Sunday, October 04, 2020

Now Available! Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Great News! My first book is now available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other sellers! Click here to grab it, or keep reading to find out what went into this massive project!


In September 2014, I lost my job.

While sitting outside wondering what I was going to do next, a stray thought occurred to me: maybe I should finally write that book. If only I had known...!

For some time before that, the idea had been percolating in my mind that I probably could write a book about the Haunted Mansion that would be unlike the other two books already written. Write what you know, as the saying goes, and I definitely knew the Haunted Mansion. Some time before I had read Roy Blount Jr.'s Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, a sort of text-based audio commentary for the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, which moves along through the film point by point while allowing time to stop discuss matters requiring more elaboration. That struck me as an interesting way to structure a book about a theme park attraction. So I started writing one day.

The trouble is that I had no idea how to write a book except that I needed to write a lot, so I just kind of started writing. And writing. And writing. This is a terrible way to write a book, I probably don't need to say, but it was the only way I could think of to force myself through it. And one reason the book took as long as it did is because I very much invented what the thing was about as I deleted sections, added others, re-thought the format, and slowly discovered what the tone and shape of my first book was going to be. 

Along the way the book stopped being wholly a 'virtual tour' of the attraction and began to widen out beyond the typical scope of a Disney book. On this blog I’ve often struggled to give full expression to the scope of my interests, but in this book they roam free, wide, and loose, causing frequent detours into history, or film culture, less exhalted  corners of theme park design, or dreams and folklore. Each chapter in the book is, like the essays on this site, roughly self contained, but unlike here they can also build and twist back into each other since they are laid ut in a fixed linear way. So, if you just jump in and want read my thoughts on one section of the ride, that works as a contained unit, but as the book goes on the resonances between sections build into a more holistic portrait of a great piece of art. If you’ve ever wondered what a 300 page Passport to Dreams post would be like, here is your answer.

Yet I’ve also tried to keep the book fast moving and fun, and the result is, I believe, the first Disney book of its type published anywhere. This is the first critical monograph on an attraction ever published, attacking the question of what makes the Haunted Mansion so great from any angle I can find. Like it says on the cover: deep explorations.

And that's my best answer to why we need a third book on the Mansion. It really digs into why and how the thing works so well, and why this weird ride from 50 years ago still garners fans. 


Look and Design

Those who enjoy the level of fiddly detail I poured into my previous giant project, Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World, will find much that is familiar here. I wanted to make this book as intensely involved with the Mansion as I am, and I’ve made sure that every inch of this book is full of little touches that speak to its pedigree - like me - of a result of this intense involvement.

For instance, the illustrations. There were from the start certain things that I could not publish - either because I could never secure the proper clearances to do so, or because good photographs simply not existing. So I ended up rendering around 30 illustrations, which are almost as moody and detailed as the ride itself is.

I wanted the book itself to feel almost as if it’s inhabiting the same universe as the ride, not just lifting design cues. It would have been easy to throw the Haunted Mansion font everywhere and call it a day, but my goal here was to have an end result that felt as if you had gotten out of your doombuggy and pulled a book off the shelf in the ride’s library scene and it just happened to be this book. 

I also wanted this book to be the sort of thing you would feel comfortable reading in the bath tub (where I do a lot of my reading) or popping in your luggage to take to Disney. I want you to enjoy and use this book, which is why it’s a reasonable size and only available in soft cover. As a twelve year old I dragged that huge Imagineering hardcover book with me everywhere, and it sure looks like it today. As a Disney book collector, I've also been encumbered with such volumes as the Taschen Walt Disney Film Archives, a thing of beauty that cannot reasonably be stored on existing book shelves. My book is intentionally the opposite of the monster eight pound books we have all been accumulating with increasing regularity.

There will be a digital version available, although only for Amazon's Kindle format. There are unfortunate technical reasons for this, as it became quickly apparent that targeting the more broadly supported EPUB format would involve essentially redoing all of the months of work we had just put into the print version. The Kindle version has all of the same content in a roughly comparable format, but the layout and text choices are compromised and in my opinion the book looks significantly worse. This is par for the course for eBook formats, so if you have the option, I hope you'll spring for the print version.

The title was a constant problem. My preferred original title was Sympathetic Vibrations, but there's already plenty of things out there already called that. For a long time I called the book This Old Dark House, which is what the central "tour section" of the book is called. I liked this because it made reference to the "old dark house" thriller genre which I feel the Mansion is directly descended from, but it's a sort of dopey thing to call a book. I knew I needed something better, something that ideally implied that the book had a certain historical perspective and was unusual. I landed on American Phantasmagoria, which I liked a lot. In the end, the name Boundless Realm occurred to me earlier this year, which is just about perfect. It's a line from the ride - although not an obvious one - and it implies the there's going to be a lot of ground to cover here. In concert with a cover image which intentionally leans more into "40s horror movie" territory, it really implies that this is going to be a Disney book with a difference.


Delays and Delays

Some of the delays occurred as a result of simply needing to wait for Disney to finish things. I had written a chapter on Phantom Manor, actually one of my favorite sections in the book, when Disney announced they were going to close that ride for a huge refurbishment which they then kept extending. I wanted to wait to see what they did, which ended up being the right choice because the changes they made really ended up affecting the content of my chapter, which had to be revised.

And then so much time had passed that it didn't make any sense to not just wait for Chris Merritt's monster Marc Davis book, just to double check that his research didn't flatly contradict any of mine, which thankfully it did not. I had a manuscript, illustrations, a cover.... ready to rock and roll, right?

Except! It turns out actually getting anything published is another nightmare!

After slamming into this brick wall for a few months, my preferred publisher returned the opinion that a combination of the worldwide pandemic and the Disney connection meant they would not be pursuing this. I began talking to other authors about their experiences, and found that besides official publications and of course Theme Park Press, nearly every Disney book is self-published. Maning every author out there had been also turned down by multiple publishers.

If nobody else had yet succeeded, I figured my chances of breaking through were limited. That was a rough month for me, but I began to explore my other options.

I ended up partnering with David Younger, whose massive, ludicrous tome Theme Park Design is in my opinion one of the best books on the subject ever produced. Together, we've decided to launch Boundless Realm as the first in a hopefully ongoing series of high quality, scholarly books on aspects of theme park design less as a publishing house and more as a kind of collective effort of authors. This book would literally not have been possible without David's help and I could not be prouder of it.

David is also selling a bundle copy of his textbook and my book through his website, if you'd like to grab them together. 

Boundless Realm is the culmination of a pattern which has been building in my life since I was five and went to Disney for the first time. That pattern continued through getting on the internet for the first time, building early websites, moving to Florida, starting this blog, and writing, and writing, and writing. The resulting book is handsome, very readable, erudite, and very, very me - exactly as I hoped. You could say it's the end product of three decades of living with a passion.

The Haunted Mansion has been a golden thread that has wound through the pattern off my life through up and downs but has never stopped bringing me joy and pleasure. For you, that thread may be Splash Mountain, or Indiana Jones Adventure, or The Beast at King's Island, but I think everyone will recognize the passion in this passion project. It's just surreal to finally see it out there in the world. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Reviews for Boundless Realm:

Cory Doctorow

Guy Selga at Touring Plans (Review Copy)

Josh Young at Theme Park University (Review Copy)

George Taylor at Imaginerding.com (Review Copy)

Len Testa on Disney Dish

Jeremy Harris on Matterhorn Matt

Boundless Realm is available at:

Amazon: Print and Kindle Editions

Amazon Canada: Print and Kindle

Amazon UK: Print Edition

Barnes and Noble: Print Edition

Bookshop.Org: Print Edition

Thank you for all of my readers over the years for your support! 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Harold's Lost World of Snow


"It will be going the same speed it always has, but it will seem faster."
- John Hench, Disneyland Line, December 1977

In 2003, I took my first trip to Disneyland, and Disneyland is one of those places that rewires the way you think. Besides absolutely taking my head off and stuffing it back on in a new way thanks to their incredible Pirates of the Caribbean - still my favorite ride ever - I discovered one of the great loves of my life: the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

I've spent a long time thinking about the Matterhorn, and a long time riding it, and it's one of those rides where I find my ardor for the experience cannot be contained by a logically structured essay. I suspect many folks are the same way about certain things: they can't say why they like it so much, but they do. I probably have never loved a roller coaster more than I love the Matterhorn, which says a lot about my priorities.

For one, comfort isn't one of them. The Matterhorn was rough in 2003, and after installing new bobsleds apparently made out of pottery and saran wrap in 2012, it got rougher. Those 70s Arrow Development sleds didn't seem to sit as low to the track and had better shock absorption, but the 2012 bobsleds are like a gigantic speaker pushing vibrations right up into your posterior. I haven't really cared; I've kept riding the thing, my feet pushed into the nose of the car, my hands gripping the handle bars, body tense and ready to absorb the pain.

I do it not because the Matterhorn is a great rollercoaster, or even because it's a landmark roller coaster. The Matterhorn, along with the 1975 Space Mountain, shakes you like a rag doll, which modern coaster enthusiasts absolutely do not like. They prefer their terror to come from drops and g forces, not being rocked around like a dead cat in a barrel being sent over Niagara Falls. As I said, I don't much care for roller coasters. I love the Matterhorn not at all because it's a coaster, but because it's an amazing experience, and there's only one of them in the world.

It's hard to say how much I would have liked the 1959 Matterhorn, with its hollow interior. What can be said is that the decision to enclose a roller coaster inside of an artificial mountain is one of those Walt Disney ideas which has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it is almost impossible to imagine a world where it does not exist. I'm fairly certain Walt got the idea from the Rutschebanen at Tivoli, a sort of scenic railway that dashes in and out of a scenic alpine mountain (with a fake cow in a field on top!). But as usual at Disneyland, the scale of the effort and the decision to combine it with a world famous peak made all the difference. The Matterhorn turned the idea of a fiberglass mountain into a genre, and Space Mountain would make it into an institution.

There is also just something about the other-worldlyness of the Matterhorn that works in some impossible to articulate way. The way it rises up and hooks with the little shadow just under its peak added by Fred Joerger - the way it hangs there against the hazy California sky, seemingly always further away than it really is. You can walk all the way around it, something you cannot do with any other stateside Disney mountain. That fact, and its central location, transforms the Matterhorn into something that exists for the pleasure of everyone, even those who do not ride. This is landmark design for pleasure, and it's been repeated endlessly since - I'm certain that the size and dreamy unreality of the Matterhorn is the basis for the height and effect of Cinderella Castle in Florida, for instance.



And yet all of that is literally just on the surface, what was put there in 1959. What I really love is the 1978 version, which in my opinion is an absolute stone classic in how to perfectly structure a themed experience, and do it so simply it's almost subliminal.

Storytelling in three dimensions is hard, and even harder because it rarely needs to conform to dramatic beats. Instead it could be said that most successful rides need to introduce a dramatic situation directly involving riders, then build and riff on that situation in a variety of interesting ways. Riding bobsleds down a fake mountain is pretty interesting already, but the wrinkle of introducing a rampaging monster really pushes the Matterhorn over the top. The idea supposedly goes back to Walt Disney, but how easily it could have turned out wrong.

Lets begin on the approach to the Matterhorn from the Hub. As we draw near, there is a surprise: the trees part, and a huge waterfall comes into view. The waterfall instantly suggests that there is going to be more going on in the Matterhorn than we expect, yet the Matterhorn looks picturesque, inviting with its alpine trees and flowers. A mountain stream winds around the base of the mountain, which somehow looks like cold mountain water thanks to the contrasting landscape around it.

Yet thats not quite the whole story. The whole top of the mountain is open, effectively turning its upper echelons into a gigantic loudspeaker which bellows out the unearthly roars of its resident monster. Even less comforting is the whistling wind which can be heard everywhere around it. This is the introduction of the dramatic conflict of the ride; the Matterhorn looks peaceful, welcoming, and charming, but.....

For my money no other theme park deployment of this concept comes even close to the raw elemental energy of this juxtaposition - the Matterhorn looks welcoming and inviting while also warning you to stay away. In the 70s, WED did a lot of this sort of stuff, and perhaps the wolf howl that emenates from the Florida Haunted Mansion and the booming cannons which once heralded the facade of Pirates of the Caribbean are predecessors. But those were really just atmosphere, whereas the approach to the Matterhorn initiates the dramatic conflict which will inform your entire experience: what's gotten into the Matterhorn?

The 1978 Matterhorn operated on the principle of suspense, and so the dramatic thrust of the story (will I escape?) mapped perfectly onto the build and release inherent in all coasters. This was an experience where the physical sensations of being on a coaster really meant something. The slow approach, the cheerful yodeling music, the wait at the bottom of the mountain ready to be released into the pitch black interior all built up anticipation. Of course all rides create anticipation, but the cheerful gemutlicheit of the Alpine landscape had an edge to it thanks to those unearthly roars.

The fact that the ride was going to be scary was announced instantly by the lift hill's perpetual gloom. The long monster roars were interspersed with screaming sounds, supplied by a speaker. The suspense of the lift hill is briefly released once the bobsleds peak and slowly begin to head downhill, then replaced with another kind of suspense. One of the best Disney jump scares of all time - the glowing eyes in the dark - illuminate with a ferocious roar, and now the rest of the ride is a long downhill slide where you are never entirely sure where the Snowman will be next. I've been on the Matterhorn probably a hundred times and I still sometimes forget exactly where the second Harold is.


Harold is one of the best designed theme park monsters of all time. The original design is a perfect distillation of a monster; long white hair offsets his blue face and hands, defining a fierce looking body shape as a silhouette, instantly comprehensible as a threat. Long hair above the eyes de-emphasizes the forehead, making the creature seem less human. Two thirds of the face is an open mouth full of teeth, the white teeth highlighted against the dark scream of a face. The nose is tiny, almost invisible, and the eyes are asymmetrical, making the yeti seem fantastical, an appropriate resident of Fantasyland. Harold was literally reaching hands, a mouth full of teeth, glowing red eyes, and almost nothing else.

But the thing is, nothing else was needed. Under the best circumstances you could get maybe 5 seconds to look at him, and those key elements: mouth, red eyes, reaching hand read perfectly from a speeding bobsled. As Ken Andersen told the E Ticket in 1993:
"You didn't need a lot of animation because you were moving. You were moving so darn fast that what you did was supply the movement for the characters."
That was the brilliance of Harold: he hardly moved, but he looked and felt alive. The long downhill escape, as well as his sudden reappearance, caused riders to fill in with their imaginations far more than was really going on.  More than any mountain-dwelling monster who has suceeded him, Harold really felt like he was chasing you, popping through secret caves and dashing down rock wall faces in an effort to cut you off. The physical structure of the ride itself worked perfectly to put you off the wrong foot; was that roar coming from ahead of or behind me?

The Matterhorn was a long build of suspense, followed by a chase down to the bottom, the splash of the glacial pond the release of the tension. Compared to the Matterhorn, Big Thunder was one damn thing after another and Space Mountain was just weirdness, but the Matterhorn felt like real peril, and it was peril created with some light-up eyes and three figures that moved only just enough to create a sense of motion. It was, in its own way, brilliant.

I didn't really start to understand just how good the Matterhorn was until Expedition Everest opened at Animal Kingdom a few years later. I admit that the Matterhorn created in me false expectations of a suspenseful, "boo" kind of experience, which Everest really isn't. Beautifully mounted, the attraction doesn't introduce its dramatic conflict until over a minute into a three minute ride. It's nearly another minute until we see the shadow of the Yeti, who honestly seems more interested in tearing up railroad tracks than chasing riders, and there's a final confrontation mere seconds before the ride ends. But the real thing that I couldn't believe when I rode Everest in previews, the thing I walked off the ride saying, is that the multi-million dollar yeti was gone by so fast you could barely register that he moved at all. Fusty old Harold inside the Matterhorn gave just about as good of a show at a fraction of the cost, and his mountain had actual caverns inside it!


For my money, Disneyland's new Snowman figure has the same issue. He looks terrifically fierce, and he snarls and lunges at the cars, but the pure, streamlined, communicative power of that goofy 1978 figure has been lost. The new figure has a visible forehead, which makes him look a bit more human, and his mouth opens and closes, a detail often lost because you're by him way too fast. He seems almost realistic, and to me this makes the new Snowman less visually appealing, less like an appropriate resident of Fantasyland.

But really the biggest issue is that those reaching hands are gone. The new Snowman is grabbing the ice wall around him like he's climbing out of a cave, but that image of him reaching for the cars was really important. Look at the silhouettes; there's no comparison.


The new guy seems like less of a threat; when you pass him a second time, he's twisted around to the side as if he isn't even expecting you to come upon him. He's louder, and he looks meaner, but its harder to feel like he's really and truly out to get you.

The trouble is that the window of comprehension for understanding something you coast by in a bobsled can be measured in micro-seconds, and the new Snowman just doesn't cut it. Blaine Gibson had fully absorbed this fact of theme park life and was a master at sculpting figures just the correct side of impossible to read in a flash. Think of all the figures in Pirates of the Caribbean, sculpted in mid-smile or mid-scowl. Think of the Hitch-hiking Ghosts, with their hugely exaggerated extended thumbs.

Think of how much artistic skill it takes to correctly draw attention to something as small as a thumb.

Blaine sculpted Harold's scowling face in a permanent scream for a reason, and he gave him huge reaching hands for a reason, and grossly exaggerated their size so you couldn't miss them. That version of the Matterhorn's monster was fit for the job.

On a similar track, the same team in 2015 removed the ice crystal scene and replaced it with a new hoard of destroyed Matterhorn ride vehicles, like bobsleds and skyway buckets. The previous ice cavern scene was nothing amazing, but you could look over and see the crystals and hear the music and instantly understand that you were looking at some crystals. The new scene just looks like some random stuff, and you're past it before you can figure it out. Worse, nobody going into the Matterhorn fresh in 2020 (2021?) is going to understand what they're looking at, making it a weird in-joke that doesn't really look like anything. That's a shame, because most of the Matterhorn is spent looking at snowy rocks, and anything to make it feel a bit more like a real place was a help. Like the Snowman figure upgrade, it was a great idea on paper, but in practice is a misfire.

From This 2014 Video
But the change that really stings me is moving your initial encounter with the Snowman to the lift hill. This makes some sense, but those glowing eyes were truly a perfect jump scare, and set the tone for the rest of the downhill chase. The slow ascent up the mountain in the pitch darkness listening to the wind howling built up terrific suspense, increased by the fact that Disney pumped in occasional scream sound effects to this scene. Was it another rider on the coaster, or was it....?

Then, the lift hill crested, and the first few moments of the ride were gentle. You relaxed. Then Harold's eyes lit up in the darkness and scared the tar out of you. I screamed on my first ride. And then you spent the rest of the ride on edge, expecting Harold to come bounding out at you again at every turn. That was the moment the ride had been building towards since you first laid eyes on it with its beautiful flowers, glistening waterfall, and baleful whistling wind.

I'm sure new riders enjoy the Matterhorn plenty, and I'm not here to make some absurd claim like Imagineering "ruined the ride". It's still lots of fun. But the previous version changed the way I look at theme park rides because of how much it was able to do with so little. That 1978 refurbishment, when you get right down to it, was a lot of rock work, three figures that only barely moved, some sound effects, and light-up eyes on a stick. But they totally transformed the tone and feeling of the Matterhorn, and gave it unique shape and rhythm. And they did it without changing the track.

And that's what the Matterhorn became for me, a kind of yardstick I use to measure all other rides: did the designers get the absolute maximum out of what they chose to build? I find this useful because it de-emphasizes the tech and the design density that Disney and Universal tend to get caught up in and looks simply at effect. Does what they spent money on really work?

The Matterhorn brought Harold to life with the simplest means, and did so in a way that was straightforward, understandable without words or preshow videos, and easy to maintain. The new version is flashier, but in sacrifing that elemental sinplicity of what was done in 1978, it is in my opinion significantly less powerful.

Because that's something that maybe gets lost in discussing the Matterhorn; it is one of the great scary Disney rides. Harold was designed to startle jaded 70s teenagers - who may otherwise have brought their business to a place like Magic Mountain - and did so in a way that was not so intense you couldn't still bring a six year old on the ride. Harold has moved out now, and try as I may, I've never quite warmed up to the new guy. The Matterhorn I fell in love with at 18 is now another resident of Yesterland, and I miss it dearly. That hollow wind still blows in my heart.

--

While I have your attention!

I thought I'd take some time to answer a few questions I've been getting recently about this site and to explain what the future holds for it.

I should probably begin with some context: this site, and text-based blogs generally, are enjoying a fraction of their old readership.

Time was, I could spend 2 weeks writing and editing a post that would reach an audience of over 20,000 people. Today, my posts are averaging about 2,500 people and capping out at around 7,000 on the high end. And the fact is, I haven't met a single person under the age of 25 who is a self-professed retro theme park fan who learned about them reading sites like this. They've learned everything they know on YouTube. It's fair to say that the time of the informational blog seems to have passed. 

Which is why I wrote a book. That book is one reason I began posting shorter form pieces (like music loops) in 2015. The past few years have been weird for this blog, and this year has been a desert. This is because I've been seriously perusing getting the thing published since last November and the complexities of doing that have taken up all of the spare time I used to devote to writing blogs.

The good news is that the book is coming out this year; my next post will be its announcement! The bad news is that given the time commitment of writing blog posts vs the work that goes into writing a book, it makes more sense to write more books. I've already begun work on my second book, and now that I have a publisher, I hope to get it done in 2-3 years instead of 5 years this time.

This site has seen a spike in readership since the pandemic began, and its been wonderful seeing old readers and new coming back to enjoy my writing. I never wrote a word on this site for money or fame, and I have no intention of stopping writing. I actually have about four unfinished pieces right now that have been either delayed by work on my book or other issues. 

So basically: more content is coming! I thank everyone who has stuck it out with me or has just recently discovered my stuff. It is amazing to me what this little writing exercise has turned into, and I want to keep it going as long as possible.

So till next time: stay cool, my friends.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Haunted Mansion Video Treasures

To this author, perhaps the greatest boon to my life afforded by the modern internet is video streaming - the ability to watch nearly anything at any time for reasonable cost in decent quality. And although I remain an enthusiastic supporter of physical media, the internet has become a digital Aladdin's cave of delights for fans of the weird and obscure. Writing this during the Coronoavirus shutdown, I've recently gone for strolls around Disneyland and Disneyland Paris from the comfort of my home thanks to the modern wonder of streaming high-definition video. And this, in a lifetime where I remember leaving my computer on for an entire week attempting to download Sam Raimi's first horror film through a telephone line.

I picked up the habit of mass video accumulation early. Around 1995 I became obsessed with taping things off television, and I still have a box of around 50 VHS tapes from Disney Channel and other sources that I've never been able to part with. A few years later, I was involved with the Haunted Mansion fan community as it existed through mailing lists and Yahoo groups at the time, and one of our hobbies was trading tapes through the mail of various home video ride-throughs. Please remember that this was a time when RealVideo was just about the best online video streaming option, and you still had to pay for the wonders of QuickTime video. Creating and mailing video cassette tapes was the more convenient option!

Well, I held onto those videos for a long time. A few years back, my good friend Michael Crawford helped me get a few of my stranger video treasures transferred, but I still knew there were goodies yet to be discovered. Late last year, I bought a new old stock VCR. It took several weeks of experimenting, but I'm finally getting results I'm happy with from my capture setup. And so here now are a few of the better tidbits that obsolete technology has granted me an archive of!

First up is a video of extreme importance to me and of nearly no importance to anyone else - just how we like them on Passport to Dreams! Along with Discovery Channel's Fun House documentary, this is probably what kicked my Haunted Mansion fanaticism into overdrive and turned me into the theme park person that I am today. It's a short excerpt from a show called Walt Disney World Inside Out, which Disney Channel ran weekly through 1996 and 1997.

Hosted by J.D. Roth (from GamePro TV!) and Brianne Leary (from CHiPS!), it was essentially part of the promotional mission surrounding the resort's 25th anniversary. Certain highlight sections ran between Disney Channel programming as "Inside Out Spotlite" segments, and this was the most memorable.


For context, you must realize that as a child my ability to see anything from the interior of the Haunted Mansion was limited to a few photos in a souvenir hardcover book and the Day at the Magic Kingdom VHS tape. So seeing a program that not only gave me a good look inside a personal obsession, but went further and explained how certain effects were done, absolutely floored 11-year-old me. I don't think I had even considered at that point that the ride was made up of illusions with secrets behind them, so seeing J.D. Roth put his hand through that bust rewired my brain.

From a historical perspective, this is the only good look I've ever found at the remarkable film bin looping devices invented by Ub Iwerks for WED in 1954. He actually engineered these things as part of his assignment to create Cir-car-rama for Disneyland, allowing the film to circulate endlessly through a giant series of spools without ever getting out of synch with each other. These same looping projectors were also used in the Main Street Cinema, using prints purchased from the Blackhawk Films library. The Haunted Mansion's 16mm 1-minute bins are cool enough, but the 70mm 15 minute bin loops for the Hall of Presidents were things of beauty, 25 feet tall. I wish I had thought to take a few pictures of them before the show switched over to digital in 2008.

This segment is also just quality Disney programming, perfectly judged to increase your appreciation of just how complex these attractions are without revealing too many secrets. Walt Disney World Inside Out was a show wildly variable in quality - there's episodes where they do nothing but poke around The Disney Institute - but when it's good like this clip, it can be very memorable.

Moving swiftly on, let's take in some vintage ridethroughs! These sorts of videos used to be easier to find online before YouTube became the dominant source for streaming video it is, but the migration to that platforms meant that a lot of older material simply never made the leap. Who remembers going to Visions Fantastic and downloading Disneyland videos?

These three vintage ridethroughs are amongst the best that I know of, but they actually aren't mine! These were on one of the tapes I traded for in the early 00s, and I've forgotten exactly who sent this one to me. As a result I've cut out the hitch-hiking ghost mirror segments of each video, because they weren't taken by me. For their vintage they really are excellent, shot with a higher end camera than most consumers ever had access to by a rider who really knew where each little detail was.

First up, the Magic Kingdom Haunted Mansion in glorious, low-fi murky regular vision! This is the category of video that is the toughest sell today, when we all have video camera on our phones that handle dark environments much better than this. But there's still value in this, and this is by far the clearest pre-2007 Mansion video I know of. Certain areas, like the first third of the ride, are near total losses but other areas like the Corridor of Doors are nearly exactly how they looked in real life.

It's also the best view I have of what the controversial "windblown" bride looked like in real life. Flash photos always made her look dopey, and as the years went on and more and more of her lighting and wind machines broke and were never replaced, she looked worse and worse. But when she was brand new she at least was impressive, and that is captured well here.


Some stray observations before we move on. First, the line. For the past fifteen years, Walt Disney World has been so busy and so plagued with the scourge known as Fastpass that it seems almost incomprehensible to look back at a time when except on the very busiest days you could walk on Haunted Mansion with a very modest wait. There were no interactive queues and other such nonsense things to get in your way; once you got through the turnstiles at the porte cohere, that little corner of the park with the family cemetery butting up against the front door was as serene as an actual graveyard.

Second, take note of the entrance area. This particular arrangement - with the front gate that had been put in the early 90s, plus the hearse and fountain which had replaced a large planter and tree in 1997 - ended up lasting a mere 2.5 years. In 2001, Disney put up the Fastpass building which clutters up the area today, added a covered-over fountain smack in the middle of the walkway, and took down the central gates with the dead wreaths on them which much better communicated the idea of "old, closed-off estate". The intersection of strollers, Fastpass building, former Keelboat dock, and gate in this area has been a logistical disaster for at least the quarter-century, and I really wish the park would tear the whole area out and rework it.

Let's take a moment to enjoy the "Aging Man" effect in its full original form here, and actually facing the proper direction! The 2007 digital morph, although certainly smoother, has never struck me as being as eerie or oeneric as the original effect here is, with simple fades between each stage in the deterioration. This is almost certainly a device built in 1969 for use in the Disneyland show, back when they were planning on a full 6 stage transformation for each of the portraits. It was crated up and shipped to Florida instead, and I wish I had thought to take a picture of it before it went digital in 2007.

As for the direction of the portrait, it's been wrong since then. The projector is aimed at the ceiling; it bounces off a mirror and onto the scrim, meaning it's reversed twice once you view it from the other side in the Foyer. Whoever composited the video flipped it to account for the scrim but didn't know about the mirror. That's another small touch I hope they fix when they upgrade the projection to HD.

Before real low-light video cameras became a thing, the most coveted form of ride video was night vision, in which your camcorder spit out a beam of infrared light. In retrospect, it's bizarre that home camcorders even had this option, given that it makes people look like weird glowing demons. However it was amazing for theme park nerds who wanted to take in every detail of their favorite rides, so let's take another spin through, this time, in phosphorescent green!


We begin with a decent look at the Load Area in its mostly original state; I believe the lights along the loading belt went blue in the early 90s and that the red and white wallpaper replaced an earlier pattern sometime around that time. In the 1997 refurb a couple of theatrical lights were dropped in through the ceiling around the corner, pointed down to illuminate the pinch point where the line becomes single file; just a few years later, wall sconces would be added to properly illuminate the floor space. At the same time, weird elevated urns on shelves would be installed to disguise speakers for the safety boarding announcements. Finally, in 2007, the "Sinister Eleven" portraits would migrate to the load area, the wallpaper would be replaced again, a "ledge" would be added to lower the apparent ceiling height, and a solid black wall separating the queue from the doom buggy track would be built.

Practically every old-school Florida Mansion fan was unusually fond of that table, chair and lamp on the other side of the buggies; it was a weird little tableau that suggested that perhaps an unseen ghost was doing a little late-night reading! All of those props are in the Attic now and although I'm not hardline enough to insist that their removal ruins the scene or anything, I do wish that WDI would add some stuff over in that corner because it did help the Mansion feel more like an actual house.

I'd also like to bring up the Corridor of Doors. Nearly the whole soundscape of the Mansion was re-mixed and re-jiggered in 2007, and largely I think they did a terrific job - although many of the changes are subtle, it's one reason I think the Florida Mansion feels very fresh and dynamic. And while many Mansion fans have bemoaned the loss of the original Graveyard vocal tracks, I think the removal of the original Corridor of Doors voices is just as big of a loss. Generally, the 07 sound mix veers heavily towards ominous rumbles and creepy whispers - the sort of thing that we recognize from horror films of this millennium. The 1969 Corridor of Doors tracks are definitely way closer to old fashioned haunted house album tracks if you sit down and listen to them individually, but they never played that way in person because you simply didn't have time to sit there and listen to each one. The new version of the scene is still creepy, but the original was way creepier.

So let's talk about the Attic scene. The pop-up guys up there always were a controversial feature of the ride, and I think at its heart the reason is because you had just come from the Ballroom, the spectacular visual highpoint of the ride, and around the corner was a skeleton dude bobbing up and down on a stick.

But, you know, they didn't have to suck. Were the figures properly hidden, and dropped down out of sight immediately, you wouldn't have to be stuck looking at a static head on a stick slowly being ratcheted out of sight. Making the situation even worse, in 1997 WDI decided to put glowing purple top hats on every one of them, meaning that even the ones properly hidden could be spotted thanks to their dumb glowing top hats.

Then there's the separate case of that first fellow on the right as you entered. I have no idea if he was simply malfunctioning for 8 years, but more often than not he looked the way you see in this video - way too far up, bouncing around in midair, looking stupid. When I was a little kid, this guy came out of an open trunk on the floor and scared the heck out of everyone. It still works that way in Tokyo Disneyland, the last place on earth to enjoy this simple effect. I have a suspicion that someone in Imagineering wanted the popups to be this way, to give "riders a hint" before they appeared.

But the thing is, the only positive thing you can say about a head on a stick that pops out to scare you is that it scared you; with the exception of rubber spiders bouncing around in webs earlier in the ride, it's the crudest thing in the Haunted Mansion. I miss these guys, but I don't miss the way you see them in this video, looking stupid and not properly hidden. If you're going to have a jump scare, you need to commit to having a jump scare, and I think without at least one or two in the attraction, the Haunted Mansion is missing something. The Attic is supposed to be the dark heart of the ride, the room you were never supposed to see, and on that count Connie doesn't cut it.

And, oh, hey, the graveyard of my teenage years! The Singing Busts were out of synch. Somehow, after the switch to "laserdisc technology" as our ghostly friend George put it to J.D. Roth, they were never quite able to synch them up properly. Also, the Old Man was REALLY loud, and the mummy didn't have a vocal track. Was that way until 2007, as best I can tell. Also, if you listen REALLY carefully, you can barely hear the "La-da" singer track by the Hearse, still lurking around in the late 90s. This was a graveyard vocal removed from Disneyland for some reason and some folks are obsessed with it.

Alright, let's hop a plane over to California for one last bit of Mansion-y goodness.


Again, this was a short-lived incarnation of the Mansion. A 1995 refurbishment introduced changes to the Seance Room and Attic, as well as the red wallpaper in the stretch room (which I've always preferred) and an upgraded sound system. Many of these changes were subsequently removed by further changes in 2005, meaning it's increasingly difficult to find good versions of this incarnation of the ride.

The "I Do" version of the Attic has always struck me as a pretty good middle ground between keeping the popups and decreasing the intensity of the scene. Interestingly, in this version of the scene the popups rose one at a time, from the back of the scene to the front. I'm fairly certain that the first guy in the hatbox right by the entrance was supposed to come up every time another one did, but he appears to be broken on this day. Sadly, this pattern did make it possible to go thru the whole scene and not see a single popup. I know because I accomplished this feat more than once in 2003. Videos from the early 90s do show the pops all rising at once, as they did at Magic Kingdom, so perhaps starting in the 90s Imagineering began exploring ways of lowering the intensity of the Attic.

The two other notable changes occur nearer the start of the ride. Imagineering has imported the "Leota tilty table" effect designed for Phantom Manor, which I've never liked all that much. It's fine in Phantom Manor because there isn't much else going on it that room, which I'm fairly sure has a smaller diameter circle around Leota anyhow. I think the "flying Leota" used at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom is a much better upgrade to the scene.

The other change is the reintroduction of some Ghost Host dialogue in the Corridor of Doors. Supposedly the attraction opened with this in 1969 and it was removed a few months later, perhaps as part of the same refurbishment which saw them move the bride and deal with cellar flooding. I've never liked these lines, and was sort of afraid they would introduce them to Magic Kingdom in 2007 as part of that refurbishment. However, I can see how they help keep the Ghost Host more of a participant in the attraction during Disneyland's shorter ride, because without them he gets you on the ride, commands you to listen, then leaves a minute later!

Also, I like and miss that "Dead End!" sign outside the Unload area.

When we talk about Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, especially on sites like these, it can be so fun to dig into the history and details of the places that we forget that they're constantly changing, in ways big and small. Time races by regardless, and now that the mere look of analog video is nostalgic, I hope these small documents of a time long since past are helpful or at least fun. Everyone stay healthy and let's hope for a return trip through the Mansion soon!

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Looking for more spooky fun? Head on over to our Haunted Mansion Hub Page, or check out this index of articles on Walt Disney World History!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Disney World's Universal Decade

As far as theme park fans are concerned, the decade of the 2010s began in June, when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Islands of Adventure. As far as national media coverage was concerned,  this was the largest theme park story in about ten years - the only thing that came close was the opening, and resounding flop, of Disney's California Adventure. And for possibly the first time ever, Universal was getting the sort of press, the sort of reports of opening day insanity, and the critical platitudes that, in any other situation, would have gone to Disney.

Everyone saw the shots from opening day, with the line snaking out of Islands of Adventure and nearly to the park next door. As an idea - as an image - here was something that was to set much of the stage for the next decade of theme park design.

But even more importantly than the hype and the opening day line was the fact that here Universal had finally delivered on the promise of something Disneyesque, which is to say: something that was lavish and also something that people wanted badly. The keystone ride, Forbidden Journey, remains a charming conjuring trick built on old-school illusion and misdirection that has not dimmed in impressiveness despite ten years of tech challengers. But the true reason the place worked is it delivered those experiences people really wanted.

This is something Disney had really lost sight of in the 90s and 00s: delivering the kind of experience people want in a way they are prepared to pay for. Animal Kingdom, especially in its original form, was too lecture-y to emotionally connect, Epcot had been stripped of much of its warmth, and DCA included smarmy sex jokes and gorillas in Cadillacs. Universal let you drink a Butterbeer, buy a wand, and enter Hogwarts. Adult fans of Harry Potter who grew up on the book series bought themselves a wizard robe, stood in front of Hogwarts, and cried. It was powerful wish fulfillment, and it was coming to them from Universal. And all of this was happening at exactly the wrong time for Disney, who had spent much of the last decade pursuing their most coveted demographic of... six year old girls.

In June 2010, Walt Disney World was a confused mess of projects. The largest project was New Fantasyland, tearing out what remained of the 20,000 Leagues lagoon site in favor of a paltry single ride and six heavily themed meet and greets skewing towards children. Your child can color princess pages in Aurora's house from Sleeping Beauty! It had been five years since the last major addition - Expedition Everest - and Toy Story Mania, though enduringly popular, was not the sort of headliner that sells vacations. It would be another two years before the Little Mermaid omnimover at Magic Kingdom would open for business, and there was little else on the horizon. Pleasure Island had been abruptly shuttered in 2007, and while various replacements had been announced, very little actual work was taking place. Across the country, California Adventure's overhaul had been announced and was still ongoing, and although the World of Color fountain show had been enthusiastically received, much of the best parts of that park were still in the future.

Gentlemen, I give you the future!

Indeed, the overwhelming sense as a Florida based Disney fan was that the true show was happening elsewhere. Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor attraction was shaping up to be a tribute to old-school Disney attraction values, and Walt Disney Studios Paris was receiving a trackless Ratatouille ride. California Adventure, so long scorned by the internet and the kind of theme park visitor who never likes to travel west across the Mississippi, was receiving ambitious and prestigious upgrades. It felt as though Walt Disney World's doldrums would never end.

Its also worth remembering that 2010 was the year WDWs attendance finally began to fall, and this happened nearly in harmony with Universal's ascendancy. Universal Orlando, which had spent much of the decade since the opening of Islands of Adventure in comfortable slumber as a favorite of locals and niche enthusiasts, suddenly began to do the kind of business its parks were designed to do. Tourists who never previously would have considered heading crosstown began to descend to see their Disneyesque Harry Potter area -- and they actually liked what they saw. Shops had to put up makeshift queues to control Potter-crazed fans of all ages. Abandoned corners of Islands of Adventure such as the Captain America Diner suddenly sprung to life. What Disney had feared in 1989 and 1999 had at last come to pass - Universal was peeling off vacation days from visitors. All Disney had to counter The Boy Who Lived was a pack of princesses. Resentful fans built castles in the sky, fantasizing about Disney's imaginary Potter Swatter.

Something had to be done, fast. The Fantasyland area was reworked, with half of the Princess meet-and-greets pulled and replaced with a family coaster. That was fine in the short term, but Disney still had nothing with the in-built fan base and cross generational appeal of Harry Potter.

With Marvel tied up with Universal and Lucasfilm's acquisition still in the future, Disney announced they had acquired the theme park rights to James Cameron's Avatar. It was the confused shrug heard round the world. But in retrospect, it was something more. It was the start of a new phase in Walt Disney World history.

The IP Invasion

Michael Eisner was the boy who ran away from the polo club to become a television executive. A product of a wealthy New York City family and the Hollywood culture of the 1970s, Eisner loved big, flashy, prestigious ideas -- Disneyland outside Paris, WOW! Under Eisner, Disney could build modernist architecture palaces, teach you American history, and market Tim Allen as Santa Claus. What Eisner was bad at was where road meets rubber; burned on EuroDisney and Disney's America, in the second decade of his term he became gun shy on spending. This leads to many bizarre missed opportunities from 1994 to 2005; Eisner could never bring himself to build a proper Lion King ride anywhere in any of the four Disney resorts in the world, despite that feature being the crowning fiscal achievement of his tenure. So Eisner liked big ideas with no money behind them; a celebration of man's progress to welcome the 21st century at Epcot, WOW! But what that actually was, was fabric on poles and a pin stand.

In comparison, Bob Iger is, on the big ideas front, a dullard. Bob likes to give people more of what they've already said they wanted - he did not miss the opportunity to get a Frozen ride open wherever he could as quickly as possible, whereas one feels that Eisner would have been more comfortable having Elsa blast snow at you on the Backlot Tour at MGM or something. Having spent  his entire term as CEO trying to mop up the mess left by the underspending at DCA, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Walt Disney Studios Paris, where Iger excels is making sure these projects are properly funded to return lavish results. The difference in quality between fit and finish on Hollywood Boulevard at the entrance to Disney-MGM Studios and Buena Vista Street at California Adventure is massive. This combination of safe ideas applied to the parks with good budgets has characterized this decade of theme park development, and the model is explicitly drawn from Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Fans call the IP Invasion.

The warning signs were there early on. In 2009, Avatar shot to the top of the box office charts - a big, dumb, lavish James Cameron space epic. And while the show has retained a cadre of fans and is probably on track to become a nostalgic favorite of a certain age group of 2010s youngsters, the reputation of the film has declined precipitously in the decade since its release. Square in the flush of this decline, but well ahead of its very well hyped sequels, Disney announced and built a full on lavishly scaled themed area for the film in Animal Kingdom.

Pandora: the World of Avatar is nearly as impressive for its conceptual acrobatics as it is for its scale. Set many decades after the events of the film (series?), the alien planet Pandora has become a site of eco-tourism and the land represents a sort of national forest on Pandora, which works so well to slip Avatar into the larger environmental concerns of Animal Kingdom that you almost don't notice the strain. Grounded by an alright if interesting boat ride and a sort of deluxe version of Soarin', besides its unbelievable scale by far the most interesting thing in the area is a series of meandering paths through the center of the area that allow you to wander in, through and around the weird alien plants and animals. It's like a tiny Tom Sawyer Island out in the open of the land, and as a convincing sort of primordial alien swamp it provides the necessary depth behind the "wow" of the floating mountains that I'm not convinced either attraction delivers.

Pandora is also the only theme park area in history where you can cause a huge plant to "pollinate" all over a crowd of pedestrians by rubbing it, so that counts for something. Plant sex! In my Animal Kingdom!

If in 2014 Avatar could be ridiculed as a ludicrous misstep, Disney then went another step and announced Maelstrom at Epcot would close in less than six months to be converted into Frozen After After. Maelstrom had become, for a certain generation of Epcot fan, nearly the last tangible connection with the heyday of the park, and the news was not taken lightly. The replacement ride, while arguably more lavish and containing some very impressive audio animatronics (which is something you definitely can't say about Maelstrom), comes off more as an overbearing song highlight reel than a true attraction. Maelstrom was too cheap, too confused, and too weird for its own good, which gave it an endearing, memorable charm which made it many friends.

If you directly compare Frozen Ever After to something like Peter Pan's Flight, it's not a bad ride. But to this writer, there's a hollow feeling that not every opportunity was actually embraced. The long ascent up the lift hill, mysteriously dark in Maelstrom, has become a flat projection extravaganza which manages to be far less impressive than Maelstrom's flat painted viking ghost and laser-eye. An area which once contained some of Maelstrom's most interesting and weird scenery has become an endless corridor of projections of Elsa singing Let it Go, which feels suspiciously like riding through the editing timeline of a music video. But the true heartbreaker for this author is that the main gag of Maelstrom, where the boats threaten to plunge through a hole in the side of the building backwards, has been sealed up. That's like removing the ride from inside the Matterhorn but keeping the mountain. But really, the problem is that no matter how you try to define the question, Arendelle in Frozen is not Norway. The attraction and the meaning of the area that supports it are at ludicrous cross-purposes. After a year of rumors that seemed far too bizarre to be true, in 2017 Disney announced they were going to convert the Tower of Terror at California Adventure into a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, and fears that this slapdash method of IP placement would continue seemed to be confirmed.

The real elephant in the room here, of course, is Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. This new area contains brilliant theming, one solid ride and one absolutely remarkable ride, clever experiences, and an IP that many have a strong emotional attachment to. In Florida, where it replaced a weird fake New York that Eisner built to make a Bette Midler movie, it's a home run, and will be even more of one when its adjoining immersive Star Wars hotel will be open. Nine years later, this is finally something as good or better than Universal's Potter areas.

But it absolutely is the wrong fit at Disneyland. Yes, its removal caused the dramatic reconstruction of a neglected corner of the park, and it bolsters and complements Disneyland's strong roster of attractions brilliantly. It improves crowd flow, and the theming to visually cut it off from the rest of Disneyland is cleverly done. But it does not belong at Disneyland, no matter how you try to slice it. One could opine that that ship sailed back in 1987 when Star Tours opened at Disneyland, but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is new territory for Disney.

I will say it if Disney has forgotten it: this is a bad look for a company whose core product is nostalgia. I will say it again: Disney's core product is nostalgia, and once you take that away, the thing that gives Disney its edge over, say, Time-Warner will dissipate. In fact, this may already be happening.

This isn't going to end anytime soon. Epcot, that fan favorite down in Florida, is currently undergoing a huge renovation that will introduce Pixar, Marvel, and Disney animated characters across the whole of the park. Given that Epcot has been a disjointed mess since the 90s, perhaps this will be a shot in the arm, but it's hard to escape the message: that Epcot you knew is over. Just a few weeks ago, Disney announced that the new restaurant next to The American Adventure is going to be hosted by Sam the Eagle from the Muppets, which makes almost no sense at all.

The IP Invasion surges on.

The Adult Retreat

Not everything that happened in the 2010s was a full on dunk in brand synergy. Finally completing their promise to rebuild the troubled Downtown Disney area into something operationally manageable and modern, Disney went full on weird with Disney Springs. Designed at a honeypot to trap locals and Instragram influencers, there's not much Disney at Disney Springs, and it's kind of amazing.

Themed after Florida, a place Disney otherwise goes to amazing lengths to ensure you never see, Disney Springs is a bees nest of semi-haute restaurants, high end shops, weird bossa nova music, and theming intentionally reminiscent of Rollins College in Winter Park. With its restaurants with hanging Edison bulbs, reclaimed wood, exposed brick and menus awash in buzzwords like "crafted" and "local", Disney Springs drops a bell jar over the early 2010s in a way that perhaps no Disney product since EPCOT Center has perfectly encapsulated its era. There may be no Disney characters, sure, but there is a beautiful artificial spring, hand painted murals, a totally bonkers invented "history", garlands with tiny chandeliers at Christmas, a speakeasy buried under a pizza restaurant, and a place where you can wander on a dock and check out a millionaire's collection of rare boats. It's totally bizarre, and I suggest everyone enjoy it for what it is now before Disney paints Mickey Mouse and Elsa over every available surface in the next decade.

There certainly has been increasing alarms being rung in some corners of the Disney fan sphere as renovated rooms in resorts at diverse as the All Stars and Wilderness Lodge return from refurbishment with minimal details and clean, modernist furniture. While this may seem at first glance to be a removal of theming, hotel rooms by their very nature are intended to change and update every few years, as Disney has done every decade since the 70s. And while a case could be made that the new rooms are both less themed and more like the bland "airspace" world ushered in by AirB&B, one fact that should be considered is that room occupancy has continued to decline at Walt Disney World - which explains so many rooms being removed from inventory to be sold as DVC units, and possibly pressure Disney to more fully reflect what a modern traveler would expect to find in the "outside world" in 2020.

And if the removal of theme had stopped there, behind closed doors, it may not have been worthy of comment. But in the 2010s, the Polynesian Resort, that amazing time capsule of 70s Disney kitsch, suffered a fate worse than update.

Going beyond the necessary room updates and removal of room inventory for DVC, Polynesian Resort was perhaps the first Disney hotel to be fundamentally downgraded as a result of its remodel. Meandering pathways through tropical gardens were widened into freeways to accommodate a new revision of the RCID building code which required firetrucks to have clear access into the interior of the resort. Even worse, Fred Joerger's beautiful interior atrium and waterfall was removed and paved, replaced with a tiny statue of Maui surmounting an insultingly tiny trickle of water. It drove a stake thru the heart of the life of the place. Whereas the Polynesian Lobby just ten years ago was bursting with activity, today its a space nobody wants to linger. There were bright spots, such as the addition of the wonderful Trader Sam's Grog Grotto, but this really was a case where Disney paved paradise. And again, it's that nostalgia thing: once you remove that, you can't go back. I'd be curious to know if the Polynesian has retained it status as the most sought after rooms on property.


A more successful case study may be found south, at the Gran Destino Tower, questionably tacked onto Coronado Springs. Coronado Springs, a bizarre 90s fever dream of Latin America, now hosts a tower that looks very much like any Hilton in the world, even more questionably inspired by Salvador Dali and the Spanish, ie European Espana, artistic heritage.

If this sounds totally incoherent it is, but taken strictly as Disney's first full on attempt to create a Disney version of a modern, high end resort, it actually succeeds. The lobby bar serves the kind of drinks you'd expect to find at a destination bar in New York. The interior finish is lavish without being overbearing in its execution. The rooftop restaurant, Toledo, serves an amazing spread of food with views of Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. If the Grand Floridian felt lavish but stuffy, Gran Destino feels lavish and chic. It doesn't exactly feel like you're at Disney, and I think that is the point. This is for the sort of traveler who stays at the Kimpton wherever they go, and with it and the slightly more family friendly brand new Riviera Resort, the question of what Disney is going to do with their dowdy old Contemporary Resort seems ever more pressing.

In a way it feels like this past decade was the era when Disney finally embraced their adult fan base, and whether that's due to Harry Potter wands or not, that may be the biggest story here. It certainly isn't children driving up the grosses of Marvel movies, or buying $200 lightsabers. And while the mainstream media may still be able to generate clicks with articles about "childless millennials" at Disney, a quick review of the internet shows that the majority of content generated about Disney is from that age group - this blog is written by one.

And while it may be difficult to reconcile a Disney that will tear down Epcot AND sell you an adorable Figment pillow, Disney is not what it was a short time ago. Disney is a multi-media, multicultural juggernaut, and any money they think they can get from you, they will take. Disney made 80% of the top box office attractions in 2019, a number that would have been staggering in 2008. They rode their tide of childless millennials to glory, sweeping aside all in their wake.

Hollywood Studios seen from the top of Gran Destino / Disney Food Blog

Interactive Everything

The first time I saw an iPhone was late June, 2007. I was working at the Hall of Presidents, and a guest who had waited in line to buy one on the first day was showing it off in the lobby. At the time, the idea that that little chunk of metal would change the world was laughable. Remember that devices such as the Nokia N-Guage had been coming and going since the Millennium making similar claims, but the iPhone was the one that stuck.

In retrospect, Disney's response to the whole thing was just as strange. To be clear, people had always brought small distraction devices to Disney to help kill the time spent in line, and in 2007 seeing a kid with a Nintendo DS in line for Space Mountain was exceedingly common. The world of social media and Angry Birds were still yet a few years away, and Disney's knee jerk response was that this new world of technology was going to need to be met head-on with... competition.

In 2009, the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure debuted, based around the retrospectively quaint notion of lending guests a flip-phone running proprietary software to cause various effects to activate around World Showcase. That same year, the new queue of Space Mountain debuted with a wall of video screens playing Wii-esque mini games involving docking ships and sorting luggage. These were merely an appetizer for the deluge of interactivity to come.Disney was prepared to wage a full-on war for your attention, and the places guests consistently were asking for more things to do was while waiting in line.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo received playground-esque play areas appropriate to the kiddie set they were courting, although Dumbo ended up using a pager system concept which turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. Test Track was rebuilt with the concept of interactive queue integration baked into the concept of the ride, although the refresh has remained controversial with nostalgic fans. The most controversial addition was the lavish Haunted Mansion queue, decried by traditionalists but largely enjoyed by the public. Peter Pan's Flight received a new but largely passive queue experience, and a "build-a-doll" feature planned for Small World ended up being only half implemented. Probably the best of these various queue refreshes, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, seems to stop the line more than Operations would like.

All of this was intended to be built on the back of Disney's massive, extraordinarily costly MyMagic+ initiative. An attempt to tie together a number of internal software upgrades, MM+ was ambitious and was intended to roll out to every Disney resort around the globe, unifying all of them under one system and application. To say it didn't work out that way is an understatement.

To be clear, Disney needed to massively upgrade their tech infrastructure to begin with. Each line of business within the resort used a different tech solution often hacked together using existing technology, none of which interfaced with each other properly, requiring lines of business as diverse as a hotel front desk to manually input data to be sent into, say, the reservation bank at the Crystal Palace. Let's not forget that Disney is the same company that's been pulling boxcars around with magnets as a "transport system of the future" since the early 70s. The idea was to streamline key items as diverse as park admission, purchasing, hotel room entry, reservations, photographs, and more into one easy user-end software interface.

Chris Barry
Which today sounds like a no-brainer, but remember that in 2011 and 2012 the idea that absolutely everyone would own a smart phone, tablet, or Apple Watch - probably more than one - was still in the future. As a result, starting in 2009 Disney began to test and implement a vast array of tech built around RFID, a technology they had been using in the parks since the early 2000s. Only the true dinosaurs like me will recall the 100 Years of Magic "Magical Moment" pins, ungainly chunks of plastic which would light up whenever you were experiencing a "magical moment", such as the end of the fireworks. These were essentially reacting to a gigantic blast of infrared RFID information installed in various attractions, huge beams of which can be seen in night vision home videos from 2001 until 2007. This infrastructure would then be re-introduced in the form of Pal Mickey, a talking, vibrating plush with an RFID receptor installed in his nose. Pal Mickey, a forward-thinking attempt to help guide guests around the parks, had a number of interesting ideas that were never fully implemented, such as Mickey directing you to attractions with short waits. The difference was the Magical Moments pins cost $10, and Pal Mickey was an $8 rental on a $50 deposit. In the early 2000s.

So Walt Disney World bought in full hog on RFID. Park admission, room keys, and purchases were streamlined into a clunky but functional user interface all tied to a rubbery bracelet sent to you in flashy packaging. Obviously modeled on the "Livestrong" bracelet fad, MagicBands continue to be sold at Disney, but their actual utility is less than a fraction of what was imagined. Early MagicBands included batteries to enable to use of long-range RFID, and Disney was, until the actual complexities of running such a torpid system became apparent, busily installing RFID receivers all across the roofs of Magic Kingdom. That's right, Disney, the ultimate nanny state, wanted to use these bracelets to keep tabs on nearly everything about what their guests were up to, from purchasing patterns to bathroom use. A glorious future was envisioned where Mickey Mouse himself could upsell you on an ice cream cone outside of a bathroom because Disney knew you had gone exactly 2.5 hours since your last snack.

Disney's dream of the 2010s
Again, the ambition and absolute folly of building a tech infrastructure like this in 2011 based on close-range RFID emitters is retrospectively staggering. In the end, MyMagic+ would never leave Walt Disney World. A torpid, costly affair supposedly tipping the budget scales above two billion, a combination of the protracted Avatar project and MyMagic+ shot parks executive Tom Staggs down in flames. The other Disney resorts looked upon Orlando's efforts with indignation. Many of the elements that really did improve the guest experience, like the removal of turnstiles in favor of touch points, were absolutely impractical at places like Disneyland. Slowly, Disneyland and then other parks rolled out their phone apps, each built in a separate silo from each other.

The two projects that were truly going to demonstrate the power of the system - Pandora at Animal Kingdom and Shanghai Disneyland - came and went without significant MyMagic+ presence. Although Walt Disney World has maintained the MyMagic+ name and wristband element, nearly nothing of that decade-ago tech remains operational. There never was a full integration of all of Orlando's Disney systems, for the same reason that there never has been one - any job where you deal with the public is bound to be a messy one, and Disney has simply never managed to take the guesswork out of it. In the end, trying to build a tech infrastructure based on something like Bluetooth in 2016 instead of 2011 probably would have been a bigger success... but there's another problem, and it's a problem that Disney used to be the masters of.

It's that no matter how carefully you design a user-end interface to solve all of the problems of your line of business, people are still people and getting them to use it the way you want is a fool's errand. People are still gonna people. Disney used to be masters at understanding people and invisibly guiding them towards designed, profitable experiences. Someday, stand on the monorail platform at Magic Kingdom and just watch the people. Watch the monorails gliding in and out, the doors popping open, the people constantly flowing in and out, each one and individual from cultures around the world but each being helpfully guided by design through an area. Watch how gracefully they navigate each other and a space and moreover watch how it happens again and again and again. Compare that to the mess of humans milling around waiting for a Fastpass to become valid.

Rise of the Resistance, Disney's best attraction since Indiana Jones Adventure, opened this last month. There was no interactive queue. Scratch that: there's no queue. The ride works on a pure reservation system, with groups being called to wait in a short line to board. We're back where we started, with what Imagineering knew back in the 50s and 60s: the park itself is the interactive queue, and anything that complicates the space between that and getting on a ride should be as minimal as possible.

But really nothing tells the story of MyMagic+ better than a tiny spot in the interactive queue for the Haunted Mansion. The third crypt has a peek-in scene where a book of verses is writing itself. There's a disembodied voice to prompt you to complete the rhyme. It's a circa-2011 version of voice recognition, an early form of Alexa or Siri. It's all wrapped up in a clever package, but if you stand there and watch the way people interact with this thing, not one guest in 25 understands what they're being asked to do. There's even a recorded narration constantly asking you for input: "Muses! Speak up!".

Nobody does. After a year, WDI went back and added telephone receivers to provide a visual aid to help this gag sell. Guests broke off the receivers and still they do not speak up. What they will do is walk past the crypt, see the book writing itself, and exclaim "Harry Potter!".

Harry Potter.

Clearing the Cobwebs

Much of the best stuff that happened at Walt Disney World this decade was all about old-school park design values. The decade was kicked off with The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management being destroyed in a kind of literal act-of-God freak fire, paving the way for the return of a tighter version of the original show. A few months later, The Orange Bird returned to Adventureland, setting off a merchandise trend that has yet to subside. It was a strange time to be a classic Disney fan.

With the noteworthy exception of Space Mountain, nearly all of the Magic Kingdom classic attractions are in great shape. A 2015 Pirates of the Caribbean refresh finally made that attraction into the showpiece it deserves to be, with many of the figures looking better than they have since the 80s. Stalwart attractions like Jungle Cruise and Riverboat have kept up with their maintenance, while Haunted Mansion continues to be wildly popular and receive suspect additions - most recently, an on-ride photo.

Disney finally put Stitch's Great Escape out of its misery, gutting the show's animation and is now using the lobby as a meet and greet. Magic Kingdom seems to be in no hurry to replace the attraction, perhaps understandable because that space has never managed to house a significant attendance draw. Instead, a copy of Shanghai's TRON ride is sprouting up next to Space Mountain and WDI is on a rampage around Tomorrowland, trying to bring back an updated version of its original Space Age look.

Removing the Future That Never Was / Derek Sterling
Less positively, in 2013 Country Bear Jamboree was retooled into a version that cut nearly a third of its run time, doing very little to retain much of its original wit while gaining very little in terms of pace. The figures themselves were lavishly redressed, and hopefully the full 15 minute show can be restored in the future. Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean continued to receive suspect updates to the Auction scene, a rare situation where my feminism and desire for park preservation were at loggerheads. The resulting scene isn't any worse than the other 2006 tampering, and far better than the atrocious 90s fixes to remove implied rape in the Chase scene, but its now kind of shocking to consider that the ONLY scene remaining in the Florida ride where you can hear X Atencio's original iconic script is in the Jail scene. Given all of this, it would be nice if WDI saw fit to  remove Barbossa from the Bombardment scene and reinstate Paul Frees' original Blackbeard captain. Barbossa hasn't even made sense as the captain of the "evil" pirate crew looking for Jack Sparrow since the first film, anyway.

While efforts to move crowds around this most crowded of Florida parks continue, the most significant this decade were the leveling of the Skyway station and the the rebuilding of the Hub. The Skyway project turned into one of the nicest bonuses to come with the New Fantasyland project, a leafy corner devoted to Tangled with some nice details. The Hub project was badly needed and while not all of Operations' lofty plans to issue Fastpasses to preferred viewing corrals have quite worked out, on the busiest days the extra space has made a huge difference. It's not the Magic Kingdom hub I grew up with, but it's flashy and not bad at all.

Overall the removal of Toontown, the re utilization of the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Skyway attractions, and the rebuilding the of the Hub, Main Street bypass, Adventureland Veranda and finally at long last the entrance plaza have finally cleared away most of the badly utilized spaces around the park, though those shops in Adventureland and Caribbean Plaza remain poorly capitalized upon. With TRON rising out of the ground quickly. Magic Kingdom is finally receiving her first genuine capacity addition since 1993 (!). The park is just about in the position you want a legacy park to be in.

BlogMickey / @MickeyExtreme, August 2016
Meanwhile, across the resort, Walt Disney World's most ill-conceived addition has a new lease on life. The entire rear of Hollywood Studios, a "backlot" which saw less than one year of active production and then stood untouched for nearly 30 years, is finally gone, and with it Catastrophe Canyon, the Backlot Tour, a temporary movie set playground that set an unfortunate precedent, and more are finally gone. And while the Toy Story area that was built nearby is less than ideal, the Star Wars area that superseded much of that old backlot is an absolute winner, especially compared to its previous life as a fake city street with no real purpose.

Less easy to applaud is the decision to scrap that park's final opening day attraction, the problematic but lavish Great Movie Ride, in favor of a screen-based Mickey Mouse attraction. But it's a brave new park out there now, and certainly of the slate of four parks, the Studios had the most to gain and least to lose by wiping its slate clean. Let's hope in the next few years this freshening up continues and we say goodbye to poorly utilized areas such as Animation Courtyard, the Beauty and the Beast tent show, and the Indy Stunt Show. Disney went from barely a major player to the 500 pound gorilla on top of the Hollywood box office in just ten short years, and their movie theme park really ought to reflect this.


In these quarters we're less sure of the fortunes of Epcot. Currently in the midst of a protracted multi-phase reboot a'la California Adventure, it's still so early in the going that it's hard to say if Disney is going to end up with a conceptually unified park, something that Epcot hasn't really been since the turn of the Millennium. Certainly, it's been hard to say goodbye to stalwarts such as Illuminations, Impressions de France, and Universe of Energy, but on the same token the Disney that built EPCOT Center is no longer with us and that park is never coming back. And while the probability of the newest incarnation pleasing EPCOT Center purists is probably below zero, there is a chance to build a park that feels more like a futuristic showplace and less like a community college from the 80s.

I personally gave up on ever seeing my preferred version of Epcot again ten years ago, so this quarter is cautiously optimistic. If nothing else, the new films at The Land and Canada, bowing this month, are actually far closer to the education and inspiration message of the Epcot of old than their 1996 and 2007 replacements were.

For this observer, the best trend of the past decade has been the sudden awakening by somebody somewhere in the organization that the Orlando property's infrastructure is embarrassingly outdated and that Disney has the capital necessary to fix it. Downtown Disney was once the property's biggest logistical nightmare, with traffic that frequently gridlocked the roads around it. With the reconstruction into Disney Springs came new overpasses, parking garages, elevators, escalators, and even pedestrian access bridges across the intersections. This all works wonderfully today and parking spaces can be located from the road in under ten minutes from both directions, which compared to the Downtown Disney of 2005 is sort of a miracle.

The success of that project kicked off a rash of upgrades across the resort, and new traffic patterns, off ramps, security processes and more have been a constant for the past four years. But none has been more visible than the Skyliner, a Doppelmayr lift system connecting Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and several hotels. Despite opening month hiccups the system works amazingly well and has already caused Disney to reduce their reliance on buses within the network. The system transported a million people in less than a month. As a passenger with me in one of the buckets exclaimed a few weeks ago, "the Skyliner is legit".

Hopefully, the Skyliner system will be expanded with a new hub at Coronado Springs and spurs connecting Coronado to the Beach Club, then on to Blizzard Beach, Animal Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom Lodge. From there, a north spur could easily cut through wetlands north of Coronado Springs and bring guests to the Transportation and Ticket Center. This would effectively put most of the resort on mass transit. Even more pressingly, hopefully Disney will soon invest in a new automated monorail fleet and replace the aging, literally falling apart monorails they are still running.

In short, its hard to avoid feeling that Walt Disney World is finally getting to the point it should have been at ten years ago. Genuine expansion and hard looks at existing problems are finally rolling forward,  hopefully setting up the resort for its next ten years of improvements.

Tom Bricker
You Can't Go Home Again

But, you know, its not all clear skies ahead. While the past few years have been a whirlwind of new additions, Disney spent all of the 00s and half of the teens obliviously treading water while raising prices constantly. Day tickets crossed the $100 threshold years ago. Left and right, upcharges and add-ons have spread like crabgrass. Parking a car at thr hotel overnight? That'll cost you. Planning on using your tickets later? That'll cost you. Want to refill your Coke? That'll cost you, too.

With hotel occupancy down overall, its hard not to feel that Disney has finally crossed that event horizon from popular destination to once in a lifetime spree. The trouble is, the tighter they squeeze, the more money's gonna run thru their fingers. Disney travelers have long relied on outside grocery stores and stroller rental companies to take the sting off the tail of Disney prices, and with recent moves to curtail these competitors one wonders at which point vacationers are going to stop buying those high profit resort drinks or simply decide to go elsewhere next year.

Myself, I'm wondering what Disney is going to do when the market declines again. Tourism has always been a boom and bust industry, and attendance has dropped precipitously at the start of the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. We're very much waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when that happens Disney has always had a robust local market to appeal to in the past. Given the discounts I've seen being marketed locally and the sudden lifting of summer blackouts last year when Toy Story Land was not enough the entice visitors to Orlando, I'm starting to wonder if that market is still going to be there for them when they need it. I can't speak for everyone, but when it came time to renew my pass several years ago, I decided a Nintendo Switch was more appealing. And I have Disney posters on my wall. Disney's core product is nostalgia, and you can't have nostalgia when you've torn out a lot of what makes people nostalgic.

The bulldozers finally came for River Country / Cameron F
It's also been frankly bizarre to see Universal, the company who kicked all of this off by snatching the golden chalice and waking the sleeping dragon, stumble as badly as they have in Orlando. Following their second, marvelously realized Harry Potter area, they've mostly been content to open nice hotels and underwhelming replacements. Universal Orlando's "third park", Volcano Bay, is a nicely themed water park that still falls short of the theming Disney lavished on their two water parks a quarter century ago. And despite acquiring the property of my personal childhood dreams - Nintendo - progress on getting the thing open in Orlando has been stalled by a series of false starts. It's now wrapped up in a frankly bizarre venture to open a park nowhere near their other two in a move which seems doomed to boondogglery. The cross town rivals briefly looked competitive, but each year that passes the gap seems to widen and widen.

They say you can't go home again, and that's true for the Walt Disney World of the 20s.

After losing much of the history and charm at the Polynesian earlier in the decade, in 2019 the final, untouched pocket of old school WDW fell. The bulldozers arrived at Fort Wilderness to clear away River Country for a new hotel. Like the Gran Destino it will probably be very nice and probably pretty incoherent - its ostensibly about nature, and Pocahontas or something but it looks like a mid-century Radisson.

@bioreconstruct
And with that, the Walt Disney World I fell in love with as a child was finally gone. That same Walt Disney World that was still almost kinda hanging on when I worked there, the one I began writing this blog about, has finally sailed its last phantom sidewheeler steamboat across Bay Lake and vanished.

It almost, nearly, made it to 50.

If you're reading these words there's a good chance that it was your version too. But the thing is,  there is out there right now somebody who never rode the Backlot Tour or Alien Encounter or Horizons who will love it, and perhaps they'll be the next ones to pick up this thing we were part of and carry it forward.

It's not our Walt Disney World anymore... but it might just be somebody's.