Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

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Imagination in Disney Theme Parks

walt carousel benchWalt always said that he built Disneyland so an average family could all have fun together, instead of the parents watching from a nearby bench, as he had done with his daughters. The attractions Walt created in the first decade of the park from the Main St. USA entrance, to Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland and, of course, Fantasyland were designed, primarily, with the idea of imaginative play. Have the changes to the parks that have occurred over the decades stayed true to his original vision? Or has time made it necessary for the Disney company to alter course to meet the demands of modern visitors?

Contrary to urban legend, on opening day Disneyland’s attraction list was modest, consisting of about 12 attractions, the Disneyland band, a movie theater, shooting gallery, a horse car, musical revue and the Castle. But for a 1950s audience, the park was like opening a play chest full of costumes, props and toys. What kid in that era didn’t want to pretend to be a heroic Davy Crockett fighting Indians or an adventurous explorer discovering the unknowns of the deep jungle, fly like Peter Pan or Dumbo or drive a car. Adults could happily ride with their kids and then the kids could join their parents in experiencing idealized versions of the past by riding a steam powered train, gliding on a Mississippi riverboat, relive your childhood on a magnificently restored 19th century carousel where every horse was a jumper or shoot like a western marksman.

With the introduction of the Matterhorn in 1959 Disney introduced the first themed, steel roller coaster to the theme park world. But Walt, who had wanted a Disneyland coaster matterhorn 1959from the start, still managed to have his cake and ate it too. The Matterhorn’s tubuler track and nylon wheels combined with reaching a height of only 80 feet (modern coasters go well over 255 feet) made for the kind of family friendly attraction that fit, what he believed, (and magically seemed to know) his guests wanted. While the theming and zooming in and out of the mountain make for a highly stylized view of the Iconic European Alps, it was a departure from what most 50s Americans would have imagined they might ever do.

Alice8-58The family friendly, imaginative play theme continued through Walt’s lifetime with the additions of Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Alice in Wonderland and the Sailing Ship Columbia, peaking perhaps, in the early 60s. Walt began to take advantage of technological advancements accelerated by WED’s work for the 1964 NY World’s Fair. (See my posts Walt Disney Goes to the Fair and Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event for more Disney Fair info) And we can see Walt’s attention turning more toward the future as guests were treated to a new form of transportation when the Disneyland Monorail took off in 1959. Even today, many visitors (and the Disney Company) consider the Monorail an attraction.

monorail opening

VP Nixon & family help Walt Disney dedicate the Monorail at Disneyland June 1959.

Aside from the Monorail, the rest of attractions which Disney had direct input into: Enchanted Tiki Room; The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; It’s a Small World; and finally Pirates of the Caribbean, all could and still are enjoyed by all guests, from the oldest to the youngest. Pacific island theming was very hot in the 60s, with tiki bars serving Mai Tais everywhere and Hawaiian shirts in every man’s closet. Perhaps more than previous attractions, music now played an important part in the overall design as Walt continued to create a movie-like experience for guests.

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In the decades after Walt’s death Walt Disney World opened and the attractions at the two U.S. parks haven’t always matched. But, in general, attractions like Space Mountain, Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure/Dinosaur, Splash Mountain, as well as the newer Soarin’ versions, in my opinion, demonstrate an approach which is still steeped in Imagineering theming and storytelling. But the emphasis is on thrills and a more immersive feel with little room for individual imagination. We experience the attractions without necessarily having to use our own imaginations to be entertained. In some cases it’s all about the thrills, in attractions like Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and California Screamin’. Theme parks and amusement parks continue to up the ante on thrill rides, so, it follows, that in order to keep customers who want to feel an adrenaline rush, Disney had to offer those options to their guests.

Family style entertainment still has a place in the U.S. theme parks, plussed (Disney style enhancement) by 3D projections in attractions like Muppetvision and Toy Story Midway Mania. Sometimes 3D is combined with other sensory surprises found in Mickey’s Philharmagic and It’s Tough to be a Bug. Animatonics have seen their share of added pizazz  through computer animation seen in Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Radiator Springs Racers.

avatar bustFinally, with the opening of Pandora and the imminent unveiling of Star Wars Land, Disney is taking theming to new levels of immersiveness. Not only are there new attractions in these mini-parks, but, instead of just entering into the story of the attraction starting at the queue, we are plunged into that story from the moment we enter the Land. The theming encompasses everything around the visitor, food, costuming, and, in the case of Pandora, flora. During the Star Wars Land announcement at the 2015 D23 Expo, Bob Iger joked that they were looking for future park employees who could speak a variety of alien languages. I’ll bet that if it were possible, Disney would be all in.

It’s my opinion that Disney keeps an ear to the ground, listening for changes in theme park entertainment to compete with other park operators.  But, they also have an eye on a public that demands more thrills and expects technology to play more than a supporting role in attractions. With the commercial availability of virtual reality gear, it may only be a matter of time before we’re all strapping on goggles and headsets for future attractions.

As the U.S. Disney parks continue to grow and change, we still see the spirit of Walt’s family oriented approach in rides like Toy Story Midway Mania, the upcoming Toy Story Land, Voyage of the Little Mermaid and the continued popularity of attractions like Small World and Peter Pan’s Flight. Not everyone can take advantage of every attraction anymore. But that doesn’t mean adults or children have to sit on a bench and watch. There’s more than enough to keep everyone happy and entertained during a vacation stay.

I don’t like to refer to audience sophistication, because, in the end we all want to be entertained, whether through thrills, scares, laughs or surprises. But because we have so much entertainment, literally, at our fingertips, Disney has had to meet our expanded expectations. And we always want more. How many of you don’t think twice about seeing a movie in 3D? How many of you have young children who turn up their noses at the carousel or Dumbo?

My children loved to play pretend, using their imaginations to turn their bedroom into a Buzz Lightyear rocket ship or do the twilight bark with their stuffed animals. And Walt certainly gave those early Disneyland visitors the same opportunity, albeit, with a little more pizazz. I think flexing our imaginations and dreaming helped create generations of inventors, strivers and dreamers that built companies like IBM, Ford, Apple and Google and made our country the envy of the world. I hope that having our entertainment fed to us rather than having to work for it a little will not lead us to be a country that sits and waits for things to happen instead of making magic.

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