Friday, April 09, 2021

The Mall as Disney; Disney as the Mall

"What [Disneyland] is all about is inhabitation, the human act of being somewhere where we are protected, even engaged, by a space ennobled by our presence  Inhabitation is a powerful reality that architecture is supposed to be all about but more often isn't. It is a reality vividly present at Disneyland, whose own reality is so often dismissed." - Charles Moore

It doesn't take all that much looking to find them, the people who have never quite gotten over the conversion of Downtown Disney to Disney Springs. Head to the correct corners of the internet and they will be there, ready to tell you that Downtown Disney was special and unique and Disney Springs is... just a mall.

"A huge outdoor mall with too many people"

" Its like a shopping Mall with little Disney experience. You could be in a Mall anywhere."

"Downtown Disney at least felt like you were still in the "Disney Bubble" Disney Springs is just another high dollar outdoor mall like you can find in any major city."

Let's stop for a moment and unpack that idea. It's been an insult in our culture for a long time, ever since the multi-regional mega malls became successful enough to become a threat. Time was, any shopping could get done at these gigantic indoor behemoths, anchored by Sears or JC Penny, temples of commerce, social centers of their communities. Time was... never to return, for the bubble of the mall was a fairly short one and failed to survive the 1990s. Today, the United States is littered with fading and failed malls and, after two decades of attempting to reverse the trend, developers are throwing in the towel. These places are being transformed into apartment complexes, community colleges, and office buildings.

And yet the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, aka the Walt Disney World Village, aka the Disney Village Marketplace, aka Downtown Disney, aka Disney Springs, lives on. If it's just a mall, it has long outlived the usefulness of that insult.

Yet in another way malls do live on. There is an entire online community of people devoted to documenting these crumbling relics of the 20th century, and entire music genres devoted to evoking, through some layer of knowing despair, the cheery canned soundtracks which once filled the neon-lit malls of the cultural imagination.

The mall, especially the mall of the 1980s, has graduated in its own lifetime to become a touchstone, a composite image of a time that never existed in reality. The Generation X teens who hung out there and the elder Millennial kids hopped up on cola remember the excitements and pleasures of these places in their prime, and have gone on to turn the mall into the 1980s equivalent of the 1950s diner, the chrome and neon burger palaces commemorated in films like Grease and American Graffiti.

In short, the mall is culturally important in the same way that Disneyland is, and for many of the same reasons. As temples of curated but no less real pleasures, as products of the socially programmed 1950s, and as examples of real estate development which failed in all but a few key locations, the mall is very much a twin of the Disneyland-style theme park.

--

Quick, name the most successful and influential mall in history!

What did you come up with? The Mall of America? West Edmonton? King of Prussia? 

How about Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland?

Opening smack in the middle of other influential retail developments - Wisconsin's Valley Fair opened in March 1955 and Victor Gruen's Southdale Center in October 1956 - Main Street drank deep of the cultural times, saw a trend, and learned its secret name. A curated mix of stores and exhibits tied together with a unifying aesthetic and steeped in the kind of bleary-eyed nostalgia my generation now feels for malls themselves, Main Street has flourished while the rest have declined. It's never lost its major tenants, it has never succumbed to seediness, it continues to draw crowds, it has opened multiple new locations around the world, and it has managed to adapt to changing times without losing its essential qualities for nearly seven decades now.

Moreover, Main Street more than any other single component of Disneyland wiped out fifty years of amusement park tradition at a stroke. Old-style amusement parks had multiple entrances, but Disneyland made you pay to get in, a new and controversial idea at the time. Main Street is such a pleasure to traverse that nobody much seems to mind that the only entrance and exit is through a mall. Indeed the entire concept that theme parks could have multiple entrances is now such a novelty that Disney has successfully monetized the concept by attaching it to other Disney owned revenue centers such as hotels.

It's little wonder that no serious critical look at Disneyland has failed to observe Main Street with a mixture of disgust and awe, the ultimate and best mall, the anchor that made the success of the rest possible. Umberto Eco wrote:

"Disneyland's Main Street seems like the first scene of a fiction whereas it is an extremely shrewd commercial reality. Main Street - like the whole city [Disneyand], for that matter - is presented as at once absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic, and this is the advantage (in terms of artistic conception) of Disneyland over the other toy cities. The houses of Disneyland are full-sized on the ground floor, and on a two-third scale on the floor above, so they give the impression of being inhabitable (and they are) but also of belonging to a fantastic past that we can grasp with our imagination. The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing."

As if recognizing the impact, in 1965, the city of Santa Monica a few miles north would permanently cordon off the north-south stretch of downtown shopping on Third Street, turning what was an organically grown strip of shops into a kind of Main Street, a kind of mall. But Disneyland, retail, and city planning go even deeper than that.

It is no coincidence that Victor Gruen was both the inventor of the enclosed shopping mall as well at the author of The Heart of Our Cities, the book Walt Disney read and adopted as his blueprint for his EPCOT city. Gruen advocated for rebuilding existing communities on the shopping center plan, which is pretty much exactly what EPCOT was going to be, with the entire downtown being an enclosed, climate controlled Gruen wonderland with a great big hotel at the center of it. After Walt's death the EPCOT city was killed pretty much immediately, but the hotel did survive. When author Anthony Harden-Guest interviewed Walt Disney World Master Planner Marvin Davis about the EPCOT project, Davis pointed to that central hotel EPCOT and said:

"The proposal first was just to build this as one of the original hotels, then later on we'd be building the balance of [the city].."

In other words that central hotel slowly morphed into the Contemporary Hotel, which is why there still is a monorail running thru it today, exactly as it would have had as part of the EPCOT City. And so it is appropriate that the Contemporary's Grand Canyon Concourse is one of the few places left in the United States to see exactly what Gruen's ideal shopping mall would have been like. It is functional, except with hotel rooms instead of apartments and offices above it (many Gruen shopping malls are intended to have office spaces). It is linked in with mass transit, offers climate controlled shopping and dining, lets in natural daylight, and dominated by public art. Any company except for Disney would have demolished the building by now.

--

The Gruen-style mall was intended to be an enclosed downtown city dropped into suburbia, but not everyone wanted that, and for a few decades there was a competing style: the shopping village. Originating in Southern California where inclement weather was less of a concern, the village model split apart the traditional Downtown into a series of charming, sometimes lightly thematically unified shops.

This was a popular option in areas where maintaining some sense of historical character was desirable; as a child in New England I knew a lot of these but didn't yet know they are part of an actual retail trend. I covered one of the earliest and most influential of these themed, landscaped malls in my post on the very surprising history of San Pedro's Ports O' Call, but through the 60s and 70s they sprouted up all over, often in areas not yet capable of supporting a fully indoor mall.

If the dream of a functional EPCOT city died with Walt Disney, it didn't entirely go away. Although Disney's claim in 1982 that their EPCOT Center park was the realization of that idea was spurious in the extreme, some of the ground work done for that project did end up in the Vacation Kingdom in 1971, including a mass transit system, hidden underground areas for utility work, a modern hotel with a monorail running through it, and an automated trash disposal system. But if Disney had no intention (really no interest) in actually building that city, they did think they could build something else, something pretty close to another kind of planned city where they had recently been spending a lot of time.

That was Bayhill, Florida, a fairly early example of the now-common golf retirement communities built throughout the Sun Belt. By the late 60s Bayhill had been purchased outright by Arnold Palmer, and the Disney executive team was spending a lot of time in the ranch houses, clubhouse and golf links alongside Lake Tibet. Their property had a lot of lakes, too...

I go into the history of Lake Buena Vista, Disney's 70s timeshare community that never quite got off the ground, here. But suffice to say, they tried again and again for nearly a decade to copy what they saw up the street in Bayhill and never quite managed to get anyone interested until Eisner took over the company in 1984 and all of those ambitions went away. But they did build a "downtown" for their planned community, and they based it pretty nakedly on Ports O' Call Village. Though much more obviously compromised in original effect than either Main Street or the Grand Canyon Concourse, much of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village remains intact today.

Yet culture changed as it always must. Gruen's enclosed malls returned in the late 70s, giving birth to the 80s mall today enshrined in myth and legend. Families fled urban centers for the suburbs. Where adults saw peace and security, their children - Generation X - saw stifling conformity. These kids fled the suburbs to the more open artificiality of the youth culture of regional shopping malls. This powerful story has totally pushed the shopping villages, built by and for our parent's parents' leisure, off the map entirely. But go looking in the right places and they're there still, and Disney's example was part of a trend like many others.

--

Disney Parks retail developments mostly slept out the 80s, the boom years for malls. The nearest example is the Old Port Royale at Caribbean Beach, the resort's key amenity cluster separated, like the Contemporary Resort, from it's check-in area. Since redone in a classier style, the original Centertown area was pure 80s whimsical mall architecture, with faux Caribbean facades lining an entirely unconvincing "street". 

Disney's mall for the 80s was Pleasure Island, a kind of postmodern extension of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village done up in the then-popular trend of industrial chic. Starting especially in the late 80s and early 90s, retail began to merge the Gruen-style big box with the quaint shopping village into what we now recognize as "lifestyle centers", anchored by large chain restaurants.

Pleasure Island takes the existing lifestyle center trend and feeds it through the meat grinder of the 80s trend of "adaptive reuse". Adaptive reuse is currently very hot in the United States, but the current trend is for minimal use of exiting stone and wood whereas in the 1980s these crumbling post-industrial buildings were being turned into gonzo neon wonderlands. The influential example here is Pier 39 in San Fransisco, but the trend was everywhere through the era; remember The Old Spaghetti Factory, with its faux streetcars themed to wherever the restaurant happened to get built? Much like that chain restaurant, the industrial chic history of Pleasure Island was entirely imagined, with disused shipping facilities becoming roller arenas and baby back ribs being sold in restaurants themed to warehouses which have exploded. 

But lifestyle centers were just getting started. The gonzo theming of these high-profile big city chic dining experiences eventually trickled down to the middle class, with the rise of the chain themed restaurant in the early 90s that was kicked off by Hard Rock Cafe. Planet Hollywood made the trend mainstream, but it had sprouted like crab grass in any place that was ripe with tourists ready to plunk down their fat Clinton-era dollars on novelty. Steven Spielberg opened a sub shop that looked like the inside of a submarine, The All-Stars Cafe and ESPN attempted to copy Planet Hollywood but with sports, Rainforest Cafes created a boom economy in walk-under aquarium and gorilla animatronics, and even David Copperfield attempted to get in on the action. Some small restaurants even re-christened themselves "Road Kill Cafe" and re-named all of their menu items with gross puns on local wildlife extinguished on the nearby highway. In the white-hot days of POGs and Gateway PCs, you had to have a gimmick or go home.

Perhaps the enduring temple of postmodern design, themed lifestyle centers, and mega-chain novelty restaurants remains Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles. Opening in 1993, even to the viewer jaded by a thousand listless outdoor malls, CityWalk remains startling and enlivening. Anchored by a movie theater and concert venue, it's one of the most exciting public spaces in Los Angeles, a constantly surprising winding journey that ends with the entrance to one of the best theme parks in the country amidst splashing fountains and bustling outdoor life. Disney, of course, needed a clone of this too. And so was born Disney WestSide, with the existing Pleasure Island AMC and Planet Hollywood now joined by a raft of novelty shops and restaurants, with the concert venue becoming a Cirque De Soleil. At this point the Village Marketplace (formerly Shopping Village), Pleasure Island, and the new West Side became re-christened Downtown Disney, introducing twenty years of logistical and traffic nightmares which have only just now been solved. Victor Gruen would not have approved.

Nobody has ever quite replicated the effect of that original CityWalk - including Universal - but the West Side is one of the weakest imitations around, a dull strip of stucco with a constantly rotating cast of uninspiring stores. In Los Angeles, home of some of the finest shopping malls around, the subsequent Downtown Disney built outside Disneyland may not be all that interesting, but it's leaps and bounds above West Side, which is now 22 years old and has somehow never quite found a reason to lure tourists very deep into its concrete canyon.

--

The other trend which totally changed the American landscape in the 90s was the arrival of the big box. Big box stores were nothing new, of course - as discount, suburban outgrowths of big city department stores, they had been a force in the economy since the 1970s and the ascendency of K-Mart. But the 90s were right smack at the highest ebb of the effects of the white flight to the suburbs that had decimated American downtowns and also, crucially, an era when the huge regional shopping malls were starting to decline.

General changing tastes and concerns over those lawless teenagers who were spending so much time at the mall were causing malls to rethink their strategy and renovate themselves into sterile white environments without any of those planters, fountains, and public art sculptures designed to encourage shoppers to linger - open floor space in malls would become home to endless rows of kiosks selling cheap tat and aggressive merchants that encouraged shoppers to keep walking. This deadly combination would eventually doom the mall and push shoppers out of the mall and into the big boxes that dominate shopping life today.

In 1995, a cluster of shops on the south side of the Disney Village Marketplace once home to the sprawling chalet-style Christmas Shop would be pulled down. Taking its place would be a new store, World of Disney, described in panting hyperbole at the time as the "largest Disney merchandise outlet in the world". As long as a football field! Nearly 6,000 square feet! A jumbotron showing Disney movies! Buy buy buy!

Of course, the entire concept of the "world's largest Disney store" is an absurdity because Walt Disney World itself was already just that, but the ruse worked and World of Disney has remained in demand despite selling pretty much the same stuff found everywhere else at Disney. Additional locations opened in Anaheim and Shanghai, and the Disney Store on Times Square was even briefly rebranded as a World of Disney for about four years.

Everything about World of Disney, from its intentionally confusing layout, division into departments, and endless rows of cashiers and chain-branded concept reveals it to be essentially Disney's Target, an all in one stop for American accustomed to buying everything under one roof. It's an odd and revealing facet of Michael Eisner's leadership that he decided that Disney must have a chain of big boxes too, and it worked - with the parking lots stretching out into infinity.

--

Directly down the street from the Disney Studio in Burbank is a massive lifestyle center called The Americana at Brand. It sits across from the Glendale Galleria, one of the earliest and most impressively sprawling covered malls in the region. There is nothing in particular to do at The Americana, but it is none-the-less constantly packed, because it's a pleasant public space in a city that's nothing but streets. There's a red line street car that goes around the small complex in a loop, a few chain restaurants and a movie theater. There's also a Bellagio-style fountain show, and at Christmastime, it "snows" inside the courtyard, just like at Disneyland. When I lived in LA, I used to go there about once a week to sit on the lawn watching the fountains go and eat a crepe. The upper levels are all offices and apartments. It is, in fact, almost exactly what Victor Gruen wanted his shopping malls to be, minus the mass transit hub radiating outward.

By 2012, Disney's plans to revitalize Downtown Disney, forced more by circumstance than desire, were hitting road blocks. It's almost as if some Disney executive were caught in traffic next to the Americana and watched the bustle of crowds and thought to themselves, "maybe we should just get somebody who knows what they're doing to design this for us."

Which is exactly what they did, bringing in retail architecture firms by the truckload to redevelop Downtown Disney into Disney Springs. The result is pretty but a little plain, with food trucks and architecture reminiscent of St Augustine and reclaimed wood interiors and exposed Edison bulb pendant lights. It drops a bell jar over the early 2010s, capturing the mood of an era more perfectly than anything Disney has built since Future World at EPCOT Center.

It is very high end, but it is just a mall, which of course Downtown Disney always was to begin with. Disney Springs is as accurately of its era as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village's chalet style shops and dark wood and brick toned interiors were of the early 70s. I've made this mistake myself; Lake Buena Vista was the way I cut my teeth into doing primary-source historical research and I thought the Shopping Village was a visionary idea in 1975. It was great, but it was based on the same retail trends everything else that followed was, and I just didn't know any better. Whatever is already at Disney the first time you go there becomes your default understanding of what that place is, and anything that changes is an unwelcome intrusion. The change from Downtown Disney to Disney Spring was ambitious, extensive, and comprehensive, far more elaborate than the rebuilding of California Adventure.

But as I hope I've demonstrated, there wasn't a single mainstream retail trend that Downtown Disney wasn't chasing to begin with, the difference is that while any other retail or hotel operator would have torn down the old stuff and rebuilt it in the new style, Disney just kept adding onto it piecemeal. And instead of thinking of it as just a mall, I'd encourage everyone to think of Disney Springs as one of the few places in the world where you can walk through almost 50 years of retail design history. 80s industrial chic sits cheek to jowl with modern lifestyle center stucco just down the street from a ludicrous 90s big box and a 60's style chalet village. The styles have been constantly refreshed, not preserved intact, but you can still spot it if you know what you're looking for.

Nobody looks out for retail history, not the retailers, not the public. If you look carefully and in less well trafficked corners of the world you can find intact retail from the 80s, but you’ve really got to get lucky. We wouldn’t be nostalgic for the idealized 80s mall if we could go out and find them. These things are ephemeral, vanishing, and disrespected - by the time enough time has passed for anyone to be nostalgic for something as ephemeral as a design trend, most of it is gone. 

It will sooner rather than later come to pass that Disney Springs will be reworked into the newest trend as mandated by the newest managers and all that reclaimed wood and exposed filament light bulbs will become but another memory, partially preserved in amber alongside all of the other trend fossils at Walt Disney World.

And in that sense ironically Disney World is a museum, where a modular concrete slab structure is still called “The Contemporary”, where a rotating furniture gallery from 1964 spins ever onwards, and where all those years between then and now collapse into an instant.

It's just a mall - same as it ever was - but what a mall, with what a history.

If you enjoyed this piece on the intersection of history and themed design you should check out my book, Boundless Realm, all about the intersectionality of Disney's Haunted Mansion and popular culture!

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Weird History of Ports O' Call Village

Today, I'm bringing you back. Back to a time when, in a relaxed milieu of quaint shingle structures embracing a body of water, sophisticated adult shoppers could mingle through boutiques like a tobacconist, fashionable resort wear, and candle shop, or perhaps take a relaxed cruise across a bay.

There was fresh seafood, a permanently moored fanciful ship, and the logo was a cartoon bird flying in a circle. The Walt Disney World Village.......... was a complete knockoff of Ports O' Call Village in San Pedro, California, one of the earliest and most influential retail developments in history.

What? Hold on here.... let's back this boat up and start from the beginning. What the heck is the Ports O' Call Village?

There are two players in this drama we must get to know: David C Tallichet Jr, and the Los Angeles Harbor Commission. The harbor commission had a strip of government land inside the harbor that they wanted to make some greenbacks on, and Tallichet had a shiny new restaurant in Long Beach called The Reef.

Tallichet in flush times

David Tallichet was a former WWII pilot who had worked as a manager of a Hilton hotel in Long Beach, back in those heady days when Hilton was regarded as the gold standard of hospitality and was just then starting to expand overseas.

Tallichet rounded up some investment partners, including George Millay - eventual creator of Sea World - and embarked on a series of restaurant ventures starting in Long Beach with The Reef in 1958. Tallichet's main idea was to build each restaurant to match and emphasize a scenic location and cross that with Disneyland-style theming - he built Polynesian restaurants overhanging the Pacific, aviation restaurants alongside airport runways, and sophisticated retreats in the hills ringing Los Angeles.

At the same time, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission was seeking new tenants to revitalize a strip of land alongside the harbor in the city of San Pedro, then home to several old fishing piers and little else. The terms were good and the location, alongside the water with real ships passing in and out, had potential unlike any other restaurant in the area. Tallichet's Ports O' Call Restaurant, housed in a Polynesian longhouse and surrounded by a forest of tropical foliage in pure Adventureland tradition, opened in Feburary 1961 and proved an immediate success. A lagoon at the entrance, ringed with jungle-thick, had a Chinese junk partially sunken in it. Rooms inside were themed to Hawaii (Waikiki), Tahiti, the Hong Kong Yacht Club and a Japanese "Tea Room" - a concept lifted wholesale from Steve Crane's Kon-Tiki Ports chain in Hiltons across the country.

It was such a success that Tallichet went back to the Harbor Commission and secured another parcel of land a little south of Ports O' Call where he built another concept - the Yankee Whaler Inn. Housed in a Colonial New England style white clapboard structure, servers were dressed as 18th century nautical sailors and the kitchen issued forth chowders, scampis, and the largest lobsters that could be obtained. Both restaurants, as well as Tallichet's other ventures The Reef in Long Beach, Castaway in Burbank, and the Pieces of Eight in Marina del Ray, were designed by Vernon Leckman.

The combination of San Pedro, then just starting to attempt to revitalize itself from decades of a rough waterfront reputation, and Tallichet's trendy themed restaurants, seemed impossible to beat. We're not sure if their next step was suggested by Tallichet or the commission, but it's when the project got truly creative. The first modern themed mall in America was announced. Tallichet pulled out all of the stops, including hiring Victor Gruen Associates for the master planning of the development.

"1.5 Million "Village" Approved", crows the headline of an item in the San Pedro Pilot of May 1962. The piece goes on...

"One of California's most important recreational developments since Disneyland is scheduled for construction this year in the Port of Los Angeles. David C. Tallichet, president of the Ports O' Call Restaurant Corporation announced today that the Harbor Commission has given its approval for the 1 1/2 million Ports O' Call Village immediately adjacent to the Ports o' Call Restaurant in San Pedro.

[...]

According to Tallichet's project manager, Edwin G. Gilfoy, the development will be remiscient of a 19th century fishing village, with cobblestone streets, gas lights and the aura of the sea.

"We have already purchased a 230 foot ferry and brought it down from Northern California for refurbishing", Gilfoy said. The old ferry will be moored in front of the Village and will house an Oriental and European import shop, a fantasy toy land, and a milk luncheon shop in the fashion of an old showboat."

Later in construction in 1963, Leckman provided details to the Los Angeles Times:

"Wood frame construction is being used through the development, with most exterior walls of heavy redwood and batten. Some finished redwood, shingle, plaster, tile, brick, and stone walls are also being utilized. Roofs are shingles and shakes, while streets and roads of the village will be of cobblestone to recapture the typical atmosphere of an 18th Century waterfront village.

"Nothing is being spared to recapture the authentic old world atmosphere," Leckman said, "Finishes are designed to weather quickly so as to enhance the weather-beaten appearance. Even the nails are ungalvanized so as to encourage rusting."

Oh, and about that ferry boat, the SS Sierra Nevada, which was built in 1912 and long serviced as a form of mass transit across San Fransisco Bay. Tallichet actually bought it all the way back in 1961, as we discover in the Oakland Tribune, where we find that he paid $19,750 for it during an eight-day auction, and furthermore that "The 49 year old ferryboat will be moored next to one of Tallichet's waterfront restaurants and rented to Sausalito merchant Luther W. Conover as a variety import store. Conover converted the old ferryboat Berkeley into the Trade Fair store two years ago in Sausalito."

Tallichet, on the Right, buying the Sierra Nevada.

Tallichet, whatever his other faults, began over-promising almost immediately. With his Shopping Village venture not even yet open and less than a year after the initial approval from the Harbor Commission, he announced yet more expansions.

Gangway aboard the "Sierra Nevada" along "Flint Lock Lane"
at Ports O' Call Shopping Village


"2.7 Million 'Port Village' Seen - Approval sought for 14-acre development", the front page of the News Pilot blares. The details spun below are dizzying and need to be recounted to make sense of the rest of our story:

"The commission, under Chairman Dr. George Wall, gave a village development organization representing Dave Tallichet and Norm Hagen a go-ahead to develop a long-pending Southland redevelopment project. The group approved the program in principle which would allow Hagen, who operates the existing sports fishing landing, and the Tallichet Group, to combine forces under a 50-year lease to develop the entire 27 acres, including the parking lot, as a unit under one operating body."


I've already indicated that Tallichet built the Yankee Whaler just south of the Ports O' Call Restaurant. The Ports O' Call Shopping Village opened just north of the Ports O' Call Restaurant. Immediately north of that was Norm's Sportfishing Pier. Demonstrating that Tallichet and Hagen had every intention, as of 1963, of working together to knit all of these businesses together into one huge shopping and recreation center, Tallichet built a third restaurant - Bay of Naples - just north of Norm's Pier. 

Just read these plans:

"The multi-million dollar project will include four international villages, one with a Chinese flavor patterned after the port of Hong Kong, and three others drawing upon world famous ports. [...] Further plans call for the redevelopment of Norm's Sportfishing Landing into a Fisherman's Village area, including the expansion of the present sportfishing facilities; a high caliber amusement zone; an international village; a number of a new restaurants; a motor-hotel with 75 units and 60 boat slips and a three-story office building totalling some 55,000 sq. feet."

The completed Village in 1963. The 1961 Ports O' Call Restaurant, surrounded
by foliage with drive-up roundabout, is on the far right.

It must be pointed out that the early 60s were boom years for this sort of insane development speculation. The optimistic 50s had still not quite subsided, land prices were falling, suburbs were rising, and there seemed no ceiling on what fanciful projects the public would embrace. C.V. Wood, the man erased from Disney history, had gone on to poach design talent from imploding Hollywood studios like MGM and succeeded in building an unlikely chain of Disneyland-style amusement enterprises, most famously Freedomland in New York City. Roy Hofheinz in Houston had rode an unlikely rocket to success through politics and television, eventually building the Astrodome and his own Texas Disneyland, Astroworld, tied together in a recreation empire he called the "Astrodomain". And, of course, there's real estate developer Angus G. Wynne, who did what C.V. Wood and David Tallichet could not by opening Six Flags Over Texas, Georgia, and Mid-America -- places that still exist today.

Still, Tallichet's plans are absurdly ambitious, and eventually would come back to haunt Ports O' Call Village down the line. But for the moment, June 28, 1963, was all upside for Tallichet as the project finally opened. 1963 newspaper advertisements promote Hudson's Bay Company (a home wares store), Ole Legende Cove (imported foods), The Californian Men's Casual Wear, Casa d'Italia, Anthony Kane Jewelers, Wing's Chinese Art, The Mermaid's Dowry (sea shell gifts), Hickory Farms (yes, they once had stores), Murata Pearls from Japan, Thorsen's Scandanavia Shop on the Sierra Nevada, The Wheelhouse cafe, the Petal Pusher Flower Shop, Wynne's Boutique, Village Smoke Shop, a pet shop, and the Candy Cove. Rounding everything off, Tallichet had been operating an excursion boat for harbor cruises and cocktail parties, variously known either as the MV Princess or the SS Princess, of which I could find very little useful information.

The News Pilot may have slipped Dave a Mickey, however, when they casually revealed that the entire project cost $10 Million, not the $1.5 Million announced (unless, of course, that was a typo).

Regardless, the Ports O' Call Village was, for 1963, entirely unique. Malls had not yet flourished across the country - most of the major malls in Los Angeles would not appear until the 1970s - and the Village instantly made the Port of Los Angeles into a destination on any tourist itinerary. A September 1963 advertisement boasts:

"No getting around it, the new Ports of Call Village is really a very astonishing place. We beat our drum and shout it from the mountain tops, yet everyone who visits the Village for the first time says the same thing: "Why, I didn't know it was anything like this..!" We hide behind light posts all day just to listen to them. We know its an astonishing place... it was meant to be that way. But, people don't believe it until they see it."

In August 1963, announcing the arrival at the village of a "folk music hootenanny" (can't make this stuff up...), the Village estimated that around 85,000 people visited during the past weekend.

It took the Port Commission and Tallichet some time to make their next move. Writing almost fifteen years later in 1977, News Pilot author Mike Daugherty speaks of plans to build a maritime museum at the port, born of technological advances in the shipping industry which was wiping out the old fashioned traditions of the old port city. San Pedro's Beacon Street district, once a notorious strip of dives and whore houses catering to sailors on shore leave, was shortly to fall victim to urban renewal. Harbor Commissioners, led by Dr. George Wall, hired Ray Wallace to design an appropriate museum stylized after the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. 

"His plans included replicas of an old San Pedro church, the Exchange Hotel, a railroad museum, and the port's first pilot and marine exchange station. He says the village area would have included some retail shops, but the [historic] sailing ship would have been the main attraction."

To this end Tallichet apparently invested $8000 and agreed to allow the Museum group build in open land south of his Yankee Whaler Inn, pending that an appropriate sailing ship could be procured. Al Atchinson, who was on the Maritime Museum Association, accuses Tallichet of retracting his support for the project and moving ahead with an expansion of the shopping village on his own; Tallichet cites "political problems" at the port at the time. Daugherty notes, "One harbor commissioner was found dead in the harbor waters and four others later were indicted on bribery charges connected with construction of the Pacific Trade Center."

....Excuse me??

It's True! In 1964, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty appointed Pietro Di Carlo, prominent area businessman to the Harbor Commission. Under Yorty and Di Carlo, Los Angeles was aggressively moving forward with a World Trade Center project, intended to be split between Los Angeles Airport and Terminal Island and viewed as key to the continued economic success of the port. The project was announced, ground was broken, but no trade center appeared. Ominously, rumbles of conflicts of interest arose in the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

And then, on November 7, 1967, Di Carlo was found floating face down in a slip at the old San Pedro Ferry building. Mayor Yorty screamed foul. A few weeks later, a Grand Jury was convened to investigate charges of embezzlement, and handed down their indictments on December 29, while Mayor Yorty was on vacation in Acapulco. Essentially, board member George Walton had voted to approve the plans presented by board member Kevin Smith who owned the construction company which had been awarded the contract the build the Trade Center - all actors appointed by Yorty, of course. The trouble is that Smith had recently taken out quite a large number of shares in Cabrillo Savings and Loan, owned by... Pietro Di Carlo, as well as possible monetary kickbacks and trading of office furniture.... the Trade Center never got off the ground. Ironically, the building where the body was found is today the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

But Tallichet had been granted approval for his ambitious plans for the entire strip of land, with its hotel and amusement park, so he went ahead and started building while the Harbor Commission was dragging their feet on plans for museums and trade centers. The Shopping Village was already directly connected to the Ports O' Call Restaurant, and his next venture would connect the Ports O' Call to the Yankee Whaler Inn, allowing free access to the entire strip of Tallichet holdings, and also Norm's Pier.

A bridge was built across the lagoon in front of the Ports O' Call, leading visitors into the most thematically ambitious section of the Shopping Village, the Whaler's Wharf. The Valley Views from Van Nuys was suitably impressed:

"To say the new buildings are authentic reproductions is certainly true and they are as cute and quaint as one could imagine. They've even gone so far as to build some of them off plumb, with caving roof lines, crooked doors, and walls that appear to careen off into the water. Streets are narrow and winding, paved with brick and including the center drain for runoff water..."


Looking at photos and postcards of the Whaler's Wharf, it's hard not to be impressed. It may be a mall, but in intimacy and execution its darn close to the real deal, and far more atmospheric than Liberty Square at Magic Kingdom. Decades later, in his essential Los Angeles: The City Observed, architect Charles Moore waxed poetic about Ports O Call and the Wharf in particular:

"The first phase, in the middle, is a particularly relaxed mixture of California Ranch board-and-batten and shakes, a somewhat Spanish stucco, and a little Beverley Hills ornamented French, just like everything else in Los Angeles - especially in the early 60s.

[..]

...An old Nantucket whaling port theme was kept in mind and carried out with considerable verve. The shops are mostly two stories, but they seem small and cute, arranged informally along winding brick streets or wooden wharves or intimate plazas. The buildings come in a number of persuasions, covered in clapboard or shingles or sometimes brick, but they all seem to belong here, united by certain details, like small-paned windows in white frames and by the luxuriant foliage and the care that went into them. Three full-size, square-rigged sailing ships, which go out on harbor and dinner cruises, are berthed at one of the wharves; their intricately rigged masts float above the little buildings at least as realistically as the Matterhorn at Disneyland does above Main Street."

At least one of those ships was named the Buccaneer Queen and was built - at first as a hobby - by Gary Nevarez, a retired police officer from Venice. The News Pilot of September 1971 informs us that its sails were used in the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty, presumably the ill-fated 1962 version with Marlon Brando. It was operating at the Ports O' Call possibly as early as 1965, and today seems to sail from Cabo San Lucas in Baja, Mexico.

1967's Whaler Wharf represented not just a high point for themed shopping, but it's the high point for the entire Ports O Call project. Perhaps Di Carlo turning up dead in a slip just north of Ports O' Call really was a sign of things to come, but very soon the bloom would be off the rose and times, as always, were changing fast.

--

In May 1970, the Harbor Commission approved plans for a 328-foot sky tower attraction to be built in the parking lot across from the main entrance to the Shopping Village at a cost of $425,000. Modeled on the Sky Towers at Sea World and Marineland, admission was to be set at 60 cents per adult and 30 cents per child and said to be ready for January 1971.

January came and went, as the Sky Tower went up in pieces, until March 1971, when high winds in the area caused the tower, around two-thirds complete, to crack. Two sections at the top of the tower were removed and then work stopped as engineers and management studied the issue. Two years passed, until Janurary 1973, when work resumed. Ports O' Call promised the structure would be ready by April. That didn't happen either.

The Skytower finally opened on Saturday, May 25, 1974, three and a half years behind schedule. On its second day of operation, 25 people were trapped in the passenger capsule and had to be evacuated via fire ladder. Two days later, the same incident repeated itself, although the tower was able to resume operation after an hour and the rescue team was not called.

In September 1977, the Sierra Nevada ferry sprang a leak. The four shops and two restaurants aboard were closed, and the manager of the shopping complex told the News Pilot that the repairs would cost more than the boat was worth and it would be scrapped. Yet in September 1978, the Sierra Nevada still floated... in Long Beach Harbor, apparently derelict after being blown onto Terminal Island during a storm. This happened because the owner of the vessel, a salvage operator named Al Kidman, was currently in federal prison on Terminal Island (!) after damaging the Cabrillo Beach Fishing Pier with a half-sunken boat. And so, from San Fransisco to Los Angeles and finally Long Beach, the Sierra Nevada passes out of history.

Incidentally, the Sierra Nevada's sister establishment docked in Sausalito also sprung a leak in 1970, although the fate of the 1898 Berkeley was a happier one - she was purchased by the Maritime Museum of San Diego where she exists today. There were brief rumblings of the SS Catalina coming to Ports O' Call Village to replace the ferry, but this never happened. At some point following the removal of the ferry, the walkway to the former location of the ferry and the buildings bordering the gangplank were pulled down. Since the Shopping Village was literally built around the ferry, this meant that the carefully planned effect of meandering through cobblestone streets was permanently compromised, much as if the buildings housing Cafe Orleans and French Market at Disneyland were pulled down but the rest of the area left intact. Ports O' Call was now more of a C-shaped grid of buildings facing open harbor space.

It appears as if the Skytower ceased regular operations in 1979, meaning it got five paltry years of operation. By 1980, Ports O' Call was offering free rides in the Sky Tower with a $5 purchase in any shop, presumably only running the attraction on days when the offer was valid. The Sky Tower attraction closed quietly in either 1983 or 1984 - as a representative told the Los Angeles Times, it simply never paid.

Things were generally not rosy at Ports O' Call by the 1980s. In 1984, merchants in the village banded together to plead against a rent increase. The News Pilot reported that "promised work on walkways, landscaping, lighting, roofs, signs and building exteriors and an inoperable skytower are all months overdue. In the case of the walkways, the situation is so bad that that some village visitors have suffered injuries and filed lawsuits. Yet rather than replace those walkways, the old ones have been patched and re-patched, work that as repair can be billed to tenants. [..] Tallichet would have to pay if new walks were installed."

The Harbor Commission agreed, opining that Tallichet had never fully fulfilled the terms of their 50 year agreement - no Mexican or Danish Villages, no motor hotel - and was negligent in maintaining his properties. This bad publicity did cause a minor spending spree at Ports O Call. Repairs began, and The Ports O' Call restaurant closed in September for what was reported to be a $1 million renovation, although employees complained they were not informed of the closure until a week before. The new look added a second level with banquet facilities, although the Polynesian theme was done away with almost entirely. Described as "Nautical Victorian", photos of the place which survive online resemble more an 80s retirement home recreation room with bits of tropical decor here and there - a sad end for a restaurant which once had a sunken ship out front.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that discontent amongst the Merchants had not abated. Tallichet's firm had vacillated over what to do with the unprofitable Sky Tower for years, and as of 1986 was considering selling it to Bob-Lo Island in Michigan. "The Sky Tower is a landmark and we would prefer that it stay", one was quoted as saying, "The majority of the merchants want the the Sky Tower left up and operational." The Los Angeles Time article enumerates massive complaints, including delayed lease negotiations, rotting wooden walkways, termites, and painting of surfaces that was only done at eye level.

The Sky Tower was demolished and not relocated. By 1986, there were newer, better malls in places like Santa Monica, Glendale, Thousand Oaks, and Culver City. Moreover, the Ports O Call concept had been copied in a more modern, whimsical style at Shoreline Village in Long Beach. Why drive all the way out to the port? The decline had begun.

--


American Woman RV on YouTube
By the time I saw Ports O' Call in 2012, the decades of neglect had not been kind. The few operating shops seemed to specialize in cheap tat like $5 t shirts and wind chimes. The Yankee Whaler Inn and most of the Whaler's Wharf had been pulled down years ago, leaving a few inexplicable and closed up New England style shops sitting out all alone by the water. As hilariously and accurately described by author Eric Brightwell, its specialty seemed to be "family fare with palpable menace".

But the story of the Ports O' Call is also the story of all failed shopping malls, even those without historic verisimilitude, pirate ships built by retired policemen, leaky ferries and broken sky rides. What once was viewed as a source of civic pride and a community center slowly gave way to decay and endless cycles of deferred re-investment until it was too late.

Ironically, the one part of the complex spared this fate was Norm's Landing. As Tallichet and the Harbor Commission dragged their feet on the endless Sky Tower debacle, Norm's was saved from imminent removal long enough to weather the storm. In the 70s, Norm's had begun operating a seafood restaurant, and in 1978 the Harbor Commission approved the construction of a second seafood restaurant nearby. This was the legendary San Pedro Fish Market, and by 1982 it had expanded and swallowed whole the adjoining restaurants, as well as Norm's Landing itself.

Today, the San Pedro Fish Market still operates, having outlasted every single business around it. It's a cheap, boisterous, loud place. You join the endless hordes filing past the gigantic seafood case, standing on tile that looks exactly like it was installed in 1982. Your pick out your seafood, it is weighed, and you carry it over to the kitchen, where they cook it on huge, flat top griddles, from which emerges ludicrous, heaping piles of seafood on plastic trays. You buy a cheap Mexican beer and carry your seven or eight pounds of seafood outside to an endless seating area alongside the harbor. It's kind of skeevy, and it's awesome.


In other words, even if Norm's Landing itself is a distant memory, the whole Norm's Landing ethos of cheap food and entertainment has far and long outlasted the rest of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission's over-reaching ambitions to bring high class culture circa 1962 to a place which once was home to screamingly drunk sailors staggering their way towards Beacon Street. No money may have been spared to bring tourists and swells down to the waterfront, but in the end it was the cheap thrills of working class pier that outlasted them all, as it has in all places and all times. You could eat your weight in fish then stagger south to a weirdly derelict collection of shops and wonder what any of this was doing here, as I did. That's why this essay exists.

David C. Tallichet died in 2007. Very little of his restaurant empire remains, and it's uncertain how much more of it will end up surviving Covid-19. Tallichet opened more shopping villages, including a failed one in Tampa and a little-loved "Londontowne" venture alongside the Queen Mary in Long Beach. If it ever reopens, Proud Bird at LAX is a place where you can get a pretty decent burger and watch the planes land. The former WWII airman ended up amassing a massive collection of vintage fighter planes and will be remembered perhaps by that specialist community better than for his development career. It was his personal B-17 bomber that appeared in the 1990 film Memphis Belle, and he flew it across the country to the shoot himself.

The last standing part of Whaler's Wharf in 2018 / Michael Nyiri on Flickr

In 2016, Harbor Officials announced that the entire strip of property that once was Tallichet's empire would be re-developed. They evicted all of the of the shop owners, largely operated by minority business owners, causing a furore amongst locals. In 2017, the remaining operating restaurants closed - Acapulco, the Crusty Crab, and a few others. The last one standing was the historic Ports O' Call, no longer part of the Specialty Restaurants Group and gone slightly to seed - the owners simply ignored the eviction notice, kept booking parties, and claimed they were able to stay open. An injunction was filed, a Judge upheld the rights of the Harbor Commission, and the 1961 landmark was torn down. The upcoming $150 Million dollar replacement, The San Pedro Public Market, looks exactly like the generic bullshit you'd expect to be built in 2020.

Ports O' Call Village comes down / Daily Breeze

----

Except!

When it came time for Walt Disney Productions to plan their downtown of shops and restaurants for their proposed Lake Buena Vista timeshare community, they quite naturally looked to the most prominent local example to pattern their own shopping village on.

Remember that in 1973, the main early Southern California malls such as the Glendale Galleria were still several years away. It’s not that indoor malls were unheard of - the downtown of Walt’s Epcot city was patterned after those - but they mostly had begun being built in the 1950s before the industry briefly shifted to the model typified by the Ports O' Call.

It was a short lived trend, and the gigantic climate controlled box would return to favor as a hangout for youths, destroying the memory of the quaint shopping villages of the 1960s. But in the early 70s, a landscaped network of shops was considered the more modern and adult option, and one of the best examples in the country was just down on the harbor.

Disney took it all - the weathered wood, the waterside location, the flowers and statues, the boat rentals, the quaint carved signs, the seafood restaurant on the water, even the candle shop. When it came time to expand they added a big white boat, although theirs was a paddlewheel, not a ferry, and they built it as an actual structure sitting on a foundation in the water which is why it's still there today. Many early promotional descriptions refer to the Walt Disney World Village as "New England Style", which may be crossed wires - parts of Ports O' Call definitely were New England, but the Buena Vista Village was not.

And it's not like Disney was alone, as the Ports O' Call begat imitators local and national - just in Southern California there was San Diego's Seaport Village, Long Beach's Shoreline Village, and Huntington Beach's Old World Village. And then again of course the Walt Disney World Village would soon expand and be copied all around the world. And although the exact model of Disney shopping complex that would proliferate was based more on the Paris Disney Village from 1992, without Disney's pioneering effort to expand their merchandising power in 1975 I doubt that any of those facilities would exist.


In 2020, Disney was able to resume operations at their amusement facilities in Shanghai, Orlando, Anaheim, and Paris only after rolling out operations of their shopping areas, demonstrating they key monetary and operational role these little areas have come to have for the company.

So in a way, Ports O' Call does live on, through Disney, the entity that inspired the whole project to begin with. Ports O' Call, from whence was launched a thousand shopping malls, still carries on in our culture, unloved and forgotten -- in its own way one of the most influential retail developments in history. A quite astonishing place, now a pile of rubble alongside the port which inspired it.

--

Passport to Dreams Old & New has yet more rigorously researched articles on stuff you've never heard of - begin at our portal for the Disney version of Port O' Calls, Lake Buena Vista, then move on to our Walt Disney World History Hub!

Or check out the author's brand new book Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney's Haunted Mansion.

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.

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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.