Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

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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.

 

Finding Light in the Darkness

Who’s your favorite Disney animated villain? Do you like villains who like to be bad like Hades or Scar? Or are you partial to villains like Stromboli, who’s just trying to entertain his audience, or Cruella, whose only crime is a strong fashion sense, or Jafar who has a career path he’s following and is very goal focused. You know, the ones who seem to have badness thrust upon them and are only bad because of a character flaw. Hard to pick, I’n it?

Disney animated villains are some of the slimiest, conniving, two-faced, nasty and unrepentant characters ever to be brought to life.  Then why is it that the villain scenes are often so much fun to watch. With all the good and wonderful things that Walt, and those who have followed, have put into Disney movies, they have never shied away from showing the dark side of life and people (real or imagined). I think part of that comes from not underestimating your audience. Although many of Walt’s stories were told through animation, he didn’t tell them just for kids.

Right out of the gate, Walt’s Wicked Queen/Old Hag in Snow White goes to great lengths to carry out her plan to kill Snow. Like her real life, wealthy, positioned, counterparts, for her first attempt, she gets someone else to do the dirty work for her. When that fails, she is absolutely giddy with joy to try it herself. The scene in the laboratory when the Queen turns into the Old Hag (animated by the team of  Art Babbit and Norman Ferguson) is still wonderfully frightening after more than 80 years. Pay particular attention to the slow reveal of the queen’s new, old face, which we don’t see until the very end of the transformation sequence. You can almost imagine Walt really enjoying himself and encouraging his animators to really go for it. I’d stack that scene up with any of the greatest scary, transformation scenes Hollywood has produced (Another example is American Werewolf in London).

What followed during Walt’s lifetime was a host of equally, wonderfully bad villains including, Stromboli, Lady Tremaine, Captain Hook, Maleficent, Cruella deVille, Madame Mim, and Kaa & King Louis. All of them have a signature scene or moment in their films that, not only, helps define the character in the sharpest terms, but whose behaviors or motivations are so far removed from the light, that the goodness or hero qualities of the main character becomes even sharper and more pleasing to us. Think of Lady Tremain’s eyes as she realizes that its Cinderella the prince is looking for. Or Captain Hook’s musical glee as he charms Tinkerbell into jealously so she will aide him in his plot to kill Peter Pan. Even Man, in Bambi, who we never see during the course of the film, stops our hearts for a second as we hear the shot

Many people view the films in the period after Walt’s passing, as somewhat less than successful. With the possible exception, in my opinion, of The Great Mouse Detective and the Rescuers, I would agree. It’s interesting that they are only films of the period with a villain who can match the sustained evilness of a character like Cruella. And, perhaps, that’s what’s missing. The Disney people were so focused on continuing to produce the kind of “family” entertainment they thought Walt was doing, that they lost sight of a significant piece of what had made Walt’s films so satisfying — The contrast between good and evil, the light against darkness. It’s possible, that to feel fulfilled, we need the two extremes in our lives. Those writers and directors who missed that misunderstood that Walt saw family entertainment as an experience the whole family could enjoy it together. He was also a firm believer that you shouldn’t talk down to your audience. The world is filled with good and bad so be honest and show it that way. Walt famously talked about adults as if they were just big kids anyway.

More modern Disney directors, in the period many call the Renaissance of Disney animated films (from The Little Mermaid, 1989 to Tarzan 1999), came back to the villain with a vengeance. In these movies, the most memorable scenes in the films are often the villain songs. There’s a rule of thumb in theatrical musicals. A character will break out in to song when words alone are not sufficient to express his/her/their feelings and emotions. In The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahantas, the villain’s song either sets the stage for what will ultimately force the hero to make an important decision, or set the wheels in motion for what will be the defining confrontation between good and evil. Ursula’s enticing offer to Ariel in “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”, Scar convincing the Hyena’s to join him in a palace coup and murder in “Be Prepared” are the turning points in these great films. And songs like “Gaston” and Frollo’s opening to “Out There” continue Walt’s tradition of strongly defining the villain’s character and motivations, just as much as the hero/heroine.

In the end, we all root for the hero or the heroine to prevail. But their eventual triumph is that much sweeter because they have someone like Jafar who is equally as evil as Aladdin is virtuous to overcome. Disney good guys in film are not always the most fun. Their journey takes them from good to better. But, villains, they take us on a one way trip to the bottom with some of the most memorable and fun to watch scenes in the history of the movies.Villains, take a bow!

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