Sunday, January 28, 2007
Gilding the Lily
Visit Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and you’ll notice the faceless bride with the beating heart in the attic has been replaced with Bride 2.0. Her name is Constance and the technology that brings her to life is state of the art. Before her, Leota 2.0 was unveiled now floating freely along with her table.
Just down the path from the Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean sports a spiffy new dry for wet waterfall illusion, more vibrant splash effects in the fort bombardment scene and a souped up sound system to complement the recent addition of all things Captain Jack Sparrow.
In Tomorrowland, Space Mountain 2.0 arrived in July of 2005 with a smoother ride, a handful of eye-popping lighting effects and a considerably darker interior. On it’s heels the temporary 2.0.1 version, Rockit Mountain, debuted, a bewildering tumble through a Red Hot Chili Peppers psychotropic hallucination replete with teeny bopping projections, swirling multi-colored kliegs and a pulse-pounding heavy metal soundtrack (not to mention a day-glo view of the once mysterious track layout).
It would be disingenuous to poo-poo all of these recent additions. At the best these touch-ups are delightful steps forward in the art of Imagineering, especially when they remain in their original creative context and don’t significantly alter classic scenes, characters or staging. At their worst they come with the promise of being mercifully temporary.
Still, there is a troubling current running beneath this trend to pimp up classic E-ticket adventures. With millions of dollars being allocated to these projects, what validates the cost of modifying attractions that aren’t broken?
Save for Pirates, where the addition of Jack Sparrow tied in with the marketing of the movie franchise, the justification for creative embellishments to the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain is virtually non-existent.
Were these attractions in need of Sistine Ceiling level restorations? Other than the necessity of switching out Space Mountain’s track for safety concerns, annual refurbishment budgets should be more than enough to address blown speakers, chipped paint and burned out lights.
Were these attractions failing aesthetically or creatively? Most assuredly not. None of them truly needed additional or upgraded effects. The cannonball splashing in Pirates of the Caribbean may be more spectacular today, but the original splash effects were still operational and entertaining.
Were these changes instigated to bring guests back to attractions they’d grown tired of? Hardly. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest these bad boys, three of the brightest stars in the Disney attractions firmament, were seeing dwindling numbers. Arguing that the public was losing interest in these classics doesn’t hold up.
Was there an effort to drive up over-all attendance at Disneyland? In the case of the Haunted Mansion, no. Not a single television, radio or newpaper ad made mention of it's upgraded effects. As for Space Mountain's re-opening in '05, promotion placed more emphasis on the coaster's return than its make-over.
And despite Jack Sparrow's much ballyhood addition to Pirates of the Caribbean neither the movie nor the attraction needed any help getting noticed. Had it only been an issue of letting guests bond with their favorite new pop culture heartthrob, Jack Sparrow would’ve served the same purpose doing a meet and greet out in the queue.
The lack of justification for these expensive pet projects is made all the more distressing when there are myriad areas at Disneyland that could benefit from a few dollars being thrown at them.
In lieu of writing the Red Hot Chili Peppers a big check why not spruce up the currently closed Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-thru with cutting edge special effects instead?
What about that dead fountain in Tomorrowland? The resuscitation of that giant corpse called Innoventions? Electro-shocking the Peoplemover back to life?
Should funds be allocated for an axe wielding bride or instead be used to address the neglected space in Carnation Plaza, the under-performing Petting Zoo, the exposed florescent lighting along the track of the Casey Jr. Circus Train, the ‘eerie’ canals of the former Motor Boat Cruise? The list of Disneyland real-estate in dire need of tender loving care is extensive.
Perhaps the most egregious example of misallocated funds can be found back at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. While Imagineers fine tuned the effects on the new free floating Leota, Disney World’s Haunted Mansion continued to lay in ruin. Torn scrims, faulty animation, out of sync show tracks and static filled speakers only hint at the aggressively bad show this has become.
And while they erect giant Mickey Wands and Sorcerer’s hats throughout the property, the classic Bear Country Jamboree is left to wilt and die. Visit it today and you’ll witness torn and faded fur, arthritic animation and a sound system so off kilter the show is now nearly incomprehensible.
Is this trend really a matter of misguided Imagineering priorities? Is there some developmental desire for today's creators to make their own mark on the classics, whether or not it is needed or warranted. Are Imagineers just trying to stand proud next to Walt's ghost in the absence of opportunities to shine with their own stellar E-tickets. Or are some trying to make work for themselves on the only assets management deems worthy of reinvestment?
After an earlier series of highly subjective alterations to Pirates of the Caribbean, creator and Disney Legend Marc Davis noted that it was better the way they had originally designed it.
It’s time for Disney Management to take a hard look at budgetary priorities, to start using funds to reinvigorate orphaned real-estate rather than to gild yet another lily.
To stop fixing what isn’t broken and start fixing what is.