Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Spectatorship and Experientialism in Disneyland: Rethinking "Story"

The bread-and-butter of much discussion throughout the Disneysphere is the perceived decline of Imagineering and the attractions it creates. Many of these focus on the question of licensed works as opposed to original concepts, having observed a decided lack of modern classics in the vein of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion or Journey into Imagination. Most seem to be running statistical tallies on the number of thrill rides or E-tickets, shedding a tear over each new C-ticket attraction and Princess meet n' greet. Despite the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World being the best-attended theme park in the world, beating out Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure by more than 10 million visitors in 2013, well-intentioned fans are frantic over the need for a "Potter-Swatter" or Disney's need to step up to the plate when they already own the field. To put it in perspective, 10 million is a little more than the attendance of The Louvre in 2013, or the total number of visitors to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.

Oddly absent is debate over the single most important dialectic problem in Imagineering design today... The problem cutting to the very heart of what a Disney theme park experience is, regardless of whether it is a ride or a meet n' greet, an E-Ticket or a nice bit of place-making, a true themed-park or simply an amusement park encrusted with diverse franchises. It is often mistaken for being the debate between "story" and "theme" but it runs even deeper than that. It reflects the very nature of how a guest subjectively determines the success or failure of an attraction. That problem is the issue of spectatorship versus experientialism.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Form and Content in Disneyland

It likely goes without saying that an overabundant love of Disney and its parks are incomprehensible to most people. The majority of us have experiences of being looked at from down someone’s nose as they mutter something about us going to a Disney park (again) or, in my case, proposing to my fiancĂ©e in one. Doubtless many of us are equally familiar with the self-appointed critics who live in a state of utter exasperation that anyone could like a Disney park when there are other amusement parks with newer, larger, and more expensive rides out there.


"Totally Lame."

"That horse isn't even a 3D projection! Way to drop the ball, Disney!"

As incomprehensible and exasperating as our love for Disney may be to them, the inverse is often a more vexing problem to the mouse-eared faithful. What is wrong with these people who don't love Disneyland? Why don't they "get it"? It doesn't help that this “it” that other people don't get is very difficult for Disney fans to explain. More often than not, it devolves into platitudes about Disney's special "magic", how it is the "happiest place on earth" and where "dreams come true"... All the advertising slogans invented by the company marketeers.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Disney Runs Away With the Circus

On the dustjacket of their impressive tome Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Theme Park, Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon reiterate one of the "primal myths" of Disneyland’s origins: “Fifty years ago, Walt Disney utterly transformed the concept of outdoor entertainment venues from tawdry carnivals and seedy amusement piers called ‘amusement parks,’ to an entirely new destination that would come into common vernacular as the ‘theme park.’” When the Imagineers of today added a new area to Walt Disney World's Fantasyland based on the circus – ostensibly the most “tawdry” of American amusements that are legal in most States – it certainly raised some eyebrows and some ire. How could they so betray the spirit of Walt Disney himself by including an area themed to the very thing he tried to get away from?

For as brilliant and creative as they are, I think one always has to take what Imagineers say with a grain of salt. For example, when they are criticized for poor artistic choices, they frequently dust off the thought-terminating cliche that “Disneyland is not a museum.” Nevertheless, when Walt explained what Disneyland was, he had this to say (emphasis mine):
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.
Oh, sometimes Disneyland is a museum. Walt did a brisk business in nostalgia, and the very first incarnation of Disneyland was very much the sort of thing we would recognize today as a “living history museum” or “historical village.” In 1951, Walt intended to build a quaint historical village in a parcel of land adjacent to his studios in Burbank, where today one finds the headquarters of ABC and Walt Disney Animation. The following rough blueprint was sketched by Harper Goff, showing the intended attractions in this “Mickey Mouse Park.”
You may have noticed the paddlewheeler plying a man-made river, a hub-like town square, a boating canal, a steam train, and other features that would work their way into the park that would come to be built in Anaheim. But what is that in the left-hand corner? Could it be? Yes... A circus!