Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Little Things

"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things."
-- Robert Brault
In the rush to create the latest and greatest multi-million dollar E-ticket, one has to wonder why Walt Disney Imagineering doesn't pay more attention to the power-- and value-- of investing in the multitude of smaller touches that separate Disney's themed environments from the rest of the pack.

Fortunately, those smaller yet extremely satisfying projects aren't completely out of vogue. Witness the wonder of the newly refurbished Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough at Disneyland. It's not the only reason someone would visit the park, but it's definitely one of the reasons people keep coming back for more.

In a self-contained park such as Disneyland, those smaller touches are arguably easier to conjure and create. It's not difficult to add layer after layer of detail when you have a relatively small canvas to work with. Walt's park is also blessed with the power of nostalgia. Anything added at Disneyland needs to have that Disney look and feel. The guests demand it, and the company and Imagineers deserve a great deal of credit for respecting and adhering to those "old school" principles that, while sometimes creatively frustrating, have served the park well for decades.

In the early days of Walt Disney World, back when the Florida property was much smaller and easier to manage, that famously obsessive attention to detail flourished. For nearly a quarter of a century, Walt Disney World had the genuine look and feel of a true Disney environment. It seemed back then as if Imagineers held sway over everything--right down to the manhole covers and beyond.

But as the canvas expanded, and new parks and resorts emerged, Walt Disney World lost its creative focus. Today, the respect for theme has all but disappeared; lost are many of those wonderful "worlds within the World" that transformed the soggy swamp into an escapist utopia.

Recently, I had the wonderful (if not exhausting) privilege of escorting my energetic and inquisitive pre-schooler through the grounds of the Fort Wilderness Campground, truly one of the crown jewels of Walt Disney World. After taking a leisurely stroll, we headed back to the parking lot via the resort's internal bus system.

As the pine trees and campsites passed by our windows, a recorded voice came over the loudspeakers to tell us more about what we were seeing. This new automated voice system now operates on busses throughout Walt Disney World, and while the technology that makes it possible is undoubtedly cool, the attention to theme falls just a bit short. There is themed music on the bus, but the voice on the loudspeaker is "the" voice of Walt Disney World, the same voice you hear on the monorail, the same voice you hear on bus after bus after bus. And while the announcer's deep monotone is certainly attention grabbing, on the internal bus at Ft. Wilderness, it also, sadly, seems woefully out of place. Gone is the suspension of disbelief, gone is the feeling of being lost in the wilderness. Yes, we are on a bus in the wilderness, but it's the voice that breaks the illusion, reminding us, after all, that it's not really the wilderness, it's only Walt Disney World. Perhaps they were going for a Jack Wagner kind of presence here, but the execution is jarring-- and misses the mark. An opportunity to add to the immersion has been squandered, or at the very least, overlooked.

By way of contrast, cast your mind back to the early days of Walt Disney World. You're about to enjoy a trip down one of the water slides at River Country. You ascend the rock formation that serves as a staircase and peruse the "wanted" posters at the summit. The fresh Florida breeze blows through the partly cloudy sky over your slightly sunburned skin. Suddenly, a voice calls out over the uptempo banjo music:

"Welcome to 'Whoop 'n' Holler Hollow'! Now the water below us is up to six feet deep, and has a strong current. Only experienced swimmers should use the slide."

Those of us who remember River Country can instantly hear the old cowpoke's voice as he implores us to use caution. They didn't have to do it that way back then, but they did, and that simple themed voice-over remains a fond memory to this day, one of those small but inexplicably satisfying finishing touches that transforms mundacity into pure magic.

Yes, I know, some would argue that the typical Florida guest doesn't care about the details anymore. And harping about the voice on the bus is admittedly very, very picky. But Walt Disney World is supposed to be a collection of unparalleled immersive environments. Anything that detracts from that immersion needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, it won't cost a fortune to remedy the situation. Curbing the internal busses at Ft. Wilderness in favor of the old steam trains that used to traverse the campground would be beyond wonderful; but for now, let's be reasonable, and focus on the little things. In this uncertain time of smaller budgets and economic anxiety, a series of very small fixes might be just what the doctor ordered.

Walt Disney Imagineering would be wise to seize this opportunity, visit Florida, and take a much-needed inventory of all those missing details at Walt Disney World. Start by separating the property back into its individually themed environments. What works? What doesn't? What's missing? What can we add?

A holistic approach by Imagineering-- a renewed interest in, and creative ownership of, all of Walt Disney World-- would refresh the property and restore the Disney shine like never before. It's a simple, cost-effective approach. And here in Florida, it represents some tender loving care that's long overdue.

"Never neglect the little things. You can never do your best, which should always be your trademark, if you are cutting corners and shirking responsibilities. You are special. Act it. Never neglect the little things."
-- Og Mandino

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tis the Season...

It’s that time of year again to once again sluff off the cynicism and be thankful for our many blessings. Since its inception nearly three years ago, Re-Imagineering has witnessed much to be thankful for and it never hurts to remind ourselves of the many projects going right in the world of Imagineering.

Our first howl of disapproval was that giant Mickey Wand gracing the sleek lines of Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center. It seemed to exemplify all the tacky turns for the worse the stateside Disney parks were all suffering through. Now it is gone. The collective sigh of relief that followed undoubtedly spiked global warming to it’s most dangerous levels yet.

Where once the submarine lagoon at Disneyland sat dormant for nearly a decade, it resurfaced last year in fine fashion. We may whine that the Nemo and Friends overlay is more Fantasyland than Tomorrowland, but the love infused by animators and designers shines through, diluting that argument substantially. The subs are back, and that’s cause for celebration enough.

Expedition Everest, a classy, carefully researched and finely detailed attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was a call-back to what Imagineers do best. Opening in early 2006, it’s another jewel from the team of Joe Rhode, an Imagineer that truly ‘gets it’. Walt is smiling and so are we.

California Adventure got the new name, ‘Walt Disney’s California Adventure’, and the new infusion of more than a billion dollars of capital. Finally this glowering mis-mash mall of the cheap will become the romantic sun-kissed orange blossom state of Walt’s 1920’s arrival, all mission-style tile roofs, red-cars and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Walt’s own California Adventure will, of course, be only be the beginning. John Lasseter is overseeing Car’s Land, a giant slab of acreage celebrating the romance and lure of Route 66, while the beloved little mermaid Ariel will debut in her own E-ticket extravaganza sometime in 2010. What she actually has to do with California is a little bewildering, but what the heck, we’ll welcome her to the golden state regardless.

Though the work at WDCA will take years to complete, the fact that the brass at corporate are putting their money where our mouths are signals much to be thankful for. Already Paradise Pier has seen a swatch of Victorian Era gingerbread bloom along its shores with the opening of Toy Story Midway Mania and the recent draining of the area lake is a clear sign that work has already begun to re-tool for the planned water fountain spectacular ‘Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’. Let us bow our head and give thanks.

Say what you will about adding Disney-kin ready-to-order dolls to ‘It’s a Small World’, (and this blog certainly has) but when version 2.0 re-opens in early 2009 it will be cleaner, sound better and revive missing details not seen since the late 60’s. Perhaps refreshing those glittering details came with a deal with the devil, but we’re thankful for the spit and polish nonetheless and will try not to notice the price-tags affixed to those adorable Disney characters throughout the attraction.

Now that Obamania is in full swing and the country appears ready to proudly wave the red white and blue again, Disneyland’s Main Street is ready to highlight the long neglected ‘U.S.A.’ part of its title in the coming months. Up will go the banners and flags while the Opera House will welcome back a resuscitated Lincoln, this time possibly sharing the stage with Barack himself in a supporting role. Republicans and Democrats can now both unite and give thanks.

Back at Disney World, Space Mountain is slated for an infusion of some tender loving care in the near future and though it may not be the complete overhaul this classic deserves, every little bit helps.

The rumor mill is also closely monitoring the plans for a much needed re-tooling of Florida’s Fantasyland. Details are sketchy, but it appears hopeful that the entire land will undergo a complete makeover. Perhaps we should thank Harry Potter over at Universal for that one.

We also bow courteously to the ooky new sets and surreal sounds at the Haunted Mansion, the splash of Siemens all over Spaceship Earth, the newly refreshed bears at Country Bear Jamboree and the promise of things to come at The Hall of Presidents.

Finally this week marks the soft re-opening of a true gem at Disneyland’s Fantasyland, the retro ‘57 Eyvind Earle version of the original castle walk-thru not seen at Disneyland since the mid-70’s. Though this is a small animatronic-free series of intimate dioramas and not a splashy blast-em up E-ticket extravaganza, it remains a sterling example of Disney magic at it’s absolute finest.

Here quality, craftsmanship and artistry take the front seat and the effect is positively swoon-worthy. Mere thanks for this re-opened jewel-box doesn’t seem appropriate. Genuflect.

Happy Holidays from Re-Imagineering!