But to really dig into the accomplishment of Storybook Circus, we have to first reacquaint ourselves with the history of Disney's "official" kiddie zones.
It used to be that the totality of the experience of a Disney park was aimed at the entire family, and the whole experience was understood to be, in some ways, juvenile, regressive, a return to youthful wonder. There have always been exceptions - the Great Moments with Mr. Lincolns and Hall of Presidents of the world - but these were in the minority. Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom were designed to be of interest to people of all ages, and this accounts for their staying power.
The rift began, I think, in 1982. EPCOT Center was the very first Disney theme park to address itself to a specifically adult audience, where Bass ale replaced Pepsi and epicurian dining supplanted burgers and hot dogs. In response, Magic Kingdom began to swing in a more juvenile direction, a process fulfilled by the opening of Mickey's Birthdayland in 1988.
Yes, Mickey's Birthdayland. Mickey's Birthdayland was created to ostensibly celebrate the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse, and was carved out of a small access road between 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Grand Prix, achieved by shortening the car race attraction by several hundred feet. It consisted of a petting zoo, hedge maze, some tents, very crude "Duckburg" facades, and the main attraction - Mickey's House, which was a walkthrough exhibit comparable in concept to the Swiss Family Treehouse with a Mickey stage show at the very back. There was also a separate tent which housed an opportunity to meet Mickey in his dressing room.
But "Meet Mickey" outgrew its intended purpose. From the late 50's until the late 80's, meeting Mickey was largely a randomized affair, much as meeting other characters was until fairly recently, where one could walk by any old Magic Kingdom facade and unexpectedly find Mickey standing nearby. It was a spontaneous process, one open to chance and improvisation, which is why it captured the imagination of the public. But it was not until Mickey established a permanent headquarters and guests were told that all they had to do was get in line and be guaranteed an "audience" with Mickey that this simple side-activity began to morph into something ominously important. Today there is hardly a single spontaneous character interaction left anywhere in the theme parks, so Mickey's Birthdayland actually is the start of a massive shift in the public's perception of the code of conduct of these costumed mascots.
Birthdayland was otherwise hardly important or revolutionary. I saw it many times as a child and I can hardly remember anything about it except that when you reached a dead end in the hedge maze, you would get squirted by a colorful plastic pole. Although it was a temporary area done on a big scale, it was still a temporary area. Seen today, the most interesting thing about the Birthdayland area is its indebtedness to the Disney comic books. Mickey's Birthdayland was "set" in Duckburg, USA, and the style of the buildings and scenic details was a loving tribute not to Duck Tales, but to the famous Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks. This meant that the area did have a classic "Disney" feel appropriate to the Magic Kingdom, even if the "Disney" feel was decidedly... low rent. That would have been well and good and the area would have eventually faded out, the Mickey attraction relocated, and all could have been well. But even before the area was rechristened "Mickey's Starland" and made an official permanent part of the Magic Kingdom, something happened to alter its destiny. Just four days after Mickey's Birthdayland opened in 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit premiered in theaters.
Roger Rabbit was a huge success, popularizing the word "toon" as an identifier of a "cartoon being" and posited that these characters were outsiders of the Hollywood community living in an urban ghetto on the bad side of town. This is a funny farcical concept that the film plays off well, creating an environment that the Looney Tunes, Disney, and Fleisher characters could all credibly co-inhabit for the purposes of a single film. The important sequence to us comes near the one-hour mark where Eddie Valiant drives into Toontown:
This sequence is a confection for the film where the animation staff has managed to insert a staggering number of references to classic cartoon output. The stylization of the sequence overall more strongly suggests something more akin to early Termite Terrace or Fleisher animation than anything Disney ever did:
|"Who Framed Roger Rabbit", 1988|
|"Red Hot Momma", Max Fleischer Studio, 1934|
This sequence may be the last vestige of a great American tradition of grotesque animation. Disney did work with menacing atmosphere in cartoons like Donald and the Gorilla, and outright horror sequences in everything from Snow White to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but the grotesque shapes, colors, and motion of Toontown is largely absent from classic Disney animation. Here's a relevant background from Donald's Lucky Day, an atmospheric 1939 short, which has similarities to Roger Rabbit:
But most of Disney animation shows animal characters living in modern suburbia, with houses and props only just this side of unreal. They are, in short, plausibly naturalistic. If you watch any old Mickey, Donald, or Goofy cartoon made between 1934 and 1955, you're going to see something like this:
|"Mickey and the Seal", 1948|
|Both from "Bimbo's Initiation", Max Fleischer Studio, 1931|
So in fact the best thing about Mickey's Birthdayland is that, by getting out the door just before the Roger Rabbit craze hit, it managed to realize Disney cartoons in a classically Disney way. It really did look like Mickey's house, the way you always imagined it:
When Disney tried again five years later in Disneyland, the area was no longer Duckburg, USA, the traditional Disney township, and was instead Mickey's Toontown. And Michael Eisner - the man who re-christened a Song of the South-themed log flume "Splash Mountain" because his first major success as Disney CEO was the 1984 comedy Splash - Eisner made sure that the style of the area closely matched that seen in another box office hit:
It probably seems like I'm being very down on Roger Rabbit, and I'm not. The film is wonderful, and it's grown into a real classic. But replicating the style of the "Toontown" sequence into an entire area which only the Disney characters inhabit was a real mistake. That style was only ever devised to make a universe where Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny - two characters who starred in very different films from very different studios - live in the same place and seem credible. The style of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not that of Disney animation. It wasn't even released as a Disney film, but under the "Touchstone" banner invented by Ron Miller in the early 80s.
There is also something to be said about the wisdom of attempting to recreate this particular visual style at all: buildings designed to move and sway and sing are one thing, but building the style necessarily involves freezing it into plaster and lathe and in that process something is lost.
Yet by 1993, the "Toontown" concept had already spread like crab grass. Some of you may remember the "Bonkers" cartoon of the early 90s, with Bonkers being a Toontown cop, an unacknowledged riff of the Roger Rabbit franchise. What Disneyland built in 1993 is what people of that era would have expected to see, and there is of course a Roger Rabbit ride nearby to motivate the style. But doing so means that the "Toontown" concept was replacing over sixty years of visual continuity of films and in cartoons and even theme parks. Despite the name, this was in no way "Mickey's" Toontown.
For Walt Disney World's 25th anniversary in 1996, Mickey's Starland was converted into Mickey's Toontown Fair. Along with the genius idea to turn the castle into a pink birthday cake, it was a year of highly suspect "birthday gifts". Toontown Fair was certainly more elaborate and unique than Starland, introducing a kiddie coaster and a very nice Minnie's House attraction to compliment Mickey's House. It was ambitious, yes. But with ambition came clutter.
The other tents became shops and character greeting areas, probably as mandated by a limited budget and a theme park reluctant to give rid of an already profitable complex. We'll hear this again in ten years. Due to its limited footprint, Toontown offered a lot to look at but very little in the way of the large depth compositions that the rest of the Magic Kingdom is filled with - and whatever the merits of Starland, it wasn't cluttered. Toontown Fair generally looked far worse than it really was from most angles, with clashing colors, textures, and all form of visual input assaulting the eye. But it did align the area with the Disneyland Toontown and the Tokyo Disneyland incarnation opening that same year, making the "Toontown" concept a visually and conceptually integrated one across three theme parks of the Disney empire.
Meanwhile, Islands of Adventure ran with the idea of areas themed to illustration into no less than half of their 1999 Islands of Adventure park, drawing together areas based on American comics, Sunday Funny Papers, and illustrator Ted Geisel. It's hard to pick out exactly which of these areas is the "Toontown" - Universal Creative did an interesting job splicing aspects of the style across three distinct areas. Suess Landing has the droopy, flowing architecture but is really more comparable to a Fantasyland, with its simple flat rides and kid-oriented activities. Marvel Super Hero Island uses flat cutouts and perspective tricks to create a dynamic atmosphere, but Toon Lagoon comes nearest to the "Toowntown" mold, with balloony architecture and interactive street elements. And, if it be doubted, the "Sweet Haven" microland of Toon Lagoon is proof that balloony architecture and dimensional cartoon style, when done well, need not be as ugly as Mickey's Toontown. The fact that Sweet Haven is themed around Popeye, a character created by Max Fleischer Studios, only deepens the irony. One suspects that Disney just isn't very good at making things look toony and credibly grotesque.
I personally think that this time around Imagineering has finally delivered something that fulfills the demands of being an area "for kids" which also offers something for adults. It's an area that won't look absurd or dated in ten years because it turns the clock back to a design sense that existed before the concept of a kid's area did. It is classical, and so it has an inherent longevity.
Storybook Circus is still under construction but at this point enough of it has been built that I feel that a review of it's complexities would not be a disservice. To begin to discuss Circus, we should discuss how it came to be.
An expanded version of Dumbo had been planned for Magic Kingdom for some time, based on a two-sided Dumbo attraction with a water play between the two spokes first designed for Tokyo Disneyland. This Tokyo concept art is what was first shown to the public as the new Florida Dumbo. See Cinderella's Golden Carrousel off to the left there?
In Florida, Dumbo was slated to appear in an area around the Fantasyland Train Station also accommodating the Disney Fairies merchandise line and some new version of the "Barnstormer" kiddie coaster. This was in what we could call the "Jay Rasulo" version of the Fantasyland expansion project. Rasulo had been making his bread and butter on the Princess franchises for some time, and the initial Fantasyland Expansion plans reflected this clearly.
At this point, the Circus area was little more than some blobby smears:
Once Tom Staggs took over as Parks Chairman in 2010, the Expansion was called back for re-writes. In the interim, Walt Disney World had gotten cold feet on the "Fairies" franchise. Despite the enthustic support of John Lasseter, 2009's direct-to-video Tinkerbell sequel sold about half of what the initial one had, and the pixies had yet to find a consistent audience or place in the parks. Instead of gamble on an expensive area, Operations requested that the successful Toontown Fair tents be retained (I told you we'd be hearing that again). And thus Dumbo's circus expanded to fill the whole area.
It still looks pretty hazy at this point, but about a year later, Disney released the first piece of concept art that gave us reason to think that the Circus could end up being pretty nice:
This shows the greatly improved layout, foliage, and colors that have actually begun to be installed on the old Toontown Fair site. Still, questions remained. Why a circus? Do people today connect to the concept of a circus as an exciting, desirable entertainment venue? Wouldn't this look more temporary than the area it was replacing?
Storybook Circus seems very much to be an evolution of the "Dumbo Circusland" developed for Disneyland in 1972, with it's entrance marquee, scattering of tents, and central Dumbo attraction. It's also interesting to consider that as early as 1972, there was sufficient demand for Dumbo to split it off into its own dedicated area.
Although the model isn't very detailed, it also doesn't take much to imagine that this area would end up looking tired pretty quickly. But the concept lingered on until the late 70's, when it was probably killed by the decision to redo Fantasyland entirely.
Storybook Circus is a great deal more ambitious than it needs to be, and that begins with the fact that it is an area with a history. It doesn't have a backstory, contrary to the tedious modern Imagineering tendency to explain every single thing with a convoluted and impossible to comprehend motivating narrative. Storybook Circus invites scrutiny but pleases in the same way the original areas of the Magic Kingdom do: by implying more than it says. One doesn't read Storybook Circus, she reads into it.
The Circus is set up in an area which clearly previously existed before the Circus' arrival. Dumbo is set in Florida, but the Circus is not a Floridian one; it's set up somewhere in the Midwest, what was probably a little cow town called Carolwood Park. Carolwood Park contributes pre existing railroad tracks, billboards, barns, and train roundhouses to Storybook Circus, and gorgeously crafted rambling stone walls - implied farmland. Along with the heavily vegetated areas, this Circus brings to mind an atmosphere vintage and rural, some vaguely defined sense of pre-modernity. It's the imagined rural youth of American myth.
Although the decision to not replicate the Florida setting of Dumbo seems at first blush to be a missed opportunity, calling the area "Carolwood Park" and hauling in an unexpected vintage patina allows the Imagineering team to bring in an unexpected thematic depth to the area. The use of the name "Carolwood" isn't just an empty name drop; although Dumbo is the reason for the area to exist, the star of the show is the Railroad.
And of course by being called Carolwood Park, being set in the Midwest, in some far off once upon an Americana, the area brings in the ghost of Walt Disney's childhood. Disney harbored a fascination with the circus, of which Dumbo is only the most obvious example. There are also a scant dozen shorts, Toby Tyler and Fun and Fancy Free, and the fact that Disney bought and restored an entire Circus wagon train and ran it through Disneyland to a Circus he staged inside the park twice daily.
Is Storybook Circus not only the circus of Dumbo, but the circus of Walt Disney's imagination? It certainly seems so. And by telling that story, it also seems to tell the story of the impetus behind the entire Magic Kingdom itself. It's the origin story for the entire theme park. It's a neat trick because the area suggests this all on its' own. You do the work.
On a strictly aesthetic level, besides that interestingly meta groove it hits, the Circus is an unqualified success because it has an astonishing and beautiful array of textures. The stone walls, the weathered bricks, faded woods, and leafy foliage speak to an attentive eye towards the more lasting grace notes of the existing park, and could not be further from Toontown Fair. The Casey Jr play area, which is designed to closely mirror Ward Kimball's charmingly fluid design seen in Dumbo, is still fully fitted with detailed hinges, latches, hooks, wheels, and real metal parts. Instead of a smooth fiberglass sculpture of a train, it looks and feel like a real train. There's even a brass bell that actually rings - not a piped in sound effect!
These textured timbers holding up the roof of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant look like they've had a lifetime of service. Remember that these poles are actually brand new:
Or the undersides of the Dumbo queue's "wings", which could have been smooth drywall or a drop ceiling, are full of timbers, beams, brackets, bolts, and other signifiers that this structure had to be built. Thousands of people walk underneath this every day without realizing how beautiful all of it is because it's all fake. It's so fake that bypasses credibility to become convincing. Notice how each hanging fan has chains dangling to turn them on and off; the detail is so natural that we never stop to think that these fans are controlled by a switch and so the chain is purely decorative and had to be put there by somebody. When was the last time you were honestly fooled by a theme park?
|Outside The Barnstormer: real canvas, real leather, real metal, real wood..... the dirt is fake.|
Storybook Circus' holes are equally absurdly shaped, but they actually look like damage has been caused to real, tangible objects:
That sort of stuff tends to add up to a lot in the mind. One of these looks like somebody put care and thought into the presentation of the gag with room left for fine texture, and the other looks like a bunch of Imagineers getting jiggy with a band saw.
Storybook Circus interprets its landscape in terms of hills and terraces, which is one aspect I've identified as a common satisfaction factor in themed design areas - is there a lot going on visually and can you have more than one view of any given area? This is one of the reasons New Orleans Square is the best part of Disneyland, and the Circus has staircases, walls, hills, and elevations galore. This is something else Toontown failed to capitalize on, positioning all of its elements as it did along one long, even, steady slope. In Circus we walk upstairs towards tents, we walk down to get to the railroad station, our mind and our eye is engaged. The terraces and elevations make Storybook Circus a pleasure to experience.
Other touches impress equally. Circus thematics imply gaudy lighting, but the new area makes good use of popcorn lights in effective displays. Disneyland and Magic Kingdom make use of traditional carnival modes of attractive light displays, from Main Street's popcorn lights to twinkle lights in the trees of the Hub, and Storybook Circus fits in easily, providing a smooth and visually coherent transition. Here's Dumbo seen from the Mad Tea Party:
And the Mad Tea Party, seen from Dumbo:
Touches like that make the Circus feel like an old friend instead of, as in the case of oh so many theme park additions, an unwelcome invasion.
What we see in the history of Dumbo is a slow push in the direction of being a "real" ride, a fully thematically integrated ride, and now it seems as through WDI has pushed the ride concept of Dumbo to its limits. I cannot think of a single thing that could have been done to the new attraction, that has not been done, to snazz it up without changing the ride's essential format of being a hub-and-spoke over a concrete pit. There's now two Dumbos, and they spin in opposite directions, creating an immediate sense of visual excitement. The ride has been plucked out of the concrete wasteland and dropped down admist rolling hills and spreading trees, and has a circus tent backdrop connecting the two spinners modeled closely on the one seen in the Dumbo film. Instead of just an empty room full of switchbacks or a false front, there's a whole experience awaiting us inside the tent, full of texture, and hanging lights, and a circus ring, and everything. At night, LED lights turn the water-splashed pit below the Dumbos into a swirling kaledescope of colors, a display so impressive it draws people in who simply sit and stare at the thing - it's a better show than the fireworks.
I think what Dumbo is now is a new kind of spinner ride that we haven't seen yet. It's a simple ride, but instead of presenting itself as just a simple ride, space is reserved for "doodling in the margins". It's the Hope Diamond of spinner rides, so beautiful and so fancy that we visit it and ride it and see it just because it's there and it looks impressive. I couldn't tell you the last time I rode Dumbo when it was over behind the Carrousel, but I've been on the new version dozens of times. At what point does a park experience cross a line out of being a sideline activity and become a "main course"?
What Dueling Dumbos promises to do is finally to make all of the other spinner rides at Walt Disney World look pretty lousy. Why wait thirty minutes for the Astro Orbitor when Dumbo is three minutes away, looks nicer, and never has a line because now there's two ride mechanisms? Or is the average person's experience of the theme park less compartmentalized? As Fantasyland and Storybook Circus ramble on into history, we'll learn something about the attention spans of vacationers, I'll wager.
I am not really in a position to comment on the playground itself. It is certainly more visually interesting than anticipated, with deep purples, popcorn lights, and some nice details at the edges. I do not have a child, and so the playground is of no practical use to me. It is better done than the Pooh playground it "replaces" (the one across from the attraction), and indoor and air conditioned to boot, making this an ideal spot for families. One could make arguments about whether or not Disney should actually be in the playground business, but it's already there and what is there is visually attractive and, one assumes, appropriate to its use.
So we must ask: what made Dumbo, the Flying Elephant a "classic"? Was it the location? The promotional photos? The ride? By moving the ride to a new location, Walt Disney World is betting that it will remain a "classic", and they have the thematics, the queue space, and the capacity to back this up. But whether it be the location - in a construction zone - or the fact that only so many people a day want to ride Dumbo, the crowds have not materialized - the attraction which handily garnered 45 minute waits now struggles to draw queues above 20. This could be because the capacity is now so high - sixteen Dumbos per ride system, two ride systems each, two holding pens per ride, and five-hundred feet of linear queue plus a "queue lounge" sounds more like Space Mountain and not Dumbo, the Flying Elephant.
But the Dumbo queue is really just a side-attraction in the Circus. This tiny area shows more wit and invention and a more attentive eye to texture and detail than has been seen in many a Disney theme park area in many years. But what is the special extra touch that captures our attention, despite all the texture, despite all the care, and despite all the good work that's gone into the Circus? I finally realized what it is while looking at this photo:
That's a good fake electrical pole, with the vintage transformer, and now that its lights and high tension cables are up as of this writing, it looks even better. Disney has done plenty of fake power lines before - those in Tokyo Disney Sea and Animal Kingdom stand out - but this really captures a charmingly vintage feeling. Looking at it, with Casey Jr. nearby, one can't but help be reminded of Dumbo and the singing crows.
Looking at Dumbo again, and I think this is the key, the area seems to, for the first time, be evoking its' specific blend of animated charm and textural detail:
I think the secret of the area's success is that for the first time Imagineering has created a satisfying dimensional representation of the feeling of Walt Disney's animated output in its' golden era. There is a pervasive simplicity, a rural feeling, a naive charm. I think this accounts for the area's already sterling reputation: it's the first thing Disney's built since themed design went permanently sophisticated with EPCOT Center that feels the way Disney things used to feel. It feels simple and unpretentious and naive in the way the rest of the Magic Kingdom does.
That naive sense of fantasy and design is what people pay to get into Disneyland and Magic Kingdom to experience. The return to another place and time is complimented by the return to a less sophisticated design sense. I can't quite pinpoint yet what exactly Circus does to recapture this lightning in a bottle, although if I had to guess I'd say it's a largely unconscious response to Toontown Fair. Toontown, based not on classical Disney designs but on Roger Rabbit, did never and will never be a comfortable fit with the rest of a "castle park". But Storybook Circus fits right in, and could have always been there. I think it's fortunate that it actually is.