Thursday, April 26, 2007

Selling the Dream: Part Two

The strongest impression one walks away with from The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World television special - broadcast 10/29/71 - is not necessarily of the size, scope and invention of the new property, nor of what Disney probably intended you to take away (based on the number of celebrities accumulated for the special), which is to say its' status as "The Entertainment Spectacular of the Century" (Look Magazine's phrase which Disney aggressively pushed in its' first few years).

Thirty five years later we appreciate the changes in the buildings and landscape, but this is hardly what the special is intended to impress upon us. Namely, what is amazing is Disney's sell of Walt Disney World to us as a place for adults to escape day to day reality, with children a secondary concern. Sure, there may be a Fantasyland with a Dumbo attraction, but look who's riding it - Glen Campbell, Julie Andrews, Jonathan Winters, Bob Hope. The show is not structured in such a way to be specifically entertaining to children - in stark contrast to the chaos of Dateline: Disneyland, it is an entertainment spectacular steeped in a funky 70's aesthetic, with scarlet polyester clad choreographed dancers zipping through a fetal Magic Kingdom chanting "It's the greatest show on earth!"

It has the strangest opening of any of the Disney promotional films: as the camera zooms in tighter and tighter on a sunrise, we hear the ghostly disembodied voice of Glen Campbell as he marches through the central Floridian wilderness, guitar slung over his back, singing a typical country song of his style. This proceeds uninterrupted, without comment, for over three minutes until, finally, dramatically, he walks under a monorail beam. And viewers would be forgiven for thinking they were watching an A&E Movie of the Week up to that point.

Campbell's contribution to the program is the most charming as well as often the most unintentionally hilarious, as when he, sitting and playing guitar on the Liberty Square riverboat landing looks, with the help of the telephoto lens (which artificially flattens space as it zooms), as if the Riverboat is about the plow into him in a catastrophic apocalypse of polyester. He also makes some pretty eyebrow-raising comments like "You know sometimes I think we think Freedom is our right - so we can do with it what we like." We shouldn't hold Glen at fault - it's a strange shooting script, but standing in Liberty Square and having been just avoided death at the hands of a Riverboat, it inevitably causes modern audiences to twitch.

Watch out, Glen!!

Julie Andrews arrives to do nothing, as does Bob Hope, who dedicates the Contemporary and blows his best joke almost immediately, which is about the Goodyear Blimp and which I won't ruin here. If you've ever wanted to suffer through the spectacle of Buddy Hackett driving Herbie down the Grand Prix Raceway, this is the place. Or how about unfunny skits with Jonathan Winters at Fort Wilderness? Got that here, to.

Besides all of the musical numbers and celebrities and nonsense, what does come through is Disney's sell of "not Disneyland" - not only is the legacy of Disneyland not once invoked, but the elements that are heavily accented with standalone segments are those which are unique to the Florida property - Country Bear Jamboree, Hall of Presidents and Mickey Mouse Revue. Nowhere mentioned is the expanded and much improved Jungle Cruise, the revised Flight to the Moon, or the company's then-current "Blockbuster Franchise", The Haunted Mansion. Nowhere mentioned is the Western River Expedition, Space Mountain, or E.P.C.O.T. What we do see is resorts, campgrounds, lakes, monorails - and very little of the park. Although musical numbers like "There's More!" accent the park, the images are shot and framed in such a way to restrict any sense of geography, freeing up the facades to become pure spectacle. Compared to the structured introduction of Disneyland's vital components in Dateline: Disneyland, The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World presents the park as little more than an abstraction of glee.

Welcome to... somewhere... ...listen, the signs aren't here
yet, ok?

And above it all, Disney is shouting "It's not Disneyland! It's new! Improved! For adults! And Not Disneyland!"

And true, as they claim, Walt Disney World, for all of its' faults, is not Disneyland. At Disneyland there was not a Top of the World. At Disneyland there was not a Chinese junk which was also a floating cocktail lounge. There was nothing at Disneyland to match the beauty, charm and elegance of the Electrical Water Pageant until the Disneyland Hotel purchased and installed the Dancing Waters show. For simple romance, Walt Disney World Phase One has never been matched as an attraction for the entire family - and mostly adults.

Eisner's reign would add many more hotels, some designed as an intellectual exercise in "whimsy" (for adults) or vaugley themed blocks of hotel rooms (for kids), but its' important to note that Walt Disney World's two biggest expansions B.E. (Before Eisner) were the Shopping Village in 1975 and EPCOT Center in 1982. The Shopping Village was billed and remained until the 90's an adult's attraction full of shops children were unlikely to take interest in. And EPCOT Center was designed from a very adult point of view, intended to educate and entertain on "big issues".

Yet all of this is in the future, and watching The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World, which is fascinating and mostly watchable, is both a happy and sad occasion. Happy, because it shows that Walt Disney World didn't "all start with a mouse" - it was discovered, Columbus-like, by Glen Campbell. Sad, because dangling before us is E.P.C.O.T., Western River Expedition, The Asian, The Venetian, and untold wonders from when the Orlando property promised to be so much more than it ended up being.


Biblio Adonis said...

Thanks for a great part 2.

I remember reading about the differences that the imagineers thought would be inherent in the Florida project. The visitors to WDW were seen as mostly seniors and older people that live in Florida. (I believe I read that in the recent "Pirates" book by Jason Sorrell.) Obviously, they were happily surprised!

Your article makes sense in this light.


Anonymous said...

That is one of the funniest things I've ever read! :)

Joe said...

I just want to say thanks for your hard work... I really enjoy reading your entries. Unfortunately I've never had a chance to view this (or the DL opening), but I plan on checking them out (if I can get my hands on them) soon...

Spaced Out Dude said...

I have seen the Disneyland opening, but have not had the chance to see this. Could u point me in the right direction?

FoxxFur said...

I really prefer when WDW would sell itself as being a place with a variety of unique and sophisticated offerings; today all it seems Disney can do is throw up the world "Magical" and "Dream" everywhere and stand around with an arrow pointed at their open palm. The romance of The Magic Kingdom has been built in and dumbed down; and while it's true that Downtown Disney is pretty exciting and interesting, you see pictures of the old Marketplace and the serenity is staggering Oh well. Times change. Audiences do too.

If anybody wants to see the video, salient excerpts are on YouTube, and it's out there on the gray market. Dave Oneal sells a version for $15 that's more washed out than normal. I was pretty happy with the version I got off MouseBits.Com for the purposes of screencapping.

ericpaddon said...

"Unfunny" is an understatement to describe all of Jonathan Winters's bits in the special.

The previews of CBJ, HOP and the Mickey Mouse Revue remain the most valuable elements of the special for me, and we also get to see Julie Andrews inside the Main Street Cinema when it really was a cinema.