Sunday, April 09, 2006

Escape to Paradise


From the earliest days, Disneyland sought to create a convincing place-of-being for the guest. You became the “star” of a specific story - - or a visitor to exotic environments of another time and place.

The first Fantasyland rides cast each guest as the lead character. Snow White, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad and Alice were not seen in the original versions of the rides so you could take their place in the adventure. Likewise, walk-through set pieces like Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship, Tom Sawyer Island and the House of the Future, to name just a few, were meant to be experienced as complete virtual environments, not just “themed” modern attractions.

One of the most elaborate and lasting examples of this approach was the Swiss Family Treehouse.

For Christmas 1960, Walt Disney released one of his biggest motion picture blockbusters, an elaborate reinvention of the literary classic Swiss Family Robinson. The Panavision spectacular is noted for being shot nearly entirely on location, the then-remote Caribbean island of Tobago. Built in a real tree and fitted with “modern” conveniences scavenged from the remains of their ship, the Robinson treehouse was the film’s signature set, conceived from the sort of clever cartoon conventions on which the studio was founded.

In 1962, the Robinsons found a permanent home at Disneyland when their treehouse was recreated as an artificial “Disneydendron” looming high above the Jungle Cruise as Adventureland’s biggest “weenie.”

All of the amazing inventions of the clever castaways were built into this working model for the delight of Disneyland guests. A water wheel carried running water from a stream up to the main floors of the treehouse, a sunroof allowed the master bedroom to greet the skies, there were magnificent vistas of the jungle below, a fully equipped tropical kitchen and a library complete with an organ playing Buddy Baker’s catchy Swisskapolka. Heard throughout Adventureland and Frontierland (and beyond), the Robinson’s pumping pipe organ became one of the signature sounds of Disneyland.

Best of all, the treehouse was built as a you-are-there experience. With no figures or character representations to be seen, it was as if the guest had stepped into the Robinson home, into that other time and place, to find the house just as they left it. You were the star.

One felt as if the family were out battling pirates for the day and might return at any time. We were to momentarily take their place, making ourselves at home to appreciate their craft and ingenuity, their ability to survive – and thrive – through sheer imagination, resolve and stick-to-it-ivity. We could imagine ourselves living in their balmy world for just a few moments. This was truly an escape to paradise. Anaheim and the 20th Century were places far, far away.


The Swiss Family Treehouse became a staple of Disney parks around the world and all was well for the Robinson clan until the cost-cutting, brand harvesting management of the 1990’s, when much of Disneyland fell into disrepair for lack of maintenance reinvestment (via an executive apathy toward the historic treasures of Walt’s era). Since Swiss Family Robinson was not part of a contemporary merchandising scheme it was felt to be passé.

It was way past time for a major rehab. Limbs of the “Disneydendron” began to fall from neglect.

Ironically, the tree itself may have been saved by a synergistic opportunity. It would be reborn as a marketing tie-in to the upcoming animated feature Tarzan. With a corporate agenda to be serviced, a budget became available to makeover the attraction and the Robinsons were evicted from their treetop home.

But it wasn’t just the theme that changed, it was the very experience. When Tarzan’s Treehouse reopened to the public, it still had the same floor plan, but was now inhabited by stiff Disney Store-like mannequins posed in unmoving representational set pieces as seen in the Tarzan film. This changed the guest experience from a personal adventure on location to an observational viewpoint more akin to a wax museum.

The charming inventions of Walt and the Robinsons had been stripped-away, now replaced by children’s museum gimmicks like video projections and trick mirrors, tasked to sell a diorama story of Tarzan and his friends. The water wheel, ropes and pulleys were gone.... It was no longer a convincing walk-through, but a themed walk-past. We remained firmly grounded in the modern world of Southern California.

The once joyous Swisskapolka was now but a whisper, confined to a scratchy record in the trashed base camp as an homage to fans.

While Tarzan, as a new property, was certainly more familiar to young children, the original Swiss Family Treehouse never required a familiarity with the film or story to succeed in its illusion. All we needed to know was that a castaway family built a home in a tree. The new treehouse story was tied directly to Tarzan's marketable characters and scenes.

While we can be grateful that this maneuver may have spared the tree from extinction during Disneyland’s Dark Ages, we’ll have to echo the ennui of star James MacArthur who lamented, “It’s not every man who outlives his own monument,” at a screening of Swiss Family Robinson soon after the renovation.

As you read this, Disney’s big budget remake of Swiss Family Robinson is underway, with location shooting in Australia planned for later this year. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to reconnect Disneyland’s past with its future, to again provide guests with a tropical home-away-from-home; to let them be the star of their own exotic island adventure?

Just say Swisskapolka!

Tarzan photo by Jeff Keller: http://lostworld.pair.com/disneyland/index.html

51 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. I cannot say enough how disappointing the "re-imagining" of the Swiss Family Treehouse into Tarzan has been. The "You Are There" experience that was always one of the highlights of any trip to the Magic Kingdom or Disneyworld has been reduced to just another marketing machine---and an ugly one at that. Here's hoping the new movie will allow them to put things right again. If I have to hear any more Phil Collins music while walking by the treehouse, I'll chop it down myself!

BratStarMan said...

Your last picture says it all - the plastic Tarzan is a scary caricature of all that is Disney. A consistent theme in these posts is Disney park devolution - from imagineering to scaricature.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I never thought about it this way. Bravo!

I didn't even bother to visit Tarzan's Treehouse on my one and only trip to Disneyland thus far. I don't intend to do so on my next.

What a shame...

MrBaliHai said...

I grew up in the Southland and visited the park several times a year during the 1970s before moving to the Midwest. The treehouse was my favorite B-ticket attraction; I was particularly fond of the cool inventions and the old push-button organ that "played" the polka.

I haven't been to any of the parks for 10 years, so I'm horrified to learn about all of these poorly-done remodeling jobs like the Orlando Tiki Room and the treehouse. MBA/focus-group marketing at it's most cynical and lowest-common denominator.

I'm glad to see that some of you designers are pushing for a return to higher standards.

Klark Kent 007 said...

I am so glad we still have ours in Orlando, but it seems sacrilege to desecrate the original.

By the way it was packed this weekend with new castaways.

Anonymous said...

So many feelings and issues go thru my head when I read about these basic mistakes made by management. Swiss is a great timeless story that should retain it's place with its classic representation at the parks. If marketing was needed for Tarzan a new and seperate entity should have been commisioned.
But alas, we are soft hearted and remember the time when Walt told us the stories in his rich colorful
quality driven way.
Hopefully someone with that same understanding of storytelling and the drive to use the elements needed to tell a quality story will emerge and not be stifeled by the corperate straight jacket.
A mistake was made. This is the chance to make it right at DL and WDW(fix the water wheel...NOW!).

Anonymous said...

I used to love running through that tree as a kid in the 80's yelling, "Pirate alarm." Then was very sad to see it closed in the 90's

I have not seen it since, but if they could bring back that first person aspect, it would be great. My parents would say, that is so boring, and my brother and I would say, go get a dole whip while we play!!!

pariartspaul said...

Well written Merlin, and this is another example of how the entire park is becoming 'toonified' in the name of synergy. And now we have NEMO taking over the sub ride for the same reasons you write about here.

Why not forget about lands all together and just call the whole place Fantasyland? It would make it all so much easier wouldn't it?

Brian said...

I was never a fan of the treehouse, so I don't think I agree with this particular comment. I never felt like I was immersed in the exhibit and it always felt to me like it was little more than a wax museum without any wax figures. I never understood it's popularity.

I haven't seen the Tarzan refit, but I must admit that I think the treehouse needed something. I'm not sure just plopping down some static Tarzan figures was the right thing to do, but at least now I'd go check it out again.

I remember when I went on it I kept waiting for something to happen. The buildup was great - as it is with most every other Disney ride and exhibit - but I left feeling like I missed something. After I thought about it, I realized there wasn't anything to miss. It was just a walkthrough exhibit with nothing perticularly exciting or memorable.

I loved that the treehouse had all the elements of a good line for a ride, but as an exhibit on it's own, it just seemed to lack any excitement or lasting interest.

steve2wdw said...

Merlin, you've hit the nail on the head. I've been looking through old Disneyland and WDW Souvenir books and miss the feel that the parks used to give off as well as the little things that used to populate the parks (Keel Boats, Motorboats, Swan Boats-we've got a boat theme here)as well as Circle-Vision, PeopleMovers, etc...Here's hoping that the "new" management is able to rip through the marketing-machine clothing that the parks are currently wrapped in and get back to the heart of what the Disney parks are all about.

Ted said...

I get SO IRRITATED when people start complaining about that Disneyland is one big commercial for the Disney company! No kidding?!?! That was why Walt built it!!!
Fantasyland was built for Disney's animation, Frontierland was built for all the western themed shows that Disney did (Davy Crocket anyone?), Adventureland was built because of Disney's true-life adventure movies.
That only leaves Main Street (which was built as a homage to Walt's home town and isn't exactly a land in the truest sense) and Tomorrowland (which when orignally built was a BIG commercial for Corporate America).
You can complain that Tarzan's treehouse is poorly done, but NOT that it is for marketing. They only built the original BECAUSE of the movie that Disney put out. They didn't just pull Swiss Family Robinson out of the air people!!

DualCore said...

Ted. This post doesn't even begin to suggest the original Swiss Family Robinson wasn't tied to marketing. Of course it was. But at the core this attraction wasn't ABOUT the marketing, it was about the 'experience'. Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse put guests INTO the movie. Tarzan's Treehouse puts us INTO the Disney Store. Big difference. BIG BIG difference. One wonders if some people commenting here actually read the entries. Brilliant post, Merlin.

Merlin Jones said...

>>I get SO IRRITATED when people start complaining about that Disneyland is one big commercial for the Disney company! No kidding?!?! That was why Walt built it!!!<<

>>You can complain that Tarzan's treehouse is poorly done, but NOT that it is for marketing. They only built the original BECAUSE of the movie that Disney put out. They didn't just pull Swiss Family Robinson out of the air people!!<<

Not exactly. The film was no longer in release when the Treehouse was opened and would not be reissued again for six years after. Walt didn't create Disneyland or its attractions to sell more toys or tickets in the moment, but because people wanted to visit the enchanting worlds he brought to the screen. It wasn't about marketing - but about bringing the experience to life. The synergistic links were effective, but relatively incidental.

After all, (sadly) he never made a film version of Tom Sawyer, so what was that attraction selling?

Matthew said...

Is there anything left from when I visited Disneyland in the mid-1990s? It sounds like most of the gutting has been done in the last decade.

There are a lot of people my age or therabouts (born 1978) who remember every old Disney franchise of the 1950s and '60s because we saw them over and over and over again on Wonderful World of Disney. Hell, my friends and I can sing the entire Swamp Fox and Davey Crocket themes on cue. I loved Swiss Family Robinson! Pirate massacres are timeless!

Ed South said...

Somebody just said that the park was created to promote his films and TV show!? Anyone that knows anything about Disney knows that the Disneyland TV show was created to sell Disneyland the park!!!

Pop Culture was a different scene in the 50's. The public really wanted to visit the lands Disney created in his film projects. Everything wasn't about cynergy for the sake of the bottom line. It was publicity to generate enough money to move on to the next project!

Fantastic article by the way!

Merlin Jones said...

Other than two Disneyland LPs and a couple of 45's, a handful of books, comics, games and paper products from Western Publishing and maybe a lunchbox, etc. - there never WAS much Swiss Family merchandise, despite it being one of Disney's top box-office films of the period.

By contrast, Tarzan was rolled out as a brand in and of itself. How many pointless sequels have they made so far to cash in?

There were no videos then. So what was Walt trying to sell by building the attraction after the film had already come and gone?

The experience.

No doubt Disneyland itself profited from the popularity of the film and the desire for people to experience the treehouse, they sold lots of admission tickets - - but there was no store at the exit of the tree.

And Walt had a longterm view toward reissues. By constructing the treehouse, Walt helped to perpetuate the film into Disney legacy perhaps. And that indeed worked through at least five smash theatrical reissues over three decades. But the film was popular in and of itself.

Why stop now when the cycle prepares to renew itself with a remake?

Allison said...

Ted, for the most part I agree with you but I think the point that was being made here wasn't necessarily that we should keep things for the sake of sentimentality or "art". What Merlin is focusing on is the experience. I think it's understood that Disney will constantly need to update the attractions, especially when they become dated or irrelevant. But when they ARE updated, they should continue to focus on the experience and the story of that attraction. Putting a plastic Tarzan up in the tree with the some music is like someone put it here, like you'd get at a Disney Store.

Personally, I grew up in Florida and came to WDW a lot growing up. I never liked the Treehouse...it was a long climb with little reward at the end (for me). I would love it though, if at the top you got to meet Tarzan or one of the characters...as they are why my kids love to go to the parks.

Scott M. Curran said...

Swisskapolka!!!
Walk-past is exactly right...we didn't even bother on our last trip.
Swiss Family Robinson is a classic story like any other that will be read to generations to come. My parents knew it, I know it, and my kids will know it. Can't even make a Tiki-esque argument here that it is outdated...case in point - the movie being filmed.
The bad news - they lost their way and took the eye off the ball (again) when they made it Tarzan's tree. The good news - the tree is still there and I'm sure the removed props haven't gathered too much dust. Let's get them out folks!!! Just in time for the premier!!!

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I love the animated movies very much but I am really tired of attractions being re-vamped to tie in with the film. Why are they taking a previous movie attraction and turning it into Fantasyland? I loved 'Finding Nemo' but why does the submarine ride have to become that tie in? Also I am NOT looking forward to the Johnny Depp addition to POTC. Please quit trying to sell me movie merchandise!

mnmears said...

I'm wondering why so many of the decisions Disney made about the theme parks in the '80s and '90s were so off the mark.

Now, a Tarzan remake for the Swiss Family Treehouse could have been enchanting -- but the Disney-store-like characters and the wax museum quality is apparent. Most adults who visit Tarzan's Treehouse on their own go in large part to see the park from the treetop perspective. It's certainly not as charming as the Swiss Family Treehouse experience.

Was there anything wrong with encouraging families to talk about Swiss Family Robinson, maybe go out and buy the video and expose younger generations to a film that remains a classic even today? I would bet that many of the children of earlier generation Disney fans know not only Peter Pan and Dumbo but of the Swiss Family Robinsons, Capt. Nemos and other classic live action characters and films.


It's a shame that so many Disney execs -- and, dare I say, IMAGINEERS -- have lost touch with their imaginations.

In the Fantasyland rehab, they added many cetral characters to the rides because they figured children wanted to see Peter Pan or Snow White when riding through an attraction. It's sad -- because there's so much evidence to the contrary. Been to Disneyland lately and seen all the children dressed as Snow White, Cinderella, Buzz or some other favorite character?

Unfortunately the world is left with Walt's quotes about Disneyland never being complete, about how things will come and go ... Disney execs love to trot out these gems to justify ANY and ALL changes. But I believe those statements had caveats like "as long as there is imagination left in the world" and "keep growing, keep getting better and more beautiful."

Yes, Disneyland has grown and changed over the years -- but, seriously, have the theme parks really "improved"?

Reading these posts, I get the feeling that many of us -- and a number of people in the general public -- think Disneyland's Pixie Dust has lost just a bit of its magical spark.

Now, I don't want to sound jaded. Sometimes Imagineers and the Disney execs do it right. The Jungle Cruise has been plussed several times over the years -- all quite successful. The holiday layovers for It's a Small World and the Haunted Mansion are widely popular. And, some of the new offerings -- the 50th anniversary fireworks spectacular, Turtle Talk with Crush -- offer proof that there's a reserve of pixie dust that Imagineers can call upon.

All I ask from Disney execs, Imagineers and castmembers as a guest is that when you replace or rework a classic attraction offer me something at least as special and magical. And, secondly, when something is removed from the park it doesn't take more than 18-24 months for a replacement to fill the void. And, finally, be a bit more reflective about theming and the BIG PICTURE before deciding to do anything that will impact our experiences for generations to come.

Allison said...

MNMears said:
In the Fantasyland rehab, they added many cetral characters to the rides because they figured children wanted to see Peter Pan or Snow White when riding through an attraction. It's sad -- because there's so much evidence to the contrary. Been to Disneyland lately and seen all the children dressed as Snow White, Cinderella, Buzz or some other favorite character?

While I agreed with most of your post, I'm not sure I understand your comment above. Just because every kid in the park is dressed up like their favorite character does not mean they don't want to see the characters in their attractions or in the park itself. Especially when they are young (like 3 or 4)...the characters are what is recognizable for them and when they see them and you see their face...it's magical. It really is.

pariartspaul said...

"The good news - the tree is still there and I'm sure the removed props haven't gathered too much dust. Let's get them out folks!!! Just in time for the premier!!!"

I'm afraid not all the props are still around. I saw the waterwheel some years ago rusting in a Disney warehouse boneyard parking lot and then I happened to catch the Swiss Family organ up on Ebay around the same time. Don't know what it went for.

As an aside, it's been amazing to see the stuff they've sold on ebay over the past ten years or so. I saw the ornate metal furniture from the Jolly Holiday sequence from Mary Poppins along with the nursery armoires up on Ebay. Also the portrait of Peter Ustinof from Blackbeard's Ghost - the remaining Keel Boat from Rivers of America - and even some little mechanical figures years left over from Nature's Wonderland - and lots of little props from various old films. Amazing!

Jen said...

Just wanted to say great blog and I find it sad that the 'classics' seem to fall by the wayside for the 'lastest and greatest'. I've never been to Disneyland, but find it unfortunate that such a memorable movie is no longer represented there.

Jen
nubbit.com

Anonymous said...

I agree and yet must disagree on this. This is not so much in the breed of my distaste for Disney but for many current guests and fans.

I personally vastly prefer the Swiss Family Treehouse. It's wonderful to visit if I have a chance before I go to work in my lovely mansion in the corner of Liberty Square. I was just there this morning when they were very close to opening the extended queue.

Tarzan is cheep and shoddy. It's a once beautiful experience that now just looks like ride background that you weren't meant to walk through. You can tell it was an attraction that was changed in seconds by simply adding a 3D model. That said. . . most people I know PREFER it. I won't even pretend to understand it, but they do. Has anyone been to the Tarzan Treehouse in Hong Kong? Perhaps it's not that Tarzan is a bad idea, but simply the cheap mock up in Anaheim. If Tarzan is an enjoyable character and set up for guests, maybe one that was created from the beginning with the intention of being Tarzan's house, rather than Tarzan invading the Robinson house, is a good attraction.

Pragmatic Idealist said...

I, for one, am glad whenever one of The Magic Kingdoms has an exclusive attraction, so, in that regard, giving one of the treehouses to Tarzan was the right decision to make.

The problem is with the stylized nature of the experience. Disneyland is principally about literal fiction that is both immersive and believable. The Swiss Family Treehouse had those qualities; Tarzan's Treehouse, unfortunately, does not.

Merlin Jones said...

>>I, for one, am glad whenever one of The Magic Kingdoms has an exclusive attraction, so, in that regard, giving one of the treehouses to Tarzan was the right decision to make.<<

But it should never have been Walt's Disneyland original.

Anonymous said...

Once again, this is another post that really addresses it's topic well and also brings into play a multitude of other issues. Having recently visited Henry Ford's historic Greenfield Village, I can truely understand the realistic atmosphere that Walt Disney wanted to bring to his park. Although he introduced fictional characters and situations into the attractions, the emphais on it "being real" allowed us to suspend our disbelief for those times when our imagiations could take over. Attractions such as the Swiss Family Tree House not only filled those expectations, they also provided a nice balance to the "E" ticket attractions, (especially since ticket books were being used). They provided an easy respite from waiting in long lines, and contributed to the ambiance and atmosphere, thus adding another layer to the rich experience found in side the park.

Unfortunately, the novelty and freshness of having a chance encounter with one of the Disney characters, has been replaced with an institution of contrived meet-n-greets and a culture of obsessive expectations on behalf of the guests; (would be interesting to get some insight on this issue with it's own post). Whether it's due to changes in our society, or an expremely successful Disney marketing campaign, people now expect to see their favorite characters. The unfortunate result is that the fantasy characters are creeping into the realistic attractions, (I now worry about Epcot's Living Seas), all at the mercy of the marketing synergy we have all been referring to.

Unfortunately, there are many more players than Imagineering that are responsible for these situations. There are marketing, merchandising, and entertainment groups all clamoring for that hook to tie in their "product", even if that connection is tenuous.

After all, what puzzles me the most about the entire Tarzan's Treehouse concept is why anyone thought it would be fun to visit the place where Tarzan's parents are brutally killed by the tiger?? It's like reproducing the location where Bambi's mother get's shot or where Old Yeller gets....well I better not say.

-DL5263

T said...

I loved the Treehouse, as a kid and an adult. Glad I haven't been back since the Tarzan bastardization...

You've hit on the magic exactly. Having this be a non-populated walk-through made it feel like this was where we, the audience lived, or could live. I always imagined the tree being home; lounging in the library, playing the organ, listening to the water wheel do its thing. No matter how impractical it would have been as a real home, it still felt like a place that a family could live and have fun. And, ironically, despite it being one of the few places where you could see the outside world (Anaheim was visible from the top), it always felt like another world.

If only all those MBA-holes could realize that "branding" doesn't mean "selling the latest product we have". It means perpetuating the product you've created and always had. It means preserving what it was that made you a leader in the first place. You don't follow "relevance". You create it.

I mean, they still push Mickey, don't they? Even though his first cartoon appearance happened when our grandparents were kids. So, like, the mouse shouldn't be relevant anymore, right?

(Oops. Don't say that too loud.)

But that's how they miss the point. Disneyland isn't just Mickey Mouse. It's everything Walt ever touched or created. And I'm sure he's whirling around in the ice-maker right now over all of this destruction of his dream.

Sad. Truly sad. And a big part of why I'd never take my kids to Disneyland. Not like it is now.

"Daddy, is that naked man in the corner going to molest me?"

(Sigh).

T said...

Oh yeah. I've posted it before here, but it's worth repeating. If Disney wants to save California Adventure, then they should create a "Classic Disneyland" within it; preserve all the "old", "dated" rides, like Adventure through Innerspace, Carousel of Progress, the original Bear Country, Tiki Room, Golden Horseshoe, etc., etc., etc. I bet that, within a week, it'd become the most popular place in both parks, period.

Josh said...

It's not that I can't handle change; I just don't like to see good things change into lesser quality things, and I'm afraid that's exactly what's happening at The Living Seas - just like what happened at Disneyland's Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Granted, the sea-cabs at The Living Seas - now dubbed clamobiles (hideous) - aren't back up and running yet, and I haven't seen the new Nemo themed ride that interjects the story into the aquarium itself, but I can't help but think this is a bad idea. Yet another of the wonderful attractions at EPCOT is giving way to cartoonification.

The educational, whimsical, and forward-looking World of Motion was replaced by a car proving ground with Test Track. The future was taken out and the present was put in. Horizons gave way to Mission: Space; the far-off, imaginative concepts of future possibility were replaced with a fast-paced but uninspiring update of Mission to Mars. Mission: Space doesn't move you to think about the future and all the discoveries that are out there, waiting for us to find them. Now, Seabase Alpha has become another memory. The imagination-inspiring concept that you're descending (via the cool hydrolator) into an undersea base where experiments are going on and you're looking 'out' at the wildlife is being replaced with a ride that incorporates cartoon fish into the actual aquarium with the real thing. That, I am not a fan of.

When they set up the room with all the Finding Nemo fish, I was fine with that. When Mr. Ray was introduced as the educator at the manatee tank, I enjoyed that a lot. Turtle Talk with Crush is an incredible technological experience, and I love it. I even like the sunken submarine with all the educational stuff in Bruce's hangout. But reducing the aquarium itself to a sequel of Finding Nemo strikes me not only as absurd, but very, very sad.

Does everyone have to have everything spoonfed to them all the time? Do we have to oversaturate the market with every character that even remotely resonates with product test teams? Can't we leave anything up to people's imaginations anymore?

Eichler & Eames said...

What I miss most of all about the Swiss Family Treehouse treehouse is the motion and sounds provided by the water works. As a child I was fascinated by the bamboo containers filled with water moving around the elaborate rope and pulley system. I would stop and watch it until my parents would come and drag me away. A simple pleasure that did not even require the use of a ticket or a trek through the tree. The motion and sound added so much to the vibe of Adventureland.

Michael said...

"Just because every kid in the park is dressed up like their favorite character does not mean they don't want to see the characters in their attractions or in the park itself. Especially when they are young (like 3 or 4)...the characters are what is recognizable for them and when they see them and you see their face...it's magical. It really is." ~Allison

It's true that children love to see their favorite characters, but in some situations it's more important to make the experience truly special than to guarantee a cheap, forgettable thrill. Visits to a Disney park should be some of those situations.

It was once that a child might (and random chance is important here) see their favorite character walking around, interacting with the crowds. They might even get their picture taken with them. However, when you cram a plastic representation into a ride, it becomes momentary. They didn't see anything special. They didn't meet Snow White or Buzz Lightyear. They saw a non-moving representation (in the case of Tarzan, at least) in the same place anyone else can, since they'll always be in the same place doing the exact same thing.

Injection of static main characters into a ride, especially in the case of a movement-voluntary ride like the Treehouse, removes the possibility of suspension of disbelief. It's not the magical experience you'll tell your friends and family about when you get back home; it's Ronald McDonald on a bench: cheap, moderately entertaining, and utterly, utterly forgettable.

And sometimes, people don't know what they'll really enjoy until they experience it. Going up and down around and around in a circle over and over on a fake elephant sounds really boring. But it's not. Walt Disney had a knack for making great experiences other people wouldn't have considered making. Bowing to what focus groups think they'll like is a poor substitute for innovation.

Karl Elvis said...

you guys never miss the mark. The treehouse was one of the most magical attractions in the park - I never wanted to leave it as a kid.

It's a classic case of change for changes sake, of a marketing choice made pre-movie. They take a timeless classic and turn it into something instantly self-dating.

Not that I dislike tarzan, the movie. It's ok; still not the great film I hope someone, some day, will make of ERB's Trazan, but it's ok.

But the treehouse was perfect. I now avoid that part of the park because it makes me sad to see what they've done to it.

Digital Jedi said...

It's not that synergy is a bad thing. It's not that updating an old attraction is a bad thing. It's not that tieing in an attraction to a movie, series or cartoon is a bad thing. None of this is a bad thing in of itself.

What's bad is not knowing where you are going with it. What was the point of putting in static Tarzan figures in the old Treehouse? What was the point in mocking the old Disney in the updated Tiki Room? What was the point in ripping out the "old" to replace it with the "okay"?

Even the people who like the new attractions better then the old are not really doing flips over the new stuff. Honestly, if they had left every attraction the way it was and simply refurbished it, would anyone really be complaining?

Do you want to know what we are really complaining about? We are complaining that the Disney parks were no longer in the hands of storytellers. They where (and hopefully aren't anymore) in the hands of businessmen who don't care if they create anything timeless. They only care on what will generate immediate and large income. The changes made are not timeless. They are not impressive. They are not innovative. They are simply new. Different and more appealing to kids.

But those kids are going to grow up one day and not remember the rides as timeless. They'll remember them as something for kids and push the memories aside. They'll be forgotten.

The previous management is making decisions that ONLY affect the bottom line. Not decisions that affect the future line. A good story carries on. I go to Disney to be entertained by storytellers, not by accountants.

spork said...

So, am I the only one that wandered around the Swiss Family Treehouse when I was young wondering who slept in the cages?

What was it that was so immersive about being caged off from static furniture? And why is that particular type of static non-immersive walk-through environment so much more preferable than the current one? They both represent timeless stories, and if anything Tarzan's Treehouse offers more interactive diversions than the Swiss Family Treehouse ever did.

Yes, the static characters are terrible, but are they worse than the static furniture in cages that say, "Look but don't touch."

That's not immersive, that's one step beyond watching Swiss Family Robinson on television. The big difference? Everything's 3D and none of the character's are on the set.

Anonymous said...

Spork said "What was it that was so immersive about being caged off from static furniture? And why is that particular type of static non-immersive walk-through environment so much more preferable than the current one?"

i have to disagree with you spork. i have visited ghost towns and 'old time villages' where you are actually inside the 18oo's house, seeing it with the actual furniture and such, demonstrating how people lived in those times.

swiss family tree house reminded me of that and it felt even more 'real' because of this very set up. it felt like you were touring someone's home and not in a re-created fake tree.

the tarzan update was done in a cheap, 'throw in as little as you can get away with'way.
swiss family treehouse was similar to the sleeping beauty (i think)castle walk through or the snow white queue that showed the locales without any people. it made you feel like you were actually there even with the barricades.
i think it also takes away from the experience of meeting the characters when you see a plastic one in the corner. it could have been like mickey's house where you walk through his house, get to touch things and meet him at the end.

Allison said...

Michael, just to be clear, I agree that a cheap wax museum type figure is not all too magical which is why I first mentioned it wouldn't have bothered me if there were a meet-n-greet Tarzan either in the tree or nearby. But if you are saying that Peter Pan and Snow White would be better if neither of the main characters were even seen in their attractions, I will emphatically disagree. My little girls were scared in Peter Pan until they saw Wendy and Peter. And I haven't even attempted Snow White yet because they are too young, but if there was not that character connection, it just wouldn't mean anything to them. Would they consider seeing a character in the ride as magical as meeting them in person? Of course not, but for them, the instant connection with the character makes the ride more fun for them. Of course, this is just my opinion based on my experience as a kid as well as watching my three girls.

Anonymous said...

After reading this post, it makes me glad that there are still many rides that have not been downgraded(the tree house, Tiki birds, et cetera) from the effects of greedy business men and their attempts to atach their rides to one place, time, and audience.

I am thankful to see rides opening such as Expedition Everest, which pertain to a wide audience, and will not seem outdated in twenty to thirty years.

ChristianZ said...

Because the Tarzan theme was done poorly does that mean it should have not been done at all? I don't think Tarzan's Treehouse is the worst thing that has ever been made. Would it automatically be better if the plastic Tarzan was removed? Anyways, I've been through it a couple times and thought it was a decent little "walk-past" yet simultaneously wanted the Swiss Family treehouse to be restored.

Merlin Jones said...

>>Because the Tarzan theme was done poorly does that mean it should have not been done at all?<<

There was nothing wrong with Swiss Family Robinson - - if they want to change Walt era successes, do it at any other park than Disneyland. Leave (or restore) the Anaheim originals for future generations to enjoy and study! The history is real. The aesthetics are important.

mnmears said...

Sorry Merlin,
I can't agree with such a general statement as "leave or restore the Anaheim originals for future generations to enjoy or study." Should Disneyland bring back ticket books, too?

The park changed several times while Walt was alive -- not everything he did was successful, take the live circus for example. Even the beloved Flying Saucers had significant operational problems. Bob Gurr has a few great stories about the window-rattling Saucer shutdowns.

Also, some of our beloved attractions were added after Walt's death. Walt only had a glimpse at The Pirates of the Caribbean, saw only sketches of Country Bear Jamboree and wasn't around when the Imagineers were arguing about scary vs. funny in The Haunted Mansion. Then there's Big Thunder, Space Mountain, Indiana Jones and several now-beloved attractions, conceived decades after Walt's death.


I think the plussing the Imagineers have done at The Jungle Cruise in in the spirit of Walt's legacy ... and, some key executives wisely decided to restore the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Lilly Belle guest car to their original grandeur.

While Disneyland is part of OUR HISTORY ... it's so much more than a historical collection of rides and attractions harking back to a bygone era. It's a living theatrical experience -- a place families or individuals go to have fun, forget their troubles and make special memories ... at its best, it's almost Utopian in the way people interact with each other.

Now, I'll admit that I could have lived without several changes -- the 1989(?) rehab of Tomorrowland being chief among them. Many Disney enthusiasts would agree, as well as quite possibly some Imagineers. The treehouse makeover wasn't necessarily a bad idea -- but, I'll agree, it was poorly executed.

Was the Tomorrowland rehab well-conceived or was it, as I suspect, a much grander and complete overhaul that had its financial legs cut by those holding the purse strings?

If the company would have spent the money to really make Rocket Rods an exciting E-ticket attraction, would so many of us be crying about the loss of the PeopleMover -- especially if they would have used the PeopleMover technology for the trip from the Mickey and Friends parking garage to Main Gate Plaza?

Outside of the loss of Pirate Rock and the Chicken of the Sea Capt. Hook's ship restaurant, I've heard very few complaints about the Fantasyland rehab. Imagineers created a themed area with more charm and plussed several of the attractions.

No, the problem isn't with change -- it's with change that undercuts or diminishes Walt Disney's grand legacy.

If someone decides to plus, change or pull something -- they need to know with near certainty that what they're doing honors not only their own legacy, but Disneyland's legacy and Walt's vision because Disneyland will "never be complete as long as there is imagination left in the world."

Of course, therein lies part of the problem -- some of the accountants, managers and maybe even some of the Imagineers -- don't know the films, the stories, the characters or the history of the Walt Disney Company or the genius of Walt. They don't step back and ask themselves ... is this a good idea? Does this serve the theme?

Is it a good idea to turn the Golden Horseshoe Restaurant into an ice cream parlor? Someone apparently thinks so -- but others, like myself, scream NO! No! no!


Unfortunately, the company has finally stopped asking What Would Walt Do? ...

Merlin, the truth is that Walt would continue to change things, to tinker and make things WORK BETTER, to constantly push the technological and creative envelop to deliver the BEST SHOW he could to the public he respected and appreciated.

The Disneyland of 1955 wasn't the Disneyland of 1965. I want Disneyland and its operators to be like Walt -- a man who respected and honored the past while also keeping his exploring eye on the future, a man who worked with due dilligence to exceed the public's expectations.

RogerRmjet said...

I watched two of the fascinating documentaries about Expedition Everest on the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel this week. Both of them told me one thing -- Joe Rhode clearly "gets it." The first was about his team's trip to the Nepal and China researching the Yeti and the amount of work that went into creating not just the ride, but the surrounding village. His comments echoed this post almost exactly -- they were creating a "you are there" sensibility that takes you out of sunny Florida and puts you in Nepal. He said anybody can take a standard roller coaster and slap some decorations on it, but that's not what Disney does. How right. And I am so glad to see that Disney is doing it right again.

The second docu was about how they built the ride itself, the village, and the Yeti. I was impressed by how much stuff they bought in Nepal. They described it as walking into store after store and saying "I'll take it all." They really pushed the envelope on everything -- switching the track (amazing), building the mountain (their most challenging yet), and building the Yeti (largest and most fluid animatronic ever built). It was all too incredible for words. I've seen videos of the ride several times now, and every one just makes me want to ride it that much more.

pariartspaul said...

I haven't seen Exp. Everest but I have to chime in here that I agree Joe R. IS an exceptional talent (sorry Joe!)and I bet Everest is a great attraction. I've known him since like 1980 and worked with him on some of his projects over the years and he definitely 'gets it'. I'd like to see him creatively in charge of Disneyland.

JiminyCricketFan said...

I believe that the treehouse worked as an attraction is the secret fantasy of most guys that they could live in a treehouse. What made the old treehouse fun is imagining YOURSELF there. The new ride firmly places you with Tarzan.

mnmears said...

There's probably more than a grain of truth there, jiminycricketfan. I know that I felt that way about the fort on Tom Sawyer's Island ... thinking about all the great capture the flag battles we played as children. And, if you didn't have a fort -- we used trenches as they built more tract homes in the neighborhood -- then you might have had a tree house. And seeing just how elaborate the Swiss Family Tree House was certainly sparked our imaginations -- even if our dreams were well beyond our skills or the skills of our fathers.

Sean said...

In the same vein as this article and the previous comment, I hope you will address the neglect of Tom Sawyer Island. As it currently exists, it is little more than a stage for Fantasmic, a weak treehouse, a vaguely themed shipwreck, and a few tunnels to walk through. A great deal of the Island is now cut off from visiting alltogether, including the fort. While always a playground of sorts, TSI never used to appear to be just a poorly themed and hardly entertaining playground and it was something that adults could admire too. My dad loved to take us to this attraction when we were little, in large part because he enjoyed it so much himself.

Disney has so much it could do with the "Frontier" concept. Although Frontierland is as beautiful as ever (unlike Tomorrowland) it does suffer from not truely being about the pioneer spirit anymore (very much the same problem with tomorrowland, really!)

Anonymous said...

Another great post. It's strange to desecrate (yes, desecrate is the word) a beautiful attraction in the service of a 5 year old semi-successful film property. Tarzan isn't even the film that, say, The Great Mouse Detective was back in the day, and yet here it is clogging the park's arteries with its forced, tacky presence.

A little bit of long range vision is needed in the park. And the WDFA division as well.

Anonymous said...

After reading the last several comments about Expedition Everest, I couldn't help but realize how far,to my knowledge, expedition everest is from commercialization. There is no Disney movie (or any other movie) that I know of that is associated with with it, or that has objects in the ride that directly coincide with a movie.

That is the way I beleive it should be for most rides. That was the way Pirate of the Caribbean should have stayed. Not that I am stating that the moie is wrong, I just do not like the whole idea of placing Captain Jack, Barbossa, and all the others from the movie into the ride. For some reason, I don't see Walt doing this...

On the other hand, Expedition Everest is [b]NOT[/b] a ride to be making a movie about. I have seen the several attempts: After Pirates was released, "The Haunted Mansion" was made. I never saw it, but when I never heard people talking much about it, I just believed it was a dud. Then there was the 'Direct-to-Video' Tower of Terror movie. I never saw that, but since it was a direct-to-video release, I also believed that that was a dud as well (as are all other Disney direct-to-video releases (Atlantis II, Kronks new Groove, etc.))

So Disney, if you are planning on making a movie off Everest, please make it good. Thank you.

pariartspaul said...

Okay. They played Swiss Family Robinson on TV yesterday and I watched it (thank god for TIVO to skip past the commericals) and I tell you what, I STILL love it. Made in '62, it's still a wonderful adventure film... and people are STILL watching it. That great tropical island, that cool treehouse, amazing.

It's really a shame what they did to the treehouse in Disneyland. And here they are remaking the film again. Go figure.

creative-Type Dad (Tony) said...

Great post! I loved the Swiss Family Treehouse growing up (original movie as well) and was pretty disappointed when they removed it. I missed the "organ tune" in the background of Adventureland. Swiss Family just seems much more timeless than Tarzan.
But I could see why they did the re-imagineer. Hardly any guests would do the walk. When Tarzan arrived it brought more people through the attraction. But that’s fizzled, now it sits with a trickle of visitors.

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant post. Most of you are right and wrong. Walt Disney was a genius in marketing his ideas. By the same token, I am old enough to remember Disneyland when it truly was imagination come to life. I spent time there every year.........and each land had some of my favorite things in them.

I have taken my children a couple of times to Disney World, the second time they went, they were actually bored. I was very disappointed to see what had been done to the Disney Park. It seemed as if we were actually walking through one giant commercial without the imagination that was once there.

Keep in mind that the Disney that we once all knew and loved as being so unique is gone and has become the same as everything else. Made cheaply yet costs a ton and does nothing different or special to invoke a lasting memory.