Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Retraction:

One of the things about trying to seriously study the parks is that, even after years and years of going to them, and going regularly, I'm still going through this material and these concepts by myself and thus much more slowly than other self-appointed "scholars" of other media: say, film or music. As such my relationships to things and ideas about them have no "check"; no external force with a differing opinion to show up and shove something I should've been seeing right up under my nose. Even now I look back at things I posted here a bit over a year ago and I'm embarrassed; I recently tried to pull something years old out of mothballs and I realized while proofing that it was literally impossible to make it meet even the low standards of blog publication.

Usually a concept comes to me with the writing out of an article; as such, I may have to write about something two or three times before I start to figure out its' intricacies. So here's my first full-on retraction on this blog.

Last December I posted the reasonably popular "Liberty Square: Successes and Failures", which I think is still a pretty good overview of what's wrong with Liberty Square. Back then I believed Adventureland to be the best land in the Magic Kingdom, and the essay reflects it. But over the past few months my relationship to Liberty Square has evolved and I'm starting to see more good than bad in it. But a few weeks ago I finally saw something that really tipped the scales for me. But first, here's the relevant passage of what I wrote in December:

There is furthermore no revised “weenie” at the end of the street; the location of Disneyland’s Riverboat landing has not been revised. But Orlando’s river is located several feet below pedestrian level. Since the riverboat unloads a full level lower than it loads for capacity purposes, it has lost a full ten feet of height from street level. Thus, it can’t loom over anything or impress anybody: it doesn’t look any larger than its’ loading platform!

Yeah, exactly.

Imagine my embarrassment when I realized that you're not supposed to see the Riverboat from Liberty Square proper - after all, the Hall of Presidents is dated 1787 and, per Magic Kingdom 'dated building rules', this is a pretty clear indication of the time period we're supposed to be in. Riverboats weren't really a big part of America until well into the 19th century, and so standing in front of an 18th or 17th century building and seeing a stern wheeler would be, if not intellectually, then emotionally false, regardless of its' value as a crowd draw. The Liberty Belle even has three levels, third decks not having been added to Riverboats in America until Texas joined the union. The third level is thus called the Texas Deck, and so the earliest possible date the Riverboat attraction may exist in is, historically, 1845.

And so the three level Riverboat is hidden by having the boat load on street level and unload well below street level. An appropriately sized building covers it from the Eastern side where it most needs it to be screened out, and a tall spire atop the landing structure integrates subtly to hide the smokestack protruding behind - and it hides it so well that when the boat is docked, it's pretty hard to tell the boat is there at a passing glance!

With and Without Riverboat.

This is pretty extensive effort just to hide a Riverboat in plain sight, but aside from the historical reasons noted, why bother to do it? The answer is in the buildings of Liberty Square herself. Liberty Square is foremost an area constructed of complex textures, and the tale it tells is one of America's westward expansion east of the Mississippi. Traveling from north to south, the first structure one encounters would be the Haunted Mansion, Columbia Harbor House and surrounding facilities, which are primarily stone and brick structures at ground level with above eye level wood embellishments and features.

Liberty Square: Stone with Wood Embellishments Left: Heritage House. Center: Sleepy Hollow Refreshments. Right: Columbia Harbour House.

But entering Liberty Square from Main Street the structures are very heavily stone and brick, with minor wood transitory facades interspersed to create a mild pattern of stone interrupted with wood. Once one gets near the Hall of Presidents, which is the tallest and most wholly brick building in the area, as was the custom of very old Eastern development, the back side of the old Silversmith shop gives way to a wood structure, and a definite pattern emerges: wood, stone, wood, stone, eventually becoming predominantly wood structures with minor linking stone embellishments by the time one gets around the front of the Liberty Tree Tavern.

Liberty Square: Wood with Stone Embellishments.
Left: From Silversmith to Liberty Tree Tavern: Stone, Wood, Stone, Wood
Center: Liberty Tree Tavern: Wood, Stone, Wood
Right: Liberty Tree Tavern to Diamond Horseshoe: Wood, Stone, Wood

So why is this crucial? Because by now spectators have moved downhill, the Riverboat landing has moved away from our perspective on the Riverboat, and the box hedges are starting to part to reveal the Liberty Belle and Aunt Polly's by the time we get to the Diamond Horseshoe area. This area is meant to recall a later time period, when St. Louis was the "gateway to the West", the Mississippi was a major line for Riverboats of all shapes and sizes, and it would no longer feel unnatural to have a Riverboat visible from this perspective. The boat even (intentionally?) covers the Haunted Mansion up until we're almost out of Liberty Square and into Frontierland, so prevalent have the clapboard structures become. Here, wood is the main element and stone foundations are little more than a minor architectural flourish. It is at this point that spectators leave behind St. Louis, cross a bridge over a little babbling brook tellingly called the Little Mississippi, and enter the predominantly timber structures of Frontierland's west.

The Mississippi Section

Even the fences have transformed from the austere wrought iron of the Haunted Mansion and Old World Antiques shops to the unpretentious, whitewashed beams which more accurately reflect the Midwest area this short stretch represents. In this sense we can posit that the half whitewashed fence and Harper's Mill on the far side of the river are the key transitional points to the old West narrative of Frontierland, just as the Liberty Tree Tavern with its' Old Virginny feel is on "our" side.

Furthermore the Riverboat and Keel Boats, which both originally loaded from Liberty Square, have always been Frontierland attractions in spirit. And so our view of them is being concealed until this very specific moment, the keelboats having been loaded from well below pedestrian level in northerly Liberty Square. You may have boarded them from Liberty Square proper, but they aren't even visible until you're into this "river traffic" part of the land.

Liberty Square from Frontierland.

I've spoken before of the idea of three dimensional montage, how moving from one area to the next creates a succession of linear impressions analogous to the succession of linear impressions achieved by complex montage. I've resisted the idea of this being applicable to non-attraction spaces such as Liberty Square due to the controlled interior space of something like Snow White's Adventures allowing for period of blackness, of "blank space", and thus increased control of the gaze.

But here is the one facet of something like this discipline I believe WED did perfect in open space: the reveal, just like the way the castle is first blocked by a railway station, then a tunnel, and then a Main Street USA. Here's a micro example to the castle's meta: examine closely the way that the offending Riverboat is screened out, examine carefully how it is only revealed to us at the exact moment it must be, and consider carefully the complex orchestration of elements of the Riverboat, the Haunted Mansion, and the Hall of Presidents, and only then will just one part of the staggering Walt Disney World design accomplishment crystallize.


Unknown said...

Great article, Foxx.

I've often wondered if some of the design elements and architectural details were just fortuitous accidents...until I read one of your articles! But has there been a greater collective since the creation of the Magic Kingdom? At times, the park seems so monumental that it is hard to think that every little detail was spelled out way in advance.

Adventureland and Liberty Square are my two favorite areas of the parks because they are so complete and well done. There is such a sense of believability and such a sense of not being on vacation. It is more like you are completely absorbed into the lands. Maybe it is because the attractions are hidden, for the most part (except for Aladdin).

Make sense?

jachbla said...

Another insightful post! Sometimes it's hard to view things critically when we see them so often. I wouldn't be embarrassed at all about your writing here. Your passion for the subject comes through in every sentence.

Joe Shelby said...

As you say, its a transition in both space and time - To the north you see the north east coast, from Philadelphia 1787 through New England (Harbor House) 1770s, to inland upstate New York (Haunted Mansion). To the south, the Christmas shop runs from Virginia (not only in the front, but in the back as well, as the fence work is a perfect replica of how Colonial Williamsburg's back yards are fenced off), through the Carolinas and going a little forward in time to the 1820s, and then finally the Golden Horseshoe is St. Louis 1840s and thus provides a complete step by step transition into Frontierland, from which you can see the paddleboat in all its glory.

Even then, as you leave Frontierland to the south, you start with the Spanish "mission" architecture of Pirates before settling into the jungle wilds, so the transitions continue *through* Frontierland.

The same north-south split can be seen, in a single view, in the murals that are above the ticket gates and through the main entrance of DCA, where on your left is southern California, from San Diego through LA to SLO, and on your right is northern California, with Frisco, Sacramento, and the Redwoods. Personally, this is the one section I would thing to be the worst casualty of the potential "California as Disney saw it in 1920s" retheming they're proposing. Some of California's best man-made landmarks referenced in the murals (Golden Gate, Coronado Bridge) are more recent than that.