Sunday, April 16, 2006
It's Fun To Be A Freeway
It’s no secret that Disney has sought out and enjoyed company sponsorship of its many shows and attractions ever since Crane Plumbing touted a new toilet at Disneyland during the parks earliest years. Companies got top drawer Disney showmanship to help sell the company ethos and Disney got much needed funds to jumpstart the park.
But with guest satisfaction being goal number one, Walt drove a hard bargain with incoming corporate sponsorship, making sure that visitors never became victims of the hard sell. Carny barkers, hucksters and shills had no place in Disneyland and he made this clear to the companies that helped bankroll his new park.
This tradition of the corporate soft sell at the Disney Parks has enjoyed a successful run for well over four decades. From Adventure Thru Inner Space and the Carousel of Progress to Spaceship Earth and Ellen’s Energy Adventure, guests enjoyed a singularly transporting experience while companies enjoyed the assurance that their brand became synonymous with all that was warm, wonderful and Walt Disney.
But as the Disney Company slowly morphed into the corporate monster it once insulated itself from that protective wall between the guests and the corporate sponsors started to show signs of erosion.
Current case in point is General Motors Test Track at Epcot Center. Initially GM’s presence at Epcot was by way of ‘World of Motion’, an extravagant and whimsical ride through the history of transportation, from foot and animal power to planes, trains and automobiles. With a cast of 188 animatronic figures performing on 24 elaborate stage sets, a catchy theme song written by X. Atencio of Pirates and Mansion fame and the wry humor of veteran animator Ward Kimball this was an attraction seeped in the rich traditions of Disney Imagineering at it’s finest.
But somewhere between 1995 when the attraction closed for renovation and 1999 when it reopened as ‘Test Track’, GM somehow had found a way to storm the castle and turn World of Motion into the World of General Motors.
Where once the pavilion was a simple sleek circular statement in perfect harmony with the five other Future World buildings, now the outer shell was festooned with miles of cheap steel girding, plastic canvassing and rows of urban city streetlights. It was as if a hurricane had dropped the tangled remains of a Home Depot right on top of World of Motion.
Inside the pre-show queue visitors are ‘transported’ to a GM testing facility, a giant room full of exposed wires, corrogated tin and wire mesh cages filled to the brim with the detritus of auto wrecking yards. Testing labs throughout buzz, slam and pound around us, all in the glare of harsh white lights while overhead speakers hammer out a musical cacophony of clanking metal pipes. Never before in Disney theme park history was a room so singularly dedicated to the unbridaled joy of the migraine.
Eventually guests are loaded into test cars to embark on a skidding, braking, jittery slog over bumpy pavement, around orange traffic cones and past robotic auto spray painters, culminating in a 65 mph drive on a faithfully recreated freeway.
Yes, the very experience guests had driving into Walt Disney World is the one GM was confident would make a thrilling climax to their very own Test Track. So much for not being reminded of the real world while in a Disney Park.
The artists, designers and storytellers at Imagineering can stand to learn important lessons from the gargantuan anomaly that is Test Track. For all the bankloads of money dropped on this endeavor, for all the state of the art engineering and technology that were employed in its creation, no resource can save an ill-conceived idea.
An idea with little interest in the Disney ‘guest’ and every interest in the General Motors ‘customer’. An idea with aspirations no higher than to transport the public from a GM testing facility back to the freeway where they came from.
Once apon a time it was indeed fun to be free.