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.

 

Seriously, Let’s Not Forget the Gags

Patience, they say, is a virtue. For my readers who have patiently waited for me to post – You’re all very virtuous and I’m pleased that you’ve come back again. I take my blog writing very seriously, (even if the content isn’t always serious). Part of that is an effort to not let my other life cross over into my blog world. Unfortunately, I’ve hit one of those bumps in the road of life that is making that separation difficult. But, more about that in a bit.

It usually takes me about a week to write, edit, format and add media to my posts. Because I’ve been in a bit of a funk, I’m going to do something different and just put words on the page one at a time until I’ve told you what’s on my mind. After all, every successful writer will tell you that you can’t finish something until you’ve started. Walt put it very well when he said, “The Way Get Started Is To Quit Talking And Begin Doing”. So, I’m going to start.

Life is full of complications, obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. Like, Br’er Rabbit, how we overcome life’s obstacles, in some way defines us. Br’er Rabbit escaped (sorry, there should have been a spoiler alert there) because he understood his adversaries’ weaknesses. My go to in tough times has always been humor. Laughter makes me feel better and tends to not drive away the friends and family who might be able to help me.

Many people, including his daughter and many of the talented people who worked with Walt over the years have said that one of Walt’s best qualities was his sense of humor. Walt encouraged the creation of gags, both in film and later in Disneyland. As we have just celebrated the opening of Toy StoryLand in Orlando and many changes to the theme parks in the U.S. like Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, I’ve been thinking about whether current Disney Imagineers are still following Walt’s lead and finding ways to keep us laughing.

Even in movies that dealt with difficult ideas, like the death of a loved one such as Bambi or cruelty in Cinderella, Walt made sure that there was a heavy dose of gags sprinkled throughout the film. Sometimes the bits were focused on one character as in the scene from Snow White where Dopey chases the soap before swallowing it. There’s a moment in Bambi where after Thumper has convinced Bambi to go out on the ice, Thumper has to work carefully to get all of Bambi’s legs standing straight.  It’s an amazing scene, animated by supervising animator Travis Johnson, full of visual gags, broad expressions and situations.

In films like Cinderella and Pinocchio the Disney creative team gave us a duo to carry much of the humor. It’s likely that Walt would have seen vaudeville type shows growing up. The shows would often feature comedy teams like Weber and Fields or Smith and Dale. Much of Vaudeville humor was based on sight gags, often punctuated by one of the team getting knocked down or hit with something, and plays on words or outright mispronunciation. Gus and Jacques fill that role in Cinderella, with Jacques as the straight man and Gus providing most of the laughs. Gus struggling to pick up as many corn kernels as he can is classic visual and physical comedy. Later on, Gus’ gives us the word play angle when he yells of “Happy Birthday” instead of surprise when the mice unveil Cinderella’s dress.

I think some of the more recent animated movies provide a good mix of visual and verbal gags. Olof in Frozen gets some great mileage out of his body’s ability to break apart and come back together. And there are too many moments to list where his natural naïveté makes for some hysterical moments – “♫ I’ll be a . . .  happy snowman! ♪” “Why isn’t she knocking? Do you think she knows how to knock?” A big shout out to the animators of Hei Hei in Moana. He’s really a mime. So, everything he does is a sight gag. Dory’s different names for Nemo is a classic comedy, running gag.

I am concerned about the recent theme park trends that focus on thrills and high-tech immersive experiences. Pirates and Haunted mansion are immersive, but still have a large helping of gags. On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy:Mission Breakout is about great visual effects and the drops as is the original Tower of Terror. Both seem to rely on cast members to provide the fun. Which is fine. But, not all cast members are equally as adept with comedy. So, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Nothing new in the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It’s really about theming and animated animatronics. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s fabulously well done and faithfully recreates moments from the film. But, the Imagineers didn’t come up with any new jokes, they just reused the gags from the film. I won’t comment on Toy Storyland, since I haven’t seen it. But I hear there are some subtle sight gags. Will the upcoming Tron and Guardians of the Galaxy attractions at Walt Disney World keep the line moving and give us some laughs along with the thrills? We’ll see.

Walt used to pay people $5, cold, hard cash for gags. That was a good sized bonus in the 30s and 40s. I wonder if current Disney management offers incentives for laughs? I’m sure there many laughs in more recent theme park additions that I haven’t thought of. I don’t get to the parks as often as I’d like. If you know of one, let me know so I can get a chuckle next time I see it.

Getting back to my bump in the road and why I’ve been thinking about humor and not blogging. The 20-year relationship with my employer ended unexpectedly due to a large restructuring in advance of being acquired by another company. I haven’t had to look for a job in a long time. Technology and social media have drastically changed the job search landscape. Reaching out to a network of people used to involve, primarily phone calls. Today, it’s LinkedIn, that drives a lot of action. The bigger your LinkedIn network, the more people will be keeping their eyes and ears open for me. So, I would be grateful to anyone who would be willing to send me a connection request so I can continue to find new sources of information about jobs or companies I might interview with in the future. The bigger your network, the better it looks to those who will, inevitably, look at it as part of the interview process. My LinkedIn profile can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/brad-kramer/It would be great if you could connect with a note, so I can figure out what we have in common. This concludes the self-promotion portion of the blog post. Now back to the laughs.

Ultimately, Walt liked to give us a laugh along with a tear or two. He even named his early company Laugh-O-grams. I, for one, find some of my favorite movies, even action ones, like Raiders of the Lost Arc or Mission Impossible Whichever, mix in some humor and make the movie better.

For those of you who are struggling with your own life road obstacles. Try a laugh. It works for me.  What do you do when life seems to have gotten the better of you?

As I said earlier, I’m going to forgo the usual media parts of this blog post. It’s just been too long a stretch without sharing. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judge of whether this  post maintains the standards that I have set for myself.

laughograms

 

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!

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.

 

Reviewing Disney Reviewers

disney logosThe Disney company gets a tremendous amount of media coverage, much of it focused on financials and movie products.

As someone who cares more about products like animated movies and theme parks, I’m concerned that as the company continues to diversify, coverage of those topics will become diluted. I’ll expand on that, but first I want to talk about some recent coverage that inspired this post.

I still get most of my news from print media. In national papers like the NY Times, a typical mention of Disney is usually related to review of a movie, an acquisition or financial reporting. To my surprise, this week there were two NY Times articles related to Disney that were not about movies. One was on Disney Springs and the other was a cruise on the Disney Magic. It‘s interesting that while the subjects of the articles are focused on very different parts of the Disney World, I think there’s a common underlying point of view.

disney-springs logoThe Disney Springs piece which you can read here is part of the Times “52 Places to Go” series. There was a sincere attempt to be evenhanded by breaking down the article into highs and lows. I’ll leave you to form your own opinion of whether you agree with the reviewer. I definitely differ with the  characterization of Disney Springs as a 4th attempt at a shopping and dining area. It makes the previous versions sound like failures. Would it follow that the local mall that got a face-lift and brought in new stores was a failure after being around for decades? Redoing the underlying story of the area breathes new life into the large retail and dining area. The reviewer sounded somewhat disappointed that there were no costumed characters or attractions. If you have the option, I think there’s nothing wrong with some down time on a vacation, particularly a Disney vacation, when visitors are very much on the go.

The reviewer strays from discussing Disney Springs and, for some reason, comments on the difficulty and cost of getting into Animal Kingdom. It’s a little unclear, but it sounded like she paid $120 dollars and expected some kind of VIP treatment. All she wanted was to ride the most popular ride on the property right now, Flight of Passage, and eat a churro. Not being offered instantaneous access to either, she gave up. Strange that a travel reviewer had done no research to insure that she would be able to get the story she wanted to write.

Then there’s a section spent on a hotel near Disney Springs. Seems she failed to make a reservation and was unable to get a room at either the Poly or AKL. So, rather than find a room at another Disney resort, she gives us a review of, what I’m sure is a very nice hotel near Disney Springs. Not sure what that has to do with Disney Springs itself. The excuse was that the three days at “Disney” were being used to also plan for a more complicated trip to South America. I would have said, then don’t present the article as a review. There’s a difference between a visit someplace and a stopover.

This is being written by someone who has traveled to 52, sometimes very exotic, places around the world, and she thought it wouldn’t be an issue to show up to one of the premier vacation spots in the world and find a room available in a premium resort hotel. Perhaps she was trying to show us how not to get the most out of any part of a Disney theme park vacation.

The other sections include statements from one guest, that since there’s alcohol being served dancing, and the Edison is adults only after 10pm, then the area is only for adults. Nothing like taking one point of view and using as a blanket for all opinions. The reviewer adds that what she thinks makes a trip to Disney Springs worthwhile, is not restaurants, shopping or entertainment, but the adult energy. She doubles down on this idea by saying that Disney World is for two kinds of people, annual pass holders who come in groups to drink and be merry and families who have been planning their trip for months, even years. How did Disney Springs become all of Disney World?

She finishes up the review by stating that her best food experience in the area was a food truck somewhere outside of Disney Springs. No mention of her food experiences in Disney Springs, other than dropping names of chef’s who have restaurants there. I guess she couldn’t get in without a reservation.

The reviewer, who up front said she didn’t like Disney Springs, is the kind of diluted coverage I alluded to at the top of this piece. It would have been fine to do a review of the new Disney Springs. Many people have done it already. But, by trying to make it about “Disney” the reviewer has oversimplified what a Walt Disney World vacation is about for many people. Disney Springs is a part of the overall Disney World resort. But, as I said in Disney Banks on Broadway, Disney is  trying to make money.  Keeping people in the vicinity of the resort means they capture more vacation dollars. Disney Springs was designed by Imagineers in the same way they design the parks themselves. But it was designed as a shopping and eating destination, not as a theme park. No one should confuse one with the other.

The second review of a cruise on the Disney Magic, uses “stressful” in the title and statesDisneyMagic at Port that it was written by a “cruise skeptic”. That’s like having a vegan review a steak house. Expectations are already low. And they don’t get any higher when he feels his worst fears are borne out when he finds the ice cream machine empty before the ship leaves the dock. Sure, that’s not something that should go in the plus column, but, it hardly seems like a harbinger of doom. He seems to have been forced on the cruised by bad weather where he lives and his Disney “obsessed” daughter. That seems like a tough word to use for a 5 ½ year old. Most children that age are preoccupied by something. I’m sure that had they not gone, his daughter would have continued to enjoy Disney and not gone into a deep depression. Children are often more resilient than adults.

While his “worst” fears, he says, were realized, his daughter proclaimed it her best trip ever. Part of his problems seem to stem, like the previous review, from a lack of planning and understanding of what things might cost. For example, he did schedule a visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. But the appointment time was right before they went to Castaway Cay. So, he felt the money was wasted because the girl had to take everything off to enjoy the water. That doesn’t seem like a Disney created situation. Another crisis arose when he had not done enough research to find that a pirate costume party would be thrown. Instead of finding something thrifty at a local party store or making something, he moaned about having to shell out big bucks for something bought on board.

I don’t care who’s cruise company it is. Everything’s more expensive once you are a captive audience. Disney is just adhering to well practiced supply and demand, free market economics. The comments about every activity ending with an upsell, is no different on any type of resort vacation. We’ve gone to reasonably priced Club Meds where photos taken during the day are prominently displayed near the dining rooms each night. Disney may have invented or perfected the gift shop at the end of the ride. But, every, I mean every spa in the world offers the products they use on you for sale as you pay. Nothing specific Disney here.

Later in the review he admits that he likes some parts “Disney” , but is “unnerved” by the company’s ubiquity. Like the previous article, this reviewer strays from the vacation he’s supposed to be reviewing to comment on the Disney as a company. Perhaps he should have done a financial piece. There is some detail given for each day including short reviews of restaurants and ports of call. Finally, at the end of the cruise, it seems he was finally enjoying himself.

I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with all reviewers on any topic. I enjoy a good debate. Even if I convince someone to come around to my point of view, I’ve usually learned something from them. But, you can’t convince me if you’re all over the place with your arguments.

My problem with both of these pieces is not that they didn’t enjoy their Disney experience. But, in the final analysis, both pieces didn’t stick to the topic they were supposed to be reviewing. Part of their problem, I think, is that they look at their topics through a wide angle lens that includes everything in the Disney universe. I think that makes it difficult for them to make a case for or against either experience.

Spaceship Earth Death StarI encounter many people who have the same reaction to anything Disney. I’m concerned Disney is playing into the hands of people like these reviewers. For decades, Disney has been the gold standard for entertainment products. But, the more they gobble up, they more they run the risk of having Spaceship Earth look like the Death Star to some with Disney as the evil empire. Success can bring out the competitive nature in people. Everyone would like to be number one. But, once you’re there everyone is either trying to take it away or fault you for everything with which you’re associated.

 

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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