Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Finding Walt’s DCA
Legend holds that Disney’s California Adventure was conceived on an executive retreat as a rebranding initiative that would alter the 50-year-old perception and meaning of the iconic “Disney” brand in the theme park marketplace. The usual MBA buzzwords, like “relevant and compelling” and “hip ‘n’ edgy” were bandied about in its creation, construction and marketing, a cynical attempt to create a second Anaheim gate that would appeal to people who didn’t much like Disney entertainment (such as the participating executives and their wives).
As we all know, the resulting DCA was stillborn, rejected by the general public, Disney fans, and even the anti-Disney elitists by and for which it was conceived. Poor Wolfgang Puck and Mondavi sat waiting for well-heeled patrons who never arrived - - as there was nothing much for them to see by any measure.
Neither truly inventive or risky, nor in any way traditionally warm and escapist Disney, the new park fell into a no-man’s land of marketing irrelevance, a generic Edsel merrily on its way to no where in particular. Tourists and locals alike went out of their way to avoid Disneyland’s ugly stepsister.
As the park was being planned, all efforts were focused on rejecting the “Walt” in Walt Disney. Hard won lessons of theme park design and layout - - sightlines and immersion, weenies and scenic vistas, art-direction and future planning, theme and detail, breakthrough technology and storytelling, surprise and wonder, even simple expressions of quality and beauty - - were left out of the equation. Such Imagineering notions were thrown out by change-agent executives as “old hat,” “traditionalist,” “purist”, unnecessary, irrelevant leftovers of a founder’s eccentric vision. There was nothing to be found in the “Disney difference” that would reflect current tastes or the retailing wisdom of Ivy League theory.
In DCA's charter vision, there would be no characters, no cartoons, no fantasy, no idealism, no screening out of the real world, and no escape from the commercial world of the now. DCA was a scheme for high return on investment, nothing more.
Traditional Imagineers issued warnings that throwing out the Walt would lead to DCA’s destruction - - but they may as well have been Jor-El confronting the Council during the death throes of the Planet Krypton. The traditionalists were ousted from the process. Creativity was not needed here.
Neither was Walt himself wanted. The film Golden Dreams tells the story of Californians who created state industry by honoring a pioneering filmmaker: Louis B. Mayer… not Walt Disney! The movie backlot is named for the colorless “Hollywood Pictures” instead of “Walt Disney Studios”!
The sharp-pencil boys would have to find out the hard way that indeed, old Walt was right. And so were his acolytes.
Five years later, much has changed. DCA is finally poised to embrace the Walt Disney traditions from which it was so tragically separated in infancy. Talk abounds of “placemaking,” redesigned entranceways and hubs, thrilling new attractions and scenic areas of beauty and relaxation, perhaps even weenies at the end of the streets.
But what is the central theme that binds these ideas into a greater whole? How does one integrate Walter Elias Disney, the man and the myth, into a rambling concept after-the-fact?
As new creators ruminate on how to recast the new DCA, they might do well to turn to the man who was rejected in its conception: Walt Disney.
The entire concept of DCA could be changed with the addition of a single signature building in the hub, one potent symbol that would compliment the 20th Century California and Hollywood themes and bring the spirit of Walt Disney home to Disneyland’s companion park.
Why not place a recreation of Walt Disney’s iconic Hyperion Studios at the hub of DCA?
With it’s classic Spanish-revival architecture and iconic neon Mickey Mouse/Silly Symphonies sign, the Hyperion building compliments the existing environment, and would herald to the public that Walt was finally invited to the party, that this park would now become a creative place where anything could happen, a magical studio from which to escape the dreary workaday world.
Maybe even Diane Disney Miller’s museum devoted to her father (currently planned for the Presidio in San Francisco) might find a more appropriate home in Anaheim, housed in this recreation of the Hyperion Studio. Even if this proved impractical, Walt’s offices, The Walt Disney Story, the now-Julie-Andrews-hosted One Man’s Dream film from WDW, all could find a permanent home at the center of a new Disney/Pixar Studios park.
And maybe Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, now returned to the Disney fold, could be the new DCA mascot to Disneyland's Mickey.
DCA could use Walt's DNA to find its heart and soul.