There’s a story, well known to Disneyphiles, which tells of the origin of the now somewhat infamous practice of updating classic Disney attractions. It goes something like this...
Walt was roaming Adventureland disguised as a floppy-hatted tourist when he overheard an authentic tourist quip, “We don’t need to go on this ride. We’ve already seen it.”
The guest was referring to Walt’s beloved Jungle Cruise. Walt then decided to change a very serious African Queen-esque river excursion into a Bob Hope road show picture. The initial change was greeted skeptically by some purists at first, but the light-hearted cruise soon won over the lot.
And why shouldn’t it? It fulfills the most important tenets of Disney entertainment. It appealed to all ages, it enveloped the audience in an immersive environment and it demonstrated world-class showmanship via whimsical character design, clever staging and good-natured humor--delivered, with varying degrees of success, by Disneyland’s driest wits.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s. Another of Walt’s classic attractions was getting snubbed by guests and on both coasts no less. The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and its almost identical cousin, “Tropical Serenade” at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, were regularly receiving the ultimate insult in show business. Large portions of their audience were actually standing up and walking out in the middle of the show, a problem even more pronounced at the tourist heavy Florida property. Disneyland’s solution was to cut the show time and drastically reduce operating hours (a trademark solution of the Pressler era). Though difficult to believe, Walt Disney World management had more old-school Disney types in power at the time who had no problem asking the much maligned question “What would Walt have done?” They decided to do the right thing and update the attraction, shortly thereafter putting a call in to Walt Disney Imagineering.
Walt Disney Imagineering was hip deep in their hip-and-edgy phase. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter proved WDI could live on the edge; the “boring” subject of Energy was given the Hollywood treatment with Ellen Degeneres, Bill Nye and Jamie Lee Curtis; even food rocked in the mid-90s. This ultra hip band of Imagineers decided WDW’s Tiki room should get the same treatment, and Tiki Room Under New Management was born.
The premise is that Aladdin’s Iago and Lion King’s Zazu have taken over the show because Jose, Michael, Pierre and Fritz can’t keep butts in the seats. Talk about literal storytelling.
Iago: You are boring Tiki birds. I'm a big cele-birdy. That's why I'm gonna go and change your show. Ain't it great to have a friend like me?
Jose: But señor, we've done the same show...
Fritz: Ya, since 1963.
Iago: My, how time flies. Get a life, you guys! You're ancient history. Can your tails do this? Can your wings do that? Can you bad birds sing, in punk or rap? Can ya rock and roll? Well, listen here. It's a whole new world, so ya better get hip, Or your audience will disappear.
“Abrasive,” “Rude,” “Disrespectful,” “Disgraceful,” “Obnoxious,” were some of the less colorful adjectives used in the torrent of guest comments flooding City Hall when the attraction reopened in 1998.
It’s important to note, however, that the original announcement to add Iago and Zazu to the Tiki Room received no protest of any kind, no guest complaints, nothing (later that same year the Save Toad campaign was organized to prevent Toady’s eviction from the vacation kingdom). Repeat guests and cast members were genuinely excited about the addition of two characters from their favorite films.
That is, until they saw the show.
Once the show opened, it received one of the most negative guest responses to any in Disney history. But guest response wasn’t Walt Disney World’s only problem. Front line managers discovered they had a problem with some cast members making fun of certain Disney attractions in front of guests. The cast members cited Iago’s behavior as an excuse. (Iago says at the end of the show, “I think I’ll head over to Hall of Presidents and take a nap”.)
A very angry Walt Disney World management team forwarded these concerns (from guests and management cast members alike) on to WDI. Those hip-and-edgy Imagineers read, digested, discussed and then concluded, “We will need to be more careful when updating classic attractions.” So, lesson learned. The End.
Well, maybe there’s a little more to it than that. There was no denying repeat guests wanted the update; they were excited about it. It wasn’t simply that Disney messed with an attraction they loved. It was that Disney messed up an attraction they loved.
WDI took away only a very superficial version of the lesson they could have learned. The lesson they learned was superficial because their relationship to the attraction was superficial. The evidence? A year and a half later they took the beloved Journey Into Imagination and beat it into submission--yielding Journey into YOUR Imagination. But that wasn’t the end of it. The Hip and Edgy division of WDI transformed their own creation, Alien Encounter, into Stitch’s Great Escape four years after the Imagination train wreck. Hip and Edgy Inc. didn’t think of Journey Into Imagination or Alien Encounter as classic attractions, so, both of them were fair game. Those who do not learn from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them.
Let’s see if we can learn the lessons of the Tiki Room Under New Management now. The heart of the Tiki Room was very much intact before the refurbishment. The character design, the art direction and the music were excellent. (In fact, 50s tiki kitsch saw a resurgence around the turn of the century, which Disneyland’s Tiki room benefitted from.) So, what was the problem?
To start with the show was too long. Disneyland made the right move by cutting the Offenbach piece. And the technology was dated (obviously). When the show premiered, it felt like magic. That’s why it was called the Enchanted Tiki Room. It needed new technological enchantment. It needed something that made the guests ask, “how’d they do that,” just like they did back in 1963. But, and this is an important ‘but,’ any changes must be consistent with the mood, style and flavor of the original attraction. This can only be done by someone who understands why the attraction was charming to guests in the first place; it can only be done by an artist who understands the original artist’s intent.
The good-natured humor at the Jungle Cruise was, and is, a winner. The abrasive crude humor of Iago (and Stitch) is, well, abrasive and crude. Who out there enjoys having a huckster parrot call them suckers for 10 minutes? And for that matter, who really wants to smell Stitch’s chili-dog breath or the odor of synthetic skunk in the Imagination Institute? A comic relief character like Iago, without any drama to require relief from, is pointless. Stitch without Lilo is heartless. And Figment without Dreamfinder is just sad.
When Disney tries to be hip, it looks like a good-natured dorky kid trying to act cool. The good kid always comes off looking like a jerk. We like the good-natured dorky kid; he reminds us of ourselves. (That’s why audiences fell in love with Mickey Mouse, isn’t it?) The kid needs to grow and change, but if he changes into another person, if he isn’t true to himself, we won’t like him anymore. I’m sure the Imagineers who made Tiki Room Under New Management saw the film Aladdin. Did they miss the message? It’s very simple.
Just be yourself.
Be Disney and be proud of it.