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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

“The Ultimate Disney Experience” in New York not so ultimate

Someone says “ultimate Disney experience,” what springs to mind? Maybe a trip to Disney World including a stay in one of the luxury resort hotels there? That’s pretty ultimate. Maybe when there’s a Disney park in zero-g, that’ll be considered the ultimate.

Thing is, I’m not sure that “The Ultimate Disney Experience” that Disney is currently offering in conjunction with exclusive New York screenings of The Princess and the Frog is really worthy of that title. (There’s an “Ultimate Disney Experience” in junction with the exclusive Los Angeles engagement of the movie, too, but I’ve attented only the NYC “Ultimate Disney Experience,” so I can’t comment on the L.A. version.)
As I indicated last week I’d do, I attended the very first public screening of the film — last Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving, at 10am — followed by the very first public session of “The Ultimate Disney Experience.” A couple of the problems I noted could be chalked up to opening-night (or opening-morning) logistical issues that may have already been resolved since. But the bulk of my complaints go way beyond anything that could change at this point.

Not that it matters one whit what I say: shows in New York and Los Angeles has been sold out, or close to it, for weeks, and good luck trying to get a refund if you change your mind about attending. But I’m gonna say it anyway.

Here’s how it went down: I showed up at the Ziegfeld Theater on West 54th Street at about 9:45am for the 10am show. I had paid $50 for a reserved seat, so even though the show was sold out, I wasn’t concerned about getting a good seat: I’d paid a premium for that. And so had 75 percent of those attending (only a small percentage of the theater’s capacity had been left open as general admission… at $30 a ticket). Still, there was a long line outside the theater, and it soon became obvious why: theater employees were going down the line checking tickets, passing out bracelets made out of that unrippable paper to everyone — these turned out to be essential for gaining admission to “The Ultimate Disney Experience” later, but no one told us that on line, at least not in the section of line where I was — and cheap purple Mardi Gras beads to holders of the $50 Royal tickets. The beads turned out to be required to collect, at “The Ultimate Disney Experience,” the “exclusive limited edition collectible lithograph” that is included in the $50 ticket price, but no one told us that, either.

As the line edged closer to the actual theater, the other holdup became evident: Theatergoers were having their belongings searched for cameras, which we were required to check (along with a form of identification; yup, check a digital camera with pix of your adorable children on them, along with your driver’s license, which has your address on it), and then being wanded with metal detectors. We were not required to check cell phones, but this was only a marginal positive; serious film piracy is no more the result of people bringing cameras into theaters than it is people bringing cell phones into theaters. I saw no obvious or even unobvious warning when I purchased my tickets online that cameras would not be permitted in the theater, but that would probably be a pointless warning anyway, because of course no one is going to leave their cameras home when “The Ultimate Disney Experience” promises parents the chance to take their kids’ pictures with Disney princesses!

Maybe it’s just me, but I really, really resent being treated like a criminal — with being faced with the presumption that I am going to attempt to pirate the movie, even though the studios all know damn well that when movies end up online, they are pristine copies that have clearly come from within the studios — when I’ve paid $50 for a movie ticket. And it really, really disturbs me to see people go cheerfully along with the intrusive nonsense, as if there is no longer any expectation that we should not be treated like we live in a police state on a regular basis. I mean, yes, if someone is caught in a theater camcording the movie, throw that person out and erase their tape — hell, it might even be legally defensible to confiscate that recording equipment. But forcing everyone to open their bags and stand spreadeagled for a wanding? Disgusting.

Anyway, if I thought this was a huge holdup getting into the theater, things were even worse when everyone attempted to collect their cameras later.

So I sat through the movie — I’ll review it soon — and as usual, the children, of which there were many, were far better behaved than the adults: the woman in front of me continued to use her Blackberry during the movie even after I’d asked her nicely to put it away, that the glow of the screen was distracting. I do wonder, however, at people who have $50 to throw away on a seat for a child clearly too young to sit still through a movie, and too young to appreciate what he or she is seeing even if he or she can sit still. People must be much better off than I can imagine. (Oh, and that $50 ticket price does not include concessions, of course. The Ziegfeld was offering soda in special character cups at outrageous prices, and good luck getting the kids by that without them screaming for one.)

After the movie, there were a few theater employees outside, on the sidewalk, pointing folks in the general direction of the Roseland Ballroom — where “The Ultimate Disney Experience” is housed — a few blocks away, but I noticed some people getting lost along the way (easy to do if you’re not familiar with New York City).

At Roseland, people were turned away if they didn’t have their paper bracelets. I confirmed with a Disney employee there that that’s what they were doing — turning away those who didn’t hang on to their bracelets — and I was told that was indeed what would happen. That seems harsh, particularly when there was no great sense of urgency on that line outside the theater to get those bracelets on and not to lose them. I understand that there has to be a way to ensure that only ticket holders get inside, but that needs to be made perfectly plain to everyone at the Ziegfeld.

Here’s the first thing I saw inside Roseland:

This is the crowd “The Ultimate Disney Experience” is aimed at. I am not part of this crowd. So take what I say here with that in mind.

Still: Fif. Tee. Doll. Ars. That’s not pocket change.

Inside, Disney would like you to think that you’re strolling the streets of ye olde fashioned (ie, pre Katrina) New Orleans, where The Princess and the Frog is set:

complete with genuine bayou adventure:

Those images are from the brochure Disney gives you in order to navigate “The Ultimate Disney Experience.” But it doesn’t look like that. It looks like a dance club — which is what Roseland is — tricked out with a few midway games and some green streamers hanging from the ceiling. I found it sorta sad and desperate, actually.

But that’s not the attraction. The attraction is this:

OMG! Princesses!

There were loooong lines of little girls — many in their own princess ensembles — waiting to get their pictures taken with the princesses. Half of me wanted to run up to the kids and say, “She’s not the real Belle! She’s not the real Jasmine!” The other half of me recognized that at least the kids were enjoying this and there was no point in spoiling it for them. But I really did want to smack the parents. “Fifty dollars! Are you insane?” I would have liked to say to them.

But I didn’t.

From the second floor of Roseland, which is usually used for checking out the hotties on the dance floor below:

(Note the festive green streamers. Very bayou.)

Oh, and poor Mulan had no line at all when I walked by. At least all the little girls were very excited to “meet” “Tiana,” The Princess and the Frog’s new black princess. So I guess it wasn’t a race thing — maybe little girls just don’t want their princesses to be kick-ass warriors, too.

There was other stuff to do. The “Bayou Adventure” was nothing but a kiddie playroom filled with bits of foam to ward off lawsuits from knocked noggins, but the kids seemed to have fun with it. There was arts and crafts — make a Mardi Gras mask! — and a selection of props and costumes from Disney movies and stage productions. One lone boy was playing some Disney video games off in one corner:

And the audience/class at the “learn to draw like a Disney animator” demonstration seemed to consist primarily of poor dads, and a few rogue girls.

Still, though, it was like being at a fancy kids’ birthday party. Little girls mad for pink princess crap will love it, I’m sure, but again: fifty dollars. Not just for the kid. But for you, too. And for her little brother. Who has that kind of money?

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