Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Jokers in the Wild, Part Four

Recently, The Jungle Cruise at Disneyland has seen further upgrades and repairs. The most complex and patently lame is a new, intrusive piranha effect which at least gives the attraction a bit more of an ending, regardless of the fact that Disneyland has had the old “jumping fish on a stick” gag since at least 1959 and the opening of the Bear Valley segment of Nature’s Wonderland. There is also a new water cannon effect at the Gorilla Camp and some more subtle, but positive, shifting around of props and elements. Although the effects are more in the current Disney spirit of “knock them over the head and/or get them wet”, getting cynical tourists to respond to a ride operating on a 50 year old design aesthetic isn’t a bad thing. Far worse is the “Blood and Thunder” climax of Hong Kong Disneyland’s stripped down “Jungle River Cruise”, which manages to be twice as loud and one-third as appealing as even simple passages of traditional jungle acreage, such as Inspiration Falls.

Current Disney marketing image for The Jungle Cruise.

But the Jungle Cruise has stood the test of time and become something of a Disney staple, still lush, fresh and exciting while similar Disney staples need to be buffered every five years to stay appealing (Space Mountain, anybody?). Perhaps the innate simplicity of the attraction is its’ greatest asset: a guided tour through every Hollywood adventure clich√© packed into 4000 feet of track. The illusion of the jungle being an endless expanse still is brilliant and effective, and jokes like “the backside of water” still get laughs after 50 years of daily use. And, of course, a funny skipper spiel, on-script or not, is still something to be commended. A late 90’s attempt to change the spiel to an automated one, as well as retheme the attraction to tie into the long forgotten “George of the Jungle” movie, resulted in almost full-scale revolt and thankfully only in the new boat models having a superfluous “SPIEL” button next to the “AUDIO” switch.

Perhaps the Jungle Cruise, because of its’ popularity and attachment to Walt Disney, lingered around just long enough to become cool again. In 1959, Hawaii became a US State, and tropical excess was everywhere, still apparent in American culture in the form of luaus, tiki torches, and tiki bars. At this time Jungle Cruise was poised to be cutting edge, with its’ new Polynesian-inflected neighbors The Enchanted Tiki Room and Tahitian Terrace tapping into the American public’s fixation on the distant port of call.

The Walt Disney World of 1971 reformatted this appetite into a swooning South Seas song of beauty and romance, but by the 80’s and 90’s, The Jungle Cruise must have looked pretty sad. With new cutting edge attractions like Star Tours and Splash Mountain competing, Jungle Cruise’s pneumatic thrills looked how Disney marketed it: a low key attraction suited for children. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, published first in 1989, even made apologies as to how “hokey” the whole thing was.

But by the mid-90’s, the attitude was changing. Left to their own devices for 45 years, the fake animals and the skippers’ sometimes flippant attitude about them began to look like something new again: a post-modern attraction. Now jokes about Its A Small World, freeways and optical illusions flow as freely as water over Schweitzer Falls: the artifice has finally become the aesthetic, not the means to it.

Weather this is a good thing or not is up for debate: The Jungle Cruise’s design intent is really more in the vein of a soothing tropic breeze or the mystery of the darkest ruin. It’s vibrant landscape, colorful flowers and fanciful tableaus speak more to the romantic than the pedantic, but now that these same “informed” and “modern” tourists can begin to enjoy the show, the more evident these tonalities are. Ask anybody who’s stood on the jungle launch dock at twilight on a balmy summer evening, watching those boats, all lit up, passing into the mists of the rain forest. The cock-eyed attitude of the attraction betrays a very pure center.

So let’s celebrate, 50 years later, one of the longest living and most over the top toy chests any kid could ever ask for: The Jungle Cruise and the tradition of the live spiel. It’s still honored after 50 years of revision. And here’s to another fifty.