Saturday, 20 May 2017

What Makes Something "Disney"?

Not very long ago, FoxxFur at Passport to Dreams posed the question of what makes a themed attraction, themed space, or theme park distinctively "Disney" in contrast to other amusement parks, rides, and spaces. What does it mean when we criticize something made by Disney of not being "Disney" enough? What do we mean when we say the so-called competition doesn't measure up to Disney, or has "out-Disneyed" Disney? Since I take my cues from Passport to Dreams apparently, which frankly isn't a bad place to take them from, I've been given pause to think seriously about what that means. 

There is a very elementary sense in which I take something to be "Disney", which is that it draws from Disney branded intellectual property... Rides, attractions, and spaces that are drawn either from the rich catalogue of the Walt Disney Studios, or are themselves original creations of WED Enterprises/Walt Disney Imagineering. This forms a great deal of my objection to the infiltration of non-Disney IP into Disney parks. There was a joke that Disney didn't buy Pixar for $7,400,000,000; Pixar bought Disney for -$7,400,000,000. The same joke could be made for Lucasfilm and Marvel. Unfortunately, while I don't hate Star Wars or Indiana Jones, I'm really not very fond of Marvel or Pixar. Though one could make a reasoned argument that Star Wars' "A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away" has suitable parallels with "here you leave today and enter the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy," there is a profound sense in which Marvel and Pixar do not belong in a Disney park, beyond my own feelings that they are interminable corporate products verging on anti-art that are all the more obnoxious because they are so popular and consistently shoved in my face. I will get into those reasons soon enough.

Pretty "Disney", I think.

This might explain why I consider rides based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Peter Pan to be sufficiently Disney, but it doesn't explain Haunted Mansion, Mystic Manor, Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, Expedition Everest, Big Thunder Mountain, Country Bear Jamboree, and so forth. It may even get muddier when considering attractions based on different non-Disney sources, like Tom Sawyer Island or Journey to the Center of the Earth. I am not so troubled by those because I see Imagineering's relationship to theme parks as comparable to Walt Disney Studios' relationship to film. A theme park adaptation of a Jules Verne book is just as reasonable as an animated film adaptation of a Brothers Grimm story, and an original theme park attraction is just as good as an original screenplay. To me, the act of being created by Imagineering makes an original or adapted attraction a Disney IP.  

Yet when people talk about something being "more Disney", they don't mean simply the IP involved. Well, some might, which is how we get things like Mickey's Fun Wheel with a giant Mickey Mouse head slapped on it. Generally though, something more is implied by the term than just identifiable characters. There is an implication of quality, of a certain standard and a certain effect, that a themed space has to reach to be considered sufficiently "Disney".

Some of FoxxFur's conclusions echo those I made not very along ago either, in my recent piece on theme vs. decoration. In that editorial, I outlined the difference between the elements that combine to create an immersive alternate world and merely affixing decorative elements to a thing. In the Disney context, FoxxFur coined the term "slap a Mickey on it" to describe when "more Disney" means simply attaching more Disney IP to something. The iconic Mickey Mouse head becomes simply a decorative motif that fails to create a sense of immersive theme, unless the immersive theme is "Look! Disney owns this!" Once again, Mickey's Fun Wheel is a perfect epitome of this principle. Imagineering literally did slap a Mickey on it in response to customer surveys wanting California Adventure to be "more Disney."

Look how Disney this is! Can't get more Disney than this!!
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

FoxxFur even goes further, beyond deliberate theme to a sense of harmonious design in general. The core of her thesis is that "on a basic level, that to make something 'Disney', it needs urban planning, attention to detail, and a sense of harmony. That sense of harmony is crucial..." Slapping a Mickey on it, she points out in multiple examples including the concourse of the Contemporary Resort, has never worked to create a sense of harmonious design. I would go one further than FoxxFur even, and say that what makes something "Disney" is not only harmonious design married to urban planning and attention to detail, but the quality of creating a heightened experience. It's not simply a well-designed space, but a space that draws one into "the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy."

This is what makes Disney "Disney."

There are no end of "Main Street USA's" out there. Many of the buildings found along Disney's versions have true-life inspirations, and one could see them and ones very much like them in any given "historical village" dotting the Western hemisphere. Yet Disney creates the heightened experience of the ideal Main Street USA, the most perfect one.  Main Street USA isn't a realistic recreation of a turn of the century American town, but rather, a dream-like, nostalgic distillation of one into its essential, perfected form. This is true, over and over again, throughout the parks. 

Frontierland, for example, is not a truthful recreation of the Old West, but a fantastic, idealized one. We may debate which version does it better as well, and I would argue that Disneyland Paris' is a serious contender. The heightened ideal of the Old West is further accented by an overarching story tying the land together, truly creating a separate, immersive world above a mere pastiche of tropes and elements. I could argue the same of Disneyland Paris' Adventureland as well. Its expansive colonial tropics goes beyond having a Swiss Family Treehouse or a Pirates of the Caribbean ride to having the whole worlds these places occupy. The Swiss Family Robinson's entire island is there, and across from the fort being sacked by pirates is the Jolly Roger and Skull Rock, crossing over the realms of adventure and fantasy. The only problem is what Disneyland Paris lacks: the Enchanted Tiki Room, Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, Splash Mountain... My Platonic ideal of a Disney theme park would basically be Disneyland Paris with all the attractions it's missing.

Disney in content and execution.

The absence of the Enchanted Tiki Room is especially hard-hitting. Though understandable in the European context, where Tiki has never been a big thing like in the United States. Tiki culture is distinctively reflective of the "more Disney" ethos. It is, by its very nature, a heightened experience. Each Tiki bar, at home or in public, is creating a fantasy world around the ideal of Polynesian romance. Between the Enchanted Tiki Room, Polynesian Village Resort, and Trader Sam's, there is little wonder that Disney and Tiki should be so entwined.

This one even has mermaids! The Sip 'n Dip in Great Falls, Montana.

Grizzly Peak and Disney's Wilderness Lodge are both pastiche of America's National Parks without being a copy of any particular one. Wilderness Lodge does an excellent job, as do all the moderate and deluxe Disney hotels, of drawing the theme of the public spaces into the rooms themselves. One does not always find that in the real thing, where the hotel rooms are disappointingly generic in contrast to the beauty and historic character of the hotels themselves. We were actually quite pleasantly surprised by the charmingly rustic appearance of our room at the Old Faithful Inn, which harmonized with the rest of the hotel and the natural vista our window looked out onto. That sense of heightened ideal and romance found in Grizzly Peak and Wilderness Lodge is what makes them "more Disney" to me than, say, a Carsland. This in turn leads to why I think Marvel and Pixar are inappropriate to a Disney park, beyond my just plain not liking them.

Even the sink in our room at Old Faithful Inn was photogenic!

Whereas Disney parks are about worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy, Marvel and Pixar are very contemporary. Films in both franchises are set in the world of today, thus violating the sense of fantasy and heightened experience that I argue is the core of the "Disney" experience. Marvel would be a triple-whammy of awful, as a non-Disney IP set in the modern day that necessarily involves sitting in a cart to watch someone else have an adventure. If there was any genre that I think is diametrically opposed to the entire form and substance and purpose of a theme park, it would be the superhero story.

Here you leave... today?...
(To be fair, The first Netflix Daredevil series is the only Marvel thing I've genuinely liked)
Photo: Disney/Marvel.

What makes Grizzly Peak "more Disney" than Carsland is trickier. The contemporary reference point for Carsland is Route 66, but not the Route 66 of a nostalgic yesteryear. It is the dilapidated Route 66 of today. Do you know what is better than visiting the recreation of today's dilapidated Route 66 in a Disney theme park? Driving the actual Route 66, today. It's the same problem affecting Dinoland USA in Animal Kingdom. While it is charming in its own way if you're into silly roadside attractions (as I am), Dinoland is "less Disney" because it is recreating something that actually exists, in the modern day, in its authentic form. Doing so loses a sense of heightened experience. Grizzly Peak has the challenge that visiting an actual National Park is better than visiting Grizzly Peak. But with California Adventure's renovations, Grizzly Peak has been made "more Disney" by being themed to the nostalgic milieu of the Fifties-Sixties Great American Road Trip. It's not the references to Brownstone National Park or Camp Inch that make it "more Disney", but rather the nostalgic romanticism.  

This all raises two other tricky questions: can a non-Disney property be "Disney"? And can a non-themed space be "Disney"?

To be clear, I have never thought that the "competition" was actual competition. The arrival of Harry Potter into Universal's Orlando resort goosed its attendance by about three million, where it plateaued. That attendance boost still placed it well below Disney Hollywood Studios, the worst and "least Disney" of the four Walt Disney World parks. What put Disney fans on notice was the quality of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Unlike Universal's typically scant awareness of the concepts of themed design, these lands were flawlessly realized, completely immersive environments. They might even qualify as being "more Disney" than a lot that Disney actually makes. It is naive, however, to think that Wizarding World is better than Disney's best... It signifies Universal finally catching up to what Disney has already done in Tokyo DisneySea, Animal Kingdom, etc. Considering that most of the Wizarding World is a shopping experience, Universal nailed how to turn the shopping itself into a themed experience. This is not only true of performance-based attractions like Olivanders, but also the selection of merchandise. We joked that if Disney had gotten the licence, the merchandise would have been all been tchotchkes of Mickey Mouse dressed as Harry Potter. Instead, Universal themed the merchandise to the subject matter, in most cases making it movie prop accurate. The shopping supports the heightened experience by allowing the guest to theme themselves to it, bedecked in robe and wand, drinking Butterbeer and eating Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans.

The quintessential Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience.

I already mentioned that Tiki culture reflects the "Disney" heightened experience, and one could argue the same of certain parts of Las Vegas. Usually that connection is strained and capricious, as when Ray Bradbury called out Julian Halevy for making it, but insofar as resorts in Las Vegas have embraced the principles of themed design they have managed to reflect the same fantasy reality peddled by Disney. Nor does the "more Disney" principle have to limit itself to physical spaces. Two of my favourite video games - Red Dead Redemption and Bioshock Infinite - reflect this amidst the copious bloodshed of violent shoot-em-ups. They each create an idealized open world, the Old West and a Main Street-like flying city circa 1912, that mirror what Disney does at its best and how it does it.

Red Dead Redemption, or Frontierland: The Game.
It even has a runaway mine cart roller coaster!

What about non-themed spaces then? Downtown Disney recently transformed into a themed space as Disney Springs, but was it "Disney" before? Or what of FoxxFur's example in the Contemporary Resort? The Contemporary was never supposed to be a themed space, and like much of the original Walt Disney World, was not tied to corporate cross-branding. It did have a decorative scheme based in the Southwest US, typified by Mary Blair's Grand Canyon moasic, but it wasn't meant to invoke a heightened experience of being at the Grand Canyon. The Contemporary was meant, however, to express the heightened ideal of "contemporariness". It was supposed to be "now-not-yet", the hippest of the present day, so hip that it's slightly futuristic. Basically, the same drive as behind Tomorrowland or Epcot's Future World. Here I might make a radical proposition: Tomorrowland is not themed. It is decorated to appear futuristic but is not itself themed to a particular time or place. Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland did eventually get itself themed, but even that was tenuous at best. 

Original concourse of the Contemporary Resort. Is this Disney?
Photo: Disney.

FoxxFur's notion of harmony plays a greater part here, where an idealized architecture, excellent planning, and cleanliness play a more significant part in making a space "Disney" that isn't overtly themed. Downtown Disney is "more Disney" than an average mall or Universal's Citywalk by those principles Disney brought to creating it. Ironically, Disney fails at this in some sad examples. The Hollywood Studios theme parks spring to mind as spaces where Disney threw out all concepts of good planning and good theming. The best that the original Disney Hollywood Studios has to offer is the "main street" leading up to the Great Movie Ride and the slight offshoot to Tower of Terror. There it recreates the ideal Hollywood of the Twenties and Thirties, as does Buena Vista Street at California Adventure. After that it loses the plot and devolves into a Universal Studios style morass. The only reason the soundstage aesthetic works at Universal Studios Hollywood is because those are actual soundstages.

Aside from Disney-specific content, what makes something "Disney" is not isolated to Disney itself. Disney sometimes even fails at it, quite spectacularly even. At its best, what Disney excels at... what exemplifies Disney at its most "Disney"... is creating harmonious, well-designed, immersive, idealized worlds. Even critics recognize this when complaining that Disney is "fake". They may have a too acute sense of the idealized, heightened experience that Disney is trying to create. That idealized experience will never replace reality, but Disney "Disneys" best when it is creating or recreating experiences that are impossible in the modern day. Moonlight flights above Neverland in a pirate ship, Captain Nemo's secret volcano base, Belle's enchanted village, sailing down the rivers of America in the golden age of riverboats, a mansion teeming with happy ghosts, a rollicking room of chanting Tikis, a sleek monorail speeding through a futuristic hotel... This is Disney at its most "Disney".  


  1. I've been reading and re-reading both this article and FoxxFurr's. You guys both make excellent observations on the subject of what makes a Disney park/resort "Disney enough." I think what it boils down to is that there are two answers...and the one you and I and FoxxFurr would give may be getting shouted out by the easier to understand (and therefore more popular) one.

    Most people never study the art of theme park design and in fact it probably never occurs to them that there's anything there to study. To these people, "Disney" is a brand: a set of recognizable IPs and trademarks owned by a corporation. You know you're at Disney World because there are Disney characters everywhere. How else would you know?

    And unfortunately, I think that's the view the higher-ups want to promote, because it's both a) easy (the characters and symbols already exist and have been popularized), and b) exclusive (no one else can use these characters and symbols in their parks, whereas a sufficiently motivated designer could realize a top-notch themed experience).

    1. I was reminded of your comment here in the course of a discussion I was having today over the inclusion of Jack Sparrow in Disneyland Paris' Pirates of the Caribbean:

      "...hes been dead for 50 years so its hardly relevant to the company and the theme parks of today. One of the only disappointments i had on my visit last year was the lack of movie tie in from this ride, that has now been rectified. Hopefully they will also disassemble captain Nemos Nautilus and replace it with something more modern at some point."

      I worry that it even goes beyond the thoughtlessness you describe here to an active antipathy towards "old things". Y'know, get rid of the Nautilus, it's old, HOPEFULLY it will be replaced some day.

    2. Nuh-uh. There's no way that person is real. You made them up to scare me.

      All joking aside, this person evidently recognizes that Pirates of the Caribbean began as a ride, and that its perennial popularity as a ride is what made a movie a viable concept. And yet they think now that the movies exist, the ride is inferior unless it references them? Pardon my Anglo-Saxon, but that is some bullshit right there.