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"Modern Marvels": Walt Disney World DVD Review

Buy Modern Marvels: Walt Disney World on DVD from Amazon.com "Modern Marvels": Walt Disney World
DVD Details

Executive Producers: Stephen Land, Geoffrey Proud

Narrator: Les Wooten

Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated / Original Airdate: December 25, 2005

1.75:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Subtitles: None
Studio: A&E/New Video
Release Date: March 28, 2006
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95
Black Keepcase

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Review by Aaron Wallace

The History Channel's "Modern Marvels" series has put into the spotlight wonders that include the pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower, and the Space Shuttle Columbia, among a long list of others. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, it recreated the already innovative and revolutionary Disneyland on an even grander scale, presenting to the world one of the most astounding achievements in construction and technology it had ever seen. As anyone who has visited it or any of its sister parks over the last half-century can attest, they are truly modern marvels. Accordingly, it seems especially appropriate that this reputable documentary series has now turned its attention to the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

"Walt Disney World Resort," though, is pretty broad. It encompasses 35,000 acres, on which six theme parks, more than 30 hotels, at least five additional entertainment districts,
numerous golf courses, endless maintenance buildings, a race car-driving facility, and a whole lot of empty land reside. So rich and complex are the many facets of the resort that every individual attraction, hotel, and restaurant could easily be the subject of its own two-hour documentary. Looking at the resort in its entirety in less time than that, then, can be a challenge. To keep things focused, the hotels and all those resort extras are left out as the documentary concentrates only on its four main theme parks: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the Disney-MGM Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Before it gets to any of those, though, it takes about 14 minutes to retrace the history of the Walt Disney Company from "Steamboat Willie" in 1928 to the opening of Disneyland in 1955. While this overview is far from comprehensive, it does an excellent job in setting the stage for Walt's move to theme parks in the 1950s and Roy Disney's challenges in proceeding with Disney World following in Walt's death for those who aren't familiar with the story.

Who'd have thought this would be one of the world's most-visited destinations? An animated depiction of the Magic Kingdom's utilidors

Up next are twenty minutes devoted to the Magic Kingdom. The first ten deal with the park's conception and construction. Among the topics discussed are the groundbreaking work, the utilidors that make up the park's unseen first story, the construction of Cinderella's Castle, the use of forced perspective along Main Street, USA, and the park's eventual opening and dedication. Comparisons are drawn to illustrate the obstacles presented in Disneyland that Walt Disney World was able to overcome thanks to foresight and experience. The Audio-Animatronics that are used in so many of the Magic Kingdom's classic attractions and that the documentary labels as "Walt's greatest legacy" get the next ten minutes to themselves. It is in this section that attraction-specific discussion occurs, but as a result, those that don't involve Audio-Animatronics get overlooked.

Epcot gets 17 minutes, with a sizable chunk of that going to the monorail which connects it with the Magic Kingdom, three Deluxe resorts, and the Ticket and Transportation Center. Beyond that, a number of attractions are surveyed, though most of them come from Future World. The World Showcase gets only passing mention, with the exception of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, the park's show-stopping fireworks extravaganza.

Another 17 minutes cover the Disney-MGM Studios (here labeled sans the "MGM", as is typical for home video releases). The park is introduced by discussing the motivations behind it and its general theme. Only three attractions are discussed at length: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith, and Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. The latter gets a whopping nine minutes devoted to it, but given how much goes into pulling off this high-flying, risk-filled car show, it's not undeserved.

The final 22 minutes go to Disney's Animal Kingdom (plus a brief closing montage), in which the fascinating construction of the park's giant centerpiece, the Tree of Life, is detailed. The rest of the coverage is confined to the "lands" of Asia and DinoLand U.S.A., where the park's traditional "rides" are found. Those interviewed talk a good deal about the influence that past Disney projects like Fantasia, Disneyland's Matterhorn, and the original Jungle Cruise have had on the park's design.

Country Bears fans might want to cover their eyes. You'll never guess what's holding up the Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The Travel Channel has produced a number of similar --though shorter -- documentaries on the resort that air with some frequency and will hopefully see DVD releases of their own one day. This production differs from those in several key ways, the most substantial being that it isn't geared toward travelers. In fact, aside from the fact that it focuses on the most popular and current attractions, it doesn't feel like a commercial or a souvenir. Instead, "Modern Marvels" focuses on the technological aspects of Walt Disney World. The documentary is chiefly concerned with how the resort ticks and what goes into enabling the dazzling special effects that are pulled off without incident every day of the year. The Disney park experience is an overwhelming one, and it's easy to be so in awe of one aspect that others
-- like what must go on behind the scenes -- are forgotten about. Disney's always been a bit sensitive about revealing the mechanics of their magic, but the information dispensed here serves only to enhanced appreciation of the resort as a whole. Those with a knack for science will find plenty to pique (if not always satisfy) their interest while the jargon never gets so advanced that a layman can't follow along.

Some nicely-rendered computer graphics go a long way in illustrating the methods used for achieving construction. A host of familiar faces from Disney Imagineering and Archives lend their insight in interviews that run throughout the entire program. Subjects include Marty Sklar, Bruce Vaughn, Robert Gurr, Eric Jacobson, Bob Thomas, Bruce Long, and Joe Rohde, among many others. The editing and scoring for the program are top-notch and serve to keep a steady pace alive. Perhaps more than any of the free vacation planning kits and souvenir videos currently available on DVD, this feature is filled with great footage from the history of Disneyland and Disney World.

It should be noted that though the packaging claims a run-time of "Approximately 100 minutes total," it actually runs just over 89 minutes, in accordance with its original two-hour time-slot on commercial cable television.

This is the model used to design Soarin' (the thing on the table... not the guy above it) These maps are better than Google's.

There's only one noticeable factual error: the narrator states that four decades have passed since Walt first scribbled his plans for Disneyland. Actually, it's been a little more than five, but even though there was a lot of hoopla over that golden anniversary not long ago, we'll have to let that slide. The presentation is extremely up to date. All but one (Cinderellabration) of the attractions introduced in Disney World as part of the 2005-2006 Happiest Celebration on Earth are discussed in detail. Soarin' in Epcot, Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show in the Disney-MGM Studios, and Lucky the Dinosaur and the soon-to-open Expedition Everest in Disney's Animal Kingdom are all included, though no specific references to Disneyland's fiftieth anniversary are made.

Disney owns part of both The History Channel and A&E, which distributes this on DVD. As a result, abundant use of Disney film clips are employed where appropriate (and never when not). Still, this isn't exactly a Disney release and while it can't be described as critical, it's not a glowing sales pitch either. In all, it's an extremely well-done documentary that comes to DVD with no frills but satisfactory treatment.

565x90 Disney Parks Store


Presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that measures to about 1.75:1, the program offers video quality that is generally excellent. When viewed on the largest of screens, the picture may seem a bit soft, but is mostly free of problems. That, of course, applies only to newly-created footage, as the quality of archival material varies due to age and source. On occasions when video that was originally created in the 1.33:1 (or similar) aspect ratio is called upon in the feature, it appears to be stretched to match the aspect ratio of the feature as a whole, which for the purposes they are used here for, is fine.

The audio is presented in a Dolby Surround track that leaves the center channel silent, but fills the front left and right speakers with dialogue and music and the rear speakers with another track of music and effects that blends nicely with the dominant one. Both the video and audio presentations are largely pleasing.

Marty Sklar, the man who brought you 3/4 of Disney World's parks The main menu shows Cinderella's Castle decked out in anniversary gear while "Wishes!" fireworks light up the sky.


There aren't any bonus features or sneak peeks of any kind included on this disc. That's somewhat to be expected, because even though A&E is partly owned by Disney, they don't likely have unrestricted access to the kind of archival supplements
that might have been appropriate here. Likewise, this was produced as an episode of a television documentary series, so a lot of extra material wouldn't have been created. To be sure, supplements of any kind would have added value to the set, but A&E can't be faulted too much for not including them and with a feature as good as this, they aren't needed to justify the fairly low price.

The disc begins with a brief animated logo for The History Channel and then arrives immediately at the still, silent main menu screen, which presents a picture of Cinderella's Castle in its anniversary decor and surrounded by fireworks. Beneath the History Channel emblem are options to play the feature or access a chapter selection screen. Nine chapters are made available, each clearly-labeled and beginning at a logical turning point in the feature. A colorful picture of Dumbo the Flying Elephant serves as the background. This menu is also still and silent.

Packaged in a standard black keepcase, the cover art (for this screener copy, at least) is actually different than what has been made available at online outlets until now. A nighttime picture of the "Partners" statue (Walt and Mickey holding hands) in front of a pre-Happiest Celebration on Earth Cinderella's Castle during a fireworks show has taken the place of the character shot that was originally seen, and the change is for the better. The disc art is simple: the cover art's color scheme is carried over, with the title of the program and emblems for The History Channel and Walt Disney World imprinted on it. Inside is an eight-page booklet advertising other History Channel DVDs.

Epcot's Spaceship Earth under construction Cinderella's Castle under construction


There's so much more that could be said about Walt Disney World, but this "Modern Marvels" documentary does about as good a job as can be done in its run time. It succeeds in picking an aspect of the resort to focus on and staying within the four main parks to select attractions that are especially relevant to that theme. As a Disney park lover, containing my excitement while watching the feature was difficult. Fascinating, informative, and immediately likable, there's something here for everyone. Even the non-enthusiast should find it stimulating. It comes to DVD unaccompanied by bonus features, but with satisfactory treatment. Sure, it can currently be found on TV fairly often, but that may not always be the case, and the documentary is strong enough to want to have available on demand and for repeat viewings. Whether you're looking to gain some insight on a true modern marvel or just get psyched for your next trip, The History Channel's fine presentation will do the trick.

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Reviewed March 15, 2006.