Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Elemental Losses: Fire


If the Kodak Corporation’s 1970’s era boast that more photos were snapped per day at Disneyland than any other place in the world, then you could bet that when the Mark Twain Steamboat or Columbia Sailing Ship rounded the northern bend of Tom Sawyer Island back then one photo spot in particular would threaten to usurp the crown from Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, or, for that matter, Paris' Eiffel Tower.
 
It was Frontierland’s infamous Burning Settler’s Cabin and every time any of the guests onboard any Rivers of America water craft caught sight of that stack of logs on the edge of the bank fully engulfed in very real flames every last soul rushed to the edge of the boat, cameras clacking away like an over caffeinated secretarial pool, the deck listing precariously to starboard.
 
Though the entire vignette was certainly photo-worthy, what with an early pioneer hunched dead over a log out front, an Indian arrow stuck clean through his chest, it wasn’t really the gruesome crime scene that caught the fancy of snap happy tourists.
 
It was that burning cabin.
 
Certainly filmmakers and visual storytellers instinctively understood that human nature can’t resist gawking at train wrecks or peeping through a neighbor’s window no matter how untoward the practice. Walt and the gang, who certainly knew as much, were more than happy to set the stage, light the fire and then actively solicit Disneyland adventurers to gawk to their hearts content.
 
And for decades guests did just that, shamelessly clicking and whirring through endless rolls of Kodachrome and Super-8 film the moment they spotted the first flicker over the embankment.
 
As time went on, however, political and economic forces threw a wet blanket over Walt’s little waterside bonfire.
 
In the 1970’s the energy crisis compelled management to turn the flames off, collective wisdom being that this was an enormous waste of fuel. Truth be told, the cumulative gas used to keep the cabin ablaze was an incredibly trivial sum when compared to the rest of the park’s total usage.
 
In the politically correct decade to follow the idea that Indians were apparently being vilified as the cold blooded murderers of early Pioneers (despite the fact that greedy homesteaders probably deserved such a fate), was deemed too difficult for Disneyland guests to process and so out came the Indian arrow and in came a less risky story line, this one showcasing a sleeping moonshiner who’d inadvertently set fire to his cabin. Or, depending on how the Disney Gods felt about the fire effect from one week to the next, merely a story about a sleeping moonshiner.

But somehow even this angle didn’t sit well with Disney Management, the whole alcohol issue now being deemed too spicy for modern family audiences.
 
So now the ‘Endangered Bald Eagle Nest’ scenario was given a go, this story being that of an environmentally unsympathetic settler who had inadvertently set fire to his cabin and thus endangered a nest of eagle chicks roosting right above the roof line.

One Frontierland cast member who operated attractions there from 1969 through 1973 was, to say the least, a little befuddled when the latest dumbing down of the cabin was unveiled:
 
“First, show me a bald eagle that builds a nest ten feet off the ground. And second, show me someone who can build a log cabin with only basic hand tools and then cannot contain a fire in a stone fireplace. I do not think this is at all verifiable or historically accurate.”
 
And then, suddenly, the fire was turned off. Then on. Then finally off for good.
 
One could argue that the idea of Indians killing off settlers is a little off color. Or that viewing faux corpses at Disneyland is distasteful. Or that the expense of keeping real flames lapping at the side of an outdoor cabin set for hours on end day after day is a global warming nightmare.
 
But you can’t argue the fact that stumbling upon the sight of a log cabin fully engulfed in flames in a far off corner of Disneyland was one of the coolest experiences a kid and his parents could share together. Moonshiners, careless pioneers or ruthless Indians were beside the point. It was that audacious outdoor conflagration that wholly captivated Disney guests for years.

As with all Eisner era decisions affecting the parks, economics would always trump politics. Any off the beaten path Disney era detail without a measurable profit margin that required upkeep above and beyond a fresh coat of paint every three years was not worth tending to. All the better if the decision to forego maintenance came with a touchy-feely culturally sensitive excuse to placate disgruntled guests.

But it’s just these surprising little show elements, these ‘hidden gems’, scattered throughout the Disney Parks that make the guest experience such a magical and transporting experience. There’s no real reason why the Settler’s Cabin can’t once again burst into flames to delight new generations of pyromaniacal children. If Imagineers can’t find a new high-tech energy efficient way to bring back that fire of old then they shouldn’t be called Imagineers.

A convincing dimensional outdoor fire illusion? I dare you.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

"But it’s just these surprising little show elements, these ‘hidden gems’, scattered throughout the Disney Parks that make the guest experience such a magical and transporting experience."

I agree wholeheartedly to that statement. Whether it be the sound of a Baby and a mother from the up-stairs of a building, to a secret garden, to a talking trash can- That is what makes Disney Disney.

Anonymous said...

"If Imagineers can’t find a new high-tech energy efficient way to bring back that fire of old then they shouldn’t be called Imagineers.

A convincing dimensional outdoor fire illusion? I dare you."

I have read this blog since it started, and I've only posted once, way back then...and at that time I simply said, "Thanks! Best wishes as a park guest who enjoys all things Disney and deeply respects the tremendous efforts of the Imagineers."
I'm posting now, and again with all due respect as just a guest--the kind old enough to remember all that you wistfully speak of.
I quoted the last two sentences of your most recent post to urge you to self-edit furiously. Those two sentences say everything you need to say--eloquently and succinctly. Almost everything else posted has been just a variation on a couple themes: old was way better than new and everything Eisner sucked.
I agree. But that one trick pony won't ride with me anymore. Please put it out to pasture. I understand Imagineers are legally not allowed to say what's on the drawing table. I think if you ponder that for a moment you might agree there's not much left to write about except those two themes previously mentioned.
Several folks have noted similar feelings. Even if the old was vastly superior to the new, do you honestly think tomorrow Disney will simply revert and re-open a brand-spanking new "museum"? I doubt it...and I made a special trip with my family last New Year's just to visit Cranium Command one last time. (I won't be starting a "Save Buzzy" website.)
Even if everything Eisner did was dollar over quality...we know that. And Eisner is gone. Past. History. I urge you to move forward, or at least stop looking back at the same two things.
Finally, I respect the passion and the desire to continue Walt's legacy. I just don't think constantly complaining about it is the way to honor or preserve it.
Thanks for this opportunity to share my thoughts.

Incredibles said...

If I am not mistaken, isn't the same cabin at Magic Kingdom in WDW still burning to this day? I know it was last time I was there. If that is so, then why would you claim that due to monetary issues the cabin at Disneyland is no longer burning? Wouldn't the call be made park-wide if it was monetary in nature?

Anonymous said...

I had problems with the "Earth" article, but this article is on the money. When I first heard the eagle audio, I rolled my eyes so far, they nearly fell out of my head. What a crock.

PARISINJUNE said...

If pirates lude behavior can make a comeback, why can't this cabin. Cost was not the real problem, lack of courage was. And why does everything have to be "politically correct"? Art is the interpreters viewpoint, not always the artist's portrayal. If the heart is corrupt, even the most innocent images will turn vile.
It's time for Iger, Imagineers, and staff to step up to the Pirates success and move forward with these types of turnarounds. And if a new "type of fuel" needs to be designed, made, or used, then isn't that what the fun of Imagineering is all about? And if it poses too much of a challenge, then maybe you have the wrong people working with you.
Disney needs her fire back. It's an excellent place to start.

Sorcerer Mickey said...

Years ago, our favorite alternate narration used to be:
"Our forefathers who tamed this great wilderness faced constant danger. And there across the river is proof - a settler's cabin afire! The old pioneer lies nearby,the victim of Disneyland's fireworks."
(The web page link will take you to three different recorded spiels of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad's narration from 1974 & 1976 that comment on the cabin.)

Ted said...

I don't know if I ever knew about the changes to the storyline, but I too was saddened after being gone from DL for so long to see that the settlers cabin is a shadow of it's former self. But not only the cabin, but a number of the elements in the Rivers of America have been also been neglected.
I agree that this is one of things that sets Disney apart from it's competitors. All the little subtle things hidden around the park.
Knott's Berry Farm used to have some of these until Cedar Fair ruined it.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear the sound of a baby and a mother from the upstairs of a burning building at Disneyland! THAT would be special--and I'd certainly never forget it.

Anonymous said...

Not once do I get the impression that the folks running this site have given anything other than constructive criticism. And not once have they given the impression they are living in the past. I DO understand the longing NOT for bringing back the old rides, but for bringing back the storytelling VERVE that the rides provided. And not just the ride, but everything connected to the ride. The THEME. This is what's been lost at Disney Imagineering. Maybe not lost, but buried. It's working it's way back up, though. Lots of brilliant people there...but they've been stifled through poor management and budgetary constraints.

Keep up the great work, guys. The Parking Lot article was easily one of the best so far. THANKS!

JL said...

To #2 anonymous from the top. I'm sorry you hear 'complaining'. I hear passion and a heartfelt respect for the guests, the park experience and the principles of Imagineering of the highest order.

Bob Glickstein said...

A convincing dimensional outdoor fire illusion?

A couple of years ago I saw just such an illusion, I forget where. It was nothing more than some colored pieces of fabric, lit from beneath, with a fan blowing them upwards to make them act like licking flames. You've probably all seen such a thing, usually it looks kinda cheesy. But this one required some pretty close scrutiny to tell that it wasn't real fire.

Cheers,
- Bob

trish said...

I remember the burning cabin I have to say that I disagree with bringing it back. This was created in a time when 'Injuns' said 'How' and were called savages. Why can't a scene be made without the corpse and ethnic slurs? I love a good fire like the next person, and while i don't want us to whitewash history, i think it can be done in a way that doesn't represent the bad side of history. If you want fire and you want to send a more positive message, what about a forest fire which demonstrates how carelessness can be prevented?

yensid98 said...

Responding to Trish.

That is exactly the knid of hand holding that I'm sick and tired of. A convoluted tacked on story is not what's needed, PC or not. The burning cabin is the main thing that's missed. To bring it back it needs a simple story that's immediately understood. An attack on the fort is a perfect story. All they have to do is not use the word 'Ingun.'

Anonymous said...

Another thing missing from the river is Cascade Falls. The reason I heard it was bulldozed was the cost to repair the the deteriorating structure. If a show element is important enough to build in the first place, shouldn't it be important enopugh to maintain, repar or improve?

Ike said...

Let's get the cabin back, but with a more convincing (& entertaining)story.

How about these?
- Smokey the bear started it when man kept teasing him about weight and wouldn't stop calling him "Yogi"
- Started on fire when he had friends over for a blue dart tournament
- Grease fire started when starving man tried to deep-fry his pet rat "Mickey"
- Cosmo Krammer accidentally left a cigar on a stack of newpapers inside the cabin (oops wouldn't work - Seinfeld was NBC not ABC)

Anonymous said...

Another thing missing from the river is Cascade Falls. The reason I heard it was bulldozed was the cost to repair the the deteriorating structure. If a show element is important enough to build in the first place, shouldn't it be important enopugh to maintain, repar or improve?

JiminyCricketFan said...

The burning cabin was one of the best things I remember as a child. I think that it was a 'animation' or "bringing to life' of the rivers of America. When people in charge are clueless of a good show, things like this will be removed.

I say bring back the burning cabin! Walt Disney said part of Disneyland was "the hard facts" that made America. Danger on the frontier was one of those removed facts.

Anonymous said...

If Imagineering could figure out a safe way to burn DCA every day several times a day, it might breath some life into that area of Disneyland. I, for one, would be first in line to see this on a regular basis.

Mellie Helen said...

Yes, I miss the thrill of the burning cabin (and just why is that so exciting to us?? I don't know why, but it is, nevertheless!!) And if one needed an "explanation", there could simply have been a lightning strike that started it, thereby avoiding involving any PC issues.

Recognizing that the "element" discussed here is fire, I'd still like to throw in my two cents that over and above returning fire to the cabin, I'd much rather see Fort Wilderness restored and opened back up. While the flaming cabin is cool to see, it is but a brief encounter. The fort, on the other hand, provided lengthy enjoyment for kids using their imaginations, striking up instant playdates with kids they've only just met, and was a more tangible first-hand experience than viewing the flaming cabin from afar.

Just don't reopen the fort and have it catch on fire... ;)

Anonymous said...

I recently visited Disneyland and while riding the Columbia, we were 'hijacked' by pirates. Since they had a cannon on board and fired it from time to time, how dificult would it be to "accidentally" set the cabin on fire from a cannon shot. It would make riding the Columbia an even more unique experience than anything else on the river. That said, I do remember reading somewhere that the gas lines feeding the cabin may have eroded to a point where they had to be removed.

Dan Kokkos said...

I think that when you are talking about a land of fantasy, you should also consider that you should leave all preconceived notions at the parks entrance. I think people may have to strong a grip on reality when being a critic. . . after all Disney wasn't a realist. . .he was an optimist!

pixiegirltink said...

Good times!

I bet if Ouimet stuck around we'd see the fire come back...

Gudrun said...

Ahaha, the bald eagle storyline is priceless.

Anonymous said...

In Response to : "If I am not mistaken, isn't the same cabin at Magic Kingdom in WDW still burning to this day? I know it was last time I was there. If that is so, then why would you claim that due to monetary issues the cabin at Disneyland is no longer burning? Wouldn't the call be made park-wide if it was monetary in nature?"

Keep in mind that Each park is its own business entity. Each has its own budget, President, etc... dicisions made at Disneyland may or may NOT affect any other park. You must also keep in mind that California is VERY concerned with PC awareness whereas Florida, Paris etc... are not so inclined. Finally, Disneyland is almost 20 years older than any other park so they do have more of a maintenence issue than anyone else. That bieng said. I Disney MUST stop putting short-term profitability ahead of Long-term growth. How much money do they spend now fighting traffic congestion every day in the rest of the park because these "hidden Gems" are missing and thus NOT attracting visitors to visit these other areas of the park. Neither Money, outdatedness, maintenence, nor PC issues are a sufficient excuse.

BratStarMan said...

It seems that it's all about losing the little things... the seemingly small details that all add up to a major loss when all taken together.

Think of the trip to your grandmother's house. What made it special was knowing that there would always be a cookie for you at the bottom of the cookie jar hidden away in some cupboard.

Losing the details is the first step in the Altzheimer's disease of the Disney experience. Before you know it, the whole place suffers from dementia. By then, it's too late.

Anonymous said...

Good points, I think more attention needs to be paid to "Bad Show"
Currently at Dland there are attraction that have certain key features which are broken or not functioning properly. They have not been fixed and a Bad Shows are constantly being given.
(I.E Indy, currently has broken animatronics and non functioning lights etc in the opening scenes!)
This is just one example, we should pay more attention to the "Show".

FixWhatsBroke said...

The vignettes and scenery on the Disneyland Railroad and Rivers of America certainly are needing and worthy of some good additional theming; much more than just restoring a burning cabin or rebuilding Cascade Peak. But for the time being, the cabin is sitting there taking space anyway. Seems easy enough to give it some of its drama back without melting icebergs and raising sea levels to do so.

Misstep:
Like the other details most recently documented in Civic Projects this extra detail that made Disneyland a unique form of entertainment worth paying for has been removed or replaced.

Perceived no-nos:
The Burning Cabin has been thought of as out-of-date or no longer serves the show or is not worth the cost of maintenance. "Besides, it won't be missed."

Perceived good calls:
The cabin's flame effect caused wasteful emissions into the environment. The cabin's initial storyline promoted the stereotype of Native Americans being vengeful savages.

Lesson learned:
People do miss it and become disgruntled consumers as a result. The Burning Cabin IS intregal to the show for future guests as well as it provides event, show, excitement and variation to a lazy riverboat ride in the farthest reaches of the park. Gives it a reason to ride it again. Adds value to the Mark Twain and Columbia.

Also remember that the constant lesson for re-imagineers is that DISNEYLAND HAS NEVER BEEN 50 YEARS OLD BEFORE - so mistakes can have been made - and can be corrected. There is no reason whatsoever to think that those holding positions in corporate or WDI (past or present) know everything there is to know about the Disney theme park industry. That all terrain has been covered, that all issues have been handled. That what's done is done. That it's time to rest on the laurels. The Disney organization is to be focusing on constantly learning on how to engage the audience. The money comes as a result, not as a goal.

Tenable practical solutions:
Pay to fix the flame effect infrastructure to the cabin. As an aesthetic show element it is as important as fresh coats of paint to the unique success of Disneyland.

There are at least 10 torches at the Tiki Room and Adventureland portal using some sort of live flame. Turn those off during the day. Use any emission allowances gained from having those off towards burning the cabin instead. At night, as the cabin is not seen and the tiki torches are, turn the cabin off and tiki torches on.

Further, to stay within emission levels and allow a larger burn for even more effect, have motion sensors on the river and railroad trigger these larger flames on and off only when needed.

As in Pirates, a specific story for how or why the cabin is burning is not neccessary. Guests can (should) come up with their own, especially parents for their youngest children. The narration only needs to go so far as saying "Hazards lay around every corner on the settler's trail. Whatever happened here, I'm sure the owner of this one is glad he decided to throw down his claim so close to the river!" or the like. And if it was decided to carry it even further, some humor (ala Marc Davis) involving a bucket brigade - also showing community cooperation - could also be added.

Summer said...

Hi! I'm enjoying reading this blog, and I'd like to keep up with it. Is there an RSS feed available? (If not, could there be?)

:)

Anonymous said...

They turned of the burning cabin? Lame, lame lame.
I've always interpreted the best Disney attractions as stuff to make you feel like you were really in a movie or story. Arrows flew, shots were fired, cabins burned.
The audio corny "updates" as to why said cabin was burnt in the first place are pretty sorry too. What's next?
"there across the river is proof - a hick's meth lab is on fire! The old pioneer lies nearby,the victim of bad chemistry..."z