Friday, June 15, 2007
“When Mickey Comes Marching Home Again…”
It is a sparkling Southern California day as I step off the Monorail into Tomorrowland. The kind of day I associated with Disneyland as a kid, when the drive to Anaheim brought sunshine, ocean breeze and brilliant color to eyes more accustomed to the miserable grey of a Tule fog winter.
Fitting weather for a celebration. Walt Disney’s Submarine Voyage is recommissioned nearly ten years after a critical battle, when the historic attraction was torpedoed by sharp-shooting accountaneers of a tragic wartime Kingdom.
Now the fleet has returned to a hero’s welcome.
Watching the gleaming yellow subs circle though their shimmering lagoon, the future again looks bright, fading the long nightmare of an era when all life was drained from these once-vital waters. Looking across the landscape, there are further signs of that miraculous Tomorrow we were promised by Walt, a world that in recent years was left to rot and ruin for the duration.
Though the hulking skeleton of the Rocket Jets, now a dismembered mechanical corpse, still dominates Tomorrowland’s skyline to remind us of past atrocities - signs of utopia’s reconstruction are evident everywhere. The spires of Space Mountain shine white once again. Modernist sculpture graces the civic spaces of the future city. It’s a world slowly on the move and the mend.
But beneath the surface of Tomorrowland’s lagoon, renewed life is fully vibrant.
As I climb down that spiral staircase into the submarine, I'm embraced by the joy of finding an old friend lost in battle. My sense memory streams with déjà vu of the voyages we had shared. As I dutifully polish a porthole with my sleeve to remove a greasy nose-print, as I had so many times before, I'm carried back to those simple, happy times before the fall.
This is no wallow in nostalgia. Through the bubbles, a new adventure unfolds, colorful, detailed, filled with character and delight. The new voyage is not a pasteboard paradise, but a living environment of quality and imagination, to a depth we have not experienced in many years. The new “Finding Nemo” show elements fill the enormous flippers passed down by fondly recalled sea serpents, giant squid and mermaids. The unique infrastructure of the original Submarine Voyage provides an incomparable platform from which to launch new technological wonders, resulting in a fully animated hybrid that would not be possible to build from scratch today. It is worth every penny, and the smiling crowds that have turned up to greet the fleet underscore the success.
So who are the true heroes of the campaign? To whom do we dedicate this octopus’s victory garden?
We salute those who fought for the Magic Kingdom, those who risked politics and livelihood to pass Walt’s world of wonder to a new generation. Prime among them, Tony Baxter and his fellow Imagineering traditionalists, who kept the lights on in the lagoon during every blackout. And to Matt Ouimet, former President of Disneyland, who recognized the value of the shared treasure with which he was entrusted. Without their passion, dedication and perseverance through the dark decades, these waters might now be landfill; the subs scrap metal, like their Florida cousins.
Along with the submarine fleet, another long lost unit has come marching home again… the animators. And they are bringing the “Walt” back to Disneyland.
While cartoons have never strayed far from the Kingdom, in fact they have been rather persistent in expanding their reach, the specialized cartoonist's-eye and the inventive ideas that made characters into something more than franchise floggers has increasingly become an offshore import.
Walt Disney’s original voyages into theme park design benefited greatly from the taste and talents of Walt Disney Productions artists and animators, the creators of his classic cartoon features. Studio stalwarts like Marc Davis, Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Ken Anderson, Claude Coats and so many others that helped set the style for the films, did the same for Disneyland. These initial Imagineers knew how to tell stories visually, to art direct an environment that brought the unreal to convincing life. With personality, detail, color and corn, they took us to other worlds without a trace of irony. Their contributions helped make a trip to Disneyland like stepping into the frame of a Disney film. After all, they had created the originals.
Since the early 1990’s, when corporate gatekeepers began to close the inner-kingdom to animators, artists and other creatives of the Walt kind, we began losing portholes of imagination to MBA-holes of management efficiency. Yet that time too has passed.
In the acquisition of Pixar, Disney has bought back their wandering soul and healthy inner child – at a premium – and it could not have been a better move. Here are to be found the traditional Disney talents and ideas, the Walt spirit in exile.
While Pixar’s artists had contributed ideas and comments to their attractions in the past, their people were more-or-less peripheral to the process. Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is the first opportunity WDI’s new creative skipper, John Lasseter, has had to fully supervise the execution of a major attraction - - and the increased level of creative spit and polish is more than evident. His efforts to “plus” the project ensured that the fleet’s return was well-worth waiting for.
On sparkling display too, is the Pixar eye for design through the efforts of “Finding Nemo” alumni, including Robin Cooper, texture art director for the film, who helped bring the look and feel of the movie environment to three-dimensional life – and “Nemo” production designer Ralph Eggleston, whose dazzling attraction travel poster at the main gate pays homage to the stylish mid-century original, while adding the fun of the film, ride and characters to the design. While only part of a larger hardworking team, the animation artists help to bring that special “Disney touch” back to the park, with colorful detail at once fresh and new, yet part of the timeless whole.
Through Pixar, we can only hope the entire Disney Company will again be animated by animators, as it has always been, as it ever should be.
As I step from the submersible with a happy heart, I catch an angle on Tomorrowland that I haven’t seen in a decade. From that vantage point, other phantoms of The Happiest Place on Earth live again in my mind’s eye. The bleak Observatron spins again with stellar Astrojets high above, the PeopleMover carries relaxed travelers of tomorrow’s highway on its slender beams, Skyway gondolas fly overhead into icy caves of the mighty Matterhorn, giving a rarified bird’s eye view of this World on the Move. And there are new wonders too, attractions that surprise and delight beyond expectation… It is Walt's utopia reborn from the depths of decay.
The union of Pixar artists and Disney Imagineers will help to further renew, revive and define that dream Tomorrowland for the next millennium, perpetuating the optimistic futurism of the founder though creative application of design and technology, visual storytelling and immersive experience. The triumphant return of the submarine fleet is only leading a pageant of promise from the past to future voyages of discovery in waters of the imagination yet to be explored.
Walt Disney’s great, big beautiful tomorrow is on the horizon once again, thanks to those who let their hearts soar above the bottom line. Though there are surely still mid-level monkeys in the machine, clinging to their spreadsheets on remote islands long after surrender, the news will reach them sooner or later - - or they will simply be left behind.
“When the world is truly ready for a new and better life, all these things will one day come to pass, in God's good time,” predicted Captain Nemo in Walt Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Maybe “God’s good time” is now...