Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Cory's Disney in Review 2014? Top Five Extinct and Extant Attractions

Last year at this time, I did a "year in review" covering what I thought the top five things were that Disney had done in 2013. Unfortunately this year, Disney didn't do enough that I would consider noteworthy to fill out that list. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride was awesome though!

All of New Fantasyland is pretty great, in fact!

Given that I'm four short of a top five, I decided to take a look at my favourite things that Disney used to have. For one reason or another, the universe prevents us from being able to enjoy one or another attraction that we might have really loved if we had gotten the chance. Perhaps it was taken out before you were even a twinkle in your parents' eye, or perhaps you were just never able to get to that particular park before the ride was closed. This is my list of regrets.
  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Magic Kingdom; Space Mountain: De la terre à la lune, Disneyland Paris; Le Visionarium, Disneyland Paris; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disneyland USA. My first place is a cheat, but with a good reason. All four of these attractions are related to Jules Verne and place as highly as they do because of my love for the great Frenchman's literature (you can probably also guess my tie for top extant attractions in any Disney park). It didn't seem fair to me to have almost my entire list composed of rides that appeal to me for almost identical reasons. The one I'm least broken up about is the 20,000 Leagues attraction at Disneyland USA, since this exhibition of original film props was removed in 1967, a decade before my time. The loss of the submarine ride at Walt Disney World was a terrible blow, since this is just about the best 20,000 Leagues ride conceivable: an actual ride beneath the waves aboard the Nautilus. That loss alone was sufficient reason not to bother going to WDW, except that it was replaced by attractions based on Ashley's favourite Disney movie! I shake my head most at the needless loss of Paris' original version of Space Mountain and it's Le Visionarium. Not only did these have the benefit of being based in Verne, but they also set Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland apart from the Tomorrowlands of other parks and set-up its retro-futuristic premise so well. Without them, it becomes more like the hodge-podge of ideas and licences that break down those other Tomrrowlands.  The body of Space Mountain still exists, but its soul is gone. In the place of a charming excursion from the Earth to the Moon, we have just another Space Mountain.

  2. Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, Disneyland USA. I am much more of a slow-going, dark ride kind of guy than a seeker of thrills, so given the choice between a leisurely mine train ride through a Wild West version of the Jungle Cruise or a roller coaster careening through caverns, I'll take the mine train, thank you very much. If we include all of Nature's Wonderland, with the stagecoaches and pack mules, one could argue that a large part of Frontierland's soul was lost when this was bulldozed. At least the river remains, even if it has been overrun with pirates.  

  3. Adventures Thru Inner Space, Disneyland USA. Though it is easy to fall into mythologizing attractions one has never been on, this journey loosely inspired by The Incredible Shrinking Man and Our Friend the Atom is easily one of the most original and legendary of Tomorrowland attractions. I think it also demonstrates better than most what Tomorrowland was supposed to be about: the collusion of scientific fact with powerfully emotive delivery to spark the imagination with the incredible promise of Space Age discovery. Adventures Thru Inner Space, Submarine Voyage, and Rocket to the Moon were probably the three most Tomorrowland attractions. It's too bad that it has finally given up and become the Universal Studios of Disney's miscellaneous IP acquisitions.    

  4. Adventurer's Club, Walt Disney World. According to friends who have been there, I would have loved this silly homage to hapless Victorian explorers in pith helmets. I love the aesthetic of exploration, of gentlemen's clubs filled to rafter and beam with curios from far-flung lands, and commiserations about adventures held and mountains climbed. Giving it a wink and a nod is even better. At least there remains Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar, which I have on good authority does echo some of the Adventurer's Club's atmosphere.  

  5. Photo: Janey Henning

  6. Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour, Tokyo Disneyland. I don't so much identify with it anymore, but in my heart of hearts I'm still a Goth and have tremendous affection for Disney's dark side. While the Villains are, of course, integral to the stories in which they are antagonists, there are no attractions really devoted to them. Once upon a time, just three years before I went there, Tokyo Disneyland had a tour of the netherworld beneath their castle, in which Maleficent, Chernabog, the Evil Queen, and the Horned King reigned. 

  • Honourable Mention: Walt Disney World. As I observed when Ashley and I went to WDW for the first time on our honeymoon, it's not really the rides at the resort that make it what it is, but rather, it's everything else. Some rides are better than their counterparts elsewhere, and some rides are worse, but in the end, it all the different types of experiences and attractions that are available that make it the "vacation kingdom." While it does have a lot of fun stuff still today, there are a few things from its past that I would have liked to see. The Fort Wilderness Railroad, for instance. Before Animal Kingdom, guests could have up close and personal wildlife encounters at Discovery Island in the middle of Bay Lake. Just offside was River Country, their first official water park (closed in 2001 due to the creation of WDW's existing water parks and the potential for waterborne diseases in Bay Lake). Meanwhile, over at the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, there was the Empress Lilly. This paddlewheel steamer (really a building erected offshore designed to look like a paddlewheeler) served as a restaurant and nightclub steeped in Louisiana atmosphere. It is still accessible today, but heavily renovated and divested of thematic elements, as Fulton's Crab House. None of these are things that would make or break a trip to WDW - it's hard to argue that River Country was in any way better than Typhoon Lagoon, for example - but especially in Empress Lilly's case, they point to that little bit extra that would have been nice. Not to mention hearkening to a nostalgia for when WDW first opened, EPCOT was new, and all of that. Now that I think of it, perhaps the original EPCOT Center should be included here as well.

So I don't end this year or begin the next on a total downer, I should include my top five favourite attractions that still exist. The only caveat is that I can only choose from attractions I've actually been on. Sorry Mystic Manor. Trust me, from what I've seen in videos, you would be on this list if I could put you on it.
  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, Tokyo Disneysea. By necessity, my first spot is a tie. I simply can't choose between these two magnificent attractions. On the one hand they are alike enough to be thought of in the same breath, and on the other they are so different that it is impossible to choose between them. Both attractions are based on the works of Jules Verne and Disney's live-action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That is what makes them similar and what puts them over for me, given that Verne is my favourite author and 20,000 Leagues is my favourite live-action Disney film. Where they differ is that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a classic dark ride using the same basic mechanics as Peter Pan's Flight, only simulating a journey to the bottom of the ocean. Journey to the Center of the Earth begins as a more upscale dark ride but has a nice jolt of high-speed thrill ride just at the end as you shoot out of a volcano and zip the circumference of Mysterious Island, the port in which both attractions are found. Both are based in the Retro-Victorian aesthetics pioneered by Harper Goff for the film, but both add a nice, creative, cartoony element that ties Disney live-action, animation, and theme parks together. They are remarkable visualizations of their source material that still add nice twists that I can't reveal for fear of spoiling them! They fit so well into the general theme of Tokyo Disneysea, which is the adventure of exploration and discovery: their plot has Captain Nemo inviting you to become a member of his scientific crew. Most deliciously of all, they are based on a 60-year old film and 150-year old book, neither of which could be considered hot tentpole franchise material. 20,000 Leagues and Journey are perfect examples of how fantastic ideas and well-executed attractions win out in the end.

  2. Haunted Mansion, Magic Kingdom. It's not the biggest, best, most modern, most thrilling, or most perfect attraction, but it is a sentimental favourite. The Haunted Mansion is a fun fusion of the classical haunted house with Addams Family kookiness, excellently conceived and executed. It is also a great example of how misbegotten modern Imagineering's obsession with "story" is. There is no defined narrative in the Haunted Mansion. There is no story of how one or another things happen to a protagonist and how that protagonist wins in the end and lives happily ever after. There is only the experience of being taken on a tour of a decrepit manor populated by ghosts. It does have an internal logic, but that logic is cinematic and experiential rather than narrative. As you move deeper into the house, new scenes unfold before you. You become a part of the experience, as your "sympathetic vibrations" release the spirits who only want to have a bit of fun by scaring you. And there is no "happily ever after," only an invitation to hurry back and not forget your death certificate. The Haunted Mansion is classic Disney, and the version at the Magic Kingdom is the best executed version of it. The lessons learned from Disneyland's original were employed in WDW's, making a much more convincing atmosphere of a real haunted mansion from start to finish.

  3. Pirates of the Caribbean, Disneyland Paris. I make no apologies for not being a fan of the vandalism performed against Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland USA, the Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland. It's not Jack Sparrow I necessarily object to. I would have been fine with him in the background, designed in such a way to look like he'd always been there and we just didn't notice. The problem is its just plain awful execution with its too-realistic animatronics set against Sixties models sculpted by Blaine Gibson, and projection effects of squid monsters in a ride with no other squid monsters or projection effects, and sudden blasts of Hans Zimmer's soundtrack against the vintage ride score, and a story that makes no internal sense (why is the town hiding Jack Sparrow?) while completely defeating the running gags of its own source material (Jack Sparrow was the only one to call himself "captain"... that was an important point in Pirates 1 and 2) and completely trouncing and corrupting the poetic morality tale of the original (piracy and lust for treasure is its own curse). The whole thing was just done so poorly. And Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland Paris has none of that! When we rode it, I just about broke into tears because I had forgotten how much I used to love it. While the order of the scenes is a bit different, all the essential elements are still there and still work. Until they either restore the version in Anaheim (yes!) or vandalize the version in Paris (no!!), this Pirates of the Caribbean holds its place.

  4. Peter Pan's Flight, Disneyland USA. Disneyland is itself a sort of Neverland. What is Neverland, after all, but the interior world of a child's imagination? Pirates, cannibals, cowboys and "Indians," mermaids... And what is Disneyland but a physical manifestation of this same imagination? It too has pirates, cannibals, cowboys and "Indians," and mermaids (as well as fairy tales and space ships). Thematically, Peter Pan's Flight would already be the perfect Disney ride. It is also a perfect example of what Disney rides do when they are at their best, which is to draw us into the story (not merely watching it from a cart) and conveying experiences that cannot be had in the real world. Nowhere else is it possible to sit in a pirate ship and take flight through the starlight sea surrounding Neverland. Allow me to echo the words of the great Ray Bradbury in his rousing defense of Disneyland: "I shall be indebted to him for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city, in his Peter Pan ride.

  5. Enchanted Tiki Room, Disneyland USA. Of any "top five" list, I always find slot #5 the hardest to fill. I know with great certainty what goes in slots 1 and 2, and maybe 3. It starts to get questionable by 4 and 5 is right out, because there as so many competing possibilities. Should it go to Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant in Disneyland Paris, or the Disneyland Railroad and Primeval World, or the Mark Twain Riverboat, or...? Then Ashley reminded me that there are actually very few attractions that I say we must see. One of them, one of the biggest ones, is the Enchanted Tiki Room. Prior to my first time at Disneyland, I had no particular attachment to Tiki culture or interest in the South Pacific, but something about the Enchanted Tiki Room captured my imagination. It was colourful, fun, musical, charming, whimsical... dare I say it... enchanted? There was also the ritual about it: getting the mandatory Dole Whip and deliberately staying for the video (I prefer the original one, with the guy who really likes his pineapple), and the speeches of the Tiki gods, and singing like the birdies sing, and cribbing the hand motions from Grease for the Hawaiian War Chant. Given my antipathy to heat, I'm not sure if I ever intend to visit Hawaii or Tahiti or Samoa. I have, however, gotten caught up in Disney's repackaging of Tiki culture, from Trader Sam's to Citrus Swirls to SHAG's artwork to the Spirit of Aloha. Even our kitchen is Tiki-themed!

  • Honourable Mention: All the Attractions that Disneyland Wouldn't be Disneyland Without. As I alluded to in my previous entry, attractions like the Mark Twain Riverboat and Disneyland Railroad with its Grand Canyon Diorama and Primeval World rank highly in my books. Few people would think of those as the must-do, top-tier favourite Disneyland attractions. Those distinctions always seem to go to the newest, biggest, highest, fastest rides with the most recent whizzbangs and geegaws. For me, though, they are two attractions that Disneyland just wouldn't be Disneyland without. Likewise with the Main Street Cinema, Penny Arcade, Tom Sawyer Island, and Court of Angels (oh...). I might even put the Jungle Cruise on that list. I don't think of it as being a favourite attraction as such, but if it were closed down for refurbishment, I would reschedule my trip just as surely as I would reschedule around Peter Pan's Flight or the Haunted Mansion. Walt Disney World showed me what was missing by not having the Peoplemover or the Country Bear Jamboree. These are attractions that give Disneyland its sense of place, that set its mood, and put it apart from the world outside the berm and from other theme parks. They are what make it a classic. They aren't E-tickets, but they are totally indispensable.

If you enjoyed these top five lists, let us know in the comments and share your own top extinct and extant attractions! Would you be interested in seeing more lists like this? What would you like to see lists of?

And thank you everyone for supporting Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy through another (eventful) year! Stay with us in the coming year for a new article every second Wednesday, beginning January 14th!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Mont St. Michel

One of the unmistakable influences on the design of Rapunzel's kingdom in Tangled is Mont St. Michel. Located off the coast of Normandy in northern France, this tidal island has been the site of a monastery since the 8th century. The island itself held strategic importance since Roman times and was permanently occupied by Christian hermits since the 6th century. Bishop Aubert received a series of visions of the Archangel Michael in 708 CE, which compelled him to construct a shrine dedicated to him on the peak of the island. Over the subsequent centuries, the site was built up with a full Gothic abbey and a village hugging the sides of the island. The island became a major pilgrimage site, withstanding invasions by Vikings, the English, and the Hugenots. Finally it was the anti-religious fanaticism of the French Revolution that closed down the monastery, turning it into a prison. In the 19th century, Mont St. Michel was restored by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect and champion of the Middle Ages who also restored the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

In May of 2013, Ashley and I visited Mont St. Michel as it stands today. What we discovered was a charming, but crowded, Mediaeval attraction. At a five hour drive from Paris each way, we were at the mercy of a scheduled tour with only a few harried hours inside the abbey itself (even after we ditched our tour guide and the busload of people we came with!). We have already conspired that on our next trip to France, we are going to stay in one of the island's tiny inns for a couple nights. Our brief taste of life on Mont St. Michel has only succeeded in whetting our appetite for further exploration of its winding streets and vaulted chapels.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

'Tis the Season for Giving, Again

Once more it is that time of year for family gatherings and present giving. And once again, it is good to spread some of that wealth around, whether we have a little or a lot.

Last year I mentioned the Walt Disney Birthplace project. The current owners of the home in Chicago where Walt Disney was born in 1905 fell short of their Kickstarter goals last year, but have been dauntless in seeking donations ever since. Their current fundraiser on Start Some Good has already passed its tipping point of $15,000, which will allow them to restore the windows to their working class Victorian finery. There is a lot left to do, and more money left to gather. Their total goal is to make $40,000.

Another fundraising product that the Walt Disney Birthplace has produced is O'Zell Soda. In 1912, Elias Disney, Walt's father, purchased stocks in the O'Zell company. This company promised huge profits in the burgeoning "soft drink" market, but ended up being an embezzlement scheme by its president. The company folded, taking a good chunk of the Disney family earnings with it. As a last laugh, the Walt Disney Birthplace project is using the brand name to market their own sodas to raise money for restoring the Disney family home. To purchase a few bottles, visit their website.

Dig in a little and help them preserve the birthplace of the man who has inspired us all so much! And remember to look beyond that as well to the people in need and worth causes in your area or in those things that concern you. Many people are in a great need of your generousity.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse by Floyd Gottfredson, Volumes 1 and 2

In the 1930's, Mickey Mouse was a veritable superstar, but Walt Disney was still feeling out his potential as a character and a corporate icon. His films varied in tone, subject, and quality. The merchandising machine was just gearing up. And King Features Syndicate was beating down Walt's door to produce a daily newspaper strip starring the Mouse. Thanks to the efforts of publisher Fantagraphics and editors David Gerstein and Gary Groth, this early slice of Mickey's life has been preserved for us in a series of very handsome volumes.

The first two volumes in the series - Race to Death Valley and Trapped on Treasure Island - set the stage very well for Mickey's rise to fame and the conditions under which artist and writer Floyd Gottfredson inherited the strip's mantle. In 1930, shortly after Disney's merchandising department was created, Walt personally scripted the strip drawn by Ub Iwerks. These very early strips were almost exact adaptations of the early cartoons, particularly Plane Crazy. However, Walt's responsibilities as the head of a growing company and the sudden departure of Iwerks led to a shakeup from which a new hire in the animation department - Gottfredson - was given the "temporary" assignment. That assignment lasted until 1975.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Grimm's Little Snow-White

Originally published by the Brothers Grimm in their original 1812 collection of fairy tales, Little Snow White has become one of their most popular. This is due in no small part to Walt Disney's adapting it into his first full-length feature animated film. Several feature-length animated films were made during the silent era - the first in 1915 and the oldest extant one being The Adventures of Prince Achmed from 1926 - but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first one in colour and the first one out of Hollywood, as well as being the one to really set off animated feature films as a viable medium.

As we will see from the following 1884 translation by Margaret Hunt, Disney took some liberties with the story. The fault isn't necessarily on him, however. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is essentially a remake of the 1916 live-action silent film, which was itself an adaptation of a 1912 stage play. What alterations he made to the story were come by honestly. It should be noted that the Grimms themselves consistently adapted and altered the story, with their final revision being published in 1854. For example, in the original it is Snow White's own mother who is jealous of her and in a rough draft, it is she who abandons her daughter in the woods.

Without further ado, Little Snow-White by the Brothers Grimm, illustrations by Franz Jüttner for a 1910 German edition...