We all knew this was going to happen. We saw it coming. We are all “smart marks”, so why did we expect anything different? When Disney first announced the Limited Time Magic campaign back in October of last year, one of the only events to get fans excited was the Unleash the Villains event. Promising, “Disney villains host a dance party, complete with limited-edition collectibles and nighttime mischief”, Disney made this one of the highlight events of the Limited Time Magic campaign. Almost immediately after the event was announced, fans from all over started making plans. Locals made sure they had the day off work, podcasters and bloggers started organizing meet ups and special events surrounding the event. As the year unfolded and Limited Time Magic began to under deliver on fans expectations, one common thought remain a constant on message boards and blogs; something like, “Sure this LTM event stinks, but I can’t wait for Friday the 13th!” If Disney knows anything by now, it would be that their guests get their expectations very high, especially for one time only events like this. I, for one, was looking forward to the event. Being a big critic of the Limited Time Magic campaign, I did allow my hopes to soar for this event. With the exception of a few other events, most of the LTM events have been lackluster and disappointing. I knew that the event wasn’t going to be perfect, I’ve been a smart mark far too long to know better, but what I experienced at this Friday 13th event was something far from perfect yet oddly close to perfection.
I started off my Friday the 13th by visiting Universal Orlando. I was checking out some of the amazing food offerings at the new Springfield area. Also, a couple of rides on Transformers the Ride 3D at 9 in the morning couldn’t hurt. Throughout the morning while running around Universal, I kept my eyes glued to Twitter. I knew the Unleash the Villains was going to be a mega popular event. It was a Friday, and Magic Kingdom was closing early due to a Halloween party. Even without the Villains event, Hollywood Studios was going to be somewhat crowded because of this. Having kept my eyes on online message boards, I knew that a LOT of locals were planning on showing up to the event after they are off work. This meant that I knew I had to leave Universal at a reasonable hour to beat the rush into Hollywood Studios. We arrived at Hollywood Studios around 1:30pm. This is where we had our first omen of the night. As I said on Twitter after parking, “DHS parking lot is almost full. It’s going to be a long night.” Little did I know that my fleeting tweet was going to haunt me all night! Getting into Hollywood Studios was easy enough. (I’m starting to like Magic Bands for their ability to move people in the parks quickly) It wasn’t until we reached the Hades Hangout stage at the end of Hollywood Blvd that we got our first taste of just how crazy the night would be.
There, sitting on the ground at the foot of the stage was a group of four fans. Disney had a ticking clock on a screen above the stage counting down to the official start of the event. I looked up; 6 hours… Yes, these fans were camping out for a show at the stage 6 hours in advance. This was nothing short of disheartening, as I suddenly looked to my partner Daniel and said, “We aren’t going to be able to meet any characters tonight.” Well, we would have been able to, but we would have to line up for the meets hours in advance. That certain hardcore/creepy sect of Disney fans was in attendance tonight. The kind of fans who stalk Peter Pan as he walks to the break room, the kind of fan that needs to fill their autograph book, even if it means spending an entire vacation not going on rides, but just seeking autographs, the kind of fan that shows up to Mad Tea Party at Disney California Adventure every night and talks back to the characters during the show, even though they know the characters are trying to put on a show for everyone, not just them. Yes, those kinds of fans were here tonight; the kind that camps out at a stage 6 hours for a show. My skin crawled and my mind began to race, trying to think of a game plan for the night.
A few hours passed and we meet up with some friends and rode a few attractions and sucked up the atmosphere. A rookie in our group said he wanted to go to 50’s Prime Time for some ice cream. I looked around and thought to myself, “Hmm, parking lot was almost full when we got here, its Friday, and there is a special event tonight. Yeah, I’m not getting my hopes up for ice cream at Prime Time”. We arrived to find out that the restaurant was only taking guests who had made reservations. Not even entertaining the idea of guests waiting hours for a table; no, reservations only! The rookie pleaded, “But last time we walked up and only had to wait 30 minutes for a table!” A line that I’m sure the poor Cast member who was assigned to turn people away that night has heard before. The time of the evening came when some in our group wanted to go queue up for the first showing of Fantasmic and some of us wanted to eat. Being hypoglycemic, I was the loud voice in the group pleading for chicken nuggets at Backlot Express. A few in our ever growing group had just joined us after a meal there and they said it, “Wasn’t that crowded.” Feeling optimistic, I checked twitter on the walk over. The flood gates had opened; people posting pictures from outside the park being stuck in traffic. Cars lined up along Lake Buena Vista Drive. “Traffic is at a standstill!” “I’m turning around and GOING HOME!” My twitter feed was exploding with people who were filled with villainous rage. We arrived at Backlot Express to find a line stretched out the door. Luckily, a new cashier was setting up and she soon found dozens of hungry guests in her face pleading with her to log in to her POS system faster. The kitchen at Backlot Express was remarkably fast and efficient with getting food out. I’ve been there on much slower days, and have had to wait longer for my meal.
As we ate I continued to look at my twitter feed and saw something that caught my eye. “Disney Hollywood Studios Parking lot at capacity!” Not only had the flood gates been opened, water was beginning to sink the ship known as Unleash the Villains. We finished our dinner and our group fragmented even further. Daniel and I sauntered over to the Hades Hangout stage with about 20 minutes to go until the countdown clock stuck 8pm. Being only two of us, we had a relatively easy time squeezing between clueless Brazilian tourists who were staring at the stage trying to figure out what the hell was going to happen once that clock ran out. DJ Ignite was on stage cranking out his usual mix of contemporary Dubstep music that is just edgy enough that a Disney Mommy can allow her precious miracles to “dance” to and still feel like little Jimmy wont go home after listening to it and start using naughty words in front of Grandma. I mused on Twitter that, as tightly packed as everyone was around the poorly positioned stage, there really isn’t even enough room to dance at this “dance party.” With the stage only being 10 feet off the ground and viewing area for guests on ground level and that wasn’t tiered, any person trying to see the show who wasn’t 6 feet tall only got a view of the sweaty armpit of the person next to them.
With about 5 minutes to go, the countdown clock suddenly disappeared off the screen. I turned to Daniel, “That’s not good. The show will be starting late.” 8 o clock came and went with no show. Thoughts raced through my head as to what the problem could be? Did Disney realize they forgot to plan a show? Was there a sudden budget cut due to the overflowing budget of MyMagic+ and the show was canceled? Were we on Igerwatch again? Fans grew restless, and twitter was now filled with people who were not only angry because they were outside the parks sitting in a 3 hour traffic jam, and now people who were upset about the show running late. Ten minutes after eight, the show started. For the next 10 or minutes I was in pure Disney Fanboy, geek, nerd heaven. A wonderfully costumed and designed Hades face character took the stage with fellow Hercules star Megara took the stage and hosted a show that saw pyro, dancing, original and LIVE not prerecorded dialogue and introduced the 13 special villains that would be meeting and greeting for the event. Keep in mind, Hercules is my favorite Disney film, and I think it is severely underrepresented in the parks. So to see this stage show was nothing short of a Fanboy dream come true. It didn’t matter I couldn’t get a decent shot with my camera of the stage. It didn’t matter that Pablo the sweaty Brazilian tourist had no clue who was on stage or what was going on and was pushing me to get a better shot with his camera. Hades, the Lord of the Darkness, and the best Disney villain ever was on stage. They could do this show each day at Hollywood Studios and it would be a huge success! (Although, they would have to move it to a more guest friendly stage or arena) Could this night get any better?!
The villains were all introduced and Hades and Meg headed off stage and DJ Ignite loaded up some more One Direction Dubstep; time to go! I wanted to see exactly how these meet and greets would work. 13 villains and Disney had only 3 designated spots closely clumped together around Echo Lake. People had begun to line up around these spots well before the 8pm stage show. After a fun ride on Toy Story Midway Mania we headed to the meet and greet spots. I was nothing short of shocked by what I saw. Lines! Not only lines, but a disorganized, guest created, curving mass of people had formed all the way around the lake. I thought to myself, “The wait for the person at the end of this line is going to be 4 hours!” Is there any character that’s worth waiting 4 hours to see!? (Besides Hades, Meg, Pain, Panic, Philoctetes, and Hercules) What were these people thinking? I walked to the spot where the characters were greeting. Poorly stretched out and organized covered about 50 feet of space and helpful to only about 100 of the thousands of guests in line. What’s more, the villains were only meeting in groups of 3. So, the Queen, Oogie Boogie, and Frolo would be out for a set and then they would be replaced by another set of three villains. So what if I only wanted to meet the Big Bad Wolf? Well after waiting hours in line, I would get to the front and see that the cast members had set up a separate but just as equally disorganized and ill designed queue for guests to wait in until their villain of choice arrived. Only, you had to hope you were in the correct second line. Some well intentioned but misinformed cast members were lining up guests in second lines, only to find out that the guests villain of choice was meeting at the other second line on the opposite side of the lake. Needless to say, chaos was the order of the day for the people in line.
On an extremely positive note, the choice of villains for the night was genius! From contemporary modern villains like Dr. Facilier, to rarely seen characters like Shan Yu and fan favorite Oogie Boogie. When Bowler Hat Guy was announced during the stage show you could hear an audible gasp from the audience. The gasp was 98% of the crowd who reaching for their smartphones trying to find out who the hell this guy is, and the other 2% was actual fans who knew who we was. Seriously, Disney could have gone the easy route and thrown out their usual line up of villains but they really reached deep and worked hard to not only surprise but amaze the guests in attendance. The costumes were wonderfully done and the villains did a great job all night. Staying in character and working hard to entertain the fans. I was nothing short of amazed by the effort from Disney to impress the fans with the creativity and originality of the selection of villains. I did see some people online who were not impressed with the selection of villains but it was mostly due to their favorite villain not being selected for the night.
After checking out the meet and greet chaos, and in between checking my Twitter feed for a constant barrage of angry people who were locked out of the park, stuck in traffic, and all but swearing off Disney for the next 50 years, we hit a few rides until it was time for the special Villainy in the Sky fireworks. Wanting to see the show with friends, we waited for them to leave Muppet Vision. Their show let out at 10:57 and we all hauled ass to get as close to the main stage as possible for the 11pm fireworks. We ended up further away than we wanted to, having found a spot in front of the American Idol theatre. The fireworks were set to random villainous sounding music. The shells were being shot off so close to the viewing area, it was hard for us to see the entire show, but from what we could see, it looked amazing! The sky was on fire for 10 minutes and you could hear audible gasps from guests all around. Many people said it was one of, if not, the best Disney parks fireworks show they have ever seen! I’ll take Villainy in the Sky over Wishes any night! After the fireworks ended we grabbed a funnel cake and headed to the very back of the park. We knew that most of the crowd from the night would be headed for the exit gates and parking lot. We walked the park and collected our thoughts, trying to process what we had experienced throughout the night.
Waking up the morning following the event I found a lot of people online who did not get into Hollywood Studios and were nothing short of outraged. And its not just your typical slew of “entitled”, “hard to please”, but I found some hardcore Pixie Dust snorting Disney Mommy types who threatened to rip apart their Disney passes and replace them with ones from Universal. A friend that night said that Disney, “simply wasn’t prepared for this many people”. I shrugged off the comment and tried my best to defend Disney, but looking back at it, I think that is the case. Sadly, a lot of people walked away angry, bitter, and swearing off future Disney Parks events. I think this was an issue where park ops didn’t know the popularity of the event. How that is possible, im not sure? Every Disney nerd and Orlando area passholder has been posting about this event since the beginning of the year. Restaurants inside of Hollywood Studios had been booked solid. Solid enough that people weren’t even allowed to wait standby for a table. To add salt to that wound, a lot of people who had reserved tables at restaurants inside the park were stuck in traffic and couldn’t even get inside the gates. Turning away hungry guests who can see empty tables is a lethal action for theme parks.
Sadly, these problems from the night massively overshadowed the wonderful work that was done by Disney Entertainment for the night. The stage show, costumes, dialogue, makeup, and fireworks were some of the best I have ever seen. Chances are, if Disney has this event again (there is at least one Friday the 13th every year), they will make it a hard ticket event. Charging a select amount of people a premium price to come inside the park to meet and dance along with the villains. The problem is, a lot of people are so turned off to this event and Disney itself, that it may be too late to win them back. Some long lived operations problems at Disney can not be hidden any longer underground or behind closed doors, and they are starting to bubble to the surface. A lot of people who were blind (willingly or not) to the problems at WDW are starting to see them, Hollywood Studios was much too small of a park to hold this event in. the meet and greets should have been spread out across the entire park, not just in a small section. We cant ignore all the good that happened on this night. (The park remained remarkably clean throughout the night, despite the large amount of guests) but we can not ignore the bad that happened also. Disney needs to take this hit to heart and learn from it. People showed up to Unleash the Villains on Friday the 13th to see their favorite villains, but for a lot of people, the real villain turned out to be Disney itself.
Did you attend Unleash the Villains? What was your experience?
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