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.