Friday, August 03, 2012

Go Away Green

A few months ago, on Twitter, where it seems all the interesting stuff happens these days, I shared a vintage Haunted Mansion photo I found especially beautiful. It's from 1972 and I can't remember where I got it, but here it is:

In response, my friend Epcot Explorer commented that as great as the photo is, it's unfortunate that you can see the show building. My response was the same it usually is when people make this comment: Why do you care? This led off on a long discussion about show buildings, their ways and doings. Eventually it led to this post.

Now, to me, show buildings - those large featureless warehouses which house the Disney attractions - are a way of life, and I have accepted them as features of the Magic Kingdom. They're there at Disneyland -- for generations guests have entered Disneyland by walking past them - but in Florida, for better or worse, they're more conspicuous by nature of the park's very wide walkways and less mature foliage. If Disneyland were laid out the way Magic Kingdom is, there'd be show buildings poking out all over the place.

For four decades it's been possible to walk to the top of the Main Street Train Station, look off to your right, and see this:

Tomorrowland Pokin'
Or walk over by the Chapeau and see this:

Even when I was a kid I knew about this one, and yes, it is ugly. I didn't actually realize what it is until I was an adult, however, and that's a point I'll return to shortly. It's very true that compared to Disneyland, Magic Kingdom has more places where the fact that you're walking the perimeter of blocks of huge warehouses, especially on the East side of the park where foliage and textured architecture is less common, is evident. This, of course, makes Magic Kingdom an ideal place to engage the "show building question". Tokyo Disneyland is actually the most ideal place, but I haven't got a plane ticket to Japan in my itinerary anytime soon.

Magic Kingdom also has weird places where the theming just sort of rambles out, like this very odd gate at the end of Main Street's Center Street:

This photo makes it look way worse than it does in person. The eye is naturally drawn towards complex shapes and patterns and away from plain surfaces, so I guarantee you very very few people ever notice just how stark that covered area is. It's tucked way back at the end of the street where you'd have to go looking for it.

Then there's spots you have to do some searching for to see:

You can't even see that one from ground level, you have to go up the train station and look past all that beautiful architecture and two huge trees. But it's there, hidden in plain sight.

The Enchanted Grove, in Fantasyland, offers a unique example. As you approach from either side, foliage and architecture hides the offending blank wall:

This is a good moment to observe how the effect is supposed to work: painted a neutral shade of green or brown, the eye simply doesn't bother to differentiate a plain wall from the sky or some other vague backdrop we tend to overlook. The eye just slides right over it.

From the front of the building, the architecture does a reasonably good job distracting us from what's behind it:

No Wall Back Here!!!
But approach from the right angle and keep looking up, and there's no way you could miss it:

And this is actually an improvement over how it originally looked:

Obviously those thin trees and grassy hill were supposed to grow in and disguise the show building on the right, but that it didn't last long enough to end up happening that way. The Tudor-style building went up in 1973 to house the Fantasyland Portrait Artists.

Fantasyland, in general, hides their show buildings in a consistent, interesting way. Each "tournament tent" facade consists of three stepped layers: the tent itself, then two levels of "castle wall" interspersed with towers and turrets. In areas like Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and Small World, you never see bare or blank wall. It's supposed to look like this:

Looks pretty good, right? That really does look like part of a castle.

In the central area around the Carousel, there's always been a lot of open space and you end up seeing some of those areas that were only lightly "sketched in":

That's the top of Snow White. To me, that still looks pretty good, but from other angles it can get pretty dicey:

Here's the part of Mickey Mouse Revue / Philharmagic you're not supposed to see:

That stonework looks pretty good, but those banners were put in to distract your eye away from the unthemed rear wall, which to me indicates that WED knew they had a problem with the central courtyard. Also please note that until recently, this view was impossible, but as part of the Fantasyland Expansion, Imagineering removed a good number of spreading trees from the area around the Carrousel (why?).

Here's one of my very favorites: trees and architecture do a very good job of hiding the Hall of Presidents show building, looming behind the Sleepy Hollow Refreshments seating area:

Here's where it gets sort of brilliant: directly below that visible gap, inside the seating area, is a window looking out directly on -- a blank wall. How many times have you seen this without really seeing it?

On the Riverboat side, Imagineering added some brick pattern and railings to the top of the Hall of Presidents in an effort to disguise it, and it works sort of well. It looked like this in 1971:

I find this another completely forgivable one. Imagineering calls these colors "Go Away Green" and "Look Away Gray", and they are specially mixed to strike our brains as being, literally, nothing worth looking at.

Of course there's those spots of the park that have perhaps a bit less texture than we'd like:

And there's always the possibility of looking in really odd places and seeing those weird spots where one facility connects to another in a perfunctory way. Both of these visible from a covered breezeway off Main Street:

And speaking of Main Street, the big daddy of them all is visible in plain sight; all you have to do is exit Tomorrowland through the Plaza Pavilion and look left to see the back of Main Street:

But here's the thing, and this is where my point begins: WHY are you looking to the left?? Have you seen what's off there to the right???

Why are you spending time looking at an ugly flat wall? Nobody else is, why should you?

It's time to talk about magic, and no, I don't mean Disney Magic®, I mean stage magic. What is stage magic? I'm sure none of you are under any real life belief that the magic hat really is empty, right? What is magic? It's misdirection. Penn and Teller define misdirection as knocking over the scenery on stage left while the Amazing Vanishing Duck is yanked offstage to stage right. Of course, if you don't look stage left, the illusion is ruined. But if you aren't willing to go along with the illusion, why are you there in the first place?

Disney is magic in the sense that we pay good money to believe that impossible things can happen. Some of the illusions of creaky, but we love them anyway not because they're perfect, but because they're fun.

I very much believe this is the attitude WED Enterprises took to their show buildings: a quite necessary but forgivable offense, and I'm pretty sure they were following Walt Disney's lead. More recent generations of Imagineers have been far less confident. In the early 90s, a number of clever (and not so clever) techniques were employed at Disneyland Paris to hide show buildings, and many of these were then brought back over to Disneyland in the same decade. As a result it's much more difficult to find the seams at Disneyland; they've been papered over with props, gates, trees and other visual obstructions. I wish I still had available to post here a certain great vintage photo of the New Orleans Square train station; you can see right where the theming terminated in a stark blank wall. This was during Walt's time.

It's true that recent Imagineering is much more likely to thoroughly hide show buildings - a great example, also at Walt Disney World, is Dinosaur/Countdown to Extinction at Animal Kingdom. The berm that hides the connection between the facade and show building is sufficiently convincing that you never even think to ask where the rest of the ride is.

What now?
That's a good illusion, and there's ones just like it in modern, more sophisticated theme parks like Islands of Adventure and Tokyo DisneySEA. It's true: modern theme parks and designs teach us to view show buildings as liabilities.

But, you know, it's one thing to build your attraction so that your show building is impossible to see, and it's another to build your attraction with a show building that nobody ever sees. The public isn't stupid; they don't think the animals on the Jungle Cruise are real, but the simple fact is that there are tens of thousands of people roaming around the Magic Kingdom daily who never see any of these massive gray warehouses.

Let's be honest: if you're on this blog and reading this now, you are not the general public, you are a specialist. This is written for an erudite, sophisticated, and moreover, acclimated audience of theme park goers who are inevitably a bit jaded. To us, we notice these things more. We dwell on them. They're imperfections in an otherwise perfect world.

Theme parks, after all, rely on novelty and surprise to maintain their illusions. If you're like me and you've been to the Magic Kingdom hundreds of times and crawled through most of its' innards, we're less likely to look at that castle. We are more likely to be bothered by obvious show buildings.

But I don't want you to see these things as liabilities, I want you to see them as badges of merit. Next time you're at Enchanted Grove, stand there for twenty minutes and watch everyone not seeing the huge blank wall above their heads. Marvel that the illusion still works. That's it, that's your proof right there of the staying power of the theme parks: there can be huge seams showing - vast expanses of unthemed infrastructure - and everyone looks away just as the designers intended. It's real magic.

Disney goes to great lengths to conceal their men behind the curtains. The ghosts in the Haunted Mansion are real. If there's Pirates, you must have gone back in time. The rain in the Tiki Room may just be from a recycled faucet, but it continues to enchant and perplex. But just because we know the man is there behind the curtain, that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the theatrics anyway. Sometimes, the most remarkable trickery sits right out there in plain sight waiting to be discovered.