Sunday, December 12, 2010

Even Greater Moments

It seems odd to fixate on a fireplace mantel when discussing the return of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland nearly a year ago. Yet fixate we must, as in that presumably simple pre-show set piece is a sure sign that wisdom and clarity are returning to the halls of Imagineering.

It wasn’t too long ago that executives would have been hard pressed to have Lincoln return to Disneyland at all. Not relevant, not cost effective, not inclusive to a synergistic game plan.

Yet a budget was drawn up not only for the return of this attraction but for, among other things, the creation of a fireplace mantle for the pre-show lobby that provides an elegant footing for the new film that introduces the show. Of course it’s not just any mantle as it takes its cue from the one seen in John DeCuir’s masterwork “The Burden of War”, a painting used first for Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents and now appearing in this freshened up version of Great Moments. It’s a clever touch, a classy prop, a nice bit of theming.

But it’s important to recall that the number crunchers of days gone by would have argued vehemently against such a costly and superfluous extravagance. Something as simple as a pre-show mantel wouldn’t have gotten past the first brainstorming session.

But here we are and there it is; a touch of genuine elegance at Disneyland that in the broader sense spells out why no other theme park in America comes close when it comes to quality showmanship.

Thankfully it doesn't end there. While strolling through the pre-show gallery check out the wall coverings, the carpet, the crown molding, the light fixtures, the placard spotlighting, the cabinetry. It’s all top-drawer extravagance that would give an Eisner era bean-counter an aneurysm, all the while screaming, “This is an amusement park, dammit, not the Hermitage!”

And we haven’t even entered the auditorium.

Kudos goes to the entire Lincoln team for placating the purists while bringing a fresh new sheen to this Walt Era masterpiece. You’d think a mash-up of The Hall of Presidents, The American Adventure and previous Great Moments incarnations would create a messy dissonant presentation but good taste prevails, with the creative team pulling the best parts of these shows together into a cohesive, heart-tugging whole.

Luckily, anything resembling the egregious and disturbing ‘Civil War’ version of Great Moments from 2001 is nowhere to be found, along with the gimmicky headsets, the graveyard consecration and the uncomfortable moist lapping at the ear.

Back is the classic red-velvet curtain and white Ionic column version from the ’64 World’s Fair.

Back is the now digitized Sam McKim slideshow introduction, this time making room for many additional paintings in service of a gorgeous rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. Irving Gordon’s ‘Two Brothers’ from American Adventure returns from the 1984 version to help illustrate the Civil War.

Back is the original music, chorus, Royal Dano and Paul Frees.

And back is a refreshed Lincoln along with the bulk of his original and always relevant speech. (Purists can forgive the exclusion of his ‘grave and the gay of all sexes’ comment, a move that insures guest relations will have a slightly shorter line to tend to.)

It’s certainly a thrill to see Lincoln’s technologically enhanced facial features but far more thrilling to finally witness, after decades of missteps, his most stately performance since 1984 when a breakthrough in animatronics made him both more ‘compliant’ and more hyper. Hats off to the current team of imagineers who understand that, despite advancements in audio-animatronics, just because a figure can flap his arms like an orangutan doesn’t mean it should. By toning down the trickery Lincoln has not only become more uncannily life-like but far more dignified.

If criticism be leveled at all, it falls not on the show but on the exit corridor. Portraits of America’s innovators, sports legends, entertainers, creators and philanthropists flank the walls; most of them time-honored revolutionaries. But in company with Martin Luther King, Amelia Earhart, Bob Hope and Elvis is the alarming inclusion of Miley Cyrus. If you’ve ever whacked your head against a stone doorway as you exit the Sistine Chapel then you can imagine the feeling of bumping into her here.

Regardless, the overall whole is a tour-de-force of Imagineering know-how and intelligence all at the task of resuscitating a true Disneyland gem. Kudos to Tony Baxter (Senior Vice President, Creative Development), Josh Shipley (Creative Show Director), Kim Irvine (Pre-Show Design), Ethan Reed (Animator), Brian Scholz, (Show Producer), Chris Tietz (Art Director) and the entire team that pulled this one off.

And finally, kudos to the executives. Disney brass certainly had plenty of arguments against bankrolling the endeavor, including that pesky superfluous John DeCuir mantle homage.

But they did.

And the Happiest Place on Earth just got a lot happier.

Thank you.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Step Right Up!

For a truly all-encompassing critique of Toy Story Midway Mania it’s important to first look at the way video games and play in general were presented in the Toy Story film itself.

With Andy’s playtime at the opening of the film a villainous Mr. Potato Head threatens to flatten Bo Peepʼs sheep with an R.C. car unless the piggy bank uncorks itself. Only Sheriff Woody can save the day. Here Andyʼs playtime is creative, funny, and inclusive.

Compare that to Sid, who abuses, deconstructs, tortures, and ultimately forgets his toys. If Andyʼs room, with its cloud wallpaper, is Heaven and Sid’s room, with it's dark shadows and black light, Hell, then Pizza Planet, where Sid and Andy play together, must be a sort of purgatory. Here kids drink soda styled after xenomorph mucous, mount giant lasers to blow up planets and whack aliens sprouting from an astronautʼs torso. Every playerʼs play-time is identical to everyone else’s, and the violence inherent in these games seems to particularly suit Sidʼs mean streak.

The sceneʼs deluded antagonist, Buzz Lightyear, finds Pizza Planetʼs atmosphere astonishing, but the sceneʼs protagonist, Woody, sees it as a hive of zealotry and over- stimulation. Fortunately, Woody got over that in time to host Toy Story Midway Mania!, which may be Imagineeringʼs most meticulously-realized hive of zealotry and over- stimulation yet.

With that it mind, I invite you to step right up bravely scrutinize the fastidiously arranged chaos that is Walt Disney World’s 'Toy Story Midway Mania’.


Low capacity, frequent breakdowns, FastPass bottlenecks? In short, it’s a long wait.
Surely this was anticipated, and the queue thusly designed to soothe the testy masses.
There are countless precedents for tasteful queues in the face of grueling wait-times. Think of the ethereal queue in EPCOTʼs the Seas with Nemo and Friends, Each room taking guests deeper into the ocean; soft blue lights, rusted rails, and ambient music. Lovely, just lovely.

Meanwhile, the queue for Midway Mania is set in a toy box. The space is dominated with clutter, sharp angles, a shock of colors and human-sized product placement for classic toys. It is the visual equivalent of both a sugar rush, and a sugar crash. And at the center of it all...

Mr. Potato Head

Mr. Potato Head is a revolutionary audio-animatronic figure, capable of interacting with guests via thousands of lines of pre-recorded dialogue. Heʼs also a jerk. Rather than mining the wealth of character appropriate puns about body parts (“Lend me your ears!”), dismemberment (“Keep your parts inside the vehicle or youʼll end up like me!”), and potatoes (“Can I borrow some sunscreen? I hate when I peel!”), he instead resorts to caustic jabs and clumsy, grating songs.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four... five potato, six potato; play the game and score! Seven potato, eight potato, nine potato, ten... come on, you hockey puck, and play the game again!

When guests fail to applaud, heʼll admonish, “Folks, Iʼll give you a hint: this is the part where you clap.”

Other times, he asks, “What do I have to do to make you people happy? Pull off my ear?” and after he pulls off his ear, he says, “Ouch! There. Are you happy now? ...yeah, well, neither am I.”

Guilt trips belong at home, not while queueing at Disney World.

The interactive games in the stand-by line for EPCOTʼs Soarinʼ may be irrelevant to the rideʼs content, but at least theyʼre engaging. Considering the humor and charm apparent in other interactive attractions like the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor and Turtle Talk with Crush, Mr. Potato Head could hardly be more disappointing, especially when he could be better utilized in the actual ride.

How Many in Your Party?

The Toy Story Midway Mania Load platform is situated beneath a tent, which is meant to be Andyʼs bed. The rideʼs “story” tells us that Andy is on vacation, and his toys have built him a carnival to celebrate his return.

Unfortunately, it violates the foremost rule of the films: toys must remain inert in the presence of humans. Granted, that rule gets broken, but only in the most dire situations. ‘Surprising Andy with a carnival because heʼs cool’ doesn’t quite match the urgency of ‘Buzz is strapped to an exploding rocket and Andyʼs pulling out of the driveway and moving away forever’. I concede this is a nitpick but at the same time I donʼt see why any mere fan of the film should care any more about being true to the rules of it’s world than the multi-million dollar theme park ride based on it.

The Ride

Any complaints raised about the queueʼs aesthetic pale in comparison to the frenzy that is the ride itself. Itʼs a first-person shooter, so youʼll be focusing on images projected in 3D lit by black-light while being hit in the face with water and bursts of air while seated in a spinning vehicle whose seats weren’t built for the human posterior, but rather, a small up-turned piano.
There are only two things missing: strobe lights, and an endless loop of ‘The Hamster Dance.’ But thereʼs no time for hosannahs, because the time has come for...

The Training Screen

Here youʼre encouraged to shoot the heroes from Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
Yes, that’s right. You have a gun. Buzz, Woody and the gang hold targets. Your gun shoots pies. If you miss the target then one of the heroes from Toy Story gets slimed.
I can only think of one defense for this: Hitting beloved characters is fun! Personally, I never visit the Country Bear Jamboree without lobbing a turkey leg at Liver Lips McGrowl.

I appreciate Imagineeringʼs attempt to answer the demand for interactivity, but shooting the heroes from Toy Story is unacceptable. In fact, no, I take that back. There are several characters from Toy Story that can be shot. The green army men can be shot. They get knocked over, and Sarge waddles on-screen and orders them back to their feet. Mr. Potato Head can be shot. Heʼs a slapstick character, and can give you a dirty look with features that have been blown off his face. The evil Emperor Zurg can be shot, because heʼs evil.

Woody, Jessie, Bullseye, Rex, and Hamm, however, should not be shot, because the films ask us to invest in their physical well-being. In fact, Woodyʼs physical well-being is the foundation of Toy Story 2ʼs plot: After tearing his arm, Woody confronts his own mortality and considers leaving Andy in order to become an “immortal” collectible.
Encouraging guests to shoot Woody is not only unethical, it also betrays the rideʼs source material.

After shooting the heroes of Toy Story, guests are whirled through...

A Selection of Midway Games

Just like Walt would have wanted! Didn’t he love carnival midways and wish there were more of them in the world? Isnʼt that why the first incarnation of Carousel of Progress was part Gravitron, and every guest who didnʼt throw up won a goldfish?

Disneyland was built to be a clean, safe, permanent, themed environment. Its patrons were “guests,” not “customers”. Its employees were “cast members,” not “carnies,” and they adhered to a code of excellent customer service. There was one flat entrance fee, and immersive experiences were emphasized over games of chance. These standards werenʼt set accidentally. They were built in response to--and in spite of--carnival midways.

So itʼs bad enough that Toy Story (Midway) Mania! emphasizes video games, where the player is not an equal participant, but rather, a computer variable, but the tone of these games is objectionable to the underlying concept of the Walt Disney’s theme parks.

Inevitably, however, the rideʼs apologists retreat to the exclamation...

“...But Itʼs Fun!”

And I canʼt claim I donʼt understand its draw. Especially with that cool “Sproing!” noise the gun makes. But letʼs again review the gimmicks lacquered onto this thing:

1. DisneyQuestʼs Pirates of the Caribbean, Battle for Buccaneer Gold game.
2. Played in a Mad Tea Party spinning teacup.
3. On a track.
4. Featuring a series of carnival-themed, first-person shooter video games.
5. Projected in 3D.
6. With 4D elements incorporated into the ride vehicle...
7. Based on a popular recent film series.
8. Without actually paying attention to the rules of the film’s world.
9. Or making any real effort to synergize the rideʼs concept into the films.

This ride is Imagineeringʼs “Mmmbop.” A meticulously-crafted chart-topper, whose sole aspiration is to be catchy and addictive. Toy Story Midway Mania! was built by demographics, not imagination. It is fun, in the same way that a nine hour sitcom marathon is fun. Artificial, mind-numbing, and devoid of aspiration.
When guests have finished, theyʼre shown...

The Final Score!

In Buzz Lightyearʼs Space Ranger Spin, your score corresponds with a rank in the prestigious Galactic Alliance. Guests all share an inclusive role shooting aliens and thus being promoted to ʻPlanetary Pilotʼ for fine service. Your score is a means to determine your prize, and the prize is integrated into the rideʼs plot.

In Toy Story (Midway) Mania!, your score corresponds with a CG stuffed animal. In other words, your score determines whether youʼve won a plush aardvark, deer, or polecat--which you donʼt get to take home. So itʼs safe to say that the emphasis is on the numerical score, rather than commenting on your growth since the start of the ride.
Just as the highest-scoring guests start bragging about their superior-but-ineffectual numbers, theyʼre dragged before...

Todayʼs High Score!

And the odds are, ʻTodayʼs High Scoreʼ is far better than yours. The last thing you see on the ride compares you with ʻa player whoʼs verifiably good.
“I hope you werenʼt playing for fun, or to bond with your family,” the High Score suggests, “because this is a serious game and we take it seriously.” This is just one mark of the aggressively Darwinian tone of Toy Story (Midway) Mania!

The ride vehicle holds four guests--two pairs of two, seated back-to-back. If youʼre in a group of three people, youʼll be sharing this experience through geography, alone.
Youʼre churned through a series of free-for-all landscapes where you can steal single-use targets from one another. You “win” a number score, and then get told that someone who played earlier was much better than you.
And just how does this ensure a magical experience for every guest?

In short...

Toy Story (Midway) Mania! is overwhelming, mean-spirited, thematically undercooked, philosophically offensive, over-produced, Darwinian, and encourages guests to shoot the heroes from Toy Story.

And for the record, the gun is triggered via pull-chord, and firing it requires a distinctly masturbatory gesture.

Who smuggled a Universal Studios attraction into the Disney parks?

In the words of Monsieur Potato Head, “Thatʼs rhetorical! It means you donʼt have to answer!”

Contributed by Re-Imagineering reader Ian Kay

Note: Those interested in contributing entries to Re-Imagineering should initially forward a comment to any existing entry that includes your e-mail address and your stated interest. The comment will not be published and your e-mail will remain anonymous.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Technology vs. Longevity

An engineer’s analysis

Throughout history Disney has consistently been at the technological forefront of theme park design. From introducing steel roller coasters (Matterhorn) to being the first to implement linear induction motors for urban transportation (the People Mover), Disney has always been a leader in world class technology. However, the more recent technology Disney has been using in their attractions seems to lack a certain wow-factor so prevalent in the parks earlier history.

While newer attractions such as Raytheon’s programmable-animatronic arm and Toy Story Midway Mania are reasonably impressive, they lack the quality, theming, and all encompassing immersion displayed in the Pirates, Mansions and Thunder Mountains of years gone by. Toy Story Midway Mania may very well be an exciting attraction, with smiling guests proclaiming their long wait well worthwhile. But exactly how long will those smiles last?

The main driving force behind Midway Mania isn’t the adorable storytelling, funny characters, incredible view or thunderous thrills; it’s the technology. Midway is unique because it offers riders the first interactive 3D experience in a theme park ride. However, while this technology may be remarkable the implementation is weak.

Current generation video game consoles coupled with next generation’s televisions* are able to perform the same tasks with equal awe. In fact, Disney readily recognized this and released a Toy Story Midway Mania game for the Wii and iPhone. While these versions lack the 3D spectacle that makes Midway Mania so amazing, future renditions will be more than capable of providing this effect. That’s right; you can play Midway Mania from the couch in your living room. You may have to give up the ride’s signature quirky-jerky motions in order to skip the line but the trade off is negligible.

Currently Midway Mania is a significant draw for DCA and DHS- meaning that guests attend those parks with the sole intention of experiencing the attraction. But when you are able to play the game at home and in 3D is the long wait now worth it? It’s safe to say Midway Mania will have an extremely short life span.

After further analysis of the ride, it appears obvious that Disney was not only aware of this, but prepared as well. If you remove the 3D effects and guns from Midway mania what’s left? A grocery store shaped room, tacky cardboard cutouts on the walls and TV screens lining the aisles. The basic empty shell that’s left over screams 'cookie cutter': any object of significant value can easily be re-purposed. Not even the vehicles appear to be long term. The attraction runs off of an HP laptop cleverly housed inside the vehicle shell (which is fading and tearing). While the model that Disney used is currently out of production, the closest model with similar specifications sells for $500 from Best Buy.

The lack of quality that Disney put into the environment and the mechanics speak the same message: quick fix. Toy Story Midway Mania isn’t an attraction that will run for years and years; it’s a number in an accountant’s book—adding a quick boost in the numbers for the short term. WDI bit the bullet here and pulled off a wonderful smoke and mirrors attraction. Midway Mania, despite its cheap roots, is highly prized. Enjoy the ride for the time being because it probably won't be around very long.


Disney even released an accessory to house your Wii-mote in, in order to make the game more authentic.

* 2010 televisions from multiple distributors have been announced being 3D capable at the same price as current generation television.

Contributed by Re-Imagineering reader John Clayton

Note: Those interested in contributing entries to Re-Imagineering should initially forward a comment to any existing entry that includes your e-mail address and your stated interest. The comment will not be published so your e-mail will remain anonymous.


Friday, November 13, 2009

East Meets West

Post removed due to Reader Objections.

For those of you who laughed, thank you.
For the rest, we now return to our regular programming.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Utopia Now

Tomorrowland has, from its inception, borrowed heavily from the popular imagination of the future. Through the late 1950s and into the ‘60s, culminating in the complete overhaul of Tomorrowland in 1967, WED had a great big beautiful tomorrow that was ensconced in the public’s mind to draw from. It was a future that people already understood and believed in, a future they could connect with. All WED had to do was build that tomorrow, today.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, the Interstate Highway System had not yet been built. Autopia modeled what would one day become our freeways and allowed guests the opportunity to experience this exciting new world. The Monsanto House of the Future was similar in many respects. It gave guests the ability to imagine themselves in the type of home they might have expected to be living in in the not too distant future.

As Tomorrowland continued to develop it drew heavily on the bold vision put forth as part of the space race. Tomorrowland was a place where the public could go and feel like they were a part of America’s greatest endeavor. Guests could make believe that they were the astronauts blasting into space and exploring the heavens. Space Mountain, Flight to the Moon and Mission to Mars have all responded to this formerly popular vision of the future.

Today, however, our vision for the future is not nearly so uniform, or positive. There is a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt about our future. Today’s popular culture shows a future plagued by robot uprisings, undead armies, global warming and apocalypse. We see it in the movies and television we watch, the books we read, and even throughout our political debates there is an underlying sense of concern for the direction we’re currently heading in. This vision of the future does not mesh well with Tomorrowland’s, or Disney’s, overall outlook (with the possible exception of the forthcoming video game Epic Mickey.)

Because the popular perception of the future has shifted away from the utopian ideal that Tomorrowland was founded upon, it has felt lost, missing its unifying vision for what’s to come. The refurbished Tomorrowland that debuted a decade ago was presented without context; it failed to tell a compelling story that guests could buy into.

WDI has three options when it comes to the future of Tomorrowland: they can continue the current course without direction or destination, ensuring Tomorrowland becomes increasingly less relevant and less of a draw for guests; they can borrow from the popular culture and make Tomorrowland much darker than it is today, giving up its utopian make-believe for a gritty reality; or, WDI can present its own vision that addresses many of the problems we face today and try to return a sense of hope, excitement and optimism to the future. 

As Disneyland's founder built the park on a foundation of optimism, all of us at Re-Imagineering will remain optimistic as well. Here's hoping WDI can deliver a great big beautiful Tomorrowland 4.0.

"We want our Utopia now."

-Sinclair Lewis
Main Street

Contributed by Re-Imagineering reader Grant Henninger

Note: Those interested in contributing entries to Re-Imagineering should initially forward a comment to any existing entry that includes your e-mail address and your stated interest. The comment will not be published so your e-mail will remain anonymous.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays

Two of WDI's senior Imagineers just were given their walking papers, leaving a tsunami of questions in their wake.

Tim Delaney had been with Imagineering since 1976. As Executive Designer, Vice President, his high points were easily Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris, the centerpeice of which is the incredible re-imagining of Space Mountain, and The Living Seas at Epcot.

On the low end Tim brought us California Adventure's inaugural entryway and Paradise Pier. Just two days before California Adventure opened, Tim defended the park with a ferocious tenacity not seen since the Queen Mother Alien fought off Ellen Ripley.

Doobie Moseley - Laughing Place: Have you been confident this whole time that this park (California Adventure) would be able to please Disney guests?

Tim Delaney: Absolutely, no question in my mind. Absolutely. The reason is because of the combination of the way it’s laid out and the art direction, everything about it...They’re going to love it and this is how I felt about this entire California project from the very beginning.

Dubious taste aside, Tim was still an old school champion of quality at Imagineering and always fought for the better show. It could easily be argued that getting even the most basic elements of quality green-lit for an Eisner-era project whose very manifesto was about cheaper than cheap meant a fight to the finish, something Tim hinted at in the same interview.

Tim: I like Paradise Pier. I knew it would be challenging but I knew we could do it. I knew that there was something there so I had to fight. It’s a fight.

It was that very spirit of holding firm to ones ideals that very well may have been Tim's undoing. Infact, most recently Tim fought hard for a truly first class version of Pirates of the Caribbean for Hong Kong Disneyland, but Jay Rasulo squashed the idea and sent him back to his room without supper.

Perhaps even more bewildering is the dismissal of Valerie Edwards, WDI's head sculpter, who had been with the company for 21 years and was a featured guest artist on the D23 webzine as recently as this August. She oversaw the creation of character sculptures for Disney parks throughout the world and just recently finished the sculpt of Barack Obama for The Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents.

As with Tim Delaney, she was known as a fearless champion of quality at Disney, something her mentors, master sculpter Blaine Gibson, Imagineering legend John Hench and animation artist and father George Edwards would have been proud of.

Judging by the emotional fallout over at WDI these past few days, her colleagues were equally proud.

Unfortunately current management saw her tenure a bit differently. Where previous mangement saw her value, today's leadership saw her as 'difficult'. Seems Valerie read John Lasseter's "Quality is a great business plan" memo too literally.

For the creative professionals who remain at WDI the message is both clear and ominous. Along with their feelings of loss and sadness comes a creeping fear that the company will continue to jettison those who fight for quality in order to promote those who just say, 'yes'.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Why We Whine

“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.”

You’ll hear the phrase thrown around a lot on Disney boards and blogs, mostly in the context of critics of Disney Theme Parks and those who they feel share their way of thinking. “That guy get’s it!”

So what is this “it” that they get? What set’s them apart from the rest of the critical, mean spirited blogosphere out to get Disney?

Would You Like Some Cheese With That Whine?

First off, let’s just drop the notion that every Disney critic is just complaining because it’s fun or because they have an axe to grind or because they're just miserable, as that’s simply not true. Criticism of Disney is not the same as armchair movie critiquing, browser wars or debates over favorite sports teams. Disney Critiquing is fueled by a whole other animal.

The vast majority of truly sincere Disney critics are the old timers, the ones who've seen Disney in its prime. We've witnessed a business model all the experts said wouldn’t succeed succeed in ways no one could have imagined. Now we witness the budding growth of those principles plowed over before they've fully blossomed.

We know what Disney can be but now we don’t always see it trying.

Take Space Mountain. Bereft of any Disney characters, the Mountain has been one of those must-ride attractions for guests of Walt Disney World and Disneyland for generations. How ingenious is a ride design that, with only moderate refurbishing, still manages year after year to draw not only the most jaded teens and thrill seekers but even coaster-phobics whose greater fear is missing out on a truly magical Disney experience? Plain and simple, that is a well crafted attraction; a success that has as much to do with the spirit and principles that went into it's creation as it does with the steel and plaster comprising its parts.

But when we look at something like the recent character infusions in "it’s a small world" or Epcot's Grand Fiesta Tour we see a completely different Disney than the one we knew; a Disney not trying to put its best foot forward but its hand into our wallets. We don’t see craftsmanship, we see crass commercialism, a directly antithetical concept to the ones laid out by Disney’s founders, a philosophy that Disney already proved didn’t work in the long run.

That’s Not Nostalgic. That’s Just Boring.

And that brings us to another misrepresentation. The nostalgists.

If you think that all the Disney critics are a bunch of sour, grumpy old men living life in the past, then you’re about as far away from accurate as Carl Fredricksen was from Paradise Falls. You’ve taken one characterization of nostalgia and over emphasized it. Nostalgia is so much more then pining away for the days of old.

The type of nostalgia were talking about here isn’t just about remembering something fondly from our youth. It’s about rekindling that fondness each and every time we hear the name, watch the films or visit the parks.

Walt and his gang understood the concept of nostalgia quite well, even if that was never a stated or exclusive goal. By pouring so much energy, talent and money into their theme parks they succeeded in creating timeless worlds of fantasy and adventure that guests were eager to revisit, even after their sour old disposition should have overtaken them. You could never got tired of, or tired in, a Disney theme park.

It didn’t mean stagnation. It meant that, despite the occasional refurbishment or freshening-up, you still had a sense of connection and familiarity with the place, one you’d want to share with your friends, family and loved ones. How masterful a business it is if it can not only keep customers patronizing them throughout the entirety of their life but actively recruiting converts to the Disney theme park experience.

The Disney parks were, of course, designed to be be enjoyed by young and old alike, not as a place kids merely dragged their parents to. Without that spirit, without that sense of kindling nostalgia in all its guests, Disney would stagnate on the back of one demographic. Disney already proved that trying to include everyone is a much more successful strategy in the long term. It's a business model that not only worked, it worked in spades.

And this is what mostly younger, post-Eisner era Disney fans generally do not understand. They see a thread or blog post lamenting the dismantling of Horizons, the desecration of Future World or the inclusion of some Disney characters in "it's a small world", and they don’t get it. They only see the surface elements: the destruction of something old, the inclusion of something new and 'old people' not happy about it. They don’t necessarily understand that the much maligned slogan “Disneyland will never be complete” didn’t mean the total destruction of an attraction because it was merely old, nor the carte blanche inclusion of anything because it’s new and shiny.

Sell-Out, Don't Sellout

True fans never wanted Horizons to just continue to take us past a giant outdated microprocessor or present video chatting as a future technology for all time. Nor did we wish for World of Motion and "it's a small world" to be covered in lacquer and preserved as is for future generations. What we expected, what vintage Disney delivered over several generations, was an elevation of the principles that made it a cultural phenomenon in the first place.

The new company buzzward 'synergy' so often implemented today is just the opposite. In some cases it’s successful in the sense that it often causes an explosion of cash in every corner of the company, but often at the cost of an even more lucrative long term investment. Ellen may have made Universe of Energy more tolerable, but how long did it take for the gag to wear thin? How many times can any one guest tolerate another belch from an animatronic Stitch? Martin Short? Sure, he's funny. When he tells a different joke ever so often.

Our arguments are not about calcifying the past. They're about learning from it; not dismissing the best tenets of success as if they were dumb luck or happenstance but applying them to modern times. In an age where corporate leaders play internal politics for the betterment of themselves rather than the company, we understand how difficult it can be for a top executive to focus less on on their bonus check and more on returning the Peoplemover to Disneyland. But we also know that the founding father of the company would have had nothing to do with that reality.
“Some people worship money as something you've got to have piled up in a big pile somewhere. I've only thought about money in one way, and that is to do something with it. I don't think there's a thing I own that I will ever get the benefit of except through doing things with it… I'd rather have that in (the company) working…”

-Walt Disney

The Disney brand is, by and large, all about heart. We’ve no delusions that it’s not a business. But if you understand the basic concept of a business that puts emphasis on its customers to the Nth degree, understand the difference between genuine synergy and pandering, understand that the causes and events that made fans so demanding are the exact same causes and events that made Disney Disney, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll understand us whiners and get “it” too.

We complain, critique and whine because we love Disney that much. Imagineering's Golden Age trained us to expect more, and to never settle for less. We’re simply byproducts of the same philosophy that made the company such a success.

Contributed by Re-Imagineering reader Digital Jedi

Note: Those interested in contributing entries to Re-Imagineering should initially forward a comment to any existing entry that includes your e-mail address and your stated interest. The comment will not be published so your e-mail will remain anonymous.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Great Big Ugly Tomorrow

"I'm not sure I'm ready to celebrate the re-birth of the golden age of Imagineering just yet.

Things have just been too dismal with WDI's recent efforts for me to just jump on the bandwagon and start pushing again.

I just returned from a week in Disney World and I can tell you that Tomorrowland without Space Mountain and the Tomorrowland Transit Authority is a wasteland. We stopped by for a couple spins on Buzz Lightyear and took in a nostalgia-driven showing of the Carousel of Progress, but outside of that we passed right on by. Stitch and Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor are nearly unwatchable.

Epcot's Future World is a shadow of what it once was. Yes, Soarin' is terrific (although the film is in bad shape already), but the new Spaceship Earth is a DISASTER, the Wonders of Life pavilion remains vacant, Mission Space has run its course, the Imagination ride is the WORST Disney attraction in history, and Test Track is still a breakdown waiting to happen.

The Studios has been stagnant for YEARS now. How many times can you watch the Indiana Jones Stunt Show or see the same tired little Mermaid stage show? Toy Story Mania is a gem for sure, but that's about it.

Animal Kingdom ... Everest is nice, but nothing really spectacular. The rest? Mostly off-the-shelf stuff I can see at my local theme park or zoo.

Where are the Pirates of the Caribbeans, Haunted Mansions, and American Adventures for the next generation? Disney has abandoned what made them successful for decades and really given us a lot of recycled slop in the last decade.

I think the last truly great ride that Disney built was Splash Mountain ... and that was what? 20 years ago??"


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bobby! Cindy!

Four months in, and still no entries? Why?

Well, the reason is simple and two-fold.
Firstly this blog has lost momentum. When Re-Imagineering started, WDI couldn't have been in worse shape; badly managed, demoralized and bereft of creative and financial capital. Contributors had an easy time of rallying together and belting out a collective battle cry. We had stood in the shadows and witnessed the deterioration of our stateside parks for far too long.

But even though its petty politics as usual at 1401 Flower, there is an undeniable seachange underway there. How can you not celebrate the resuscitation of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, of Disneyland's Lincoln and Disney World's Hall Presidents, the demise, imminent and otherwise, of giant Mickey wands in Future World and Hats in Hollywood? And the list continues: Worlds of Color, America's River teeming with life, Cars Lands, Ariel E-tickets, Red Cars and the Roaring Twenties. WDI has never been busier.

And so, perhaps, Re-Imagineering has become a little less 'relevant', an ironic admission in that WDI has been championing and misusing the term for decades.

As for the other reason Re-Imagineering has been so dead of late, quite simply we've just been busy with other things. It's a challenge keeping up a blog when life gets in the way. We'll try to do better in the near future.

Finally, I'd like to open up this blog to other contributors. More than a few reader comments have been excellently written, incredibly entertaining and completely in tune with the tone of this blog, so if any of you have an entry in mind send it on and we'll pretty it up and put it front page.

For the rest of the readers, don't worry, we're not finished here. Several more articles are in gestation and will go up eventually. (Tomorrowland is still a catastrophe!) In the meantime, I hope that the articles already posted are still of value.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Adieu, Mickey Bounce House?

“This was the view walking down Hollywood Boulevard on opening day. You can’t get this view anymore. I hope we will get this view again soon.”

Bob Weis
Executive Vice President - Imagineering
May 1, 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Passport to Dreams: Old, or New?

What you hear:

"Citizens of Tomorrowland! Join Buzz Lightyear on a daring space mission to save the universe from the evil Emperor Zurg!"

What you see:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

One from the heart...

"Nice is different than good."

-Stephen Sondheim

And so it goes. On a wet Friday last February ‘It’s a Small World’ finally re-opened to the public, this time with 29 fresh faced Disney characters dotting the landscape from England to the Great Southwest. Yes, our Small World didn’t stop spinning after all. Life will go on as it always has before.

And, at least on this branch of the great Disney Blog-o-sphere, this will be the last you will hear about it.

The omniscient tone of Re-Imagineering has been a hallmark of this site since its inauguration back in early 2006. The ragtag group of professionals that contributed rarely personalized their opinions in an effort to raise the level of discourse above the general fanboy rabble.

But in this instance I can only speak from the heart.

For me, ‘Small World’ was my childhood. Having grown up on the coast meant nearly every day opened under a blanket of grey fog so it’s easy to understand how Small World’s kaleidoscopic wonderland profoundly affected the neural freeway inside this five year olds head. From that first boat cruise my childhood could easily be dated BSM and ASM, the orgiastic display of color, music, light and animation forever rewiring my sense of self.

As adolescence demands reassigning the Small World esthetic as cheesy, childish and annoying, I dutifully stepped in line. However, once I joined a burgeoning group of animator wannabes at Walt’s art school dreamland in Valencia, California, it was time to grow up. There the rigorous demands of design class, taught by some of the finest mid-century artists of their time, gave all of us a renewed respect for the masters of the form. Enter Mary Blair.

No longer would it be possible to dismiss the visual construct of this Disney attraction as kitchy, naive or childish. The color and design sensibilities on display were a wonder to behold; the more you studied it the more complex and sophisticated it all became. Several generations of animation students, smitten by the Mary Blair touch, have tried repeatedly to imitate her style. Rarely do they even come close.

But the merely visual does not a work of art make, as what truly etched this into the collective conscience as a classic work of pop art had everything to do with its simple, crystal clear conception. To sell world peace the show writers had the audacity to cast the children of the world, separated only by costume, skin color and setting, as a way to underscore our inherent innocence and common humanity. Thus was born a profound subtext that gave this Disneyland attraction a relevance that has lasted 45 years.

And so we come to where we are today, when the children of the world move aside to make room for dozens of distinctly different and specific Disney kids and kinfolk. And, as could be expected, endless debate on the merits and demerits of such an endeavor exploded on the internets.

On my first trip through Small World 2.0 I had the notebook out as well.

• New boats? A little cheap looking, but appropriately toy-like and should hold up well.

• Matte black ceiling. Very nice.

• Everything’s so bright and shiny. Bravo.

• Alice and the White Rabbit. Delightful, actually. If this were the only addition it might very well have been a fitting tribute to the creative legacy of the shows stylist.

• Peter Pan. Tinkerbell. Oh dear. There’s a reasonable argument for adding characters that are a part of the cultural folklore of their specific land. But isn’t the United Kingdom a bit overloaded?

• Cinderella has her own pedestal with Jaques and Gus staring up adoringly. Imagineering Ambassador Marty Sklar promised these characters wouldn’t say, ‘look at me, look at me’. This one screams it. What’s a flat painted bluebird on the backdrop doing? Wouldn’t the original designers have created this in three dimensions? Still, at least Cinderella is not portrayed in her Disney Princess ® finery, but in her populist rags.

• Pinocchio, looking encephalitic, chubby and squished, uncharacteristically hanging on strings and propped up under an arch of 26 lights belies the Imagineer’s watchword ‘Unobtrusive’.

• Aladdin, Jasmine and Mulan succeed in being unobtrusive.

• The African Jungle. Still bliss with or without the Lion King characters.

• Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles puppets in South America? As authentic to the culture as the taco is.

• Ariel in the South Seas? Imagineering Senior Vice President Tony Baxter said that if a character stood out we’d be ‘looking at it for the wrong reason’. I was looking at it for the wrong reason. Ariel’s long strands of bright woolen hair, her own awkward solo and white hot spotlight gave me the heebies.

• Nemo, Dory and Flounder? Well, they’re only fish, though it can be argued the super shiny Flounder may actually be more obtrusive than his diva Mermaid friend.

• Stitch. So charming. So wrong.

• Relocated Rainforest? Thank you.

• American Southwest. Easily the most egregious misfire of the entire endeavor. Static children, out of step stylistically, flat unappealing scarecrow and hybrid cow-pig that, again, should have been realized in three dimensions if at all. Poorly art directed. Wonky, awkward Toy Story Woody and Jessie characters. Best to look down at your lap till the finale.

• Re-instatement of the gorgeous Farewell Tapestry, balloons, finale sun. Beautiful.

Still, for all the scribbling, cross chatter and geeky blogger debate, the point remains. The children of Small World were intentionally homogenous, but now some of them are a bit more ‘special’ than others. In Imagineering’s effort to make every last attraction at the parks more relevant by adding Disney characters, Small World’s core message has been compromised.

More relevant? No.

Less relevant? Absolutely.

There’s a cabal at Imagineering that bristle at those of us who appear to constantly reject any change at the parks. Their argument, not unfounded, is that when an attraction is so inexorably tied to the nostalgia of our childhoods any tampering is going to feel like a personal attack. Their remedy? Get over it. As audiences taste change, so must the park.

They’re absolutely right, but in patronizing those of us whose irritating ‘nostalgia’ keeps cramping their style, they’re also discounting the real message behind our madness: Is what you’re doing different or better?

Regardless, there are signs everywhere that the leadership at Imagineering, though faltering here and there, is doing the difficult introspection necessary for a vibrant and exciting renaissance. As I exited Small World 2.0 with a close friend (and one of the finest Disney historians on the planet) we both admitted that, overall, this is probably a minor misstep in the recent evolution of the Imagineering brand.

"Well," he remarked with a roll of the eye, "At least it's fix-able."

It’s not as if those pesky Disney characters can’t eventually be removed and the ride restored to Walt Disney's original vision. After all, Disneyland will never be completed.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Born Every Minute

"The addition of Eddie Murphy into Disneyland's Haunted Mansion is absolutely amazing! He's so lifelike and so well done. Audio Animatronics have reached a new peak!"

-Disney Fan

"The Eddie figure added to Haunted Mansion doesn't at all take away from the crazy fun of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. He's so funny, and so much of the ride is funny too!"

-Defender OM

"It's so clear that Imagineers worked over-time to assuage all those ridiculous fears Disney purists had about Eddie Murphy's appearance in the Haunted Mansion. He fits in perfectly! His costuming, his manner, his funny ad-libs as you pass are all top notch! Bravo team WDI!"

-Not a Museum-goer

When Gods Speak

On Friday, February 6, 2009, it rained at Disneyland.


Friday, December 05, 2008

Happy Birthday, Uncle Walt

Today marks the 107th birthday of Walt Disney, born December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois.

Happy Birthday to an American original.

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