Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Slow Sad Sinking of Uti

Most visitors to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland are quite familiar with the charming pre-show roll call of Tiki Gods and Goddesses in the courtyard waiting area. All eight whimsically carved sculptures come to life and share a bit of their history and mythology before guests enter into the show building.

What most visitors don’t realize is that one figure is missing, arguably the most evocative and magical of the bunch.

Her name was Uti, the Goddess of fishing, and for nearly four decades she towered proudly over the main entryway to the Tiki Room’s tropical garden pre-show, the very first of Master Imagineer Rolly Crump’s fanciful Tiki sculptures guests would encounter during their visit. Holding a fully functioning gas flame torch and sporting door knocker sized hoop earrings, Uti stood inside an enormous outrigger canoe sheltered beneath a towering A-frame thatched roof.

Like most every detail of Disneyland’s classic attractions, Uti wasn’t mere window dressing but had a unique history all her own. Rolly Crump, a stickler for context and storytelling, sought inspiration from the book “Voices on the Wind; Polynesian Myths and Chants” by Katherine Luomala and found Uti’s backstory in a legend regarding Hawaiian gods who taught village fisherman to catch fish at night by holding a torch above their heads when out in their canoes. The fish, attracted by the firelight, could then easily be speared.

From such research Uti was born, a freshly caught fish in one hand and a torch in the other, her seductive flame now attracting Disney guests beneath her elaborate canoe instead of fish.

But Uti and her prime piece of real-estate wouldn’t last through the approaching maelstrom of Disney’s corporate restructuring. It started inconspicuously enough when the gas line to her torch was turned off in the mid-90’s. And then, like a tropical typhoon, the Pressler and Harris era of neglect hit the Tiki Room with a vengeance. Painted wood peeled and rotted, roof thatching deteriorated and the original 60’s tiles on the lanai floor were kicked loose by guest traffic and then stowed away and carried off in the pockets of others.

But the worst was yet to come. In the early morning of January 8, 2000, wood rot caused the support poles on Uti’s giant A-frame home to collapse against the turnstile and juice bar. The Tiki Room was closed for the day and barricades quickly set up. Uti and her noble perch were then unceremoniously removed.

Facilities promised that the entire structure would be restored and re-installed in due time but as the days went on it became clear that this was a pie-crust promise, easily made and easily broken. A series of cheap patio style umbrellas were installed over the entrance while Uti sat grounded in the makeshift boneyard behind Pirates of the Caribbean, still bolted onto her canoe. Eventually a cast member pried her loose and took her home while the hand-crafted outrigger was reportedly thrown away. Being one of a kind, there was no mold to reproduce it.

In March of 2005 the Disneyland 50th restoration of Walt’s famous Tiki Room unveiled a new but much less impressive marquee to the attraction. Though park marketing touted the re-hab as a return to Tiki Room’s original glory the fishing goddess was nowhere to be found.

Uti’s demise is admittedly a very small example of the recent degradation of the Disney Parks. But she stands as a much bigger metaphor for management so out of step with the meaning and magic behind the parks that to them the corporate stratagem, “If it’s broke, don’t fix it” makes perfectly good business sense.

But there’s hope. Plenty of Disney creatives continue to embrace the legacy of the classic Imagineers, firm in their belief that quality is still the best business plan. It’s no accident, for instance, that Uti makes no less than four appearances in the recent collection of Disneyland 50th collectibles, from limited edition figurines to pins and scale models, all of them long since sold out.

To those who truly care, keeping her torch lit is merely the first step on the long road ahead. It’s time for Imagineering to call her spirit home.


Merlin Jones said...

And if anyone out there has seen the wayward goddess, perhaps one day Sleeping Uti will reawaken...

DizFan said...

While I agree with everything said in this posting (after all, it's all in the detail, right - otherwise we'd end up with something like... well, like Disney Studios Paris for example) it's probably worthwhile remembering that it could be worse - much, much worse. Have you seen the dreadful travesty that is the Tiki Room at Walt Disney World?!

Anonymous said...

The collapse of the thatched roof is a striking metaphor for what happened to corporate Disney over the same period. The replacement with cheap umbrellas is a filling reflection of the "spreadsheet
management" style instituted during that time. Though the managers may have filled their functional roles, the charm, culture, and magic was gone. To quote a dear friend "though it may smell like a rose, you have to realize it's really just cheap perfume". It's time to bring back Uti and have the roses bloom once more.

Anonymous said...

Mr Banks,
Thank you for the story of the disapperance of UTI. I always wondered what happened. I hope the management knows that we notice these things. DL and WDW have lost so many of the little touches that make them part of our hearts and minds.
The list is so long and depressing.
Maybe it's time to devote more time and money in our American parks rather than abandon these shores for "offshore" locations.


The worst of all of this is that Disney exec's think/thought they could outsource Imagineering much the same way they did the Animation Dept.
The reason Disney's starting to look like every other theme park is because it's the same groups of people doing the designing.
The hope in your voice sounds almost faint. It looks like these executives are taking baby steps at best when what is really needed is BOLDNESS.
It's time to stop outsourcing!

Anonymous said...

I've never been witness to Uti, well not since I was one or so years old. But, the sentiment put forth here is perfect. It's sad to see Disney "Out-Disney-ed" at one of their own parks. Though I ahve never seen the Tokyo parks, other than pictures. Even those pictures are amazing.

the outsourcing should stop. The people in the front lines who represent the whole company should be treated better, should be treated like who they are. The faces of Disney. I too think the list of things being done wrong, is long and depressing. My real concern is how far into the rut can you get before you realize something isnt right. Some steps have been made, but its barely even a drop in the ocean.

And, yes, why are they looking to expand more when there is so much work to do here in our own backyards still? How many parks can you build before you become another six flags on a grand scale? Disney is special for many reasons, let's not forget that one of them is that there WAS no other place on Earth like it. If things keep up the way they are heading, Disneylands could become (cringe) cookie cutter parks, and what's so special about that?


Anonymous said...

A good place for Uti to be rebirthed would be the Polynesian Resort. Put her about 10-20 meters out into the lake, with her back to the resort, and she'd be perfect.

Anonymous said...

It's time that Disney drop corporate Imagineering© and go back to the ultra-creative WED Enterprises. Get rid of them stinkin' uncreative lawyers. What the heck are they doing designing and maintaining Disneyland anyway??!!

AnnualPass said...

Thanks for the history, Mr. Banks.
Bring her back, but as she's part of the preshow (or is wont to be) she needs to be inside the cozy little courtyard, natch (or viewable from therein - working also as a barker outside perhaps).

There can be a lot of sensory overload in the park. I recently wound down with an ice cream and the Tiki Room preshow just past twilight. The show is not "blow-you away" by any means - but still very welcome for its quiet distraction none-the-less. Less can be more. The money spent is appreciated.

Misstep: Baby thrown out with the bathwater.
The perceived no-no: Reasoning the detail wasn't important enough to repair or plus as it wasn't providing show or story.
A lesson learned: Fix what's broken. Uti was fine.
Teneble Practical Solution: Bring her back as part of the Tiki Room pre-show.

Rdrummer19 said...

And to think the show is sponsored by Dole... If they were restoring the attraction to a period of the last referbishment where a few songs dissappeared.. This should be been reporduced and installed....

However since it wouldn't be easy to reporduce.. why not reporduce it in a smaller form as have it on the side near the entrance.. at least...

Anonymous said...

This kind of nit pick obsession is really just too much. While I'm the first to agree that the Disney Parks took a dramatic down swing in the 90's, it's crazy to go on about things like a missing Tiki during our current upswing in quality. The newly redone courtyard is beautiful. The new team running the park should be applauded for their efforts at restoration inside the berm and not slandered for their abandonment of irrelevant show building details. Disneyland is not a museum to be preserved. Things are going to come and go and while some loses deserve to be mourned we, as an internet community and fan base, need to really pick and choose which battles are important and which just make us seem like out of touch curmudgeons.

Mr Banks said...

I knew a comment like this was coming but am glad it took so long to show up. Most readers obviously understood the point being made here, which is very comforting.

Yes, in the grand scheme of things this isn't an earth shattering loss. But the demise of Uti serves as a very pertinent metaphor for the drip by drip degradation of the parks overall. One very relevant show element down we can live with, but add it up with the hundreds, even thousands, of small carefully considered show details that are regularly watered down or tossed in the trash and the whole house caves in. There was no reason why Uti had to go. The cost to restore her was negligible. Her value as a key component to over-all show was priceless.

If we continue to believe that the classy thoughtful little details of Disney theme parks aren't worth saving then we deserve what we get.

It all adds up.

Anonymous said...

Mr Banks,

I respect what you're doing here. I really do. I just wanted to add that there is a difference between understanding your point and agreeing with it. I understand what "Most readers have obviously" understood before me. I just don't agree with it.

Disneyland has been such a source of happiness for me over the years that I can't help but regard the glass as half full whenever given the option.

Well, thank you for allowing me to throw my thoughts into the barrel.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous" #5 said "Things are going to come and go" at the park -- and that's true, and that's all well and good. But the reasons behind the "come and go" are pertinent to an attraction's revision. That is to say, if a show element is dropped or added for the purposes of improving it one way or another, then that is a valid reason for change. However, if a show element (or entire show) is lost due to neglect, apathy, or misunderstanding of what the show/story is all about, then that is merely ignorance in action.

Walt did say that the park would change and evolve "as long as there is imagination" -- he did not, I belive, endorse changes due to slack or indifference.

- fanofwalt

yensid98 said...

"Walt did say that the park would change and evolve "as long as there is imagination" -- he did not, I belive, endorse changes due to slack or indifference."

Exactly. Changes in the park that come about due to neglect are not what Walt had in mind. This is a major point of the post. Care and attention to detail are of paramount importnace. Uti was not removed because of any reason other than neglect and that's a very sad state of affairs in our beloved park.

Doug Rail said...

A little off base here: I don't know about Disney as much as many people here. I only know what I remember from childhood.

The tiki show was one of my fondest memories from the 70's at DisneyWorld. Recently I returned and remembered the location but the attraction has changed.

Literally and metaphorically.

Anonymous said...

"Disneyland has been such a source of happiness for me over the years that I can't help but regard the glass as half full whenever given the option."

That may be true, but for some, we have seen what Disney was, and we have seen what Disney has become, and we are disappointed. We believe that the people running the show have lost the vision in favor of the dollar. The synergistic marketing frenzy seems to have overtaken everything, including Walt's vision for what the parks were supposed to be. You can grow and change without abandoning the past, without abandoning your heritage.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of this post, sincerely, I do have one positive correction. Now, while the Uti figure can still be considered one of a kind, a mold definitely exists somewhere. All nine of the Tiki Gods are scattered all around the Polynesian Resort in Florida. I sculpted my own copy of Pele while living there, and took about a hundred tiki god photos for reference. They're needing a little help, and fresh paint, but they are all there reproduced and scattered all over the property. I must have counted four or five of each of them. The point is, a mold exists, and they should replace Uti.

-Al Peterson

Anonymous said...

I know where Uti is.

There's a copy of that sculpt at the Polynesian Resort. The tooling (mold) is at WDW. I've seen it for myself. A new Uit could be made right now.

Anonymous said...

Loved the post and UTI is one of my favorite tikis. UTI is alive and well at the Polynesian resort in Florida. I had the pleasure of seeing several when i was there!