Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Walt Disney World Resort’

Opening Days Excitement at Disney Parks

As a baseball fan, there’s something special about the opening weeks of the season. Every team, even my, often disappointing, NY Mets has a chance to be in the World Series teams. Every team is a contender, even the ones that the “experts” have written off before the first pitch of the first game.

Disney MGM plaqueBetween the recent opening of Shanghai Disneyland, the soon to be opened Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxies Edge, the construction going on at EPCOT and other announcements for more to come at that park, we are seeing an investment in Disney Theme Parks that rivals the Michael Eisner era of Disney-MGM and Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and new attractions in the U.S. We could call it Disney’s Opening Days.

Starting with Toy Story Land, then all the cool new stuff that we are about to feast our Disney lovin’ eyes on in the next couple of years, this is just like the start of the baseball season. All of it carries the possibility of a winning season for Disney theme parks. But, before I finish this line of thought, I want to return to my baseball reference.

There have been a number of quality sports movies, some of them feature baseball like (this Blogger’s opinion), The Natural, Pride of the Yankees, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. There have been just as many bad sports movies (many people’s opinion), like The Babe, Mr. Baseball, and The Fan. Disney has recently made its fair share of decent baseball movies including The Rookie and Million Dollar Arm. And two outstanding animated shorts.

 

In 1942, (42 was also Jackie Robinson’s uniform number) in conjunction with The Pride of the Yankees ( Lou Gehrig died the same year), Disney released the first of the “How to” series featuring Goofy called, not surprisingly How to Play Baseball. Samuel Goldwyn of MGM sent Disney the Pride script and asked him to create a short, to run with the film.

Watch “How to Play Baseball”

How-To-Play-BaseballGoofy was a perfect foil for the quiet, calm demeanor of Gehrig, the lunch pail, everyman, considered one of the greats of the game. Aside from contributions from many of the “Nine Old Men” and Bill Tytla, Disney relied on George Stallings, one of his story artists, whose father managed the old Boston Braves, to insure that the film was accurate as well as funny.

nine-old-men

The Nine Old Men: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl.

Goofy PitchingDisney’s patriotism is in full view as the piece opens with a billowing American flag and a description of the game as the American Pastime. The game may have started in a field in Hoboken New Jersey, but the depiction of baseball stadiums located in urban centers was appropriate for the time period. I love the mention of gum as an Goofy Hittingimportant part of the game. Even today, dugouts in every league are supplied with huge boxes of the stuff. The short is full of gags explaining and depicting how the game is played. It includes knocking the cover off the ball, which was later “copied” by the hero in The Natural. It ends with a donnybrook (bench clearing brawl) and a last shot of the American flag.

Johnny_EversThe other baseball short feature the iconic figure of Mighty Casey as part of the feature, Make Mine Music, released in 1946. The short is based on a 1888 poem Casey at the Bat published in the San Francisco Examiner. The war years were tough for the Disney studio. I offered a view in my post Working Through the War. It wouldn’t surprise me if Walt was looking back at the happier days of his youth. Like, many of that era, before television, most people were not able to attend a professional game. Most were played during the day. (Imagine that?) So, the baseball of Walt’s childhood would have been local teams or pick-up games. He may have followed newspaper accounts of the St. Louis Cardinals the Chicago or Kansas City teams, the Cubs or White Sox.

wrigley field 1920s

Chicago’s Comisky Park 1920s

Casey posterThe lyrical nature of the original poem probably appealed to Walt’s artistic sensibilities. And the colorful description of the action, peppered with baseball terms, many still used today, no doubt, presented his gag men with plenty with which to work. “Cooper died at first”, “tore the cover off the ball” “Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.” I encourage you to read the short poem. It’s long on great imagery like this stanza:

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip

caseys cornerjpgIt’s practically a ready-made storyboard. Disney and staff took great liberties with the text and added a couple of songs. But, overall, they kept the Main St USA feeling while sticking to the drama of the story as it builds to its climax. Walt would return to this slice of Americana theme many times in films and Disneyland. The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World still has a Casey’s on Main St. They serve hot dogs, of course.

Baseball was even part of Disney company life at Hyperion Studios. According to the Disney archives, not only were there regular ball games, but Walt would swing the lumber himself.

 

When Walt built his new studio in Glendale, it included a ball field.

To return to my earlier Opening Day analogy, there is a lot of speculation by experts and wanna-be experts about what the major investments in the Parks will deliver. Disney theme park lovers gobble up every press release, official or unofficial photos and artist’s renderings, looking for insight into how the Disney team will perform when we reach each addition’s opening day.  Then we all go at it like the talking heads on ESPN, dissecting whatever details we’ve been able to lay our hands on.

There’s a great section in the book “Shoeless Joe”, which inspired Field of Dreams spoken by the writer character baseball. Joe Jackson, was a member of the infamous Black Sox team that was punished for throwing the World Series in 1919. (Graham is a character in the story):

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. American has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erase again. But baseball has marked time while American has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history like calico dresses, stone crockery and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian head penny in a handful of new coins.”

Terrance Mann in “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella

Can’t resist including James Earl Jones doing this section in the movie, Field of Dreams.

Walt seemed to embody that same sense of America. He wanted to push the limits and remake areas of the entertainment industry, to push into the future with his bulldozers. But like a base runner, he wanted to keep one toe on the base of what he saw as the greatness of America’s past.

So, rather than worry about whether the Toy Story Land will take Disney Studios out of the half day visit category, or whether Galaxies Edge will meet our pent up expectations for a truly immersive experience, lets enjoy the Disney Opening Days, when all the new additions are ready to be beloved for many years to come.

Baseball is a great teacher of an important secret of living: the giving and taking in the group, the development of qualities and behavior that will stand us in good stead through life in pursuits both personal and professional.

Walt Disney

Disney and Colonna

Disney with Jerry Colonna

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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.

 

Imagineers Still Tell Stories

This is the first in an occasional series on highlights of attraction Imagineering

Disney Imagineering bookI’ve been reading a large format book called “Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Scenes Look at Making More Magic Real”. I’m fascinated by the all aspects of the work Imagineers do to heighten our theme park enjoyment. It’s a very long title for a book that doesn’t actually require very much reading. The book is broken down in to sections of 2-4 pages, each focused on a specific element of the visible or behind the scenes work that goes into the creation of a Disney theme park attraction or park element, like signage, plants, colors, etc. For theme park geeks aficionados, like myself, the numerous pictures, drawing, paintings and photos may be worth the price of the book. The book covers aspects of all the parks including the recent Shanghai Disney from major attractions like Space Mountain to buildings like those on Main St. USA or the various Castles around the world.

 

The book has a section on how theme park attractions are storyboarded long before any plans are drawn up. This approach to story was, of course, pioneered by Walt for movie making and has been adopted by the Imagineers. This inspired me to think about the attractions I think Imagineers have used story, a topic I’ve covered before in “Why Writers Matter”, to enhance our ride experience, from the moment we approach the attraction entrance. My personal experience is with Disney World and Disneyland, so I’m going to limit my opinions to only those parks. And, since Imagineered story telling begins as soon as we approach the attraction I want to focus on appearances and queues, rather than the ride portion which receives a lot of attention.

In this post, I want to look at 2 of my favorite story telling attraction that are in both parks. While some of the physical approaches are different, I think they are excellent examples of the Imagineer’s work.

IMG_6443

Pirates of the Caribbean

In an earlier post, “The Pirates Paradox” I discussed the continued success of the last attraction for which Walt had direct input. Approaching the attraction, the differences in the story are immediate. In Disneyland, Pirates is part of New Orleans Square. So, the building architecture reflects the antebellum style and takes us to the Gulf of Mexico, where Pirates surely must have made use of that great port.

Disneyland Pirates EntranceThe leisurely, winding queue with a large tree and evocative lantern lights, gives us time to admire the facade and finally brings us up on the porch as a guest of the house.

 

Once inside, we hear the parrot, we see the skull and cross bones and the treasure map right away the pirate and water themes begins to take shape.

Pirate treasure manp

I did say I wasn’t going to discuss the ride itself, but in this case, I think, due to Disneyland space limitations, the Imagineers continued the story telling prologue as our boats glide silently through the Bayou, complete with fireflies, the songs of toads and the lazy strumming of a banjo. By the time we make it to the first waterfall, we are completely immersed in the sensual language of the Bayou’s sights and sounds and the smell of water, in a time when Caribbean pirates terrorized coastal cities and enjoyed the spoils of their plunder.

Pirates View from BlueBayou

In WDW, the entrance evokes the Spanish built forts that dotted the islands of the Caribbean. The reddish, clay, Spanish roof tiles are very prominent as are the Moorish, arched doorways, the yellow, stuccoed, exterior walls and the tower.

The arched doorways beckon us forward, inside the darker and damp interior of the fort. Just above the large wooden doors with wrought iron handles the familiar PotC skull and crossbones and just a snippet of the song we’ll hear throughout most of the boat ride written above.

pirates interior entrancePirates WDW doorsOn the other side of the turnstile, we see heavy chains and large, wrought iron lanterns, and the airy high ceilings give way to a closer feeling of stone walls and lower arched hallways. Wooden barrels, a crow’s nest and other tall, ship items are found around every corner as the hallway narrows and gets darker. Ominous background music is heard, and voices echo as we pass cannon and cannonballs, and skeletal remains of pirates, until we reach the loading area.

pirates wdw queue entry

pirates wdw cannon

pirates wdw chessBoth versions maintain the kind of cinematic feel with which Walt so carefully crafted into most of his successful Disneyland attractions. Those of you who have seen a written screenplay, can see how either description above could be the opening camera shots of a movie. If you’ve never seen a screenplay, here’s an example of the opening to “The Empire Strikes Back”, which, like Disney theme park attractions, sets the scene with no need for dialogue.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – HELICOPTER SHOT – DAY

A white snowscape races toward camera … the MAIN

TITLE quickly recedes, followed by a roll-up.

Episode V:

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK …
After the destruction of its
most feared battle station, the
Empire has declared martial law
throughout the galaxy.

A million worlds have felt the
oppressive hand of the Emperor
as He attempts to crush the
growing rebellion.

As the Imperial grip of tyranny
tightens, Princess Leia and the
small band of freedom fighters
search for a more secure base of
operations …

The roll-up disappears into the black horizon.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – HELICOPTER SHOT – DAY

The camera tilts down bringing into view a small
figure galloping across the windswept ice slope.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – DAY

A closer panning shot reveals a bundled rider on a
large gray snow lizard, called a TAUNTAUN.  Curving
plumes of snow rise from beneath the speeding paws
of the two-legged beast

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – SLOPE – DAY

The rider gallops up a slope and reins his lizard to
a stop.

EXT PLAINS OF HOTH – SLOPE – DAY

He pulls off his protective goggles.  It is LUKE
SKYWALKER.  He notices something in the sky and takes
a pair of electro-binoculars from his utility belt.

EXT PLAIN OF HOTH – LUKE’S POV – DAY

From LUKE’S POV, we follow a bright object as it falls
to the ground.  On the distant horizon, an explosion
marks the point of impact.

The queues are very different in each Park. In Florida the Imagineers had the luxury of more space to let us wander the inside of the “fort” and get a feel for how long the Pirates have been gone. In Disneyland, they focused on the journey the Pirates would have taken over water. It’s hard for me to pick one I prefer over the other so I’ll let their merits speak for themselves.

Jungle_cruise_disneyland_posterJungle Cruise

One of my other favorite story intros is the Jungle Cruise.  In both parks, Imagineers were given limited space to set the stage. The queue areas help us understand a number of important story elements. First, and foremost is time and place.

WDW jungle cruise entrance

Walt Disney World

As we progress through the winding queue of offices and storage areas, there’s a variety of travel posters, camping and safari equipment, shipping boxes as well as period furniture. Almost everything looks old, worn, dusty and rusty.

In the Disney World Jungle Cruise queue there are jokes and puns everywhere.The soundtrack is a jazzy music set of tunes that is not always recognizable, with many interruptions from the music announcer “Albert Awol”. The announcements focus on the ineptness of the tour company with pleas for new skippers and many safety warnings. The overall impression is slightly slick, kind of professional radio station.

Since this version is a “copy” of the original in Disneyland, I think there was a charm sacrifice with more attention paid to the humorous side of the attraction.

In Disneyland, the building looks like something out of an old movie serial about safaris in Africa.

disneyland jungle cruise entrance
Disneyland

The signage sets the stage for the touring company story, including this very cinematic looking title card.

Disneyland jungle cruise sign

There are less jokes overall in the original attraction. The focus when Walt created it was to take guests on a “realistic” boat trip to far off exotic lands.

In Disneyland, during the queue walk, the sound of a 1930s radio station plays period, popular music interspersed with a DJ providing humorous announcements on the Global Broadcasting System “The Voice of Civilization”. The messages play  up the “dangers” that lie ahead. The announcements, which are fewer in number, are actually coming attractions (foreshadowing) of what guests will see and encounter on the ride itself. The overall feeling of the background soundtrack is more of an amateur short-wave radio broadcast.

Both queues are contained within the tour company offices and storage areas. Once in the queue I find I forget that just a short distance away is a paved road and lots of other activity. The sounds of boat engines and the calls of the skippers pulls our attention toward the water like a director’s camera pulling us into the story. As you inch closer (depending on the crowd) you get glimpses of the boats with their familiar design and name plates. Both soundtracks make jokes about the weather being hot and humid, which, in Florida, is exactly what it feels like at certain time of the year.

Both Jungle Cruises use cinematic techniques, required by Walt in many of the original Disneyland attractions, to set the stage for the actual attraction ride. In typical Imagineering fashion, they don’t skimp on giving us a treat for our sense of sight and sound to provide the story introductions. These are the elements of storytelling that continue to set Disney theme park attractions apart from its competitors. It’s why, like Pirates, even though the basic technology of the attractions still dates to the 50s, I and many others continue to enjoy the experience over and over.

Jungle-Cruise-Walt-Disney

What are some of your favorite theme park, attraction stories the Imagineers have told?

Keep an eye out for the next in this series.

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable

walt and mickeyWe recognized some major calendar milestones in the months of November and December. The birth of Mickey Mouse in November as well as the birthday and anniversary of the passing of his creator Walt Disney. Walt was, without a doubt, always the creative driving force behind all the Disney successes and failures during his lifetime. But, the idea of Mickey and the amazing animators and artists who gave him life were not responsible for his meteoric and continued success. For that, Walt left nothing to chance and imprinted himself on the character.

Mickey and Walt are forever linked. Mickey was created out of an act of business

Mickey_Mouse_concept_art

Earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse

survival. Losing Oswald the Rabbit to a sneaky film promoter, which, while it might have led to the end of Disney brother’s company, lit the fires of Walt’s imagination, leading to the creation of the mouse that still roars. It’s likely that the spark of creation that was Mickey Mouse would keep the character close to his heart for many years. It’s not surprising that Walt couldn’t find a suitable voice for the character. And, he didn’t relinquish the role until 1946. Even though, by then he was incredibly busy overseeing many films in development and production, he knew he was the only one who could give voice to a character that was really an extension of himself – an alter ego, perhaps.

Early Mickey Mouse

It isn’t surprising, then, that the many of the early shorts are full of many settings and situations that show Walt’s fingerprints. Farms and farm animals are well represented in shorts like The Barn Dance, The Plowboy and Musical Farmer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that trains, something close to Walt’s heart, figured prominently in Mickey’s Choo Choo.

And, while Walt never showed any particular musical abilities, the films make judicious use of music, to drive the action and the gags. Anything became an instrument from animal teeth, spaghetti, train tracks, boat and train whistles, even ducks, chickens, animals and more traditional instruments. Walt clearly understood the importance of music and he continued to use to maximum effect in all of his films.

We can be assume that since Walt probably approved every script and frame of the early shorts, it’s interesting how the early Mickey had many of Walt’s personality characteristics. Like Walt, Mickey is forever optimistic, whether he’s trying to build and fly do-it-yourself airplanes, courting Minnie, or cheering her up after rescuing her from the ocean. Mickey’s also a problem solver. Many of the problems he encounters are of his own making, but he always finds a way to get things done. Walt was always creating problems for himself and his staff, creatively and technologically. Many of the difficult situations arose because Walt was always pushing the limits of what could be accomplished in the mediums of animation, film and theme parks. But, he always managed to match the right person to the difficult tasks whether it was making X Atencio a songwriter or recognizing Bob Gurr’s wizardry with wheeled machines.

Walt also instilled Mickey with his own brand of small town, childish humor. Many of the shorts include situations that involve cow’s udders, Minnie’s bloomers, and the use of outhouses. I’ve read that, even though he gave a kind of buttoned up image, Walt was very fond of what we would call today, bathroom humor. Other accounts told of him adding many of those kinds of gags to early animated shorts, much to the chagrin of some of the other creatives on the staff.

In his own way, this early Mickey is a take charge guy who doesn’t hesitate to ask Minnie to get on stage and play an instrument, or want to drive the steamboat. All accounts describe Walt as someone who wanted things his way or not at all. Even though the company started out in 1923 as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, in 1925 Walt informed his partner and brother that the studio would henceforth be called Walt Disney Studio. He said that it was his name that they were building the company around. I don’t think he wanted any audience doubt about who was in charge. The lack of credit accorded to the people doing the heavy lifting part of the work was the reason why his long time friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks left him to work elsewhere. Given how important Iwerks was to the fledgling Studio’s success, many in Walt’s shoes would have done anything to keep such a valuable asset. But, Walt hardly missed a beat.

As Walt got further away from hands on work with Mickey, you can see changes in the character that practically built the Studio. The changes may have been due to others taking over primary responsibility for story and character. Not only did Mickey’s look change, certainly approved by Walt, but he began to mirror more of contemporary society.

mickey-mouse-gallery-03

No longer the chaos creating scamp of the early shorts. Mickey settled in as a more dapper and conventional man of the 40s and 50s. Pluto is the ever present man’s best friend and we often see Mickey in more indoor settings. Instead of stealing kisses from Minnie by scaring her with loop the loops in a plane, he courts her with flowers and gallantry. It’s possible Walt thought that the symbol of his company should be more accessible and politically correct. But, it’s also possible that Mickey had a personality transplant.

The image of Mickey today is that of a corporate ambassador. He’s someone you want to hug or expect to obediently ride atop a parade float rather than execute a practical joke with him. With the occasional excursion into something more like the old days as we recently saw in Pixar’s Get a Horse.

Mickey is a model citizen showing off a very large wardrobe at the Parks and other public appearances. There’s nothing wrong with the Mickey that recent generations have come to know and love. We may not want to admit it. But we all age and slow down.

In the wake of the spectacular success of the animated features, by the 1040s Mickey was no longer starring in his own shorts. Fantasia had originally been considered as a feature that would star Mickey. Walt changed direction and created a ground breaking art piece. But, Walt kept Mickey in there. And, as his last contribution to the legend of Mickey Mouse, he left us with what may be one Mickey’s most iconic images – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with his oversized robe and the wizard’s hat. That Mickey lives on in many forms including being adopted as the mascot of Disney Imagineering.

Walt_Disney_Imagineering

It’s only natural that future generations may gravitate or identify more with characters in the Marvel and now 21st Century worlds. I think everyone will still have a soft spot for the Mouse that started it all, even if they don’t understand the important role that Mickey played in making everything we associate with Disney in the 21st century possible. I do hope that as long as Mickey is the symbol of the Disney Company, we will continue to be reminded of Walt Disney himself.

 

Keeping Walt’s Vision of EPCOT Alive

October 1st of this year marked the 35th Anniversary of EPCOT’s opening day. Since there’s a lot out there on the web to help us relive or discover that landmark day in Walt Disney World history, I am going to stick to my mission statement and explore how one part of the redefinition of EPCOT’s mission statement still may carry some of Walt’s original ideas for what he called “The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”. For those who would like to learn about or explore some of the Park’s background which Walt had imagined and planned, take a look at my previous posts The Unfulfilled Promise of  E.P.C.O.T. which offers Walt’s original vision for EPCOT and The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T where I look at the parts of his plan that are still evident throughout Walt Disney World.

I’m not sure that we can find any of the actual prototyping that the Community WaltWDW-Water-078 hoped would lure big thinkers to EPCOT and encourage the development of life changing creativity. It’s still has the vestiges of a community in the World Showcase. Visitors can interact with ambassadors from different countries who still bring a touch of far off places to the permanent world’s fair. Granted, they are mostly involved with selling something or showing us to a table and serving food. But, I’ve found it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the expat Cast Members who are usually happy to talk proudly about their home country and what it’s like to spend an extended time in the U.S. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can, if you take the time, immerse yourself in the culture, art and products of 11 different countries.

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Disneyland Small World dedication

Walt didn’t pass up an opportunity to remind us we lived in a larger world, filled with different people. The Disneyland opening ceremony of It’s a Small World featured over 50 foreign consulate representatives along with children wearing the traditional dress of many countries. Some of these children helped Walt pour water collected from every ocean plus major rivers and bodies of water from around the world into the flume, truly symbolizing the attraction’s theme of global unity. That message was re-affirmed at EPCOT’s opening ceremony  with a special “International Ceremony of the Waters”. Cultural representatives from 29 nations traveled to Epcot from around the world. Each one brought with them a container of water from their nation and poured it into the Fountain of Nations.

fountain of nations

EPCOT Fountain of Nations dedication

While the future of EPCOT is still up in the air and will continue to be redefined by 21st century Disney management and Disney Imagineering, I would be hard pressed to call EPCOT a view of tomorrow. That would have required more attention to the club coolexperimentation Walt had hoped would result in something that would change or improve people’s lives. The only real experimentation going on at EPCOT is trying Coca Cola products at Club Cool. That and Disney working on new things to keep visitors coming to the Park while they complete construction on new attractions in an effort to redefine the Park’s story.

However, I believe that Walt and the WED staff of the sixties and seventies, would not be unhappy with one growing part of EPCOT – the festivals that have become annual occurrences. Walt’s vision of EPCOT was shaped by his turn of the century birth and early 20th century life experience. It was filled confidence that science could solve many of the world’s problems.  Nascent space travel programs, the eradication of terrible diseases like polio were in the news every day, as were problems of poverty, hunger and a desire to move up the economic and social ladders in cities, here and around the world. Walt’s life was certainly defined by his generation’s versions of those changes and issues.

epcot downtown

Herb Ryman Concept Art

It does seem, though, that Walt’s original vision of a community that would attract industry and people to solve problems, educate and improve the world by developing and testing new applications of science and technology is giving way to Park that uses technology, some of it created by the Disney company, to entertain. But, that spirit to open people’s eyes to possibilities for a better world is in full display at the three annual festivals that lure thousands to a park that some would ordinarily have passed on (“Too much walking”, “So many attractions are closed”, “The attractions are so old” “Nothing new to see”).

F&W logo

The oldest one is The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival. F&W expands the on the menus of the permanent World Showcase restaurants and adds culinary offerings from additional countries, including Belgium, Australia, Brazil, Greece, India, Ireland and others. Visitors get the chance to sample foods from around the world without reservations, big meal prices or long time investments. Themed offerings like Brewer’s Collection, Cheese Studio, Chocolate Studio, or Coastal Eats, make it possible to sample and learn more about culinary, ingredients, beverages, styles and regions. The festival features more than 100 inventive chefs from many countries and the Disney World property, exposing us to ingredients and preparation techniques we might not have had an opportunity to try. As someone who loves to cook, I’ve come back from the Festival or seen reviews of dishes, ingredients or techniques that I can incorporate into my own cooking. Food has become an ambassador, perhaps encouraging or inspiring some to guests to visit other places in the world.

epcot f&w

2015

Flower-and-Garden-Festival-2017The same spirit of invention and education can be seen at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The Festival promotes the beautification our world. It’s also an opportunity to teach existing, new and innovative ways to translate professional landscape ideas and techniques to our homes and gardens. I would say anything that helps to reduce the destruction of green areas of our fragile planet is good for the Earth and good for us, its inhabitants. No one who visits Disneyland can miss the importance flowers, trees and other landscaping played in Walt’s vision for a modern them park. At the earliest stages of Disneyland construction, the team started planting, to insure Walt’s vision of a beautiful park would be realized on opening day.

Walt Disney World was an even bigger job to tackle, since much of the parks are built on what was once swampland. At WDW, trees and greenery are used to separate and keep the theming in place. Trees at the Wilderness Lodge, for example, keep guests glimpsing, close by, non-wilderness sites like the Future World architecture. In the Festival Center they present, they have a section called Horticulture Heritage which gives guests a peek into the importance Landscape had and has at The Magic Kingdom. To put a bow on things, Garden Rocks, a mini music festival, runs concurrently. Natural beauty and music are good ways to get us to disconnect from our devices and use our senses to rediscover the world around us.

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EPCOT_FestivaloftheArts_STYLEGUIDE_111416The most recent addition to the EPCOT is the Epcot International Festival of the Arts.  First presented in January 2017 it featured pieces from Disney historical artist Mary Blair and Herb Ryman art of Epcot, to current Disney artists Joe Kaminski and Costa Alavezos. I think it’s great that guests are being introduced or reminded of the artistic legacy that helped to build the entire Disney empire. Guests are not only surrounded by incredible visions, they’ll watch the creative process live. New art is created and revealed each weekend, so guests can look forward to a new experience every time they go. Other presentations include music and food. Study after study has shown how important the arts are to children and our overall happiness. Since 2018 will be only the second year of this Festival, I’m sure much will change as it has for the other two, more mature events. I would expect, given the planning and thought that Disney puts into all of its projects, that the Arts Festival will offer guests more reasons to visit EPCOT. This is the only EPCOT festival that I haven’t had the chance to experience for myself.

arts fest art

We’ll never know whether Walt’s original vision and purpose for EPCOT would ever have been realized. Recent and announced changes will continue to take the park in new directions that indicate movement away from the prototype community Walt had hoped to create. The Disney organization still l has a lot of work ahead to re-imagine the Park so it remains relevant and popular with guests. Walt had hoped that the Magic Kingdom would help to pay for the development and operation of his Community of Tomorrow, which was where he wanted to focus time attention and the financial means of the Disney Company to change the way we live. That lofty goal will need to be replaced by a more traditional Disney theme park that needs to attract guests and their vacation dollars in a park with unique entertainment value. There has been a recent flurry of announcements about changes to EPCOT including an update to Mission Space, a new ride based on Ratatouille, and replacing The Universe of Energy with a Guardians of the Galaxy coaster. There have been hints and rumors at more changes. I look forward to seeing the new park succeed.

walt film for epcot

Walt presenting “The Florida Project” 1966

Parades do More than Just Block the Path to Splash Mountain

When you search your memory banks, there are events that immediately come to mind. Certain birthdays, weddings, special anniversaries, even deaths are big markers on the Macys-Paradetimeline of our lives. They all involve a change in life – a year older, permanently adding or losing someone in your life. There are other lesser life changing events that happen many times throughout our lives that don’t register as quickly or at all. Until now, it hadn’t registered to me, that parades have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. You may ask (and you’d be justified) “With all of the important things going on in your life, hurricanes, nuclear threats, daily breaking political news, and missed dentist appointments, why have you fixed your keen eye on parades?”

elephants in nycMaybe, like Walt, I yearn for simpler times. I’ve watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade either on TV or in person for so long, that it could almost be a guest at the holiday table. The Rose Parade has been the kickoff to many a New Year’s day of college football. The town I live in has parades for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to Gary Pride Day and almost every other holiday of the year. My kids marched in those parades as part of school bands. I watched them march in those same bands for the NYC Columbus Day parade. I’ve been fortunate enough to actually watch the now defunct Ringling Brothers circus parade into NYC, complete with elephants.

st ferminI recently was on hand for the annual Festival of St. Fermin parade in Pamplona, Spain the week before the running of the bulls. There have been Halloween parades, Christmas parades, Mermaid parades (an annual Coney Island event), Easter parades and even Renaissance Faire parades. I’m fairly certain, with the possible exception of the Mermaids, that most of you could come up with a similar list. Yours might even be longer.

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Broadway and Films have featured parades as part of their overall message of happiness, rebirth and possibilities:

Barnum’s “Come Follow the Band

Hello Dolly’s “Before the Parade Passes By

The Music Man’s “Seventy-Six Trombones

Easter Parade” in the film of the same name

Disney’s Aladdin’s “Prince Ali

And nothing makes you want to march more than a Sousa military march

the-american-circus-parade_oxq6paWalt grew up in an era where travelling circuses where a common form of entertainment. He would have seen and possibly followed the circus parade into town designed to drum up interest before setting up tents just outside of town. And in keeping with his “let’s go back to a happier time” theme and knowing everyone loves a parade, Walt had a parade on opening day at Disneyland in 1955.

The parade was replete with several military marching bands, antique cars, knights, frontier and Native American horsemen, costumed and face characters, children, horse drawn carriages, covered wagons and streetcars, Autopia cars, and floats. Just like the circuses of old who used the parade to highlight what visitors would see, much of the Disneyland opening day parade was designed as a preview to highlight the four lands that guests would see during their Disneyland visit.

Most of us like surprises, even during out Disney Theme Park visit. But our days usually include a struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy or equilibrium. Our lives are often full of chaos these days. So, there’s something comforting about knowing that every day at 3 and then later that evening there is a Disney theme park parade. The parades entice us to slow down, grab an ice cream cone, cotton candy or a hot dog, listen for the announcements and wait for the music to start or the lights to dim along the parade route. I find that even if the parade temporarily blocks my path to get somewhere in the park, once the music, floats and characters is passing, I’m not that unhappy or frustrated. I settle in and enjoy the show. I have enjoyed some Disney parades more than others. But they all include a catchy tune, like

Remember the Magic

Spectromagic

Paint the Night

The Main St. Electrical Parade

Festival of Fantasy

Aside from the inevitable march of the parade forward, the floats, characters, dancers all create vignettes that tell a story in the minute or so it takes for them to pass by us and our attention is drawn to the next. It feels a little like the picture books I read to my kids. The page turns and we take in the new picture and get ready for the next part of the story. You can feel the legacy of Walt as he reminded his directors and Imagineers that without a good story, a parade is nothing more than moving noise.

It’s nice to know that when we escape to a Disney Theme park here in the U.S. we can count on a parade, twice a day, like clockwork. The floats are magical, the dancers create beautiful pictures and our we get to see some of our favorite Disney characters in a new or familiar setting. And unlike the parades in your hometown, you don’t need to get up early then spend the better part of the morning waiting. And you don’t have to worry about traffic being snarled for the who day while you try to get home. The Disney people have the parade thing down to a science. The parade ropes go up and come down almost by magic.

I’m not sure there’s any other show, with the exception of evening fireworks (which by the way are sandwiched between the two even parade showings. Coincidence? I think not) which draws as many people to watch There are some people who will forgo attractions and other events in the day, just to get a good spot on Main St. Live shows have come and gone, but the parades march on.

With all the chaos and tension in our world’s today, I have a suggestion. Go find a parade. Follow it or be in it. If you can’t find one, start one of your own. I’m certain you’ll get people to join in. Either way I think it will, at least, temporarily, transport you to a time when the only concern you had on your mind was whether the next pack of baseball cards would get you the last player on your favorite team or maybe what color t-shirt you should wear with your favorite jeans. It is possible, that without any of us being aware of it, Disney parades, or maybe any parades keep our world in balance.

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.

dreamfinder

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