Thursday, September 28, 2006

Jokers in the Wild, Part One

An opening day attraction at every Disney park but one, the original “E” ticket, one of the most conceptually and thematically advanced of pre-1964 Disney attractions, and the true heart of any Adventureland, The Jungle Cruise has been a Disney standard since 1955.

It also seems to foster – or breed – eccentricity, for between the years of 1955 and 1994 The Jungle Cruise was the boy’s camp of Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and begat it’s own set of bizarre wisecracks, pranks, and traditions bred out of giving young men a boat, a gun, and a lot of really fake animals to talk about – over and over and over again.

The Jungle Cruise has never been subject to much close scrutiny by fans, possibly because of the evident “hokiness” of the ride vis-√†-vis modern sensibilities and attractions Disney has been building since 1967. It also fails to suggest an endlessly explorable “mythology” such as in Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. Of course those two masterpieces had the benefit of at least ten additional years of planning and conceptual design to build a “background” of mystery and suspense: despite undergoing almost constant improvement, The Jungle Cruise had, in effect, less than one year of turnaround. Those boats have been plowing the waters of the Rivers of Adventure and stopping to admire the backside of Schweitzer Falls for over fifty years now.

The Jungle Cruise is Adventureland.

Of course subsequent expansions have made Adventureland, as a unit, more diverse, but all the way up until 1994 all attractions were built in order to aid the Jungle in mind: The Enchanted Tiki Room neatly matches the “faux Polynesia” tone evoked by the Jungle Cruise boathouse; The Tahitian Terrace continued the tradition of live music accompanying your return to civilization; and the Swiss Family Treehouse was perfectly perched to allow a spectacular view of the rivers of Adventure. But even the all-encompassing hold of Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure, a modern E-Ticket unmatched anywhere in the world, is not enough to dilute the river’s power: despite efforts to age the boats, adapt the spiel, theme the dispatch area and generally impose itself on the then-45 year old attraction, The Jungle Cruise still seems to be the most important thing in the area. In terms of hogging pure real estate in the pantheon of Disney attractions it is matched only by The Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, themselves simply variations of the Jungle Cruise model. Indeed, for the first several years of operation, the attraction’s sign read simply “ADVENTURELAND” and all other buildings in the area were built only to create a backdrop for it.

That early attraction was really the brainchild of Harper Goff, the design genius who gave us the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. As is commonly reported by seemingly everyone, the original plan called for real animals, but after various biologists convinced Walt Disney that their care and display would be utterly impractical, Goff offered to design Disney a “Hollywood Jungle”, where animals would threaten boats on cue. It worked.

The early version of the attraction was dependant on Bill Evans’ careful landscaping as much as on Goff’s scenic design and Bill Mattey’s mechanical animals, and between the three of these men most of the credit for the first eight years jungle launches can be attributed. Goff’s major set pieces, such as the candy-striped boats themselves, the early Cambodian shrine overrun by mechanical monkeys, and the magnificent Schwietzer Falls, are still important elements of the show. Goff contributed something else, too: creating a sufficiently winding river to both maximize the limited space and create a real sense of unpredictable flowing and possible danger. Although some concept art exists of the area’s “flow” and of course blueprints had to be drawn up, the flow feels improvisational, twisting and turning out of sight, and trucks were driven through the dry riverbeds to give the designers an approximation of how well this effect would come off.

And such was the Jungle Cruise, for a time. By 1956 mechanical quirks had been worked out of the system and the animals were now controlled pneumatically, a practice which continues to this day. In 1957 a human presence was added to the dangerous Congo, and where bushmen were previously seen to merely peer from behind logs at passing boats, they now danced in a circle and rose to attack the boats with spears. The boats first passed through a synthetic “rain forest” in 1957 en route to the Cambodian Shrine, and for the first time, “Trader Sam” offered shrunken heads at the journey’s end in the area originally nearly devoid of anything to see past “the backside of water”.

By the early sixties Walt had tapped famed animator Marc Davis to take a look around Disneyland and make suggestions for improvements. Davis found a disappointing lack of humor or whimsy and much wasted opportunity and set about designing a series of gags for the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland. This accomplished, he set about working on The Ford Magic Skyway, Enchanted Tiki Room, and eventually what was then known as the Jungle River Cruise.

Marc Davis' Cambodian Ruins, faithfully executed.

Davis created a series of beautiful and mysterious watercolors of Cambodian ruins for a possible new first leg of the attraction and designed a cluster of humorous pachyderms, taking maximum advantage of the limited technology available to him by adding the kinetic element of water to his designs. Davis was a master at understanding what an animated prop could do, and many of his designs employ simple but brilliantly realized kinetic motion devices such as water or cloth to make the figures appear to move more than they actually do.

The other major scene he developed was the Great African Veldt, which in its early years featured lions menacing guests with a bloodied zebra carcass, which was brilliantly offset by his famous and comical “Trapped Safari” scene immediately thereafter. The skippers, originally delivering a semi-educational if sometimes dryly comic narration, began to gradually modify the spiel to take advantage of Davis’ new scenes which emphasized both danger and perfectly integrated comic relief. The jungle began to take shape as the attraction it is today.

Return next week for more photos and Part Two!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Disney Jumps the Shark

Mix red and gold

From autumn flowers

Purple and blue

From twilight hours

Green summer hills and rainbows play a part...

A painter's brush -

A work of art!

Much has been made over the years as to the "dated" effect of Epcot, as a whole, an entire unit. This somewhat bizarre judgment appears to have sprung up in the 90's, the land of the cynic, as something of having been the most damming thing anybody could have said about the place at the time - that it is no longer on the cutting edge.
It is true that much of Epcot came with a built-in self destruct button, as once it was open nobody in a position of power at Disney seemed to be willing to sink the necessary dollars to keep exhibits like Symbiosis or Communicore floating on the edge of relevance. The wonderful World of Motion was shuttered and replaced with the lamest thrill ride anywhere, and Communicore, originally a series of diverse and unusual exhibits, ended up being gutted and replaced with Innoventions, a similar concept with a more cluttered "Convention Floor" feeling but which has also failed to match lock-step with progress in the world outside it.

There are more, but there is no need to continue to stress this point. In the long run, it has become obvious that everything that made Epcot unique, enchanting and revolutionary has become something to actively distrust on the part of Disney. They believed their own worst critics when the Philistines (the same ones who turned their noses up at Disneyland Paris, the most beautiful park ever built by anyone, anywhere) shouted that Epcot looked like "the future as imaged by Republicans". That Epcot was terminally unhip (Unlike, say, The Magic Kingdom, where even the buildings today scream "Seventies Nostalgia!"). So Disney set about making it "hip" and lost something along the way.

Today I can't help but feel that the tide is turning. Perhaps because Epcot's two exemplary festivals - Food & Wine in October and Flower & Garden in May (along with smaller events like Pin Days and Doll and Teddy Bear Convention year round) have forced people who may otherwise have skipped over Epcot's charms to stop and take stock of what the place actually is. To fully appreciate Epcot one must stop, look, and listen. Its' geometrically perfect buildings lack the immediate charm and razzle - dazzle of the Magic Kingdom's fantastic and ornate structures, designed to be admired while beating feet towards Space Mountain. Epcot looks somewhat cold and impersonal until you realize that each angle is a design choice among thousands of possible configurations and that each curve, arch, and corner is a design pared down to its' core of expressing an emotion of optimism.

And it may be, finally, that we’ve finally caught up with Epcot. Our sense of appealing design and aesthetic has finally harmonized with Future World’s sense of open space, uncluttered and sleek lines, and simple and appealing geometry. You can see it in the guests at the park on any given day, hear it in the way people talk about the place, read it online in any number of online forums. That’d be the greatest irony of all – that the best way to have made Epcot “hip” may been to have done nothing at all.