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