Today, our country will go through an orderly transfer of power from outgoing President Obama to incoming President Trump. Whether you are looking forward to or dreading this day, many of us find the act and process of change to be, at a minimum, disruptive and at the far end of the scale, frightening. Walt Disney World and Disneyland are going through the largest changes since the Eisner years, back in the 1990’s. And across websites, social media and face to face discussions, both reactions are equally displayed and justified. Any change is hard. By its very definition, Change (a: to make different in some particular, b: to make radically different, c: to give a different position, course, or direction to) conjures up all manner of disruption, discomfort and inconvenience and also opportunity.
There are Disney fans out there who mourn the loss of every attraction that is replaced or remade. Part of the reason many of us make the pilgrimage over and over to the Parks, is familiarity. Many people refer to Disney World and Disneyland as Home. To those who are happier at a Disney theme park instead of the place their mail gets delivered, the Parks represent comfort and a reliable experience. They know where the pictures are taken on Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror and they never take off Mickey’s ears as the first bite of the ice cream. There’s a lot to be said for consistency. Smooth sailing and calm waters, no unexpected, unwelcome surprises.
There are others who look forward to new experiences in the form of new attractions, parades, restaurants, shows and experiences. The other side of the conversation probably consists of complaints about how Disney is falling behind in the theme park business. Universal and others are challenging Disney’s supremacy with things like the World of Harry Potter and faster and more exciting roller coasters. They want the Parks to remain the best and most magical places to visit. There’s excitement surrounding Avatar Land, Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land, to name a few. For a Disney theme park fan who wants to see the Imagineers push the limits of creativity, design, engineering, technology and entertainment, the next couple of years are going to be non-stop fun.
I find myself on both sides of the conversation on Disney theme park change. I find it very exciting to experience attractions that have Walt’s fingerprints all over. I love his whimsy and musicality in the Enchanted Tiki Birds, his appreciation of the past and excitement about the future in Carousel of Progress, and his love of country in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Walt was a complex man and since he died when I was very young, attractions like these are as close as I will ever come to having a conversation with him. So, I do want to hold on to some of the past. In gives me an appreciation of where Disney’s theme parks have come and an anchor as others things inevitably change.
But I do want some change. I want new attractions to experience and places to explore. I want to feel the need to return, not just to do it out of habit. I want to be surprised and amazed by things that seemed impossible only a short time ago. Even though the Theme Parks are not a hotbed of culinary excellence, the theming and attention to detail in most of the Disney restaurants, turn meals into experiences. So having some new places to eat is an important part of my vacation planning.
Finally, everyone, even the great Walt Disney made mistakes. The Phantom Boats only lasted for a year after Disneyland’s opening day (too difficult and costly to maintain). The Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach ride only had a 3 year run (the coaches tended to tip over). Both of these were closed on Walt’s watch. It doesn’t make sense to keep things around just for the sake of continuity. How many of us would have wanted to be riding Mission to the Moon today? Is there a parent out there that wouldn’t have killed for the shorter wait times and covered play area for Dumbo, rather than baking in the sun for an attraction their kids had to ride? And let’s not forget that Walt said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Nobody tells the boss what to do.
So, bring on the changes. Unleash the Imagineers. Let’s see what they can do. Don’t wipe all of the past away. It keeps us grounded. But keep the theme parks vibrant, alive and relevant to the times we live in. Walt was not only a creative genius, but an innovator. I think we honor his contributions by remembering what he accomplished and pushing the envelope to see where the magic can take us, just as he did.