Monument Valley, Utah: Hollywood’s Wild West

The road unfolds downhill, straight as an arrow, and appears to dead end at an otherworldly collection of sandstone buttes and mesas. We’ve all been here before, even if we’ve never stepped foot in the state of Utah. If you find yourself driving south on Utah Route 163, you will feel a strong sense of déjà vu about 12 miles north of Monument Valley. If the vista seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before in dozens of movies, commercials and music videos. When a producer is looking for a symbol of the American West this is where they come.
The story of how Hollywood discovered Monument Valley starts with Harry Goulding, an audacious entrepreneur with a fifth-grade education who established a trading post in the area with his wife in 1924. During the Great Depression, Goulding and his wife, “Mike” loaded up their Model A Ford and drove to Hollywood with a suitcase full of photos of Monument Valley. Goulding turned up unannounced at the office of John Ford, a legendary Hollywood producer and was reportedly asked to leave.

Goulding supposedly went out to his car, grabbed his bedroll, and laid it out in the waiting room of Ford’s office, announcing that he wasn’t going home until he was allowed to see Mr. Ford. The secretary called security, but the person who came to escort him out happened to be one of Ford’s site coordinators, and he was enthralled by the photos of Monument Valley that Goulding had spread out on a table.

Within weeks, Ford’s team was in the area filming “Stagecoach,” and he went on to shoot six more films in the area. John Wayne and other Hollywood luminaries were in the area so often that Goulding’s Lodge became their home away from home. Wayne, Ford and Goulding gave English language names to many of the area’s buttes and mesas, and hundreds of westerns have been shot in the area over the decades, not to mention scenes from a host of other movies including “Thelma and Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Back to the Future III,” “Windtalkers,” and “Mission Impossible II” to name just a few. It was also the place where Forrest Gump got tired of running, and last year Johnny Depp was in town to film scenes from “The Lone Ranger,” which comes out in July.
Even if you haven’t seen any of these movies, you’ve surely seen Monument Valley in a Road Runner cartoon, in a commercial or a music video. But even though the place seems immediately familiar, I wasn’t prepared for how awe-inspiring the scenery is. Everywhere you look, there are towering buttes and mesas, with every shade of red imaginable, and the panoramas are completely untarnished by tacky development. There is no Starbucks, McDonald’s or any other chain within many miles of this magical place.

The area gets just a fraction of the tourist trade that the Grand Canyon gets and, at least in the winter and summer, most of the travelers are from overseas. I was glad to have the place practically to myself in early January but I couldn’t help but think that Monument Valley deservers a lot more visitors.

If you want to get a taste of Monument Valley’s Hollywood connection, consider staying at Goulding’s Lodge, which has comfortable rooms with great views, not to mention John Wayne movies every night. Either way, definitely check out their free Trading Post museum, which is filled with interesting movie memorabilia and trading post artifacts. I also highly recommend their guided backcountry tour, which gives travelers an opportunity to see areas of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park that are off limits to non-Navajos and offers insights into Navajo culture and traditions.

According to Rosie Phatt, my Navajo tour guide, locals never get tired of Monument Valley’s breathtaking vistas, but they have gotten used to all the celebrities who descend upon the area.

“Johnny Depp was here in April when they were filming scenes for The Lone Ranger,” she said nonchalantly. “He stayed in his own RV and nobody bothered him.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Shanghai to get a Disney theme park: Does it need one?

In five to six years, Shanghai will have joined Tokyo, Hong Kong and Paris as a city out of the U.S. with a Disney theme park. China may or may not need a Disney theme park, but Disney’s aim is that the Shanghai location will help create a mighty want for Disney products among the country’s population.

With 1.5 billion people in China, Disney is hoping that the big bucks it will cost to dazzle the multitudes will pay off in other avenues. As anyone who has ever been to a Disney property knows, the theme park is not just a way to be wowed for a day or two; it’s a gateway into other Disney habits. The hope is that the wow moments are enough to make you crave more.

For example, not only is the Pirates of the Caribbean ride now one more place to get a Johnny Depp fix as Captain Jack Sparrow, it’s a marketing tool for all things having to do with the movie. As Depp, aka, Captain Jack Sparrow makes appearances throughout the ride, and then talks so provocatively right before the end, the connection to the movie is not subliminal advertising–the type where an image triggers off our subconscious.

Nope, by the time we climb out of the ride at the gift shop, it’s no surprise to see shelves laced with every sort of Pirates of the Caribbean merchandise that has ever been cranked out. (Ironically, most of it is probably cranked out in China.) There’s no other way to end this particular ride but to push on through the gift shop, not the easiest thing to do without a purchase when one has a child in tow who now has Captain Jack Sparrow on the brain.

Disney is hoping that the Chinese families who fork out the money to enter its theme park will leave wanting more Disney. DVDs, video games, touring musicals and more are the perfect Disney fix for creating some of Disney’s magic back at home.

For the Chinese government, the hope is that Disney in Shanghai will provide tens of thousands of jobs for people who are in need of viable employment.

Because it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks sometimes, this Disney park will incorporate Chinese history and stories into some of its attractions. Many classic Disney rides will be included. I bet Captain Jack Sparrow will be speaking Chinese. Ni hao, Johnny!

Pirates of the Caribbean Ride: Yo Ho, Yo Ho

With Pirates of the Caribbean’s huge success at the box office, it’s no wonder Disneyland and Disney World revamped the Pirates of the Caribbean ride last summer. I do think this ride is still my favorite and certainly didn’t mind seeing Johnny Depp several times throughout last time I was a rider.

Before Johnny appears (smile), I mean Captain Jack, there’s a huge image of Davy Jones projected onto mist that the ride’s passenger boats pass through. After the boat drops into the main section and the song starts, Captain Jack Sparrow shows up. Part of the charm is seeing where he appears. One time he is popping out of a barrel and right before the end, a rum swigging Jack talks to the riders. (Check out Pirates of the Caribbean Rehab at AllEarsNet for more impressions and a photos.)

I also found this cool Disney site devoted to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There’s a video with interviews and footage about how the updates were made plus the history of how the ride came about. And if that’s not enough, here’s a link to Pirates of the Caribbean ride Fun Facts page. For some reason, I find the comments from people who have been on this ride several times fascinating. They pick up on things others may miss.

When I went on the ride, the line took all of five minutes. I wonder with the new movie out, if the wait is any longer.