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Ten Wishes for the New Year: #4

Remember when I was doing this list thing?

#4 – Detoonification

The Enchanted Tiki Room - Under New ManagementMake. It. Stop.

OK, let’s get one thing crystal clear upfront: I know that this one is never, ever going to happen. I know it, you know it and the American people know it – no matter how much the parks would benefit and no matter how it would be true to Disney’s legacy, they’re never going to reverse the lamentable “toonification” trend of recent years. But they should.

When Michael Eisner came to Disney in 1984, there were no attractions based on animated characters in any of the Disney parks aside from those in Fantasyland. There had been attractions based on live action properties – the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse and Davy Crockett Canoes spring to mind – but the focus of the non-fantasy based lands was putting guests into real-life adventures from the past, present and future.

Disneyland Rainbow Ridge mine train and pack mulesDisneyland’s Rainbow Ridge – No Woody’s Roundup in sight

It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty-five years since that day, but in that time the marketing people took over the shop and the focus of new attractions shifted from what best suited their surroundings to what was trendy at the time of construction. While the net total of attractions in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom hasn’t increased measurably in those years, the two domestic Disney parks are now home to:

- Tarzan, Iago, Zazu and Aladdin in Adventureland

- Shows based on Toy Story in Frontierland, as well as the placement of non-toon pirates on Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island

- Winnie the Pooh in Disneyland’s Critter Country

- Buzz Lightyear, Finding Nemo, Stitch (x2) and Monsters, Inc. in Tomorrowland

EPCOT Center, once home to only its original characters like Dreamfinder and Figment, now features Finding Nemo, The Lion King, The Three Caballeros, Kim Possible and, uh, Martin Short. What’s worse is that in several of these instances – especially Nemo and Caballeros – the focus is solely on the characters and not the theme of the pavilion or attraction that they inhabit. What do you learn about the seas from Nemo, or about Mexico from Donald? The Circle of Life film, which is kind of goofy at times, at least manages to remain relevant to its purpose.

Donald in EPCOT Center's Gran Fiesta TourDonald stands in front of the… Actually, they never tell us where or what it is

This points out how important execution is when attempting a character overlay. I really, really love the film The Three Caballeros and was initially excited about the concept of the Mexico refurbishment. But they managed to not really tell us about Mexico at all with the new attraction, and the ride captures none of the trippy, freewheeling feel of the film. It’s just loud and short.

Back to the Magic Kingdoms, though. The innovative thing about Disneyland in 1955 was that it provided all those post-war suburban families with immersive adventures in heavily themed settings. The world was a lot smaller then than today, and a trip through the jungles of Adventureland introduced millions to new and exotic concepts, no matter how homogenized and idealized they actually were. Disney’s attempts at futurism, both on his TV show and in Tomorrowland, made the Space Race accessible to the masses and helped guide a generation into a new technological era.

These adventures in fictionalized but realistic settings are what draw people to the parks to this day. The average American tourist might never travel to Africa, but they can get a taste of its aesthetic in Harambe. They might never go to Europe, and certainly something like the Germany pavilion is nothing like the actual modern country, but it at least provides a cultural touchstone for people that is outside of their everyday experience. Visiting EPCOT isn’t a substitute for actually traveling abroad, but it’s cheaper and it provides a nice jumping off point for a more informed worldview. How many guests have thought more about the actual Morocco after visiting EPCOT than they ever would otherwise?

Morocco minaret“Beautiful! You know what would make it better? Aladdin! What? He’s from Arabia, not Morocco? The rubes will never know – put him in there anyway!”

There’s nothing wrong with giving guests what they want, and I’m sure that they do want characters in some capacity. But isn’t it more interesting and ambitious to give them something they don’t even know to demand? I guarantee that if Disney had taken a million guest surveys in 1966, not a single guest would have thought to ask for Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion. Thank heavens Walt didn’t need to do surveys to know a good idea.

Personally, I want to go to the Tiki Room to be whisked away to a fantastical Polynesian jungle, not to get screamed at by celebrity-voiced animated birds that have no connection to their surroundings. Things like that completely yank guests out of whatever illusion the themed environment attempts to create.

The Disney park roster is far more diverse these days than it was in 1984. The parks embrace a wide variety of environments and themes, which allow the Imagineers to create attractions outside those realms of Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. A park as thematically broad as the Hollywood Studios, for example, provides plenty of leeway for experimentation. And while Disney should, in fact, always push innovation, it doesn’t mean that they should neglect the expansive yet specific mandates that Walt himself laid down for the cardinal realms of Disneyland:

Here is adventure, here is romance, here is mystery. Tropical rivers, flowing silently into the unknown, the unbelievable splendor of exotic flowers, the eerie sounds of the jungle, with eyes that are always watching… this is Adventureland.

Here we experience the story of our country’s past… the colorful drama of frontier America in the exciting days of the covered wagon and the stage coach, the advent of the railroad and the romantic riverboat. Frontierland is a tribute to the faith, courage and ingenuity of the pioneers who blazed the trails across America.

Here is the world of imagination, hopes and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment, the age of chivalry, magic, and make-believe are reborn, and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young at heart, to those who believe that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.

Tomorrowland… 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 challenge of outer space, and the hope of a peaceful and unified world.

No burping cartoon aliens in there that I could find.


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5 comments to Ten Wishes for the New Year: #4

  • One thing I forgot to mention in the article: I love to read the Progress City site statistics and see what people are entering into search engines to bring them here. Something I see far, far more often that I would expect is people searching for the words “Disney toonification.” The people have spoken!

  • Malcolm Thomas

    I guess they want them to be more relevant for the kids. Well, thankfully they won’t give Epcot’s Morocco the same fate.


    Don’t be so negative, Michael.

    Don’t get so bent out of shape over these changes. Most of the guests enjoy them, including yours truly, so just sit back and relax!

  • While I agree with you *completely* about this issue, I can’t help but point out 2 things – (1) the Seas pavilion has tons of educational materials throughout the attraction (except on the ride itself). If it takes character recognition to get the kids to want to look in the tanks, so be it. I do find it heartbreaking, though, when I hear a kid (or even worse – a parent) say, “LOOK! It’s a Nemo-fish!” That makes me do a face-palm of the highest order.

    and (2) What did El rio del tiempo (which was in my top 5 attractions of the entire MK) teach us about Mexico before the refurb?I don’t remember the commentary being especially enlightening. The main thing I got from that attraction (and still one of my favorite bits) was that souvenir sellers are very aggressive, lol! The whole thing was one long tourism ad. There were no indicators of where in Mexico any of the events took place. BUT it was magic – you felt like you were on a whirlwind trip through the country and didn’t notice that you weren’t ‘learning’ anything – the magic more than made up for it…

    That being said, I *hate* the Fiesta thing. And I love the movie ‘The Three Caballeros” but as you so appropriately mentioned, the ride is too short to do justice to the movie, so it just ends up seeming like a frenetic jumble with no cohesiveness whatsoever…

  • Cheryl, you make some very good points!

    1) I think over time I’ve been a little too vague about my issues with the Nemo/Seas overlay. Nemo is really popular and actually topical to the attraction, so I really don’t have a big problem with them incorporating it into the pavilion. I *do* have a problem with the way it was done – none of the Nemo characters do anything to help increase our understanding of actual fish or the actual ocean.

    It would have been so easy to change the plot of the ride so that we’re following Nemo’s class on a field trip, as he re-traces the path of his adventures and fills his class in on everything he learned. You have the characters, the school of fish and the teacher right there in the attraction already and they totally whiffed it.

    It also doesn’t help that Turtle Talk, which is a fantastic idea and is executed really well, has just devolved into an excuse to goad kids into goofing off and telling silly jokes instead of having any informative content whatsoever.

    It would have been totally possible to keep the Sea Base theme – I loved those hydrolators! – and still incorporate Nemo and friends. They do it in Disneyland, where the “real world” scientific submarine voyage puts out their sonophone and suddenly we’re hearing the fish talk. It could have worked great, but it would require a little – dare I say it? Imagination.

    2) You’re right that El Rio didn’t really teach us much about Mexico, especially when the voice-over parts weren’t synced correctly. But the thing about Fiesta is there’s no real connection to Mexico at all – they’re just looking for Donald. They could be anywhere, it just happens that they’re in Mexico.

    And I’ll add that both these attractions consist primarily of lots of scenes of characters shouting someone’s name over… and over… and over… and over. Not exactly riveting.

    Thanks for the comments!

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