Remember when I was doing this list thing?
#4 – Detoonification
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.
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.
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?
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.