Sunday, 11 September 2016

"Disneyland will never be completed"

Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world. It is something that will never be finished. Something that I can keep developing and adding to.
This quote by Walt Disney is one of Disney fandom's most overused, and consequently, misunderstood. Every time a renovation, demolition, or alteration of any sort is announced for Disneyland, Walt Disney rises from his grave, pre-approving whatever modern Disney management does... No matter how shoddy, short-sighted, neglectful, or mediocre it is. And if you have things like that to say about a change? Well, clearly, you just don't like change and aren't a true Disney fan.

This quote has gotten mileage again with the news of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror's forthcoming replacement with a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. I heard it when the Court of Angels was walled off from the plebeian rabble. It was trotted out when Jack Sparrow was added to Pirates of the Caribbean and pirate ships added to Tom Sawyer Island. I'm sure it must have been used when the Country Bear Jamboree was replaced by Winnie the Pooh, when the Swiss Family Robinson was evicted by Tarzan, when Tomorrowland '98 was unveiled, when the Penny Arcade was nearly eviscerated of its penny arcade machines to make room for racks of candy, and when the Submarine Voyage was shut down. "Don't you know, Walt Disney himself loved fussing needlessly with things, changing for the sake of change, and randomly closing attractions that everyone loves?"

To take that famous quote of Walt's as an unconditional pre-approval of every change to the parks is to miss the subtlety of what he actually said. Note that Walt speaks of change in the sense of growth: "never be completed," "continue to grow," something that I can keep developing and adding to." He is speaking of building, not tearing down, and growing, not fussing needlessly. He also places a very strong condition on that growth: "as long as there is imagination left in the world." That is, growth at Disneyland is contingent on creative ideas and doing something that is truly worth doing.

Walt did fuss with Disneyland during his lifetime, but the fussing wasn't needless. Walt had another quote that is relevant here: "Disneyland is like a piece of clay, if there’s something I don’t like, I’m not stuck with it. I can reshape and revamp." When Walt fussed with things, it was because they didn't work or he had something far, far better in mind. 

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Tomorrowland was a problem area. Lack of funds meant that attractions hadn't quite gelled for Tomorrowland the way Walt might have liked. Rocket to the Moon and Autopia made it in, and a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit was shuttled over. The rest were mostly consumer trade show exhibits. Slowly Walt was able to phase these out and add more compelling attractions. One of the classic examples used to defend Disney's fussing was the Viewliner, a miniature train built in 1957 that was demolished a year later. What is rarely mentioned is that the Viewliner was itself a stop-gap measure that was replaced by the Monorail, Submarine Voyage, and Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959. One of Walt's last acts, which he never lived to see the completion of, was the New Tomorrowland of 1967. Finally he was able to shed the inadequate Tomorrowland of 1955 for a gleaming new future vision that added the Carousel of Progress, Adventure Thru Inner Space, and Peoplemover. Yet Rocket to the Moon and Autopia were retained, along with the Monorail and Submarine Voyage, because they worked.  

Another of Walt's final acts was the creation of New Orleans Square. It was technically Disneyland's first new land since 1955. The winding streets of the replica French Quarter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and eventually the Haunted Mansion were all built overtop the remains of the Swift Chicken Plantation... A fried chicken restaurant in the style of a plantation from the American South. A net gain, one should think. On the other side of Frontierland, the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train became the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, as new scenes were added.

Canal Boats of the World only lasted one year, 1955, for good reason. It was simply an incomplete Storybook Land Canal Boats. There hadn't been time, as Disneyland was being built, to fill in the canal's plants and models. The Mickey Mouse Club Circus only lasted from 1955-1956, because it was a textbook example of an attraction that didn't work. Live animals were too irregular and a circus was too regular. Guests didn't come to Disneyland to see what they could see once a year back home. It's a Small World was added in 1966, to great acclaim, a year after Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was added to Main Street. The Plaza Pavilion (now Jolly Holiday Bakery), Enchanted Tiki Room and Tahiti Terrace complex was added in 1962, replacing... Nothing in particular. The Swiss Family Treehouse was added the same year, filling out Adventureland's list of attractions. In the span of 1962-1964, Marc Davis was put to work adding his signature humorous vignettes to the Jungle Cruise.

Example after example could be given where Walt's ethos of changing and molding his Magic Kingdom involved fixing what was broken and growing the park rather than fussing needlessly. His "plussing" added up to a net gain, and brought attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Submarine Voyage, and Enchanted Tiki Room. In the years after Walt, and the construction of Walt Disney World, further attractions were added like the Country Bear Jamboree, Space Mountain, and Splash Mountain. In 1983, the little European village of Disneyland's original concept sketches was finally made, though at a loss of the Jolly Roger and Skull Rock. Rocket to the Moon gave way to Mission to Mars, which was the same essential show but with a more futuristic destination. The first cracks might have been shown in 1979, when Big Thunder Mountain Railroad replaced the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland. That one may still be debated, but I do believe there is a very clear point when the shift in Disney management's attitude occurred. 

In 1987, Disney made a critical choice that would forever affect how the park was managed. They took a flagging attraction - Adventure Thru Inner Space - and rather than fix it or improve upon it to drawn guests back, simply closed it down and replaced it with an attraction based on a popular movie franchise. 

For what it is, Star Tours is still well done. Unlike so many attractions since, it actually gets it right. Guests are ushered into the world of Star Wars rather than acting merely as passive spectators who watch things happen to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. This is going to be the fundamental problem with any ride based on Marvel movies. Their world is our own world, which we already live in. And in that world, there can only be one Iron Man or Captain America. As guests, our only possible role is to watch what happens to them. That I watch it in a simulator cart rather than at home is a difference of a few thousand dollars, but that's it. 

Yet for as much as Star Tours gets right, it still marks that change from Walt's idea of creative growth and development to modern Disney's idea of merely demolishing, stripping, eviscerating, and replacing anything that gets in the way of movie marketing, no matter how good it is or how beloved it is or how well it works. This difference cuts to the heart of what "haters" objections are.

Some time ago, I shared my thoughts on Star Wars Land, and noted this:
I don't think I've ever met anyone who is dead set against any changes ever happening to Disneyland, which is part of what can make the blanket rebuttal of "Walt said Disneyland would never be complete, so any changes Disneyland does are automatically pre-approved and you can't be critical of them!" so frustrating. That is usually followed with crude dismissals about critics being emotional, nostalgia-driven haters of everything new, which unnecessarily muddies the discussion. Please, please just end that tiresome cliché. The question is always how necessary the changes are and how well they were done. Does the change actually improve the experience? Or does it diminish the experience? Is the change coherent? Does it respect the integrity, themeing, and pacing of the park, land, or the attraction? Does it respect the historicity of the park, which is important for a park only really set apart by its historicity? Is it merely a change for the sake of marketing or cost-cutting? Is the change any good?    
Can anyone realistically and rationally say that taking out 3/4's of the penny arcade machines from the Penny Arcade and turning it into an extension of the candy store is a change that Walt would have wanted? That closing down the Court of Angels to the regular guests was an act of supreme imagination? That the additions of Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, Davy Jones, the film score, and an incoherent story to Pirates of the Caribbean are really the careful work of a fine sculptor improving his work of art? That stripping a consistently popular modern classic that works in every way for a cheap and ill-fitting movie-inspired overlay, is an actual gain?

Walt's aphorism that "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." actually places a much higher standard than its abusers realize. Imagine if the rest of us started holding Disney's changes to this standard: "Okay, so instead of importing Mystic Manor or Journey to the Center of the Earth or StormRider or Voyage to the Crystal Grotto or Pooh's Hunny Hunt, you're just turning the Haunted Mansion into a Dr. Strange ride. Is that really an act of growth and imagination? No, no, I don't care if the Haunted Mansion is old, or that you happened to love the Dr. Strange movie. Is it an act of growth and imagination? Really?"

1 comment:

  1. To be completely fair, Disneyland Park is undergoing a crisis of space. There are fewer and fewer places where something *can* be added without removing something else. Obviously, there's no excuse for pure subtractions like closing the Court of Angels.

    The real crisis, though, is that the park is currently headed by executives with no emotional investment in the place, pandering to casual guests with no emotional *or* intellectual investment. Guests whose primary interest in any attraction is "How fast does it go?" and who may not positively wish for trendy movie IPs to saturate the park, but simply can't imagine it any other way. They don't know the choice is between "movie IP" and "original concept that nurtures the imagination," they think it's between "movie IP" and "random nothing." This is not primarily their fault, but the fault of decision-makers who think they're competing directly with Universal, and that Universal is winning (?!).