Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

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Wither the Muppets?

sesame streetMy kids grew up as regular visitors to the Street of Sesame. It was populated by colorful, friendly creatures and kind, smart, people. The Muppets taught my kids important things. How to count, recognize the letters of the alphabet. Also, how to make friends and be a friend, respect others, and accept the differences between us, to name a few important lessons.

At the same time my kids were gettin’ learned, I could enjoy the irreverence, the wackiness the winks and the never ending, parody-infused humor the Muppets brought to those of us on adult streets everywhere. They taught us how to laugh at ourselves and that the “classics”, whether books, music or movies, you could be take them out from behind the museum glass and play. They taught us to not take ourselves too seriously.

muppet tv

So, what happened? Why have the Muppets not found their audience in the 21st

SherlockHemlock2

Sherlock Hemlock

century? Why is it that Walt’s brand of entertainment far outlasted him, yet Jim Henson’s legacy seems to fade with each passing year? The Muppets have done feature films, television, appeared on countless talk shows, award shows and even have their own hit songs like The Rainbow Connection. Is Disney hiding them in an undisclosed location, plotting a massive marketing campaign? Or is something else going on?

Both men have rightly been called geniuses. Not because they cured a hated disease or helped put a man on the moon. (Although Walt did make that happen every day in early Disneyland, and there was the Muppets in Space. But, I digress) They had a genius for finding new ways to entertain us by taking something old and making it new.

 

dwarfs crying

Even the candle is crying

Walt took animation, which was sill in its infancy, and made it into high art, while using story to create enduring characters. Disneyland was a new kind of entertainment based on old style fairs or amusement parks. His animated and live action movies and their characters continue to charm, amuse and evoke other emotions. And, they have become known the world over. When Disney builds theme parks in other countries, they include Mickey Mouse and many other characters that are as recognizable in Shanghai as they are in Anaheim.

 

fantasia posterThe years have not dulled the enthusiasm even for characters who have not been seen on the big screen for decades, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of this happened, even as Walt pushed the limits of what audiences would accept in animation. After the success of Snow White and Pinocchio, Walt took a left turn and gave us Fantasia. Then he took a trip to South America which resulted in very Latino feeling Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. In between those two was Victory Through Air Power, the last feature Walt directed himself, which was more propaganda than entertainment.  He planned but never finished a surrealist piece with Salvador Dali (Finally released in 2003). Audiences might have grumbled, but they still kept coming.

 

THE MUPPETSJim Henson took puppetry out of the fairs and children’s birthday parties and created his own group of enduring characters. He showed us that even puppets that were blue or red, fuzzy and had other un-human like features could, not only entertain, but touch our hearts. I would say that Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are just as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. The appeal of the Muppets bridged generations.

The younger crowd laughed and learned with Bert, Ernie and The Count. While adults could laugh at the sneaky and wacky humor of Fozzy Bear, Sam Eagle and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. A string of popular movies (3 in Henson’s lifetime) combining puppets with actors proved that the Muppets could “act”.

And the weekly Muppet show, which ran for 5 seasons was a magnet for every big name in Hollywood to share the spotlight with Miss Piggy, a group of chickens or other Henson Workshop creations.

Like Disney, Henson challenged his audiences. The movie Dark Crystal and Labyrinth moved away from vaudeville slapstick and pushed further in to Fantasy at the same time he advanced the art of puppetry. In television, Fraggle Rock was intended to be an educational program to help kids deal with complex issues around the world.

After Henson’s passing, the deal to sell the company to Disney was completed and park fans have been enjoy Muppetvision 3d for many years. More recently Muppet characters are making regular appearances in Liberty Square above the Hall of Presidents. But recent attempts to revitalize the Muppet franchise, Muppets Most Wanted, failed with audiences who were less enthralled than the critics. The recent attempt to restart the franchise by going back to television, one of their earliest successes, was cut short after just one season.

Muppets_LibertySquare

Muppets in LIberty Square

Oz and Henson

Oz & Henson

Some have argued, like original Muppeteer, Frank Oz, that Disney just doesn’t get the Muppets. While others seem to think that the Muppets brand of entertainment was a product of it’s time and simply doesn’t translate into today’s reality focused offerings. I think it may be a combination of the two. Perhaps, Jim Henson did not have an opportunity to set the franchise off on a long term track as Walt did with multiple entertainment properties.  Then, Disney took too long to produce anything Muppet related, thereby losing any momentum that might have existed with audiences. I remember being excited about the prospect of deep pockets and potential creative input from the Disney organization. Then, radio silence for 12 years, before a movie was released. Pixar hardly missed a beat after being brought under the Disney brands. And Mickey Mouse went 30 years without being featured in a Disney film. But, it didn’t seem to dull his appeal.

MickeysChristmasCarol

1983

I’m a big fan of the Muppets style of entertainment. Maybe, in the final analysis, the very nature of Muppet humor doesn’t appeal to as many. Kermit is lovable. But, while Mickey started out as more of an impish troublemaker he evolved into a more lovable character with broad appeal.

mickey-mouse-gallery

Kermit was always lovable. But he seems stuck in a world of vaudeville, where many of the real jokes go right over the heads of audiences that might extend the franchise — children, who eventually grow into adults and introduce their kids to the characters. Miss Piggy is not very approachable, Dr. Teeth and The Medicine show is product of a 60’s musical era, and Fozzy is, well, an acquired taste for many who grew up with the Carol Burnet Show or even Your Show of Shows.

themuppetsgroupshot

It’s still possible that Disney will find a way to keep the Muppets in the mainstream. They are giving the Muppet Babies TV cartoon a reboot. It’s possible that will be the way to gain some traction. Unfortunately, in the face of the blockbuster dollars other franchises like Marvel and Star Wars bring in, the Muppets will forever be an afterthought. I certainly hope not.

 

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I See Disney. . . Everywhere.

Disney on the brainIt’s been a few weeks since my last post. I hit a bit of a speed bump on the road of life. I Frequent readers of The Disney Connection will not be surprised if I say Disney can creep into my thoughts, even at times and in places where even I would think it couldn’t possibly find a way in.

On one of our frequent trips into Manhattan, my wife and I had finished our lunch on a bench outside Mamoun’s Falafel (opened in 1971, they lay claim to being one of the first Falafel restaurants in the country and first in NYC).  We wandered the quirky streets of mamouns felafel2the West Village, famous in story, song, TV and movies. If you haven’t visited “The Village”, then perhaps you’ve seen When Harry Met Sally, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Barefoot in the Park, Glee and so many others where the Village is featured prominently. No, I did not see a Disney item in the window of a second hand store to add to my collection. And it wasn’t a child in a stroller wearing a Disney t-shirt. Before I get to the answer, I need to go back in time a bit. Hang in there.

NYU is one, if not, the largest tenant of the Village. My son is a recent graduate of Tisch School of the Arts and my wife earned one of her two graduate degrees from NYU’S Gallatin School of individualized Study. In our previous lives as actors, my wife and I spent long hours in this artsy part of NYC.

The community center of this world is Washington Square Park.  The park’s dominating features are the Washington Square Arch at the northern gateway to the park and the fountain which sits to its South.

WSP Fountain

washingtonsqpark at night

The Park has a tradition of celebrating nonconformity and the buildings surrounding the park have, at one time, probably served as homes and studios for artists and other artistic rabble rousers.

Today they are primarily NYU owned buildings. On a beautiful weekend like the day we were there, there’s all kinds of people and activities going on. So, what about that Disney thing I started this with? Ok, here it comes.

So, my wife and I are strolling through the park, enjoying the day along with hundreds of others. At one point I had my back to the fountain and I’ looking towards the Arch, and what is it that strikes me? Take a look at this picture.

Washington Square Park ArchLook familiar? No, not the Empire State Building. Maybe it’s the angle. How about now?

It’s easy to see how the hub and spoke design in WSP made me think of Disney theme parks. If you enter through the Arch the fountain is a Weenie, drawing visitors inside the park.

WashingtonSquarePark fountain from arch

Just like the Disney Castles or Epcot’s Spaceship Earth. For those of who aren’t familiar with the term Weenie, here’s how Diane Disney Miller explained it to Jim Korkis:

Dad would park his car in the garage and come in to the house through the kitchen. He would go to the refrigerator and pull out two uncooked hot dogs, one for himself and one for the dog. He would play with her, wiggling the hot dog around and she would go wherever he moved around and was so happy when she finally got her treat. It was part of an evening ritual and both of them loved it and looked forward to it.”

Walt saw that he could control where he wanted her to go by waving this treat around and the joy she had when she finally got her reward. So, Walt used the word “wienie” to explain to the WED designers of Disneyland of how he wanted to get guests to move to a certain area.

From the hub you choose a path to other parts of the Park. Looks very much the same in WSP.

wsp map

The parallels don’t end with the Park layout.

Maybe you want a Fantasyland experience. Well to the West there’s a children’s playground, covered in turf.

Want an experience in Adventureland? Take on the many chess hustlers who take up residence every day. Why is it an adventure? Well, most of them want to play what’s known as speed chess. The entire match might be over in less than 10 minutes. And, your wallet will be lighter as well.

Chess_in_Washington_Square_Park.jpgOr, you can watch the skateboarders put their limbs on the line wherever there’s an open or mostly open piece of concrete and steps. or you can be a true adventurer and try it out for yourself. Skateboard and insurance not included in your admission price.

There’s even a nod to Frontierland if you take a look at this statue of Garbaldi.

He’d be right at home alongside the Country Bears, right?

As for the World of Tomorrow? Well, all around you, is the urban sprawl of the NYU campus, educating future leaders, artists, lawyers  and scientists in Tomorrowland.

nyu flagsAnd, doesn’t this building remind you of a certain futuristic, A-frame building that overlooks the Magic Kingdom in Florida?

You can almost see the monorail blazing a path against the sky. What about the monorail, you say? Okay, the NYC subway is hardly the futuristic transportation of tomorrow Walt envisioned. But there are plenty of busses and even ferries that touch all points of Manhattan island.

No fast passes are required to partake of the parks activities. Read a book, have a picnic or take in some sun in the warm weather. There’s even streetmosphere and entertainment, like this wonderful singer of French songs and her accompanist we sat to listen to that day.

WSP Singers

wsp piano player

You might get to hear other kinds of music as well as see jugglers, comedians and performance artists, just like the Boardwalk. I’ll bet the keyboard player at Casey’s on Main St. at the Magic Kingdom would love to play a piano like this.

 

Disney Parks have parades, you say. Yes, WSP has them too. Granted the parades are not often for entertainment, but might be organized protest marches. The park has a long history of social activism. The first labor march occurred there in 1834 to protest the use of prisoners to clean building stones. And, 20,000 marched in 1912 to remember the lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a surrounding building.

WSP Triangle Factory protest

WSP protest paradeEven so, the WSP are still colorful and entertaining. This one, on the day we were there, even had a red umbrella theme. Most of the marches end up in the shadow of the Arch, where there is usually staged a kind of Castle forecourt event, with speakers and other activities that usually elicit cries and applause from the gathered crowds.

Scene from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel recreating the Jane Jacobs WSP protest

In some cases you will need your park pass or don’t expect admittance. In the spring of 1961, the NYC parks commissioner refused a permit to the folksingers for their Sunday afternoon gatherings, because “the folksingers have been bringing too many undesirable beatnik elements into the park.”That April, folk music pioneer Izzy Young, who had been trying to get permits for the folksingers, along with about 500 musicians and supporters gathered in the park and sang songs without a permit, then held a procession from the park through the arch at Fifth Avenue, and marched to the Judson Memorial Church on the other side of the park. At about the time the musicians and friends reached the church, the New York City Police Department Riot Squad was sent into the park, attacked civilians with billy clubs, and arrested 10 people. The incident made the front pages of newspapers as far away as Washington, DC. Security in the Big Apple is not always as understanding as those in the happiest place on Earth.

Beatniks-washington-square-park protest

Any visitor to a Disney Park is expecting to eat something. Not only does WSP have food choices inside, but around the park are more options than you can find in the EPCOT World showcase. Standing on Bleeker street near the park, you can see, an Irish pub, Felafel, Belgian fries, Sushi and other international choices. I’m not even counting the chains like Starbucks. Alas, no food plans are offered, unless you’re an NYU student, and your parents took out a second mortgage to pay the tuition.

There are often vendors in place of the expected gift shops. And you don’t have to go through one to exit WSP. This one looks an awful lot like a pin station. Not sure your going to find plush toys. But mid town at the Disney Store you’ll find Disney priducts with NYC themes.

button vendor WSP.jpg

I think its important in our fast paced lives to, occasionally, stop, look around, notice whats right in front of you. After all, life is what happens when you’re doing other things. Drag your eyes away from your particular device obsession and be in the moment. You’d be surprised what you might find and where it will lead you. I hope you’ve enjoyed this flight of fancy as I’ve taken you for the nickel tour of the inside of my Disney imagination. See ya real soon!

Be a Reader like Walt Disney

The birthday (publication date) of my wife, Jackie Azúa Kramer’s, second children’s picture book, reminded me of how important the activity of reading is, not only for children, but for adults.

As a result, I was also reminded that all of you who are reading this post and the hundreds who’ve read my past posts are taking time out of your undoubtedly busy day to read. In fact, many of you have followed my Blog. That means that there are people out there who have chosen reading my post as an important part of your day. I’ll get back to this later, but I want to focus on reading.

I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. But I am a regular reader. My literary tastes run the gamut from Sci-Fi/Fantasy to Biography, Mystery, Humor and yes, Disney related books. I recently finished Three Years in Wonderland: The Disney Brothers, C.V. Wood and the Making of the Great American Theme Park. It’s heavily researched and presents

CV Wood & Disney

Disney, C.V. Wood & Bud Price

a view of the many difficulties encountered as Walt willed Disneyland into existence. The figure of Wood figures prominently in the Disneyland creation story in a way that the Disney company has never promoted. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Wood was more instrumental than people like Admiral Joe Fowler or Roy Disney in getting the park open on that memorable and hot day in July 1959. Either way Wood’s story, and how his particular talents for promotion and salesmanship may have made Disneyland possible, is a fascinating read. There are some unique insights into how much the park meant to Walt,by people who were there, and what he was willing to do to make it a reality.

ink-and-paint-departmentI’ve talked before  in a post Inspired by Walt to Get Creative about the amazing book Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. For fans of Disney history, especially, the animated films, this book is a must read. And read you will. This coffee table sized book is meticulously researched and filled with personal accounts of the talented, dedicated and creative women who worked in anonymity, advancing the art of inking and painting cels. The book pulls back the curtain on the lengths that Disney was willing to go to make his animated films the best there ever was. None of us takes for granted the skill and attention to detail it takes to color thousands of individual cels.

Ink and Paint PinocchioThis book adds levels of detail around, paint color creation, special effects (real blush used on Snow White’s cheeks), or how the women managed to keep those bubbles in the Cinderella floor cleaning scene all looking the same. Yes, animators created the illusion of life, but the women of the Ink and Paint Department helped bring those drawings to life in glorious color and detail with pens, paintbrushes and other tools in ways that were just as creative as the men who got most of the credit. Find a comfortable chair and a flat surface to put this book on and become immersed in the Disney era that defined animation to this day. If you get tired of reading, there are hundreds of great photos.

Have I successfully whetted your appetite to read? Sneaky, huh? Are you someone who says you don’t have time to read? With smartphones and tablets, you can read just about anywhere. Stuck in line at the Market? Open up a Disney biography like Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas or The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier and read a few pages. If you like reading about Disney history, like me, Disney During World War II: How the Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War by John Baxter (see my post Working Through a War for a taste). Love the Parks, take a look at another large format book by “The Imagineers”, Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real. Really, whatever particular Disney joy you might have, I guarantee you will find something fun, interesting or revealing to read.

mickey tablet

First Mickey Mouse Merchandise

Walt and the Disney Company have a long history of book publishing and many books have been created using Disney characters or other intellectual property. Many talk about how Disney revolutionized film and character merchandise. Putting Mickey Mouse’s image on stuff started in a rather inauspicious way when he appeared on a simple writing tablet in 1929. The book with a Disney copyright book featuring Mouse titled, “Hello Everybody” was published the very next year. Since that first book Disney and the many Disney imprints have continued to publish children’s books for decades. Not only was Disney a strong proponent of books and reading, but many of the films, animated and live action, produced in his lifetime were based on works of literature.

First Mickey Book

First Mickey Mouse Book

David McKay Publications became the first to publish a whole line of books under Walt’s authorization in the 1930s. I have two of these in my Disneyana collection.

All of us Baby Boomers grew up reading or having Golden Books read to us. Golden didn’t publish only Disney character books but the Golden Books library included, wonderfully illustrated stories about Mickey, Chip n’ Dale, Snow White, Dumbo, Donald Duck, Pinocchio and our favorites from cartoon shorts and feature-length animated movies.

Today, Disney continues the tradition of book publishing through many imprints including Disney Publishing Worldwide and Disney Hyperion.

Walt has been quoted as saying,

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.”

Treasure IslandWalt oversaw the production of 35 films whose stories started as books. Certainly stories stuck with him, were inspiration, like Snow White and Treasure Island. A consummate story teller himself, biographies refer to him reading constantly in his years as head of his Studio. He did research, he read scripts, story treatments and was likely inspired by books, newspaper and magazine articles on a variety of subjects.

Here Walt can be seen in his research library at the Burbank studio with a collection of National Geographic magazines. Much of the research went into Disney’s True Life Adventure series. But, I’m sure all that information found its way into other films as well.

Disney Nat Geo collection

Storybook_land_poster_largeWalt’s Disneyland was filled with literary influences. Tom Sawyer Island can be traced back to Walt’s love of Mark Twain, The Mad Tea party comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jungle Cruise probably came from writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is drawn from the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, while based on Disney’s film, the story that Walt read was from the Grimm’s Brothers. It’s not surprising that Walt included an attraction called The Storybook Land Canal Boats in his opening day roster.

Study after study has shown that reading to children and encouraging them to read as they get older, not only improves their reading comprehension, but stimulates their imagination, encourages them to ask questions, increases their curiosity, improves language development and stimulates brain activity rich with visualization. Children who are read to early are more likely to be readers themselves. Aside from these benefits, reading to your child is an opportunity for quiet times together that can help parents form lasting bonds.

Walt and other celebrities lent their name and photos in 1959 for the second year of a National Library Week, to give more attention to libraries and stem the tide of reductions in book readers who had turned to movies and TV for entertainment. The campaign and programs continue today in the month of April. Those who prophesied the end of Libraries in the digital age couldn’t have been wronged. If your library is like mine, it has re-imagined itself as a community center where adults and children can find all kinds of activities from book clubs to yoga film showings, music and oh, yes, book – physical and eBooks. If you haven’t stepped in your local library recently, you’d be surprised what you might find. How about free museum or local attraction passes, banks of computers for use, and printing. You might even find a cafe or at least you can bring in the beverage and snack of your choice.

World Read Aloud DayAnyone looking for ways to influence their kids or any kids to read can pick from a wide range of activities. My wife and other authors participates in World Read Aloud Day.  If you have no local library, or even if you do, you can support or build your own Little Free Library, which is a standalone lending library, usually in an easily accessible location supported by the community, a group or an individual. Check out their website for examples, building plans and success stories. Books in school libraries and classrooms are always in short supply. If the school you attended is still in business, consider a donation through the PTA and support not for profits like Behind the Book, whose mission is to inspire NYC Public School students to love reading by bringing accomplished authors into the classrooms.

Examples of community Little Free Libraries

Getting back to my earlier topic of reading my blog. Over the last couple of months I’ve had an uptick in new followers. In my own way, I’d like to think that I’m encouraging people to read. Thank you all for your support and the encouragement I get from the thought that I’m not just talking to myself. (Although I have been known to amuse myself for hours with my rapier wit) I write because I have something I want to share and it’s a great feeling to know that you find my creative outlet worthy of your time. Thanks!

Now, go read a book!

Walt and reading

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.

Pirates Change with the Times

Last week we celebrated the anniversary of the opening of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. In my post, The Pirates Paradox, I offered my opinion on the enduring popularity of an attraction that, technically, pales in comparison to some of the more recent Imagineering efforts like Mission Space or Soarin’. And certainly, doesn’t offer the thrills of attractions like Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, Space Mountain or Expedition Everest.

There have been many changes to the U.S. Disney theme parks over the years. Many of my posts have discussed change.  I’ll have more to say about that later.

Spoiler alert. For those who want to be surprised by the changes to the Pirates attraction, please Page down at least two times.

pirates_skulls

For those who have not heard or seen, the change to the Pirates attraction involves the scene where the pirates are bidding on captured women. They shout, “We wants the redhead.” For reasons which, as usual, Disney will not comment, they’ve have modified the auction scene so instead of women being auctioned, our old friend, the redhead who’s encouraging her fellow pirates to buy chickens, rum, paintings, etc. It’s not the first time that the Imagineers have tinkered with Pirates. Earlier they turned the chase vignette around by having a woman with a broom chasing a pirate around, instead of him chasing her.  Then we had the more recent “plussing” with the additions of the Pirates movie characters. I don’t recall to many reactions to the first change and there was definitely some to the second.

 

If you skipped down, thanks for sticking around. Now where was I? Oh, yes, change.

There’s seems to be a very mixed reaction to changes to the Auction scene of Pirates of the Caribbean at the two U.S. theme parks.

Potc Auction Scene GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

As a technologist, I have worked on projects or helped others plan for and realize change-717488_1280changes in their critical business systems and applications. Most of us have gone through changes in our lives, jobs, neighborhoods, even the stores where we shop. I think it would be fair to say that no change is easy. It often involves planning, hard choices, compromise, sometimes, and significant extra work. In some cases, it’s my experience, that last one that often sinks the effort.

For the most part, I think the Disney Company and the Imagineers have been capable and talented stewards of Walt’s theme park legacy. They have tried, and I think, succeeded, in maintaining the primary reason Walt had for building Disneyland – Create a clean environment where children and their parents could enjoy themselves, together. We’ve seen the addition of thrill rides like Tower of Terror for older “kids” at the same time Disney has expanded and enhanced Fantasylands for the younger set. Imagineers have also continued to offer seated or theatrical options like the Legend of the Lion King, Fantasmic and Finding Nemo the Musical for guests who need a rest or change of pace. At each of the Parks, there’s something for everyone. Even if all you want to do is sit on bench and enjoy people watching. The change to Pirates highlights three different points of view when Disney changes a popular theme park attraction.

pongo boredThe first group probably includes visitors who have tired of an attraction and are ready for a change. Perhaps they never liked the attraction in the first place or they feel they’ve outgrown it or their just ready for something new. It may be that they have so many favorites that they don’t miss one missing or having been changed. As someone who doesn’t like change, but eventually embraces it, I think this group gets a bad rap. They are often portrayed as being disloyal or not really loving Disney, because they are looking for something new.

The second group doesn’t want see a hair changed on the head of a single doll in SmallTui World. They want to come and enjoy the same attractions and shows time and time again. They like things just the way they are. These are the people who might be perfectly happy with the Matterhorn as the only thrill ride in Disneyland or Mr. Toad instead of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Or maybe they would like to sit through Mission to Mars or have parents and kids wait in the blazing Florida sun for a few spots on Dumbo.

Kronk-listening-to-his-shoulder-devilThe third group, probably overlaps the first two groups. This includes people who want their friends, children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews to experience the same things they enjoyed. I would have been disappointed not to see my kids eyes and smiles if they never had a chance to ride Small World or Alice in Wonderland. This group doesn’t mind change. So long as it doesn’t involve their favorite attractions. Do away with A Bug’s Land, just don’t touch Stitch’s Great Escape. Of course, it means that any change Disney makes is going to distress of anger a significant portion of their customers.

I think I fall into all three groups. I definitely don’t want to see the parks become irrelevant museums. Look, but don’t touch.

don't touchHowever,. . .

There’s nothing wrong with keeping some of the past. I would be very unhappy if they had just done away with Pirates or changed Small World into a 3D experience. But, can you blame Disney’s Imagineers? It would be like telling a Boeing engineer he couldn’t use the latest lightweight metals in the new design. In the face of the significant competition in theme park industry, I think the Imagineers have shown great restraint. But, audience tastes in entertainment change. And technology offers options that were not available ten years ago or in some cases yesterday.

I’m sure many of you, myself included, would love to have taken a ride on The Stagecoach that took guests along the shores of Disneyland’s River of America fromStagecoach opening day until 1959. But, how many of you would be willing to wait for hours in the sun to get on a ride that could only accommodate a small number of guests, took a long time to load and broke down (yes, believe it or not, the horses did not always cooperate). I hear people complaining about waiting in air conditioned comfort twenty minutes get on an attraction.

I am not an advocate of change for the sake of change. It’s usually expensive and the danger of not pleasing everyone can make the risks high, particularly for Disney who wants to maintain their preeminence in the theme park industry. My earlier comment about work often being the roadblock, has not seemed to have deterred Disney from doing big things like redoing Fantasyland or building Galaxy’s Edge or Toy Story Land. Nor have they shied away from changes that are consequential among their fan base. (See Journey into Imagination, again).I’m sure there’s some in Group two who would still trade to have Mr. Toad back in exchange for some of the new goodies that Disney has given us.

I would admit that not all the changes have been to my liking (See redo of Journey into Imagination, The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter and Stitch’s Great Escape). And, I CoP scenewould be very unhappy if I couldn’t enjoy The Carousel of Progress or watch people laughing on the Tea Cups (not one of my favorites). Along with my long time and sentimental favorites, it’s wonderful to have something new to be excited about trying for the first time. If Disney doesn’t come up with new things for people to come to the theme parks for the first time or come back for again, then they will surely go to other parks.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, Walt was constantly tinkering with Disneyland. When he passed away, he still had a lot more plans in Anaheim and an unlimited amount for PoTC pigsFlorida. If he hadn’t been driven to change things for the better, then there wouldn’t have been the Lincoln Audioanimatronic and Pirates would have been a walk through wax museum. I haven’t seen the new Pirates scene, so I hesitate to offer my opinion. On the one hand, some would say that Disney has continued to sanitize the attraction of anything that might offend anybody. On the other hand, with the events of the last year, the #MeeToo movement and the on-going struggle for women to be seen as equals in all aspects of life, it might be that the Imagineers recognized the need to let ’em run things.

I understand the deep regard that fans of Pirates have for the way the attraction was. Most change is messy and hard. Instead of being able to sit back and watch the scenery, when Imagineers change Disney park attractions, they make us look closer, explore our emotions and, in many cases, rediscover and enjoy attractions all over again. I think Walt would be pleased. Although, I’m sure he would have had some ideas of his own.

walt with pirate heads

February 3, 1966: Walt Disney with some of the plastic heads for the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride opening at Disneyland. In 1966, four new additions were added to Disneyland costing $20 million dollars – three million more than the cost of the original park. The four new sections are: Its a Small World, The Primeval World, New Orleans Square and The Pirates of the Caribbean. Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library. Copyright Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library. Photographer unknown. FOR FROM THE ARCHIVES BLOG.

 

My Connection to Walt Disney Through his Signature

1939 child's easel

1939 Falcon Toy from my collection

As I wrote about in my post Hooked on Collecting, collecting has been part of my life for a long time.  After years of collecting antique magic books and ephemera, I changed gears and began my collection of Disneyana.

Because my blog is about my connection to Walt Disney, I’ve often written about him as a mentor as well as a motivator for my creative work in this blog, my playwriting, and the current novel I’m working on.

I was born in 1960 and by the time I was old enough to understand who Walt Disney, the man, was, he was already gone. Over the years I have come to understand that while Walt quickly gave up drawing, and never directed a single live action film, his creative contributions were no less important to his Company’s success. But more about that later.

The closest I can come now to “meeting” Walt is to have something that he had in his hands. Objects, unless they are one of a kind, like his Oscars and other awards, are nearly impossible to find on the open markets, and, thankfully, are available for everyone to see in the Disney Family Museum and glimpses into the Disney Archives.

 

So, the what’s left are items that he signed.

Anyone who’s done research on Disney signed items has found, sometimes the hard way, that the history of Walt’s signature is very complicated, making authentication difficult — even for experts. Aside from his actual signature, there are at least four different Disney Company sanctioned signatures.

There are ones done by his secretaries. I found this on Big Cartoon News:

walt_secretarial

There are pieces signed by Disney artists Hank Porter and Bob Moore (from the same web site):

 

There are fan cards done by many different Disney artists like this 1930s version from my collection:

Donald Duck Fan card

Finally, there’s the Disney corporate logo of Walt’s signature:

disney corporte logo

I was fortunate to have purchased most of my Disney signatures back in the 70’s and 80’s, when you might find them priced in the hundreds of dollars. If you’re in the market today, you’ll probably find many autographed pieces over $1,000. And, if you come across an autograph that relates to a significant event or time period in Walt’s life, the prices will go up dramatically. I have one of those pieces in my collection from early in Walt’s career. I promise to share it in another post.

I found these two items on Nate D. Sanders auction website and are offered for price representation purposes only. This signed, first edition book sold in 2015 for about $15,000.

disney signed first edition

This signed letter sold for about $1,300

disney signed letter about machine

To insure that the signatures in my collection were authentic, I turned to an expert, Phil Sears. For 25 years Sears has been the world’s only autograph dealer specializing in Walt Disney autographed items.  He has consulted for virtually all of the world’s major auction and authenticating firms including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and many more. I have taken advantage of Mr. Sears’ free, preliminary authentication opinion to at least be somewhat assured of the signature’s authenticity.

This classic posed photo is from the 1940s. Walt may be holding a storyboard from Snow White, which premiered only a few years earlier.

Disney signed portrait

Photo signed circa 1940

This one from the 1940s was probably signed on a page taken from a book.

Disney signed Bambi card

This autograph has been professionally framed with a period picture of Walt. It’s an example of his signature in the 1930s.

Disney picture with signature

This letter, unfortunately in poor condition and, as yet, not authenticated, was signed from Walt and Mickey Mouse.

Disney signed letter

I find this one interesting. First, it is signed Walter E. Disney. Second, since the date is February 2nd 1935 and it’s made out to Bell and Howell, it’s possible that this was related to the filming of Snow White.

Disney check

My love of books makes this one a favorite of mine. It’s a 1953 first edition published by Simon and Schuster.

Lady & the Tramp book

Why have Walt’s signatures and autographs gone up in value? First, because many of his signatures were done by artists or secretaries, there are many inauthentic ones out there. Many have even been sold in error by reputable companies. Second, Walt’s signature changed over time. So, what looks like a scribbled forgery on the book above, is actually real and verifiable based on the date it was signed. But it might have been discarded by someone uninformed.

disney and mickey on disneyland tv

Walt & Mickey on Disneyland TV Show

Finally, I don’t think he become the publicly identifiable figure of “Uncle” Walt, until he was at least a year into the Disneyland TV series which premiered in 1954. Only then did he become really known to the millions who tuned in every week until his death in 1966. So, there was only about a decade where someone as famous as Walt would have been hounded for autographs, other than ones he might have done on a thank you note or a letter, contract, etc. Finally, his life was cut short, so he didn’t enjoy a slowdown typical of the end of famous people’s lives where he might have had down time to meet and sign things for fans.

Because Walt actually handled these items, at least to sign them, they hold special places for me in the collection. As I said earlier, Walt never did all that much drawing for the animated films he produced. In the future, I’d love to add at least one piece that includes a Disney character drawn by Walt.

I alluded to a piece in my collection from early in Walt’s career that I will happily share at a later date. It has a drawing, but not of a character from the well known Disney canon. As they used to say in the newspaper biz, “Watch this space for future developments”.

disney signing at disneyland

Flipping Disney’s Lands

With all the changes happening in Disney theme parks I’ve been thinking about the lack of change in Frontierland and Tomorrowland.

I think Walt would have seen the cultural and scientific changes that continue to happen and he might have though about thematically and artistically swapped them around.

Yes, that’s easier said than done. And if there was someone around who had just a bit of Walt’s forward thinking creativity, perhaps they would have made some changes already.  Yes, I know that everything is comparatively more expensive and complicated than it was 60 years ago. But, I will get back to that challenge later.

Walt made Disneyland more than just an amusement park by offering guests the chance to make some of our fantasies come true. He couldn’t really send us to Mars or have us ride a flying elephant. But, with a little thought, some story telling and a bit of cleverness, he made us feel as if we had. Walt also knew time wouldn’t stand still while he thought up new attractions. But, he was ok with that. He always said that Disneyland would never be finished as long as there was imagination to fuel ideas.

Walt in front of castle color

There have been many changes to Disneyland and Disney World since they were opened. All of the changes to the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland have been within the existing footprint of Walt’s original 1955 Lands. And that was just fine for a while. But, maybe not any longer.

DISNEYLAND-OPENING-DAY map

In retrospect, the mid to late 1950s was one of those historical eras on the cusp of major cultural, social, political and technological change. TV was in it’s infancy, the civil rights movement was about to become front page news, the youngest president in our short history would be elected and by the end of the decade, the space race would be in high gear.

Walt’s generation grew up with Western movies and stories. Wars with Native Americans went on until the early 1920s. Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 and much of the land east of the Mississippi was still largely uninhabited and wild. Brave cowboys, wooden forts, stagecoaches and looking for gold were not the stuff of ancient history and were still being used by Hollywood producers well into the 1960s. Taking a steam locomotive through that kind of countryside or riding in a mule train would have been a dream of many.

Many of the most popular TV programs kids would have been watching were westerns, including Roy Rogers, The Cisco Kid, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Gene Autry and yes, Zorro and Davey Crocket. It must have been a tremendous thrill to shoot a rifle, ride riverboat or paddle a conoe.  Walt and the Imagineers would continue to add more to Frontierland, including a Fort, mine train, and a Native American village. Much of the west around California was still the frontier and those who lived in big cities still yearned to feel what pioneering was like.

The other hot topic of the day was the Space Race and the technology strides that were taking place to make putting men in space a reality.

sputnik

disney mechanical birdWalt was fascinated with technology, gadgets and the future, both to entertain as well as to improve people’s lives. The Enchanted Tiki Room started with Walt finding a small mechanical bird on a vacation trip. The Monorail and the Peoplemover were Walt’s attempts to prove there were better ways to provide public transportation. Since the end of World War II, the country had seen tremendous advances in computers, home appliances and, medicine.

Walt was mining his childhood for entertainment ideas to which Americans in the 50s responded. Both of the Lands in Disneyland were, of course, huge successes. As were Fantasyland and Adventureland, but I’ll get to why I think these other two lands have managed to stand the test of time in a minute. (I’m not including Main St. USA, Critter Country or New Orleans Square)

So, what do I have in mind for Frontierland and Adventurland? You know those horror movies where the brain of some creature gets swapped with a man’s? In the case of the two Lands, I want to swap the artistic approaches and back stories so both could be more in line with 21st century entertainment.

young frankenstein

TomorrowLand

tomorrowlandFrom the day Walt opened Tomorrowland, I’m sure he realized that it was quickly going to become outdated. He would have been right. Rocket to the Moon attraction became a reality in 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface. Later, Mission to Mars would become outdated as powerful telescopes and unmanned landers gave us a view of the real red planet. The Monsanto House of the Future, which showed what people could expect in a home in 1986, obviously had a built in end date. Walt didn’t live long enough to realize just how fast the future would come and keep coming.

Frontierland

frontier land gifThe wild west, on the other hand, became very un-wild. The mystique of the pioneer hero and the cowboy roaming the range were displaced by astronauts, TV urban police detectives and situation comedies. If Tomorrowland has become Yesterdayland, then Frontierland has become a quaint remembrance of a time we remember with fondness, but no longer has appeal for today’s generations.

Timeless Lands

fantasylandTo get back to my earlier point, the reason I think Adventureland and Fantasyland are still as vibrant as they were when Disneyland opened is because they are timeless. Fantasyland was already a place where elephants fly, animals are our friends and animated films come alive.  It’s the Land that comes closest to a traditional amusement park. The nostalgic feel of the Carousel and it’s music and the bright colors help to put us in a fantasy mood.

adventurelandAdventureland was always played as much for laughs as it was about helping us connect to the natural world and its animal inhabitants, which are still as exciting as ever. The Swiss Family or even the Tarzan tree house are flights of pure fantasy which, even when they were introduced, were seen just that way. There are still parts of the world that haven’t been explored, and men and women who take their chances learning about them. But, the rapid shrinking of untouched areas makes us yearn for them even more. So no matter what new attractions are added or removed, they seem to fit in to either the comic world of Fantasyland or the lush green of Adventureland.

Land Transplants

What I propose, then, is to swap the stories of these two Lands. Since tomorrow will always be coming, why not approach Tomorrowland the way it was done at Disneyland Paris. Make it a throwback to an era where science was just beginning to try and crack the mysterious codes. When Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were fantasizing about things that would one day be real.

I could go either way with the steampunk approach they took with Disneyland Paris. But, I think just the idea of designing around that 19th feel would be just as cool. New attractions could follow the pattern and older ones like Buzz Lightyear in Disney World could easily be retrofitted. Buzz Lightyear, is already throwback toy to an earlier time. Even Monster’s Laugh Floor, which is a pure fantasy world, could be modified inside and out. Rocket Jets and Astro Orbiter would be easy fits. And the car attractions could have their surrounding scenery adjusted without changing the basic ride functions.

I’ll admit, the new personality of Frontierland will be tougher. It might be possible to treat Frontierland like the new frontier that the Tomorrowland presented. Exploration of some of the more extreme parts of the planet, popular on many cable channels is very popular. Existing attractions like Mine Train and Splash Mountain wouldn’t require much or any alteration. Disney has already taken steps in this direction. In Disneyland, to make room for the new Star Wars “frontier”, they have already mothballed some of the Western style areas.

star wars galaxies edge model

Think of the possibilities of the dusty Red Planet as part of an attraction, or even other types of planets with unusual geography. Instead of just exploring the future, Imagineers could look at some of the more forbidding parts of the earth, like deserts, mountains and oceans as new frontiers to be explored.

I’m not an artist, so I can’t offer samples of what these new Lands would look like. I’m hoping that you can use your Disney imaginations to imagine what this would all look like.

Getting back to the challenges I alluded to earlier. Yes, there will be a cost. Yes, it will take time, considerable planning, and smart choices. Yes, there will be complaints from those who want everything to stay the same. But, I don’t necessarily hear people complaining a lot about Toy Story Midway Mania, or the planned Tron Coaster. That coaster would have fit nicely into the redesigned “New” Frontierland as an exploration of the insides of computers. I believe a well designed and executed attraction eventually trumps all desires to dip the Disney theme parks in bronze.

The same kind of effort and expenditure is going into Star Wars:Galaxy’s Edge. Even though it takes place “A long time ago. . .” many Star Wars scenes takes place in locations that could be in the style of the current Frontierland. Star Wars also includes technology that we can only dream might someday become real.

I’ve had fun taking a hypothetical journey to new Lands. I don’t hold out too much hope that my vision would ever be considered. On the other hand, not too many people, myself included, saw Toy Story Land or Star Wars:Galaxy’s Edge coming. Or, for that matter, all the changes planned for EPCOT. As I said in Should Disney Have Opened Pandora’s Box? or rethinking the entire Disney Studios story.Disney is not above radical and unexpected creative surprises.

And, I try to always follow Walt’s lead and continue to imagine and dream. Because that’s where the future lies. Not necessarily in what we have already done, but what we will do.

walt with carousel aa

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