Monday, December 29, 2008

Look At My Stuff, Part 1

Merry Christmas! Since we're celebrating the Most Material Time of the Year here at Passport to Dreams, I thought I'd offer a special year-end "light break" from our usual through discourse here and start a limited run of articles where you, the appreciative consumer, .... .... Look At My Stuff! My stuff and you looking... a match made on the internet! .... It will be Disney related "stuff", I assure you.

As readers of this blog may have guessed a few months back, I am a collector of records. You know -- those vinyl things you drag a stylus across to play music. They're not only fun and exciting, but sound better than your MP3s! So there.

I am especially fixated on early records, back before the variable microgroove was invented and the groove on the record's playable surface had to be uniformly as wide as the loudest portions of the music track, whether this width was used throughout the entire track or not. Early records ran fast - very fast, 78 rotations per minute, roughly the same speed as that very earliest of recorded sound devices - the wax or embrol cylinder - and pretty speedy compared to the 33 rotations per minute called for by the later LPs. And unlike those flexible LPs, made of elastic vinyl, many 78 records were made of the thick and heavy shellac.

These were different days, and not only did it take some time for 78 records to start coming with a song on each side (after all, cylinders could only contain a single song of a certain length), but these records were purchased singly, in little brown paper sleeves at the local department or music store. Pictured below are two mid-40's ten inch 78s in representative paper sleeves. This is what 90 cents would have gotten you in 1945 (45 cents each, about the same as $5 today):

This, of course, began to present a problem for anyone planning on collecting music, since stacking such items has never been desireable and uncontained, these could quickly get out of hand. The solution was to start offering bound books into which 10 or 12 10-inch 78s could be filed. Each page was numbered and in the front of each book was a ledger in which the titles of the 78s could be entered for easy access. These beautiful books began to be called "albums", since flipping through the records was equivalent to looking through a picture album. This is, by the way, why we continue to call music releases "albums" today. Below are three such albums: on top, two World War I era Victor record albums, each with a pull ring on the spine so that the music could be easily extracted from a bookshelf. Below it is a mid-40's album issued by Decca. There are other, more common albums, possibly issued by Columbia or Decca, where the spine can be unscrewed and more pages can be inserted to house more records.

I've gone on about this at great length to demonstrate how deluxe the items I'm about to show you was in 1946 when it was new, and also why the things looks the way they do. Of course, with record albums already a way of life in many homes, eventually many major companies began to offer an array of related records in an attractive and relevant album rather than having to choose just two songs from, say, a feature film or Broadway musical or record a medley of songs from a property. I've seen these albums from as early as the late 1930's but rarely before, and it was this format which eventually paved the way for LPs which featured two, three, or four discs of music.

When I was first becoming devoted to the Three Caballeros I began to scour eBay looking for the best item to have for the film, I knew that when I saw these beautiful Decca albums from the 1940's that there would never be a better piece of merchadise to represent the beauty and fun of those films. Whereas many 78 albums from this era are plain with only art on the front cover and plain brown paper inside, both of these lush 78 albums are full of beautiful art. Each even comes with a booklet of liner notes relating to the film, the music and the Disney studio, which was a pretty unusual extravagence for the time. The original price of each album, notated in pencil in the corner of my Caballeros record, was $2.75... which translates to over $30 today.

It's fairly common to find these thematic 78 albums, but often either unrelated records will be housed inside or the records will be broken. Barring either of those possibilities, the front or back panel will be torn off or the binding destroyed. Find both of these albums in good shape with their boojklets is a major find. The Saludos Amigos had been fairly mistreated, while the Three Caballeros one was in greaqt shape but the binding was slightly damaged. The music on these, by the way, is beautiful - a fresh and mellow breeze from another time and place.

I especially like this interior illustration... and its' named characters closely correspond to the "movements" of the film I have identified!

You can find these from most of the Disney films of the "golden" and "war" eras, but none of them match the beauty and lush presentation of these two sets, in my mind. The music, art and booklets are presented in digital versions online at the invaluable Kiddie Records: Saludos Amigos & The Three Caballeros. These albums aren't just great Disney, they're great history and if you find them complete in your travels you may want to pick the whole thing up.

So what happened to 78s as a format? As the 40's waned and the 1950's picked up, 78s began to fall out of favor to the similar but smaller and lighter 45s, and eventually to the 33 rpm long-playing records. While a shellac 78 could hold at most perhaps 3 and a half minutes of music, each side of a LP could hold around 20 and even more with creative pressing. 78s became associated with children's products and educational use, and the heyday of complex and beautiful album-books was replaced with more restrained boxes and sleeves.

This is a 1951 version of the very popular, long in print Merry Christmas Bing Crosby. It is housed in a simple box with a sticker on the front for cover art and minor, generic album notes on the back of the box top, like a board game. Some of the final 78s I've seen were printed on cardboard, used to promote Disneyland, and aimed squarely at children.

I don't have an overly huge collection of Disney stuff or records at my disposal, but I went to great lengths to obtain these two items, and I think they're still probably two of the nicest things I own.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Magic Corner of the World

Those of you who are in personal contact with me know that in addition to the text I've written for the excellent Widen Your World about the original Snow White's Adventures at Walt Disney World, I've also been compiling a resource on probably the single vanished Walt Disney World component which obsesses me most, which is the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village a.k.a. the Walt Disney World Village a.k.a. the Disney Village Marketplace a.k.a. Downtown Disney Marketplace. Not only is this seemingly minor establishment important in showing just how far ahead of the ball WED was in the 1970's (and they were way ahead of us today, more than ever!), but in demonstrating the fading but carefully constructed variety of options available to vacationers in the resort's pre-Eisner years - with four theme parks and something like twenty resorts, how could an intentionally discreet shopping district possibly keep up?

It was also, as will be revealed on the WYW Walt Disney World Village resource in the next few months, a very real stepping stone towards realizing Walt Disney's EPCOT, perhaps more than most people have ever known - but all that is in the future, along with a near complete list of shops which once inhabited the Village, more photos than you can shake a stick at, and more. But in the interim, please enjoy this history text on the Village, Walt Disney World's forgotten gem.

Also, be sure to take time to absorb all of Widen Your World, still the internet's premiere resource for revisiting Walt Disney world when it was really something special.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Thoughts on the Haunted Mansion

In my mind the ongoing, primarily unresolvable conflict regarding the nature of design in the Disney theme shows is regarding the nature of "authorship". The WED classics were collaborative efforts which arose from a group dynamic, and rarely were all parties truly satisfied except - perhaps - Walt Disney, in the end. Yet throughout these works, much like those films which Hollywood produced before the studio system broke down, we can find a thread of an individual voice and following it does invariably lead to some interesting places. Since my own natural predilection is towards artwork which is traceable to a single source, one of the chief efforts in my writings had been to hint at, lead to, or resolve issues of authorship in attractions where such things can be found.

For example, the dynamic between the design and atmosphere of Claude Coats and the character and appeal of Marc Davis in Pirates of the Caribbean is the conflict which absolutely structures the spectator's experience of that attraction; to my mind, Coats wins mildly at Walt Disney World and absolutely at Disneyland, yet the tension is never lost. Especially in light of the true Marc Davis 100% control shows like Country Bear Jamboree or America Sings, which are all character and no atmosphere, I think an argument can be made that within WED was the necessary environment for individual voices to be heard distinctly in individual attractions. I certainly feel the continuity of vision between Space Mountain and Horizons, for example, and so strong a grasp does Marc Davis hold on the 1971 version of the Jungle Cruise that it may as well be a totally different attraction from it's Disneyland crude-hewn original version.

And yet dozens of people lent talents to materialize Davis' bear drawings, and even The Jungle Cruise had its' foundation in an attraction designed by very different people some years earlier, and these other guiding voices have also left their marks on the show. Where and how the scales were balanced or tipped is the subject of much speculation, but WED was certainly more democratic whereas the WDI of today is more autocratic; only do voices like Joe Rohde or Tony Baxter outshine the apparent all-pervasive volume of the marketing department in rides and shows today. And yet the all-time balance, the final and absolute example of WED at their most democratic and encompassing, has to be The Haunted Mansion.

The balance between gothic horror and light humor in The Haunted Mansion is so balanced that the attraction must be termed brilliantly accidental. At every turn when the show seems as if it will tilt totally in one direction, a new element enters into the overall pattern which dulls the impact of the other. The portraits in the stretching room are reassuring in their humor but threatening in their design, an overall effect which the design and scripting of the room does nothing to counteract. The pre-show then follows with a strong suicide image and a total blackout, some of the strongest stuff in the show. Likewise, the disturbing Corridor of Doors and Endless Hallway contains a mild bit of humor right between them in the form of the coffin-escape ghoul and is followed by the serene Seance Circle. In short, the attraction is funny enough for children and scary enough for adults, and it is from this push and pull of different tonalities that the piece maintains something like dramatic tension, an escalating sense that things may indeed get out of control at any minute. There are funny visual jokes in the scary first half, and likewise the funny second half is the only portion where the attraction where the ghosts come out unexpectedly at the spectators.

I've always reconciled this dynamic as being principally the result of a front half of the attraction being developed separately from the back half; although Davis type gags are sprinkled throughout the pre-Leota Haunted Mansion and Gracey/Coats arrangements accent the scenes throughout the post-Leota show, the first part of the attraction can essentially be credited to Claude Coats, Yale Gracey and X. Atencio and the later half to Marc Davis. Atencio's script even drops out at the point where the Davis scenes, played for spectacle and humor, take over, whereas Coats and Gracey play strictly for atmosphere and horror.

The importance and utter impossibility of replicating this balance is the key factor that many clueless efforts to reiterate the same basic concept fail to perceive; even the Haunted Mansion move of 2003 brainlessly stages a mild family safe comedy in the environment of a haunted house and overcompensates for its inability to be both funny and scary in equal measure by throwing in grotesque imagery and lousy scares. The Haunted Mansion, the attraction, is never cheap or inauthentic in its' scary content, and does have the capacity to do "real damage" when it wants to. I doubt me or anybody who rode the attraction at an impressionable age will ever forget the very real fear of that incessant recorded screaming echoing down the balcony overlooking the ballroom from the attic scene, or the multiple tests of courage the attraction puts children through as you progress from room to room - the building from afar, the opening of the doors to enter, the invitation into the stretching gallery, and the fairly permanent feeling decision to enter the ride vehicle.

So here is another balance, between funny and scary, to go with the balance between Coats and Davis. Ironically, the recent refurbishment to the Haunted Mansion in 2007 has tipped the attraction very strongly towards the scary side of the equation, not just in the first few rooms but throughout the show. The stretching gallery, originally probably the most threatening part of the show, has added an arsenal of disturbing sound effects, not just fluttering bats and what may be the distant echo of an owl, but truly apocalyptic sounding groans as the room stretches, adding the implicit threat that the walls could collapse. Probably creepiest of all is the giggling chorus of voices which flutters around the room as spectators are shuffled out, commonly lost in the bustle of regular operating hours but still quite audible. It's pretty adult and subliminally disturbing stuff, and nothing that the original WED staff would've ever considered putting in their attraction of 1969.

Although now significantly dialed down, those of us there in the first few days of the attraction's operation post-refurbishment probably won't much forget how loud that groaning and rumbling in the stretch room was, or how the lightning strikes outside those new galley windows was originally loud enough to make you jump. At the endless hallway where once Jimmie MacDonald's "Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House" played, a new speaker system allows a cold, impersonal sonic whoosh to truly emanate down the hall and nearby, the nifty new scene of eyes in darkness transforming into the famous Crump-inspired wallpaper is given a genuine edge by low hissing and scratching coming from the shadows. Even the Corridor of Doors' hokey original sound effects have been turned off in favor of impersonal clanking and banging coming from behind those doors, making the scene even more disturbing and impersonal than its' original incarnation.

Curiously these changes do cast a long shadow over the spectators' experience of the Haunted Mansion but do not overall effect its' balance of tone in the way that, say, the recent changes to the Attic scene dramatically comprise its' artistic intergrity. When I was young the Haunted Mansion never really seemed dangerous but now it does, at least in the Coats/Gracey half where the strongest aural changes have been implemented. The dark tone of the new murderous bride tableau is actually less sinister overall than the original directionless attic full of leaping ghouls and featuring a bride who raised more questions than she answered (and wasn't prattling off a bad script). Thus overall the Davis half now seems a bit of a letdown after the considerable unease built by the Coats/Gracey half in its 2007 incarnation, which points to a third balance the attraction must overall preserve. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, and remarkably despite the many changes 2007 brought to the definitive variation of WED's definitive attraction, the act is still going nicely.

Which brings us to the issue of authorship once more. Who can be responsible for the so-good-it-must-be-accidental balance of the Haunted Mansion, if anyone at all? Moreover, is authorship a wise or desirable thing to impose on any Disney, WED or WDI product, or moreover anything produced by an American studio system? Walt Disney is ostensibly the author of all the work bearing his name, and yet why then does the single animated film he did direct - The Golden Touch, one of many of the bland Silly Symphonies his studio produced - utterly without special merit? Yet his touch is discernible in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in Fantasia, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in Mary Poppins and in the Disneyland of 1955 itself. Disney ultimately functioned not a fountainhead of ideas like the truly creative Hollywood executives like Daryl F. Zanuck or David O. Selznick, but a censor - the final arbiter of what got through and what didn't. He relied on other, more talented people to produce his "signature" style.

Thus, I assign authorship of The Haunted Mansion to Walt Disney, and not fully without merit. Walt Disney had been dead for 24 days, 7 months and 2 years by the time the original Haunted Mansion finally opened, and by all accounts he had missed nearly the totality of the decisions regarding what the final shape of the attraction would be. Many of his ideas that seemed set in stone - like Rolly Crump's Museum of the Weird - were discarded or cycled into the homogeneous whole of the attraction. Without Disney to veto scenes and ideas, decisions were made by committee, and the Haunted Mansion may therefore be seen as the greatest camel ever created. It may then be seen as Walt Disney's creation, if only by circumstance. The net total Walt Disney in it after all may still be greater than the net total Walt Disney in, say, Atencio and Justice's stop motion Noah's Ark of 1959.

Then maybe this whole authorship thing isn't such a great idea to float after all, right?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Park Mysteries #7

In the earliest days of the Magic Kingdom, many of those areas of the park which we today think of as being fairly integral were barely there at all. Tomorrowland was a long walk along a construction fence, Adventureland dead ended at the Tiki Room, and for the first few years the view at the end of Frontierland was essentially a mound of dirt, with a big green field where one day we would enjoy Big Thunder Mountain. Tom Sawyer Island was a knee-high grassy knoll dotted with white rocks. Along the back stretch of track for the Admiral Joe Fowler, things improved, with such static tableaus as the Banjo Cabin from which some banjo strumming could be heard, an Indian Village with no Indians, that burning cabin, and the just out of sight but boisterous river pirates in their cave hideout.

Within the first few years additional figures began to appear such as those Indians, their burial ground, Indian totem poles, moose, deer, and elk. The event of the 1973 construction of Tom Sawyer Island required the draining of the Rivers of America and so WED took the opportunity to add Beacon Joe and his dog Rufus to the Banjo cabin, more Indians at the shoreline of the river, and more wildlife on both the train and riverboat sides of that back stretch. A lot of this stuff is still there today.

But the construction of Tom Sawyer Island did cause the removal of some things, and these were probably the first items ever placed along the river for the entertainment of those plowing the river via riverboat, keelboat or canoe: whimsical little wood buoys marking various points along the river. These can still be observed today, marking such places as Raccoon Point and Howling Dog Bend, and their number is perhaps eight. Originally there were perhaps a dozen overall, and the mystery of this week is: what were they? It's a pretty good bet that in the early days at least a few were the same: Devil's Elbow has always been where it is in the river, and I'm willing to bet that the sign for Howling Dog Bend was where it is now or perhaps across the river. To the left, click to expand a 1973 blueprint prepared for the construction of Tom Sawyer Island; close observers will note not only the locations of the 12 original buoys scattered around the island, but the original Frontierland train station, an unusual location for some of the fake deer near where the exit of Big Thunder Mountain is today, and that mystery structure in Liberty Square I discussed in our last installment.

It's a minor mystery, for sure, but so little material exists today documenting what an October or November 1971 experience of Walt Disney World was like that we should treasure these things when we get them. I, for one, would like to know what the little signs said and where they were. For example: there's a little one out by where the main river branches westward to go to the Riverboats' spur line. The buoy marked "Twin Rivers Bend" today sits near the Big Thunder Mountain geysers, but wouldn't it make more sense at this more northerly location? What sign marked where the Tom Sawyer Island barrel bridge is now? Or Tom's Landing? The current set of location markers is Disney writing at it's best at writing evocative nonsense, with exciting locations like Tree Snag Reef or Deer Crossing Shallows. One can only imagine the now removed other exciting locations - probably lost to history in the Magic Kingdom's early but very transformative years.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Notes on Diagesis

(Please accept this as not a fully formed dissertation, but a stepping stone to the real product. Sometimes things need to be written out before they start to congeal into a concept.)

The role of diagetic vs. non-diagetic elements, especially, particularly, and almost solely music, is a much contested and unreliable mode in the Disney parks, especially in light of their efforts to construct a fairly fully realized "reality" when operating in the Stratification mode. Contesting sightlines are eliminated, distractions are screened out, and the whole unitary environment is made as polished and real – hyper-real – as possible. Some definitions are in order now. Diagetic elements, or diagesis, are defined as any one "operating element" of a scene, environment or fictional world which is motivated by or explained by elements organic to that world.

The prevalence of non-diagetic music in the world of motion pictures is an institutalized element of those operating realities, ie, John Williams music blaring throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark, “inhabiting” environments where the entire London Symphony Orchestra would be unlikely to be located. This tradition likely draws back to the tradition of live music before, during, and after silent cinema – from an upright piano for poor theatres all the way up to huge organs of full orchestras for the largest movie palaces. Similarly institutionalized in cinema is an awareness of the prevalence of non-diagetic music in the film world; as early as 1931 William Wellman was limiting the music in The Public Enemy to onscreen bands, musicians and phonographs. The only song heard in that film is the 1919 sentimental ballad “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, a piece contrary to the brutal film, which pays off when James Cagney falls through his mother’s doorstep dead as her Edison drones out the whimsical tune, then slows and dies.

European film tradition limited the use of non-diagetic music through the 1960’s, in the French “poetic realistic” cinema by Renoir and others, and the “new objectivist” cinema of Germany’s years immediately before their slide into fascism. Ingmar Bergman’s films of the 1950s and 1960s tend to reserve non-diagetic music for moments of high drama or fantasy. And the modernist and post-modernist cinema of Europe often seeks to limit significantly or otherwise expose the use of non-diagetic music as in Antonioni’s Blowup, where the soundtrack eventually dwindles to silence, or Godard’s Contempt, where a single piece of orchestral score is repeated over and over again with no variation in an effort to made the audience aware of the practice.

Less clear are the boundaries between film diagetic and non-diagetic music, and although the rule often is that any music is or becomes diagetic when a source is shown, some filmmakers commonly use diagetic music to bridge gaps between scenes in a non-diagetic way, such as in The Godfather when a montage bridging several months of “plot time” is tied together by diagetically motivated score played on a piano in the preceding shots. In Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, non-diagetic film score is revealed to be diagetic when the main characters leave their apartment in the first scene and turn off a radio, thus halting the main title music.

While few films ever fully remove non-diagetic music – The Birds is a single common example – the limitation of music for very particular moments is fairly common is American cinema. John Ford preferred to use folk tunes and ballads to “orient” his audiences in the American myths he was creating; Daryl F. Zanuck judiciously and sparingly placed Alfred Newman’s soundtrack, mostly a single accordion playing “Red River Valley”, throughout his film of Grapes of Wrath and its’ minimal appearances in the film are emotionally devastating.

Disney has never been one of the film makers comfortable with such concepts, and his breakthrough success was based entirely on the novelty that diagetic space and non-diagetic sound can interact in synchronization - his films are filled with wall to wall didactic classical soundtracks which lead the audience by the nose through the story's paces. It hasn't helped his reputation with scholars but it is the tradition which the Stratification parks operate in; the narrative tradition of the reassuring Hollywood soundtrack where every emotional beat is thoroughly underscored. Disney uses period or location appropriate music to underscore the atmosphere of their Stratification-oriented parks; drum music in Adventureland and marches in Liberty Square. Some of the musical choices are somewhat suspect per the time period presented (the 1940’s cowboy songs of I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle and I’m an Old Cowhand sit alongside real folk tunes like The Old Chisholm Trail in Frontierland), the music is assertive and omnipresent.

In some ways this is desirable and appropriate – the Soarin’ Over California film is artless without its Jerry Goldsmith music, and although Impressions du France is significantly better shot and edited, its’ Buddy Baker soundtrack makes a travelogue into a stirring short film. Disney similarly uses the persistent music soundtracks of the Magic Kingdom to mask out other undesirable sounds – garbage collection, attraction sound cues, vehicles and more. The soundtracks command attention away from anything “other” toward the diagesis of the environment.

There are, of course, varying degrees of diagesis. Marc Davis probably preferred diagetic music in his attractions and when you enter the part of the Haunted Mansion he is most responsible for, the music becomes consistently motivated by on-stage elements: the ballroom organ, graveyard band, singing busts effect etc. Yet this often distracts spectators’ estimation of non-diagetic elements in the Claude Coates portion of the attraction, like the organ dirge heard in the entry area or the low, almost subliminal music in the loading areas and séance circle. There are non-diagetic music scores in Pirates of the Caribbean, too, like George Bruns’ “Scare Me Music” or the almost-motivated accordion which subtly underlines the Auction and Chase scenes in the seaport. These elements are generally of the “felt but not heard” variety, a subtlety which cannot be applied to the outside general music loops. In fact, the only general area music which is clearly diagetic is the Fantasyland carousel music, which doesn’t always emanate only from the carousel but is at least motivated by it.

The largest noteworthy variant from the non-diagetic pattern in the golden era of Disney theme design of 1963 – 1982 is, to my mind, the Magic Kingdom Adventureland of 1971. Marc Davis’ influence looms large in this area, perhaps explaining the approach. The area was not originally graced with the tropical drumbeats it currently offers, but a central plaza where the key sounds in 1971 would’ve been the Tropical Serenade’s Wally Boag toucan, the tapestry of jungle sounds emanating from the Jungle Cruise, Marc Davis’ drumming tiki figures, and the Swisskapolka raining down from on high from the Treehouse.

The last piece of music which was probably in place on or around opening day in 1971 has recently come into the public sphere online, which is a piece of music once played in the Adventureland Veranda at the land entrance. It does consist of non-diagetic, canned “exotic” music, but throughout the piece of music is a curious, mild clinkling between songs, like wind chimes. Chances are, this sound is intended to tie into an element in that old Magic Kingdom eatery: a number of wind chimes hanging in the show scene balconies along the inside of the restaurant made of shells. With the tinkling chimes on the breeze, filling the space with “room tone”, the non-diagetic music swells out of it, like a dream.

Speaking of Adventurelands, an interesting effort towards creating a land dismissed of any non-diagetic music is the 1994 Adventureland at Disneyland, where many unique radio “loops” were recorded to fill the streets with radios and CB radios broadcasting all manner of period music, news updates and casual banter. The addition of the Tarzan overlay to the Swiss Family Treehouse as of curse compromised this aesthetic as where once a fairly motivated organ piece played, now there is, well, Phil Collins.

There are many other examples on both counts, including some which are probably debatable and open to interpretation, like that radio at the start of Eyes Wide Shut – Disney can only in the end guide and coax our experience of their parks and there thus can never truly be that single authorial hand which is the foundation of the argument for film as a potential art. And yet if we do try to view the themed space as a kind of an extension of filmic “space”, oughtn’t we also see the non-diagetic music which informs so much of our experience in the Magic Kingdoms and other places as an essential failure of design? The music which constantly informs also constantly leads, suggests, curtails possible alternate readings. The theme spaces can certainly stand on their own, so should there not be a concerted effort to move beyond the blaring non-diagetic music and craft a more sophisticated palette of sounds and music, to move farther from the institutionalized Hollywood soundtrack and into potentially ever more rewarding design scheme?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fan Art

Did I mention I'm pretty excited for Country Bear Jamboree's reopening on Saturday? Click for larger if'n you like....

Friday, October 24, 2008

Futures With No Future

“Tomorrowland attractions… have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures which are a living blueprint for our future.” – Walt Disney as quoted in Walt Disney’s Disneyland A Pictorial Souvenir, 1975

One of the least bemoaned results of Walt Disney Imagineering’s wars against all things not “Story” is the overall Presentationalist aesthetic – that mode of design which forgoes convincing, unified places and times for the straight, linear, didactic shot into information and conceptualization. Individual elements are sometimes mourned – EPCOT Center’s Future World pavilions chief amongst them – but nobody seems to reserve much love for Tomorrowland in its “white period”. Yet I think of all elements removed wholesale from The Magic Kingdom, the loss of all the character from that portion of both parks ranks as the most damaging. Tomorrowland balanced and reinforced the rest of the Disney lands, and the park is now a scale tilted too far off balance to ever fully recover.

The future has always been remade. In the 1960’s, Disney did the chief sensible thing and had the 1955 Tomorrowland removed entirely to make way for the 1967 model. This version of Tomorrowland probably got the formula the “most right” of them all: the movement of the spinning Rocket Jets attraction to the top of the Peoplemover platform created perhaps one of Disney’s most recognizable architectural features, giving the land interest and form. Those little pastel Peoplemovers dashing this way and that, the monorail, the Matterhorn bobsleds, Rolly Crump’s rising stage, the spinning Carousel of Progress and more spoke of a hub of energy, interaction, the “World on Move” Disney wanted. Many of the key features were already in place: a dark ride inside a commercial, a circle-vision film, a simulated moon flight in a theatre with vibrating seats. When Disney would add Space Mountain to this mix in 1977, the energy of the place would be nearly uncontainable.

The Florida version added scope and size. Those little triangular ridges atop the buildings housing America the Beautiful and Adventure thru Inner Space became enormous spires fighting the castle for attention; whereas Anaheim had little fountains outside the entrance to the land, Orlando’s spires would spurt water straight down into the castle moat while water cascaded down the sloped walls to the left and right; a true torrent unmatched by any other Disney structure ever devised. Inside, the symmetry of the Disneyland version become even more pronounced, each building on the main pedestrian corridor becoming a terraced, glass enclosed, buttressed expression of modernism (fans of California Googie unfamiliar with this version would do well to study it). Claims about this “white Tomorrowland” often ignore the fact that, even in those early days, the area was overflowing with pastel yellows, oranges, blues and pinks. In later years the subtle palette would be cheapened to bright whites, blues and reds, but at least this earlier paint scheme was perhaps the best affirmation of John Hench’s claim that he had something like 70 versions of “white” in his paint palette.

Nor was the land totally monochromatic; in full evidence were bright reds and blues inside Space Mountain and on the Star Jets, black and yellow and white inside If You Had Wings, green and black on the Grand Prix, and astonishing yellows, oranges, reds and browns inside the Tomorowland Terrace. Once the area was fully built up with its own Carousel of Progress, Space Mountain, a less meandering but more advanced Peoplemover and more, it was distinctly related but very different from the Disneyland sibling.

What these future worlds were all about was variety. While much of the rest of The Magic Kingdom, for example, was lit by ornate lanterns and sconces, Tomorrowland was ablaze with bright halogens, neons, and incandescents casting variations on white too carefully planned to be ugly. The Tavern Singers and J.P. and the Silver Stars offered area/period correct music elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom, but at the Tomorowland Terrace, the modern and tastefully suspect Kids of the Kingdom offered show tunes and red polyester. In later years, the fascinating Michael Iceberg held court here in his fog-spewing electric organ shaped like a pyramid. In Anaheim especially, youth held court in Tomorrowland with dancing and nighttime festivities, while adults were more likely to be found over in the Blue Bayou or Tahitian Terrace. Tomorrowland was a fully developed deviation from something like Frontierland or Adventureland and their fantasies nostalgic. Without the 1971 Tomorowland, for example, the east side of the 1971 Fantasyland makes no sense, gradually becoming more austere and angular around the Mr. Toad area in comparison to the rich Germanic atmosphere of the Skyway area. The loss of this variation makes the overall “palette” of Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom less rewarding.

The 1994 Tomorrowland is really an effort to bring the area in line with the rest of the park’s aesthetic mode, to tame the wild aesthetic departure into a homogenous sameness. Whereas once the playful nostalgic was the sole domain of the West Side of the park, now Tomorrowland would be remade as nostalgic futurism, a la 30’s pulp. This concept is much better of paper than it is in actuality for, much how EPCOT Center is today filled with distracting junk, this makeover essentially involved putting shells over all the existing infrastructure. Those massive water-spewing towers were demolished and, in their place, jutting rocks arrived – and not cool, futuristic, Fortress-of-Solitude type rocks, but more like Big Thunder Mountain Wished Upon Futuresville Rocks. The two most obviously dated shows – Mission to Mars and the Circlevision film – were replaced with “edgy” attractions like the ambitious Timekeeper and witless Alien Encounter. The WEDway People Mover became the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, evicting the harmless if unremarkable ORAC-1 with shouted announcements and other nonsense.

Sky-reaching palms, added to reinforce the angular nature of the Tomorrowland 1971’s structures, were replaced with bland shrubs and flat-leaf plants. Anything not made metallic was painted purple or blue. It all amounts to a lot of work that doesn’t enhance what was there to begin with. There are some whimsical touches that are too little, too late, such as a phone of the future, a robotic newsboy and some clever parodies of local organizations which were, still, done better at Disneyland’s Toontown. There’s nothing wrong with the ideas present, but in execution they are too often straddled with low budgets and unreasonable expectations.

Disneyland’s Tomorrowland met with an even less enviable fate for at least Orlando was permitted to retain its’ Peoplemover, Astro Jets, and for several years Skyway. Bad decisions compounded on bad decisions in California and, among other changes seemingly calculated to remove the “local color”, the spinning attraction was moved to ground level and tacked onto the hub of Disneyland, the Peoplemover was replaced with an unreliable speed rocket attraction which destroyed the original open air track in the process of zipping around Tomorrowland, and the Skyway was long gone. Crump’s rising stage became a sign for the food court which it anchored. All of the life was sapped from the place.

The question then becomes what the role of Tomorrowland is in the Disney patheon. If Imagineering will no longer tolerate the Presentational mode, and if Tomorrowland must have a “story” and exist harmoniously with the other themed areas of the castle parks, perhaps Disneyland Paris had the best idea with their Verne-themed Discoveryland. Orlando’s pulp writing theme is promising, even if it needs less Buck Rogers and more Fritz Lang in its DNA and a lot more work and money after its abortive first try. Anaheim’s gold-hued Tomorrowland has already been vanquished in favor of that “old”, “white” version, but there is still no real life to the space. Both areas are in a transitional mode right now, and either need to be allowed to be what they are designed to be or rethought and reworked even more than they are now.

Space Mountain, one of Disney’s most viable franchises, seems to have doomed Tomorrowland to existence, and the inclusion of Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters seem to be the most viable opportunities to continue to resuscitate the land. But I ask: why? Hong Kong Disneyland’s flaccid, flat, vacant Tomorrowland is window dressing to their version of Space Mountain, so if the inclusion of a whole area to validate the existence of a single thrill ride is deemed important to the essential makeup of the park, then the solution is to reinvent Space Mountain so it doesn’t have to inhabit a Tommorowland area and axe Tomorowland from all future designs entirely. Disney seems uncomfortable with futurism these days, and real forward-thinking futurism died in mainstream culture around the time of Walt Disney’s passing.

What Tomorrowland really is doomed to be today is camp, in the true, almost lost meaning of the term: the elevation of unimportant things to places of undue prominence. The 1994 Tomorrowland is awash in irony, where the spectator is encouraged to perceive something like a robotic newsboy as a relic of an outdated era and its’ idea of what the future will be. The existence of such a “futuristic” but simultaneously obsolete figure creates a distance where the spectator is superior to but still celebratory of the object in question; it becomes camp. This isn’t a future that’s relevant to us today, which is the joke, and the “modern”, “cutting edge” Alien Encounter, with its’ attitude and jaded horror film vibe is what we were meant to see as the “dark heart” of that Tomorrowland, where there’s no beautiful tomorrow on the horizon.

This concept was antithetical to the rest of the Magic Kingdom, and now that Timekeeper, Alien Encounter, and much of that Tomorrowland’s ancillary themeing (remember when there were walk around alien face characters and rollerblading custodians??) is gone, the area – and the Tomorrowland concept - is waiting for its’ future to arrive.

Friday, October 17, 2008

For Further Study, #3

It is my genuine, firm belief that if all one ever does is to expose herself to culture that is culture approved of by Disney, then her world view will be far narrower than any shared by any of the artists who created the Disney product from the great eras. Disney isn't high culture, but it isn't low culture either, and as such I genuinely hope to point the receptive spectator in the direction of related but challenging, exciting art which will significantly broaden the richness of the experience Disney offers.


Walt Disney often sought in his life and work to associate himself with other notable figures of American history - other movie moguls, oftentimes immigrants, aligned their product with the great international masters such as homespun Warner Brothers offering England's Bard in our last For Further Study - Disney sought and found success in America by creating works of undeniable local color. His early films have been often described as "Barnstorming" - as much for their irrepressible energy as their rural Midwest atmosphere and unsophisticated humor. His one big effort to recruit "Continental" sophistication - Fantasia - mired an already troubled studio in even more financial doubt. It was not an experiment Disney would repeat. His bread and butter for the next several years would draw heavily on American pop rather than the European Gothic of Snow White and Pinocchio.

Disneyland, Walt Disney's largest manifestation of American mythology, included a "River of America", essentially a fantasy of the Mississippi in miniature, a big sternwheel riverboat called the Mark Twain, a whole attraction called Tom Sawyer Island based much on "recieved knowledge" about Sam Clemens' most popular book, and would eventually expand to include a whole New Orleans section, a miniature great northwest, monument valley, and more.

Walt Disney World's version of American history tied together by that river was overall perhaps a bit more ambitious, and in the intervening sixteen years of additions and reconceptualizations the threads of the fictions of Sam Clemens, Walt Disney, larger American myths and WED enterprises had become tangled so finely that extracting any one element from the others would be almost impossible. Mike Fink's Keel Boats, based on a historical figure appearing in Davy Crockett Disney-produced television episodes and extrapolated by Bob Gurr and others into operable form for Disneyland, circled Tom Sawyer Island, a careful index of many places and incidents sometimes mentioned only in passing by Clemens in his famous book, passing along the way Wilson's Cave Inn, a factual figure and location along America's waterways, integrated into the Disneyland television show, and redesigned by Marc Davis for the Walt Disney World show. The ties become culture soup, unlikely and undesirable to untangle.

In 1996 the Magic Kingdom Florida's remaining steamboat Richard F. Irvine was refurbished and renamed the Liberty Belle, in an effort to tie the boat more concretely to her dock in Liberty Square. Part of this effort included a new spiel, rewritten and revised perhaps more extensively than any other equivalent spiel at Walt Disney World. These spiels were often recorded by a jovial but generic sounding "captain" who would point out various attractions of interest along the ride path in typical "folksy" fashion. The new Liberty Belle spiel, adapted from the existing Keel Boat Standard Operating Guide Narration, split the role amongst two narrators, a "captain" and a "pilot", allowing for some degree of banter to enter the narration. The clever touch is that the pilot is Sam Clemens and the captain is a gentleman named Horace Bixby, putting the time frame of the attraction somewhere about 1857 - 1860. Instead of being the result of Clemens' fanciful adventure tales, Tom Sawyer Island is now the place which inspired them.

There are a handful of objections to the spiel, including certain historical inaccuracies - Horace Bixby was never a riverboat captain to Clemens, for example, a Captain of a riverboat being the owner rather than chief operator of the vessel - and the generally pervasive sense that the existing spiel was peppered with passages from a rather short collection of famous Sam Clemens quotes in fairly desperate fashion. It is, however, the only attraction in Disney to casually mention almost hanging somebody as a throw-away joke, and deserves more credit than the above paragraph perhaps suggests.

At this point we reach the For Further study portion of this history lesson, which is not, as expected, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain but rather, his lesser known and wickedly entertaining "Old Times on the Mississippi". This series of seven articles is the absolute basis of the Liberty Belle spiel, and although nowhere in the work does Clemens once mention Horace Bixby by name, any cursory examination of Clemens' personal history will dredge this name up. It is the stuff of legend that Clemens was once a Riverboat pilot, and "Old Times on the Mississippi" proves the tall tales true with comic anecdotes, technical specifications, atmosphere and nostalgia. In the shadow of the book does the Liberty Belle spiel become a fount of rich history.

One of the secondary functions of Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom is teaching; histories and architectural styles are taught with mere glances, while films, novels, plays, music and all other media are annotated vigorously and continually. Although probably not everyone was led from Mr. Toad's Wild Ride to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad to Kenneth Grahame's beautiful The Wind in the Willows as I was, but youthful expeditions on Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World may one day bear fruit as assigned readings of Mark Twain in high school become as nostalgic and enjoyable as hey deserve to be. It would probably be impossible to construct a full list of references for something like The Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, but memories of everyone from Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson echo through Walt Disney World like a chorus.

The full text of Old Times on the Mississippi.
Further information on Clemens and Bixby.
Full text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.


Passport to Dreams Old & New For Further Study list:

Old Times on the Mississippi, 1876, Mark Twain - nonfiction.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Warner Brothers Pictures 1935, Dir: William Dieterle
The Tales of Hoffman, London Pictures 1949, Dir: Michael Powell
Tiki Modern, 2007, Sven Kirsten, Taschen Books

Sunday, October 05, 2008

On Walking Attractions

In the industry of theme entertainment, much has changed since the sophisticated Disneyland model entered the marketplace in 1955. Once, the roller coaster was a competitive market, but the tide has gradually turned away and coasters are becoming smaller draws year by year. Anybody who remembers when it seemed like “virtual reality” would soon dominate all creative, entertainment output will recognize the pattern, even more abbreviated. In truth, Disney designed rides have gone through so many “fads” that the origin of them today seems slightly obscured. It’s a fairly safe bet that, for example, most people under the age of 30 wouldn’t consider anything that doesn’t move in a linear direction on some kind of guidance system to be an “attraction”. And yet it is illuminating to consider that, in 1955, by far the bulk of the Disneyland attractions were “self guided” in nature, including most of Tomorrowland. In light of this - and the next 50 years of theme design – there is a compelling argument that the “Walking Attraction”, as much as the “Theatre Show”, “Dark Ride” or “Roller Coaster” is its’ own unique aesthetic mode of attraction, worthy of its’ own careful considerations.

This is not to say that the self-guided attraction is actually thriving in today’s market; if it is built at all today it is likely to take the form of a queue experience funneling the spectators towards a motion based ride. This is a logical if unenviable fate for the original aesthetic mode of the themed experience; the spectator is waiting her turn in line anyway, and there might as well be a highly themed walkthrough attraction as a preface. This reaches its’ apotheosis at Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure and Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest, where the queues are done with a great deal more care and detail than the rides themselves.

Perhaps the inevitable decline of the number of Disney self guided attractions is an end result of the fact that it’s very hard to straddle a line between a museum (One Man’s Dream) or a corporate exhibit (Transcenter) to make a walk-thru feel like an organic creation. The original EPCOT pavilions were sometimes good and sometimes bad at this, but were usually done with a degree of aesthetic class and cleverness not often found in today’s Innoventions or Project Tomorrow displays.

I have identified three basic groupings of the self-guided attraction:

Type A: Defined Path, Defined Boundaries

Type B: Open Path, Defined Boundaries

Type C: Open Path, Open Boundaries

“Type A” of the self guided attraction may be regarded as the linear attraction, where the flow of peoples is projected in a linear fashion through a series of rooms or exhibits. This flow of peoples is essentially similar to the forward flow of vehicles on a track, where variances in speed and direction can slow down the entire chain. This is the mode which the indoor attractions would all eventually become based on, but an especially desirable example here is the Swiss Family Treehouse because it is not only a linear attraction, but one which is essentially an outgrowth of the Adventureland area itself. The Treehouse is a form of interactive public art, where spectators from the ground level can enjoy viewing the tree and spectators on the tree can enjoy viewing the ground. Both views are different but essentially analogous. The Treehouse is a pastoral which flatters both itself and the areas it views, especially at Walt Disney World where the Adventureland Veranda loop of facades were built to be viewed from on high. It has its visual interest but the primary focus is on the view and the privileges it presents.

The Treehouse is also unique and interesting in that it is the most complete example of the “phantom population” – the debris and signifiers of a “local” population Disney goes to great lengths to suggest inhabit its’ parks, going about day to day business, which of course never exist. The Treehouse, remarkably, is an open house for a house literally inhabited by nobody, but the emptiness is never uncanny thanks to Buddy Baker’s “Swiss Polka”. For an attraction with only one moving part – the fascinating water wheel – it feels very little like a static tableau.

This quality is thanks to the fact that the Swiss Family Treehouse is really part of Adventureland, and although is may be “gated”, the life it has is the life of Adventureland’s shops and attractions and walkways. It does not answer but it once again invokes the essential question of whether the themic unit of a Disneyland “-Land” is the original walking attraction.

“Type B” of the self-guided attraction is best typified by Tom Sawyer Island, which is an area where the direction and speed of the experience is open, but the boundaries of the area are defined and controlled. Tom Sawyer Island, an area defined by a river with only one point of entrance and exit, is mythologized by its’ remote nature. But the Island recreates the mythical state of youth, and the big river and circling steamboat elevate the experience to a fully convincing illusion of the great outdoors, which is of course absurd because the entire island is manmade and crisscrossed with electrical lines and utilities.

The free-roaming nature of the Tom Sawyer Island attraction goes a long way towards creating the illusion of a totally unrestricted environment in strong contrast to the single direction demanded by the Treehouse. The Island offers a degree of uncertainty, facilitated by the design of the cave walk-through attractions - the caves are large show buildings buried in dirt, and as such the Island is a mound of earth where one can never see the attraction’s other shore, creating surprise when one comes across the old mill, or the entrance to another cave.

Those caves, in particular - self-contained Type A walking sub-attractions placed in a Type B environment - are the dark heart of Tom Sawyer Island, it’s true reason for existence. Nowhere else in Disney attractions is the illusion of being in a truly unrestricted environment where things could genuinely go wrong played out so carefully and effectively, the true Haunted Mansions where all bets seem to be off. The “adult” characters on the island – blacksmiths and a fort guard at Walt Disney World, General Jackson at Disneyland – are distracted or rendered harmless, furthering the illusion of free reign in what is actually a very controlled sector. In Type B attractions, Tom Sawyer Island especially, the designers stress choice over a linear path. What defines it is the controlled entrance and exit, the turnstile or the ticket booth.

This pattern, of course, is the pattern which the Disney parks emulate – one is presented with labeled choices through which one may wander. The illusion, however, on Tom Sawyer Island (where the area behind Fort Wilderness seems to go off into “nature”) as everywhere at Walt Disney World, strives to be a "Type C" attraction – all possible choices and all possible directions. Type C attractions most often function as exhibit halls, the Halls of Chemistry of Disney history. As such they tend to be small pockets set down inside the larger park, unguarded and unticketed, and most resembled those dreaded arcades, museums and corporate exhibits Disney’s team of designers often seek to differentiate themselves from.

The earliest in Disneyland history – the Penny Arcade – begat increasingly complex versions, and the mode of Type C self guided attraction which has most repeated itself arrived with the 1967 New Tomorrowland, with its’ Bell Telephone preshow to the Circle-Vision America the Beautiful film, and especially the Monsanto exhibits at the exit of the Adventure Through Inner Space, an area with a fashionable 1967 look and feel quite removed from the Claude Coats stark dark ride which ostensibly prefaced it. The most exhaustive use of the Type C walk-thru attraction occurred in 1982 at EPCOT Center, where nearly every Future World pavilion had an adjoining exhibit at its’ exit as well as a sponsored space in Communicore. The most influential may have been Image Works, a free-flowing digital playground which was the template for many a children’s science museum nationwide, but the most complete and complex execution of a Type C attraction was and is Communicore, which has a poorer modern-day equivalent in Innoventions.

Communicore represents the total integration of varying types of attractions within a unitary whole because each self-guided attraction was an extension of the traditional attractions ringing it. EPCOT Center‘s didactic messages and inspired executions took form in a variety of concept exhibits and interactive pieces working overtime to validate the park’s humanist aims. The triumph of Communicore lay not in the content, but the concept – whereas previously different attractions existed throughout a Disneyland-type park sharing only an apparently linked physical or narrative similarity, Communicore posited a theme park where all types of attractions can be united under a conceptual or intellectual common element. One doesn’t need to see the Swiss Family Treehouse, for example, to understand aspects of the Jungle Cruise, but a trip through the Universe of Energy in 1982 was greatly expanded by Communicore’s Exxon Energy Exchange. This minor facet is just one example of EPCOT Center’s explosion of aesthetic norms in themed design, the most important innovation in the field in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Ironically as the number of self-guided exploratory type attractions has dwindled, the definitions and rules governing such non-traditional attractions has exploded open. Under the A – E ticket system Disney defined anything requiring a ticket to be an attraction. With the disbanding of this system in 1983 (following, ironically, the walking attraction’s greatest achievements), many different areas can now sport the title “Attraction”, such as Walt Disney World’s minor Fantasyland Pooh playground, or EPCOT Center’s loud but benevolent Club Cool.

And yet the variety of things available at Disneyland and Walt Disney World has been slowly shrinking, as each Stateside attraction moves towards being a water-sprizting scent-wafting 4-D roller coaster with each passing year. As such, the state of the self-guided attraction is in a state of flux, as those low-tech Type A and B attractions not already endangered are becoming increasingly rare. Yet if Imagineers are disinterested in considering the self-guided tour as a viable mode of entertainment, a hybrid attraction of the past may be worth considering for the future: the 1975 Space Mountain, where the queue and post-show were self-contained Type A attractions – past displays of RCA products.

The ultimate problem with trying to classify the successes or failures of a walk-through attraction at Disney is that, on a certain level, everything begins to resemble one. Particularly with Disney’s constant attention to detail does something like Main Street, USA begin to appear to be an attraction, or perhaps Disneyland’s Riverfront. It’s hard to draw an exact boundary between attractions and non-attractions in Disney theme design, and even the rule that an attraction is something guarded by a turnstile cannot hold because Disneyland herself is bermed in in all directions and gated. In the days of the individual attraction tickets one could buy herself a ticket only good for admission. Although this functioned as a extension of Disney’s old policy that tickets never expire, it also functioned as an economical solution for those only in seek of all the myriad rewards Disneyland offered that weren’t inside, in the dark.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kraft Shingles

For those who follow / know / care about the Walt Disney World Village / Marketplace / Downtown Disney, I've noted an important development in this area in the past few months. Like many Walt Disney World structures, the Village is getting fully reshingled, a change long overdue. Unfortunately, unlike the many Magic Kingdom buildings getting authentically redone, Disney has opted to go with plain tar shingles for the Village rather than the more costly and pretty wood shingles. As any Village fan will tell you, the Village's beautiful cedar shingles were one of the most distinct and charming things about the place, and the replacement of these with plain commercial grade shingles is a poor substitute indeed. Chalk this one up to just one more element of one of Disney's most discreet yet accomplished bits of urban planning which will soon be forgotten.

I'll discuss the Village in a great deal more detail in the upcoming weeks...

Amazing Quote of the Hiatus #3: "There are moments in everyone's life when even the beautiful simplicity of the video screen seems beyond one's capabilities." - EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow

Friday, September 12, 2008


I'm still technically on hiatus here, but I thought I'd give a general heads up that I was able to look through Walt Disney World: Then, Now & Forever - by Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon - last night and I regret to say that I was duly unimpressed. Their very nice Disneyland: Then, Now & Forever was an interesting way to organize information, where one could go from Big Thunder Mountain to Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland to Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules by turning a few pages. That book becomes a pretty disorganized mess near the end as the desire to create a pictorial souvenir which was also a Disneyland history book begins to manifest, but this flaw is apparent throughout the WDW incarnation.

Too much attention is paid to Animal Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios which are still fairly close to their original forms, and too little to The Magic Kingdom & EPCOT. Those moments where good information is being imparted are often overshadowed by a far sloppier layout than the first book, and subjects come and go at a chaotic whim. Worse, most of the pictures in the book are Pana-Vue slides commercially available at Walt Disney World in the first few years and still common in second hand markets. These pictures can be downloaded for absolutely free online, which makes the book even more superfluous. The comparative lack of text, lack of new pictures and information, and chaotic disorganization utterly does the book in.

I'm not sure how to diagnose this. Kurtti is no stranger to Walt Disney World history and his very nice, text heavy and graphics light Since The World Began from twelve years ago is still the best Disney-authorized beginner's look at the history of the Florida Project. He also had a hand in the 1997 - 2000 publication A Magical Year-by-Year Journey, which published solid information and unusual pictures in a logical format. Moreover his just-published Walt Disney's Legends of Imagineering is a concise, cutting and essential book and his text for that project shows a writer who has evolved from a chronicler to a critic. I am very hesitant to blame Kurtti for putting out a subpar product.

Length restrictions may have had a role. Disneyland: Then, Now & Forever doesn't have enough space to fully be all it can be, and that book is covering two parks, three hotels and a shopping district. The WDW version is covering over twice the amount of subjects in roughly the same number of pages, and some of the omissions are unfortunate. The resorts are given a very brief mention and there is fairly little said about the Shopping Village or the golf courses. If You Had Wings is relegated to a photo caption about Dreamflight. Although I realize that my level of obsession with Walt Disney World minutia is coloring my perception of the book, if you came to the book expecting lots of weird pictures and unusual information, you'll be a little let down.

In a larger sense the book is pretty indicative of Disney's larger attitude towards Walt Disney World's history, which is that there is none. Disneyland is successfully marketed as the "history park" while Walt Disney World's varied past is often and sloppily swept under the rug. While the Disneyland volume is well-resourced enough that we can be shown cool things like an original Show White painted flat, the Walt Disney World volume seems parched for content. Was Kurtti given too little to work with and too little space?

It pains me to say this, but after being thoroughly annoyed by the book I must warn people with my level of interest in Walt Disney World to purchase with caution. Give the book a through inspection. I declined to buy it. Others with a less strong expectation of WDW history reportage may want it, but consider this an advance warning that it will not be for all tastes. Of course I may be an outlier because I considered Realityland to be a crashing disappointment also. Let's hope that The Art of Walt Disney World, supposedly forthcoming, proves more exciting.

Amazing Quote of the Hiatus No. #2: "The sounds and sights of Tomorrowland are sometimes young... and sometimes old!" - A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney World, 1972

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Hiatus

Hi everyone, I've decided to put this blog on hiatus for a few weeks until I can get some stuff relating and not relating to Disney sorted out, as well as hopefully take a break to keep the work fresh. Rest assured - I have no intention of letting this place slide into sedentary mode, but I may not be making my "one a week-ish" "deadlines". What we can hopefully look forward to is some fun short silly posts just to keep me on my toes. In the meantime, here's some links back to noteworthy material from the past few months. Oh yeah, and happy 2nd birthday, Passport to Dreams!

Magic Kingdom: Snow White's Adventures: Original Version / The Early Film Presentations / Two By Yale Gracey / Phantoms of Influence

For Further Study: #1, #2

Coffee Series: #1, #2, #3, #4

Amazing Quote of the Hiatus: "Audio-Animatronics is a unique application of spaceage electronics, combining and synchronizing voices, music and sound effects with the movement of three-dimensional animated objects."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tempo Bay!!

Back in 1969 Walt Disney World's original "fathers" probably didn't realize they were giving their heirs hell when the name "Contemporary Resort" - rather than the more oblique and admittedly less cool "Tempo Bay Resort" - was decided on. And thus for the last thirty-seven years has a resort designed to be "as contemporary as tomorrow" struggled to remain cutting edge. The original 70's aesthetic was a bizarre amalgamation of 70's pop and Mexican hacienda, where dramatic reds, oranges, yellows and browns overflowed from every nook and cranny of the place, and Mary Blair's ridiculously sublime mural in "The Grand Canyon Concourse" seemed to be the rationale for a strange Southwest aesthetic, crazy artificial trees which looked like twigs supporting a mess of broken stained glass, and the double-duty food court/arcade being dubbed the "Fiesta Fun Center". I mean, really, the Fiesta Fun Center?

"Where the hell are we?"

With the arrival of the 90's the Contemporary was looking about as dated at one could imagine, as earth tones were no longer cool and still nobody knew what to do with the "Southwest" theme. And so Version Two of the Contemporary began to grind its' way into existence, which involved renaming the successful Character Cafe on the concourse to Chef Mickey's, overhauling the color palette in favor of purple, beige, turquoise and red, and playing smooth jazz music in lots of places. The most successful of these changes throughout the 90's was undoubtedly the building of a big new Convention space on the hotel's southwest (ironically enough) corner. Suddenly the Contemporary's clientèle changed to conventioneers, and the demand for upscale dining increased, a demand which could not be met by Chef Mickey's or the Concourse Steakhouse. In 1995, the old Top of the World dinner show was torn out and California Grill, an upscale open kitchen eatery, filled the Contemporary's highest point with gold, silver, bronze and black hues.

The California Grill is now thirteen years old and it seems its' subdued but modernist aesthetic is spilling over to the entire resort. The entire lobby has been redone in a combination of retro-chic American mid-century and Japanese minimalism and I, for one, could not be happier with the amount of good work on display here.

This isn't a real light, it's more like a light's dream of what a light can be. These little hanging lamps make the lounge area look and feel like a living Shag painting. Notice the contrasting textures of metal, wood and glass.

The much photographed entryway to The Wave feels like you could be entering Sea Base Alpha again. Or maybe a version of Journey Into Imagination's Rainbow Tunnel passed down through the years. Such a mid-grade restaurant hardly deserves such an amazing entryway.

Tiny steel beads hung in a long chains are grouped close together to form hanging walls of beads, recalling both beaded curtains and a kind of space age crazy futurism. They move in the air currents ever so gently, and both divide and, strangely, do not divide up the waiting space.

This dividing wall echoes the overall shape of the building. Notice how the tile grey accent along the back wall slowly slopes in a south-easterly direction, against the north-easterly slope of the dividing wall.

In addition to all this Disney is building a big honking tower where once the understated north garden wing was. Although the quality of that hotel has yet to be seen, it will destroy what was, for thirty five years, Walt Disney World's most remarkable and stark landscape.

Keeping the Contemporary cool and exciting is at best a fifteen year proposition, and no doubt in fifteen years this setup will look as dated to us as the last one did. But for the moment let's celebrate a revitalized Contemporary which once again looks as contemporary as tomorrow... and yesterday, as well. Good show.