Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Enterprise-EPCOT Signage Similarity

When the USS Enterprise was reimagined with a motion-picture budget during the making of the first Star Trek film, the production’s artists and set decorators had the opportunity to add a level of realism to the ship that had been impossible for their counterparts on the TV show a decade earlier. One of the more subtle touches they added to make the Enterprise feel like a “real” spaceship was to render all the ship’s signage in a standard font. They also created a series of easy-to-understand logos for the various shipboard departments and functions.

For example, just about all the doors on the Enterprise looked the same. How would a new crewmember be able to know if they were about to stroll into a turbolift or a transporter room? Well, each had their unique logos:

                       1024_Turbolift 1024_Transporter Systems

. . . and most doors were marked with a sign that incorporated the logo. Any verbal or numeric indication was rendered in the standard shipboard font. You can see what I’m talking about in this screencap:


The film’s artists also took the time to create a format for directional signage. For example, how would you know where Turbolift 1 or Docking Port 3 were? A bulkhead labeling system that incorporated the departmental logos, numeric indicators, and arrows was devised:

            1024_turbolift 1 - left1024_docking port 3 - right

You see an onscreen example of this in the scene where Spock first comes aboard:

tmphd1064Wait, Spock’s shuttle is docked aft of the bridge, on Deck 1. This is the only docking port on that deck. Shouldn’t it be Docking Port 1 and not Docking Port 3? Man, I am such a geek.

Now, these are just tiny details. They’re barely on screen for a few seconds, and most filmgoers didn’t even notice them. Nevertheless, they worked on a subconscious level to make the Enterprise feel like a huge starship rather than an assemblage of plywood sets.

Ah, but what does this have to do with EPCOT? Well, as I’ve pointed out in the past, since Star Trek:The Motion Picture and EPCOT Center’s Future World were both products of the late 1970s they shared a very similar design aesthetic. Much like the newly-refitted 1979 version of the starship Enterprise, Future World’s signage also utilized a standardized font (known as World Bold) along with a series of easy-to-understand logos representing the various pavilions. This system was utilized on directional signs:

FWdirectionPhoto by Werner Weiss of Yesterland.com. Used with permission.

. . . signs on or in the pavilions themselves . . .

. . . and even on the early park guidemaps:


Even mundane real-world things like illuminated EXIT signs were rendered in the official font:


All of this made the various parts of Future World seem like interlocking pieces of an interrelated and greater whole. It contributed, if only subconsciously, to the park’s futuristic feel. Sadly, Future World began to lose its thematic cohesion in the mid-to-late 1990s. The circular pavilion logos disappeared, and as each pavilion was refurbished it gained its own unique signage. That part was understandable. After all, the corporate sponsors would naturally want the pavilion on which they were spending so much money to have its own identity. Less understandable is the way park management seemed to completely jettison Future World’s unified visual design in all other ways.

The signage in today’s Future World is an incomprehensible mish-mash of conflicting styles. For example, some signs still use the classic, still-futuristic-after-all-these-years World Bold font . . .

I love the font, but the rest of the sign looks like 1994 threw up all over it

. . . while other signs use some variant of Chicago, the original Mac OS system font:  



. . . and the sign above Guest Relations looks more like something that belongs in the Magic Kingdom’s Flash Gordon-inspired Tomorrowland:


Even during the dark hours of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a movie packed with more lazy storytelling and hackneyed plot devices than a whole season of any Glen Larson production you care to name, the folks in the movie’s Art Department still cared enough to make sure that any signage you could see in the background of those creatively-bankrupt scenes fit into the design lineage that began with The Motion Picture:

tffSTOPIf only Shatner had obeyed the sign, we might have been spared the horror of the Uhura Fan Dance

It’s a level of caring that seems to be sadly lacking at today’s EPCOT. Yeah, I know this is minor thing. The fact is that 99.9% of the park’s visitors don’t notice or even care about signage or a unified design aesthetic as long as they can quickly find out how to get to Soarin’ or Test Track or the Men’s room. Honestly, even diehard EPCOT Center geeks like me wish we didn’t have to care about this stuff.

I mean it. If you traveled back to the 1980s and asked the 10-year-old versions of me or any of my fellow Disney bloggers what we loved about EPCOT Center, none of us would have mentioned the signs. We would have talked about how much we loved choosing our own ending on Horizons, playing in the ImageWorks, or that part at the end of World of Motion where you ride past the mirrored wall and see a reflection of yourself riding in a futuristic bubble car. It was only when that stuff began to vanish that we fixated on the tiny details.

Here’s hoping that one of these days, those details make a return.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Eisner-EPCOT Antipathy Explanation

It’s widely known in the Disney geek community that when Michael Eisner took the reins of the Walt Disney Company in 1984 he was not a big fan of EPCOT Center. Under his watch many attempts were made to “fix” the park and give it a broader appeal, things like giving Future World a real live circus and bringing in celebrity-based attractions like Captain EO and Ellen’s Energy Adventure. The reason that’s usually given for Eisner’s antipathy toward the park’s original vision is that he was an empty suit too obsessed with synergy and marketing to appreciate EPCOT Center’s true appeal, and there’s certainly some truth to that.

But I believe that, in addition to his entertainment-industry instincts to synergize and dumb things down to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Eisner’s attitude toward EPCOT Center was affected by his experience on one of his big projects at Paramount: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the late '70s, a young Michael Eisner was an executive at Paramount Pictures, and one of the projects within his sphere of responsibility was the revival of Star Trek. After several aborted attempts to make a film, Paramount had decided to start a fourth television network-a competitor to the Big Three of CBS, NBC, and ABC-with a revived Trek entitled Star Trek: Phase II as its flagship program. They even held a big press conference to announce this. Then their accountants did the math, and realized that the Paramount Television Network would never make enough money to stay in business. You’d think they would have had the accountants run the numbers before they had their big press conference, but if you’re reading this then the fact that large corporations often behave illogically is not surprising to you.

Anyway, the stillbirth of the Paramount Network presented a big problem for Michael Eisner. He had to find some way to salvage a sellable product out of all the money the studio had invested into Star Trek’s revival, and at an August 3, 1977 meeting, which was ostensibly a pitch meeting for the story for Star Trek: Phase II’s two-hour pilot, Eisner found his way out. The story treatment that Gene Roddenberry, Harold Livingston, and Robert Goodwin pitched to Eisner concerned a huge, unstoppable living spaceship that threatened the planet Earth. Upon hearing the pitch, Eisner reportedly slapped his hand down on the conference table and declared “We’ve been looking for the feature for five years, and this is it!”

With that, Star Trek: Phase II became Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Not only did it provide Paramount with a way to finally get some return on all the money they’d invested in attempted Star Trek revivals, they also hoped it would give them something else they badly desired: a Star Wars killer. You see, not only was Star Wars a fantastically profitable motion picture, but it also turned tie-in merchandise into big business. Naturally, Paramount wanted their own science-fiction film franchise with a profitable line of merchandise to go along with it, and Star Trek seemed to be the perfect candidate.

However, the driving force behind Star Wars was George Lucas’ desire to make a modern version of an old-fashioned space adventure serial like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. As I’ve written before, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s aspirations were much different. Having spent most of the 1970s having his head swelled by enthusiastic convention audiences who treated his philosophical musings like the utterances of a prophet, he was keen that a Star Trek film tackle some kind of profound Big Idea. Stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were heavily involved in the creative process, and they were mainly interested in ensuring that their characters got meaty story arcs.

The making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not a fun or happy process. When filming got underway, the script was still unfinished. Dialogue had to be repeatedly rewritten on the set as either Shatner or Nimoy would often object that their character wouldn’t say this or that, and the film’s big ending, where Decker merges with V’Ger and the Ilia-bot, was pretty much thought up on the spot. Star Trek was in the process of transforming into important tentpole franchise, yet Gene Roddenberry was still trying to maintain the same amount of control he’d had as executive producer of the TV series in 1967. He even went so far as to write his own version of the screenplay to compete with the one by the contracted screenwriter Harold Livingston, and then try and force Michael Eisner to choose between them. Eisner chose Livingston’s script, and the confrontation simply added one more headache to the movie’s already-painful birth. The film’s post-production phase was even more troubled. The film was locked into its December 7, 1979 release date, but its many special-effects shots proved more complex and time-consuming than was originally thought. As a result, post-production ran grotesquely behind schedule, and was completed only at the last possible moment. There was no time for test screenings, nor was there any time to release the film with anything but a temporary audio track. Director Robert Wise actually carried the finished cut of the movie with him to the premiere. Still, everyone was hoping that Paramount had a Star Wars killer on its hands.

And what happened? You know what happened. Star Trek:The Motion Picture had lots of special effects, just like Star Wars. It even had a lot of background aliens that could be made into action figures, just like Star Wars. But where Star Wars was fast-paced and exciting, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was grand, majestic, profound, slow-moving and boring boring BORING.

cast_1701_tmpPictured: EXCITEMENT!

Sure, the music was excellent, the designs (even the much-lampooned disco pajama uniforms) were well thought-out, and the story had something meaningful to say about the human condition. But none of that made up for the fact that the movie was less fun than a PBS documentary on the history of borscht. Kids didn’t find it exciting, the toy line by Mego was nowhere near as cool or successful as Kenner’s Star Wars line, and so even though the movie turned a budget of $40 million into a domestic box office gross of about $82.2 million it was widely viewed as a flop. A flop with Michael Eisner’s name on it.

eisner_TMPSee that guy on the right? It’s not Frank Wells.

At the time, no one could have known that it would give birth to a successful, long-running film series and a television revival that would include four spinoff shows and a resultant boatload of home video sales. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a stressful, painful experience that appeared not to have been worth it.

So imagine how Eisner must have felt in 1984 when he took over a Walt Disney Company that had, on its Florida property, a big expensive sciencey park that was a lot like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the very thing that gave him so many headaches during the final years of the 1970s. EPCOT Center was very grand, impressive, and profound, but like the first Star Trek film most members of the general public found it confusing and boring. I believe that Eisner quickly turned his back on EPCOT Center’s founding philosophies in part because his experience with the first Star Trek film led him to believe that such profound, educational ideas presented in a rather sterile, academic, science fictiony way just could not appeal to mass audiences.

Of course, his vision of what EPCOT should be was all about thrill rides, celebrities, and faddish trends. A perfect example of that was the Wonders of Life pavilion, which featured a garish late-80s Nickelodeon-inspired color scheme, EPCOT’s very first thrill ride, and a large helping of celebrity cameos. You could argue, though, that at least Michael Eisner had a vision. Today’s executives seem to have no clue what they want EPCOT to be, beyond a place to sell Duffy merchandise.

Still, I still hope that one day EPCOT will get a Wrath of Khan-style makeover that remains faithful to the park’s core essence while jettisoning all the pointless flotsam it’s accumulated over the last couple decades worth of attempts to make it fit in with the cool kids.

Or at least get William Shatner to narrate O Canada! That’s one celebrity cameo I can get behind.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Disney In Space Part 4: From Ray Bradbury to Lt. Dan

EPCOT Center may have been the boldest, gutsiest thing the Walt Disney Company ever did. Instead of rides based on familiar Disney properties like Snow White or Peter Pan it had pavilions devoted to big, sweeping topics like agriculture, transportation, and energy. Each pavilion either contained one huge experience (like Universe of Energy and Horizons) or a number of experiences under one roof (like The Land or Journey Into Imagination), allowing you to spend an hour or more exploring one topic. Since Future World was devoted to, well, the future, and since all optimistic projections of the future always included space travel in some form, it seemed logical that EPCOT Center would open with a Space pavilion.

It did not.

However, a Space pavilion was definitely planned. In fact, Disney’s 1977 Annual Report actually contained a description of the proposed pavilion:

A huge, interstellar "Space Vehicle" will transport passengers to the outer frontiers of the universe, highlighting man's efforts to reach out for the stars around him ... from the early pioneers who looked and wondered ... to modern-day space travelers and their triumphs ... to the challenges and possibilities of future space technologies and exploration”

Although lots of concept art and photos of early ride mock-ups for EPCOT’s other pavilions have been published, we’ve only ever seen a tiny number of images from that early Space pavilion concept. The most common are a photo of the ride’s scriptwriter, the great Ray Bradbury, and designer John de Cuir examining a model of the show’s theater/ride vehicle . . .


. . . this artistic rendering of the same theater/show vehicle:


. . . and finally, this rendering of the pavilion’s exterior:


According to Martin Smith’s excellent Mission:Space tribute video, the pavilion would have been located on the plot of land now occupied by The Living Seas. the experience would have started with an Omnimover ride that took visitors “up into space” and deposited them into an area where they could choose from several activities, including the main show.

Supposedly, outer-space visuals would have been projected onto an Omnimax sphere outside the “windows” of the huge theater/simulated space vehicle, which would have moved in sync with them in some way. As near as I can tell from all these fragmented pieces of information, the show would have been a cross between Universe of Energy and Horizons’ Omnimax sequence. If the Ray Bradbury-penned narration for the original Spaceship Earth is any indication, his script for the Space pavilion’s show would have been similarly majestic and profound. Much like the original Universe of Energy or the original Spaceship Earth narration, though, it likely would have been rather mirthless and scholarly. Kids like me who were weaned on Star Trek would have loved it, but our more numerous Star Wars-oriented peers-who thought of space travel as a thrilling roller-coaster ride where you shoot lasers at enemy spaceships while making wisecracks to your Wookiee co-pilot-would surely have been disappointed.

The Bradbury Space pavilion, as we EPCOT Center geeks refer to it, was unfortunately shelved due to the lack of a corporate sponsor. A scaled-back version called Journeys In Space was planned for a while in the late-80s/early 90s, and would have occupied the expansion plot between The Land and The Seas pavilions, but it, too, was shelved.

Which brings us to the space attraction that EPCOT actually ended up getting. Notice I said “attraction”. By the time Mission:Space opened in 2003, EPCOT’s “permanent World’s Fair” concept had long been abandoned by unimaginative executives who couldn’t and wouldn’t understand it. So we weren’t getting any more pavilions with their multifaceted experiences that a person could spend hours exploring. Also, since the prevailing opinion was that Disney needed more “thrill” rides, there’s no way we were getting one of those fun-but-mild-experience-that-can-be-enjoyed-by-the-whole-family rides that EPCOT Center did so well. No, Mission:Space will go down in history as the first Disney attraction to come equipped with barf bags. Still, it’s not without its good points.

The queue is extremely cool. Also, the attraction features some very advanced technology, and I’m not talking about the simulators. I’m talking about the Lt. Dan Animatronic. Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: “That’s no Animatronic, that’s really actor Gary Sinise!” But look more closely:


Notice how his forehead is completely smooth. Next time you watch the preshow video, observe how as he talks, his forehead and most of his other facial features remain completely immobile. That’s the sure mark of an Animatronic. Or it could be botox.

Finally, for all its flaws, Mission:Space is the most realistic space attraction Disney has ever done. I was as imaginative a kid as you’ll ever see, but when I went on Mission To Mars back in the mid-80s, I never once believed I was in a rocket ship and not a show building. And as I discussed in previous posts, neither Space Mountain nor Star Tours really tried to realistically simulate spaceflight. Mission:Space, though, gives you the most realistic space launch experience you’ll get outside a NASA training facility. Yes, the Orange Team version makes a lot of people sick, but so would an actual space launch. It’s one reason why so few people qualify to become astronauts.

So, removed from the context of the thing it replaced (Horizons) and the grand Space pavilion we never got, Mission:Space isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be, in my opinion. It’s certainly a product of our current era of scaled-back ambitions and MBA thinking, but at least it gives the space travel concept the seriousness it deserves* and doesn’t try to shoehorn in any licensed characters.

I mean, we could have gotten Stitch and Duffy Take a Ride Into Space (starring Lt. Dan). Right?

*I meant to say that the main show treats space travel seriously. The post-show is another story. The “Space Race” game is more like a space-themed game show, and the rest of the post-show is like a high-end McDonald’s play area.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets is a Gem, But Will It Be Appreciated?

Like most of the people who are extolling the virtues of their newly-released movie, I grew up with the Muppets. I watched them on Sesame Street during the day and on The Muppet Show at night. My local library had the book Of Muppets and Men:The Making of The Muppet Show, and it introduced me to the men behind the characters, to Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and all the rest. I went to see The Muppets on its opening night this week, and I spent most of the movie with a big goofy grin on my face. I even got misty-eyed during The Rainbow Connection.

The Muppets totally lacks the mean-spiritedness that’s so common in today’s entertainment. Think about it; how many action films revolve around the audience rooting for the hero to violently kill the villain? How many reality shows encourage us to mercilessly mock their contestants’ failures? There’s none of that in The Muppets. Quite the opposite, in fact. Case in point: instead of doing the normal idealistic-youngster-gets-disillusioned-by-the-celebrity-he’s-always-idolized thing, when our protagonist Walter meets Kermit, he’s kind and welcoming. The movie is two hours or so of good, old-fashioned Muppet mayhem. But is it enough for today’s audiences?

As I left the theater, I realized that the movie was made specifically for people who’d grown up with the Muppets, for people like me. And there are not a lot of people like me. I enjoyed TRON:Legacy, for crying out loud. But will the things my generation loves about the Muppets also appeal to the same mass audiences that gobbled up scene after scene of brutal robot-on-robot violence in Transformers 3 this past summer? I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to wait for the box office returns to find out. If nothing else, we got to see an honest-to-goodness Muppet movie done right. And that’s not such a bad deal.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Disney in Space Part 3: Robotic Jar-Jar

You thought this post was going to be about EPCOT, didn’t you? Well, in a perfect world where EPCOT Center’s Space pavilion got built, it would be, but as it is we won’t be getting to EPCOT until the next post.

The crowd-pleasing, utterly unrealistic thrills of Space Mountain nicely foreshadowed the success of Star Wars in 1977. Much like Space Mountain, Star Wars made no effort to realistically depict space travel, its sole aim was to tell a fun, exciting story. Nevertheless, because of the dented, “lived-in” look of its environments, Star Wars felt more realistic to the general public than the sterile, scientifically accurate 2001: A Space Odyssey. And because of the success of the original Star Wars trilogy and its tie-in merchandise, it captured the imagination of a whole generation of children.

However, by 1986 it looked as though Star Wars was running out of steam. The last installment in the trilogy was three years in the past, and there were no firm plans for future films. Star Wars merchandise was almost impossible to find in stores, and George Lucas looked like this:

BeardlessLucasThere is no chin under George Lucas’ beard. Just more of his neck.

Yes, the mid-to-late 1980s were a strange time for the Star Wars franchise. But in 1986 the spirits of young Star Wars fans everywhere (including an 8-year-old me) were lifted by the news of a Star Wars attraction by Disney that used revolutionary simulator technology to take you on a trip into hyperspace and down the infamous Death Star trench! Unlike Disney’s previous space rides, in which the opportunity to experience the thrills felt by real-life astronauts was the primary draw, here the main attraction was prospect of being immersed in a popular fictional universe-one, it should be noted, that was not a Disney creation. In many ways, the decision to insert Star Wars into Disneyland mirrors the recent decision by Disney’s leadership to bring James Cameron’s Avatar franchise to Animal Kingdom. If today’s Internet had existed in the mid-1980s, might the online reaction to Star Tours have mirrored this year’s Avatar announcement? It’s interesting to consider.

You’d expect that any marketing campaign for Star Tours would focus heavily on the popularity of Star Wars and its familiar characters, and you’d mostly be correct. But there’s also this amazing gem unearthed by Progress City USA’s Michael Crawford that aired during the Disney Sunday Movie on December 28, 1986. It starts with a C-3PO rapping, and then it really gets weird. Just watch:

After watching that, you probably have a lot of questions, which I will do my best to answer in a handy Q&A format:

Q: Why was C-3PO rapping?
A: it was kind of a fad back then for people who had no business rapping to publicly humiliate themselves attempting to do so. Remember this?

Q: I thought Sidekicks starred Chuck Norris and that kid from SeaQuest, not Buck Rogers and the kid from Surf Ninjas?
A: Ah, you're thinking of the better-known 1993 film of the same name. Sidekicks was also a short-lived TV show starring Gil Gerard and Ernie Reyes, Jr.

Q: Was it about an asthmatic Ernie Reyes, Jr. having daydreams about Buck Rogers?
A: Thankfully, no.

But the C-3PO rap number and the awkward presence of the mismatched Gil Gerard/Ernie Reyes team is the least of my problems with this sequence. You know how it was when you were a kid, and a a cheerful, well-meaning adult would clumsily try to relate to you despite the fact that they obviously didn't know anything about the stuff you liked? "Hey, you like Star Wars?" they'd say. "Is that the one where Dark Vadar and Dr. Spock beam down to the Planet of the Apes?"

Well, Disney obviously found one of those people to write the script for this weird little adventure. Not only was this person clueless enough to think Star Wars is an aspirational, scientifically accurate tale about the future and the wonder of human achievement like Star Trek, but they even thought TRON was a space movie. A space movie! Because it takes place in a computer, and spaceships have computers, and therefore any movie about computers must automatically take place in space, right?

Fortunately, the people who worked on Star Tours were not so out-of-touch. During the "dark period" where there were no new Star Wars productions on the horizon, Star Tours offered the only "new" content we'd see until 1999. I can't emphasize enough how cool it was to walk through the queue for the first time and see C-3PO and R2-D2 for real, in three dimensions. Unfortunately, the Rex character's "comical" incompetence and panicked flailing was an unfortunate precursor to the Jar-Jar antics that would soil the long-awaited Episode I, but Star Tours was such an enjoyable ride that it was easy to look past that.

The Star Tours ride system was adapted for only one other Disney attraction: EPCOT Center's Body Wars, which opened with the Wonders of Life pavilion in 1989. Until the mid-90s, it was promoted as EPCOT's headlining attraction, much like Soarin' is today. Unfortunately, the Wonders of Life pavilion was shut down as a cost-cutting move after it lost its corporate sponsorship, and the Body Wars simulators were scavenged for spare parts for Star Tours.

This wasn't the end of simulators at EPCOT, though. EPCOT Center would finally get its Space pavilion in 2003. In the concluding post in my Disney in Space series, we'll talk a bit about the Space pavilion that never was, and then take a look at the only attraction on Disney property to feature Lt. Dan and in-ride barf bags.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Words You’ll Never Hear On futureprobe

Recently the author of the EPCOT Explorer’s Encyclopedia tweeted an interesting video in which Disney’s Global PR Chief cited a very interesting statistic: for every person who posted something negative about the company, eighteen people would spring to Disney’s defense.

That statistic got me thinking about the way some of my fellow members of the online Disney fan community use language, specifically how the words and phrasing some of them use mimics Disney’s advertising to an uncanny degree. For example, how often have you seen a posting on a message board, a blog, or on Twitter that uses words like “magic” or “pixie dust” to describe the experience of visiting a Disney theme park? Now, I’m not trying to be critical of anyone here. Most companies have approved messaging and verbiage that their employees are expected to use when talking about the company. Such approved verbiage is generally designed to depict the company in the most favorable light possible and downplay any of its faults or mistakes. And as you might imagine, most of the people who are required by their employer to parrot such verbiage don’t really believe it themselves. Some of them are just really good at delivering it convincingly. And that’s why it kind of makes me laugh when I see people who aren’t on Disney’s payroll voluntarily adopt its approved messaging and verbiage in their writing.

And make no mistake, it’s easy to do. The company has crazy good ninja marketers who can write ad copy that melts into your brain and merges with your thought processes without you ever realizing what’s happening. But since I dislike the idea of partially ceding control of my mind to a corporation whose sole aim is to get me to give them money, I believe it’s important that we recognize when these tactics are being used on us and try to resist them. I also believe that there’s no need for me to function as an unpaid parrot for Disney’s marketing messages, like a computer with inadequate security protection that’s become part of a botnet. Therefore, here are a couple of Disney-related terms you will rarely, if ever, see me use on this blog:

Guest. This word has been around since Walt’s time. It’s used to convey the idea that visitors to a Disney facility can expect a higher, more friendly level of service than they might get at their local grocery store or county fair. But let me ask you a question: suppose I invite you over to my home for a steak dinner. I’m asking you to be my guest, right? But what if I tell you it costs $15 to park your car in my driveway, $85 to walk through my front door, and the steak dinner will be $50 per person? Are you still my guest? No, you’re my customer. They’re different things. Now, if I invited you to my home as a guest and the house was a little messy and ill-maintained and I didn’t cook your steak exactly right it’s not a big deal. But if I made you pay through the nose for the experience, you’d rightly expect everything to be better than perfect. To me, calling Disney’s customers “guests” undermines the business relationship between the company and the people who pay to get into its parks and stay at its resorts.

Back to my analogy. Suppose I have a really cool game room at my house, full of the latest in home theater and video game technology, and from time to time I invite you over to play some NBA Jam or watch a movie on my giant TV. Again, if I’m charging you admission to my house and we have a business relationship, you’re not coming over spend time with me because I’m such a cool guy. You’re coming over because I have cool toys to play with, and I let you win at NBA Jam. Now suppose I decide I need to cut expenses-not because I’m hurting for money, but because I’m kind of greedy. So I strip my game room bare, sell off all my cool toys, and block the door with a potted plant and a sign that says “The game room is closed-please enjoy the other rooms at David’s house”

It’s a good thing Disney never does anything like that

And then to top it off, what if I raised my admission price to $95, and continued to raise it once a year regardless of whether or not I bothered to improve or even maintain my property? You’d accuse me of all kinds of things. You’d call me a jerk and a cheapskate. And you would be right. You’d also leave and go spend your money somewhere else. But that never seems to happen to Disney, does it? And why is that? It’s mostly because of their crackerjack marketing department, and another word they’ve plucked out of the English language and pretend to own the copyright on:

Magic. How many times do you hear this word in connection with Disney? The parks aren’t just fun, they’re “magical”. The bus that picks you up at Orlando International Airport isn’t a reasonably nice motor coach, it’s the “Magical Express”. Staying on property? You’re not just paying above-average room rates for the convenience of being close to the parks and getting to use Disney transportation, you’re “staying close to the magic”. This is blatant manipulative advertising language. It helps to foster the notion that an expensive Disney vacation has some intangible value that makes it worth the money. And that’s okay, it’s what advertisers are paid to do. But you’re not going to catch me doing it, because I’m not a Disney marketer and they’re not paying me a penny.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Disney World. And most members of the Disney fan community (especially the ones who link to this blog or follow me on Twitter) are fantastic people. I’m not bashing anyone here. But, maybe because I work in the IT industry and not in sales, I have an aversion to sugarcoated marketing language. So, you’ll often hear me refer to Disney park “visitors”, “parkgoers”, and even “customers”, but never “guests” unless I’m quoting someone else or writing about someone for whom Disney picked up the tab for their visit. And while you’ll often hear me refer to the Disney parks as “fun”, “entertaining”, or “enjoyable” and the customer service as “friendly” or “excellent”, you will never, ever see me use the word “magic” to describe these things in a non-sarcastic way.

In fact, if you ever catch me using words like “magic”, “guest”, or “pixie dust” the way Disney uses them, It’s a sure sign that the aliens have taken over my brain and are preparing to invade, and only Jeff Goldblum and his MacBook will be able to save us.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Disney in Space, Part 2: Here’s to the Future and You!

In 1964, with Disneyland in its ninth year of operation, Walt Disney approached Imagineer John Hench with an idea for a brand-new space ride that would anchor an overhauled Tomorrowland. What was the new ride’s inspiration? Dr. Werhner Von Braun’s newest theories on the future of spaceflight? NASA’s drive to put a man on the moon by decade’s end? Actually, it was something much closer to Earth: the Matterhorn.

It may be hard to imagine today, but in Disneyland’s early years the park had no thrill rides. That changed in 1959, with the opening of the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The world’s first tubular steel continuous track roller coaster, the Matterhorn proved to be hugely popular. Walt’s idea was for a similar, space-themed version of the ride, called “Space Port”. It would have multiple tracks like the Matterhorn, but it would take visitors on a fast-paced trip in the dark with special effects to create the illusion of racing through the stars. John Hench’s initial concept sketches pictured a towering edifice that resembled a fanciful futuristic circus tent.


The project was shelved for a number of reasons, one of them being Disneyland’s lack of space. The new Walt Disney World in Florida, however, would have plenty of room, and the new attraction, now called Space Mountain, was the most visible part of Tomorrowland’s Phase 2 that opened with much fanfare in 1975.

There was a lot more to the Space Mountain experience than just the roller coaster, however. The large indoor queue area was home to one of Disney’s great immersive themed queues. And after the ride was over, visitors exited onto a long speedramp that took them past a series of dioramas that made up RCA’s Home of Future Living. Even if they were unable or unwilling to ride the coaster, guests were still encouraged to come into Space Mountain to experience the queue and the Home of Future Living. I wish I could say I did this during my childhood visits to Walt Disney World, but I never got to. And it’s a real shame, too, because the Home of Future Living perfectly predicted the world of the 21st century:


Yep, after a long day at the office, there’s nothing I’d rather do than slip on my multicolored jumpsuit, sit down in my living room that’s tastefully decorated in the avocado-and-gold color scheme that’s so popular here in 2011, and watch a movie on my RCA VideoDisc player. I know all of you do the same thing.

Aside from the 1970s cheesiness, I think my favorite thing about early Space Mountain was the marketing that surrounded it. Obviously, slogans like “Space Mountain-Just Like The Matterhorn, But In The Dark” would not have been very catchy. Instead, Disney World’s new thrill ride was promoted as a realistic space adventure. Just check out some of this promotional prose from the January 1975 edition of Walt Disney World news, which was highlighted on the excellent Passport To Dreams Old and New a few months back:

. . . in Space Mountain, presented by RCA, you, without any previous aeronautical acquaintance, can experience the incredible adventure of outer space!
You'll board the eight passenger space capsule, buckle your seat belt and be whisked away into the most enthralling, free-falling flight through brilliant stars, whirling spheres and unearthly forces ever imagineered!

Obviously, a ride on Space Mountain simulates real spaceflight about as accurately as the Michael Bay film Armageddon. However, this entertainment value-over-realism approach  proved to be very popular, and nicely prefaced the entertainment phenomenon that would take the world by storm just two years after Space Mountain’s grand opening: Star Wars.

In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about Disney’s next space ride, Star Tours. Best of all, we’ll tackle the eternal question of what Buck Rogers and that kid from the 1993 schlockfest Surf Ninjas have to do with a galaxy far, far away.

In the meantime, check out Widen Your World’s fantastic Space Mountain page for more information about the original version of this landmark attraction.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Disney in Space, Part 1: To The Moon

Note: The next few posts will be devoted to the history of space rides at Disney parks. The guys at WEDWay Radio are also tackling this subject, and I encourage you to check out the first installment of their Disney In Space series, devoted to the forgotten Disneyland attraction Space Station X-1.

Among Walt Disney’s many interests was space travel. And although human spaceflight was still in the future when plans for Disneyland were made, it seemed logical that it might become a routine fact of life by the end of the 20th century. After all, the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903 and by the end of the Second World War airplanes were commonplace.

In March 1955, about four months before Disneyland opened, the Disneyland TV series debuted the episode Man In Space, which used a mixture of lighthearted animation and staid academic sequences to educate audiences about the possibilities of human spaceflight. The opening of the original Magic Kingdom in 1955 gave the public a new prospect: a simulated trip to the Moon.


Early Tomorrowland’s attraction lineup wasn’t all that impressive, and things like the Aluminum Hall of Fame and the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry are just footnotes in Disney history. Rocket To The Moon, though, was destined to become one of Disneyland’s great shows. One of the park’s iconic structures, the gleaming white-and-red TWA Moonliner (which inspired the visual design of this very blog, among other things) served as a beacon to draw visitors to the futuristic-looking twin-domed show building, where audiences were seated in one of two circular theaters meant to mimic the cylindrical interior of a rocket ship. The “flight” into space played out on two screens on the floor and ceiling of the theater. Although it seems crude to us, Rocket to the Moon really was an excellent “mass-market” simulator by 1950s standards. More rigorous simulators might be fine for the test pilots that would become America’s first astronauts, but Walt Disney was not about to strap his customers into some kind of a spinning centrifuge that would make them lose their lunch.

Despite the fact that it was among the first Disney attractions, Rocket to the Moon survived more or less intact into the 1990s. It gained an Animatronic preshow and a new name, Flight To The Moon, during the 1967 New Tomorrowland upgrade. That upgraded show was cloned for Walt Disney World in Florida, but in 1975 both the East and West coast shows were refurbished once again into Mission To Mars. The destination of your rocket trip had changed, and the sci-fi convention of hyperspace travel was used to explain how you could cross the vast distance from Earth to Mars and back during the course of a five-minute show, but underneath all that it was virtually the same experience that greeted Disneyland’s first crowds in 1955. Even the takeoff and landing animations remained unchanged from the 1955 version of the show.

Much like the Man In Space episode of the Disneyland TV series, and its follow-up installments Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond, Flight to the Moon’s purpose was not to provide thrills, but to simulate as realistically as possible what an actual trip into space might be like in the future. Much like the more whimsical animated sequences in those television shows, though, Disney’s next big space ride would eschew realism in favor of entertainment value. Check back soon for the next installment of my Disney In Space series where I’ll dive into one of Disney’s landmark attractions: Space Mountain. In the meantime, check out Daveland’s excellent photo page devoted to the Moonliner and the Rocket to the Moon attraction.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Perfect Intersection of Time and Place


It started with a question on the Discussion Kingdom forums:

“I've been checking out the site for a few hours. I see a lot of love for EPCOT . . . I just want to know why are so many people so passionate about EPCOT”

So I got to thinking: why is there so much affection for old-school EPCOT Center? I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I’ve formulated a theory. Tell me, what goes through your mind when you see this picture?

OregonTrailScreenshotBesides dysentery, I mean.

If you belong to the generation that grew up playing Oregon Trail on Apple II series computers in school, you’ll probably react with recognition and nostalgic fondness. “I remember that game!” you’ll say. “It was fun!” If you don’t belong to that generation, though, such fondness would be hard to understand. For a child of the 21st century, it’d be downright inexplicable. Only someone who grew up in the 1980s, when Oregon Trail and Apple II computers were state-of-the-art could really understand it.

And so it is with EPCOT. The Future World of the 1980s, where you could talk to a robot via telephone and use a computer touchscreen to make restaurant reservations or color a picture, was a wondrous place because it was the only place you could do those things. Today you can do them all with an iPhone and access the sum total of all human knowledge from almost anywhere.

In the early 80s, our perceptions of what the 21st century would bring were shaped by the nascent personal computer revolution and the brand-new Space Shuttle program. EPCOT Center was perfectly calibrated to showcase the future as we envisioned it then. When things went in a different direction, in many ways the park was unable to adapt. Unlike the experiences at the Magic Kingdom, which are basically timeless and can continue to appeal to new generations with only minor upgrades, many of the experiences offered at EPCOT Center’s Future World resonated best with kids in the 1980s, and their appeal does not translate to successive generations.

I’m not saying that the stuff that replaced Horizons, World of Motion, or CommuniCore is better. But when someone outside my age group scratches their head and says they just can’t fathom why some people would rather watch a Horizons ride video than ride Mission:Space, I’ll understand where they’re coming from.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thank You, Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer or the graphical user interface. He didn’t invent MP3 players, tablet computers, or smartphones. But those devices have made such a huge impact on our lives largely because of his efforts. While other companies rolled out watered-down products designed by committees and focus groups (Microsoft’s Windows-powered Smart Displays, for example), Apple under Steve Jobs’ leadership consistently cranked out amazing stuff we never knew we wanted until we saw it.

So thank you, Steve Jobs. Thank you for the 21st century.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Park Number FIVE?

So I was reading Jim Hill’s latest column. He started off by explaining that Disney isn’t making a big deal of Walt Disney World’s 40th anniversary this year because they’d rather wait and make a bigger deal of the resort’s more important 50th anniversary in 2021. Sounds reasonable, right? I think we all suspect that Disney will do something big for the 50th, although it’s surely too early to know exactly what that will be.

Or is it? In a sentence that was obviously written to make the reader do a double-take, Hill claims that Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration will span all five Florida theme parks. And then he “elaborates” by saying that Disney plans to have a fifth gate on the Florida property by 2021 before quickly ending the column.

The rumor of a fifth gate is a persistent one in Disney fan circles. I have no doubt that the possibility has been discussed within the company, and I’m sure that concepts and ideas for such a park exist in somebody’s filing cabinet. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, I’m not a Disney employee, I don’t know any Disney employees, and I have no inside information. I’m just a blogger with opinions. However, I can state with unequivocal certainty that when Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration kicks into gear in 2021, there will still be only four parks in Florida. If I am wrong, may Mr. T himself strike me down.

MrT“I pity the fool who says Disney World’s gonna get a fifth gate!”

How can I be so certain? I’m glad you asked! Here are my top three reasons why Walt Disney World will not get a fifth gate anytime soon (and probably never):

  1. The economics don’t make sense. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the global economy is in the toilet. Oh, things are going pretty well for some people-such as former HP CEO Leo Apotheker, who spent a year running that company into the ground and was rewarded with a $10 million severance package when they fired him. But the other 99.9% of the population is not exactly rolling in greenbacks. During an appearance on the September 11 episode of the WDW Today podcast, Jim Hill mentioned that because of the bad economy people have been booking their Disney vacations about six weeks out instead of six months or more, which makes it difficult for the company to predict what their staffing needs will be. If the dire economic conditions are preventing Disney from predicting customer demand for their existing parks, how could they justify dropping billions of dollars to construct another? Even if they could, they probably wouldn’t because . . .
  2. Team Disney Orlando hates to spend money. Did you know that Team Disney Orlando was opposed to the Fantasyland expansion? It’s true. Even though it will help alleviate some of the capacity issues that force the park to turn away paying customers during the busiest days of the year, and therefore make the Magic Kingdom more profitable in the long term, the geniuses at Team Disney Orlando tried to veto the project. The adults at the corporate office in Burbank were forced to overrule Orlando management and thus the project went forward. If they’re unwilling to spend the money on a project that will lead to demonstrable benefits, why would they spend billions on a fifth gate, where the benefits are more nebulous and may not materialize? Speaking of which . . .
  3. A fifth gate will not cause people to extend their vacations. Aside from a desire to siphon business away from Universal Studios and Busch Gardens, what motivated Disney to build the Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom parks? They wanted people to book longer stays on property. However, in the years following the opening of Animal Kingdom it became obvious that this strategy had not worked. Rather than staying an extra day to see Animal Kingdom, people were just spending less time at the other three parks. I have no firsthand knowledge about the company’s inner workings, but I imagine Disney was counting on the increased revenue from longer stays on property to help offset the continuing cost of maintaining Animal Kingdom. That revenue didn’t materialize, and now the company is forced to operate the park without it. I doubt they’d make the same mistake twice by adding a fifth gate.

So there you have it, three reasons why we will not see a fifth theme park at Walt Disney World—not in the near future and probably not in the far future either. And yes, I’ve heard rumors of a smaller, limited-access gate for the very wealthy, but judging from the downward trajectory of the economy and the upward trajectory of Walt Disney World admission prices and room rates, it’s not too hard to envision a future where the entirety of the Florida property is a limited-access gate for the very wealthy.

Well, that’s all for this post. Coming up later, I’m working on a post about how EPCOT opened at the perfect point in history to capture the imagination of a generation of parkgoers, and after that I’ll have on a history of Disney space rides.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Revitalizing the Carousel(s) of Progress


CarouselProgressPicture from WDWMemories.com

If I’m at the Magic Kingdom and I overhear someone say they’re going to skip the Carousel of Progress because they think it’s old or boring or whatever, I immediately decide that person is a Grade-A Nimrod. I might even jump on Twitter to let everyone know what a big stupid idiot I just encountered. Within minutes, my Twitter friends will most likely chime in to agree that this guy is indeed the world’s biggest moron, and if he’s incapable of appreciating a Classic Disney Attraction that was worked on by Walt Disney Himself, then maybe he’d be happier at Six Flags.

We WEDHeads have a fiercely protective love for the Carousel. Why? Well, after Disney bulldozed, gutted, or dumbed down almost every Future World pavilion at EPCOT, the Carousel is one of the last bastions of the optimistic futurism that Walt Disney always embraced. And given the company’s track record, we’re terrified that they’ll close down the Carousel one day and replace it with something inane like “Stitch and Duffy’s DVC Adventure Starring Tow Mater”. Sometimes, though, I think that our emotional attachment to the show keeps us from viewing it as it really is.

Unlike other “classic” attractions such as the Tiki Room or Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress is not a timeless show. It was designed for an audience that no longer exists today. The typical audience at a showing of the Carousel show at the 1964 World’s Fair was composed of people who actually remembered living in each of the time periods depicted. That made the show resonate with them in a way that’s impossible in this second decade of the 21st century. In an earlier post, I said that the Carousel should either be updated to restore the twenty-year gap between scenes or simply reverted to the 1964 version and left that way. I’ve done some more thinking on the subject, though, and I’ve changed my mind a little bit.

First, I believe that Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress needs to make a return to Disneyland. None of the shows that have occupied Anaheim’s Carousel Theater since the original show left in 1975 have measured up to it, in my opinion. Yeah, I know a lot of people have fond memories of America Sings, but I don’t think singing animals belong in Tomorrowland any more than Nemo and friends belong in Future World. Disneyland visitors have a love for classic attractions that most Florida visitors do not. Therefore, I think that a 1964-flavored version of the Carousel (minus some of the more sexist dialogue) should return to California, complete with a brand-new Progress City post-show on the second level.

Florida, I think, should get a new Carousel show that focuses on the innovation that’s had the biggest impact on today’s generation: computers and the Internet. The show would begin sometime in the late-1970s to early 1980s, where our Carousel family is excited about the possibilities of their first “home computer”, and end perhaps twenty years in the future, showcasing the advancement we expect to have by then. As long as the final scene isn’t too overly specific about the technology and doesn’t make the mistake of putting everyone in “space clothes” that look cool now but will look stupid in five years, it could seem futuristic for a decade or more.

More than just the advances in computing technology, this new Carousel of Progress would be about how the availability of personal computers and the Internet have changed the way we listen to music, watch TV and movies, play games and even socialize. If done well, it would resonate with 21st century audiences much as the original Carousel did with audiences in the 20th century.

Well, that concludes my not-quite-a-series of posts on Tomorrowland. I hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Animal Kingdom’s Tall, Blue Expansion

Well, I was all ready with a post about the Carousel of Progress and then Disney went and dropped a bomb on us. A very large, very blue James Cameron-y bomb. I’m referring, of course, to the news that Animal Kingdom is finally getting a much-needed expansion in the form of an Avatar Land.

Predictably, the online Disney fan community erupted with howls of outrage. A lot of folks felt that a more original concept would have been better, and that it looked as though Disney were copying Universal by purchasing the rights to a popular franchise and building an area devoted to it. Others complained about Avatar itself, either about its story problems or its PG-13 content. The following short but very funny review nicely sums up how I feel about the film. Watch it, it’s hilarious.

So I am not an Avatar fan. Nevertheless, I had a positive reaction to Disney’s announcement. It addresses maybe the biggest problem on the Florida property: the lack of anything to do at Animal Kingdom. Now I know what you’re thinking: isn’t putting an Avatar Land into Animal Kingdom as thematically retarded as adding the planet Vulcan to EPCOT’s World Showcase? Probably. But since I don’t have the same affection for Animal Kingdom that I have for EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom, I don’t really care. Animal Kingdom’s slate of offerings is so anemic that almost any new additions (excepting an expansion of Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama) are welcome.

But my good feelings about this announcement go beyond the fact that I might actually have a reason to visit Animal Kingdom in five or six years. Along with the multibillion-dollar overhaul of California Adventure and the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland expansion, this latest piece of news seems to signal an important shift in the attitude of Disney management toward the parks. You see, since the late-90s Disney’s philosophy seemed to be that people would flock to the parks no matter what, so there was no need to try overly hard to please their customers. During this period we saw E-ticket attractions closed and replaced either with nothing or substantially inferior substitutes. Worst of all we got two seriously flawed parks: Animal Kingdom-which had roughly the same number of attractions as Adventureland spread out over an area the size of EPCOT, and California Adventure-which seemed as though it were Imagineered by an accountant.

A couple years ago I was pretty sure things would never turn around. Disney seemed content to just crank up the volume on the marketing messages about how “magical” the parks allegedly are and ignore the hole they’d dug themselves into during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But now things have changed. The company seems to recognize the mistakes that were made and is spending substantial amounts of money to fix them. Are they fixing them in a way that we all agree with? No. But in my mind it’s silly to jump on the anti-Avatar Land bandwagon before we know anything about the place.

And while it’s tempting to make a list of the late-Eisner-era mistakes that Disney needs to fix after Avatar Land opens, right now I’m going to sit back and enjoy the fact that one of my fondest wishes for the property-that Disney would do something to make me want to visit Animal Kingdom-will be fulfilled in just a few years.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Heartfelt Tribute to EPCOT Center

A few weeks ago I was listening to my favorite songs from The Muppet Movie, and halfway through Gonzo’s “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday”, I realized it was the perfect song for an EPCOT Center tribute video. With the large amount of archival EPCOT Center footage available on the Internet, it seemed like it might be fairly simple, although time-consuming, to cobble together such a video.

Unfortunately, there were two problems: I am not a skilled videographer, and the only video-editing software I have is the rather limited Windows Live Movie Maker. So, I had to adjust my ambitions downward a bit and make more of a montage of still images. Hopefully, it still accomplished the effect I was going for. I’ll let you be the judge:

I’m hard at work on a post about the Carousel of Progress. Hopefully it’ll be ready by next week. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Real Problem With Tomorrowland

tomorrowland-disney-picture-045Picture from WDWmemories.com

The Walt Disney World fan community is more or less united in the belief that there’s something wrong with Florida’s Tomorrowland. The most common complaint, aside from the existence of Stitch’s Great Escape, is that Tomorrowland has turned its back on a realistic future in favor of a fantastical “future that never was”. I don’t really see that as a problem, and here’s why:

The original intention at the first Magic Kingdom park, Disneyland, was that the overt fantasy be restricted to Fantasyland. The other lands were more or less based on reality, or at least reality as we perceived it in 1955. Main Street was supposed to simulate a real turn-of-the-20th-century American town, something that was an actual childhood memory for some of Disneyland’s early guests. Adventureland’s sole attraction, the Jungle Cruise, had not yet acquired the comical edge it has today but was presented as a “real” trip into the jungle. Westerns were still hugely popular, and Frontierland was presented as an actual tribute to America’s past and the “frontier spirit” of the people who settled the West (as was customary back then, very little attention was paid to the fact that there were already people in the West when the white settlers got there). It’s worth noting that, since the days of the Old West were only 70-90 years in the past in 1955, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that an elderly visitor to 1950s Disneyland might have childhood memories of that time. Finally, Tomorrowland-with an attraction lineup that included the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry and the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame-was devoted to real science and technology.

Let’s compare that to today. I’d argue that the areas of the Magic Kingdom that once allegedly represented aspects of the “real world” no longer do. The American Main Street of the 1900s is too far in the past to serve as a nostalgic touchstone to anyone. The idealized, sanitized Old West of Frontierland never really existed, and the same can be said of Adventureland’s Afro-Poly-Caribo-Asiatic tropical pastiche. Really, adjusting Tomorrowland to represent a fantastical “future that never was” caused it to be more consistent with what the rest of the park has become.

Secondly, the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982, with its detailed Future World, made Florida’s Tomorrowland kind of redundant. Future World was Tomorrowland on a much grander scale. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Delta Dreamflight, the aviation-themed attraction that made its home in the southeastern sector of Tomorrowland from 1989 to 1996. It followed the same template as several Future World attractions-a ride through the past, present, and future of something accompanied by a soaring 1980s-flavored melody. Dreamflight would have been a good fit in California’s Tomorrowland. But in Florida, located a short monorail trip away from EPCOT Center, it looked like a pared-down Future World attraction. Converting Tomorrowland into something more fantasy-based served to differentiate it from EPCOT.

Still, I believe that the 1994 Flash Gordon overhaul created a problem that didn’t exist before. You see, this was one of the few times where Michael Eisner’s edict that everything had to have some kind of a backstory actually worked. The storytelling details that peppered the land-from the drone of the pre-2010 TTA announcer to the posters advertising the Tomorrowland Towers Hover-Hotel and the Leonard Burnedstar concert-really helped to create a sense that the Tomorrowland you could see was a tiny sliver of a much bigger retro-futuristic metropolis. They also whetted your appetite for some kind of an immersive family attraction that would take you on a tour of the “invisible” Tomorrowland that was implied but not seen. Sadly, no such attraction exists. The result-at least in my experience-is that walking through Tomorrowland creates a kind of indefinable frustration. The storytelling details are telling you that there should be something more there, but none of the land’s attractions adequately scratch the itch that those storytelling details create. It’s a real shame, too, because I really think that the presence of a satisfying family attraction that immersed you in Tomorrowland’s retro-futuristic theme would serve to lessen the antipathy a lot of us feel towards the land as it currently exists.

I certainly don’t have enough of a knowledge base to do any armchair Imagineering, so I don’t have a detailed idea of how such an attraction would work or where it would go. I just know it’s something that I keenly feel the absence of.

We’re not through with Tomorrowland yet. I’ve got a post in the works about the land’s Holy Grail, the Carousel of Progress, and farther into the future you’ll see an article about the history of space rides at Disneyland and Disney World. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Somebody Call The Waaambulance!

d23-expo-logoThe Walt Disney Company has created a monster. I’m sure that’s not what they set out to do. They saw the success the various Comic-Con style conventions were having and decided that all those Disney fans out there would relish the chance to pay admission for the privilege of crowding into a packed convention center to buy overpriced merchandise and have the company’s newest offerings aggressively marketed to them.

However, as is often the case when Disney tries to copy what all the cool kids are doing, they made a critical mistake. One of the main things that makes Comic-Con so popular, besides the Slave Leia cosplayers, is the announcements about various upcoming things. There’s always news about some highly anticipated comics event, genre film, or TV show. People are conditioned to expect Big Announcements at these types of conventions, and therein lies Disney’s problem. You see, the stuff that’s promoted at the annual Comic-Con is generally stuff that will hit the market before the next year’s Con. Studios don’t use Comic-Con to promote projects that are several years from seeing the light of day. That’s exactly what Disney did, though, when they announced the New Fantasyland project for Florida’s Magic Kingdom at the first D23 Expo in 2010. Now we’re conditioned to expect big announcements at every Expo.

So, when  the Parks and Resorts presentation at this year’s Expo failed to yield anything new, the online Disney fan community erupted with howls of outrage. The way it sounded, you’d think the Walt Disney Company killed their dog. People I like and respect were comparing the company to an abusive boyfriend, because the plight of abused women is so similar to that of aggrieved Disney parkgoers with a sense of entitlement, isn’t it?

Disney has really painted themselves into a corner with this Expo thing. They’ve pretty much guaranteed that every Parks and Resorts presentation from now until the end of time will have one of the following outcomes:

  1. Disney makes a big announcement, and the fans immediately take to the Internet to complain about its shortcomings.
  2. Disney fails to make a big announcement, and the fans immediately take to the Internet to complain about that.

Let’s get real, guys. Disney is in the middle of three large projects: WDW’s New Fantasyland, California’s DCA overhaul, and Shanghai Disneyland. Neither will be finished anytime soon. If you seriously think that Disney has done you wrong by not announcing another E-Ticket attraction this year, then your car has arrived:


Enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Birds Are All Right

Well, the moment hardcore WEDHeads dreamed of but scarcely believed they’d live to see has actually come. It came yesterday, actually, when the restored Enchanted Tiki Room opened its doors, forever free of the excerable Iago-and-Zazu overlay that had been inflicted upon it during the Dark Ages of the late 1990s. Before the Internet, those of us who are unable to drop everything and scurry down to Disney World whenever we feel like it would’ve had to rely on secondhand accounts or even worse, Disney marketing-babble, to tell us what the show was like. That being said, thank the Tiki Gods for technology!

Obviously, watching a video is no substitute for experiencing the show in person, but here are my preliminary thoughts:

Imagineering did a good job on this. I admit to being a tad disappointed to lose the “Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing” sing-along, but I think it was a wise omission. Florida, after all, has a greater percentage of first-time visitors than California does, and the sing-along is more geared to repeat customers. I don’t much mind the loss of the Enchanted Fountain, either. The show moves along just fine without it.

Back in January, after the sheer awfulness of the Under New Management Show caused it to spontaneously combust, I was eager for a return of the original show. Still, I wondered if audiences would just get bored and walk out in the middle, the way they were doing in the ‘90s shortly before Iago and Zazu took over. Only time will answer that question, but it looks like the Imagineers have done a great job editing the show down in such a way that maintains its essence without dragging on in a way that would grate on modern attention spans. The average visitor who doesn’t have the original show audio on their iPod won’t even be able to tell where the cuts where made.

I don’t know when I’ll be back in the Magic Kingdom again, but whenever I return, it’ll be nice to know that, instead of scowling at the Under New Management sign as I pass the Sunshine Pavilion, I’ll be able to go inside and enjoy a charming show with no obnoxious interruptions. And since my wife never got to see the original show, it’ll be nice to be able to share this reborn classic with her.

Thanks so much for reading. I’ll be back next week with another post about Tomorrowland.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tomorrowland: Nostalgia vs. Reality

On my last few trips to Florida’s Magic Kingdom, I’ve often found myself longing for the pure, unspoiled pre-Flash Gordon Tomorrowland of my childhood:


The funny thing is, the last time I was there I didn’t feel that way at all.

It was 1992. I was 14 years old, and my family was on a day trip to the Magic Kingdom. Even though park maintenance had not yet begun to slip the way it would later in the decade, Tomorrowland felt like an abandoned corner of the park that the Imagineers had forgotten about. More than anything else, it reminded me of Marineland.

Marineland was Florida’s first theme park, a kind of proto-Sea World. Located just south of St. Augustine on A1A, it opened in 1938 and remained popular with tourists well into the 1970s. I made frequent visits on school field trips and family outings during the ‘80s, but by then Marineland had entered into a sustained period of decline thanks to the opening of Sea World. I didn’t notice it when I was in elementary school, but the last trip we made to Marineland was in 1990, and by then even my dense twelve-year-old self could tell that the park had seen better days. Marineland in 1990 was quaint, creaky, and obviously old. Just like Tomorrowland in 1992.

Unfair, you say? Let’s take a look at Tomorrowland’s 1992 attraction lineup. Guests entering the land from the hub were greeted by two attractions that anchored Anaheim’s Tomorrowland when it opened in 1955: Mission To Mars (which was really just Flight To The Moon with a different film) and a CircleVision theater. Pushing farther into the land you had Delta Dreamflight, a ride that was charming, but looked a whole lot like a scaled-down, cheaper version of EPCOT Center’s more elaborate Omnimover attractions. The final scene of the Carousel of Progress was showing audiences of the 1990s what people in the late 1970s imagined life would be like in the late 1980s, and the Grand Prix Raceway was another Disneyland original that was no more futuristic in 1992 than it is today. Compared to EPCOT Center’s sleek, modern Future World, Tomorrowland looked about as pathetic as Marineland did when compared to Orlando’s sleek, modern Sea World.

It’s tempting to look at today’s Tomorrowland with its visual clutter and its crass Licensed Character-infused attractions and think that everything would be perfect if we woke up one morning to find it magically restored to its pre-1994 iteration. That might satisfy a tiny minority of the Disney fan community, but it wouldn’t play well with the general public, that’s for sure. And if we take an objective view, I think even hardcore WEDHeads like me would admit that the old Tomorrowland is best left in the past.