Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Imagineer’

Inspired by Walt to get Creative

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Many of my posts mention or are about Walt’s creativity. Story was at the core of Disney films, television and theme parks. A story for a film had a strong theme, was written for and created with his audience in mind, all with a heavy dose of emotion. But, Walt didn’t stop there. What set Disneyland apart from other amusement parks wasn’t just the quality and attention to detail, but that Walt created a park filled with attractions based on stories.

The Disney Company has continued that tradition more than 50 years after his death. Attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, Rock ‘n Roller coaster, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, to name a few, are all enjoyable because Imagineers like Rolly Crump, John Hench or Joe Rhode started with a story they want to tell. They tell that story using the path we take through the design, music, sound and set dressing of the queue then finish it with the actual ride experience itself as the final chapter. Think how different the Indiana Jones Adventure, Expedition Everest, or Space Mountain would be without all of those elements. I go to other amusement parks (I pause for the expected shock). Their rides (not attractions) start with hours long queues winding through what looks and feels like a parking lot. The only thrill is the ride itself, which typically lasts a couple of minutes or less.

Writing this Blog is a creative outlet for me. I’ve written for work and pleasure for a good part of my life. This year, I am going back to a challenge that I haven’t tried for several years. I’m going to join over 300,00 participants in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program and write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

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What started out as a dare by a few people in 1999 has become a not-for-profit organization that organizes a worldwide event. The organization is committed to “. . . a world that celebrates diverse voices, and encourages everyone to tell their stories. Their mission statement “National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page. They also go into schools, libraries and communities through their young writer’s program. If you are interested in learning more, offering support or participating, I recommend checking out their website, Nanowrimo.org. Your local library or community center may offer support for writing participants.

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NaNoWriMo Night of Writing Dangerously, San Francisco

I look forward to the challenge with both excitement and a certain amount of anxiety. I’ve done this twice before.  But knowing what to expect from a month of intensive writing, almost every day, doesn’t make it any less daunting.I tell you all this not because I want applause or a pat on the back (although any support is welcome). But, to be a “winner” I need to write 50,000 words in November (that breaks down to 1,667 words each day).

This effort will probably not give me much opportunity to write my usual, weekly blog. (As I wrote that, I could actually feel the disappointment across the wires of the Internet.) Fear not, oh faithful readers of the Disney Connection. While I may not do a regular Blog post, I am thinking of providing updates on my progress and my experience following in Walt and his master storytellers giant footsteps.

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Choices are always difficult

inkandpaint coverI am spending this week doing some preparation by building a basic story and getting to know the characters that will populate it. I don’t have a title as yet, but the inspiration for my story was the book “Ink and Paint, The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation” and will be set at Disney Studio in the early 1960s.

No one who participates in NaNoWriMo publishes their 50,000 word work without considerable editing and rework. But, hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. I hope that my story will eventually be worthy enough in my eyes for me to share it with all of you. For those of you who challenge yourselves to create, I wish you happiness and success in your field of endeavor. And remember “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”. For those of you who haven’t yet made the leap, “If you can dream it, you can do it. The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

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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.

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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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Should Disney Have Opened Pandora’s Box?

pandora announcementI get excited about new things Disney will bring to the theme parks. But, I was both confused and troubled by the 2011 Avatar announcement. Universal Studios had just opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which had become an immediate success. It looked like the Disney Company was feeling the heat in a way that had not happened in the history of their prized theme park franchise, which contributes a significant amount to the corporate bottom line. The country was still coming out of the recession/depression, which, I’m guessing, didn’t help Disney World attendance. So, rather than simply accept loss of market share in the Florida area, Disney was going to put up a fight to maintain its position as the world’s pre-eminent purveyor of theme park entertainment. But, the longer Harry Potter remained strong, without a new wow Disney experience, the more likely that more theme park dollars would go to Universal. Thus, time to market was going to make it hard to find something organically Disney which would get the public’s attention.

As first movie to earn more than $2B worldwide the Avatar had sold a ton of movie tickets. Director/Producer Cameron had already announced sequels were already in the works. Disney may have seen this as an opportunity to build on an already successful franchise while they were building the new park area. Looking in the post-LucasArts acquisition, rearview mirror since, Disney may have even tried to buy Avatar, before settling on a partnership with Cameron. I must admit; I was not all that excited about the prospects of having Imagineers working on a product that didn’t come from somewhere inside the world of Disney. Yes, they did acquire The Jim Henson Company and create the very popular Muppet*Vision 3d. But the Muppets were more about a collection of wonderful characters that Disney could use in a variety of ways. The movie Avatar was more than just interesting characters; it was a wholly imagined world. In the meantime, the expected Avatar sequel or sequels have been delayed numerous times, including most recently in March of 2017.

Walt-in-Jungle-2-Placing Pandora inside Animal Kingdom seemed like a workable idea. I’ve been doing some planning for a trip to Disneyland this summer, and realized that I had never been on the Jungle Cruise there. Originally, Walt had wanted to populate the attraction with real animals. But, at the time, it just wasn’t possible, so, Animatronics were used instead. In a way, Joe Rhode’s Animal Kingdom fulfilled one of Walt’s dreams — to give guests an opportunity to come face to face with the wild kingdom, which Walt had once quipped were “some of the most fascinating people I ever met. . “

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Imagineer Joe Rohde

Disney’s Animal Kingdom was never meant to be about Disney films or characters. Rhode wanted to offer guests an immersive “edutainment” experience in a faraway land, filled with adventure, mystery and mystique. Uncle Walt would have been completely behind all those ideas. And, his often quoted belief that Disneyland would always be changing has been taken to another level through the creation of a living theme park, where the animals are unscripted and unpredictable. How many of you have been on the Safari and had to wait while an unhurried rhino or other tenant blocked your truck? And, while it has seen a reduced presence, Animal Kingdom was meant to help raise environmental awareness.

Now, after 6 years of work, Disney, with marketing hoopla commensurate with the effort, is about to unveil Pandora – The World of Avatar. And, while I still think it was an

Pandora-Commericial-600x338odd and unexpected direction for Disney to take, my initial negativity toward the addition has been tempered by putting Pandora into the Animal Kingdom context. I recently re-watched Avatar, and without a doubt, Pandora is very far away and very alien to us. It delivers a movie experience filled with adventure, mystery and magic. We’re being told that guests will enter this strange world and encounter much of the environment in an interactive way. I experienced the Imagineers’ immersive approach long before the area was completed when I went through the Pandora exhibit at the 2015 D23 Expo. The Cast Members were presented as employees of Alpha Centauri Expeditions, a company organizing tours to the planet. There was a salesy video commercial of what would be included in the trip and then we got to view a detailed model and other items we would see there. In typical Imagineer fashion, Pandora Cast Member name Itags, will include, not just origin city and state, but “Earth”, as well.

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I think some of the central themes of the movie are exactly in line with the themes and messages conveyed during a visit to Animal Kingdom. Avatar presents a world and its people that are in tune and interdependent. The respect for one another that the inhabitants demonstrate on Pandora is the same as the edutainment messages we get from It’s Tough to be a Bug and Kali River Rapids as well as reminding us of majesty of nature and the connection between animals and humans in the Rivers of Light show. By allowing guests to get closer to the animals in their natural habitat than most Zoos, Disney gives us the opportunity to get to know creatures with which we share the Earth. They don’t remain obscure images, but take on reality after which most people can no longer resist the temptation to want to insure their survival.

Once past the entrance gate of Animal Kingdom, we are immediately immersed in the1024px-AnimalKingdomEntrance greenness of the Park and all the traditional park trappings maintain the sense of being in a place for away geographically, culturally and societally. Aside from the basic plot, Much of the Avatar movie is spent, in great science fiction fashion, world building. We learn about the native Navi’s religion, family structure, myths, government as well as the world’s rules which maintain harmony within Pandora’s circle of life. The movie stresses what can happen when the balance of nature is upset and how nature will fight to maintain that equilibrium. Animal Kingdom guests can get a look at how the animals are cared for, explore Conservation Station, animal encounters and other interactive, educational areas to learn more. Riding Expedition Everest offers a cautionary tale of the dangers that lurk in unexplored parts of any world.

So, a match that, at first glance, did not seem to make sense, looks different when evaluated against the backdrop of what Animal Kingdom represents. Being transported to Pandora is no different than climbing Everest, going underground with bugs, crossing an African reserve or stopping off at a 1950’s roadside attraction created by an dinosaur bone dig. Walt not only loved natural beauty, but by almost single handedly creating the wildlife documentary format in True Life Adventures, he showed his respect and admiration for our beast, bird and fish neighbors. I’m not sure when I’m going to get there to see Pandora for myself. In the meantime, I’m trying to avoid all the Fan generated video and “reviews” so I can experience it without spoilers or other people’s ideas in my head. I not only expect to be amazed, thrilled and entertained, but reminded that it’s up to us to care for the fragile, little planet Earth that we call home.

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