Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Snow White's Adventures: The Original Version

I wrote this piece for Widen Your World, and a full page on that website is currently forthcoming with all sorts of neat pictures and diagrams and stuff, but in the interim I found this essay sufficiently interesting and sufficiently fun to write that I think it's worth posting the text here to stand on its' own. There's a lot of interest in and even more misinformation about Walt Disney World's original Snow White ride, and I hope that this article plugs a significant gap in many peoples' understanding of Fantasyland 1971.


A facet of the increasingly intertwined histories of Disney’s two original Magic Kingdom parks oft overlooked by historians ameatur and otherwise, is of the number and scale of improvements made to the general characteristics of Disneyland in the Florida Project’s Phase One development which don’t begin and end with more space and a bigger castle. Indeed many existent Disneyland attractions were disassembled and reconceptualized from the ground up - a redesign of the Jungle Cruise which transformed it from a contested thing to a true Marc Davis attraction (to say that it jumped from being a classic to a masterpiece in the process is redundant), a greatly improved and expanded Haunted Mansion, a Tiki Room spread out large and allowed to blossom like a tropical flower, and a Submarine Voyage so dramatically altered while retaining many of the core elements that it didn’t even feel related. Those items which were adaptable were quickly shuttled over to Disneyland – Country Bear Jamboree, improved figures in the Indian Village, and whole stretches of the Jungle Cruise – and installed so seamlessly and so quickly that the innovations of the Florida property began to be forgotten. As more and more Floridian elements made the transcontinental journey (proving in the process that Disney’s Clone Wars are as old as there were things to clone), everything from figures to pieces of music to menu items originating in Florida became “Disneyland Originals”. So when the original park’s absorption of the final Magic Kingdom exclusives was complete in 1983 with the opening of the New Fantasyland, totally forgotten were the Florida originals which made such a thing possible.

It is in the spirit of this that I now motion to promote to full classic status in the realm of Florida Originals: Snow White’s Adventures - to stand alongside such innovate entertainments as Country Bear Jamboree, Space Mountain and The Hall of Presidents. It is perhaps the Magic Kingdom’s lost classic, too low profile to garner much more than a passing interest when it was open and too early to the party of Florida extinctions to be lamented when it closed, Snow White’s Adventures was the Florida Original by dint of being a complete reconception of the then fifteen year old Disneyland original to an extent only matched by Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride next door. WED literally reduced the attraction down to brass tacks and retained exactly two elements of the attraction, discarding all others and making perhaps the strangest adaptation of one of their own films ever.

A familiarization with the long forgotten Disneyland original is here in order, but this is perhaps beyond the scope of this article except in passing. Curious parties should be advised to proceed directly to Issue #13 of The E Ticket magazine, where the whole thing is related in extreme detail. This will hopefully be, for the rest of us, sufficiently illuminating:

Load Area
Entering Diamond Vault
Seven Dwarfs Mine
Enchanted Forest / Cottage of Seven Dwarfs
Witch’s Castle
Dungeon of Castle
Shadow of Witch
Witch at Cauldron
Haunted Forest
Witch inside Seven Dwarfs Cottage
Witch on Cliff with Boulder

Load Area / Enchanted Forest
Queen’s Mirror Room
Witch at Cauldron
Witch in Boat
Haunted Forest
Seven Dwarfs Cottage
More Haunted Forest
Seven Dwarfs Mine
Runaway Mine Cart
Diamond Vault / Witch with Giant Gem
Explosion Room

Aside from general repetitions like scenes of the transformed evil queen laboring over a cauldron culled from the 1937 Disney film, one striking difference is that the sequence of events in the attractions is essentially reversed. The turning point in the Disneyland attraction was where you leave the seven dwarfs mine (Dopey arrived with a sign warning you about the witch at this juncture) and safety behind; in Orlando the Mine was not only the last scene but the least safe, where the Witch popped out a total of three times at the riders (counting the brief scene before actually entering the mine), finally cornered them, and dropped a giant gemstone on them, apparently killing the riders and ending the ride in a room filled with strobing starbursts. Moreover the turning point where safety becomes danger in the 1955 attraction was visualized by approaching and then inevitably turning away from the Seven Dwarfs Cottage: this was the first repeat moment in Orlando, but in the 1971 version, it happens in the Load Area of the attraction, before the ride is even underway!

That Load area, by the way, was a tricky little thing, stylized in the manner of Sleeping Beauty, with the Seven Dwarfs Mine on the right where little ride vehicles exited, The Evil Queen’s Castle on the left where Snow White’s voice echoed from a wishing well, and in the center a little downscale “distant” Dwarf cottage and a shimmering plastic waterfall. That WED wanted to build a Sleeping Beauty ride here may explain the stylization of the load hall, but it doesn’t explain why such a pretty and brightly lit exterior was affixed to such a relentlessly grim attraction. The most beautiful and elaborate of all Fantasyland dark ride exteriors, if riders suspected that something more like It’s A Small World and less like The Haunted Mansion was within they could be excused. The only real hint is that those mine cart / bed / whatever shaped vehicles entered not the dwarf cottage but the evil queen’s castle and, as they entered, the Queen would part a set of curtains in an arched window and peer down on the carts as they entered. This sinister little detail was translated to Disneyland in their 1983 Snow White ride with much celebration, but as an original Florida onride effect its’ placement has the uncanny effect of telling any wary children onboard: “You’re totally screwed.”

The vehicles moved into the Queen’s castle and found themselves in her mirror room where the Queen, facing the magic mirror, arms extended in the air, visible in reflection would very loudly intone “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…”. At this point the voice became a piercing shriek as the figure turned and the raised arms became a lunging gesture towards the riders. The figure leaned forward and instead of the stately Queen, she was already transformed into the wretched witch figure, finishing her statement: “I am the fairest one of all!”.

This room held a number of interesting details, chief of which was the ride’s key transformation effect, so effective it has been duplicated in every Snow White ride since. The effect is simple, a two sided figure, the front being the witch and the back being the queen, which would rotate and tilt forward. Many dark rides through the years have included such a stunt, including dark ride designer Bill Tracy’s wicked gag of approaching the figure of a beautiful naked woman from the back which would rotate to reveal not a flash of breasts, but a rotting skeleton from the front. What makes the Snow White iteration of the gag brilliant and kind of graceful is that there are actually two figures, not just one. The second figure is a complete Queen figure located on the other side of the “mirror”, and that figure rotates at the same time and at the same speed as the half-Witch figure, which means that the riders literally have no clue about what’s going to happen until the witch is already revealed. This room also had a number of interesting and beautifully painted details, including a view of the night sky through a long slender window to the right of the Queen. And, of course, the Witch’s shrieked line “….I am the fairest one of all!” was loud… very loud. Loud enough that you could hear it repeating for most of the first half of the ride.

Immediately following was a short trip through the Witch’s dungeon, which more or less exists in similar form today. Included were two skeletons, some spooky bat eyes stolen from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, and a menacingly swinging gate. Guests then came across the “Witch-At-Cauldron” scene, possibly the most famous image from the 1937 film, where she would announce “The sleeping apple!” and a shelf of potions above the riders’ heads would drop from above unexpectedly, creating a terrific crash of breaking glass (in auditory form). According to the Lanzens’ writeup on the 1955 Snow White, this scene and its’ traditional Dark Ride gag was present at Disneyland at this time as well, making this the second and last element of the Disneyland original repeated. Venturing outside into the spooky forest, riders found themselves at the moat level of the castle, where the witch would zip out of a dark dungeon-level opening on her boat, apple in hand. Along the left side on the floor were a number of logs-cum-crocodiles snapping at passerby.

What followed was a more or less accurate theme park version of Snow White’s famous flight through the woods, with large turning trees painted vibrant colors with light up faces along a winding track. It still exists in more or less unchanged form in the current Magic Kingdom ’94 show, except the colors have been muted and the faces of the trees made less unsettling. At the very back of the scene before the cars moved off to the left towards the dwarfs’ cottage was a small device where eyes painted on a flat surface and attached to a long pole are rotated on an axis to appear to rise from the darkness and up into the night air, much like the endless stream of skulls rising from the Haunted Mansion’s pipe organ.

The next scene, the Seven Dwarfs Cottage, most firmly asserted that this version of the attraction would not play by anything resembling “rules”. So far the attraction had been a steadily accumulating number of scenes meant to convey unease, but as the little carts approached the cottage, a warm yellow color so far unseen in the attraction was spilling from the windows and temporary relief seemed to be at hand. But as the “crash doors” opened, the most sinister moment in the entire attraction was revealed… a dark and abandoned cottage.

The Claude Coates influence was most evident in this scene. Coates retained the interior styling of Albert Hurter for the 1937 film where the cottage is ornately carved with little animal figures and heads, chair backs have eyes and silly open mouths, and even the dwarfs’ water pump is a gothic gargoyle head. Coates retained all these but turned them sinister by painting the eyes of all the furnishings bright blacklit white and arranged the props so they are all facing the audience. As a result not only is the cottage unexpectedly quiet and abandoned and blacklit blue, but all of those faces in the furnishing are staring at the audience with burning white eyes. This significantly one ups the disturbing interior finish of the Haunted Mansion with its’ skulls and demons literally in the woodworks. In the next scene, where the seven dwarfs ascend a staircase to investigate a sinisterly ajar upstairs door from which emanates a great black shadow of a ghost, the little owl heads carved on the end of each step are looking up towards the door. The dwarfs’ dialogue is no more reassuring:

Grumpy: “I warned her!”

Doc: “Trouble! I hear trouble!”

At this point, of course, the witch pops out at riders from an open window and it’s once again outside into the forest where the witch again appears from behind a tree trunk offering that poisoned apple. Then it’s off to a diamond mine.

Inside the mine is dark and confusing, with one forced perspective mine shaft leading off to oblivion as the timbers ominously creak and groan. At one point the witch appears above the track, pushing a timer off its’ support post in an effort to send it crashing down onto the carts. Just down the line, a mine cart loaded with glittering diamonds zips from around a corner and stops just short of crashing into the ride vehicle. At this point in the attraction, in the space of about 30 seconds, the Witch has literally made four attempts on your life and the real feeling of a pursuit is underway. Finally, the carts roll into the dwarfs’ diamond vault, where thousands of glittering gems emerge from the walls in painted blacklight splendor. Suddenly the Witch appears atop the door to the vault, pries a gigantic gem out of the rock and drops it towards the ride vehicle. “Goodbye, dearie!” And then it’s through a room where flashing cartoon starbursts cover the walls and back out into the Florida sun.

And so ends Snow White’s Adventures, perversely, the second and least famous Fantasyland attraction where riders are killed in traumatic fashion at the very end. Although the terror of the headlong plunge down a pitch black tunnel towards an oncoming train cannot be replicated by a scary blacklit witch dropping a big ridiculous gem on your noggin, the complete disorienting chaos of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was effectively present in Snow White’s Adventures as it was in all classic-era American dark rides, an endangered species if there ever was one. It wasn’t until the advent of Alien Encounter in 1994 that Disney presented an attraction where every scene was literally a threat to you, and even Alien Encounter had its’ share of wisecracks and nonsense to dull the edge. Since riders are expected to take on the role of Snow White during the ride they literally become stalked by the maniacal Queen, and there is very little rest between assaults until they are finally killed. Not even the Haunted Mansion proposes that kind of direct threat to riders, and Mr. Toad is done in by his own motor mania, making that attraction a kind of morality play. Future Snow White shows would relegate the role of Snow White to figures appearing in the ride, dulling the edge so that although such scenes may be scary, they are ultimately a passive trip past fairy tale tableaus. Accounting for Snow White, Mr. Toad’s pin up girl and hellish ending, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s terrifying giant squid, and nudity on Peter Pan mermaids, Fantasyland 1971 offered the highest number of attractions inappropriate for children than anywhere else on property! (If you want to go for the hat trick you have to jump ahead to 1987 when Magic Journeys played in the Mickey Mouse Revue theatre where the number of inappropriate attractions jumps from four to five because, as we know, Magic Journeys isn’t appropriate for anyone.)

Of course all this descriptive text and video can’t fully recreate the experience of riding any better than any other “virtual” Walt Disney World attraction, but a word relating to the sound of the attraction should be relayed here. Although not as sparse in manufactured sounds as, say, The Swiss Family Treehouse, Snow White’s Adventures is notable in being a Disney attraction of the “Golden Era” of WED with no unified soundtrack of the sort found in, say, Pirates of the Caribbean or If You Had Wings.

Indeed, one of the most characteristic things about the ride was its’ comparative quiet. While later versions of Snow White would feature clips of song from the original film, Snow White’s Adventures was spent mostly listening to the witch cackling echoing from elsewhere in the ride and hearing the Queen bellowing “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” from the opening scene. There were atmospheric effects in the haunted forest scene, creaking timbers in the mine, and strange atonal music in the diamond vault climax and outside the dwarfs cottage (possibly related to the music for the Jungle Cruise), but otherwise the ride was spent wondering if that cackling witch was behind you, in front of you, or just right upon you, ready to jump out at the next moment. Even the layout of the scenes increased the terror of these ambushes, as increasingly the track twisted and turned as each new threat approached, forcing the riders to violently “jump away” from shrieking witches and out of control mine carts. And, of course, there is one of the wickedest layout tricks in any Disney attraction, where upon entering the Diamond Vault where that final witch will kill you, she is initially hidden behind an outcropping of rock which must move away due to changing perspective before she shrieks her final line and does you in.

In a way, it’s appropriate. Snow White is Walt Disney’s most frightening and Gothic film. Adults who dote on the comedy and romance often forget the terror of the Queen’s transformation into a witch and the Witch’s ghoulish screams: “She’ll be buried alive! Buried alive!”, not to mention the honest grief of Snow White in the glass coffin. From these vibrant horror and gothic traditions did Snow White’s Adventures draw its’ inspiration - Snow White’s terrified run through the forest, the Queen’s prisoners who starved to death inches away from food – there is no shortage of genuinely gruesome material pulled from the film legitimately, regardless of the liberties the ride takes with the source in the wide view.
Film historian Tim Lucas documents in his book on Mario Bava that in the 1930’s American horror films were suppressed in Italy by the Mussolini regime, but Snow White was allowed through, and left deep marks on a generation unaccustomed to such intense material. That Snow White’s forest run is repeated in two key fright films of Italian origin – Bava’s own Black Sunday of 1960 and his heir apparent, Dario Argento’s film of 1977, Suspiria, is notable.

The question then becomes, now that the original show is gone, where to direct interested parties looking to experience it. The 1983 Disneyland show cannibalized the Orlando scenes, sets and props to create a version of some real intensity but still significantly sanitized – Snow White now appears in the fiberglass person to be menaced, displacing the threat, and the show is overall a chronological recount of the Snow White story with the good and bad more fully represented rather than the bizarre riff on certain thematic material in the Orlando show. The Mickey Mouse Revue dwarf animatronics arrived to provide the show with an upbeat “Silly Song” opening, and many of the decorative molds and props created for the 1971 dwarf cottage interior show up as well – pointedly, many of the most disturbing looking ones are placed in such a way that they don’t appear to stare at the riders with the blank horror they’re designed to.

The ’83 show then proceeds to cherry-pick through the rest of the Florida show as it pleases, lifting the best shock moments – the mirror transformation, the emergence on the boat – in every detail and distributes them in pretty much logical order throughout the show. This is not to denigrate the Baxter version in any way – it is a beautiful ride (if too cramped perhaps for its own good, but therein lies its’ wonderful danger) and let’s not forget that Baxter installed the ’71 show and knew its’ tricks. Retained from the ’55 version is one of the best moments in any Disney fright ride, where the witch irrationally throws open the door of the dwarfs’ cottage with a great metallic creak to menace riders with an apple, a moment disturbing enough to be worthy of the Orlando show. And it is this version of the ride which has become the “template ride”, repeated verbatim at Disneyland Paris with an expanded ending scene which actually makes good on the promise of “Happily ever after”. Yet perhaps because this author is such a contrarian, she finds the abrupt Disneyland Anaheim ending most appropriate – the show has been such a relentless trek through a catalogue of horrors that it is most logical that it end with just a mural announcing a promised but not percieved happy ending – the ride is still called Snow White’s Scary Adventures, after all, and the evil Queen still peeks out of her tower to glare down at you no matter how many times you watch her get struck by lightning. This is, among other noteworthy things, the only version where one can observe the original speed and ferocity of the Orlando shock effects – the Witch still rockets out of the gloom on her boat shrieking, a nightmare image.

Then, perhaps, it will be wise to look at the Magic Kingdom Florida’s 1994 renovation of the show, a true mixed bag. On one hand this version is absolutely the most pictorially beautiful – every scene is alive in the brightest tones and has some wonderful effects. Yet every witch is still accounted for but does not frighten anymore: where once she came shooting out of darkness she now stands bolted in place, making too many scenes like tableaus and dulling their edge. Snow White is similarly ineffectual and the lack of real motion in the figures makes the whole affair seem more like a wax museum. It is, in short, the safest of all Snow Whites, yet one can get a flavor of what was once present in those rooms: the layout is mostly unaltered. It is essentially the version of the show nearest to being a children’s attraction, further removed than even the 1983 show from the version from which it takes most of its’ scenic elements and ideas.

A third version exists, an alternate 1983 show which still plays near the original 1971 Mickey Mouse Revue at Tokyo Disneyland. It is the best version of the show still in operation, a kind of “mega version” of the 1971 show – more sensibly paced but with a less crazy ending. It has a perfectly recreated 1971 load area followed by the largest and best Mirror transformation scene of all the versions –the Witch even continues to pivot, well overshooting facing the cars as she turns, just like the original Orlando version. The Disneyland expanded dungeon follows, then a very expansive version of the haunted forest where the Claude Coates floating eyes are even given their own little part of the scene. The Disneyland “silly song” sequence in the cottage disappointingly follows, but thereafter is a very faithful version of the Orlando mine, complete with ominous creaking, although there is no witch in the mine and the mine cart only threatens to roll towards the riders. There is a strangely flaccid version of the scene outside the Dwarfs’ cottage from the 1955/83 show where the Witch does not open the door to startle riders, then the 1983 version’s cliff scene and out the exit doors in appropriately abrupt style. Of course all this sadly makes mincemeat of the beauty of the 1971 show’s carefully constructed façade, where there is no lie: riders begin their journey in the Queen’s castle, end it in the Seven Dwarfs Mine, and if one where to punch through the back wall behind that little downscale cottage in the center they’d be in the dark and scary haunted forest with yet another Dwarf Cottage – full scale and scary inside and out – at the back of the room.

In the balance of evidence it increasingly seems that Snow White’s Adventures 1971 was a lightning-strikes-once sort of creature, way above and beyond what most guests or even Disney themselves wanted. The show’s building blocks were all reutilized for later, safer Snow White ventures but eventually the original threat was, inevitably, disbanded. After years of posting signs, printing warnings in guidebooks, adding and then removing the word “Scary” on the marquee, Disney was unable to clue people in as to what awaited inside. Guests and their children, unlikely to appreciate the irony that the scariest and darkest ride in the park was sitting right next to the castle just inside the land supposedly most intended for children (this misconception is so gross I hardly feel the need to comment on it, but it is there), were reacting badly and finally the much safer version replaced the 1971 ride in 1994. But there was never and still hasn’t ever been anything quite like it in the realm of Disney theme design – all too often eschewing traditional modes of the great American amusement park. The “Spook Train” has been rolling through amusement parks like Kennywood and Coney Island, true sites of national heritage, since the late 1920’s and the Snow White’s Adventures and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride attractions of 1971 are Disney’s two most remarkable contributions to the genre. It is in this capacity that I elect it as a true Walt Disney World classic, a crazy mistake in the grand scheme of things, but a subversive and influential one.