Monday, March 24, 2008

With Utmost Reverence

“No one approaches our classic attractions with more reverence than Disney Imagineers who take great care when refreshing beloved attractions."

-Marilyn Waters
Disney Imagineering Spokeswoman

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The BLAIR Family Speaks

Dear Disney Executives,

It has recently been brought to my attention that the Walt Disney Company including WDI has proposed changes to the “It’s a Small World Ride” at the Disneyland Park in Anaheim. As I understand the changes include the addition of the Disney Characters (Mickey, Minnie, Lilo & Stitch, etc.) to the ride in select areas, and the replacement of the “Rainforest” section with Mickey Mouse in a tribute entitled “Up with America”. I also understand that the boats and trough they ride in will be expanded for the safety and comfort of the parks modern day guests.

While I fully understand and support the upgrade to the boats as a necessary safety upgrade, the addition of the Disney Characters and the “Up with America” section I do NOT support as it represents a gross desecration of the ride's original theme and my Mother’s stylized artwork.

The Disney characters of themselves are positive company icons, but they do NOT fit in with the original theme of the ride. They will do nothing except to marginalize the rightful stars of the ride “The Children of the World”. This marginalization will do nothing but infuriate the ride’s international guests and devoted Disney fans.

My Mother and I have always had a strong sense of patriotism for America and I DO support a tribute to America. Disneyland has several venues, which are perfect places for this tribute including “Main Street USA” or “New Orleans Square”; unfortunately the “It’s a Small World” ride is NOT one of them. Once again this will marginalize the children of the world theme and bastardize my Mother’s original art. Furthermore ripping out a rainforest (Imaginary or otherwise) and replacing it with misplaced patriotism is a public relations blunder so big you could run a Monorail through it.

As a former WED employee I am saddened to realize the degradation of the company’s talent and focus and the subsequent decline at the Disneyland Park itself. I cannot believe someone from WDI was paid to come up with such an idiotic plan as this.

As the head of the Blair family I cannot urge you strongly enough to abandon this idiotic plan and instead upgrade the boats and return the ride to it’s original classic form, design and colors. The desecration of Mary’s art is an insult to Mary Blair, her art, and her memory, and to the entire Blair Family itself.


Kevin L. Blair
Kevin Blair, Donovan Blair, Jeanne Chamberlain,
Maggie Richardson, Kevin Allison

Thursday, March 06, 2008

There's so much that we share...


The original intent of this attraction was clearly to suggest the core similarity of many peoples inhabiting a single planet. The evident implication is that we should be able to share the world in equality and peace.

Walt Disney chose children as a metaphor of humanity and innocence, and as a symbol of hope. Having discarded several unsatisfactory designs, he finally chose Mary Blair’s innocently simple dolls with distinct ethnic differences, but inescapable overriding similarities.

He presented these "children" in a panorama of colorful landscapes, and then united them in a spectacular all-white carnival of peace. And yes, in that more innocent age of America in which the ride was conceived, perhaps the admixture of cultures in the finale did subtly suggest America the "Melting Pot" at its happiest harmonious potential. The figures, unique to this one attraction, have sustained it for 43 years.

The "improvement" vulgarizes the theme and essence of what has given this ride its irresistible appeal for millions and millions of people.


The introduction of the joyously irascible Donald, the mischievous Stitch, the regal Simba and other Disney characters with their distinct attributes and back-stories destroys the unifying and equalizing anonymity of the original Small World population.

They introduce a perverse divisiveness diametrically opposed to the original import of the attraction. Once a select group of special privileged inhabitants of the World are distinctly identifiable Disney Stars, the remainder are necessarily relegated to the status of homogenous background bit players.

The audience, too, becomes divided into the "haves" who have seen the films and focus on identifying the stars while neglecting the supporting players, while the "have nots" are left out of the game: the very antithesis of the attraction's original thrust.

Moreover, Stitch, of course, is not a peaceful citizen of planet earth, but a blue alien, described by the Internet Movie Database as a “notorious extra-terrestrial fugitive from the law.”

Simba is an animal who fought off a relative in in order to claim his throne, in a kingdom clearly ruled by force rather than civil discourse; hardly an exemplary citizen for a human world at peace.


The Disney characters are, of course, one of the Company’s chief assets. But they are suffering homogenization, as the Grimm Brothers’ royals cavort with Minnie, Ariel and Jasmine in the Tween Spa Make-over Afternoons. Their insertion into A Small World is one more inappropriate and exploitive over-exposure.


Once the familiar “stars” invade Small World, the attraction loses its individuality. Guests are no longer transported into a unique festival of humanity, but find themselves in a continuation of the Fantasyland milieu of cartoon characters. The ride forfeits its distinct ambience and the park loses a singular different environment.


The ride as originally conceived gives both children and adults a thrilling vision of the possibility of an innocent and unified world at peace, and this theme is clearly confirmed in the farewell salute of "Pax" in many languages. Beneath the pretty gaiety of the attraction is a stirring, serious and inspiring metaphor and message of hope for a troubled globe. Once the ride is reduced to one more panorama of the much-exposed Disney stock company - now with a supporting cast of singing dolls in an incompatible design style - any unique, innocent and important concern is compromised by intrusive celebrity and imposed familiarity.

May cooler heads prevail.

March 7, 2008

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A World of Tears

She was Walt Disney’s favorite conceptual artist, a woman whose sense of color and design influenced the look and feel of numerous Disney projects from 1942 to 1970.

Inarguably her crowning achievement was the 1964 New York World’s Fair show “It’s a Small World”, which later moved to Disneyland where it’s been enchanting guests for more than 40 years. By this summer five versions will exist, the newest appearing in Hong Kong.

The classic model, Mary’s pitch perfect original at Disneyland, is now down for ten months so that the boat flumes can be replaced with a deeper design more appropriate for todays heavier boatloads.

Unfortunately W.D.I. has taken ill advantage of the downtime by staking out areas throughout the attraction to place a selection of smiling Disney characters to spice up the proceedings. Imagine a grinning Stitch in Hawaii, a demure Belle in Paris, a Peter Pan in London.

And in one of the most egregious and downright disgusting decisions in Disney theme park history, the gorgeous New Guinea rainforest scene, replete with some of Mary Blair’s most whimsical character creations (a crocodile with an umbrella, colorful birds hatching from eggs) and her drummer children with Tiki Masks on the opposite shore will be replaced with a Hooray for U.S.A sequence.

Mary Blair’s formidable legacy has taken enough of a beating with the destruction of her Tomorrowland murals back in 1998. This recent move, if it goes through, would be nothing less than a brutal dismissal of her profound and enduring influence on the Disney aesthetic.

The insertion of Disney characters into this classic E-ticket is troubling enough. “It’s a Small World” may be a color and design masterpiece but more importantly the show’s simple message of shared humanity using children of the world and their innate innocence as the metaphor makes it a cultural touchstone and a casebook example of uncluttered visual storytelling. Cute as they may be, Belle, Mickey, Stitch or Nemo have nothing to do with selling the core values of UNICEF, the show’s original partner. Their appearance not only trivializes the central theme but more disturbingly seems to emphasize global brand marketing and franchising above all else.

When the attraction re-opens several months from now this salute to the children of the world will have turned into yet another guest search for hidden Mickeys, the earlier cleaner message all but lost on future generations. Here, also, is where Small World finally becomes yet another prelude to selling more plush, having now devolved into an elaborate hyper commercial window display, all charm and sincerity leeched from its bones.

It’s hard enough to stomach the addition of completely out of place Disney characters in this visionary gem of an attraction, harder to fathom the removal of the rainforest sequence but all out infuriating that it will be replaced with a loud, garish, tacky and aggressively incongruous Hooray for U.S.A. set piece. Nobody does Mary Blair quite like Mary Blair, but the concept art released by the Walt Disney Company for this section of the ride appears to have been designed by artists not even aware of her existence, let alone her singularly specific design sensibility. Gone is her use of a harmonic color palette, gone is her keen eye for shape and form, gone her impeccable taste and theatricality.

And when the rainforest goes, it goes for good, replaced with a group of sets never intended for American audiences from the show’s very inception. In consciously excluding a large scale U.S.A.-land from It’s a Small World (a lone cowboy and indian in the finale was just enough), the original show writers were asking American audiences to step away from their own national consciousness and take stock in the wider world around them. It’s a Small World was never about nationalistic fervor. It was about finding our common humanity outside our own borders.

This is not a change at Disneyland to take lightly. Letters should go out to all corners of the company pleading for a halt to the desecration of Small World once and for all. A campaign to “Save Our Rainforest” is appropriate, one with tee-shirts, wristbands and a countdown clock. It’s safe to say that with enough of a hue and cry from those of us who actually pay the bills at W.D.I the company might do an about face. Fortunately this was a concept that was pitched to executives before Bruce Vaughn and Craig Russell took the reigns at Imagineering so there’s still room for hope.

“It’s a Small World” is a work of art. Those fortunate enough to be the caretakers of a masterpiece are more than welcome to try on a new frame once in a while, to carefully restore its surface, switch out the lighting or even move the piece to another room.

But even the most fool-hardy owner knows not to paint over the original canvas.

Disneyland is your land. Don’t let this happen.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Spaceship Dearth


“I don't believe in talking down to children.
I don't believe in talking down to any certain segment.”
- Walt Disney

I think it is safe to assume that anyone reading this blog frequents other Disney blogs, fan sites and discussion boards, and even if you haven’t experienced the new Spaceship Earth for yourself, you’ve at least read about it. I’m guessing you’ve already heard the new animation in the first half of the attraction looks great and the on-board touch-screen during the descent reduces the climax of Epcot’s centerpiece attraction to a tonally incorrect interactive display.

Let me just say, I agree and I agree--respectively.

Let’s get beyond that and look at the overall philosophy behind this do-over because it says a lot about what some people at WDI think of the average guest.

As far as I can tell, this version of Spaceship Earth communicates that the Walt Disney Company thinks its guests are dumb as a box of rocks.

The original Spaceship Earth was the result of the combined effort of countless artists--among them at least three certified geniuses: Buckminster Fuller, John Hench and the visionary poet Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a true wordsmith; the man couldn’t write prose even if he wanted to. When he signs autographs, he writes a short extemporaneous poem. And if anyone doubts his visionary status, go back and read Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury warned us against the dangers of valuing immediate gratification (specifically via television) over the pursuit of knowledge (specifically via literature). The society that would result from such values was one which would treat each of its members as if they had the intellect and the curiosity of a lobotomized chimpanzee.

Bradbury wrote the original script for Spaceship Earth, but his carefully chosen words were dumbed down with each successive refurbishment. Spaceship Earth for Dummies now features Dame Judy Dench spouting such awkwardly transparent attempts to be relevant as “Rome built the first world wide web,” and a reference to the preservation of ancient texts as “the first back-up system.” Is it just me or did this remind anyone else of a well-meaning but dimwitted history teacher trying to relate to eighth graders? No offense to the talented actress in question. She didn’t write this stuff. But unfortunately neither did Bradbury. How much did they pay her to say, “Remember how easy it was to learn your ABCs?” The word “condescending” just isn’t strong enough; this language is insulting.

While we’re on the subject of narration, it's important to note show writers removed the word “Islamic” and replaced it with “Arab.” Why would they do that? Aren’t Muslims our fellow passengers aboard Spaceship Earth as well?

There was another odd change in the renaissance scene. A sculpture of a woman with a bare breast has been replaced with a covered-up version. Really? We’re too prude for the renaissance now? Seriously? The renaissance!?

I wish the concealing of marble cleavage was the oddest choice made during this refurbishment, but unfortunately, no. Someone decided a go-go dancer should work on a mainframe computer. Yes, I know she isn’t really a go-go dancer, but come-on. Who dressed that lab technician? Austin Powers? I don’t care if it is the 1970s and you like to climb into a cage at Studio 54 after work, but when you come to work as a lab tech you better dress like a lab tech, young lady. This costume design choice is fundamentally wrong.

I’m afraid we’re going to have to go back and review the basics in order to address this foolishness properly. The next paragraph is solely directed at anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to have a go-go dancer working on a mainframe computer in an optimistic, uplifting, dramatic attraction. Everyone else please skip to the following paragraph.

Every artist makes choices; writers, painters, sculptors, songwriters, set designers. Every artist. Theatrical designers (and theme park design is a theatrical art) must make choices that compliment a unified vision with the goal of eliciting a specific emotion from the audience. When poor choices are made, choices which contradict or distract from the intended message or emotion, it is evident and it pulls the audience out of the moment. The go-go outfit stands out and calls attention to itself instead of reinforcing the message. The show is not about that lab tech, the show is about all of us as the human race, how far we’ve advanced and the exciting future that awaits us. Every artist working on this show should be thinking about how they can reinforce that message with every choice they make. That’s not to say a bit of humor to lighten the mood isn’t welcome. It is. The sleeping monk is a good example, but I don’t see any humor here either. Was the lab tech’s outfit meant to be funny? What is the carefully thought out Henchian logic for that choice?

This brings us to the big choice. As many other bloggers, fans and just plain old park guests have already observed, the choice of reducing the second half of the attraction to a touch-screen interactive, which would normally be relegated to the post show, seems to be a way to save money, but I don’t think so. The cost of those screens was not insignificant. It seems to be more a result of the Company’s current infatuation with “interactivity.” For evidence of that infatuation just check out the recent New York Times article on Toy Story Midway Mania.

Unfortunately this obsession with shoving interactive elements into every attraction is usually at the expense of the fundamental principles that built Epcot and the Disney Parks in the first place. It doesn’t have to be; Disney theme parks have always been interactive experiences. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

I wonder if anyone remembers the last time WDI installed video screens in ride vehicles. It was for a little fiasco called Superstar Limo. Why would anyone want to duplicate any element of that show?

As a Bradbury fan, I can’t help but note the irony that they placed the villain from Fahrenheit 451 (a television screen) right in the ride vehicle. And here, just as in that world, the guests are expected to look at it instead of the world around them. An unintentional metaphor to be sure but I can’t help but read the message as: “stare at your own television, ignore the world passing by you and we’ll protect you from the dangers of marble nudity and big words you don’t understand.”

It’s sad to think that Spaceship Earth has fallen victim to one of the very dangers Bradbury warned us against. It’s downright heart wrenching to think that Epcot is capable of evoking parallels to the distopian future Bradbury warned us might be, instead of the utopian future Walt told us could be.

Finale Scene from Spaceship Earth