Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Refurbishment a Go-Go

These are exciting times for East Coast Disney Park fans - who all too often are forced to sit around feeling neglected - in that by now most of the major Magic Kingdom E-Ticket rides have received significant upgrades with the exception to Space Mountain, which is apparently on the slate for the near future, and even minor but still grating examples of deteriorating show have been addressed. Although the return of the spinning blades to Muff Potter's Windmill on Tom Sawyer Island seemed heaven-sent, even more delightful and surprising was the totally unexpected replacement of the water wheel on Harper's Mill. A bright shiny new water wheel turns there now, and it isn't evident except on very close examination that it's actually made of steel - beautifully painted, long lasting, lightweight stainless steel craftily painted to look exactly like wood - insuring that Harper's Mill will be creaking out Down By The Old Mill Stream for years to come. I simply haven't gotten used to expecting this sort of long-term investment in the parks' future on the part of Disney yet.

But the announced refurbishment of Country Bear Jamboree was a real moment of celebration at Passport to Dreams Headquarters - all too often as of late the show had been suffering from terrible audio and neglected audio-animatronics, despite the best efforts of the maintenance team to combat these deficiencies. I'm excited enough about this, in fact, to offer a wishlist for this refurbishment, and I may note here that I'm taking for granted that this monthlong refurbishment will already entail the installation of a true digital sound system, redressing of all figures in fur and costume pieces, replacement of interior finish and correction of those AA functions which have been intermittent for years. Here's a few more humble suggestions:

- Reprogramming of Bunny, Bubbles and Beulah to better match the original 1971 programming. This would necessitate the removal of their handkerchiefs and the return of their wickedly sarcastic little synchronized routine. The rest of the Bears were reprogrammed in 1991 to closely follow and improve the original animations, but these bears were reduced to merely flopping around where once there was wonderfully expressive animation. Also possibly not programmed or just broken for years are Terrance's swaying hips, which would also be a welcome return (remember how he's supposed to be "The Vibrating Wreck from Nashville Tech"?), along with Ernest's bopping body atop his little pile of logs.

- Replacement of Teddi Barra's swing mechanism, which often causes her to merely rock on her perch when she should really be doing quite a long swing, and an even longer one during "Ole Slew Foot". I saw this fixed a few months ago and broken again two weeks later, so it's clearly a faulty mechanism.

- Return of Dal McKennon's performance as Zeke on "Pretty Little Devilish Mary". The Randy Sparks version of "If You Can't Bite, Don't Growl" replacing the Pop Van Stoneman version is debatable, but McKennon is a genuine Disney Legend and returning his vocals while the audio is being worked on is possible and would go a long way towards currying favor among Bears aficionados (me and two other people... we have lunch every sixth Thursday of the month).

- Way way way Blue Sky, but everyone (even you, dear reader) wants to see the return of Melvyn, Buff and Max to the CBJ exit area. A wall could easily be constructed between Pecos Bill and the CBJ exit doors and the heads could easily be elevated off the ground a good six to eight feet to keep guests, who are more touchy-feeley than ever, away from the Bodiless Three. For those of you wondering, raising the ceiling would be fairly easy because the only thing above the drop ceiling is some storage space.

Similarly upcoming is a refurbishment to the Hall of Presidents, which may possibly see a third discrete version of that attraction as rumors have been circulating that WDI may nix the distracting and unnecessary "current President speech" and may even be making a new film for the show. Similarly persistent are rumors that Lincoln's speech may be the Gettysburg address from the "MORE Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln". Although it took a year and a half or so to get George W. Bush into the Hall of Presidents, I've been told that this was waffling on Disney's part - the idea was to just let the show go and tear the whole thing out to be replaced with a dark ride. After much beating about the bush the change was finally made sixteen months after Bush was inaugurated. There is no intention of doing this this time and Disney is ready, but if things aren't yet set in stone and if there is yet a sympathetic ear, I'd like to suggest:

- Returning to the Royal Dano vocals for Abraham Lincoln would be very respectful and tactful. These are the recordings supervised by Walt Disney and still the best available for their honesty and lack of ponderousness. If WDI wants to replace the current Lincoln speech with the Gettysburg Address, they should consider listening to the Dano version available on the Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln LP. I have heard that one of the reasons for not reinstating the beautiful original Lincoln speech is that the lines:

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Should we expect some transatlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us in a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge..."

Makes this original speech impossible to use in the context of America's foreign and domestic entanglements today. Of course it was always presented in the context of "new words of wisdom from old words of prophecy", ie, from a time when America was fairly safe from outside invaders, and offered by Disney in the midst of the era of Mutually Assured Destruction. I think as a powerful notion the statement has as much currency as it ever did, but if Disney so chooses, the passage could easily be excised without losing much of the power of the speech. The immediate quantitative quality jump if the Dano vocals were to be dropped into the current show with nothing else changed should be evident and testament to the power of these recordings.

- Reconsideration of the film. Although I don't think a return to the original film is advisable - the length and prose form of that version is too much for most Disney visitors, many of whom are still wondering where the roller coasters and beer tents are (I swear to God I heard somebody say that with absolutely no irony once). But a halfway point between the excellent original version and the weirdly flaccid 1993 version can be made while still keeping the whole production under 20 minutes, especially if the ponderous slowness of the current Presidents roll call is reduced and the speech by the current President is removed. Here's a short list of things which must be reintroduced - at a minimum - to bring the impact of the show to something near its' original version.

* Fuller version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, still the most powerful moment in the show, which could be much more.

* Reintroduction of Benjamin Franklin's full comments at the Constitutional Convention would be valuable as it is the first full oration in the show and deserves some space to "breathe". WDI could score some serious Awesome Points here as well by introducing Franklin's musings on Washington's chair - so prominently featured in the attraction - featuring a rising or a setting sun.

* The screen must remain at its' "fully open" stage until the end of the film presentation or not used at all. Closing as it does now at the end of the Civil War it comes off as a strange gimmick rather than its' intended effect as a unique reflection of the broadening of America.

* The post-Civil War sequence must be reintroduced in some capacity and duration more than it remains now, and, most importantly, the end of the film needs something new. Ending as it does with the Saturn V rocket, this finale is a perfect single-image summation of America's achievements in the 20th century - or rather, it was in 1971. Today anybody in the audience would be hard pressed to even identify which rocket it is, where it is going, and so on. In 1971 the Space Program was one of the most exciting things about America, but this concept simply doesn't fully translate nearly 40 years later. Surely WDI can come up with an equivalence for 21st century audiences which will send off the film in an appropriate fashion.

- Reintroduction of Baker's full original Battle Hymn of the Republic finale. The American flag formed by the clouds and dawn sky happens far too quickly to be as subtle as is hoped - watch the original show and the little bit of quiet right between the Lincoln speech and the chorus starting to sing as the rear curtains part to reveal the Capitol is gooseflesh inspiringly perfect. The flag also forms so slows that one doesn't notice it until the curtains are practically already lowering, which is just about right. Any faster and the moment turns from a powerful cleverism to a big "ta dah!" moment and the subtlety is lost.

These are of course "best possible scenario" wishlist type items, and truth be told I'm just happy that changes are in the pipeline at all. Still, one must be optimistic about such things - my wishes have seemingly been heeded in the past, and after all, Disney is where Dreams Come True (tm), right? Right?