He had served in Vietnam as a Navy combat photographer and was familiar with some of the locations and experiences my father had told me about from his time in the war. We also found that we were all four of us involved in some way in our local community theaters, even having put on a few of the same shows. We spent a few hours in Mizners with the Ogrens; the time just disappeared as we talked about everything from how to make a spider web gun to the experiences of veterans returning from war to the staging of 39 Steps. All this while R.J. was speaking with his friend, the drummer in the jazz band, to request Suzanne's favorite songs. It was, as I said, a huge highlight of a wonderful weekend, and time I will never forget. Disney magic is everywhere.

Finally dragging ourselves away from "Cocktails With An Imagineer" (he wasn't an Imagineer per se, but close enough for us. Heck, he fixed things in the Haunted Mansion), we hopped back on the monorail and headed for the Contemporary. I'll admit, this was more a "have to" than a "want to" for us. We wanted to do the whole tour and the Contemporary is one of the resorts. It's just never been one of our favorites. I mean the monorail running through the lobby is beyond cool, but other than that nothing in the Contemporary's "feel" appeals to us. We chose The Outer Rim lounge, which sits right next to Chef Mickey's in the lobby
and sort of serves as its waiting area. This means it's loud. Very loud. And crowded. With kids. This night said youngsters were crawling all over the couch seating and having pillow fights with the cushions. It was a bit of a shock from the staid atmosphere at Mizners. We sat at the bar and ordered a couple drinks from a frazzled and grumpy bartender (who can blame him? Bar tending in Romper Room would put anyone in a foul humor) and went to find a couch away from the worst of the ruckus. It wasn't terrible, let's be honest. The drinks were good and we got to watch the Electrical Water Pageant out the window. But we simply finished our drinks, completed our required tour stop and set off excitedly for the Polynesian and Trader Sam's Grog Grotto!

Trader Sam's is the seller of the Nautilus souvenir mug that sort of brought this whole trip together. I'll devote a whole post to a review of this place later, it deserves it. We were concerned about making it in before closing after spending so much time at Mizners, but it all worked out fine. We checked in with the hostess and left our names. She told us we would have about a 45-minute wait and that would leave us only about 15 minutes before last call, which I think was meant to discourage us. She doesn't know Lisa and I don't discourage easily. We smiled, added our names to the list and with blinky coaster alarm in hand headed down to Captain Cook's to see what they were serving at this hour. Turns out they had the whole dinner menu going so we got a flatbread and some Polynesian meatballs and sat down to wait our turn. Before we were even finished our coaster began blinking so we boogeyed on back to Trader Sam's and found seats at the bar.
Tentacles. Why'd it have to be tentacles?

Trader Sam's seemed like eating in the Enchanted tiki Room, where the birdies sing and the tikis boom. There are "windows" that turn from sunny seascapes to thunderstorms, there are moving bar stools (throwback to the awesome Adventurers' Club), there are moving giant squid tentacles, it's a wonderful place for a drink. The drinks are expensive but delicious, and the Nautilus mug is worth every penny of it's $50 price tag. They even give you a brand new, still in the box one on your way out after you finish. We had a blast and left thinking it was the greatest bar in the world.
The Prize

We monorailed it back to the Magic Kingdom at about last call, caught a bus full of sleepy, costumed Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party revelers, and tucked in back in our Pop Century room feeling quite proud of ourselves and accomplished. Our sights are set high, right?