Monday, July 31, 2006

Elemental Losses: Earth

When Imagineering legend John Hench, after a pre-opening VIP tour of Disney’s California Adventure in 2001, famously quipped, “I liked it better when it was a parking lot” it would have been easy to dismiss the statement as merely a wry and devilishly wicked smack-down of a theme park that deserved much of the criticism thrown its way.

But look beyond the surface giggles and you’ll find a level of of wisdom that is both disarming and a little profound.

For when the 15,167 space 100 acre parking lot was torn up and replaced with flashy shops, restaurants, movie theaters, hotels and theme park attractions something very special about the Disneyland experience was lost forever.

For early Disney Imagineers it was the ubiquitous parking lot that visually symbolized everything ‘today’ and as such gave guests a little heads up on a sign over the two entrance portals to Disney’s Magical Kingdom:

"Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy."

Walt and his designers knew that by carefully contrasting the parking lot’s wide grey expanse of cement and steel with the color and intimate pageantry of Main Street U.S.A. they’d be giving guests a carefully calculated jolt of sensory uplift the moment they left the entrance tunnel, much like the experience Dorothy had leaving the drab sepia world of Kansas and opening the door to a Technicolor Oz.

Today that classic bronze plaque above the entrance portal has lost much of its prophetic power. Well before arriving at Disneyland guests have already been assaulted and overloaded with so many over-scaled and conflicting thematic show elements that entering Main Street can easily feel like an anti-climax; victim to the visual cacophony right outside the berm.

And so that whoosh of excitement guests once felt as they left the entrance tunnels and entered into the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy has been severely degraded by the loss of the original Disneyland parking lot. In his day Walt saw the parking lot as part of the over-all show. In our day Disney management saw the parking lot as a tremendous cash cow.

The Disney Guest, they figured, would never know what they were missing.

John Hench, however, knew too well.

Elemental Losses: Air

The sudden closure of Disneyland’s famous Skyway became the stuff of urban legend almost immediately after it closed in 1994. For 38 years it had carried guests between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland high above the air in gleaming colorful buckets. And then, suddenly and without so much as a press release, it was gone.

For the Disney faithful it just didn’t make sense. How could an attraction that had become such a staple of the Disneyland experience be shut down so unceremoniously; every last pylon uprooted and carried away in the dark of a single night.

It must have been because the attraction had become too litiginous they figured. Only a few months earlier a 30 year old man had fallen from one of the cabins and suffered severe neck and back injuries. Certainly Disney was right to assume that any additional accidents might tarnish the company name and ultimately the guest experience.

But for those more willing to face the darker side of Disney the truth could be found in the spreadsheets and pie charts floating around the executive offices of Disney Enterprises well before the accident. Cost cutters had dismissed the attraction as too little bang for the buck, with staffing expenses, maintenance costs and necessary safety upgrades demanding more capital than they felt appropriate. Randle Charles’ fortuitous fall from the Skyway became the perfect smokescreen for the purely economic decision that quickly followed.

Eventually Randle’s lawsuit was dismissed. Seems the 30 year old nutball had jumped, not fallen, and had he stayed inside his cabin the Skyway would have enjoyed a perfect safety record.

If Disney executives were waiting for another bogus excuse to shutter Walt Disney World’s Skyway they only had to wait five more years. In February of 1999 65 year old custodial host Raymond Barlow was accidentally scooped up and dropped 40 feet from a moving gondola when cast members started up the ride in the morning without checking the exit platform. Nine months later and The Magic Kingdom saw the last of its own Skyway; Disney executives smiling all the way to the bank.

And so the magical flights through mountains, past rocket ships and over lands of fantasy came to an end and all because the top Disney brass merely wanted to save some money.

The Disney Guest, they figured, just wasn’t worth it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Feel All The Wonderful Motion

One afternoon in the summer of 1984 news spread like wildfire among Epcot Center cast members that the ‘Radok Blocks’ were finally fully operational. From one end of the park to the other operations hosts and hostesses quickly changed out of their costumes and rushed towards Universe of Energy in Future World East, converging on the pre-show theater directly inside the building.

Cast members familiar with the eight minute film that had shown there since Epcot’s opening in 1982 were immediately aware that something was off the moment they entered. The entire ninety foot wide screen used for the presentation appeared to be missing, now completely covered over in black. They wouldn’t have long to wonder as once the lights dimmed the mystery quickly dissipated. Like pristine white dominoes falling magically into place, the screen exploded out from the center in perfect synchronization with the film. From one end of the auditorium to the other you could hear audible gasps, all eyes now locked on this wonderous undulating surface.

Months later operators at Universe of Energy would joke about how quickly the room of 580 boisterous guests would brake to dead silence the moment the screen started throbbing to life.

An online fansite dedicated to preserving the Universe of Energy’s history summed it up:

“Saddling it with the term ‘pre-show’ is an injustice, given the connotations that the term carries. The original pre-show for Universe of Energy, the absolutely dazzling "Kinetic Mosaic" …was regarded by many as better than some main shows."

The movie, consisting of five 35 mm films running in unison, hadn’t changed when cast members poured into the building that Summer afternoon in 1984 but the screen very much had. Made up of 100 3½ foot square prism-shaped tiles, these ‘mini-screens’ consisted of two sides of a projection surface and one side non-reflective black. Each segment could show either a black or white surface, or allow one of several combinations with its point facing forward; the full screen capable of more than a billion separate configurations. Synchronized with the film, these tiles rotated independently or in concert with each other by way of individual servo-motors and all were controlled by microprocessors, making this the first time in film history where a computer was used to move elements within a film presentation.

And the effect was breathtaking.

The mastermind behind this remarkable presentation was the Czech film director Emil Radok who, with his brother, presented his landmark film ‘The Magic Lantern’ at the Brussels Expo in 1958, part of an experimental system of combining film projection with live performance. But it was his pre-show presentation at Epcot’s Energy Pavilion that was, ten years before he passed away, his most monumental and astonishing masterwork.

So complex and demanding was the technology behind Radok’s Kinetic Mosaic that each screen element was set to their default white position when Epcot opened and remained that way for two years while Imagineers continued to work the bugs out, not least of which was the unreliability of the 100 separate motors, each with its own precise braking system, required to operate the individual screen elements. So long had this screen lay dormant that when in-the-know guests asked Universe of Energy operators about why it wasn’t working they were met with, “What? The screen moves?”

Radok’s audacious show continued to wow audiences in the coming decade but challenged engineers on an almost daily basis. It was rare to see every block operational with guests often witnessing a row of at least four blocks locked to white when they entered the pavilion.

Two years after Emil passed away in Canada (where he’d been exiled from then socialist Czechoslovakia), Disney accountaneers decided they’d had enough of those un-reliable and costly Radok blocks and plastered them over with stationary screens, figuring a newer hipper generation of Disney guests would respond more favorably to the pop culture antics of Ellen Degeneres in a pure film format.

Disney management was probably correct in assuming that guests who didn't know what they’re missing wouldn't miss it; that ignorance is indeed bliss.

But some of us know better. Some of us enter that pre-show theater at Epcot’s Universe of Energy today and recall how our jaws dropped to the floor every time we saw that giant wall ripple to life. How we stared in wonder as wild fully dimensional images formed out of thin air. How we delighted in the whimsical play of shadow and light over constantly shifting shape and form. How even today this presentation was way ahead of its time.

And so we mourn what future generations will miss by not viewing Emil Radok’s masterpiece, an artist and filmmaker who truly made us, “Feel all the wonderful motion flowing through things far and near.”

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Disneyland Civic Projects

In the plaza between Disneyland and California Adventure, thousands of guests have paid in the neighborhood of $150. to commemorate the family name on a brick paver tile, a nostalgic memento to revisit in future years.

One could say they “own a piece of Disneyland.”

But what did they pay for, really, but a homely little tile? Unlike plaques at civil projects or hospital wards, the “donation” didn’t really contribute toward the creation of anything but the brick itself and some additional profit margin for Disneyland merchandisers.

Where is the lasting monument this kind of money could build?

With all the needed talk of Disneyland restoration and revival, the problem of finding budgets for atmospheric items like scenic locales, fountains and forts often comes up short.

Since it is assumed such details will not draw additional paying customers through the gate, but merely enhance the day for those already there, accountaneers don’t tend to see the necessity of aesthetic charm. While the purse strings appear to be loosening a bit these days, can we really expect this to change?

Does it fall on the shoulders of those with a passion for Walt and his artists to turn this bull by the horns? - - Not by begging, complaining or demanding the Company do something on their own dime (though that can produce some slow results as we have seen), but putting our monies where our mouths may be.

What if Disneyland were to draw up plans for the return of specific, historic park scenic elements, restorations or improvements in the manner of civic projects, soliciting funds for their execution?

If people will pay for a mere brick, wouldn’t they pay even more to own a piece of a mural, a tree house or a pirate ship? Especially a beloved icon they were reviving from their own childhood so it might last for generations to come?

Monuments for Walt Disney’s Disneyland by and for the people.

Donations could be solicited at varied levels, with a clear dollar goal set for work to progress. Donors would be noted on a bronze plaque at the location of the “monument”, just as it is in the real world outside the berm.

In this way, permanent artistic improvements could be made to the park's atmosphere, expenditures that don't always measure up to the Company reinvestment goals. And new WDC funds can then be dedicated to creating a roster of exciting new attractions, as they should be.

While this sort of plan would be impractical for the building of major attractions that require bigger budgets, constant maintenance and staffing, it could be just the thing for the little extra details that make Disneyland so special:

Mary Blair’s Tomorrowland Murals
Captain Hook's Pirate Ship and Skull Rock
The Swiss Family Treehouse
Cascade Falls on the Rivers of America
Sleeping Beauty Castle Diorama
The House of the Future
Fort Wilderness
Tomorrowland Terrace Stage Design
Clock of the World

…would seem perfect for such a scheme, helping to bring back a bit more of Walt Disney’s wonderful world of color and design to the historic Magic Kingdom.

By online and in-park voting, the most popular icons could be selected. To avoid competitive, promotional or vanity projects, the focus would stay on historic Walt-era restoration projects – on which most can find common ground.

Are there a significant number of potential patrons… fans, animators, cast-members and common folk who would spend a little of their own cash to sponsor a Disneyland renewal project? To help bring back a bit of Walt and Mary and Marc and the rest?

To pay back to Disneyland a bit of the joy they have received from it over the years? I’d bet on it.

Who wouldn’t want to point out Captain Hook's Ship and proudly tell their kids that it partly belongs to them? And behind the ship, their named plaque awaits to prove it.

If Walt said, “Disneyland is your land,” why not let us all help to contribute to its future? After 50 years, Disneyland really belongs to us all.

Make that tile mean something.