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Back to Basics

The Prologue and the Promise

It is, perhaps, reasonable to assume the nature of anything internet-related – or especially blog-related – to be ephemeral. Here, one would typically cite the percentage of blogs that never make it past their first post (I’ll let you Google that yourself). Some online writers sign off when they’re planning to take a break, but apparently my tendency is to disappear for months without a word. This is primarily because, even though things have been very quiet here since the early fall, the hiatus was never planned. While part of this is due to the fact that time seems to be moving exceedingly speedily in my reference frame, the main reason that I stopped popping in every couple of days to sound off was that there was nothing that sprang to mind that I could be bothered to write about.

It wasn’t completely for lack of topics; I missed the major holidays and even the first anniversary of this blog. There was news coming out of Burbank, Glendale, Anaheim and Orlando – it was just mostly depressing. I spent some of my time off-line doing a bit of research about Walt Disney World for a couple of projects I’d like to work on, but even historical research can lead to an enthusiasm deficiency. Studying the the Florida project, and uncovering the sheer complexity and intricacy of design that went into its creation, makes its current state seem even more troubling.

American Idol Experience renderingWhat could be causing my writer’s block… Let… me… see…

While I’ve never shied away from criticising Team Burbank when I think they’ve got it wrong about something, I’m not immune to fatigue from poisoned-pen writers with nothing but vitriol for corporate. In fact, criticism is even more difficult for me these days because as much as I disagree with some of the decisions that are being made, I’m convinced that large segments of the current management have their hearts in the right place.

It’s easy to place blame for unfortunate park-related decisions on someone like parks chief Jay Rasulo, who has no business holding the position he currently occupies, but what of those Pixar folk who currently wield some influence? I’d be surprised to hear anyone say that John Lasseter doesn’t mean well for WDI, and yet since his return to Disney I’ve seen precious little change in several disturbing trends in the design of the parks. In fact, many issues have grown in scope and complexity.

While previously we might have complained about an attraction being poorly-themed or under-funded, we’re starting to see well-funded, highly-themed attractions that just happen to be completely inappropriately themed to their surroundings. This is a real poser for park fans – what if we get a wonderful new E-ticket, with the only drawback being that it clashes thematically and aesthetically with its carefully crafted environment?

Monsters, Inc. Ride And Go SeekTomorrowland
A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements… a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come.
Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals: the atomic age… the challenge of space… and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.

This problem can be seen with Tokyo Disneyland’s soon-to-open Monsters, Inc. attraction. A typically lavish product of the Oriental Land Company’s largesse, the attraction sweeps away many of the concerns that Disney fans had during the Eisner-Pressler years. It’s well-themed, with a massive budget and a huge array of interactive animatronics. It sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, and something that will actually be fun for kids and adults. The problem? It’s smack-dab at the entrance of Tomorrowland in their Magic Kingdom. Does this matter? Well, to theme park visitors who just want to ride cool rides, no. But to those who care deeply about themed design, things like this are a real concern.

Yes, it might seem like petty nit-picking. And yes, there are certainly more important problems in this modern world with which to be concerned. But whether one realizes it or not, one of the key reasons that anyone cares about theme parks at all – the reason that we have approximately eleventy jillion Disney-related webpages, and the reason that you are here reading my self-important diatribes – is that in 1955, Walt Disney put together a group of elite artists and designers who did care about these things. These Imagineers knew how these elements affected people, even on a subconscious level, and they used them with great effect and subsequently altered the entire face of the amusement park industry.

The Disney organization didn’t just wake up one day and suddenly become the most popular purveyor of family recreation and themed entertainment in the history of history. They didn’t just flip a coin with the Knotts Berry Farm people to see who would become a global parks franchise. It took years of work, expense, and the innate ability of Walt and the WDI staff to provide their guests with what they wanted before the guests themselves even knew that they wanted it. It took the obsessive, and occasionally irritating, attention to detail and insistence on perfection that many of us bloggers think of when we’re griping that the Carousel of Progress has broken down again.

Someone posted an incredibly insightful piece on a messageboard recently that encapsulated, I think, the problem facing the Disney parks today. Disney parks, the writer posited, are no longer intended to be intricatedly themed environments, in which guests take part in adventures from our culture’s history and popular mythology. Instead, the parks are mere containers for a variety of franchise-based experiences – attractions based on whatever is new and trendy, or whatever it is that the Home Video or Merchandising divisions are trying to sell at the moment. In this way they are becoming, essentially, what Universal Studios is. Not that I sneer at Universal, actually – many of their attractions are quite enjoyable. But they aren’t Disney. The problem is, Disney is rarely Disney anymore either.

Disney Studios Paris entranceDisney Studios Paris or Home Depot parking lot? You be the judge!

The comparison between Universal and “Disney’s Hollywood Studios” is obvious. Franchise-based big box attractions surrounded with minimal theming (a few exceptions exist in both parks, yet this theming is limited to the area directly around the attraction itself). Yet look at Florida’s Tomorrowland – Monsters, Inc. is there too, as well as cartoon Stitch across the plaza from the Carousel of Progress. Buzz Lightyear is here, but he’s also in Paris’s Discoveryland – an area supposedly themed to gilded-age science-fiction and to the writings of Verne and Wells. In Adventureland, we have Arabian flying carpets circling in front of a Polynesian facade, and Toy Story Mania takes us through a carnival shooting gallery in the middle of a supposed movie studio. At the Living Seas, where once the focus was on the seas themselves, we’re now treated to an exact re-telling of the plot of Finding Nemo with no attempt to meld the storyline to its surroundings.

It might be – no, actually, it is – foolish to attempt this type of analysis in a park which ends a gingerbread-trimmed Victorian Main Street with a gothic French fairy-tale castle. But these are the types of things that WDI should be thinking about, because eventually the cognitive dissonance adds up, and that indefinable spark that separates Disney from Universal and the rest will disappear. A brand name will do a lot for you, but it won’t last forever and it won’t work miracles. Just ask Superstar Limo.

Regis in Superstar LimoJust… no.

Anyway, this is an absurd way to announce my return yet there it is. I hope to post more regularly, and there’s certainly been a bit more news starting to trickle out from Team Disney to discuss. The economy seems to have put a damper on a lot of projects, but there’s hope they’ll make it to the parks eventually. There’s no doubt that things are better off now for the parks than in the dark days of Pressler, but that doesn’t mean we can take our eyes off the ball. At this time in the company’s history it would be good for the people at both corporate and WDI to take a moment and think about what they do and why. The Disney park juggernaut has been plowing along for 54 years now, and in such an amount of time it’s easy to “lose the thread”, so to speak. It’s time to take a breath, clear the mind, and then get back to the drawing board. There’s work to do.

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5 comments to Back to Basics

  • Chaddy

    Very thoughtful piece. It’s refreshing to read balanced criticism written in a palatable way for a change. Anyway, I do agree with you that the current team of top park managers do indeed have their collective hearts in the right place overall, but there still are things needing to be fixed with their design approach before we can say that WDI and Disney parks in general are truly “back on track” from the dark days under Eisner’s last half decade or so.

    That being said, I will also say that I am not against the idea of cartoon and film related attractions. It is DISNEY for god sakes. What do we expect? Look at the attraction line up for Disneyland itself in 55. We see a healthy mix of Walt’s love of, well alot of things like the old west to the world of the future, paired off with his love of his animated fairytales in attractions living side-by-side. And don’t the animals in the Jugle Cruise look a little, well cartoony to you?

    The point I am trying to make is that there is room for both types of attractions, those based out of animation and film, and those not. In reality, to me it seems that Walt and the early Imaginears never seperated the two kinds. In a way, they saw the rides as films, animated or otherwise, and they approached the design of Disneyland with a similar conciousness to that of making the films of the Disney Studios of the time. Even the subject matter was the same. One of the problems facing Imaginears today that I don’t read much comment on in the Disney-related blogosphere, is that the last decade of Disney’s animation from both WDAS and Pixar are not fairytale or even fairytale-like in nature. Many of these films take place in settings meant to be familiar to us in one way or another, like Monstropolis, or the world of Cars. It’s hard to whisk guests away to another land that looks sort of like our land but more cartoony. Everything ends up looking like Toontown.

    So that has been a contributing factor, but I think the real problem when we get down to it, is park-management’s lack of confidence not in the Imaginears, but in the general public that comes through the turnstiles. People are not as well-read and well-rounded as they used to be. Mindless pop culture has infected the general public with an imagination desolving cancer that strains curiousity about the world. Atleast, something tells me that it’s not so far-fetched to believe that some higher-up somewhere in the closed boardroom meetings where this kind of thing is discussed would believe that to be true. And that belief puts additional constraints on WDI and the many projects they may want to pursue. The saving grace in all of this is the existence and subsequent popularity of DisneySea, which flies in the face of all such logic. So even if it is true that the general public may not be as literate and curious about the world as in years past, it doesn’t mean that they would not react with sheer amazement and delight to walking through a Disneyland version of Mysterious Island. The fact that people are generally less curious about the world as before makes it more of a neccesity and even a privelege for WDI and the Disney parks to expose them to new and exciting worlds. Time will tell if the strong voices within the Disney company that may champion the kind of revival of WDI that we hope for are really strong enough afterall.

  • Thanks for your great comments – I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

    The line between what seems appropriate or inappropriate concerning toon- or film-derived attractions is very fine indeed. In fact, many times the failure is not in the concept but in the execution.

    A prime example of this for me is the way the characters from Finding Nemo were incorporated into the Living Seas. While I don’t question the motivations behind the project, which was clearly a considerable investment, I consider it a major disappointment. It’s true that I was a fan of the original preshow’s tone, and I still think the hydrolators were a wonderful gimmick, but I can’t argue with the idea of using popular (and thematically appropriate) characters to help engage guests. And it’s always hard to argue with a colorful, appealing darkride that ends in EPCOT’s first new song in ages.

    Where the attraction falls apart, though, is in its amazingly uncreative rehashing of the film’s plot. It’s clearly meant to occur after the events of the film, but then Nemo runs away *again* and we go back out to look for him… again. This suggests not only a creative lapse at WDI but some rather worrisome delinquent tendencies for Nemo himself. With some simple re-scripting, this attraction could have been about the wonders of the actual seas – you know, the point of the whole pavilion – and shown guests something new. Why not have Marlin, newly emboldened by his adventures in the film, take Nemo’s class out on a field trip to teach them about the things they learned? Why not take advantage of a rapt and captive audience to teach the devoted young Nemo fans something?

    I have the same problem with “Turtle Talk with Crush” – amazing technology and devoted Cast Members, but for what? Not everything has to be a oceanographic seminar, but would it be so unthinkable to slip a little information in there?

    Not everything is like “Laugh Floor”, which is thematically inappropriate in every way, shape, and form. Something like “Nemo” could be easily fixed if they just took the extra time to think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

    In the end, I think you’re absolutely correct about management’s lack of faith in guests. If you expect very little of people, they’ll give you just that. Walt, however, expected more and got that in return. It’s true that the average Disney guest probably isn’t as well read as they used to be, but isn’t that all the more reason to challenge them? I’ve said a million times that the genius of Walt was to give people what they didn’t know they wanted in the first place. If you ask the general public what they want, they may say American Idol or some such. But if you aim high and give them something of such unexpected quality like DisneySea they’ll react positively. That’s how the Disney organization gained the reputation they’ve spend the last few decades squandering – they started off by giving people more than they expected.

  • Chaddy

    Nicely put, Tangaroa. You know, I really do enjoy reading your thoughts. I selfishly request that you post more often!

    Anyhow, I couldn’t agree with you more about the remake of The Seas. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the concept of bringing in the animated characters from the film to freshen up this practically abandoned old pavillion. There’s so much they could do with that concept! Which in turn backs up the notion we spoke of earlier; that there is a place for bringing animated characters to life in the park’s attractions. But as you say, the execution here was all wrong.

    But here I think the culprit was not the lack of faith in the audience that we spoke about, but rather a simple lack of funding. From my understanding, no official numbers were released about how much this “overlay” actually cost, but the timing of it’s construction puts it very close to the time during which Iger was pushing forward with his moving and shaking-up of the structure of the entire company’s rank and file. So, just as a guess, I would venture to say that had this overlay taken place but a mere 9 to 15 months later, it would have looked very different. Why do I say that?

    Well, the newer attractions coming out of WDI lately have a presence of better execution. Midway Mania, for example. Even the smaller, less expensive attractions of American Idol and even the new Kim Possible game at EPCOT have a surprising amout of elaborateness that would certainly not have been possible for “smaller” attractions during the end of the old management’s days. It seems as if the new manangement has been on an upward crawl when it comes to their approach to funding new attractions. Hence, I think that had The Seas overlay come during this time, it probably would have been on a scale more akin to some of these newer attractions, proportionately of course.

    But, again as a hardened Disney-park fan, my problem with the attractions listed above is not in the funding, which seems more ample, or even the execution, which seems more skilled, but rather in the concept. Yes, there is enough rooom in the parks for American Idol and Kim Possible. But where is the really good stuff that brings us back to the days of fantasy and adventure? Sigh. I guess you just can’t win.

  • Thanks again for your comments – I hope that I post more often too haha…

  • Nicely put. Quoting Chaddy, “It’s refreshing to read balanced criticism written in a palatable way for a change.” Thanks for that.

    I too thought Iger would bring more of an immediate, noticeable change to the parks – the major tactile, immersive realization of the Disney concept – but it’s been slow coming and not much of a different approach than expected quite frankly, with the infusion of Disney characters everywhere and the cross-branding of everything (a reflection of today’s commercial society, and the Wall Street expectations). As much as I still love the experience, the parks really seem to be heading the way of Universal (or as in my neck of the woods, Kings Island) – they’re trading the overall concept (which was so successful, and transformative for many of us who love the Disney brand so much, and appreciate the theming as an expereince in and of itself) for transient, pop-culture, high-thrill, individual experiences. They’re fun and all, but what Disney has always succeeded at was the story and it’s environment – the slower, more immersive, and longer-lasting rides that allowed everything to sink in to the long-term memory… [end rant]

    Again, another nice post. Welcome back.

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