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.