Saturday, 2 September 2017

What Makes a "Classic" Attraction?

Recently, Rob Plays posted a video in which he questioned the criteria for what makes a Disney attraction a "classic." Usually, when listing classics, there is a short list that most fans would agree upon - the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, Peter Pan's Flight, Space Mountain, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, etc. - but when that short list is dissected, a universal criteria of what makes a "classic" is not forthcoming. It almost seems to be a case where the concept of a "classic" can be analyzed out of existence. Cynically, in the comments to his video, I suggested that this was a follow-up to a previous video by Rob Plays in which he explained his view that no Disney attraction should be immune from vandalism or destruction. If there is no such thing as a "classic," after all, then that can't be used as an argument against whatever ill-conceived busywork Imagineering has gotten up to.

But what is a classic, REALLY?

I would agree that a "classic" is a nebulous concept... Not because there is no such thing, but because what makes a particular attraction a classic is different from what makes another attraction a classic. The way in which the Enchanted Tiki Room is a classic is different from the way in which Space Mountain is a classic. There is no universal rule that applies to all classics. Instead, I would argue, there is an interplay of different criteria in varying strengths and combinations that result in an attraction achieving classic status. Some of these criteria may sound familiar to readers of my previous articles on Imagineering... What makes an attraction a classic is not too far removed from what makes an attraction "Disney" and, more so, what makes an attraction great

One of these criteria is historicity. Simple longevity itself may not be a criteria, but a particular place in Disney history may be. It would be hard to argue that what remains of Disneyland's "Class of '55" are not classics: Snow White's Scary Adventure, Peter Pan's Flight, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Storybook Land Canal Boats and Casey Jr. Circus Train, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Mad Tea Party, King Arthur Carrousel, Jungle Cruise, Mark Twain Riverboat, Autopia, Main St. Cinema, Main St. vehicles, and the DLRR. These are the opening day attractions, and should be considered sacred. There are other attractions in which Walt had a personal hand, like the "Class of '59": Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, Monorail, and Alice in Wonderland. There are ones attached to significant events in Disney history, like those designed for the 1964/65 New York World's Fair: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, It's a Small World, Carousel of Progress, and Primeval World. There are firsts of their kind, like the Enchanted Tiki Room and Main Street Electrical Parade. There are also the last projects Walt was involved in, like Pirates of the Caribbean and New Orleans Square. One might also qualify Walt Disney World's "Class of '71", including Space Mountain, Country Bear Jamboree, and the Hall of Presidents. This is where it might be useful to distinguish between "original classics" like these and "modern classics" like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain, which may not have the historicity but become classics on other points.

Four classics in one shot.

Another criteria, applying even more to "modern classics," is artistic excellence. How good of an attraction is it? How well conceived and executed is it? How coherent is it, and how emotionally and intellectually stimulating? How well does it shape guest experience and communicate its story? How well does it place the guest at the centre of the experience or story, rather than as a passive spectator? How well does it reinforce the theme of its surroundings? These are the questions I've spent most of my writing on Imagineering talking about, and I've linked to the articles answering each question.

A good attraction does not, necessarily, become a classic on that strength alone. As much as I love 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth in Tokyo DisneySea, being my two favourite Disney attractions anywhere or anytime, I acknowledge that they are not classics. They are fantastic attractions and ought to be classics, but they lack that certain je ne sais quoi that translates to being instant modern classics. It might just be that they are over in Asia, away from the awareness of most non-Asian fans, but then Mystic Manor has accelerated to the status of instant modern classic. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was considered a modern classic, mainly for its quality, but Little Mermaid not so much, largely because it lacked in quality. It's rare that a bad attraction will become a classic, but being a good one is no guarantee of achieving classic status on its own.

Raising the difference between 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mystic Manor brings up another criteria. That criteria is originality. Originality, more so than being based on an established IP, tends to elevate attractions to classics. If one considers the list of widely acknowledged classics, they're almost all original concepts developed by WED/Imagineering: Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Space Mountain, Country Bear Jamboree, Big Thunder Mountain, Enchanted Tiki Room, It's a Small World, the original Journey Into Imagination, Spaceship Earth, Mystic Manor, Expedition Everest... Only a relatively small number are based off established IP, and in some cases that connection is practically irrelevant. Nobody is a fan of Splash Mountain because they're such huge fans of Song of the South, or a fan of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride because The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a top-tier classic animated film. The Tower of Terror made me a fan of The Twilight Zone, not the other way around. The appeal of Peter Pan's Flight is more in what it does than in what film it is based on.

One of the most famous scenes in all Disney fandom,
and it's not found in any movie.

The relationship between classics and IP franchising is almost directly inverse. I can pretty much guarantee that Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout!, and Pandora will never become classics. No matter how well done they are (and your mileage varies), they are based on IP and that is more detrimental to long-term status as classics. If it wasn't for the resurgence of interest in Star Wars in the mid-Nineties, Star Tours would have been shuttered long ago. I can't imagine anyone mentioning the Galaxy's Edge First Order attraction in the same breath as Haunted Mansion. I can't even imagine anyone mentioning the film it's based on in the same breath as better films from the series. Nor can I imagine Shanghai Disneyland's custom-built, movie-themed Pirates of the Caribbean being regarded as a classic like the original (even though the original is whittling away its status with each movie-based addition and politically correct vandalism).

Rob Plays, to his credit, did bring up the problem that fans of an IP-based attraction tend to be fans of the IP more than the attraction. So another criteria for a classic is that it has its own status among guests and the fan community. Reflecting the concept of the "art world," is the attraction critically acknowledged as a classic? If you ask people for a list of classics, do the same attractions keep appearing on everyone's list? And does Disney itself acknowledge this status through merchandising and events? Which attractions and characters within those attractions are you always seeing souvenirs for? Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean definitely have this going for them, as did the Tower of Terror. Every fifth anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Room sees another round of Tiki mugs and SHAG prints. An occasional figure set or pin does not meet this criteria, but a consistent marketing campaign, responding to a very real interest by fans, does.

64 objects for sale in a special storefront for a
50 year old attraction might reasonably signify a "classic."
These are, I think, the four most significant criteria in assessing whether an attraction is a "classic": historicity, artistic excellence, originality, and status among fans. I'm sure there are more criteria, and if you think of them, mention them in the comments. As it stands, these four criteria may weave together in different strengths and combinations, that can be compared. For example, Peter Pan's Flight is more of a classic than Snow White's Scary Adventures. They both share the same historical cachet as opening day attractions, but Peter Pan's Flight does something more original than Snow White's Scary Adventures, which is essentially a carnival ghost train. That would explain why Peter Pan's Flight's lines are significantly longer than Snow White's Scary Adventures', and why they thought nothing of getting rid of the latter in Walt Disney World, while the former is an opening day attraction in every park but Hong Kong Disneyland. Haunted Mansion is more of a classic than Space Mountain because it is a better attraction. There's more to it than Space Mountain's indoor roller coaster. But then contrast Space Mountain to California Screamin'... It's not a contest.

Check out that instantly recognizable profile!

Should a classic be inviolate though? Rob Plays raises the question of Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, which is an acknowledged classic but no longer bears any but the most cursory similarity to its original form. Can it still qualify as a classic?

This enters into the larger debate over refurbishing attractions and what actually qualifies as an improvement. If we understand and (rightly) accept that theme parks are an organic art form that naturally invite improvement over time, then we can judge changes to classics on the basis of how it respects and reinforces the things that made the attraction a classic to begin with. Mainly this has to do with the question of artistic excellence: how have changes to an attraction actually enhanced its artistic excellence? The addition of Marc Davis' vignettes to the Jungle Cruise certainly improved the attraction as a whole, as have the new effects in the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The addition of Disney characters to It's a Small World is, at least, an indifferent change, but the addition of the America scene diminished it. Movie characters, inappropriate projection effects, clips from the film score, an increasingly incoherent story, and now politically correct vandalism have irreparably damaged Pirates of the Caribbean so much that it only has a tenuous grasp on even being a good attraction anymore. Yet Constance and the Hatbox Ghost are good additions to the Haunted Mansion. New projection effects in the Fantasyland darkrides and DLRR dioramas have by-in-large improved them. The very nature of the Carousel of Progress requires progress so it doesn't become a petrified artifact.

Status as a "classic" is indeed a valid argument when assessing whether or not Imagineering should be fussing with an attraction. It takes a bit of intellectual work to tease out exactly what makes these widely agreed upon classics deserving of their status, but that doesn't nullify that status. If anything, it reinforces it: a classic attraction, above all, is one that can sustain good critical analysis. These are attractions that people can build websites and books around, and carry on conversations about for decades. They have something more going on than just a fun ride or a hip IP.  


  1. "Classic" is one of those words I have trouble with. One reason is that, like "E ticket," it doesn't seem to have a solid definition. The question isn't merely "How do you determine what gets designated a 'classic'?" but also "Having designated something a 'classic'...okay, now what?"

    The other reason is bad memories of Literature classes. "You have to read this; it's a classic." "But it's boring me to tears, I hate all the characters, and the author keeps digressing to talk about the cotton gin." "Keep up that kind of talk, and you'll be lucky to get a C minus. It's a CLASSIC; if you don't like it then you are a defective reader." (I am paraphrasing here.)

    I would much rather discuss the actual REASONS why, for example, a Disneyland attraction should be considered sacrosanct, then throw labels on things and expect the labels to speak for themselves.

    1. Well, of course, the implication is that a classic should be retained. I sympathize with your trials in literature class, but that's just a good example of how not to teach the classics. You don't retain a classic or read a classic (or watch a classic or whatever) BECAUSE it's a classic. You retain or read it or watch for the things that make it a classic... BECAUSE it's historically important, BECAUSE it's great, BECAUSE of its place in the culture, BECAUSE of how they speak to the human condition, etc. One doesn't watch "Casablanca" or "King Kong", for example, because they're classics... One watches them because they are brilliant, fantastic, genuinely great works of art and that's why they are classics.

      To keep this post in context, it was a reaction to a video that was dissecting the term "classic" out of existence to validate destroying any Disney ride willy-nilly. If nothing is a classic then everything is fair game.

    2. "One doesn't watch "Casablanca" or "King Kong", for example, because they're classics... One watches them because they are brilliant, fantastic, genuinely great works of art and that's why they are classics."

      That just makes the "classic" designation seem like a redundant middleman term.

    3. It's a shorthand honourific.