Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Archive for April, 2018

Opening Days Excitement at Disney Parks

As a baseball fan, there’s something special about the opening weeks of the season. Every team, even my, often disappointing, NY Mets has a chance to be in the World Series teams. Every team is a contender, even the ones that the “experts” have written off before the first pitch of the first game.

Disney MGM plaqueBetween the recent opening of Shanghai Disneyland, the soon to be opened Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxies Edge, the construction going on at EPCOT and other announcements for more to come at that park, we are seeing an investment in Disney Theme Parks that rivals the Michael Eisner era of Disney-MGM and Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and new attractions in the U.S. We could call it Disney’s Opening Days.

Starting with Toy Story Land, then all the cool new stuff that we are about to feast our Disney lovin’ eyes on in the next couple of years, this is just like the start of the baseball season. All of it carries the possibility of a winning season for Disney theme parks. But, before I finish this line of thought, I want to return to my baseball reference.

There have been a number of quality sports movies, some of them feature baseball like (this Blogger’s opinion), The Natural, Pride of the Yankees, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. There have been just as many bad sports movies (many people’s opinion), like The Babe, Mr. Baseball, and The Fan. Disney has recently made its fair share of decent baseball movies including The Rookie and Million Dollar Arm. And two outstanding animated shorts.

 

In 1942, (42 was also Jackie Robinson’s uniform number) in conjunction with The Pride of the Yankees ( Lou Gehrig died the same year), Disney released the first of the “How to” series featuring Goofy called, not surprisingly How to Play Baseball. Samuel Goldwyn of MGM sent Disney the Pride script and asked him to create a short, to run with the film.

Watch “How to Play Baseball”

How-To-Play-BaseballGoofy was a perfect foil for the quiet, calm demeanor of Gehrig, the lunch pail, everyman, considered one of the greats of the game. Aside from contributions from many of the “Nine Old Men” and Bill Tytla, Disney relied on George Stallings, one of his story artists, whose father managed the old Boston Braves, to insure that the film was accurate as well as funny.

nine-old-men

The Nine Old Men: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl.

Goofy PitchingDisney’s patriotism is in full view as the piece opens with a billowing American flag and a description of the game as the American Pastime. The game may have started in a field in Hoboken New Jersey, but the depiction of baseball stadiums located in urban centers was appropriate for the time period. I love the mention of gum as an Goofy Hittingimportant part of the game. Even today, dugouts in every league are supplied with huge boxes of the stuff. The short is full of gags explaining and depicting how the game is played. It includes knocking the cover off the ball, which was later “copied” by the hero in The Natural. It ends with a donnybrook (bench clearing brawl) and a last shot of the American flag.

Johnny_EversThe other baseball short feature the iconic figure of Mighty Casey as part of the feature, Make Mine Music, released in 1946. The short is based on a 1888 poem Casey at the Bat published in the San Francisco Examiner. The war years were tough for the Disney studio. I offered a view in my post Working Through the War. It wouldn’t surprise me if Walt was looking back at the happier days of his youth. Like, many of that era, before television, most people were not able to attend a professional game. Most were played during the day. (Imagine that?) So, the baseball of Walt’s childhood would have been local teams or pick-up games. He may have followed newspaper accounts of the St. Louis Cardinals the Chicago or Kansas City teams, the Cubs or White Sox.

wrigley field 1920s

Chicago’s Comisky Park 1920s

Casey posterThe lyrical nature of the original poem probably appealed to Walt’s artistic sensibilities. And the colorful description of the action, peppered with baseball terms, many still used today, no doubt, presented his gag men with plenty with which to work. “Cooper died at first”, “tore the cover off the ball” “Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.” I encourage you to read the short poem. It’s long on great imagery like this stanza:

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip

caseys cornerjpgIt’s practically a ready-made storyboard. Disney and staff took great liberties with the text and added a couple of songs. But, overall, they kept the Main St USA feeling while sticking to the drama of the story as it builds to its climax. Walt would return to this slice of Americana theme many times in films and Disneyland. The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World still has a Casey’s on Main St. They serve hot dogs, of course.

Baseball was even part of Disney company life at Hyperion Studios. According to the Disney archives, not only were there regular ball games, but Walt would swing the lumber himself.

 

When Walt built his new studio in Glendale, it included a ball field.

To return to my earlier Opening Day analogy, there is a lot of speculation by experts and wanna-be experts about what the major investments in the Parks will deliver. Disney theme park lovers gobble up every press release, official or unofficial photos and artist’s renderings, looking for insight into how the Disney team will perform when we reach each addition’s opening day.  Then we all go at it like the talking heads on ESPN, dissecting whatever details we’ve been able to lay our hands on.

There’s a great section in the book “Shoeless Joe”, which inspired Field of Dreams spoken by the writer character baseball. Joe Jackson, was a member of the infamous Black Sox team that was punished for throwing the World Series in 1919. (Graham is a character in the story):

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. American has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erase again. But baseball has marked time while American has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history like calico dresses, stone crockery and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian head penny in a handful of new coins.”

Terrance Mann in “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella

Can’t resist including James Earl Jones doing this section in the movie, Field of Dreams.

Walt seemed to embody that same sense of America. He wanted to push the limits and remake areas of the entertainment industry, to push into the future with his bulldozers. But like a base runner, he wanted to keep one toe on the base of what he saw as the greatness of America’s past.

So, rather than worry about whether the Toy Story Land will take Disney Studios out of the half day visit category, or whether Galaxies Edge will meet our pent up expectations for a truly immersive experience, lets enjoy the Disney Opening Days, when all the new additions are ready to be beloved for many years to come.

Baseball is a great teacher of an important secret of living: the giving and taking in the group, the development of qualities and behavior that will stand us in good stead through life in pursuits both personal and professional.

Walt Disney

Disney and Colonna

Disney with Jerry Colonna

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Imagineering The Hits

walt disneyland opening dayIn Disneyland’s first year, 1955, guests experienced more original themed attractions than those based on Disney properties. Out of 15 attractions the Disney themed ones were: Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Mad Tea Cups, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, Dumbo and Casey Jr. Circus Train. At that time, the most recent premieres were Peter Pan in 1953 and Alice in Wonderland in 1951. I’ll come back to the non-Disney attractions later.

Disneyland opening day map

I bring this up, because of the recent openings or announcement of attractions based on Disney movie properties, including Frozen which opened in November 2013 and had its attraction announcement in June 2015 and Guardians of the Galaxy which opened July 2014 and its attraction announcement was July 2016.

Anyone who knows how Imagineers work, appreciates that the process for creating park attractions is more involved than opening a new roller coaster colored to look like a comic book super hero. I discussed this creative process in . For those who are not familiar, even attractions based on existing intellectual property, like a movie, must have a well thought out story. For instance, Mission Breakout’s plot involves The Collector (Taneleer Tivan) showing off his latest acquisitions, the Guardians of the Galaxy, in customized display cases. However, Rocket has secretly escaped his case and asks the guests for help. Guests then board a gantry lift, where they help Rocket try to free the other Guardians. Or, if you ride Splash Mountain, the individual scenes that you float past walk us through the basic story line of Br’er Rabbit’s journey, capture and escape from Br’er Fox and Bear.

I offer this simplistic explanation of what goes into attraction creation to point out, that, in order to announce a new creation like Epcot’s Frozen Ever After attraction, it is likely that work started very shortly after the movie premiered, or perhaps, even in parallel, since it was less than 3 years from movie premiere to attraction opening. Yes, Walt built all of Disneyland in one year and one day. But, things are considerably more complicated now, especially when they build inside a park that’s filled with guests every day.

jungle cruise entranceIt always struck me that many of the most popular attractions at the U.S. theme parks are still not based on Disney IP. Jungle cruise is even a holdover from day one. Even as Walt was preparing to open Disneyland, he did have attractions based on animated characters. But some of his earliest ideas, Jungle Cruise, Autopia, Main St. USA, the Mark Twain Steamboat, the ones he told his people he had to have when the park opened had nothing to do with Disney films, animated or not. Back then the time element was exacerbated by the need to actually create these kinds of attractions for the first time. But, I believe it was also because Walt’s head overflowed with ideas like no time since Snow White and he was driven to see them realized. Possible failure was not going to be measured by a single attraction. In 1956 it was the Park that might fail.

So, why then, since there have been many successful movies and television in the decades since then have the Imagineers not been able or allowed to capitalize on hits like Mary Poppins, Sleeping Beauty (I don’t count the castle because it actually predated the movie premiere) 101 Dalmations or TV shows like Darkwing Duck?  From 1955 to 1983Pinocchio Journey when Pinocchio’s Daring Journey opened, no attractions were based on strictly Disney ideas. But we did get The Tikki Room, Carousel of Progress, Space and Big Thunder Mountains, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. All immensely popular, but not based on Disney IP. In 1994 and 95 we got Indiana Jones and Roger Rabbit. But, even they were not Disney films and they did not appear at the same time as the movie premiered (Roger Rabbit was close). For goodness sake, in 1964 Mary Poppins was the only film to be nominated for top level Oscars, including best picture and win Best Actress (Didn’t happen again until Beauty & the Beast 27 years later). Other than park characters, it had no presence in either U.S. Park (And still doesn’t, even though it is still popular enough to merit a sequel).

Songwriters Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman pose with actress Julie Andrews at the 37th Academy Awards

Julie Andrews with the Sherman Brothers

Even California Adventure, the expansion of Disneyland did not have a Disney themed attraction when it opened, until Toy Story Midway Mania.  CarsLand may have been the beginning of a change in thinking. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it was a gamble, building a huge new Land in Disneyland with only one major attraction as the primary draw. But, the risk could be minimized by the possibility of maintaining or increasing the Cars related merchandise juggernaut since the movie opened. The characters appealed to boys, not just girls, like the Princesses, and it fit nicely with the rest of California theming in the Park.

Cars-Land-Radiator-Springs

I have no inside track into how budgets are allocated or projects prioritized so my opinions remain only my opinions. Until recently, I believed that it was all about risk mitigation. (Sorry, my technology hat fell over my eyes) Disney was afraid to put all the time, effort and money into planning something that they had no guarantees anyone would care about if the movie flopped. Disney certainly didn’t want to open an attraction with a huge fanfare, only to see it sit with no line and no interest and then quietly close, except for “seasonal” periods. Something like Space Mountain was a huge financial risk, but there was no guest expectation to try and meet. (Plus, Walt himself, had originally proposed the indoor coaster idea, maybe making it seem more likely to succeed).

Mr_Toads_Wild_Ride,_DisneylandIn the early years of Disneyland or Disney World, you could replace a failed attraction without much fanfare. Walt got rid of the Flying Saucers at Disneyland after only five years. Today, a failed attraction gets such build up that a failure to deliver gets enormous attention. (reference Stitch’s Great Escape). And trying to pry a long time, beloved attraction out of our clasping hands can be a public relations issue (See Mr. Toad).

Recent announcements and construction on Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, Tron Coaster, and re-theming of Disneyland’s Tower of Terror to Mission Breakout, demonstrate an appetite and willingness to use existing Disney IP and take chances to capitalize on Mega hits like Frozen as quickly as possible. As a Disney fan, I’m happy to have a chance to “ride the movie” or be immersed in a fantasy space like Radiator Springs or a planet in the Star Wars galaxy. It seems like Galaxy’s Edge may be the most ambitious plan with its immersive nature and options for interactivity. I also think that they are feeling the heat for the popularity of The World of Harry Potter. Competition can be very motivating. If it motivates Disney to think as creatively today as Walt did in the late 1950s, that’s great.

sw model 2

I’m also happy to see more non-Disney themed attractions like Space Mountain. So long as they are well thought out and entertaining. I have found myself drooling over Lands and cutting edge attractions in Tokyo and Shanghai. I don’t think Disney was using foreign countries as testing grounds. Many businesses with international presence make a considerable chunk of their bottom line outside the U.S. It’s good to see some of that happening in Disneyland and Disney World.

Getting back to those early non-Disney attractions I mentioned, and ones that followed brings me back to a topic I’ve written about before in Imagineers Still Tell Stories and A Restless Creator —  Creativity. I don’t want to see Imagineering just churn out Disney movie or character based attractions. One of the reasons that Disneyland reset the theme park standards forever was Walt’s insistence that the Park be a place guests can be assured of getting the highest quality of entertainment. So, I hope Disney management gives Imagineers some breathing room to dream, just the way Walt did when he helped create ground breaking attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Small World and Pirates.

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