Saturday, May 16, 2009

A New Approach

In my discussions of Disney themed design I have long employed the practice of my (theoretical!) classifications of attractions into either Stratificational or Presentational design groups. I have employed these theories in my dissertations, and overall hopefully proved the usefulness of such an approach since introducing these concepts in 2007.

There are inherent problems in such an approach, even beyond the disconnect between theory and practice which is the white elephant of most critical writing. With the ascent of Eisner and his story mandates the concept of Presentationalism, that unique aesthetic mode which WED had been carefully building to towards since 1955 - climaxing with EPCOT in 1982 - was no longer permitted. As a result the usefulness of the classifications of "Stratification" and "Presentationalism" become by and large useless by the mid-80's. I have never attempted to leverage the two theories at products which followed the end of the Golden Age of Themed Design for just this reason.

In the fallout of this tide change, a number of new schools began to grow. In WDI designs there is a "return to naturalism", a "faith in the theme", and a faith in "justified decor" which old-school WED designers were content to either divert or ignore due to those designer's faith in abstract representation. But I think the chief development in the "Second Wave" which is often discussed but rarely labeled is the growth of what I have begun to call "Post-Themed-Attraction Design".

First, a few thoughts on that cumbersome name.

What I seek to label when defining a work as being part of the Post-Themed-Attraction school is an attraction, which often appears to perch itself in the Stratificational mode, but which is implicitly or explicitly a reaction to the traditional modes and operations of the designs of WED's Golden Age. It cannot simply be an acknowledgement of the audience; since WED designs were meant to really "bring you there", this happens constantly in classical Disney design:

"If we weren't in the show starting right away we'd be in the audience too."

"They have selected you to fill our quota, and they'll haunt you until you return!"

No... to truly be in the school of the Post-Themed-Attraction Designs, the work must overall acknowledge its' position as a theme park display or its' overall role in the diagesis of the theme park "show". It is one thing to include the audience in the world of the show and quite another to make reference to the theme park location of the show and to rely on the spectator's familiarity with the mode of the traditional theme show to create a spark which carries on the shows forward momentum.

I. Post Themed Attraction Design

The name itself is a compromise. I have often seen attractions of this stripe labeled "post-modern"; but in reality we're culturally closer to "post-post-post-post-modernism" today than anything else. Not wanting to create more confusion in my use than simply refraining from using such a term, I elected not to use the term "post-modern". The second term which came to mind was "Post-Disney", but again this creates more unnecessary associations with the death of Walt Disney in 1966 than it resolves. Closer still was "Post-Disneyland", but again, this creates an unnecessary emphasis on a certain place, date, person or time. What the admittedly weak term of "Post-Themed-Attraction Design" seeks to create an understanding that this is a mode which responds not just to Disney works but to the whole business of creating a Disneylike diagetic environment overall. Universal, for example, is probably the best and most prolific practitioner of Post-Themed Design in the world.

I see two overall grades of the Post-Themed show. Version one strikes a subtle balance between the traditional Stratificational mode and its' Post-Themed content. A noteworthy attraction in this vein is Star Tours, where we are still tourists, albeit tourists on a space shuttle instead of a theme park simulator. Still, the overall joke of several sequences in Star Tours is in the tourist status of the assembled crew, and we are meant to recognize this as a moment where Disney has broken the "third wall"; not towards us, the spectators - but towards itself, in a way. The moment of non-diagesis forms an ironic counterpoint to the otherwise straightforward nature of the presentation. The Timekeeper, from 1994, included a gag where tourists were beamed forward in time out of the audience, although again the diagetic nature of the attraction was not violated too strongly here as, after all, in the 1994 Tomorrowland we are all meant to be tourists to the land of the future.

Alien Encounter was a few steps up the scale and also only a few physical steps away from Timekeeper. WDI's 1994 effort to launch a "franchise ride" aimed at teenage thrillseekers was in reality a handy salvage of an effects chair Imagineering had been tinkering with for years; the original concept was to use the Xenomorph from "Alien". The resulting attraction was a strange bedfellow for the Magic Kingdom, wildly oscillating between interesting satire and "hip" cynicism, and in fact was removed from service shortly following its premiere to be made more "scary".

The satire elements of Alien Encounter were the interesting ones, and this is the aspect of the attraction which tips the hand into the realm of Post-Themed Design. The fictional X-S Tech Corp of the attraction, headed by an ethereal CEO seen only on television, is a rather transparent version of Disney; a corporation which employs richly funded but inadequately tested technology to mysterious ends. The CEO is to be teleported into the theater but the signal is lost; in a panic technicians recklessly beam in whatever signal they happen to find which turns out to be, naturally, a dangerous carnivore.

Disney is well known for its ability to feed with one hand and slap with another, and the didactic tone of Animal Kingdom is only a recent example. Although the message is slightly diverted by a mention of "Disneyland Moon" in the Alien Encounter preshow, making it clear that Disney apparently exists alongside X-S Tech, the cautionary tale of a company using new technology to achieve "magic" and its' dangerous outcome resonates through the Disney canon, from the Flying Saucers at Disneyland to the ongoing charade which was Test Track at EPCOT, diverted for years because the very sophisticated ride vehicles simply would not perform their desired functions. WDI spends years developing concepts and ride vehicles and lots of money on things that never see the light of day; it's not hard to see the correlation and it wasn't hard for spectators to see it them, either. Alien Encounter may have been in suspect taste, but there was nothing like it in the Disney canon at the time.

II. Past, Present Dialogue

2000 saw the opening of Journey Into YOUR Imagination at EPCOT, a bare bones replacement for the lavish Kodak pavilion of 1983. It closed only two years later to be replaced with yet another attraction due to rampant guest complaints, and it is this second version - Journey Into Your Imagination With Figment - which interests us here. The short lifespan and heated dislike of version 2 of the attraction perched version 3 in the uncommon situation of being both a replacement of and an apology for the second version, and an intriguing dynamic was created.

In the attraction, a scientific research facility known as the "Imagination Institute" - a concept salvaged from a throwaway joke in the nearby "Honey I Shrunk the Audience" - is headed by the stuffy Eric Idle, who is giving a tour which is repeatedly interrupted by carefree Figment. In version 2 of the attraction, Idle's chairman of the institute was the authoritative voice, but here he is constantly sidetracked by Figment, and it is not hard to extend Figment the role of being the literal embodiment of WED designs and EPCOT Center in general. Figment, for example, is associated with the disruption of the weirdly sterile atmosphere of the Institute, which is literally exploded in the finale into a succession of abstract spaces - an orange sunset, a starry night, and finally a room which materializes out of nowhere. WDI designs favor concrete and demonstrable spaces - Harambe, Africa, or the sterility of a Hollywood movie studio - but WED era designs created any old imaginary - often not very well developed - spaces they felt like, in any order they pleased. Figment's explosion of the Institute office corridors into upside down houses and abstract spaces is literally the destruction of Disney's modern concepts of themed design "placemaking".

Besides his inherent historical association with EPCOT, Figment is employed in other ways to subvert Idle, who is essentially filling the role of a modern "creative executive", a placebo for the hundreds of "empty suits" who continue to stifle creativity in WDI. Figment appears in his trademark yellow sweater and watches animation from the 1983 version of his attraction (a sobering contrast to the gaudy 3D animation of Figment seen elsewhere) on an upside down television. He walks on the walls and ceiling around the cars in a clear allusion to the opening of World of Motion. At one point he summons an oncoming train heard in sound effects which "rush through" the audience, a possible allusion to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. He even actually stops the attraction from continuing and diverts the cars through nonsense space with spinning cutout Figments and lighting effects. So concerned is the attraction with pleasing an audience of hardcore Disney fans that a clever visual reference to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is even included. This is in contrast to version 2 of Imagination where a hollow reference to the Haunted Mansion was included, very similar to the perfunctory name dropping of the Mansion in California Adventure's Superstar Limo.

"Angels, execs, producers beyond... give us a sign the Green Light is on."

A fairly subversive quotation, actually, when removed from its' apparent Hollywood context and placed in the similar decision making world of Imagineering.

Journey Into Your Imagination With Figment may be the only Disney attraction currently operating which seeks to create a dialogue between design team and audience, not intended for the millions of tourists who traipse in and out of the building all year mostly unaware of the subtext and history and meaning behind it. And Disney fans have not embraced it either, not only for its' uneasy atmosphere and near constant assault on the senses, but because it is not the beloved original attraction. The final verdict on Journey into YOUR Imagination with Figment may rest on whether this "reading" of the attraction is correct or not. I believe it is, and may therefore actually rank as one of WDI's more subversive achievements, a funny but sad cry of despair from the pit of Disney's darkest era of themed design. It's hard not to hear famous creative executives like Paul Pressler behind lines like:

"I want you out of sight!" "I believe Imagination should be captured and controlled!"

And some beleaguered creative team sticking it to the boss, making themselves into Figment, a blind eye turned to them for the moment under the pressures of time and money:

"Imagination should be set free!"

III. WDI on Corporate Culture

1998 saw the opening of possibly the most universally contested attraction in Disney history, The Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management. Unlike the gross injustices played out on the EPCOT Center attractions of 1982-1983, The Tiki Room was largely considered to be hallowed ground, a Walt Disney attraction from 1963 which had been playing in roughly its' original form since then. The 1971 Florida version upgraded the size of the theater, the exterior building and preshow and included beautiful new effects not possible at Disneyland, but was still more or less the Tiki Room, and by the 1990's was starting to play badly with audiences. At nearly 20 minutes, the sedate original show is subject to walkouts even at the fiercely historical Disneyland. In 1994 an island-themed bird replaced the original Wally Boag "barker" toucan, but it failed to draw more people in. A creative team, probably charged only with creating something loud, colorful and short, was assembled. To these Imagineers, the project was undoubtedly an unpleasant "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, and the show they created is a fascinating doubled edged sword which plays with many of these uneasy themes.

The show is among Disney's most alienating, although it is a fascinating and less oblique bit of commentary on WDI's management. The tone is set immediately in the preshow, where the original Clyde and Claude toucans have been replaced by William and Morris, two smarmy talent agents. Where Clyde and Claude provided amusing banter about Adventureland, William and Morris are immediately annoyed at one another and begin bickering. Prominent Disney brands (in 1998) are name dropped, like The Mighty Ducks, and eventually the two birds just start shouting at one another as the preshow abruptly ends. This is the first overture to the audience about the show inside.

Disney bird characters Iago and Zazu have purchased the Enchanted Tiki Room, which is an intentional absurdity in and of itself, as the birds are from unrelated franchises, owned by Disney, and are now appearing in another unrelated franchise owned by Disney. Disney has always carefully guarded the diagetic integrity of their brands, and so the bringing together of these three properties was either created wholly by some marketing department somewhere or by the design team themselves as one more reflection of the heresy of the assignment. Eisnerite Disney may have ground out dozens of "cheapquels" to their most valuable properties, but we never saw Ariel pop up in, say, Beauty and the Beast part 6, and even in the hugely successful Disney Princess line of paraphernalia all of the girls are clustered together but all staring off in slightly different directions so they, eerily, never seem to be quite inhabiting the same space.

The Under New Management preshow also nearly immediately brings up the most important point in the whole project, which is money. To say that the designers were enamoured with the money making potential of the show is probably wrong, although others in the company assuredly were and they do go to great lengths to put these opinions in the mouths of many characters throughout the show, starting with these two cynical toucans.

"Just look at these paying customers waiting to get in."

"...Did you say paying?"

"As in money!"

"...As in ten percent?"

The audience is being manipulated for cash, the show repeatedly tells us, which is a second absurdity in that attractions are loss leaders for Disney, not money makers, and doubly in that the Enchanted Tiki Room in any form hasn't inspired copious cash flow from the bulk of tourists in decades. It's easy to interpret these essential themes as being quite earnest in the show, although the logic of doing so doesn't and never has quite added up. But this never comes off as funny or detached; it comes off as honestly cynical and rotten. This is why the show has been and continues to be so poorly received; what was probably intended as satire comes off as a sort of thesis statement on audiences, taste, culture, Disney and everything else. This authorette remains unconvinced, for reasons I will shortly elaborate on.

The show begins just as it used to, but even before the signature number "The Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room" gets underway, Iago descends from the ceiling and stops the show short, bellowing that the song, a classic Disney number, is going to make him "toss his crackers", a line which is so cringe inducing that the show actually stops dead and hardly recovers. But the writing here is essential and significant because in order for the show to be "justified" in altering the WED original, Iago, as the voice of change in the show, has to be the hero - but he is portrayed as a villain. He sits on a pillow, shouts through a megaphone, and says of Zaszu, who warns Iago that he "cannot toy with the Enchanted Tiki Room", "He's not my friend!". Where we have been constantly warned about "New Management", seen talent agents, heard shouted arguments about money and ego, and now had a Walt Disney product violated in front of us, it's easy to connect the dots. Iago, a villain in Aladdin, is a stand in for the "empty suits" who greenlit the project and demanded change, whereas Zaszu is the protesting creative team.

"Hey you boring old Tiki birds!
I'm a big celebrity!
That's why we're gonna go and change the show!
Ain't it great to have a friend like me?"

This is not a positive picture being painted of the whole concept of a brand new Tiki Room.

Iago not only violates the Walt Disney era song, but one of his own product, "Friend Like Me", and turns it on its' head - from a celebration of the possibilities of Aladdin to become a "someone" via the Genie in the 1993 film to the ego driven mania to change things because Iago is in a position of power over the 1963 show. Even the trademark "friend like me" line is corrupted to become cynical.

The Tiki Room, however, will have the last word. The third component of this nexis of "new management" vs "old management" is the Tiki Room itself, which is obviously a stand-in for Walt Disney and all the corporate heritage that comes with his work. In protest, the architecture of the Tiki Room itself seems to summon fictional Tiki goddess Uhoah, who literally blows up Iago, banishing him. It is literally the past materializing in the present to banish "new management", and its' short sighted profit minded ventures.

The show goes on for a few more minutes at this point, ending rather inconclusively. The remaining original Tiki Room effects - chanting totems, the girlie birdie wheel, etc are displayed very shortly and the audience is shuffled out the door with the show in full swing. Iago returns and declares the Tiki birds acceptable. There is an atmosphere of dulling the business end of the message of what has transpired, and ending the thing as quickly as possible. Neither "old management" nor "new management" has won in the end, interestingly, and the Tiki room show goes on. The largest weakness, actually, of the show's integrity (not of the original version, but of this version, by itself) is not that it models a dynamic, as lopsided as it may be towards "new management", but that the show fails to resolve it.

The show's final message may actually be best voiced by Morris at the very end of the preshow: "Hey, who am I to go against the status crow?"

Yet that is the corporate culture of Disney, where neither side wins but the company grinds on regardless. Many people dislike the new Tiki Room show but many do like it, doubtlessly because it is loud, colorful and short. It may be the nearest Disney ever got to creating something analogous to a music video, right in the middle of the height of the "MTV Generation". The Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management is irreverant, disposable and easy to dislike, but the reverberations of its' core message should not be forgoten or swept under the rug so quickly - it has some sharp teeth behind that smile.

IV. Summation / Some Warnings

I have profiled one Disney attraction here which I personally find lacking and two which are nearly continously condemed in the mainstream of Disney writing, but I do not come to this subject to condone or condenm. Even if such labels were easily applied to anything, both "good texts" and "bad texts" deserve equal weight, and I believe that all of these attractions profiled above have recieved insubstantial serious treatment. The label of "Post-Themed-Attraction Design" does not inherently mean any one work is bad, nor is it exclusive to bad or second tier attractions; Countdown to Extinction and Kilimanjaro Safaris contain echoes of this style.

There also remain other major works which either partially or fully model this mode. Ellen's Energy Adventure is one of the most successful and pleasing. Test Track contains some elements of Post-Themed design, and Stitch's Great Escape may be added to the "infamous two" profiled above as a crucial "third part" of an informal trifecta of key Post-Themed works. I can only hope that this new concept proves useful in charting Imagineering's past, present and future of design as well as filling in a major discussion point which I often feel is lacking in current discussions of the possibilities and the products of our modern era of theme park going.