Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Magic Kingdom Half Year Report!

If I've been a little more quiet than usual lo these past few months here at Passport to Dreams, it hasn't been for lack of me trying, but rather, for lack of much anything new and interesting to talk about. I feel like I've gotten enough of a grasp on design complexities of the Magic Kingdom by now that further exploratory posts are likely redundant; I've written enough about what interests me and enough about what bores me that now I've just got to bother to write it into a book. It will happen someday, someday just isn't soon. Disney themselves have been on autopilot for a while now too; the sudden cutback of activity due to the financial scares of last fall has given way rapidly to summertime, Disney's least interesting period of vigorous moneymaking each year. The construction walls roll away, the parks fill up, the hours are long, and not much else happens.

Which isn't to say that all activity has stopped; the first half of 2009 saw continued work in the Magic Kingdom, some of which has cosmetically altered a lot of what had been in place since the 1970's.

December saw the opening of the Golden Oak Outpost in the place of what had previously been an ill-placed outlet for McDonald's fries; all McDonald's products have been removed from the Disney parks, which is very commendable. The Golden Oak is a very fancily dressed up prefab foodservice building which Disney has been purchasing and dropping into various locations around EPCOT for a bit now. The outsides of these have been very well done; the insides are... unfortunate. But let's not turn up our noses too much at this because it's not like the Magic Kingdom had ever tried to hide her industrial kitchens just beyond the countertops in any form anyway, even back in the 1970's.


What is important about the Golden Oak is the way it significantly alters the transition from Frontierland to Adventureland which for over a decade had been very subtle. The Outpost itself doesn't do it, which is actually a very good match for the 1998 facades across the way. What does it is the seating area to the south of the Outpost, which pushes the Frontierland aesthetic about 20 feet closer to the Crows' Nest, that Kodak photo spot which was already cheating Caribbean Plaza a bit too far north when it was built in the late 80's. Prior to the addition of the Outpost, the Crows' Nest appeared to be a little not out of place hacienda style southwest building; it wasn't till you got right up to it that it became apparent that the little shed was actually part of Adventureland, which you had crossed over into without ever noticing it. The seating area creeps Frontierland planting, textures and colors almost right up to to the Crows' Nest, which makes it much more obvious where Frontierland terminates and Adventureland begins; it's like you could draw a line on the ground with chalk.

The aspect of the blend isn't totally lost and this isn't a tragic reversal or anything of that nature; the subtle transition was concocted in later years of the park and much of the rest of the Magic Kingdom has similarly abrupt transitions. As an evolving park we ought to more welcome a new building to Frontierland which is actually tastefully done, as the Fry Cart was not. The abrupt switch from the old west to the Caribbean isn't too bad anyway as WED Enterprises was wise enough to include in 1973 a second "gate" into Adventureland, the only land in the park to have this.

Speaking of Caribbean Plaza, this wonderful little corner has been shook up a bit too. The beautiful original retail space The House of Treasure has been converted into one of Disney's new premium photo package experiences, where you get dressed up and stuff. The results may be strictly on a "better than average Halloween costume" level, but the conversion of the space was a class act. WDI kept as much original fixtures as possible, including the beautiful woodwork and lighting fixtures, and made the space into a richly themed, dusky Pirate den. This required some expansion out into what was once a nice breezeway to Caribbean Plaza's handsome south courtyard, but the enclosure of this space has had some positive benefits. That courtyard has gotten some attention, including new paint and silk plants, and all original scenic elements have been retained, if slightly rearranged. As this space is vital to the illusion created by the courtyard entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean and the terraces of the Castillo glimpsed from the interior queue, the fact that it has not been removed is a great relief.

I can't say I have much of an opinion on the new "Pirate's League" experience as I'm not the target audience, being neither eight years old nor harboring much of a desire to be a pirate or princess. But if changes are going to be done to the park then all I ask is that they be done well. Everything I've seen so far of the inside of this location is richly and tastefully executed... if Disney had opened this in 2003 it would've been a bare room. Maybe if they can offer to make me look convincingly like Minnie Mouse or Maid Marian, then I'd be interested!

Similarly richly done is a (finally) permanent stage for the Jack Sparrow character show, in the bandstand originally built for (if seldom actually occupied by) J.P. and the Silver Stars in 1973. A surprising amount of quality work went into this, including all new brickwork around the still-dry Fuente de Fortuna, and a decorating team which just went nuts giving this little stage a themeatic bounty of stuff, which manages to blend the Caribbean, British Colonial, Mexican, African and Asian influences evident throughout the rest of Adventureland into a single pile of "plunder". It's very clever and kind of visually overpowering, but as I said, if you're going to do it at all, please do it right. It also adds plastic fruit to Caribbean Plaza, which I wholeheartedly approve of.

THEMING! (stolen from Mouse steps)

Speaking of being done right, decorating at the Magic Kingdom has seemingly been handed a bottomless pot of gold, because the quality of the propping we've been seeing entering the Kingdom for about half a year now has been above and beyond what I expect. Richly detailed, nicely designed little boxes now seem to proliferate all over Fronteirland, with well designed little logos all over them paying tribute to everything from the park's 1971 opening to Marc Davis. These are replacing a depressingly generic fleet of rickety boxes which spread through the area in the 90's, painted boring dark brown tones and stamped with a generic stencil talking either about Sam Clemens or Judge Thatcher. One look at the polished, rich wood grain crates which have been appearing for some time now and you can instantly see that they are of a quality of design and worksmanship well above what we are used to in this busy little park.

Similarly done right is the new Hall of Presidents show, which although not perfect, is a dramatic, assured, and tasteful new direction for a show which has been drifting around without a rudder for the past sixteen years (!). I'd prefer to save my analysis of this new show for a time when it can be placed in proper context, and since the new version has been so well received I see little reason to go out of my way to praise it just now. Suffice to say that this is a class act from WDI, well written and produced - returning to the past as well as re-imagining the show for the present in just the appropriate moments (I don't like WDI's use of the term "re-imagined" for everything these days, but it's totally justifiable here and totally unrelated to the Disney marketing machine's love of sugarcoated language). I do not artistically agree with every change made but I will defend each of them for their audacity and originality, and some moments are so pitch perfect that I selfishly suspect that some of my writings were being passed around. This is a show produced by a confident creative team which analyzed and understood why the 1971 version of the show was so exceptional, but who were determined to not be beholden to it. I'm enourmously proud and they should be too. (I stole the above photo off Flickr, by the way, from "animenut".)

Other projects continue. Most of Liberty Square has been beautifully refurbished and looks as though it was built yesterday. Word is that the Tomorrowland Skyway Station will finally be leveled which, interestingly enough, will return to Tomorrowland a view which has not existed since 1973... a full, unobstructed view of the Contemporary. Permanent, well made signs have begun to return to the parks, such as wooden placards which replaced gaudy magnetic printed versions outside the Diamond Horseshoe last month. To say that craft is returning to the parks would be correct... after a long, depressing slumber. Even street lights seem to be repaired more quickly and many of the park's oldest and most unreliable lighting fixtures are being pulled and refurbished totally rather than replaced with cheap modern substitutes. The total force of good work being done gives me hope that the new Fantasyland possibly forthcoming will be a richly textured, tastefully executed bit of design worthy of the name "Magic Kingdom".

I'm often accused of being totally negative about Disney, which is true, and also easy, but I do have burning deep in me a sentimental heart which is warmed by seeing turnarounds at Disney which aren't cheap, minor, short term improvements, but things which are designed to last for years... long term solutions. I haven't gone through my entire laundry list here, and doing so would have been even more boring that the above paragraphs, but these and other reasons are finally giving me a reason to hope again.