Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

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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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Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge — We’re not in Kansas Anymore

star wars opening

1977 – No on-line ticketing or midnight openings LACY ATKINS/AP

As a someone who loves science fiction in all its permutations, Star Wars: A New Hope, (or just plain old Star Wars as I knew it as a kid), was a perfect movie. It had a little of everything I went to the movies for: Adventure, action, sword fights, humor, plausible science, space travel, easy to identify good guys and bad guys (although, George, why are Storm Troopers dressed in white?), a damsel in distress, an unlikely, underdog hero, a wise cracking leading man, a sweeping and pulse quickening score, and spoiler alert (I do know someone on this planet that has not seen a single Star Wars movie) an explosive, exciting, happy ending.

So, I am thrilled to think of walking into that movie world when Star Wars Land opens in 2019 at Disney Studios. I was sitting in the packed auditorium at the D23 Expo in 2015, when Bob Iger announced the plans for the park additions. The place went crazy and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. As the plans have gone from concept paintings to more detailed information, my excitement has not waned.

Our appetites have now been further whetted by the amazing model displayed at this year’s D23 Expo. (See my post D23 Expo 2017 Magical Afterglow for more on the Expo). The Theme Park’s pavilion rolled out the new land name, “Star Wars, Galaxy’s Edge”. The model reveals, not only, the scope and scale of Disney’s largest theme park addition ever. (I confirmed that both US theme parks will get exactly the same addition) But, gives us a view of the park most of us will never get once we’ve entered. Galaxy’s Edge continues Disney’s continued emphasis, started with Pandora, of providing a totally immersive experience.

sw model.jpg

Reports describe much more than the current Studios Streetmosphere to add to the theming and mood.  We will find First Order troops and Rebels roaming the streets. Success or failure on the Millennium Falcon attraction may have an effect on Park’s inhabitants responses to you later in the day. The model also showed the location of the other headliner attraction, a battle inside a Star Destroyer. This might include a new kind of light saber.

This is all very exciting. But, it leads me to a sobering, but inevitable, thought. I will miss the old Disney/MGM Studios and all it represented. Before you start yelling at the screen, I am not one of those, “Don’t ever change my Disney theme park” people. Walt knew technology, and our ideas about entertainment would change or, as he often did, he could change them. The Parks, unlike Disney movies, were built so he could continue to tinker. I believe Walt always thought that while he did the best he could creating his films, he always believed, he could’ve done better if he had: (pick one or more: more time; more money; better technology). Other director’s from George Lucas to Ridley Scott have voiced similar regrets. Once a film is produced, it’s frozen in time. Yes, I know there are director’s cuts of films like Blade Runner. And if you’re George Lucas, you change them and make us all buy new versions. But, the Parks were a chance for Walt to always make things better. He’s famously quoted as saying, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Walt’s approach to theme parks wasn’t that different from films. He used storytelling to enhance the attraction experiences. The theme park was a way for Walt to always try to “get it right”  – even if it took him more than one try to do it.

Let’s remember what Michael Eisner was after when he built, what is now called, Disney Hollywood Studios. It was a working film and television studio that would, not only, give us a chance to see “how it’s done” in television, film and animation, but would take us back to the golden age of Hollywood. A time when the studios controlled everything that had to do with making a film and the movie theaters were palaces with uniformed ushers. (See Grauman’s Chinese or Radio City Music Hall). Hollywood was truly tinsel town. MGM boasted it had “More Stars than there are in the Sky”. I love movies that take place at that time in and around L.A. during that period, like Singin’ in the Rain, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Barton Fink. Walking through the Park, always felt like being on a movie set in that period. The atmosphere was reinforced with: The Streets of America recreating a studio backlot; iconic buildings like Grauman’s Chinese; and the store fronts and building architecture (yesterland.com has a great overview of architectural inspirations for the Park). And to top it off, there was actual hand drawn animation going on within the nondescript walls of the working studio itself, including work on Brother Bear and Lilo and Stitch (See my post The Art of Animation for my thoughts on animation).

I still get a special feeling when I enter the Park and become enveloped in the eclectic architectural styles reminiscent of Hollywood and the surrounding areas from the 20s-50s. More than Epcot or Animal Kingdom, I think, Studios comes closest to Walt’s use of Main St. USA as a way to calm and prepare us to enter a world of fantasy, as well as begin to tell the story of the Park itself. We walk down a Main St USA that’s from a different time. Did you ever notice that the pathway under the Railroads in Disneyland and Disney World are red? You’re walking the red carpet into a theater! Ever notice how directors often fill the opening moments of a movie with sights and sounds to set the time and place the film. Car styles, store fronts, license plates, welcome signs, music serve the same purpose on Main St. USA and Hollywood Boulevard. Upon entering the Studios we see a period style gas station, lots of LA style architecture and Sid Cahuenga’s. We now know when and where we are. Then the entrance music, filled with great and recognizable movie themes like Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur, tell us that this is a place for and about the movies.

So, I will miss old Hollywood as Galaxy’s Edge takes storytelling to new levels. I’m hoping it does feel like we’ve entered into the movie throughout the Land, instead of limiting theming to an attraction as has been the historical Imagineering approach. The Studio’s park is in transition from giving us a chance to see how movies were and are made to putting us on the set. I think the original concept was great and I will miss that peek behind the cameras. But, I believe that the direction that Pandora and now Galaxy’s Edge takes is completely in line with the kind of “plussing” that Walt would surely have taken advantage of, had he been able. Hang on. We’re making the jump to light speed!

Hyperspace_falcon

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