Saturday, August 19, 2006

Elemental Losses: Water

Initially The Great Movie Ride was going to be part of a show business themed attraction at Epcot but the powers that be felt it was strong enough to anchor an entire new theme park. And so, in May of 1989, the Disney MGM Studios was born.

If The Great Movie Ride was going to be the flagship attraction at the new park it was appropriate that the first in its more than ten movie set pieces be one of the most elaborate.

And elaborate it was; a faithful recreation of the five tiered cake of bathing beauties in 1933’s Footlight Parade, specifically one of Busby Berkley’s showiest numbers, ‘By a Waterfall’.

Imagineers didn’t scrimp on the details. Just as the set appeared in the film, each of the five tiers rotated counter to one another while fountains of water sprayed from ornamental gold deco jets trimming each layer. To top it all off, designers added three shimmering caped beauties on diving boards to the right of the set and filled the room with very real bubbles. When the switch was finally flipped on this extravagant movie musical recreation it was truly a sight to behold; a magical glittering tribute to the spectacular showmanship of Busby Berkley at the height of his craft and a fitting introduction to Disney’s Great Movie Ride.

But in perhaps one of park managements most egregious exploitations of the whole ‘If It’s Broke Don’t Fix It’ dictum, this was yet another spectacle that wasn’t going to last.

As with virtually all new attractions, technical and engineering issues are bound to crop up and this one was no exception. What the actual problems were depended on who you talked to; the mechanism that turned the giant cake was problematic, the foundation was cracking, water was leaking, mold and mildew was forming and/or the set was incurring water damage.

Maintenance staff whined up a blue streak, and eventually word came down from above that the expense of upkeep just wasn’t worth the payoff.

With the bane of unavoidable mechanical problems it certainly makes some sense to sacrifice a single show element here or there to save the intergrity of others, but the changes to this one Movie Ride set were so massive and all-consuming that one had to wonder if they weren’t inspired by someone in management who personally found the whole 1930’s Busby Berkley esthete morally and ethically repugnant.

Firstly, the entire cake set was curtained over by a giant scrim so that its reveal could be shortened. Then the art deco painting details on the walls faithfully recreated from the movie were removed as were the three bathing beauties and their diving board perches. Lastly, the mechanics that made each separate tier of the cake rotate were turned off, the animated lights unplugged and the bubble making machines removed.

And despite this being a recreation of a number called “By a Waterfall” guests would no longer see a single speck of water in the whole set. Those pesky water fountains were turned off for good.

So today visitors who enter The Great Movie Ride’s Footlight Parade set now witness a less than impressive slide show of Berkley formations on that giant scrim punctuated by sporadic hazy reveals of the Footlight Parade cake behind it; no deco details, no motion, no animated lighting, no bubbles.

No water.

Guests would just have to be trusted to not know what they were missing.

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.