Wednesday, September 19, 2007


The term “Spaceship Earth” was first popularized by Buckminster Fuller; essentially it reminds us that the Earth, like a mechanical vehicle, requires care and maintenance and all of us are in it together. Regardless of our cultural differences, or ethnic heritage, or country of origin, we all must work together because we’re all passengers on this great Spaceship Earth.

Oh, I’m sorry, am I boring some of you? Or maybe all of you?

It’s so hard to tell these days. A bunch of guys at Imagineering keep saying that this stuff is boring, that it’s not “relevant.”

So here’s an idea. Maybe to make this blog entry less boring, we could hire a hip Hollywood celebrity to read it to you. Like Ellen DeGeneres or Eric Idle or Colin Mochrie or Martin Short. Is Celine Dion here?

Martin Short after all is now on his fourth Disney Theme Park Film, "O Canada!" right after “The Making of Me,” “Monster Sound Show,” and “CineMagique.” Whoopi’s got nothing on him. The new version of “O Canada!” is the latest in a painfully long line of theme park films starring b-list celebrities making post modern, non-diegetic comments about a subject someone at WDI seems to think is dull.

It’s a weird time for Disney and for Epcot. The first non-Magic Kingdom theme park is about to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. And it’s celebrating by exhibiting a severe case of bipolar disorder. On the one hand it’s getting back to its roots--having just removed the wand-shaped blemish from Spaceship Earth, or as the Canadians call it, “that big silver ball.” On the other hand, Epcot’s most recently updated attraction, "O Canada!" embraces the worst conventions of Eisner-era theme park films.

The new version of “O Canada!” is heavily scripted with sitcom style writing (“Okay, sometimes I do get a little excited about curling, but who doesn ’t?”) and self-referential non-jokes (“Keep your hands and arms inside the country at all times”), which were kind-of funny the first time we heard them 18 years ago (Robin Williams' “Keep your hands and arms inside the theater until it comes to a complete stop” in the original version of the Magic of Disney Animation at Disney-MGM Studios).

The writers at WDI haven’t just fallen into a rut. They’ve embraced a quasi-artistic movement (post modernism) that is the complete antithesis of everything guests found appealing about Disney theme parks in the first place. You know that thing about leaving the world of today and entering the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy? How long will it be before we get the first theme park film that makes reference to the theme park film convention of referencing the theme park experience? And with all the celebrity faces and current references, you can bet this particular theme park film will age as well as a beaver tail with extra maple butter sitting out in the Florida sun.

Oh, wait, am I getting too preachy? Am I losing some of you? Perhaps here we should have Gilbert Gottfried break in and shout:

“B-O-R-I-N-G with a capital “B” and a capital “ORING.” Aren’t you supposed to be in the 'Fun' business. Fun? Remember fun?”

Would that be better? We're told today’s “MTV Generation” can’t pay attention to anything over 30 seconds long despite that very 'generation' now well over 30 with kids of their own; MTV having been on the air for over 25 years. Regardless, some Imagineers still seem to think that kids today need to be assaulted constantly with quick cuts and flashy imagery or they'll immediately force their entire family out of the theater and into the closest Six Flags or Universal park.

Apparently kids today also like to watch actors once popular before they were born interrupt beautiful vistas with derogatory comments about other attractions that they may have visited earlier that day and undoubtedly found boring.

The one redeeming aspect of this do-over is the fact that they did not remove the original theme song. They simply updated it with a more contemporary orchestration. It’s a shame the Future World pavilions did not receive the same treatment. But even the song wasn’t allowed to just happen. Instead, we’re treated to the jarring experience of Ned Nederlander jumping into frame and announcing: “This would be a perfect place for a song. I think so, don’t you?”

CircleVision films are inherently visceral experiences. That’s the whole point. You, the audience, get a 360 degree view of a breathtakingly beautiful place that you’d like to visit. Great CircleVision films like “America the Beautiful” flow like music; they don’t stumble like a bad sitcom pilot.

Well, this would be a perfect place to wrap up my blog post with a statement of my thesis and a summation of my position. I think so, don’t you?

These shows are going to be around for a long time, so timelessness and sincerity are essential. Any attempt at “hip and edgy” always falls flat for Disney and especially at Epcot.

Oh, I almost forgot the obligatory ma’am-you-forgot-your-purse comment. Here it is...

No celebrities were harmed in the making of this blog post. All actors mentioned in this post have turned in brilliant performances during their careers and the contributors to this blog have no wish to disparage them personally.

And Gilbert Gottfried seems like he’d be a really nice guy in person.

Now, how do I get out of here? Because I have a Fast Pass to Soarin'.

Authentic Canadian Cheese

Saturday, September 15, 2007

News Fit for an HP Printer

News Flash. Mike Mendenhall leaves the Walt Disney Company after 17 years of service.

It’s no accident that the very best of WDI’s work came at a time when Imagineers only had to answer to other Imagineers. The idea that any outside interest could come in and dash the dreams of any attraction design team on a mere whim was completely alien to this amazing assembly of creative thinkers.

But for the last few years no matter how original or innovative the idea was it could be scrapped in the blink of an eye because some business executive or marketing group didn’t feel it jived with the latest direct to video release or had limited potential to sell keychains.

As creative road blocks go, Mike Mendenhall and his group of marketers and publicists was one of the most formidable. As the leader of Disney Parks and Resorts global brand image, marketing strategy, planning, publicity, advertising, media, new media online, interactive TV, strategic alliance marketing, special events and promotions and customer management, Mendenhall had more creative say than any Imagineer at WDI and more power than the President of Disneyland or Walt Disney World.

Mendenhall is responsible for changing the attraction approval process by installing a marketing review before projects are given a green light. This review had become so important that his department could shut down any Imagineering project before it got funded. This great marketing inquisition, more than anything else, has led to all those out-of-character characters invading Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland as well as such awkward attractions as Stitch’s Great Escape, Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor and DCA’s Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sully to the Rescue, the latter title penned directly by Mendenhall himself.

His threat to all things classic Disney was felt in even the smallest divisions. When the two person creative team responsible for the nostalgic Disneyland 50th Anniversary collectibles presented their concepts to Mike he dismissed them as esoteric and “not our guest”. Eventually the two artists convinced Disneyshopping/catalog to proceed with production of the collectibles independent of the Disneyland Merchandising and Marketing teams. Despite the Mendenhall meddling the collectibles made the company millions.

How did a guy with a bachelor of science degree from Emerson become such an indomitable roadblock to so many creative endeavors at the Mouse House?

Jay Rasulo, chairman of the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, loved him, even adding “Senior Creative Executive, The Disneyland Resort” to his title. Towards the end of his tenure Jay was grooming him for the head of Walt Disney Imagineering.

But then John Lasseter happened.

Unfortunately for Mike, Jay’s plans just didn’t fit this new Marketing paradigm.

HP, the company that brings us all things Printers and Ink, will start taking care of Mike on October 1st, a date that ironically happens to mark Epcot Center’s 25th Anniversary, a celebration that Mendenhall and his marketers refused to support. Luckily other divisions, despite their limited budgets and resources, have rallied together to take care of the proceedings, with many personnel working long hours and racing the clock to make this last minute celebration as memorable as possible.

For this once glorious and groundbreaking park it’s the best they could do under the circumstances.

With one less hoop to jump through at Imagineering the mood is once again ecstatic. In this unseasonable ‘Year of a Million Dreams’ this definitely counts as one big dream down.

All of us at Re-Imagineering wish Mike Mendenhall well as he starts his new career selling ink cartridges. Still, as one insider put it, “Thank God for Apple and Epson”.