Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Imagineers’

D23 Expo 2017 Magical Afterglow

D23-Expo-Balloons-1I’ve spent the last week trying to absorb my D23 Expo experience and write a narrative for the three days I attended. There’s quite a lot to cover. And, it’s possible, that by now, you’ve started to hear many positive and negative reviews of the Expo. I’ll continue to work  on a blow by blow account, which may be useful for future Expo goers. But, when I’ve sat and thought about the Event, what comes to mind, more than anything else is the people I encountered. So, for now, I’d like to focus on some positives related to guests, cast members and presenters, who I think made my time at the Expo gratifying and pleasurable.

d23 2017 crowd

In my last post, D23 Expo 2017 Pre-Event Excitement, I talked about the Expo as an opportunity to be amongst all kinds of Disney fans. Some are there to buy limited edition or just released items. Some want to get autographs, selfies or see famous people. Others want to be “first” to know about movie, TV or theme park news. Unfortunately, many things I’ve read about the Expo, pre or post events, often start with the lines. I would say, if there’s one thing we Disney people know how to do, it’s wait on lines and follow instructions. On a Park queue, everyone is focused on their group – where they’ve been and where they are going. They have little interest in their line buddies. At the Expo, I usually waited 3+ hours seated or standing the whole time with the same people, waiting for morning entry into the Convention Center. The difference is, we all knew why we’re there, so the ice was already broken.  It was easy to strike up a conversation, usually started with “Where are you from?” or “Is this your first Expo?”. From there things either went to “What panels are you trying to see?” or “What are you here to buy that you can’t get anywhere else?” or “Whose autograph/picture are you hoping to score?” From all around, people would just jump into the conversation with their thoughts or questions. Even though we are all uncomfortable sitting on the hot concrete or rubbery legged from standing, everyone was upbeat, excited and just plain thrilled to be so close to getting inside (There are others who are much further back in an endless, snaking line. But I’m focused on the group that was unbothered to wake up around 5am to even get close to the front of the line). Then, even after waiting that long, the Disney crowd was still able to follow instructions that allowed us to all get inside, efficiently and without pushing, shoving or other chaos. Each time a group moved forward toward the Center doors a cheer would go up, followed by a groan as we were held at the next line checkpoint. It was truly a group happening, like a concert in Central Park.

Disney has gotten very good at Park crowd control. And the queues for panels or store entry were handled in the same organized manner. But the Expo morning entry is a different kind of animal. So, I’d like to say Thank You to the brave, hard working Cast Members who, not only,  maintained a cheery disposition in the face of repetitive questions (Is this the line to get in? Is there a VIP line just for me? What if I don’t have a ticket already? Is the (fill in the blank) panel already filled? Where’s the end of the line?, etc.) They repeated their pleas to “stay in line”, “have your bag open for inspection”, “keep the line moving” (when it did) “please don’t cut the line corners as you snake around” and “You’re almost there”. No one should underestimate the effect that positive energy can have on a large, tired, uncomfortable crowd of people to keep things from getting out of hand. Then, once things got moving, instructions were simple and consequences for rule breaking were made clear. It may just be me, but all these intangibles make me feel good about doing my part to make things run smoothly and efficiently so I can get to the fun.

end of queue sign blowup

Signs like this could be seen everywhere

On the whole, I found all Cast Members to be polite, upbeat and helpful. No, they didn’t always have the best or most accurate information. Yes, I did, get different answers from different Cast Members a few times. But, I don’t think that the individuals were always to blame. It’s not as if they were all wearing walkie talkies getting the most up to date news flashes. During my time waiting on various lines, I took an informal poll of the line monitors, whose job it was to hold up signs reading “Start of Queue”, “End of Queue” and “Queue Break”. Since I was sure that the postings were not full time jobs, I started asking what they usually do for the Disney Company. Most worked at Disneyland. I met tram drivers, tram announcers, gate ticket takers and even food preparers. So, in defense of the Cast Members, it’s not as if they are used to doing that job, or for that matter, any of the jobs at the Expo all the time. The Expo is only held every two years. So, it’s possible that training is not as thorough as it might be ordinarily. And, there appeared to be changes happening all the time. Most of the time, if someone didn’t have an answer, they were honest and said so. Most of the Cast Members I spoke to admitted that they would have been happier doing their regular job, instead of holding a sign for hours at a time. I watched another queue monitor very actively and enthusiastically, protect a line from potential queue jumpers. Even the daily, small parade the snaked through the show floor was full of the same Cast enthusiasm and professionalism as any I’ve seen in the Parks.

 

 

I was not successful in getting into any of the big announcement sessions like Movies and Theme Parks. But, I was prepared for that possibility and still managed to attend 8 panel discussions over the 3 days of the Expo. Without exception, all the speakers and panel members, not all of whom are professional presenters, were entertaining and engaging. Many that stood out for me were presented by the Disney Archives group, including:

d23 expo archives logo

Bill Cotter, TV Historian and author, gave us a behind the scenes look at the Zorro TV series, including behind the scenes pictures, casting accounts, and stories about the program’s promotions in Disneyland. He also emphasized, that unlike other TV shows of the day, Walt insisted on spending extra money and effort, to insure that the stories, sets and costumes were historically accurate. After Bill’s presentation, I now think the series doesn’t get its due as part of the Disney cannon.

Steve Merritt and Legendary Imagineeer Tony Baxter took us through history of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough from its Walt inspired idea to promote the soon to be released movie, all the way to the current re-incarnation of the original attraction. There were with blueprints, photographs and amazing stories of the design, engineering, execution, abandonment and recreation of the attraction.

Hans Perk, Animation Historian, took us for a virtual tour of the Disney Hyperion studios, allowing us to see where many iconic photos of Walt and Co. were taken during some of the studio’s most important and creative period from 1926 to 1940. I’ve read a lot about the studio. “Seeing” it as the odd configuration of buildings, put together to meet the growing demands of Walt’s imagination, allowed me to get a sense of the tremendous that he fueled with his energy and enthusiasm.

Fun, laughter and excitement was all around the Expo panel rooms and show floor. I saw people showing off their newly acquired treasures, sharing stories of surprises, even some disappointments. I and others shared our food with those who didn’t plan as well, graciously saved spaces in line for bathroom runs and even offered to sell. without markup, an extra limited edition item to someone who was less fortunate.

Some Expo surprises:

A daily parade on the show floor, complete with celebrities like Mark Hamil and Stan Lee.

Free cold brewed ice coffee with nifty Disney designs

A picture in the D23 lounge area which included my wife and I, taken during the NYC ,Gold Member, Behind the Scenes Event. We’re in the middle of the back row.

A free Gold Member gift

gold member gift

The Lion King 360° VR Experience let me virtually experience the Broadway musical from onstage. I could all around, in the wings, out in to the audience and into the flies as the opening scene at Pride Rock unfolded.

And, finally, admidst the thousands of people on the show floor, I ran into two people that I know from my NYC Disney fan group. And I got the chance to meet some Facebook friends for the first time.

There’s so much more to tell about my Expo experience. After something like the Expo, I usually find that I’ve taken photos of all the wrong things and missed other opportunities to capture the moments. I’ll post some of my photos here, anyway. Yes, there are things that I thought could have been done that might have made the Expo even better. But for now, I think I’m satisfied to share the things that made the Event so much fun for me. I’m sure I’ll be able to feed off the memories for some time. Hopefully the magical glow will last until the next time.

me at expo

 

Walt Disney Goes to the Fair

world fair ticketjpgIn last week’s NYC D23 event recap “Behind the Scenes Experience: Magic in Manhattan & More”, I did a quick flyover of Disney’s contributions to the 1964 NY World’s Fair. There’s way more to that story. Just as Walt used the Silly Symphonies shorts to test and perfect animation skills needed for his animated masterpiece, Snow White, he used the NY Fair to improve Disneyland.

Walt grew up at the tail end of the World’s Fair era and probably attended at least one. The Fairs were opportunmoses newsweekjpgities for countries, companies and organizations to offer a taste of current accomplishments and future promise.  Although today you could argue we can get much more from the internet and we don’t have to wait years for it to come to our part of the world.  But, we also don’t get the advantage of being able to “touch” things. But there was a time that cities like NY and Paris would spend tons of money to bring the world to their Fairs. By 1964, fair mania had begun to wane. So, it’s no surprise that when Fair organizer Robert Moses was looking for a sure-fire way to drive attendance, he approached Walt to contribute the Disney touch. Walt jumped in with great enthusiasm. But not just because he liked World’s Fairs.

As usual, I won’t assume all my readers are familiar with the subject matter. So, first a little background on the ’64-65 NY World’s Fair. The brainchild of Moses, the self-styled urban planner, road builder, and master of disaster (couldn’t help let my negative view sneak in), the Fair was intended to last three years, make money for investors, and create a public park as a City legacy. It was billed as an international festival dedicated to “Peace Through Understanding” and a showcase of American industry. Walt even promoted it in a dedicated episode of The Wonderful World of Color called “Disneyland goes to the World’s Fair”.

In typical Disney TV fashion, the episode not only educated us on World’s Fair history, but plugged the Disney attractions. The work on the Fair put an enormous strain on WED, which had been working furiously for four years since Disneyland’s opening, adding new, innovative attractions like the Matterhorn Bobsleds (first steel rollercoaster) and building the world’s 8th largest navy for the Submarine Voyage. Why, then, with the success of Disneyland, would Walt turn his attention away from his latest labor of love?

Walt & Roy

Walt & Roy Disney

Walt may have been motivated to invest heavily in the Fair by two things. First, he was already considering locations for an “East coast” Disneyland and wanted to gauge interest. The “smart” money was saying Eastern intellectuals wouldn’t take to the wholesome entertainment that had drawn millions to Disneyland. Second, Walt’s typically ambitious plans for Disneyland, were, as usual, outpacing funding. Many would, rightfully, argue it was Roy Disney’s financial acumen that helped make everything possible. But, Walt had already proven through the Disneyland TV program deal, that using his instincts he could find ways get what he wanted by using other people’s money.

To maintain control over the Disneyland project, Walt had created a separate company, WED Enterprises (Walter Elias Disney), to do the development. Walt saw an opportunity to get deep pocketed corporations, inexperienced in theme parks, to fund newwed logo technologies and attractions. WED was already staffed with many future Disney legends like John Hench, Rolly Crump, Marc & Alice Davis, Mary Blair, and Bob Gurr who would drive theme park innovation, design and engineering for decades. Walt simply asked them to work on a few more projects. It seems he always made it sound so easy, no one questioned the effort it would take. They just went to work creating miracles.

Ultimately, the Fair drew less people overall than had been expected, lost money and a planned third season was cancelled. But, the popularity of Disney’s four pavilions, Pepsi’s It’s a Small World, GE’s Progressland, (including the Carousel of Progress), Illinoi’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Ford’s Magic Skyway convinced Walt that an Eastern theme park would work. (He probably knew already, but needed to convince others)

As a Disney fan, today, I remember visiting Small World, COP and the Skyway at the Fair as a child (No memory of Lincoln). Little did I know then that the Fair would launch many celebrated innovations that would change theme parks and more forever. Before we get to the pavilion work, I want to mention one of the less celebrated Disney innovations introduced at the Fair, perhaps, more impactful to the world than any of the headliner attractions.

progressland lines

Walt, never let a good problem go to waste. Long waits at Disneyland attractions were commonplace from day one. The Fair, no exception, had similar lines. Walt had his people study the lines at the fair to devise new methods for queue management. In my recent tour of the Fairgrounds in Flushing, NY (see my previous post) I learned that the lines for the COP were crazy long, especially in the hot humid months of July and August. The solution was razing an unfinished building behind the Progressland pavilion and turning it into a covered overflow queue area. This area had the first use of the now familiar switch-back queuing system. Before you dismiss the significance of this creative solution, think about how often you encounter this kind of line system. It’s everywhere there’s a line that needs to be managed.

The four Disney attractions had some common elements that put them, consistently, at the top of everyone’s list of Fair favorites. First, if you keep my queue story in mind, except for Lincoln, which was a stage show, they were designed to maximize rider capacity. Attractions, today, like Small World and Pirates move people through by the hundreds an hour. Early Disneyland’s low capacity rides like The Rainbow Mountain Stagecoach Ride and The Phantom Boats didn’t last long. At the Fair, WED Imagineerssmall world boat tackled capacity issues with the debut of three different ride systems. Small World and Skyway were originally planned as walk-throughs. But, herding large numbers of people efficiently through was not Walt’s of showing off. The Small World boat system, designed by transportation genius, Bob Gurr, proved so efficient that it has been used in other attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and other theme parks.

Small World still moves ‘em through in all of its worldwide incarnations. But, the ride system in the Ford Magic Skyway proved to be even more groundbreaking. The only requirement Ford had was that guests ride in actual Ford cars. Gurr and the WED Ford-Magic-Skywaygeniuses modified the cars so they were individually propelled underneath by a track. Sounds simple now. But, according to a Gurr, the Ford system took longer to design than to build Disneyland. He tells a story that because the cars were different lengths and had no bumpers, around certain turns they would smack into each other. The banging magic skyway carcaused broken lights and damage. The Imagineers solved the problem with track design and a complex set of rules about which cars could be next to each other. And they employed a full time crew of car body repairmen during the run of the Fair to fix damage that still occurred. The Magic Skyway transport system is the grandfather of theme park, dark ride systems and is still used at The Haunted Mansion as well as powering the recent Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure rides in both U.S. parks and many other rides. If you get on a continuously loading ride anywhere with all the cars connected, and it turns as the ride progresses so you face the action, you’re probably riding Skyway’s descendant, an Omnimover or a version of it.

Much of Disney’s early animation success was built on the use of music to enhance the entertainment value of his films. Since Walt viewed theme parks attractions as another story telling method, the second common Fair attraction element was music. The Sherman brothers created two of the most famous ear worms in entertainment history. Both It’s a Small Word After All and It’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow, not only, stick with riders long after exiting the attraction but they artfully reinforce the overall theme of both experiences. Since Walt did not copywrite Small World, his gift to the world has become the most publicly played song of all time.

The ride systems were certainly innovative and continue to be improved upon. Yet, it’s a different gadget that we all have come to love in Disney attractions and in lots of other walt-disney-tiki-roomplaces. Legend has it that the first Audio-Animatronics appeared in the Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963 because of a small mechanical bird Walt found in an antique shop. But, as usual, after simple figures in the Tiki Room and Jungle Cruise, Walt wanted to do more. He used the Fair to apply the patented technology to depicting people. The Lincoln figure turned out to be the most complex, “robot” at the time. It was so convincing, many guests left the show thinking that it was a real actor. AAs are used in many Disney park attractions and other theme parks. There are about 300 figures alone in Small World. Pirates in Disneyland has 53 AA animals, and 75 pirates and villagers. It wasn’t easy lincoln aagetting Lincoln to behave. In fact, the President missed his targeted opening date. Walt had to tell a room full of VIPs that he wouldn’t present the show until it was perfect. Finally, the WED Imagineers solved the problems and the show opened to rave reviews. The same design was used for the COP figures. These days, it’s hard to think of Disney, or, for that matter, many theme parks without thinking about AAs. Decades after their introduction, they continue to be added and improved in new attractions and new theme parks.

cop act 1Everyone at WED who was involved with the Fair has said that while Walt was involved with all the projects, there’s more of Walt in Carousel of Progress than anything WED ever did. The show captured much of the sensibilities with which he infused all his creative work. It has a nostalgic Midwestern feel. The GE sponsorship allowed the characters to celebrate one of Walt’s favorite themes, the march of innovative technology making lives better. The design of the rotating theater was a way to mimic the quick transitions done in film. The Carousel Theater was guest-friendly and efficient enabling the theater sections to entertain six audiences simultaneously. With a new show starting every four minutes no one had to wait for long show to end to enter. WED employees who were around, say Walt put the final touch in place by adding a “weenie”, the dog, to each of the scenes.

Walt also had a giant model of “Progress City” seen through the windows in the last scene, which guests could get a better look at when exiting the theater. Take a look at my posts, The Unfulfilled Promise of E.P.C.O.T. and The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T. to learn more about Progress City and Walt’s interests in urban planning and leveraging cop last sceneAmerican industry’s innovative abilities. Walt had already begun buying up land in Florida, so those plans must have been already percolating. You can still sneak a quick peak at a portion of the model of Walt’s ideas for the city of the future when you ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover.

The Magic Skyway had similar city of the future themes, focused on humorous AA scenes of innovation over the centuries, like the invention of the wheel. The Skyway track system concept was used to create the WEDWay PeopleMover ride at Disneyland a few years later and was to be an integral part of Walt’s Prototype Community in Florida. Disney Imagineers also contributed tiny scale models of Scenes from 11 nations, past and present in the International Garden as guests entered the Ford pavilion.

thames model for ford

Always the innovator and always the promoter, Walt saw the Fair as a multi-faceted opportunity dinos in disneylandto extend the Disney brand and worked it out so that Small World, Lincoln and COP would have future homes at Disneyland. Sadly, the only physical part of the Magic Skyway salvaged was the dinosaur AAs, which found a new home in the Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad.

Much of the work that went into the creation of the attractions continues to impact how theme park entertainment is designed and executed. All the Disney parks around the world except for Shanghai have a version of Small World. And boat ride systems are used in theme parks around the world. The Fair themes of peace and innovative advancement were central to how Disney built his company.  While many of the attractions were designed to educate the public, Disney Fair attractions, made the medicine go down easier by infusing humor such as in COP, whimsy in Small World and wow factor experienced in Lincoln and Magic Skyway. The two years in NY may represent the beginning of the end for what people nostalgically think of when they “remember” World’s Fairs. The contributions of Walt and his magical Imagineers are probably one of the reasons the 1964 Fair remains an iconic example of creativity, innovation and invention.

 

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