Elements: The Best Theme Park in the World?

DisneySea is the gold standard of theme parks.  Most people in the industry who I ask will nominate it as their favorite, and as the best theme park ever constructed.  Just a few of the examples are here and here.

There are better guides and writeups on DisneySea out there, but this is my personal note of appreciation for it.

DisneySea is my favorite park too, although I think if you’re talking about the best park in the world, it depends on who you’re asking.

You’ll notice that the people declaring this is the best park in the world, are adults.  Most kids would probably not say DisneySea is their favorite theme park.  It has less rides and attractions than Disneyland and is a more subtle experience.

As way of background, Tokyo DisneySea is the second theme park at Tokyo Disney Resort.  It opened in 2001 on land reclaimed by the Oriental Land Company in the 1960s, and while Disneyland got the better, more stable land, DisneySea had to be built with as much attention to the subsurface because it was over a deeper area.

All sorts of fancy engineering was applied to the land to avoid problems of differential settlement, and the inevitable result was cost overruns.

All this is to say that in my opinion, Tokyo DisneySea is the theme park version of the Steve Jobs standard of crafting things to perfection, even the parts unseen.

First, this is perhaps the most beautifully themed amusement park in the world.  Parts of it do not resemble a traditional theme park.  They resemble an art installation, or a museum.

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This is Ariel’s Grotto, a visually spectacular masterpiece.

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This East Coast waterfront area is visually one of the most intricately themed experiences I’ve ever seen anywhere.  They put that much work into this ship floating in the water, and it cannot even be boarded or accessed.  Only appreciated from afar.

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Most things, when they are simulacra of another, suffer in comparison.  They can’t pass the authenticity test.

This is because too many details are missing.  Here, Tokyo DisneySea has the opposite issue.  It has MORE details and more features, I’m sure, than the originals.

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Gorgeous theming.  Not a brick out of place or corner cut.

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The park is filled with areas like this, in areas you can’t even access.  Here’s a dhow in the middle of the water, and it’s full of stuff – cargo, utensils, equipment – and the fact that it has this stuff in it deepens the mystery.  You want to go see it, but you can’t.

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Exquisite rockwork.  Bubbling water.  The water doesn’t have to foam and bubble.  But it does, because this is Disney.

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At DisneySea, they’ve recognized that food is an important part of the experience, and for many people, maybe the primary part of the experience.  Why other theme parks haven’t yet adopted this philosophy is beyond comprehension.

At DisneySea, you get multiple popcorn flavors spread out in different areas of the park.  It is a game to either find/taste them all, or find the one you want.  Here’s blueberry popcorn.

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Here’s milk chocolate popcorn.

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Here’s the line for the caramel popcorn.

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You have a food court that has a line of more than 30 minutes to enter:

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Operationally, it excels.  Every cast member has been impeccably trained.  On the kids’ rides, the cast members wave to you the entire time you’re riding.  Bonus points if you can catch them not smiling.

I can’t tell how much of this part is cultural; i.e., would you get the same frenzy and crowds in say, Orlando?  But in DisneySea, there are queues everywhere.  When I mean everywhere, I mean – at food kiosks.

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To take pictures next to a themed stall.

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And ride-equivalent wait times to take pictures with the characters.  Some of this is undoubtedly Instagram culture, which is worldwide, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not sure you would get a neat, impromptu lines like the above at Disney World.

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Then you get the Easter Eggs and minute details that are completely extraneous, but are the differentiator between a Disney park, and everyone else.

Plaque reads: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, 1623-1912”.  This is taken from the Gloucester’s Fisherman’s Memorial; the original has the dates 1623-1923, but I will bet that the difference of the latter year has some meaning to it and is not an error.

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There are theme parks developed for a fraction of a Disney park.  You can have great theming, good hardware (roller coasters) that rival the best in the world, you can have rockwork and incredible landscapes, but there’ll always be something missing.

That something is internal consistency, but internal consistency wrought with a level of attention to details that would confound a rocket scientist.

Part of this internal consistency that most theme parks ignore is music.  Music in a Disney or Universal park is central to the experience.  Hidden speakers take you on a cinematic journey and evoke emotions appropriate to that land.  The audio quality is superb and makes it seem like you’re in a theater the whole way.  The transitions between the lands are seamless.

Instead, in most parks, what do you get?  Non-immersive, dim audio, sometimes tinny, and lots of areas that are just completely silent.  Soundtracks that are nonexistent, and instead, playing pop music unrelated to the park.

Here are some speakers hidden in a bamboo grove.

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And some others disguised into a building facade, all designed to create that seamless experience.

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Paying attention to the parts unseen, indeed.

If you decide to do something, to do it all the way, and to completely commit to the conceit that you’ve set up. 

This is DisneySea’s major accomplishment.  This is something worth considering and learning from.

Elements – Bali Edition

This is what you would call an architecture of reverence.

Everywhere in Bali, from big to small, you’ll see little totems of reverence, from shrines, statues, to temples.  And this being an island, often the object of that reverence is water.

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I don’t know if you can call this ‘worship of a god’ as some people would label it.  That term sounds too much like it stems from a monotheistic, jealous-god-type religion.  Here, the shrines are subtle.  Women wake up early in the morning to fill it with offerings, in a natural, respectful way, not in a cowering, bow-before-my-wrath-type god.

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Townspeople come out and conduct a ceremony before the water to ask it for its blessing.

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Temples are placed on rocks in the middle of the ocean, accessible only during low tide.

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Small shrines are everywhere.

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There’s something in the Hindu faith that appeals to me, in these kinds of gestures and rituals as a way to express your respect for something.

And there’s something doubly more appealing about these gestures of respect for the ocean.

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As surfers, we enter and exit the waves only by the grace of the ocean, which is indifferent to our wishes, desires, hopes.  Sometimes the ocean feels like a wild vengeful spirit, sometimes it feels playful.  Stay out in the water long enough, bobbing on the waves, and the ocean will make you feel part of it, the undulations returning you and your mind to something fundamental, grounded, and of the world.

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To me these shrines are appropriate, whatever your faith.  This is the right way to regard the ocean, which has the power to take away your life at any time.  Reverence, and gratitude.

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What You Get in a Homogeneous Society

Culture, not ethnicity, is the determining factor of a society’s outcomes.  Korea has a homogeneous culture.  Policymakers in the US will often cite Scandinavian countries or East Asian countries to rationalize their opinions, but usually these statements have miniscule merit, as what you get in a homogeneous society is not what can be gotten in a free-for-all like the US.

Here are some notes from being in Korea for over a year now.  In a homogeneous society, you get:

  • Lower crime, and kids under the age of 10 riding the subway or bus by themselves, and walking home after leaving their tutoring academies at midnight.
  • A social problem with people inflicting physical violence on police officers, ambulance workers, firefighters, and medics.
  • Informal credit systems where neighborhood grocers will tell you to pay them for groceries later, with no mention of when or even of a deadline.  This extends to modern restaurants when the POS system is down, and they tell you to come back later to pay them back.
  • Less of a litigious society, with personal lawsuits over bodily injuries, medical malpractice, etc., not very common or pursued – mostly, these types of things are settled out of the courts or person-to-person over the phone.  Correspondingly, a lower cost of social services like child daycares ($100/mo.) or medical care.
  • A society/major city with a higher average level of service for most things.  A city that is so prosperous, that sometimes it gives out bus and subway rides for free.
  • The culinary custom of serving an entire table-full of side dishes for free, which can be refilled to your stomach’s content.  This has been going on for decades, if not centuries, and abuse has not caused it to stop.
  • An inherent-not-explicitly stated business oligarchic class that has implicit societal objectives such as high employment at the expense of productivity and margins and ROE, although none of the Korean conglomerates would ever admit to this.
  • Rampant double-parking on the street, with cars put in neutral and their owners’ cell phone numbers either printed or otherwise left on the dashboard.  If a car is blocking another driver, then the other driver is expected to push the car (which is in neutral) out of the way – and if it doesn’t work, then to call the owner, whether at 6 am or 6 pm.
  • The laxest public transportation security measures and ticket checks in the world, in my opinion.  For domestic flights, you can show up 10 minutes before the actual flight to check in and get waved through.  On trains, you can book a ticket and waltz onto the train and pass zero security checks and zero ticket attendants.  Your relatives can get on the train with you to say their goodbyes, until a message over the intercom helpfully announces that any well-wishers should deboard or risk being taken halfway across the country.
  • Older men who often communicate in a series of grunts or gestures at restaurants.
  • In playrooms (note: not schools), the moms come by with kids as young as 3 and just drop them off for a few hours.  Just drop them off.  If the kids need to go to the bathroom, one of the frontline staff, regardless of gender, takes them to the bathroom.
  • Kids who come out to the public parks on the weekend, alone, to play.  As it should be, probably.

But what you also get is:

  • An invisible pressure to conform to social norms and mores, including that of physical beauty, and a huge plastic surgery and aesthetic care industry.
  • Rampant copying and gauntlet-style jousting as the prevailing method of competition in every facet of life, from education, to restaurants, to business in general.
  • Highest average spending on education in the OECD, with high average test scores on math and science to match, but limited innovation and creativity, a lot of which is directly related to the oligarchic business complex that stifles / crushes SME’s and mom and pop stores.
  • An entertainment-industrial complex that churns out pop stars as if on an assembly line, with artists at the mercy and whim of their producers, who create, produce, prettify, write the songs, house, feed, and choreograph the dances for them.
  • High rates of suicide as people who don’t feel they have succeeded along the narrow metrics of defined success, feel they have failed in life.
  • Barriers to immigration that are causing the society to age, and die – with deaths outnumbering births, the population will soon plummet.
  • Insane FOMO, as evidenced during the cryptocurrency boom and bust within a span of a few months last year (2017), that drives speculative bubbles.  See 1997, 2007 as well for eerie rhyming.
  • Binge drinking at a societal level, and despite repeated regulations telling employers not to force employees to go on forced outings where some people die from an excessive amount of alcohol consumption, the highest in the world on a per-capita basis.  Resultant lack of productivity in the mornings after is socially accepted, as is workers showing up at 10am, red-faced and smelling like alcohol, and wasting the entire morning.
  • Liver failure and stomach cancer common from the excess amount of drinking that is required for such social situations, in combination with the spicy paste that pervades everything.

Elements – Philippines Edition

1. This rooftop garden in the foreground, at bottom, hovering above Makati.  So lush and alluring.  I’ve decided that my company’s future office will be located in such a setting.

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2.  In most developed countries, furniture has become disposable.  Of course there’s a role for disposable furniture, but there’s a role for solid, permanent furniture too.  I present this picture of a table setting in El Nido to introduce a single thing – the sheer mass of the table and chairs.  These chairs were at least 40 pounds each and were difficult to move just with an arm.  And no, I didn’t even try moving the table.  This is the kind of furniture that will stock the office in our rooftop garden.

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3.  Bedside tables/reading desks built right into the bedframe.  Why is this not more of a thing?  And as expected, solid.  Could probably have supported by weight as a chair.

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4.  This is where I stayed in El Nido, and I moved the desk from the corner to here.  I tried for many years to work out of minimalist virtual offices where my desk was nothing but an empty surface surrounded by nothing but blank walls.  And while that might work for some people, I couldn’t work more than an hour before needing refreshment or a walk outside.  Eventually I moved out of the private offices to cheaper hotdesks where I was surrounded by ambient conversation, open space, and windows.  This, is a natural extension of the ‘office’ setting that works for me, and will serve as inspiration for my eventual rooftop garden office.

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Elements – Korea Edition

1.  This is a ‘study library’ in Jamsil, near where I’m staying.

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This is a study hall+library+coffeeshop, where you pay a little over $3 to read or work for two hours, and drinks like tea and coffee are free.

I especially like the lighting and the colors.  The windows actually face an elevated train platform and a mess of wires, but the dark wood shelves do a good job in covering it up – while still letting the light in in abundance.

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The warm lighting is especially nice against the dark wood motif.  Elements will be taken from this for my future library.

2.  The National Museum of Korea.  The overhang creates a nice shaded canopy that reminded me of La Defense, in Paris.  La Defense made an impression on me when I visited it in high school almost half a lifetime ago.  I remember that because of the large open plaza and the shape of the arch, it created this nice breeze all around it, especially at the top of the stairs.  Like you were under a tent.

It was the same here.

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Inside, the building is like a cathedral.  Love the color, I love the materials.  Elements will be taken from this building for my future Museum of Chocolate.

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Not sure if these trees in the courtyard were intentionally placed like this, or were in transit to a planting, but noted as elements for my future avocado or cocoa tree groves.

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3.  This restaurant in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Incheon had an element I’ve never seen before.  Carved like a cave into a sinuous wall, it supported an extra layer of lighting  – and was very inviting, also inviting of a certain mystery.

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4.  The courtyard behind the Lotte World Mall – this picture does not do it justice.  Just to the left of this photo is an aerial walkway between two wings of the mall.  Standing under it, you have the same kind of tent-like effect as in the museum above, but it also feels like a gate.

You enter the gate, and see this wide, sprawling courtyard and greenery – and the fact that the building curves around the grassy area made the whole area seem much less expansive, and more intimate.  That latter part struck me.

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Stealing the Peach

I was in a small store in Fukuoka.  It sold organic products and local delicacies and specialties.

I was walking the aisles when, wafted by the breeze of a light air conditioner, and presumably my own movement, came this tropical scent.  It was just perceptible, a smell of coconut, an evocative, sweet aroma.

And also agonizingly transient.  It was there, and disappeared as soon as I sniffed again.

I stopped in my tracks and tried to figure out what it was.  I picked up the bottles of olive oil and local sweets.  Sniffing, it was there, and then not there again.

It smelled like strawberry fields, like a pina colada, like something both floral, fresh, new.

I turned around.

I saw these.

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Unsure, I leaned down to test the scent.  It was it.  Luscious, sweet peaches that smelled so good, smelled of the happiness of childhood, smelled plump and like spring.

These were 3 dollar peaches, but I should have stocked up on more.

We took it outside to eat, and the first bite, as I punctured the thin skin, was just of juice.  These peaches are juice, in peach form.

The juice burst all over my shirt and pants and I didn’t care, because most of it exploded down my throat in the most satisfying and delicious way to communicate laying in a spring meadow of flowers under a blue sky under a gentle breeze with a lover, exploding head sensation I’ve ever felt from a fruit.

I vacuum-slurped the whole thing and at points was chewing it with the roof of my mouth because these delicacies were so soft, these flowers of Japan.

Why are these not more well-known?  Why are they not being sold in every supermarket in every corner of the world?  Why is Amazon not drop-shipping these from the sky like manna?

Of the many pictures I took, the one above is my favorite.

The Audacity of Slope

After a decade in real estate, I can safely say that right now, if you want to see the most creative buildings and structures in the world, you go to China.  It’s not Dubai.

On almost every trip, I’m left speechless by a building or structure that is breath-taking in its creativity and sheer audacity.

Let me present Exhibit H.  Nestled deep in the mountains west of Beijing, this serpentine structure is so large as to be visible, several zoom levels up on Google Earth.

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What is it?

This is none other than the longest waterslide in the world.  Made of some kind of welded metal, meant to be ridden on these bamboo rafts with no harnesses, and shooting through power transmission lines and what looks like a transformer, this slide starts 500 feet up.  At ground level, you can’t even see the beginning.  The edges of the slide look uneven and the contraption looks completely unsafe.

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The local story (in my mind: legend) is that the villagers ignored the authorities, who told them not to build it because it was unsafe, and they built it anyway.

I would like to nominate this ride for an award.

On another note, the sheer audacity and the mind-blowingness of this waterslide reminds me of the time I was in Changchun and stumbled on an AK-47 shooting attraction at a theme park, but that’s a story for another time.

China is in many ways a blank slate.  It’s a country that few outsiders understand.  Visiting it always leaves me in awe.  If you think you know China, you likely don’t.