Tuesday, June 20, 2006

That's an Exit, Not an Entrance

Walt Disney’s disdain for the hard sell was a cornerstone philosophy in his creation of Disneyland. Guests of the Magic Kingdom wouldn’t have to deal with the sideshow barkers and pushy salesmen so common in carnivals and state fairs anymore. Their ability to move about the park unencumbered and make spending choices purely of their own volition was important to Disney when he debuted his new form of family entertainment. History has shown this respect for the paying customer pays off handsomely.

Examples of Walt’s kinder gentler retail ideology start on Main Street and continue throughout the park. Sounds, smells and sights gently lure guests into spaces that make the shopping experience an organic extension of their own unique adventure rather than one of high pressure. The intoxicating smell of fresh fudge wafting from the candy shop, the hiss and flare of the glass blower in New Orleans Square, the whimsical art of the window display begging for closer inspection; all of it cleverly designed to nudge guests into a spending comfort zone without degrading their sense of personal choice and freedom.

But in the last couple decades Disney Management has completely turned the tables on Walt’s soft sell / escapist sell paradigm. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the company’s current trend to assure that no new attraction debut unless guests are forcibly corralled through one or more shopping venues before they exit while other attractions are shape-shifted to conform to this new profit driven model.
In Florida alone the list of attractions cum tchotchke traps seems endless. Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Test Track, Stitch’s Great Escape, Winnie the Pooh, Maelstrom, Rock ‘n Roller Coaster and many more all demand guests exit through assaultive merchandising gauntlets before they’re allowed back on neutral ground. In California, where once you could hear the gentle tick-tock of Small World’s animated clock as you wandered from the exit, now the clatter of registers quickly overwhelms it as you’re briskly shepherded into a merchandising kiosk to the left of the attraction.

Often these pocketbook shakedowns are complimented by the ubiquitous flood of post-ride video screens begging you to take home yet another high-priced snapshot of your latest thrill ride climax. And even where the climax is questionable at best, as with DINOSAUR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Space Ranger Spin at the Magic Kingdom, you can bet Disney execs have found somewhere along the ride path to pop off yet another flash-bulb.

Selling souvenirs based on a theme park attraction is certainly an admirable service, especially when the attraction is as transporting and magical as, say, Pirates of the Caribbean. But back in 1967 Disney designers weren’t under the jurisdiction of profit addicted M.B.A.’s and still retained a deep respect for a guests free-will. 'Pirates Arcade Museum', the Pirates themed shop and arcade that opened concurrently with the attraction, was not only placed outside and to the right of the show’s exit, but was an organic addition to the New Orleans Square street scape. Guests could enter or exit at their free will, confident that if they made a purchase it was based on their own personal inspiration, not on a company’s shrill insistence.
This new trend to force guests into retail spaces whether they want to be there or not is damaging on several levels, not least of which is the degradation of the ‘theme’ in the very theme park Walt Disney pioneered. With the immediate onslaught of registers, photo video screens and endless racks of cotton tees immediately appearing after a trip to a 1930’s Hollywood Hotel or an enchanting Himalayan village guests are quickly ripped from the surrounding ambiance and thrown into the cynical here and now of profits and price-margins, any lasting glow from their magical adventure snuffed out, their buzz killed, with careless abandon.
Secondly, savvy guests can’t help but feel they’re being manipulated and pan-handled the moment they leave their ride vehicles, now caught in a retail web not of their own choosing. Where once they had free choice in whatever shopping venue they preferred, now it’s Disney Marketing that chooses for them whether they like it or not. The difference is far from subtle and deeply discouraging.

Lastly this whole retail trend at the parks is just transparently condescending. Rock n' Roller Coaster, it appears, is only an elaborate advertisement for the Aerosmith Mugs you’re pressured to purchase as you exit. Whether or not you’ve even enjoyed the last attraction you visited (Stitch’s Great Escape anyone?), the Disney Company is now shamelessly proclaiming that they don’t care. They just want your money.

And now.  

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Disneyland is NOT a Museum!

How many times have you heard it?

Walt Disney’s famous quote: "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world."

…Or the oft-repeated WDI slogan: “Disneyland is not a museum.”

In any serious discussion of Disneyland’s preservation or restoration, it’s likely that one or both of these statements will crop-up as a conversation-stopper. These not-so-magic words are invoked to shutdown debate, often by those with a personal stake in the outcome.

Spouted as Gospel, such polarizing rhetoric implies that only the most stubbornly nostalgic, progress-resistant purist would dare to disagree.

Yet Walt invited each of us to feel an ownership of the park: “Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past... and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” So when those fond memories are tampered with, we take it personally.

From artists to everyday guests; the dreams and wishes of untold Disneylanders are all-too-easily dismissed by the ever-ready excuses.

These tired old warhorses are trotted out regularly for the press whenever there are controversial additions or subtractions in Anaheim, such as the political correction of Pirates of the Caribbean, the eviction of the Swiss Family Robinson, or the twilight of Tomorrowland.

"I'm as pure as Disneyland fanatics can get, “ Tony Baxter told The Los Angeles Times in 1995 as the park embarked on a fateful program of change, “When a new ride comes and an old one drops out, there are bound to be twinges. But it has to happen, or (Disneyland) becomes a museum and an arthritic collection of things people were attached to in the '60s."

"It's always been this way at Disneyland," added Marty Sklar, who began working for the company as park publicist before it opened in 1955, "It was like on opening day, the one real dynamic was change… Walt's famous quote was 'Disneyland will never be completed as long as there's imagination left in the world.' "

"Pirates of the Caribbean has become the standard by which our guests measure every other attraction,” Sklar offered in 1997, “But it's not a museum piece either. We want to keep adding to it and improving it like everything else."

As Tarzan’s Treehouse came online in 1999, so did a chat with Imagineers:

“Master_Gracey: Bruce: Pleeeeaaaase don't make any radical changes to Haunted Mansion or Pirates! I'm beggin' ya!

Bruce_Gordon: I was just using those as an example...

Bruce_Gordon: But you've prompted me to type out my "Disneyland is not a museum" speech.

Bruce_Gordon: The park needs to constantly change....

Bruce_Gordon: When Walt was around, attractions came and went like you wouldn't believe.

Bruce_Gordon: He put in the Viewliner train of the future in 1957 -- then tore it down in 1958 to make way for the monorail.

Bruce_Gordon: He's the one that said it would never be finished....”

But in the post-Walt era, is every change equal?

Are we to blindly accept all revisions to Disneyland, good or bad - - from the nifty New Fantasyland to the aesthetic assault of Winnie-the-Pooh and Tomorrowland ’98 - - as if each new scheme were preordained by Walt?

Surely sacrificing Mary Blair’s handcrafted tile murals for printed billboard wraps was not Walt’s treasured dream for the future. Nor do long-abandoned attractions in full-view of the paying public seem much like Progressland.

So who decides for all of us? Can anyone with a wrecking ball and a dream become the next Walt Disney?

What did the maestro really want? In various interviews, Walt expanded on his expansion theory:

“Disneyland is like a piece of clay, if there’s something I don’t like, I’m not stuck with it. I can reshape and revamp.”

“There are many ways that you can use those certain basic things and give them a new d├ęcor, a new treatment. I’ve been doing that with Disneyland. Some of my things I’ve redone as I’ve gone along. Reshaped them.”

“The way I see it, Disneyland will never be finished. It’s something we can keep developing and adding to. A motion picture is different. Once it’s wrapped up and sent out for processing, we’re through with it. If there are things that could be improved, we can’t do anything about them anymore. I’ve always wanted to work on something alive, something that keeps growing. We’ve got that in Disneyland.”

…So, Walt clearly expected his heirs to create thrilling new additions for Disneyland’s future and fix the problem areas.

But did he also intend that we turn our back on the past? Quite to the contrary, nostalgia was part of Disneyland’s very concept. After all, the great castles, parks, monuments and museums of European antiquity had inspired its design.

Walt elaborates:

“I love the nostalgic myself. I hope we never lose some of the things of the past.”

“Disneyland will be the essence of America as we know it, the nostalgia of the past, with exciting glimpses into the future. It will give meaning to the pleasure of children – and pleasure to the experience of adults.”

“The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company; a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand. Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world. Disneyland will be sometimes a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders part of our own lives.”

Hey - - Did Walt just say Disneyland was sometimes a museum?

“To co-ordinate the ‘Progressland’ project, General Electric assigned a vice-president whose previous expertise had been in heavy machinery,” Bob Thomas relates in Walt Disney: An American Original, “He listened impatiently as Walt outlined how the show would trace the American household from 1890 to the future. When Walt finished, the vice-president remarked, “Well, that’s not exactly what we had in mind. We’re in the business of selling progress. What do we want with all that nostalgia?”

“To the WED staff, the room temperature seemed to drop perceptibly. Walt replied with an edge to his voice, “Look, I built this studio on the basis of nostalgia, and we’ve been doing a pretty good job of selling it to the public all these years.” Afterward he was so incensed that he ordered the legal department to determine if the General Electric contract could be broken. When the G.E. president, Gerald Phillippi, visited the studio on a vacation two weeks later, Walt told him, “I’m having trouble with one of your vice presidents.” The man was instructed to stay out of Walt’s way.”

We all know the Old Man never intended the phrase "Disneyland will never be completed…" to mean "Disneyland must always change in the name of progress.”

Surely, Walt wanted the best of both worlds: to perpetuate the classic, ageless art of Disneyland to our kids and grandkids - - just as he had reintroduced his film library to sparkling new eyes every seven years - - while still adding startling new breakthroughs in technology and entertainment to keep the mix ever fresh.

It probably never occurred to him that executives would one day choose to downgrade extant facilities in the name of progress, and sometimes without a replacement on the horizon. After all, he was about building, adding, “plussing.”

"The fun is in always building something. After it's built, you play with it awhile and then you're through. You see, we never do the same thing twice around here. We're always opening up new doors."

There is no doubt Walt built things to last. Of the attractions designed for the New York World’s Fair, he said, "After the fair these attractions will all move to Disneyland, where they will find a permanent home."

“Disneyland is not just another amusement park. It’s unique and I want it kept that way. Besides, you don’t work for a dollar – you work to create and have fun.”

As Roy O. Disney confirmed in a tribute to his late brother, “Walt used to say that Disneyland would never be finished; that through his creations, future generations will continue to celebrate what he once described as "that precious, ageless something in every human being which makes us play with children's toys and laugh at silly things and sing in the bathtub and dream."

On this we all agree. While the new Walt Disney Museum prepares to open in San Francisco's Presidio under the watch of Diane Disney Miller, it's not enough. It will be a more typical museum, a collection of really cool things to observe under glass.

But Disneyland is the real deal. A physical, environmental creation of Walt's own making, a living museum of wonder. There, we can leave the real world behind and enter Walt's personal vision. It's a landmark shaped by the very hands of this remarkable artist and entrepreneur, a man who gathered some of the foremost talents and tastes of the 20th Century to create an amazing treasure park of art, color and beauty. What a shame it would be not to preserve and restore those precious ideas, artifacts, shapes and colors for our progeny. No matter what you want to call it.

“To Baxter,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 1995, “…it's the Tiki Room that is untouchable -- in contrast to his anti-museum stance.”

"It revolutionized the industry," he says. "It's the first time sound and movement have been sequenced to a three-dimensional performance. To me it's important. It should belong if only as an institution."

I guess sometimes Disneyland is a museum after all…