In 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.
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.
It 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 1983 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).
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.
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).
In 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.
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.