Thursday, March 01, 2007

If You Had If You Had Wings

Walt Disney World was conceived as a vacation destination in all of its’ forms back in the late 60’s and early 70’s – all of its’ forms, contrary to what our ardent but often short-sighted emphasis on the parks would suggest – its’ four golf courses, the Shopping Village, the resorts. This came complete with, seemingly perversely to current Disney practices, plugs for possible visits to other places in the universe not hosted or colonized by the mouse.

Among these pavilions was Eastern’s If You Had Wings, a rather strange way to promote air travel, designed by master layout man Claude Coates. The attraction, by virtue of its’ maddening deployment of repetitions of elements, Buddy Baker’s theme, and its’ then-unusual free admission, has fluttered its’ way into some corner of popular American culture. The aesthetic features of the attraction were primarily composed of minimal sets into which have been inserted projected footage of people dancing, playing, fishing, plunging to their doom, etc. Practically unimaginable today, Coates’ triumph was to create a refreshingly minimal attraction, not designed to attract attention, and all the more memorable for it. The spatial continuity the projections created was essentially similar to that of the traditional television commercial, whereby passengers move from one image to another designed to evoke exotic escape with minimal “filler” between.

As a phenomenon unique to The Magic Kingdom, If You Had Wings was merely interesting. Thanks to the lineage of location, crew, and conveyance, it is often coupled with Disneyland’s Adventure Thru Inner Space, with which it shares certain visual tropes (the entry into a dark void, white images moving across a dark wall).

Yet that comparison tends to reduce its’ form and content to an extrapolation of a prior success, which in reality the work itself bears little similarity to. Adventure Thru Inner Space was a relatively straight narrative, despite the unusualality of its presentation and content, with a clear inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action. If You Had Wings is less an antecedent of Adventure Thru Inner Space as it is a precedent of EPCOT Center and the mode of informational discourse practically invented for that park. It is important here to distinguish that the attraction may be only unique in the context of its predecessors, but in terms of its progeny, it is a genuine evolution.

The survivor of If You Had Wings is/was El Rio del Tiempo, a charming if much more seemingly accidentally fantastic attraction which outlived the Claude Coates piece by perhaps 20 years. As of the writing, the attraction is down for revision, after which it will return under a new name and with presumably new elements which may or may not be faithful to the lineage of the attraction.

The only World Showcase pavilion set itself entirely inside a contained unit, and the only pavilion in EPCOT Center which makes every effort to disguise its interior nature as a natural environment, the Mexico pavilion truthfully has less to do with EPCOT Center and more to do with Disneyland’s Blue Bayou, of which it is a very clear descendant of the original “Thieves Market” concept of containing shopping and dining in a swamp setting. The realized version of the Bayou dropped the shops for a boat trough, but Mexico unites them all into a reasonably harmonious unit under the auspices of a Mexican village. For this the designers must be commended, although less so for failing to replicate the reason the Blue Bayou is so successful – the Disneyland “great indoors” sacrifices depth for width – we can forgive the visible back wall because the Bayou seems to go on forever to the left and right of us. WED Enterprises, possibly in an exploratory mood, inverts the layout, achieving brilliant depth but no sense of width whatsoever and, in effect, a vista which only looks as great as it ought to from its’ farthest vantage point.

The Mexico pavilion and truthfully all of World Showcase is a victim of gross over-
spending on the part of Disney to get EPCOT open on October 1, 1982. At least one photograph exists showing a much larger and more complex Mexico pavilion and key attraction, El Rio del Tiempo, in model form. Even promotional materials supposedly approved by Disney betray the hand of budget cuts – Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow by Richard Beard, in its extensive library edition, not only promises us a Roman Empire section of the Italy pavilion, an Equatorial Africa installation, but a special effects show on the water’s edge inside Mexico recreating the Mayan myths. At least we got the volcano. (click for larger, above)

For a troubled pavilion, Mexico comes off among the cream of the crop among EPCOT’s World Showcase pavilions, not just because of its romance, but its impeccable showmanship, designed by people who were paying attention to precedent – for pure control of a dramatic space there is nothing in EPCOT which can rival the reveal of the second Mayan temple and volcano at nightfall. The effect is achieved identically to Disney’s highly regulated reveal of the castle at the end of Main Street: guests are funneled through two portals to the left and right of an intriguing structure, then deposited in a square area which must be traversed and exited via a single channel to reveal the fantastical transformation of space and time.


Mexico’s designers one upped this classic manipulation of space by adding obstructing arches and terraces, prolonging the full reveal even further, and placing a full marketplace and fountain in the way, adding extra show value. The deployment of repetition, of exiting a pyramid to view a second, distant pyramid, gives the transition a magical feeling. Furthermore, an emotional variation was added by making the square space, rather than a town square, a somber temple interior (originally) devoted to Mexico’s ancient cultures - not without a touch of menace - breaking up the lushly romantic exterior and interior with a moment of doubt, while also effortlessly advancing the rather obtuse concept of forcing visitors to walk the cultural evolution of Mexico. Even more remarkably, this tonal shift was repeated on the interior boat ride without seeming stale. This pavilion was built by people who knew about theme design.

El Rio del Tiempo, a holdover from a transitional phase in Mexico’s culture when it was deemed to be the next probable First World country, paints a rosy portrait of Mexico’s present and future that strikes many riders as dated or offensive. The past is treated with an aura of mystery and magic, and the Colonial period infantilized into a literal clone of It’s A Small World. But, like the rest of EPCOT, its form was unique and sophisticated – another maze of projected, filmed loops which rendered transitional space as essentially irrelevant set dressing. El Rio’s sets were more complex and emotional than If You Had Wings’, but the effect was similar, even including a maddeningly simple theme and a flat-on-the-floor rear projected image of a scuba diver (this was included in Horizons as well and both can be considered a nod to the Coates attraction).

Now, imagine they're Animatronics. See?

Like good designers, however, WED’s Mexico pavilion team wasn’t ready to merely repeat a success, and pulled in out of Disney history was a striking influence evident from The Three Caballeros, the 1946 Disney Studio release which was partially devoted to Mexico and took the form of a modified travelogue – much like If You Had Wings and El Rio del Tiempo. Exactly like El Rio, Caballeros features reappropriated live action footage of tourist areas, beaches, and merchants. Much of the motifs of pure romance, of night-time festivals and a fireworks finale is repeated. The influence is so extensive that both works include a Mary Blair inspired segment. This is, incidentally, why this author is not chafing at Disney’s attempt to integrate the two properties – they are aesthetically related, if not practically identical.

Aesthetic lineage between Three Caballeros & El Rio del Tiempo

El Rio del Tiempo as not a perfect work, with its’ brevity and poor decisions often under-
mining strong concepts – the opening segment, for example, featuring the story of early Mexican cultures told through dance. Since this is never explained to the viewers, what guests tended to see was exactly what was presented… people in strange costumes dancing to comic effect. The best touch in the whole segment – the final screen of Moctezuma contemplating a falling star which foretells the doom of his empire – was utterly lost.

Following this segment with a literal and tacky Small World reference (a friend of the author’s once called El Rio “It’s a Third World After All”), and then proceeding to show primarily Gringos enjoying the Mexican tourism trade, further dampened the mystery of the opening Peppers Ghost effect. Beard’s book assures us the design team was composed primarily of Mexican-Americans, but very little of this seems evident in the final result. And besides the incomprehensible finale where the Mexican people were portrayed as puppets on a carousel, the final scenes placed a strange emphasis on souvenirs one could purchase in Mexico (it was the last thing you saw), turning the whole presentation into a very overt sell where none was expected. At least If You Had Wings put its commercial value up front, even offering an Eastern reservation desk at the exit.

But the attraction still exerted a vibrant and wonderful mystery, a livelihood, and a thankfully short line. And it lived on, for years and years, outliving not only If You Had Wings, but that attraction’s similarly aviation themed replacement, Dreamflight. Its continued existence seemed to be mostly validated by the adjacent restaurant’s popularity, while throughout EPCOT many promising additions, such as Meet the World and Equatorial Africa, failed to materialize. As one of the last pieces of EPCOT Center left untouched after 25 years, by the time of the attraction’s closure, its time has clearly come. The only surprise is that it didn’t come during the “EPCOT Center Apocalypse” phase of 1994 – 1998.

Its importance can be summarized in its’ successful collection of many WED tropes under one roof for the first time: utilizing spatiality, the interior exterior, and uniting two Presentational attraction predecessors (If You Had Wings and It’s A Small World) into one blend, El Rio was perhaps the last attraction to come out of Disney’s “Magic Window” school of attraction design for many years, and the last minor attraction to come out of the Presentationalism style in the classical period to close. It will be missed.

October 1, 1982 – January 1, 2007