Thursday, April 23, 2009

Alterations, No. 1: Fixing Fantasyland

Now that word has psuedo-officially leaked that Magic Kingdom's Little Mermaid ride is greenlit, along with hopefully a few other additions and fabrications like moving Dumbo a bit and integrating the awkward Ariel's Grotto area, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk a bit about the much maligned Orlando Fantasyland, talk about what damage has been done to its' essential makeup, and make some suggestions about what can be done to force Fantasyland in line with WDI's current preferred standards (and most guest's, including mine, I should add). I'm not a park designer, but I've been studying what does and does not most often constitute successful design, and think I have a few observations about what *could* or *should* be done.

I will also, it should be noted, refrain from commenting on what has been done to the interior of the Fantasyland attractions - this article is about how to repair the atmosphere of the pedestrian space itself, the Fantasyland in question, not what happens once you get through those turnstiles.

There is very little love in Disney circles for the 1971 Fantasyland, probably because these circles did not exist online until fairly recently in the history of the Disney theme parks and are largely existent the celebrate the California park. Certainly when compared to the beautiful work on the east coast Fantasyland speared by Tony Baxter & Co. in 1983, the Florida model does come up substantially lacking. But Baxter worked heavily on the installation of the Florida Fantasyland in 1971, and again on it during the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea refurbishment of 1975 which heavily improved on the original undersea terrain, and so Baxter did not come to the 1983 version totally unimpressed with previous versions - he did not cut it from whole cloth pulled out of thin air. The 1983 Fantasyland works up not from the 1955 Ken Andersen version, but the 1971 Claude Coats / Rolly Crump version, and basically lifts most of the major new scenes, effects, and significant artistic concepts of the 1971 version for the 1983 model... and goes further with them. The concept of a European village, although done on a much larger scale in the 1983 Fantasyland, is already present in the 1971 Fantasyland in a form much more impressive than the 1955 version; the whole architectural stretch between Peter Pan and It's A Small World constitutes the "Pinocchio Street" in Florida, terminating in the Swiss Chalet and transitioning into Liberty Square.

One must also keep a fair mindset about the Fantasyland of 1971; it's unfair to compare it to the Fantasyland re-do which would follow it 12 years later. One must compare the Florida Fantasyland of 1971 to the California Fantasyland of.. 1955, which was still standing, and aesthetically mostly unchanged since that time. Compared to the gaudy multicolored mess which was that incarnation, the Florida version is an absolute triumph - a fully realized land instead of a half-realized one. We should remember that in 1980 when the Oriental Land Company could have "ordered" anything they wanted to put in Tokyo Disneyland, they indeed went with the 1971 version of Fantasyland... they probably were not offered the 1983 version, although they did recieve its' attractions.

In addition to the evident influence of the Florida rides on the 1983 interior shows, an aspect of the 1971 Fantasyland which is little commented on is how it forms an aesthetic transition from the richly themed Stratificational nature of the Magic Kingdom West Side to the Presentational Florida Tomorrowland. The Pinocchio Street starts things off on a familiar beat, very similar to Liberty Square in fact; flowerboxes, false portals, rich textures and plantings. As the area opens up in front of the castle with the carousel, the exteriors of the Mickey Mouse Revue and Snow White's Adventures offer a basically themed, but more abstract version of the themeing, and the textures start to dither out, replaced with bolder splashes of color and line, in the geometric painted bricks outside the Mickey Mouse Theater and the multi-stepped walls above Snow White, where the "Tournament Tent" doesn't even feel integrated into the building (making the exterior of this building something of a "magic window"). And the huge expanse of blue water which constitues the 20,000 Leagues lagoon is something of a "hard reset", transitioning the area to the abstract shapes and designs of Tomorrowland.

It doesn't totally work in the 1971 incarnation, but the 2009 incarnation can hardly be said to be an improvement. Without the 20K lagoon, Fantasyland feels barren and parched - there's not a drop of water to be found, and with the removal of the water-spewing spires at the entrance to Tomorrowland, the little waterfall at the base of the Tomorrowland skyway building - the futuristic mirror of a little babbling brook which runs underneath the Fantasyland one - is more of a curious feature than the truly integrated design repetition in the way that, say, Adventureland is primarily structured with waterfalls and bodies of water. Although there is little reason at this late state to discuss the reasons surrounding the disappearance of the Fantasyland Lagoon, as it was known in later years, without it Fantasyland's aesthetic is "broken".

The second major loss to Fantasyland has been the removal of various planters scattered around the area which once were home to Skyway pylons. I am totally in sympathy with the necessity of removing the pylons once the Skyway had closed, but removing whole planters to accomplish this is counterproductive. One, near the exit of It's a Small World, helped break up the significant expanse leading down the hill into Liberty Square, and even had a nice little fountain at the start of it. Others remained but had their foliage replanted with significantly smaller trees and shrubs in the place of spreading trees and flowers.

The first step in repairing the experience of Fantasyland should be the return of the water visual element to the east side of Fantasyland. The Little Mermaid attraction provides amble opportunity for this, and in addition to providing an unusual undersea "landscape" similar to the one found at Tokyo Disney Sea, could have any number of waterfalls and ponds stretching away from the show building. Although perhaps not as impressive as the 20,000 Leagues lagoon, this would return the visual feature of volcanic rocks pouring water to this side of Fantasyland.

Rumors once suggested that work on the facades of Winnie-the-Pooh and Snow White could be included, with the possible conversion of Snow White into a Beauty & the Beast dark ride. If this work is still in the cards, then the proximity of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh suggests the possibility for a "Merrie Olde England" subsection, where perhaps rolling green hills can visually exclude the Mermaid ride facade from the Toontown / Tomorrowland sight lines. I've always felt a nice pastoral pond in the middle of the walkway leading towards the Tea Party in front of Winnie-the-Pooh would help greatly, as would a new facade shell of a nice English country house, which would likely match well as the facades adjoining the Mr. Toad frontage - The ice cream shop, the old Round Table food windows - already have an Elizabethian flavor which was, likely, setup for the setting of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The story has changed but the story location hasn't, so utilizing this groundwork already laid by the past generations of designers would be smart and economical.

Snow White's Adventures probably doesn't need a full blown gothic exterior in the fashion of Disneyland, but if the money is there to convert the ride to a new show, then it should be done anyway. In order to best use those terraces behind the ride facade a multi-level creation with little show steps connecting the levels and planting would be appropriate, to mirror those above the Mickey Mouse Theater. The over-the-top nature of the Disneyland version is, however, not desirable, considering the romantic-gothic architecture surrounding it on the Sir Mickey's side as well as the food court side. Germanic-gothic, to tie into the fairy tale's original culture, would be redundant as the Pinocchio Village is right nearby, so a careful balance between elaborate frontage and whimsical detail should be carefully straddled here.

Relocation of grown-in trees from elsewhere on property to the currently existing planters is necessary to add some shade and visually break up the currently oppressive expanse which is Fantasyland. Splashing fountains, even if for show, can be added to various areas around the land utilizing the water mains already run for the drinking fountains. New Florida laws prohibiting certain kinds of public fountains have caused the shutdown of many a fountain in the Magic Kingdom, requiring WDI to do strange things to try to route water back to these shells to make them legal again. Tapping into drinking fountain water lines is one of the few viable options at this point.

One thing lacking from Fantasyland 1971 which is present in other Fantasylands due to things like Storybookland is the sense that Fantasyland is inhabiting any kind of landscape; in Florida it's sort of obviously sitting on a plateau of some kind which is, obviously, the service tunnels under the park. The elevation of Fantasyland means it is free of visual intrusions as all other architectural points of interest, such as the Hall of Presidents, are downhill, ie impossible to see. But it has a detachment from nature as a result, seemingly never having inhabited a natural world which was there before the Fantasyland "residents" moved in. This dynamic is crucial to the believability of modern theme park designs, and the return of fountains, waterfalls, bodies of water, and spreading trees will help correct the rather vacant atmosphere.

The sort of touch which I feel would improve the atmosphere of the area is a couple of small structures which could be built and finished entirely backstage out of guest view, likely without the benefit of a construction screen, either. A couple forced perspective, "distant", snowcapped mountains - one on the side of the Haunted Mansion show building (which can currently be seen from Fantasyland, correcting an old and minor but still aggravating design slip), and another on the very back of the roof of whatever the Little Mermaid show building turns out to be. These would likely need to have very little depth, as long as they are placed far enough back so that a significant visual disconnect between "here" and "there" is created - crucial for any use of very exaggerated forced perspective, ie, a mountain that is supposed to be miles away. They could be built of basic rebar and furnished with tiny artifical trees, if nessicary.

This concept is derived from the use of cartoon "hills" at the California Mickey's Toontown to screen out unwanted visual elements. They do do that, but in addition to maintaining the show, they extend the space of the "land"back into a very tangible feeling horizon line - a very rare accomplishment in Imagineering. That they aren't convincing is totally irrelevant because they do add an atmosphere which is more important; they may not hold up to close visual scrutiny but they shouldn't be seen; their absence would be more noticeable than their presence. This is what these false mountains would add to Fantasyland - a feeling that there really is an "out there", something out beyond the land you can't reach, which is Stratification in effect.

When I was young the things in the Magic Kingdom that obsessed me most were the areas that suggested that there were whole world out there beyond eyesight that would go on forever. These mountains would play on the imagination in such a way, a real optical illusion to play on the imagination. Such a feature would also include a visual element which the Magic Kingdom has always been poorer without - the atmosphere the Matterhorn gives of a snow capped mountain on every horizon. It's part of the makeup of the park, and should be included.

I realize at this point that I've strayed far away from my usual academic focus on this blog, but the subject how how to "Fix Fantasyland"; how to bring in the elements which make Magic Kingdom West so entrancing - a process that was effected in Disneyland in 1983 - has long ben an obsession of mine. Whatever happens in Orlando won't be as complex as the 1983 Fantasyland was (can you imagine shutting down an entire land for a year today?), but it will hopefully redress some of the damage done over the years to the Magic Kingdom's least loved original area.