Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seeing/Not Seeing the Parks and Fan Typology

There's a really funny story in Patton Oswalt's new book, Silver Screen Fiend. In it, Patton and a childhood friend go to a movie theater to see the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing. Last Man Standing, as you likely don't remember, is a remake of Fistful of Dollars, which itself is a remake of a Japanese samurai movie called Yojimbo, so that the film in question is a remake of a remake. Ah, but it doesn't stop there, because Yojimbo itself is a riff on an American novel by Daschiel Hammett called Red Harvest. So Last Man Standing is a remake of a remake of a remake.

Anyway, Patton casually explains this to his friend before the movie begins and it totally destroys the movie for this poor guy. He spends the entirety of this inconsequential Bruce Willis movie sweating out what it all has to do with Italians and Japanese. Afterwards, he's angry at Patton for spoiling the film for him by revealing this tiny piece of trivia.

Experiences and perceptions have a lot to do with expectations, don't they? For the past few weeks I've been ruminating on a post which was forwarded to me by friend and sporadic Disney blogger Ian Kay, written by Film Crit Hulk, a highly insightful film writer who none-the-less gets angry and WRITES IN ALL CAPS.

Hulk was writing about the culture of spoilers in film and TV viewing, and in doing so he delineates 4 levels of film viewing which most viewers fall into, or between. I think this criteria can spread to all media forms, but because I think it's especially pertinent to talking about Disney theme parks, so I'm going to outline them here:

Group 1 is a group who view media very naively, and are powerfully and very directly affected by what they see. This is you seeing Star Wars or The Lion King when you were 7. Group 1 does very little thinking while watching films, and their emotional engagement is very strong and hard to shake. Many, many adults spend their whole lives in Group 1. You probably know somebody who won't see "downer" or "challenging" films because they're simply unable to escape from the effect these stories have on them.

Group 2 viewers have seen enough media that they know the ins and outs of how stories are constructed. They don't really worry if Anna will be de-iced in Frozen because by now they understand that children's films have something of a safety net. But they still view media largely as emotional experiences which distract from daily life. They will try, constantly, to recapture that feeling of when they were Group 1 viewers - and, when a film really delivers that feeling, as Lord of the Rings and Guardians of the Galaxy did, these experiences are often handsomely rewarded by a hugely grateful groups of adults.

Group 3 viewers are, simply put, usually professional critics. They have viewed such a body of media in their field that they've become adept at deconstructing the qualities of the product as they watch it while still trying to leave the door open for a Group 2 or Group 1-style experience. Most viewers cannot and will not cross the threshold into 3 because there's a fear that the quality of the experiences will suffer and, often, it does - it becomes far easier to pick out bad goods. The flip side is that the great experiences stop being merely fun and become transcendent, religious - and stimulating. This is the high the critic craves, and it drives them into increasingly obscure corners to find it.

Group 4 are Industry people. Veteran TV cameramen, video game programmers, newscasters - these people are so used to troubleshooting and running the wires behind the scenes that when they view media they see nothing but the strings. They can assess exactly, specifically, technically where it succeeds or fails. These people are the auto mechanics of the entertainment world.

The whole point is that all 4 categories are equal - one is not better than the other - but Groups 1 and 2 often simply cannot comprehend the viewpoint of Groups 3 and 4. Personally I've been hearing the same line forever - "You always over analyze things! Why can't you just relax and enjoy the movie?"

It's the same way with theme parks. Get me or HBG2 talking about Haunted Mansion and you end up on a spaceship launching off to some unknown conceptual destination. He'll talk about theology. I'll talk about Sergei Eisenstein and Moby Dick. And somewhere, people's eyes are spinning around in their sockets.

And the answer is, no, I can't just relax and enjoy it, because I'm on the other side of the looking glass now. I sit somewhere between 3 and 4, perhaps nostalgic for my days as a 1, but aware that I feel inherently more fulfilled for having made the journey.

Now, about theme parks.

Theme parks, and Disney ones especially, are a strong drug. That specific blend of total sensory assault, giddy excitement and surging nostalgia produces a high better and stronger than any chemical, and it can last for as long as you're able to pay. Who hasn't, at one point, wished they could just live at the Polynesian Village? Or above New Orleans Square? Just like Star Wars, Disney is handing you down the key to a golden kingdom where time seems to go haywire, simultaneously rushing past like a freight train and standing still, even reversing. For sentimentalists, this is the ultimate high. Anyone who's ever read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine should recognize the causes of his grateful, almost tearful attachment to Disneyland, a personal magic door into his better place.

And here's the thing: it was that way for me too. But it isn't any longer. And that has not "ruined" these places for me. It's made them stronger.

The way Disney parks are designed and indeed marketed, they tend to produce a Group 1-style response in almost everybody. There's multiple reasons why. There's the excitement of being on vacation and, for many, the sacred feeling of a family vacation or indeed yearly ritual. This is our time to (fill in the blank). The park, meaning the physical cluster of concrete structures, is a sort of stimulus/social lubricant that can result in quality experiences and genuine bonding.

The average person who's walking around Epcot right now, today, as you're reading this cannot afford - literally cannot afford conceptually, cannot afford emotionally, and cannot afford financially - to analyze the experience. After traveling from Nebraska and trading on Jane's college tuition to bring the family to Epcot, if the product were anything less than exemplary in their view the result would be catastrophic. Very intelligent people pay lots of money to shut off their brains and walk under Spaceship Earth into a place where mortgages and crime don't exist. In any other situation these people would be in Group 3 or 4, but today, for now, they're resolutely Group 1.

If you go online and read Disney fan discourse, you're going to be reading a lot of emotional appeals. Often they're gussied up at some attempt at "objectivity" but they're anything but. Gran Fiesta Tour is great because Timmy clapped his hands on it, a memory you will always treasure. The Circle of Life at The Land is a family favorite because Grandpa fell asleep. We got engaged during Wishes. These people are arguing from an entirely gut, emotional point of view. They're trying to validate reliving moments, but what they're not doing is discussing things.

After so many years of going - first as a tourist, then as a Cast Member, then as a local Annual Passholder where I can drive in and see Main Street without spending a hot dime - the bulk of my experiences in these places are no longer the sanctified vacation experiences most have. I haven't had a Walt Disney World vacation in 15 years but I've probably spent 4000 times the amount of time there I spent on vacation. Oh yes, I've been there, but for mere hours at a time and the stresses of the real world don't leave because I know being back at work is just 12 hours away. Or I already am at work.

Where most visitors look at a building in Frontierland and see a charming old west saloon, I see and appreciate the illusion of an old west building, but my knowledge goes deeper. I know that it's fiberglass and lathe over a steel girder superstructure, and that behind that blacked out window is a green file cabinet, and that in the attic above the Trading Post is a shitty old couch I crashed on, once, because I've crawled thru the whole thing. And over there, a few feet away, is where a guest took a swing at me on New Year's Eve while I was working two-way traffic on an hour of sleep and earning barely above minimum wage. And ten feet past that is the lamppost where I found the stroller in the bush during that ten hour stroller parking shift in April 2004. And over there is where the sewer erupted on Christmas Eve and sprayed 34 people with raw sewage. And I even have X-Ray vision and can "see" the cast Corridor that runs behind the building, and the shop on the other side, and the street beyond that.

A certain breed of Disney fan would find that view disrespectful, but those aren't even the bad memories - they're just the accumulated detritus of years and years spent at these places, willing or not. When you're on vacation, you don't see the strings. You don't notice that the flute player in the Haunted Mansion has a busted actuator in his left arm because you don't know and don't care. You see and experience symbols, not things. When I look at these places, I see specific things from the inside out and back again.

This is why everyone thinks these parks were always in perfect working order when they were kids - when you're on vacation, you don't see chipped paint and blown out lights. you don't have time. Stuff was still broken and beat up at Magic Kingdom in the 1970s - its just that there wasn't any internet or annual passholders to report it.

January 1975 - and look at all the crooked, blown out lights!

I used to do this sort of willful obstruction too. I used to sit at home after a Walt Disney World vacation and become paranoid because I couldn't remember the color of the pavement at EPCOT Center. If I couldn't remember it, did it exist? Did I get the absolute most out of my limited time there? Did I dream the vacation?

But Walt Disney World and Disneyland are bigger things than your memories or the moments you spend there.

They're also magic tricks and fiberglass bricks, wooden beams holding up the set, those beautiful murals outside the sets in Horizons, and nasty stanchion poles and trash compactors and computer systems that crunch numbers and a broken down car in the Cast parking lot. And the more I became aware of the secret Walt Disney World, the vibrant life behind the "life", the more I loved it. For a while there I was a hardcore Group 4'er. Now I'm more like a 3.5. But once you pull back that curtain, it's impossible to go back to being a Group 2 or Group 1. Your eyes never see it the same way. It gets inside you and changes you from the inside.

And this is, I think, the main source of discord in the Disney online community: occasional, high spending 1 and 2 consumers getting very upset with more regular, casual, or professional Group 3 and 4 thinkers. Annual Passholders can show up for reasons of boredom, or for social obligations - as an Orlandian you spend a lot of time meeting out-of-town friends inside theme parks. It makes sense, because who would want to catch a movie at a crappy strip mall when they could be spending their precious vacation hours inside Epcot?

I've "had" to go into theme parks to meet friends where I'd rather go literally anywhere else, and it was even worse while I worked in these same places. That sounds like the most disingenuous complaint, but these are crowded, exhausting places to be for a social obligation. Would you want to go back to your workplace to spend your day off?

I admit that I'm coming around to the notion that jealousy plays into it, too, for some commentators. A Disney park, for them, is a ritual place, sacred ground, which they only see, God willing, every few years if the chips come down right. And yet here's another group who could be there every day and all they see are the paint chips and blown out lights. How rude! How ungrateful! Jealousy sours into resentment. All of these Walt Disney World locals are a bunch of haters! And worse of all, because of social media, you know every single time they're there.

And some people do so want that Disney high to last forever that they take the step of moving to Orlando to be near to Disney. But eventually, they start to become Group 3's, too. One day they walk into the Confectionery on Main Street and realize that that $35 they spent on fudge would have been better spent on rent. And that fudge they were sure to come and buy on every single Walt Disney World vacation, it vanishes forever. The real fudge can still be bought but their fudge, their vacation fudge, can never be reclaimed. They start, day in and day out, to imperceptibly see the place differently.

Exquisite fairytale castle? SEEN IT!

It all comes down to that, I feel. Fans fight each other in these endless loops of aggression because they see the place fundamentally differently. Vacationers only see the places through the tourist filter. Then somebody like me, where I've been crammed through so many filters and sieves that I'm surprised any bit of that childlike awe at the accomplishment of the place is left. It's not about opinions but experiences and perceptions.

I think the rancor is unfortunate, and not just because there is something wonderfully human and optimistic about those who construct a place entirely out of memories. Why wouldn't they be mad? To them, Dumbo wasn't a fiberglass elephant circling a concrete pit, it was the smile on their three-year-old's face in the early morning Florida heat. I find that perspective to be very moving, but it's also inherently limited, because they weren't really seeing the place, but some alternate reality warped by time, perception, and that Disney high. They're no more seeing the physical space of Walt Disney World than Raoul Duke saw The Flamingo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So, if I opine that Dumbo isn't a very good ride, then to them I'm not talking about a fiberglass elephant but their personal memory of their personal happy place, the weave of memory is too tight to peek through.

And goodness knows I don't wish I could get that too, sometimes. I don't think my viewpoint is noble so much as inevitable. I haven't experienced a truly new-to-me theme park in 14 years. This summer, I'll finally be going to Disneyland Paris, and I'll have to be deprogramming myself out of my old habits - I'll have to remember to go into shops, for one, or pace myself to spend 16 hours in a theme park instead of 2. I'm curious if my critical apparatus will turn off.

I secretly don't think it will. I'm too fond of analyzing.

Now, I'm no fool. I'm not expecting this article to stop people on the internet from arguing, and besides, some people are only out to make others miserable anyway. But I do think it's time for the Groups 1 and 2 and Groups 3 and 4 to recognize that, for others, it literally is not the same place. Annual Passholders and those with a critical eye don't have your same memories, and to vacationers, even the most prolific and profligate spenders have only a fraction of the experience of others. One viewpoint is not a corrective to the other. The point is that both sides are needed - and need to recognize each other - to create an honest, healthy whole.


29-year-old-mcgovernite said...

Very nice post! I'm hardly knowledgable enough to be considered a Disney expert or blogger, but I appreciate your insights on the different levels at which fans experience the parks.

Chris F. said...

you.....really succinctly explained my issue with the parks, these days...I know a bit much about the behind the scenes, so I suppose I'm a class 3...I always feel a bit....empty after leaving, though I love my time there. Hrm.

Crystal said...

That was very interesting to read, and very true. I'm a Cast Member... in Disneyland Paris.

Let me just say that I actually cried when I came back from visiting California - because I realised our park was even worse than what I was seeing. XD

We're doing efforts, but the way it's handled, and the level of passion for Disney in the european culture is totally different so... Hm. Let's put it that way: "If the ride works mostly properly, who cares about landscapes/background/details?"

Don't get me wrong, I like the place, but i'm so much aware of the problem we have and especially, the lack of will from cast members to get to the Disney standards is pretty much infuriating me.

But I hope you'll enjoy your stay anyway. We do have the prettiest castle, after all =P
(just... if you don't like the smell of cigarettes... brace yourself.)

Andrew Schmitt said...

This is a great perspective. I wonder with the continued pricing increases for the AP and the emergence of the Disney blogs if TWDC would consider ending the AP program. I'm sure a spreadsheet exists somewhere where that analysis has already been done - especially with the recent efforts to manage crowds and profitability for guests. I think all the groups you outline could continue to coexist - but I wonder if TWDC would be concerned that 3/4 would impact 1/2.

Lou Prosperi said...

Excellent post! Articulate and insightful, and really helps make sense of the disparate views of Disney parks online. (Your 4 groups are an excellent model for understanding fandom in any number of fields).

I find myself switching between groups. When I'm in the parks, I'm in Group 1 (whth a hint of 2), completely absorbed in the moment, but then at home, amidst my library of Imagineering books, I think I lean closer to group 2, perhaps even approaching group 3.

ClaudeHSmoot said...

Once again I feel compelled to comment on a post by you. Hopefully this one is completed and sent rather than discarded like the others.
It is hard within the confines of this tiny dialog box to convey both my gratitude for providing what is the most insightful Disney-related fansite [ugh, I hate that word] as well as my astonishment that someone "thinks" as neurotically as I about something as mundane as what color was the asphalt at Epcot Center. While I have an average amount of interests, it is only with Disney theme parks I seem to be engrossed in not just whether I like something but in a +/- method I feel driven to figure why I like it or do not like it.
I have lived here in Orlando for nearly 14 years. My visits to WDW have dwindled from 20 visits a month to but one of two a month as the Disney's focus on revenueering and FastPass+ have left me unimpressed. Instead I have found myself focused on the 70s and 80s WDW styles and architecture more and more of late, which is something your site serves up so well.

So now in 2015 I find myself wondering why in the age of ATMs does it bug me that there is no Sunbank branch on Main Street USA. With 2 3/4 theme parks to choose from, why is it sad that there are no [affordable] cocktail cruises on the Seven Seas Lagoon available like there were in the 1970s. I mean as a little kid I didn't even go on one of the blasted things back then.

And Epcot Center.... While you can still have a good time today, nothing made you as excited about the future as Epcot Center in the 80s. In addition, the historical/farcical tableaus wrought by Hench, Kimball, et al. in World of Motion, Imagination, and Horizons wove a charming, humanistic feel into Future World.

I find myself veering from artistic respect for decisions made by Disney long ago to hazy "golden rembrances" ala Grandpa Simpson. Perhaps this focus on the past is but a stage of life. Is it a stage of a human life or that of a product life cycle?

There I go again......

Jeff said...

Where do you fall in the spectrum when you're aware of the way your perception is manipulated by the design of the place, but you enjoy it everywhere.

I understand that the entrance plaza of the MK is sloped uphill to conceal the Utilidors, and you effectively walk on the roof of a massive "underground" building to hide the mechanisms that make it all work. I know that the entrances under the railroad are off-center so you can experience the castle coming into view as you enter town square. I know these are visual tricks (Hell, I bore my travelling companions with these facts), but I still go to observe that scene, and it makes me happy to see it.

Scott Kleban said...

Excellent analysis!
Do you think that Magic Bands and Fast Pass Plus are going to ruin the Class 1 experience for many "tourists?" In the 70's, when we went to WDW, you simply rotated around the park, picked a line and stood in it. I remember a 2 hour wait to ride the subs as a kid, but that is what you did. We didn't know any better and two hours in the hot sun was just part of the experience.
Now, Disney is bringing the everyday tasks of planning/scheduling, prioritizing (which already existed to some extent) and staying on task to the forefront. Families don't have time to visit the shops, explore the details, have the unplanned character meeting, because they are hustling off to their next appointment.
Throw in waiting for the bus or running to catch it at a resort hotel and dinner reservations and you have bridged the gap to day-to-day life.
Instead of glancing at the one board in the park that shows wait times, there are multiple message boards and apps. Of course the Blogs and the Ride POV videos don't help the cause either.
One of the absolute beauties of Diagon Alley at USF is that once you find the "secret" entrance (we missed it the first night), you are totally immersed in Diagon Alley. There is one ride (with a long wait) and you are allowed to explore in a Class 1 experience. There are the themed shops, food and beverage experiences and even the over-priced wand experience and hidden alleys are all about forgetting the schedule and escaping in Diagon.
I am not a pro-Universal/Disney basher. Just providing a real-life example of this theory.

Melissa said...


The Manimal789 said...

I don't have anything to say but "Thank you"

I think this one and your "Notes on a Time That Was Not Happy" capture the true melancholy of nostalgia.

Bravo, Foxxy.

Gary said...

Interesting thoughts, and as one person already commented, this may apply to several different "fandoms". I'm also intrigued by your use of terms like sacred and ritual, since I think some of your thoughts also apply to the church, and in the U.S., the Magic Kingdom is a sort of Mecca. Lots to chew on here, thanks.

psa928 said...

Excellent post, as usual. As an aging Disney fan, I have often wondered if my changing experiences have evolved due to maturing perspectives (as another commenter mentioned) or just because the Disney machine is doing what it does...

I can say that as an ex-Cast Member and then current-Engineer in the Disney machine, I have seen myself grow from a Group 1 to a Group 3.5 over the years. However one major life event really helps to pull you back down -- having kids! Spending time with them (at least at a young age), it's easy to get drawn into their Group 1 world and, at least for a short while, forget about how the sausage is made.

Who knows, as they grow older and ask more questions, maybe they will morph into a 3 as well. But I'd like to see them hold onto the magic for as long as they can...

Joe Shelby said...

@psa928 that's about the experience I'm going to have, taking my 3 1/2 year old to Disneyland in a month.

Now i'm not a AP in any sense, but i do keep a very analytical eye on just about everything. In fact, going as rarely as I do, my eye is always trying to reconcile past memories with present visions (in this, I'm grateful for the warning in the previous blog post about the changes at New Orleans Square). This was even more the case at WDW, where my trip in 2007 was the first time I was there since say, "different" is an incredible understatement (the last ride I was on back then was If You Had Wings!).

we'll see what happens this time...about the only depressing thing are the # of rides that will be closed that I want to do (Soarin', Peter Pan), and potentially the exterior of small world will still be wrapped up in scaffolding and paper. All for an anniversary party I won't be able to come back for.

Cory Gross said...

Very interesting analysis, and I'm a bit late coming to it. My only thing is, when faced with a conflict thesis, I'm inclined to seek a synthesis (as I was reading this, I was listening to a Catholic priest and philosopher saying "Conflict between science and religion? Theology is the basis upon which science is possible.")

I don't think Class 1, 2 and 3 are necessarily oppositional depending on how you understand what theme parks are for. I wrote more extensively on it in my articles on Form and Content in Disneyland and Spectatorship and Experientialism, which were influenced heavily by you (but, I grant, motivated by arguments I was having on a certain Disney "fan" site).

In short, the content of a theme park is the class 1 type experience. The form is how it accomplishes it. For example, it is a mistake to think of the content of the Jungle Cruise being a bunch of fibreglass animal statues in a water-filled ditch and to ascribe the excitement of an imaginative trip into the far-flung jungles of the world is just an aesthetic form taken on by that content. The reality is that this emotional and imaginative effect is the content, the fibreglass animals and water-filled ditch is just the form.

I don't think a class 3 experience is necessarily in tension with a class 1 experience so long as this point is understood. Understanding how and when an attraction achieves this class 1 effect well is not diminishing the experience, any more than understanding what makes a fine wine taste good make it taste worse. For me, it has deeply enriched the experience. I get ever more emotionally invested in a park or an attraction understanding that this is what it is trying to accomplish in me. I'm not just walking through a life-size diorama of the Nautilus, as I did in DLP. I'm WALKING THROUGH THE NAUTILUS!!1!

I suppose in a sense, I mean treating intangible things as though they are real (because, as one might guess from the lecture I was listening to, I think intangible things are real). The intangible aspect of Disneyland Paris invoking the cultural legacy of France and Europe - Perrault and Verne and de Troyes and Leroux and Eiffel and Bartholdi and Stevenson and Wyss - is a real thing... More real, even, than the tangible gears and levers and strings. Being able to identify those references and invocations deepens and enriches the experience. Dumbo might, technically, not be a very good ride, but when you recognize that the fibreglass elephant is a imaginative device, then you can build on that to take an imaginative flight with him. That's not an appeal to emotion: that's what the ride is fundamentally FOR.

Anyways, yes, great article, as always. And as always, great food for thought. Thanks for posting it!