Monday, October 01, 2007

The Second Wheel

This weekend, all variety of Disney fans will have descended upon Walt Disney World for the upcoming 25th Anniversary of EPCOT Center on October 1, 2007. For many people, EPCOT Center was the start of a great new era in themed design. But as revolutionary as EPCOT Center was, it was not the start, but the end. EPCOT Center was the final breath, the culminating moment, of the things that crafted the resort in its' early days.

"Walt Disney World or Disneyland?" seems to be the question which will never cease to haunt us, and as many people have opinions as they have memories. But I offer this this week - on the event of the 36th year of the Orlando property, on the 25th anniversary of EPCOT Center, on the event of the 50th post on my blog in a little over a year, on the weekend that so many in the community will be there - that we look, think, and evaluate what is there, what is really there, and not let our memories get in the way of our intellects.

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Misconceptions Run Deep.

The Accepted Conception of Walt Disney World is that it is the sequel. By dint of being second in a sequence, by dint of it's general conceptual design, and by dint of - let's face it - Disney's own hand, its' confusion of properties (which reached its' inevitable conclusion in 2006 by the rebranding of all the separate properties under one cookie cutter logo), Walt Disney World Phase One development has aways been seen as "another of more of the same" and denied full artistic sovereignty because of it.

The second in a sequence, if not a direct copy, must then be one of two things: a step forward or a step backward. I posit that Walt Disney World, for all its' problems, cannot be regarded as anything but a step forward.

When one is evaluating the success of a second work, one must, by the nature of the inquiry, also evaluate what has come before, and in the case of Disneyland and Walt Disney World we have an essentially similar pattern to our benefit. So while we're dealing with definitions and semantics, let us carefully examine, for the purposes of our discussion, the first in the sequence as well.

Disneyland is a revolutionary work, and as such it must, by definition of the term, also inevitably be the first. And by being the first, it means it has no precedent - Disneyland was expected to be a crippling failure. In 1955 a lot worked about Disneyland - and a lot didn't. Immediately the park experienced dramatic changes, many to streamline its' everyday operation. These refinements continued on a day to day basis and the opening of the Florida property sixteen years later was the result.

And so, let's let the final, the ultimate question raise its' ugly head, and that of Walt Disney. Since the opening of EPCOT herself, there have been cries that the Florida property was Not What Walt Wanted, not faithful to the ideas of its' namesake. It is true as one walks around Walt Disney World Phase One that things do not seem fully right; that there is a certain intangible quality missing that would have improved the product. There is, but that intangible is not mysterious: it's money. And although calling The Magic Kingdom cheap by any means is laughable, money was tight and it does show in places, just as it does at Disneyland.

But the Walt Disney factor is arguably no less present than it would be had he lived. Disney spoke of building a "Disneyland-style park" as Phase One of the Florida Project, and his brother was faithful to his word. We must recall that increasingly after the New York World's Fair of 1964 Walt Disney was deferring to the WED staff. X. Atencio reports that, shortly before his death, Disney questioned the taste of auctioning women in Pirates of the Caribbean, and deferred to his design staff when they unanimously told him that it would be acceptable. One would think that Walt Disney would not have backed off on a question of taste, but he trusted his design staff to make decisions in his best interest. In short, it is arguable that, based on known events before his death, that WED would have designed what they thought was best for Disney in Florida, which is what they did without him regardless. The possibilities of the medium had expanded well beyond even Walt Disney's watchful eye.

Technically Speaking.

Let it first be said that, while we speak of the successes of Walt Disney World on a purely technical level, it must be acknowledged that the relationship between function and art - as in all objects meant for public or personal use - manifests in the Florida property as a number of elements which partially negate the quality of the park itself. The tensions inherent in being a reconsideration of the Disneyland model; of having to at once be a refinement and also a redefinement to meet new requirements; results in the most obvious and striking differences between the two first generation castle parks. Disneyland was designed to handle 10-12,000 visitors at a time; in 1955 when 30,000 people poured into the park on opening day, it was bedlam. And as much expansion as Disneyland has gone through in the years, as much land adding and path widening, it still retains its' spatiality as a 1955 tourist attraction. The Magic Kingdom, on the other hand, was designed to suck up in excess of 40,000 tourists a day without breaking a sweat: if you happen to be walking right on Pirates of the Caribbean in the middle of the day, that's the reason why.

As a result the paths are wider, because they are expected to force many more people through them per day than Disneyland was. As a result of the paths being wider, the buildings are made to be taller so that they do not lose intended scope from a significantly greater distance. As a result of the buildings being bigger and spaced further apart, the stylistic tricks of the park become more evident, such as forced perspective and "stacked" faux gables and rooflines. And as a result of all of this, the buildings look more and more like what they really are: big hollow warehouses with nice fronts slapped on them. Magic Kingdom is, foot for foot, no less carefully designed than Disneyland and, generally, the buildings are designed with more artful intricacies than their folksy originals in Anaheim. But they are spaced farther apart, and as a result that illusion of intimacy that Disneyland still carries is partially lost.

This is really The Magic Kingdom's fatal flaw, the reason it is Not Disneyland, more by necessity than by choice. After all, Disneyland is so cramped that it can be unpleasant to be in with even a moderate crowd, but that is the trade off. But there are other reasons The Magic Kingdom is Not Disneyland as well, and some of them are good.

The Magic Kingdom is the streamlined zeppelin to Disneyland's cute balloon. The brilliant and still useful Utilidor system, built under part of Tomorrowland for Walt Disney's 1967 reworking, is expanded to remarkable effect, and when these components are considered in tandem with things like the AVAC trash conveyance system, the incinerator system, the man built waterways where roads go under rivers, the expansion of Disneyland's hub concept into an entire resort area which mirrors the design of its' main attraction, and other technicalities, does the full scope of the reconsideration of Disneyland actually become relevant to us.

The reworking was extended to the most minute of details: rather than reuse already proven and fully effective designs, WED re-engineered everything from the smallest Snow White Mine Cart to the largest Admiral Joe Fowler riverboat. Vehicles which were once guided by simple rails were now redesigned to run on even more foolproof methods, such as guiding trenches and electrified rails with discrete braking zones. Kitchens and other service areas were carefully clustered so that one central location could serve up to three sub locations, sometimes spread across whole thematic areas, at once. The point is that even things which had no good reason to be rethought were rethought carefully. This alone demonstrates that Walt Disney World, as a design unit, is a very smart reinvention of the wheel by the very people who had just built it.

Artistry?

That fatal flaw I spoke of may be a fatal flaw, and after 36 years of foliage growth, Walt Disney World is just starting to enjoy the perpetual dapple sunlight which is the experience of Disneyland and which so adds to the sense of intimacy which is already the (accidental) primary design feature of that park. All that having been said, WED proved herself as adept at designing for huge scope and scale as she was for the intimate courtyards and shaded bandstands which are the primary domain of Disneyland. For one, although the effect is patchy today, it is the first theme park ever designed to take future foliage growth into account: we look at photos from 1971 and then from 1975 and suddenly all those muddy embankments make total sense. Furthermore, whole areas are staged in depth for the first time: entering Adventureland, you were once able to look all the way across to the beaconing spire of the Enchanted Tiki Room. It's not an accidental vista, and one which has been sadly negated by a lax team of horticulturalists (the carefully designed "Jungle Lookout" atop the Swiss Family Treehouse has also befallen a similar fate).

One must also take into account how scope is controlled: although these too have mostly gone the way of the dodo, sacrificed to the unappeasable God of Crowd Flow, everywhere there wasn't a parade route, WED would set down a big tree, or a flower bed, or a fountain, or something.

Although the recent loss of the big planter of palms in front of Pirates of the Caribbean or the current existence of a rug-themed spinning attraction atop what was once a charming waterfall oasis will be most immediately recalled, I bring your attention to more often overlooked casualties: two huge oaks in front of the Haunted Mansion, where there is currently a broken fountain and part of a queue. Charming little oblique hexagons between America the Beautiful and Mission to Mars overflowing with the tall tall palm trees once the signature of Tomorrowland, and a trickling fountain and flower bed between It's A Small World and Peter Pan which once housed a Skyway pylon and was deemed to offensive to stay with the dismantling of that attraction. The old Liberty Square village green was replaced with circular planters and red umbrellas, and sometime in the mid 90's the beautiful old spreading oaks in Town Square were replaced with scraggling little saplings
because they apparently interfered with sightlines of the candy store.

So it's not like WED didn't arm itself with an arsenal of vegetation to combat all these wide open vistas in Florida. As always, the design of the park isn't always represented by the current state of the park, too often the rallying cry of the underinformed. All of these pockets of foliage were meant to make The Magic Kingdom as green and dense as Disneyland is today, and greatly reduce the fatal flaw that we have identified. (See footnote 1)

Where that flaw cannot be fought back, it is deployed to great advantage. The fact that Florida would get a bigger castle was probably inevitable given the nature of being the second in a sequence, and bigger isn't always better. But what does cause the Florida main entryway to the park to greatly outpace its' original sister is that WED brilliantly exaggerated Main Street from an already idealized small town to an astonishing network of gingerbread and lace: into a setting appropriate for a huge castle. That brilliant design, that symbol of American optimism, that indelible contribution to our collective unconscious - a fairy tale at the end of every American road - was improved not by increasing its' scale, but by improving its' integration. The point of Walt Disney's image is not juxtaposition, but how two very different ideas can become one. Here is an example of using scope to the advantage of the design team, along with those examples of harmonizing the castle with contrasting architecture which has already been discussed elsewhere on this journal.

Another element which must be taken into consideration and which is taken utterly for granted today is not only that Walt Disney World developed a whole new set of (successful!) aesthetic criteria out of the blue for the artistic harmony of the whole unit, that it deployed space and foliage in a newly sophisticated way, and that it is a technical marvel (in some ways the true application of the ideas Walt Disney was putting into his EPCOT city), but that although it may have repeated attractions from park to park, each Phase One attraction was a complete improvement in design and execution than it's West Coast original.

Although some attractions have been so spectacularly expanded in scope and concept that it's unfair to compare, say, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln to The Hall of Presidents, some were improved subtly but significantly. The extra rooms in Florida's Haunted Mansion, for example, give the attraction a greater structuring rhythm which the show simply doesn't have in Anaheim. The Jungle Cruise is similarly improved, with greater structure, purpose, and pace compared to the original which today seems slapdash by dint of its' evolution. The Enchanted Tiki Room, similarly, is subtly improved through a more ornate scale.

Some attractions stole elements from their Walt Disney World redesigned versions so quickly that it's hard to remember that these were designed for Florida first: the almost immediate replication of Country Bear Jamboree in California is famous but less salient than the case of Fantasyland. Compared to the 1955 originals still in place in 1971, the Fantasyland trio of Mr. Toad, Snow White and Peter Pan were fully rethought for their inclusion in Florida. Snow White became a much darker attraction which carried, for the first time, the enviable fingerprints of Yale Gracey in its' showstopping barrage of morbid effects, including the now famous double-figure mirror gag. Mr. Toad was a total aesthetic redesign which was inarguably brilliant, and even the lackluster Peter Pan of 1971 had an interesting, unique idea behind it's strange tableau: as the ships progress through Never Land, the scale of the sets and figures increase from a few inches tall to full size, giving the impression of coming in for a landing. The size of the building is too small for the idea to work fully and so it has not been repeated, but it is a total reconsideration of what was already a crowd pleaser.

Even the Submarine Voyage was retooled into the beautiful and artistic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which for the first time real depth was achieved in an underwater show scene, and a moody air of haunting romance and real terror (that squid..) transformed a technically impressive aquarium show into the first and only real work of art Disney's ever put under water.

Even the Riverboat, once a tour of scenery random and disconnected, was crafted into an attraction of full narrative arc,m with setups and payoffs and everything else we expect of classical era Disney design. (See footnote 2)

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With the weight of these cases, let's create a list:

- Walt Disney World streamlined guest flow and service
- Walt Disney World debuted improved attractions which formed the blueprint for all future versions
- Walt Disney World featured an improved use of a new kind of spatial design
- Walt Disney World featured increased aesthetic unification across "lands"
- Walt Disney World's faults were "designed in" with smoother operation in mind
- Walt Disney World recognized it's main faults and designed them away as much as possible
- Walt Disney World was Disney's first effort towards building a resort, a model which has totally taken over as the desired mode

Walt Disney World may not be what Walt wanted, but it is as pure to the spirit of Disneyland as can be imagined. It has to be. It was designed by the same people, after sixteen years of unprecedented experimentation in the field, and it benefits from their knowledge. It light of all this, Walt Disney World has to be considered a superior design to Disneyland, the refinement of what was Walt's Workshop into a codified Art.

I may not know which is better, but I do know that too long has its' crucial place in the history of themed design been overlooked as "More Of The Same" or "Less Than Equal". It may have called itself "The Vacation Kingdom Of The World" in 1971, but here's a better name:

"Everything Old Is New Again"

Happy Birthday, Walt Disney World.

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FOOTNOTES:

#1 - If one should wish to experience WED's intended foliage canopy in these 'de-tree-d' areas, I recommend to the casual observer that she sit at the entrance to Adventureland across from Aloha Isle for a while. I think she'd agree that the effect is similar to Disneyland's grown in feeling.

#2 - To head off any questions: yes, the riverboat has a story. The three setups are a mention of River Pirates near the start of the journey (corroborated by the Keel Boats plowing the waters... the film they derived from is Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, remember!), the burning cabin, and Beacon Joe just past Big Thunder Mountain. These pay off in rapid succession during the "tense" part of the journey, where the Riverboat glides safely past the Unfriendly Indian Village (yes, they were sanitized in the 80's), nearly is caught in Tree Snag Reef as warned on one of Joe's beacons, and then glides undetected past the lair of the river pirates. (See footnote 3)

#3 - I'm sorry, it was silly, I had to do it... but I've long suspected that Florida originally had a dead settler in front of its' burning cabin in the 70's, just like Disneyland did... the memory of a friend (who was there and should know) seems to confirm this. Anybody know one way or the other?

2 comments:

krueg said...

I absolutely love your blog. I have read every article over the last two weeks. Keep up the great work...

D.O.C. said...

Your insights and attention to detail is commendable. It shows a real appreciation to the theory and thoughtfulness of the design. Great work!