Saturday, August 26, 2006

Wallpaper Update No. 1

Not having a wide angle lens handy, our resourceful photographer
does her best to emulate a classic still. Oh well.
1024 | 1280

Detail of the new Attraction Marquee. Stuff like this
makes me think WDI isn't totally off their rocker. Late afternoon.
1024 | 1280

And finally, a little slice of paradise we like to call Adventureland:
Adventureland marquee. Pre-dawn, early July.
Can't you hear the drums in your ears already?

So after a false start and a few technical issues, I'm hoping to get this place rolling again soon, so spread the word!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Caribbean Plaza: Romance of the Tropics

Harmony, Unity, Space: stucco tile of Caribbean Plaza offsetting the hand crafted
appearance of the Tiki Room beyond. Remarkably, this architectural clash
works in perfect harmony. Now that’s Imagineering at work!

“To the north are colorful shops and refreshment areas... and throughout is a feeling of the old Caribbean – the rich red tile roofs, the textures of stucco and stone, the lush tropical plantings, the decorative ironwork. [...] And there are the fountains – half a dozen, lined with tile imported from distant ports-of-call. And the colors – pinks and blues and yellows and whites, suitably aged to recall another time [...] This is yesterday, today... the delightful Caribbean Plaza.”

~Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean

Caribbean Plaza roofline seen from El Pirata Y El Perico

The Magic Kingdom doesn’t get much love from Disney theme park enthusiasts. In some ways this is due to David Koeing’s Mouse Tales, which referred to the park at “Disneyland with the enlarge button jammed” to a swelling group of Disneyland locals who had never been there to begin with. Yet in all the ways it is not Walt’s Disneyland, and it is not, it is the work of his closest associates and advisors. In some of the ways Disneyland fails, from a design perspective, The Magic Kingdom succeeds gloriously, and for each compromise made in the upgrade from Disneyland, a new element was added.

At The Magic Kingdom the biggest compromise was space, space for all those hundreds of thousands of tourists who have scrambled through the turnstiles since 1971. What makes The Magic Kingdom so profoundly “not Disneyland” is the loss of a sense of intimacy. What it substitutes is a particular brand of over the top sentimentality and romanticism which was the exclusive domain of the Florida development until 1982 and the opening of EPCOT.

Adventureland, a swooning swansong to distant cultures and outdated ideas of exoticism, has perhaps suffered the least damage to its’ essential thematic makeup over the years, despite plopping a spinning attraction into the center of the area, adding a cynical new show to the Sunshine Pavillion, and significantly redressing Caribbean Plaza for a movie tie in. This is, in some ways, the strongest testament to the strength of it’s’ design on all levels. Adventureland is still an exotic heartbeat and perhaps the only area of the Magic Kingdom which captures some of the elusive fragrance of Disneyland.

Caribbean Plaza, an apparent afterthought in the grand scheme of the park, is actually the most well designed area of not only Adventureland, but the entire Magic Kingdom. In a park where the designers hedged their bets and crammed huge pedestrian traffic zones through areas which should otherwise be quiet and intimate (witness Liberty Square), Caribbean Plaza takes a cue from Disneyland’s operationally similar New Orleans Square of 1966 (in that both exist to disguise the Pirates of the Caribbean show) and provides a series of out of the way spaces for guests to wander into. There are balconies, overlooks, small courtyards; fountains (even if they’re dry ones, post 2000); tiny spaces and back corridors which feel like brand new discoveries just for the guest who has stumbled across them.

This rarely noticed lamp hangs above the area between Pirates’ Bazaar and the restroom.

The Plaza is the height of Walt Disney World romanticism. It even has tiny little painted tile signs designating each area as something unique: Fuente Cielo Azul, Plaza Del Sol, Torre del Caribe Sol. Castillo del Morro. There are four courtyards, only one of which is located in a guest pedestrian area, the others must be sought out. On certain nights, when the sun has just sunken below the horizon and the twilight is bright and blue, the romantic quality of this area is staggering.

Another design feature fairly unique to The Magic Kingdom is an exaggerated sense of depth. The viewer must constantly look beyond the images in his immediate view to see the rest of the plaza; rooflines and ornate features stack up one behind the next. This effect is used extensively in EPCOT Center’s World Showcase, but is fairly unique in this park.

Extensive use of arches increases the sense of depth throughout by closing off the viewer’s frame of reference for each arch’s relative distance.

The forced perspective fortress beyond Caribbean Plaza. It is elevated off the actual show building to disguise the relatively shallow distance between you and it.

Caribbean Plaza’s most obvious failing is its’ lack of convincing forced perspective. This is even evident from directly in front of the watchtower, the area’s most distinctive icon, which is simply obviously not as tall as it should be. Three-quarter scale balconies are viewed from too far away to be effective as illusions. New Orleans Square at Disneyland uses a similar technique but succeeds because the balconies must be viewed at an oblique angle due to the constricted width of the streets; in Caribbean Plaza, several of these landings can be viewed from almost head on.

This is not really the fault of the designers; if the area had been built as nearly full-size then it would be visible from Frontierland. Rather, this is a design choice imposed on the entire Magic Kingdom and, as a result, all subsequent expansion: generally speaking, the farther you are away from the castle, the more pronounced the forced perspective becomes. In certain areas, like the farthest outlying areas of Frontierland, this becomes rather dire. Caribbean Plaza keeps it almost in check by recessing the balconies and courtyards.

Note the recessed balcony. The staircase and potted plants make it difficult to gauge the actual size of the set dressing.

Interestingly enough, not even a movie overlay could diminish these charms. The stain wash applied to practically everything in sight is actually in keeping with the history of the plaza: although it’s hard to tell in older photographs, the area always was aged slightly. It’s now aged even heavier, but this only somehow adds to the charm.

The classic “Caribbean Plaza – Pirates of the Caribbean” sign has come down, replaced with a more generic “passage to Frontierland / Adventureland” sign in a similar style. This can only be seen as a disappointment, but it is hardly surprising. Over the years, Magic Kingdom management has actively sought to steal the unique identity of Caribbean Plaza as its own land, just as Liberty Square and Frontierland are now regarded as two separate lands, not the unique tour of America they actually represent as one “uber-land”.

The 1998 area music loop of steel drums has been replaced by bombastic film soundtrack music, which combines with the whimsical new attraction sign to energize the area with a flavor of adventure and excitement. It may not be old school Caribbean Plaza, but it manages to strike a harmonious balance.

Most remarkable of all is that none of this gets lost in the mix: Caribbean Plaza is still a beautiful and exciting place to be, the most engaging and rewarding of the Magic Kingdom areas, in 1973 or 2006.

Return next week for more photos!

As An Introduction...

...a quote.
“The tat and kitschy quality that comes across in flat pictures dissolves when you go through those turnstiles. The lath and plaster is solid, the cardboard is so tough you never see it wobble. The paint is fresh, the flags flutter, the bands play, the people laugh and cry out for more, more security, more nostalgia, more happiness, more memories of a world better than our own. […] Is this bad? Is this, as critics say, like a drug, an escapist immature fantasy generated by an immature showman for cash? Or is it a work of art, as The Wizard of Oz or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Singin’ in the Rain are works of art, commercially manufactured products that transcend their age and have a meaning to themselves as all great works of art should have?”

pg. 321, Robin Allan, Walt Disney and Europe. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. 1999.

This blog will be, hopefully, a respectable attempt to appreciate, editorialize, eulogize, or otherwise comment on the Walt Disney Company theme parks, or anything else I may have to say about this significant facet of American culture, in the form of internet blatherings. So let's begin!