Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part Three

What It Does: Back to Basics

“For about two or three years, [The Haunted Mansion] was kind of a ‘dead duck’ really. These guys worked on it, but they couldn’t sell the idea the way they had it… all that work on a story bogged the Mansion down to the point where it just wasn’t done.”

“What I remember was Walt’s attitude about these rides at the time. He felt they were a medium where you gave experiences… a flash of this and a flash of that… everything within a subject matter. I know that the Enchanted Tiki Room, for instance, was a place of great discovery for people. Here were people seeing something that they really did not expect. There was this element of surprise as first one object came to life, and then something else, and then the whole room was moving and singing. That experience told me an awful lot about what these later attractions, like The Haunted Mansion, should be. Rides should be what people don’t expect them to be, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with continuity of story. […] When we did Nature’s Wonderland, we didn’t have a story from beginning to end. What held the ride together were the animals and the interesting situations, and that made it work. That was what Walt believed and I never disagreed with him. He didn’t like the earlier direction [The Haunted Mansion] was taking when they were trying to tell a story.”

~ Marc Davis, to The E Ticket, Issue 16, 1993 (my emphasis)

The most significant piece of writing on the Disney parks in the last fifteen years is “The Myth of Story”, posted by Tangaroa at online journal Re-Imagineering, some of WDI’s most literate and astute critics. In it, the history of Eisner’s creative takeover of the possibilities of the medium is traced to the story-heavy attractions of today, where plotlines are complex and never necessary. Compared to WED’s output of the Golden Era proper, from 1966 to 1982, a very different aesthetic is at play, and the difference is similar to the lyricism of the late silent film vs. the awkwardness of the early talking film. WED was designing a totally different art altogether.

The easiest way to analyze the effect of the WED-era designs is to concentrate on the indivisible elements: to evaluate once something has been removed, whether or not the attraction still has artistic unity. Once you’ve removed everything you can, those essential items left over are the indivisible elements; they cannot be broken down any further and still yield an essentially similar result. The value of Coates’ supernatural void is that he was attempting to refine the attraction down to an essential, indivisible element: darkness, movement, sound, and very selective visual cues.

I’ve spent an awful long time describing the essential elements of design in the attraction because once you start to evaluate all of these in concert; to consider Crump’s swirley abstract patterns, Coates’ spatiality, Davis’ recognizable faces and figures; does it actually begin to become apparent that that is really all there is to it. Once one accepts the Mansion as a series of events which fulfill a mathematical formula of which we are given a thesis introduction to in the first room and which the last room fulfills by force of pure volume, does what the Haunted Mansion is all about come into focus. It’s not about ghosts or séances with head mediums or sounds or effects, and it’s not about dead brides or hitch-hiking ghosts or even Paul Frees’ narration. What the attraction is honestly about on the most basic level, the point where it cannot break down any farther, is the manipulation of gaze.

So let’s return to the thesis the show supplies us once again.

When hinges creak in doorless chambers

And strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls

Whenever candlelight flickers where the air is deathly still

That is the time when ghosts are present

Practicing their terror with ghoulish delight…

All of these things the attraction has supplied, in pure form, by the time spectators disembark, and by announcing its’ intention, fulfilling a mathematical gratification which is set up early on (one ghost, two ghosts… …nine hundred and ninety-nine ghosts) does Atencio’s script become essentially a kind of footnote version of the attraction: often an annotation, never an explanation. Those angles and shadows and the ideas they create is the substitution of a storyline.

Or, to put it another way, the only plot of the attraction is event, not precedent.

A Model for Study

So what, then, is the basis on which we can analyze the work? After all, since an early age many of us have been continually exposed to mainstream ideas like the importance of story, the significance of story, the structure of story, and how stories are created and shared. According to these scholars of varying credibility, the Haunted Mansion oughtn’t be one of our key cultural experiences in the United States; it has no Joseph Campbell-esque plot arc which is supposed to be how ALL stories work. Yet here it is, totally self contained, plotless, and fully satisfying.

Therefore the Haunted Mansion may prove that things needn’t have stories, and the ultimate extrapolation of this, in a themed design perspective, could be that any object viewed from a stationary location and lit from a variety of shifting light sources - if presented in the proper order - would be as thrilling as any story: that stories, essentially nothing but a pattern of gratification, can be further reduced to being merely a pattern of raw information. Although this sounds extreme, think of something as innocuous as EPCOT’s Fountain of Nations, which holds spectators spellbound. Is it not a related, if not on some primary – indeed mathematical - level, an identical reaction?

This idea is, of course, an outlier in terms of actual attraction design, which is why I say that the two attractions which most embodied something close to an avant-garde aesthetic in their use of those indivisible elements were If You Had Wings and Adventure Thru Inner Space. But there has never been and never will be a wholly avant-garde attraction, a succession of nothing but indivisible elements and intentional contrariness; the public would revolt. Besides, the comparison between Disney rides and authentically avant-garde art isn’t really appropriate or desirable, since there are other artistic, cinematic modes which we may use as a model for understanding the pattern of comprehension which the Haunted Mansion conveys.

In the cinematic tradition of narrative, one possible model is later films of John Ford, where the story is a succession of small events hung along a line which is essentially purely conceptual, i.e., “Wyatt Earp is a sheriff” begets My Darling Clementine, a succession of small but potent pastorals of life in the old west. Because Ford’s interest was often rarely in the service of a plot and because he is never hurried with his camera, his work has often been called poetic, an impression mainly deriving from his preferred story structure, which is to say, as little of one as possible. But Ford, America’s greatest historian, had another trick up his sleeve, which is the identification and exploitation of a myth. Ford’s basic building block is an American event, figure, or idea, and the story is essentially a succession of riffs on the idea, either working with or against the myth. One model is Young Mr. Lincoln, another is She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and so on.

So if we see the Haunted Mansion as taking for granted a cultural concept – the default idea of a haunted house – and doing a succession of riffs on the idea - exploiting, inverting, or reassuring our idea of what may constitute a haunted house - then the Haunted Mansion is essentially of an identical structure of Ford’s ideas of story. These “riffs” are basically exactly Davis’ idea that rides should be what we don’t expect them to be, and the execution of the ride constitutes the part of his statement where they “don’t have a lot to do with plot”. A lot of ink has been spilled over John Ford, but despite his story structure, the dullest of the dull story pundits have never once called him out as being less than a great story teller despite his total abandonment of traditional modes of narrative.

Why it is important to have a model for understanding this structure is that The Haunted Mansion is its’ own model; it isn’t based on attractions, attractions base themselves on it. So if we can identity the organizable pattern of information as having a conceptual precedent, then the doors to further comprehension not only of the unit, but of its later progeny are opened.

And so, a model having been established and explored, let us apply that model to the attraction and really break down what it does. And the answer is: surprisingly little, and everything all at once.

Let us consider, for example, however briefly, Coates’ much maligned supernatural void concept. The thing that individuals who oppose this concept often miss which Coates - the design and layout man he was and the environmental design artist we think of him as - understood, is that darkness – utter, stark blackness – is not the absence of material, but the presence of all possible material. A badly exposed piece of film doesn’t turn transparent, it turns pure black because it has been exposed to the visible light spectrum, ie, all colors. Why his ideas on attraction design are unique is that he understood that darkness was not only the natural state for attractions to exist in, but that darkness held not nothing, but the potential for all things.

His supernatural void is the ultimate indivisible element because it was not a lack of information, but all possible information entering at once, unorganized. It may be not the ultimate, but perhaps the most astute, moment in an attraction which is nothing but an scrambled mass of information entering the consciousness of the spectator; the Haunted Mansion proposes a succession of visual questions to which there are no possible answers, no possible forms of gratification.

The problem (or the beauty) of this is that this just isn’t how people work, and spectators are likely unprepared to run into such a contrarian aesthetic in such a supposed vapid playground as Disneyland. The human desire to organize raw data and the data’s utter refusal to be organized in such a way means that the attraction suggests an infinite number of repercussions and relationships which simply aren’t intentional: we enter the Haunted Mansion and hear organ music, later we see a ghost playing a big pipe organ in the ballroom. Are they the same ghost? Of course not: the organ music in the entrance was non-diagetic tone, intended to be felt more than heard. This doesn’t stop any sane person from connecting the (illusory) dots.

Because these things are by and large unintentional, because the attraction is a raw stream of data which, due to its’ evolution, has a maddening fleet of cyclical ideas and images, means that these unanswered questions become a succession of open ends which aggravate the spectators in such a way that obsessive observation is the result; we ride again and again and look again and again for heretofor unobserved details because the whole structure of the attraction tells us “there can be more, there must be more” when all those dark corners can offer is black painted plywood and dust. It is a puzzle which cannot be solved because the makers never bothered to write the solution.

Further Confusions

The problem is that this artistic precept is anathema to WDI’s current cultural climate where Story is King, and it’s frankly opaque to much of the public who rides the Haunted Mansion looking for that illusory Something More. And so WDI seems to have made up WED’s mind for her and decided that the Haunted Mansion certainly does have a very complex story, that all those echoes and coincidences certainly are intentional, and they have allowed the fans to lead them.

Because the show does what it’s intended to - which is create a continuity of events with a mythic subject presented in an very precise order in order to create a certain conceptual and emotional climate – the result of all this is that fans, not understanding that their attraction may be no more complex than the sum of its’ parts, and their imaginations fired by the infinite possibilities of this visual pattern, have begun to formulate ideas about it - some natural, others rather bizarre.

One of these is that X. Atenio’s gravestone tribute to Yale Gracey outside, referring to him as “Master Gracey”, means that Gracey was the name of the ‘master’ of the house, and that since our Ghost Host naration in the attraction is omnipresent and welcomes us to the house, that he must be the master of the house, meaning that Master Gracey is the name of the Ghost Host who is the owner of the house (get it?). This idea has been validated by WDI in the last few years, helped notably by the mounding of earth in front of Gracey’s tomb, and the 2003 film’s use of the name “Master Gracey” for it’s Ghost Host role. All of this ignores that Atencio almost certainly penned the epitaph with an eye towards 19th century parlance, where “Master” meant:

“A youth or boy too young to be called ‘mister’” – Merriam-Webster

So although the Ghost Host may refer to himself as “the lord and master of this Haunted Mansion” in an improvised, rejected take, he is not necessarily named Gracey. Referring to the Dorian Grey portrait effect in Orlando’s foyer as Master Gracey is a little more acceptable, but Master Gracey is probably not the man hanging atop the stretching gallery – that’s the Ghost Host, and if you want to see what he looks like, both shows in America offer repainted versions of the piece of character art Marc Davis labeled “Ghost Host”, where he is identifiable by his long white hair, noose ‘round his neck, and axe.

This single misunderstanding is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including the most well intentioned of people, but is indicative of the kind of problem solving people tend to do for the attraction, rather than let it work on its’ own considerable merits.

WDI hasn’t helped matters by installing a new attic show scene where a bride, identifiable as being named Constance through a prominently-displayed wedding banner, has chopped off all of her husband’s heads and stands around with her axe amid all her stuff and gloats. The scene practically hijacks the entire attraction in favor of a tone not necessarily out of place, but certainly different than, the rest of the show. Davis supplied endless gags of wives murdering their husbands. One changing portrait concept of his had a woman embracing her lover suddenly knife him in the chest; in another concept (repainted for Walt Disney World’s moving eye portraits), a woman is standing behind her husband and starts strangling him. The portrait in the stretching gallery of the widow who has axed her husband is the strongest remnant of these ideas in the final show, so the new effect is not out of place in that capacity.

The problem with the scene is that it gives a single ghost a name, an identity, a voice, and a back story, something that never happens in the rest of the show (the unfortunate inclusion of the Ghost Host outtakes in the Anaheim show in 1995 where he identifies Madame Leota by name doesn’t count since they aren’t meant to be there). Worse, WDI has confused matters by replicating staging of the Marc Davis stretching portrait in one of the wedding photos, but the bride appears as a young woman, not the matronly widow seen earlier in the Davis piece, so she logically can not be the same character. And by the way, did she live in the house? Did she own the house? If it’s a retirement home for ghosts, how did all her stuff get up there? In name of increasing continuity, a simple gag has been mangled into a confusing contradiction requiring more thought, not less.

Constance replaced the enigmatic bride figure designed by WED, who at least was immediately visually identifiable as a lost bride in the gothic tradition through her lit candle. The original incarnation(s) of the bride figure retained her mystery and followed the rules of the rest of the attraction, but the new version destroys all the mystery which is really the heart of the show, the mystery that ironically begot the new version, leaving nothing to the imagination.


Story is antithetical to the Haunted Mansion, and all these ideas floating in the ether, promoted by WDI, created by fans, confused by later generations of designers, aren’t increasing our ability to appreciate the attraction; they’re destroying why people became interested in the first place. These ideas actually undermine the attraction they’re meant to support, but at the same time they are created because the attraction is successful at what it does. By feeding us raw information, by following Walt Disney’s artistic concepts about what a themed show should be, and by building a visual pattern which suggests much but reveals little, the Haunted Mansion has survived scrutiny by generations of spectators.

That thread of a concept which I spoke of, that Fordian through line of myth and mystery, cannot bear much weight before it will eventually snap; the mysteries of the show, the reason it works, cannot be elaborated. The show is a visual pattern and there is very much to be learned still from her very essential, indivisible elements: shape, direction, space, vantage and darkness. It is the show that does everything that themed design has been able to do in her 52 years, and the artistic unity of idea and expression in her should be maintained at all costs. Those things which were not intended by the design team cannot be taken seriously and must be rejected in our view of the attraction. In short, we should defend the Haunted Mansion against herself.

Disney journalist Jim Hill has recently said about one of the Haunted Mansion’s details:

“By the way, much has been made about WDI's decision to remove that wedding band used to be embedded in the cement near the Mansion's Mausoleum / exit area (Okay. I know. It wasn't really a ring. It was just a piece of a stantion that got snapped off at ground level that -- over the years -- people then began saying was a wedding band. Now let's not let the truth stand in the way of a good story, okay?)”

I say: let’s not let a story stand in the way of a good design.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vanishing Walt Disney World, #3

Because I slightly miscalculated the timing of the start of the Haunted Mansion series and its' intended duration vis the actual end of the month, and because the last part needs a lot of work before it is 'publishable', I'm taking a short break from the article series to post a few comments about the Mansion not exactly diagetic to my current endeavors.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few weeks over the Haunted Mansion's 2007 refurbishment, which has the remarkable qualities - minus a few unfortunate lapses in taste - of being respectful, tasteful, artistic, and better judged than the already pretty tactful 2006 reworkings of Pirates of the Caribbean - on either coast (!). A lot is new, a lot is different, and, remarkably, a lot is not. Weather that snazzy new Haunted Steps scene suffers the same fate as the warped mirrors removed in 2007 from El Rio del Tiempo remains to be seen, but I digress.

There are a few nice details (that aren't grossly overvalued remains of exit gates) that were lost in the refurbishment that are original to Walt Disney World which haven't been spoken of yet online in much detail, and as minor as these are, they do have historical value.

Back in 1969, the Mansion design team had a custom-printed, custom-flocked wallpaper pattern printed up for the Disneyland Mansion's entrance parlor, and they unsurprisingly did not fail to repeat the wallpaper pattern when they built the bigger sister version in Florida. Disneyland removed this wallpaper in 1995 when a lot of work was put into that version of the attraction (and in favor of a less appropriate modernist pattern), but Walt Disney World's Mansion retained the original wallpaper for many years. Pictured right is a frame still from Disneyland Showtime, the totally groovy 1970 television debut of the Haunted Mansion, and the same wallpaper pattern in Orlando's mansion over thirty years later.

One aspect of the attraction which has been lost over time is the fact that Liberty Square swoops seamlessly up to the attraction; with the addition of the new front gate in 1990 a discrete "property", accented by the later addition of a fountain, pet cemetery, and other clutter, was created. Originally the northward path in Liberty Square led inevitably to the Mansion's turnstiles, and the transition was accomplished through a series of two planters with nice, shaded seats under spreading oaks, as well as through the transition from Liberty Square's colonial style lantern posts to the Victorian, flickering gas lamps which line the entryway to the turnstiles.

The loss of this transition is also the loss of the breathing space between Liberty Square proper and the Haunted Mansion; the boundaries of the aesthetic style of the attraction has spilled out a hundred feet so now the Haunted Mansion, effectively, is rubbing right up against the visually unrelated Yankee Trader and Keelboat buildings. Those twelve feet of greenery and trees between meant that the Haunted Mansion was truly isolated, truly alone in ways it cannot be allowed to be today.

But a vestige of the original entryway was found in those flickering street lamps lining the 1973 green queue canopy, and the widening and lengthening of that canopy this year meant doom for those wonderful glass enclosures. Apparently an oversight in the design; they were sawed off to accommodate the new canopy, and topped with little decorative caps to confuse future generations of Walt Disney World fans. Perhaps a myth about them being the wedding rings of the bride's husbands is not far behind?

Finally, one of the better touches in the early parts of the show was this little table, chair, lamp and book on the other side of the doombuggies in the load hall, currently MIA. I've heard from friends that this little scene was once in the black space between Unload and Load, and the tableau fired my young imagination whenever I saw it. Hardly a crucial absence, but a lamented one.

Photos of updated elements courtesy of Kronos.


UPDATED RED ALERT ITEMS: Things I need photos of, recently deceased.

TRAGIC DEVELOPMENT!! Monorail Loading Platform, Contemporary Resort, 1971 - 2007
Disney has just removed the awesomely uncool 1970's clay tile planter full of faux plants which separated the escalator up and escalator down for 36 faithful years, and what's there in its' place is a whole lot of minimalistic nothing. This was one of the final holdouts of the Concourse's original southwest theme, and as more and more of the resort becomes minimal and vaugley Japanese styled, as it is today, the less and less sense that Mary Blair mural makes. I wonder when that'll be taken apart, smashed up and sold on pins, too.

Robinson Crusoe's
Captain Cook's Food Court
News From Civilization, Polynesian Resort, 1971 - 2005
Robinson Crusoe's was a significant final holdout of the Polynesian Village of 1971 and primarily offered overpriced mens' wear in its' final years. It was located in what is now the arcade. Across the way, where there are currently spacious bathrooms, was a children's clothing store. Both were open air and remarkably untouched for 34 years. The 2005 opening of the large new BouTiki shop in the lobby made both of these outposts of the original Polynesian superfluous; Captain Cook's, originally a bar and then a food court, expanded and swallowed both up. Photo documentation of the last few years of all three of these locations desired.

GENERAL ALERT ITEMS: Probably lost to the sands of time?

Interior photos of The Golden Galleon or Princessa de Cristal, Magic Kingdom Caribbean Plaza

Interior photos of the Tricornered Hat Shoppe, Magic Kingdom Liberty Square

Interior photos any pre-1996 Disney Village Marketplace establishment - the older the better!

Have something you're looking for? Ask and I'll add it to the list!

Friday, October 19, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part Two

What Was Built

And so in 1968 WED set about inserting, into the 1963 façade Walt Disney originally built, their first attraction without him. Speaking of Walt, it may or may not be prudent here to say that much of the items in and around that ’63 shell may be the net total Walt Disney in the attraction: WED stayed true to his dictum that the inside look neat and well tended and that there be a stretching gallery of Marc Davis portraits. From there, the attraction spins off in another direction and the fact that these early scenes are limited to the opening minutes of the attraction shows just how little was concrete before the idea of the Omnimover was decided on.

The remarkable resultant attraction is strong for what everyone contributed, rather than the work of one individual. Possibly due to the atmosphere in WED post Walt Disney, work years and years old was revised and included… Ken Anderson’s bride survived, as did his ghosts in mirrors and vanishing ceiling gags. Rolly Crump’s great designs for his Museum of the Weird, whose only proponent was Walt Disney and which was hastily cut, were resurrected by Coates and Davis as a remarkable visual counterpoint to the more literal gag-based scenes presented throughout the ride. The rest of the attraction bides its’ time between Yale Gracey’s effects, Marc Davis’ gags and Claude Coates atmospherics.

Speaking of Walt’s Big Hollow House, although he was wrong about plenty of stuff in Disneyland including the idea that everything needed to look brand new (WED had begun practicing aging as early as 1965 on New Orleans Square), the original Haunted Mansion’s stately exterior is one of its’ primary assets. Intricate enough to be charming and inviting, large enough to be imposing enough to give the spectator second thoughts, ascending the steps to the front door of the house is like traveling back in time to the romantic old South. The tall iron gate contrasts the beautiful exterior, creating a disjunction which raises a question – why would such a beautiful place be closed off? - which has been vulgarized by the subsequent Imagineering generation’s addition of funeral bunting, a hearse, and even more gravestones. The Haunted Mansion is just inviting enough to be scary for no good reason – just like houses we’re afraid of as children often are.

Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, by contrast, plays with a different but no less valid set of aesthetics and has the considerable benefit of having been designed by someone who actually worked on the attraction that finally opened inside. Ostensibly based on Dutch Gothic style mansions in upstate New York, Claude Coates’ brilliant design modifies two elements of the style of the era: by moving one of the wings of the house forward rather than continuing both straight across, and by adding extra gothic decorative elements and extra corners and angles, the impression of a historically accurate mansion just this side of sinister is conveyed. Although no one element of the house is inaccurate or even implausible, just enough areas jutting forward on the edges of the house and just too many decorate elements on the roofline give what is actually a fairly restrained basic shape the impression of being jagged.

Early designs for the house showed an even more period correct Georgian mansion which gave the impression of being sinister simply by having too many terraces and chimneys along its’ roof, a nearly subliminal evocation of a mouth full of teeth. The final version has Federalist details like the ornate decorate touches on the roofline and above the front door, but is clearly a fantasy evocation with additions like a Victorian sun room and catwalks. Although, as at Disneyland, subsequent maintenance of the exterior has made far too obvious what was once subtle with its’ immaculately maintained façade and lawn, Coates included two subtle details as a clue for what was inside: a roofline terrace consisting of vaguely humanoid little shapes looking like skulls and spiders, and a bat weathervane on the roof. Oh yes, and that wolf howling from off in the distance. Today, with its’ weedy front lawn and heavily aged bright orange bricks, it’s total overkill.

1971: "What's that big house over there?" / 2007: "Oh, it's the Haunted Mansion."

Once inside and on the ride, the tensions between the ideas of Coates and Davis, and the necessity of Gracey’s effects, results in an attraction with a split personality, a front half frontloaded with place setting and atmosphere and a second half with a lot of gags and wild characters,

Davis’ gag sketches are constructed in such a way that the scenes have a number of compound jokes which are designed to play out in full for a certain period of time, something Coates and Gurr’s Omnimover design never really allows for, and which Davis would regret for years (all his subsequent attractions would be in slow-moving boats or on stages). As a result the spaces his ideas are allowed to appear in in the Haunted Mansion tend to be large, open areas where clusters of activity can appear in pockets, like a graveyard or a grand ball. In these scenes the settings tend to fade out significantly compared to the obsessive emphasis on details which marks the early portions of the ride. On one hand this is by intent in order to emphasize the gag structures; on the other it is such a huge disjunction that the Séance Circle is an utterly black void of a space where the two styles meet and we are allowed to essentially reset our expectations.

What’s interesting about this is that Davis drew a lot of gags which could’ve been included in the show, little details like a hunter’s rear end getting bit by a tiger skin rug and lots of different ideas for the Séance Circle, a show scene Yale Gracey would probably ultimately design. He also drew a lot of spooky characters which provided the basis for portraits throughout the first part of the ride; it’s as if the team wasn’t so sure what to do with his gags so they repeated the thing that worked in Pirates of the Caribbean: get the (ghosts, pirates) drinking and have them just all through a big decorative space where the eye can wander from one to the next.

The accumulation of Davis gags was probably always intended to be the payoff for the attraction. Tony Baxter describes the Haunted Mansion as “everything that ghosts do”, and the way the attraction is structured is that we enter expecting to see ghosts, get a lot of atmosphere, and then see ghosts doing things, and have therefore experienced a payoff which is essentially mathematical: we infer that there will be ghosts, there are ghosts, and then we see those ghosts in increasingly large quantities.

These scenes may be the most impressive in the attraction, but they are not the heart of why it works. As in Pirates of the Caribbean, the attraction is frontloaded with a massive amount of Claude Coates atmospherics and Yale Gracey “stunts”. Davis must’ve recognized this as being the key element as well for, given the opportunity to redesign Pirates of the Caribbean for Tokyo Disneyland, he more or less left in all the opening caves sequences, only abridging or revising a few short segments.

The opening few minutes of the Haunted Mansion is what makes it the Haunted Mansion; all of the establishing atmosphere and sense of place which gets put on the back burner as soon as Davis takes over is why we’re convinced we’re in a real old house and not just a lot of scenes of ghosts and effects. This is why the Walt Disney World version is even better than the Disneyland original; the Coates/Gracey effects sequences give the attraction a sense of structure and pace; of repeating elements which is analogous to the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean.

For example, although Disneyland’s portrait hall immediately before the load point does foreground the attraction’s interiors with a sense of physicality which is slightly sacrificed in Orlando due to the ethereal, gliding nature of the motion of the doombuggies, there is a serious design error in the room: the two negative bust effects at the end of the corridor are not only a traffic bottleneck, but are placed in such a way which allows the viewer to essentially figure the effect out rather shortly. Had the effect worked as intended Gracey and Coates and Davis would surely have kept them as a walk-by effect; rather, they have been relocated to an Omnimover show scene, placed at a greater distance, and placed in a room which is mathematically perfected so that no such perspective which would give away the illusion can exist. That the room is also subject to some minor but effective mechanical gags and a well written snippet of Atencio’s script, which the other versions of the show are poorer without, helps.

The Orlando show provides two neat structural repetitions. In an early scene, a floating candelabrum is seen high atop a stairwell under which the doombuggies pass. Later on, the Disneyland scene of a candelabrum hovering in an endless hallway is repeated. This short scene actually gives the sense that ghosts are moving about the attraction, a sense of a reoccurring character, something that Disneyland lacks.

Disneyland’s Endless Corridor is a save. Originally, sound effects of heavily footfalls and such would move down the corridor towards the buggies, causing a nearby suit of armor to rattle as the footfalls approached. The gag was probably too long in duration to actually work as the doombuggies sped by, so the sound effects were turned off and a floating candlebrum seen in the séance room on the attraction’s blueprints was installed in its’ place to distract from the not very effective Endless Hall scene (you can the model of the scene, sans candlebrum, in the Disneyland Showtime television show from 1970). This is why Paul Frees commands “Shhh… listen!” in this scene, referencing a removed effect, something which no doubt bothered Coates and his team to no end. So that first, short scene in Orlando is actually a setup for a scene which was never fully resolved to the designers’ liking in 1969. As for the Ghost Host’s dialogue, Coates moved a speaker playing Jimmie MacDonald recorded sound effects from 1963 to this area, giving guests suitably spooky sounds to “listen” to.

(A side note on “Shhh.. listen!”: in 1995 Disneyland added a number of Paul Frees dialogue snippets cut from the 1969 show to the Corridor of Doors. These were later removed in 2005, respecting the original designers’ wishes, but for ten years the Ghost Hosts’ “Shhh.. listen!” was doubly confusing as it was in Anaheim - for in the original version of the show where once there was an aural sound effect, is only a repetition of the entryway’s Gaylord Carter-performed funeral dirge. This, at least, was a setup for the rich tapestry of sound effects which followed in the Corridor of Doors, but by adding these bits of dialogue back in, the Ghost Host was commanding guests to listen intently to… an organ? It didn’t help that the writing and delivery of these lines was well below the standards of the rest of the show and utterly superfluous, and nobody was sad to see them go.)

The other pretty brilliant scene in the attraction is a short but effective corridor of Marc Davis concept art paintings which appeared immediately after the new floating candlebrum setup scene in Orlando; continuing the “haunted portrait” motif stolen from a dozen Gothic novels of the 19th century. The opening scene of the revised show is an allusion to Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Grey; followed by the stretching room scene of haunted portraits, and finally ending with nearly a dozen portraits of various inhabitants which actually follow you with their eyes.

The effect was subtle but disturbing, and placed in conjunction with the candlebrum set-up before, the library with perfected negative bust effects after, and then a short but potent transitional scene of a ghost playing a piano before picking up the Disneyland show, a more subtle sense of ghosts having to become accustomed to visitors is achieved: don’t forget that in the second scene of Disneyland’s ride we already see skeleton hands prying up a coffin lid, a visualization of ghosts the show hasn’t earned yet. At Walt Disney World, a number of subtle “did I actually see that?” effects lead up to a big moment of seeing a shadow of a ghost, then a larger moment of starting to hear the ghosts in the endless corridor and then seeing physical evidence of the ghost in the coffin’s attempted escape. The fact that the house is larger in Orlando is insignificant compared to the fact that the show is more textured and our experience of the haunting is better paced.

Speaking of that short scene at the piano, what follows is one of the most misunderstood in the show. It is pure Claude Coates, and is the largest expression of his ideas about the house being able to melt away into a black void. It is, basically, a big black room where there are some big spider webs, and the Load Area of Disneyland is basically the same show scene. The scene was perhaps relegated to the Load Area of Anaheim because, although easy to pull off, looking at nothing is hardly exciting or scary. On the other hand, Coates had achieved remarkable effect with next to nothing a few years earlier in Adventure Thru Inner Space, so the fact that an extrapolation of his ideas about minimalism appears in the Haunted Mansion is logical. Although the scene was not very effective, Coates was using the formal qualities of the ride system – it’s relentless, unnaturally smooth forward glide – to cause a sensation of ghostliness. Letting the house just vanish into nothingness is actually pretty interesting, if for no reason than that Coates did it and it worked. The Grand Stairs in Orlando were probably an attempt to make his ideas more accessible by adding big rubber spiders and a short-lived skeleton to the big webs which he put in Disneyland’s load area.

Strangely, these ideas are most effective in the Disneyland original at the moment where the ground begins to slope away before entering the Endless Hall scene; with no big spider web and no rubber spider to look at in the otherwise identical scene in Florida, there is no point of reference, and spectators find themselves suddenly turning and plunging down in total darkness while floorboards creak eerily (possibly those ones famously mentioned by Walt Disney) from the blackness. It’s the most frightening moment in the show.

Indeed, if the entire attraction can be seen, on a basic level, as moving through a succession of portals, through arches, and under curtains, then the most important variations in the attraction is mostly distance, height, direction and vantage. Throughout, our sense of direction is manipulated and directed up, directed down, directed into distances that recede into the infinite, directed very close to us (we look back into the dark graveyard and are startled by ghouls which pop up very close to us). The library in the Florida show is actually canted at a rather extreme angle and the props are anchored to appear as though the room is resting at a normal angle; the effect is subliminal but gives the scene a disturbing quality. It’s the same kind of effect seen in the caves on Tom Sawyer Island but there, it tricks your perspective on running water. Here, where the tilt is felt rather than seen, it’s for pure effect.

The Unfinished Scenes

Perhaps because the show was WDI’s maiden voyage into the great de-Walted wilderness, not every scene in the final show is as fully rounded as one would expect. Here, as in Pirates of the Caribbean, X Atencio’s assignment seems to have been to come up with a decent explanation of all the nonsense the spectators would be seeing. In Pirates he came up with a time travel story; at Mansion, it would be a retirement home for ghosts, allowing any and every ghost imaginable to reside there.

This freeness is indicative of the atmosphere of the creation of the show as these unfinished scenes are, as well as accounting for much of it’s’ effect. But the unfinished nature is part of what makes the attraction what it is. One such unfinished scene is the Endless Corridor, a concept which never fully worked and was abandoned. Another would be Claude Coates’ void with its’ giant webs and creeping fog: the scene never really worked, and he needed another evolution of the concept before it would. But there it is in the show, and although the original Grand Stairs scene is now gone at Walt Disney World, at Disneyland spectators can still enjoy Coates’ supernatural void in both the Load area and Séance room.

One element which veers towards the improvisational are Gracey’s projection effects. Rolly Crump describes how the effect was essentially invented by Gracey one day on lunch with a loop of film and a bust of Beethoven; although they’re in the model, there is no real concept art of the singing busts in that arrangement in that scene. Little Leota, too, may have been more or less an afterthought. The loop of film for this last effect is labeled “Ghost Hostess” and Paul Frees has an outtake where he continues, after his famous “999 happy haunts” spiel:

“If you should decide to join us, final arrangements may be made at the end of our tour. A charming Ghostess will be on hand to take your application.”

If this is a reference to the figure then the effect was almost certainly scripted, but then again Marc Davis confirmed shortly before his death that the hitch-hiking ghosts gag was a last minute addition. And of all of the mountains and mountains of concept art for the Mansion, there is no art of five singing busts singing lead in the graveyard, no concept art of a tiny woman at the exit, and only a few pages of Davis concepts for ghosts to follow you home – a half day’s output at his rate.

The most famous unfinished scene is the attic; a short transitional scene which has attained a level of infamy due to the ghost “too scary” to be included in the final show. That is, of course, the legend, and a more accurate description would be that it’s the effect that never worked. The removal of Davis’ hatbox ghost in the early stages of the attraction’s test and adjust period means that the attic scene was a complex lead-up to only the setup of a gag in the person of the bride, and one moved from its’ original position, at that. What was put in place was a lot of pop-up ghouls which, at least, provided one of the original most frightening things in the attraction: as the ghouls came up loud screams would fill the entire room and echo down the corridor into the ballroom vantage point. This authorette clearly remembers these screams echoing down the hall somewhere around the banquet table and the suspense they created.


The Haunted Mansion, merely by the act of being a haunted house, drags in dozens of cultural connotations and connections like one of Dickens’ specters dragging chains. Aside from the volumes of Gothic and fantasy literature and culture already absorbed into the ether and deemed acceptable content for ghost fiction – haunted portraits, Victorian mansions, coffins, hangings, and ghost brides – also invoked are a number of works of the period.

The Mansion is a remarkably “modern” – modern meaning circa 1969 – attraction, including gags on dunebuggies, referencing “swinging” wakes, and a theme song which takes the form of the sort of jingle one might expect in a Frankie Avalon beach movie, complete with funky guitars. Moreso than any other attraction of its’ period, The Haunted Mansion makes more overtures towards being what we today think of as “hip”.

These references at least seem to have aged well or are, at least today, impenetrable to us, but there are other, more overt references to outside work.

Above: the Cocteau, depicting ideas which resulted in the exit crypt lighting fixtures, moving busts, portrait corridor (an image taken from Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary, 1927), and Crump's 'living architecture'.

Below: Two scenic pieces found in the final show, plus a detail from a Crump concept.

Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast, besides being the basis for a lot of the ideas found in sanitized form in the 1991 Disney version, was a major influence on the work of Rolly Crump on the attraction. Although his Museum of the Weird ideas retained a ghastly edge by using identifiable human limbs and faces, it was designed into more comical skulls and bats by the design team in control of the interior. Crump’s design legacy in the attraction takes the form of a number of humanoid faces worked into the interior elements as and the ghostly torch holders at the exit of the show, primarily derived from Cocteau, as well as the ghoulish Grandfather clock transitional scene before the séance room, strongly patterned on a Crump concept which itself seems to have derived from the 1933 Mickey Mouse short “The Mad Doctor”.

Certain elements of the dark humor of the attraction seem to have an antecedent in the good natured if slightly tacky films of William Castle, where ghosts and ghouls are presented in comic situations interspersed with more disturbing, serious stuff. Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump would’ve been going to see these spook shows in the late 50’s and early 60’s as primary sources. According to Crump, Walt Disney actually went with them to see 13 Ghosts, which offers as a plot device a lowering bed canopy, one idea retained in early stories for the attraction which featured a murderous Blood family as the source of the haunting.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydid are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself amongst its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of hill house, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959, and its’ film of 1963 directed by Robert Wise, seem to have been the primary source for the frightening Corridor of Doors scenes in the attraction. As realized in the Wise film the ghosts of Hill House move down corridors making a horrendous banging sound, turning door knobs, and, later in the film, a door “breathes” outward as the ghosts try to enter a room. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the design team seeing this and basically lifting the entire premise for their show.

The other significant influence is a scene where a paranoid woman imagines a textured wall resembles a hideous face while she hears strange noises in an adjacent room; it’s not hard o imagine this is the starting point for the famous wallpaper pattern credited to Marc Davis. Even the other wallpapers throughout the attraction seem to have been chosen for their resemblance to faces.


Next week: more Haunted Mansion stuff!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part One

When hinges creak in doorless chambers
And strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls

Whenever candlelight flickers where the air is deathly still

That is the time when ghosts are present

Practicing their terror with ghoulish delight…

Never before or since has a Disney attraction actually opened with a spoken thesis statement which in no uncertain terms is intended as an evocation of a grouping of elements which the attraction itself will eventually supply, and yet here it is, in what is undoubtedly the most literate and effective text ever penned for an attraction, supplied by X. Atencio. And it is appropriate that The Haunted Mansion announces itself in the form of a literal list of things which will be fulfilled by the upcoming experience, as The Haunted Mansion is, in a way of speaking, the most complex attraction ever built.

Now I do not, of course, intend “complex” to mean literally that it deploys the most stuff per square foot nor that it has the most sophisticated technology to guide it along – these are definitions of “complex” often deployed by Disney itself to glorify the most mediocre manner of tripe. I mean “complex” in that the attraction itself takes the form of an impenetrable network of symbols which loops back into themselves with no point of access. To speak of it as a cipher, it is almost impossible to “decode” into a set of elements which may be identified as “this is how this works” or “this is the best thing about it.” Indeed, its insular nature stems from the fact that it is indeed the happiest of all happy accidents, a total artistic success because of what nobody did rather than what one person did right.

And so then to decode, even in part, this pattern, we must follow the attraction’s example and supply a thesis statement.

The Haunted Mansion is the most formal of all attractions operating today. I mean formal in its’ literal intellectual sort – where we must discard motivations, meanings and narratives implied or not to arrive at a deeper meaning, a more complete understanding.

To this I say that the Haunted Mansion is formal in that we cannot get locked into its’ non-narrative and seek answers there – generations of Haunted Mansion fans have contemplated the Narrative Question and come up with nothing but rumor and speculation. In order to comprehend the attraction we must see it simply and clearly as a succession of objects arranged in a pattern which are viewed from a fixed distance and moved past at a fixed rate which forms a pattern of comprehension. There can be no further or more basic understanding.

I have often spoken of the concept of “Presentationalism” as a form of attraction-based formalism, and specifically in reference to EPCOT attractions and theatre-based entertainment. I have also spoken of 3-D Montage as being a possible stepping-stone to comprehension of what attractions can do. The Haunted Mansion does all of these and more, while at once frustrating every effort to classify it as any one entity; it is, in short, the keystone of what great attraction design can be – and doesn’t have to be. Indeed, its’ power lies in its’ great minimalism, its sparseness, the quietude of the dark, empty void it often seems to inhabit. So in attempting to form a method of attack to this great edifice, I have formulated three concepts which I hope to stick to: What Was Planned, What Was Built, and What It Does.

What Was Planned

Let it first be said that the Spook Train – the basic idea of the attraction and its cultural heritage – is not only as old as Disneyland itself, but as old as the idea of something like a theme park. For as long as people have been willing to pay to be flung about, dangled upside down, terrified, embarrassed or strapped into a somewhat safe moving vehicle, there has been the Dark Ride. Some of the earliest amusements were “Tunnels of Love” full of Ghoulish tableaus, and the traditional Spook House attraction with two person carts on an electric rail was not far behind. Some early dark rides ran on gravity. But the point is, as long as there has been an idea of an attraction providing a three-dimensional form of amusement, there has been a spook house attraction.

Part of this may be that in order to create a full controlled environment in which scenes may be presented and built, that environment must first be, by laws of light on our planet, fully enclosed and darkened. Only then, the early artisans of the amusement park realized, could scenes be presented to their fullest effect to a spectator in a passing vehicle. This necessity itself and the darkened space it requires ensured the creation of the spook thrill ride – if you’re going to have darkness, why not scariness as well? And thus the tradition of the Laff in the Dark was born.

These early versions of the Haunted Mansion are as primal to the American cultural unconsciousness as the same fledging art being created at the time: the cinema. While the early-model guests rode Steeple Chase, films like The Great Train Robbery flicked across bedsheets in storefront Nickelodeons, and America was all at once creating most of the myths, ideas, pageantry and vulgarity which would inform most of her national character for the next century. And one of these primal experiences was riding a rail down a darkened hall while paper-mache witches zipped from their darkened corners. It was the perfect waking dream state.

Now Walt Disney wasn’t a man who appreciated clutter, madness or low rent thrills; although he liked most other things about America, Coney Island in its’ heyday would probably not have appealed to him. And Disneyland - as a piece as well as a social event - is as much of a reformation of the traditional amusement park as it is its’ own proper work. With all its’ thrills sanitized, dangers cushioned, and vulgarity censored, Disneyland is as much of America’s own reflection of herself circa 1955 as Coney Island was circa 1895. And most brilliantly, Walt’s park used as many familiar images as it did new ones: like it or not, Fantasyland is basically a carnival in appearance, content and function.

And so it goes without saying that, just as Disneyland had its’ own carousel, its own concession stands, its own spinning attraction, and its own kiddie roller coaster, as early as the idea existed there was to be a dark ride.

From here, the history of the ride essentially fragments into three parts: the pre 1964 Ken Anderson and Yale Gracey design efforts, the post 1964 Marc Davis design efforts, and the Claude Coates efforts.

For many years the Ken Anderson portion of the Haunted House development was mysterious, but thanks to a 2005 publication of his original layout and scene descriptions by the famous E-Ticket Magazine, we have a full account of how much and, strangely, how little changed between 1959 and 1969. In 1959 we already have secret passageways in and out of inescapable situations, a haunted grand ball, a dead bride, a piano which plays itself, and sundry gags like a vanishing ceiling to reveal a hung body, ghosts rising out of their graves and mirrors which show guests as well as ghosts which pass among them, unseen except in reflection.

A walkthrough alternately hosted by a generic butler or Walt Disney himself, Anderson’s Haunted House is a relic of an older era in Disneyland’s history, a minor attraction in design but a key development in technique. Especially noteworthy in Anderson’s version is the good natured, pun-based humor of the ghoulish scenes, heavily patterned on the word-image interplay of Charles Addam’s New Yorker comics (“The groom is a little hung up right now” to deflate the tension of the hanging man and the see-through ceiling). Furthermore, Anderson’s mansion hosts a cornucopia of famous spooks like The Phantom of the Opera, Quasimodo, Dracula and the Wolf Man. The unsettling anonyminity of the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion – their unfamiliarity to the spectator – elevates the strange disconnect between fantasy and fright which using well known characters does not create. It is, in effect, a cuddlier version of the attraction, a fact which the explicit participation of Disney himself is representative of.

On the other hand, Crump and Gracey’s devices were far more sinister, the most famous of which was the dead sea captain dripping rainwater, an image later drawn by Marc Davis and repainted for the Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion. Gracey and Crump were going to spook shows like William Castle’s productions and bringing back ideas on how to genuinely startle and baffle an audience – a lineage which would also be brought to the table in the final attraction.

Marc Davis’ gag sketches, by contrast, are far more contained and less flexible, and generally had to be represented in whole for their eccentric light humor to play. The way the attraction segues from the atmospheric first half to the gag heavy second half as the spirits materialize allows the creative autonomy of Gracey’s work and Davis’ work to coexist. In future attractions Davis would retain fuller control over the final product, as his gags are slightly compromised by the fact that the audience’s vantage point is changing every second and a full “loop” is never allowed to fully play. For example, one of the original Davis gags, of ghosts alternately appearing and vanishing atop a teeter-totter, was installed but the gag was never even attempted due to the placement of the ghosts relative the doombuggies meant that the tableau is seen for only a few fleeting seconds. In future attractions, Davis would try to retain more creative control over the final product, but as his influence increased, his ability to get attractions built would decrease.

Claude Coates Has Another Idea.

Around the same time, Claude Coates had been developing an innovative aesthetic based around ideas of space and minimalism which would ultimately result in Adventure Thru Inner Space and If You Had Wings, the only attractions predating the EPCOT Center crop which actually have a functional understanding of modernism. Perhaps spurred by a Marc Davis piece depicting ghosts arriving at the Haunted Mansion in a totally irrational space of boxes floating in space, Coates’ idea of a Haunted Mansion was based on the idea that the literal brick and mortar of the house was unreliable and that whole sections of the house would just melt away into a black void. This delightfully creepy idea is actually still present in all versions of the original attraction in small ways, but the Coates concept art released to the public sphere reveals an constant and obsessive reiteration of the “ghostly nothingness” idea, in stark contrast to the richly detailed decaying house conveyed in the work of Davis and Anderson for the interior.

Coates also brought in Rolly Crump’s design legacy to the attraction – apparently almost without his knowledge. Crump had designed in 1966 a “Museum of the Weird” using a lot of ideas about the intersection of human and inanimate features in an evil house, ideas borrowed from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast. Throughout the attraction demonic faces, eyes, bat wings, skulls and other features are blended into the architecture itself, on the back of old armchairs, in banners, doorknobs, and fireplace grilles. This highly abstract work is some of the creepiest stuff in the show, and Coates and Davis’ retention of these ideas from Crump’s Museum of the Weird animates many very simple scenes.

Dozens others worked on the show, but the remarkable thing is that of all of these guiding, conflicting ideas, not a one was written out: Ken Anderson’s bride, Rolly Crump’s designs, Marc Davis’ gags, and Claude Coates’ atmospheric designs all survive in the show in relative harmony, one of the richest and most unique blends of ideas and styles in any Disney product, ever.


Next week: more suspect analysis! Until then, please comment.. commented-upon blogs are happy blogs!

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Second Wheel

This weekend, all variety of Disney fans will have descended upon Walt Disney World for the upcoming 25th Anniversary of EPCOT Center on October 1, 2007. For many people, EPCOT Center was the start of a great new era in themed design. But as revolutionary as EPCOT Center was, it was not the start, but the end. EPCOT Center was the final breath, the culminating moment, of the things that crafted the resort in its' early days.

"Walt Disney World or Disneyland?" seems to be the question which will never cease to haunt us, and as many people have opinions as they have memories. But I offer this this week - on the event of the 36th year of the Orlando property, on the 25th anniversary of EPCOT Center, on the event of the 50th post on my blog in a little over a year, on the weekend that so many in the community will be there - that we look, think, and evaluate what is there, what is really there, and not let our memories get in the way of our intellects.


Misconceptions Run Deep.

The Accepted Conception of Walt Disney World is that it is the sequel. By dint of being second in a sequence, by dint of it's general conceptual design, and by dint of - let's face it - Disney's own hand, its' confusion of properties (which reached its' inevitable conclusion in 2006 by the rebranding of all the separate properties under one cookie cutter logo), Walt Disney World Phase One development has aways been seen as "another of more of the same" and denied full artistic sovereignty because of it.

The second in a sequence, if not a direct copy, must then be one of two things: a step forward or a step backward. I posit that Walt Disney World, for all its' problems, cannot be regarded as anything but a step forward.

When one is evaluating the success of a second work, one must, by the nature of the inquiry, also evaluate what has come before, and in the case of Disneyland and Walt Disney World we have an essentially similar pattern to our benefit. So while we're dealing with definitions and semantics, let us carefully examine, for the purposes of our discussion, the first in the sequence as well.

Disneyland is a revolutionary work, and as such it must, by definition of the term, also inevitably be the first. And by being the first, it means it has no precedent - Disneyland was expected to be a crippling failure. In 1955 a lot worked about Disneyland - and a lot didn't. Immediately the park experienced dramatic changes, many to streamline its' everyday operation. These refinements continued on a day to day basis and the opening of the Florida property sixteen years later was the result.

And so, let's let the final, the ultimate question raise its' ugly head, and that of Walt Disney. Since the opening of EPCOT herself, there have been cries that the Florida property was Not What Walt Wanted, not faithful to the ideas of its' namesake. It is true as one walks around Walt Disney World Phase One that things do not seem fully right; that there is a certain intangible quality missing that would have improved the product. There is, but that intangible is not mysterious: it's money. And although calling The Magic Kingdom cheap by any means is laughable, money was tight and it does show in places, just as it does at Disneyland.

But the Walt Disney factor is arguably no less present than it would be had he lived. Disney spoke of building a "Disneyland-style park" as Phase One of the Florida Project, and his brother was faithful to his word. We must recall that increasingly after the New York World's Fair of 1964 Walt Disney was deferring to the WED staff. X. Atencio reports that, shortly before his death, Disney questioned the taste of auctioning women in Pirates of the Caribbean, and deferred to his design staff when they unanimously told him that it would be acceptable. One would think that Walt Disney would not have backed off on a question of taste, but he trusted his design staff to make decisions in his best interest. In short, it is arguable that, based on known events before his death, that WED would have designed what they thought was best for Disney in Florida, which is what they did without him regardless. The possibilities of the medium had expanded well beyond even Walt Disney's watchful eye.

Technically Speaking.

Let it first be said that, while we speak of the successes of Walt Disney World on a purely technical level, it must be acknowledged that the relationship between function and art - as in all objects meant for public or personal use - manifests in the Florida property as a number of elements which partially negate the quality of the park itself. The tensions inherent in being a reconsideration of the Disneyland model; of having to at once be a refinement and also a redefinement to meet new requirements; results in the most obvious and striking differences between the two first generation castle parks. Disneyland was designed to handle 10-12,000 visitors at a time; in 1955 when 30,000 people poured into the park on opening day, it was bedlam. And as much expansion as Disneyland has gone through in the years, as much land adding and path widening, it still retains its' spatiality as a 1955 tourist attraction. The Magic Kingdom, on the other hand, was designed to suck up in excess of 40,000 tourists a day without breaking a sweat: if you happen to be walking right on Pirates of the Caribbean in the middle of the day, that's the reason why.

As a result the paths are wider, because they are expected to force many more people through them per day than Disneyland was. As a result of the paths being wider, the buildings are made to be taller so that they do not lose intended scope from a significantly greater distance. As a result of the buildings being bigger and spaced further apart, the stylistic tricks of the park become more evident, such as forced perspective and "stacked" faux gables and rooflines. And as a result of all of this, the buildings look more and more like what they really are: big hollow warehouses with nice fronts slapped on them. Magic Kingdom is, foot for foot, no less carefully designed than Disneyland and, generally, the buildings are designed with more artful intricacies than their folksy originals in Anaheim. But they are spaced farther apart, and as a result that illusion of intimacy that Disneyland still carries is partially lost.

This is really The Magic Kingdom's fatal flaw, the reason it is Not Disneyland, more by necessity than by choice. After all, Disneyland is so cramped that it can be unpleasant to be in with even a moderate crowd, but that is the trade off. But there are other reasons The Magic Kingdom is Not Disneyland as well, and some of them are good.

The Magic Kingdom is the streamlined zeppelin to Disneyland's cute balloon. The brilliant and still useful Utilidor system, built under part of Tomorrowland for Walt Disney's 1967 reworking, is expanded to remarkable effect, and when these components are considered in tandem with things like the AVAC trash conveyance system, the incinerator system, the man built waterways where roads go under rivers, the expansion of Disneyland's hub concept into an entire resort area which mirrors the design of its' main attraction, and other technicalities, does the full scope of the reconsideration of Disneyland actually become relevant to us.

The reworking was extended to the most minute of details: rather than reuse already proven and fully effective designs, WED re-engineered everything from the smallest Snow White Mine Cart to the largest Admiral Joe Fowler riverboat. Vehicles which were once guided by simple rails were now redesigned to run on even more foolproof methods, such as guiding trenches and electrified rails with discrete braking zones. Kitchens and other service areas were carefully clustered so that one central location could serve up to three sub locations, sometimes spread across whole thematic areas, at once. The point is that even things which had no good reason to be rethought were rethought carefully. This alone demonstrates that Walt Disney World, as a design unit, is a very smart reinvention of the wheel by the very people who had just built it.


That fatal flaw I spoke of may be a fatal flaw, and after 36 years of foliage growth, Walt Disney World is just starting to enjoy the perpetual dapple sunlight which is the experience of Disneyland and which so adds to the sense of intimacy which is already the (accidental) primary design feature of that park. All that having been said, WED proved herself as adept at designing for huge scope and scale as she was for the intimate courtyards and shaded bandstands which are the primary domain of Disneyland. For one, although the effect is patchy today, it is the first theme park ever designed to take future foliage growth into account: we look at photos from 1971 and then from 1975 and suddenly all those muddy embankments make total sense. Furthermore, whole areas are staged in depth for the first time: entering Adventureland, you were once able to look all the way across to the beaconing spire of the Enchanted Tiki Room. It's not an accidental vista, and one which has been sadly negated by a lax team of horticulturalists (the carefully designed "Jungle Lookout" atop the Swiss Family Treehouse has also befallen a similar fate).

One must also take into account how scope is controlled: although these too have mostly gone the way of the dodo, sacrificed to the unappeasable God of Crowd Flow, everywhere there wasn't a parade route, WED would set down a big tree, or a flower bed, or a fountain, or something.

Although the recent loss of the big planter of palms in front of Pirates of the Caribbean or the current existence of a rug-themed spinning attraction atop what was once a charming waterfall oasis will be most immediately recalled, I bring your attention to more often overlooked casualties: two huge oaks in front of the Haunted Mansion, where there is currently a broken fountain and part of a queue. Charming little oblique hexagons between America the Beautiful and Mission to Mars overflowing with the tall tall palm trees once the signature of Tomorrowland, and a trickling fountain and flower bed between It's A Small World and Peter Pan which once housed a Skyway pylon and was deemed to offensive to stay with the dismantling of that attraction. The old Liberty Square village green was replaced with circular planters and red umbrellas, and sometime in the mid 90's the beautiful old spreading oaks in Town Square were replaced with scraggling little saplings
because they apparently interfered with sightlines of the candy store.

So it's not like WED didn't arm itself with an arsenal of vegetation to combat all these wide open vistas in Florida. As always, the design of the park isn't always represented by the current state of the park, too often the rallying cry of the underinformed. All of these pockets of foliage were meant to make The Magic Kingdom as green and dense as Disneyland is today, and greatly reduce the fatal flaw that we have identified. (See footnote 1)

Where that flaw cannot be fought back, it is deployed to great advantage. The fact that Florida would get a bigger castle was probably inevitable given the nature of being the second in a sequence, and bigger isn't always better. But what does cause the Florida main entryway to the park to greatly outpace its' original sister is that WED brilliantly exaggerated Main Street from an already idealized small town to an astonishing network of gingerbread and lace: into a setting appropriate for a huge castle. That brilliant design, that symbol of American optimism, that indelible contribution to our collective unconscious - a fairy tale at the end of every American road - was improved not by increasing its' scale, but by improving its' integration. The point of Walt Disney's image is not juxtaposition, but how two very different ideas can become one. Here is an example of using scope to the advantage of the design team, along with those examples of harmonizing the castle with contrasting architecture which has already been discussed elsewhere on this journal.

Another element which must be taken into consideration and which is taken utterly for granted today is not only that Walt Disney World developed a whole new set of (successful!) aesthetic criteria out of the blue for the artistic harmony of the whole unit, that it deployed space and foliage in a newly sophisticated way, and that it is a technical marvel (in some ways the true application of the ideas Walt Disney was putting into his EPCOT city), but that although it may have repeated attractions from park to park, each Phase One attraction was a complete improvement in design and execution than it's West Coast original.

Although some attractions have been so spectacularly expanded in scope and concept that it's unfair to compare, say, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln to The Hall of Presidents, some were improved subtly but significantly. The extra rooms in Florida's Haunted Mansion, for example, give the attraction a greater structuring rhythm which the show simply doesn't have in Anaheim. The Jungle Cruise is similarly improved, with greater structure, purpose, and pace compared to the original which today seems slapdash by dint of its' evolution. The Enchanted Tiki Room, similarly, is subtly improved through a more ornate scale.

Some attractions stole elements from their Walt Disney World redesigned versions so quickly that it's hard to remember that these were designed for Florida first: the almost immediate replication of Country Bear Jamboree in California is famous but less salient than the case of Fantasyland. Compared to the 1955 originals still in place in 1971, the Fantasyland trio of Mr. Toad, Snow White and Peter Pan were fully rethought for their inclusion in Florida. Snow White became a much darker attraction which carried, for the first time, the enviable fingerprints of Yale Gracey in its' showstopping barrage of morbid effects, including the now famous double-figure mirror gag. Mr. Toad was a total aesthetic redesign which was inarguably brilliant, and even the lackluster Peter Pan of 1971 had an interesting, unique idea behind it's strange tableau: as the ships progress through Never Land, the scale of the sets and figures increase from a few inches tall to full size, giving the impression of coming in for a landing. The size of the building is too small for the idea to work fully and so it has not been repeated, but it is a total reconsideration of what was already a crowd pleaser.

Even the Submarine Voyage was retooled into the beautiful and artistic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which for the first time real depth was achieved in an underwater show scene, and a moody air of haunting romance and real terror (that squid..) transformed a technically impressive aquarium show into the first and only real work of art Disney's ever put under water.

Even the Riverboat, once a tour of scenery random and disconnected, was crafted into an attraction of full narrative arc,m with setups and payoffs and everything else we expect of classical era Disney design. (See footnote 2)


With the weight of these cases, let's create a list:

- Walt Disney World streamlined guest flow and service
- Walt Disney World debuted improved attractions which formed the blueprint for all future versions
- Walt Disney World featured an improved use of a new kind of spatial design
- Walt Disney World featured increased aesthetic unification across "lands"
- Walt Disney World's faults were "designed in" with smoother operation in mind
- Walt Disney World recognized it's main faults and designed them away as much as possible
- Walt Disney World was Disney's first effort towards building a resort, a model which has totally taken over as the desired mode

Walt Disney World may not be what Walt wanted, but it is as pure to the spirit of Disneyland as can be imagined. It has to be. It was designed by the same people, after sixteen years of unprecedented experimentation in the field, and it benefits from their knowledge. It light of all this, Walt Disney World has to be considered a superior design to Disneyland, the refinement of what was Walt's Workshop into a codified Art.

I may not know which is better, but I do know that too long has its' crucial place in the history of themed design been overlooked as "More Of The Same" or "Less Than Equal". It may have called itself "The Vacation Kingdom Of The World" in 1971, but here's a better name:

"Everything Old Is New Again"

Happy Birthday, Walt Disney World.



#1 - If one should wish to experience WED's intended foliage canopy in these 'de-tree-d' areas, I recommend to the casual observer that she sit at the entrance to Adventureland across from Aloha Isle for a while. I think she'd agree that the effect is similar to Disneyland's grown in feeling.

#2 - To head off any questions: yes, the riverboat has a story. The three setups are a mention of River Pirates near the start of the journey (corroborated by the Keel Boats plowing the waters... the film they derived from is Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, remember!), the burning cabin, and Beacon Joe just past Big Thunder Mountain. These pay off in rapid succession during the "tense" part of the journey, where the Riverboat glides safely past the Unfriendly Indian Village (yes, they were sanitized in the 80's), nearly is caught in Tree Snag Reef as warned on one of Joe's beacons, and then glides undetected past the lair of the river pirates. (See footnote 3)

#3 - I'm sorry, it was silly, I had to do it... but I've long suspected that Florida originally had a dead settler in front of its' burning cabin in the 70's, just like Disneyland did... the memory of a friend (who was there and should know) seems to confirm this. Anybody know one way or the other?