Saturday, December 18, 2010

Passport to Dreams Year End Report, 2010

Anno 2010 has come and gone, and I think most of us are happier to see it going than we saw coming. On the Disney front, at least, things have been busy... if not exactly interesting. Walt Disney World spending has rebounded this year, even if overall attendance has dropped. Whether this is because of one of those odd cyclical patterns that all businesses go through or whether Universal's excellent new Harry Potter attraction up the street is drawing people away, Disney isn't saying. In fact, they're not doing much about it at all. Now that a high-speed rail line is coming to Central Florida with a station on Disney property, the mass transit they're likely counting on to bring people in will also be able to take their business away, elsewhere. Things are changing rapidly in Central Florida and Disney seems to be counted on to be the last to respond.

But this is a design oriented blog so I'm really not going to comment on that, especially and doubly so because so many people have spillt so much bandwidth this year doing so. So little has actually changed at Walt Disney World in the past 12 months that I did reconsider the necessity of writing this. Still, not every year can be a banner year, for Disney or for I, and maybe there's something to be said for a ritualistic year end tradition of unsolicited complaining. EPCOT Center did see some interesting additions this year and I will address those as well, and begin a new year-end recap of what happened here at Passport to Dreams.

So ready or not, here comes:


Hide the Women! Next-Gen is Coming! - The biggest thing to really happen in the Magic Kingdom this year was the tentative launch of "Next-Gen", which is a vaguely menacing prospect for those of us concerned about the aesthetic unities of this park since the introduction of FastPass ten years ago severely compromised many sightlines and obscured many themeing accomplishments with garish and badly placed directional signs. The little family plot outside the Haunted Mansion has, of of this writing, been totally torn out and WDI has moved forward with the construction of a next-gen queue which promises to be something like the "Boot Hill" area outside Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor, and honestly if there is a bit more atmosphere in the works for the outside of this attraction, then it's sorely needed. Ever since 1990 the Haunted Mansion's "atmospheric prelude" has been compromised by strange props and bad placement so that the house no longer truly feels separate from Liberty Square. Don't expect the strange red canopy to go away anytime soon but the new queue could end up something like the first areas of the Tower of Terror queue, so in my mind could be very good as a prelude to the show inside. At the very least, as an open air area, it will afford attractive views of the house, and the additional queuing space is badly needed.

What has many people concerned is the promise-threat of interactive elements in this new queue, and we got a potential taste of what that could be like earlier this year when the fancy new interactive Winnie-the-Pooh queue opened. That queue was very well done but has the unmistakable atmosphere of a playground, which would certainly feel out of place outside the menacing Haunted Mansion. We should have faith that WDI, who have proven themselves to be fairly reliable for the past few years, will create something creepy and atmospheric instead of exuberant and playful. Indeed the Winnie-the-Pooh queue is so good that it makes a mediocre ride seem much better than it is, but I've already spoken extensively about this queue and how it fares surrounded by 1971 WED designs.

One final comment about the Pooh queue that nobody seems to be talking about: although there is indeed a Fastpass return area which bypasses all the cool new stuff, there is actually no Fastpass distribution area, nor is there any place for one to be added. One of the aspects of Next-Gen is that all FastPass distribution is expected to soon be centralized, possibly only available to those staying in resorts and pre-booked on in-room touch screens. If this is true then we can perhaps, one day, expect all those awful signs and sightline-blocking buildings clustered outside Big Thunder Mountain and similar attractions to be removed or at least substantially cut back. The loss of many really superb views in the Magic Kingdom is my chief complaint against FastPass, and if WDI is looking at solutions to rectify this, then I saw bring on the Next-Gen. GRADE: B

Magic Kingdom: The Happiest Construction Zone of Them All - This was a bad year to visit Magic Kingdom if you don't like construction walls, because simply put, they were more prevalent than guests on some days. The Adventureland Breezeway bathrooms, particularly, were greatly reworked and expanded this year in a project which lasted an absurd five months. The net result of this is that the shaded veranda facing south near the bathrooms has been totally absorbed, which brings to an end a nearly 40 year run of what was once the furthest-flung seating for the Adventureland Veranda restaurant. In the process we lost some nice woodwork and an acceptable false skylight (see right, photo on left), but many of the original decorative elements have been retained and moved out towards the main walkway. This isn't really a tragic loss but it means that yet another quiet feature of the Magic Kingdom has been lost forever. Those looking to be nostalgic may enjoy this 1990 video of the Veranda west veranda taken by Mike Lee, but let's be honest - it hadn't been this nice for fifteen years by the time this area was dismantled and filled with a bathroom, and the change is so subtle that many longtime Adventurers may not even have noticed. On the other hand, what were consistently the dirtiest and dingiest bathrooms in the park have been greatly improved, and this is a real improvement, not a rhetorical argument about the historical value of a minor pedestrian space.

Other restorative work has been done around the park, including worthwhile efforts on Main Street and Liberty Square, and the old Round Table soft serve kiosk has been given a new thatched roof and a new name, both of which look very attractive. Last year I commented that the overall appearance of the park seems to be greatly improving, and the same holds true this year, which seems to indicate that at least a pattern is being established. I feel that some care has been taken to improve landscaping features, with many old trees in Liberty Square removed and replaced with new leafy ones, which greatly improves the appearance of the Square from the Hub. An unexpected series of freezes early in the year saw the removal of lots of old scraggy year-round weedish plants in Adventureland and replacement with aesthetically appropriate flowers, and a number of trees have come down which were formerly obscuring views of buildings. Somebody in horticulture or WDI has clearly noticed that the park looks very nice if you can actually see the buildings as intended in 1971, and this ranks as a massive victory in my book.

Of particular historical interest is that the Gulf Hospitality House / Exposition Hall on Town Square has finally closed for an extended interior renovation which will remove both of the original Walt Disney Story attraction theaters and replace them with some sort of greeting area for Mickey Mouse. In a way this is a logical end for a show building whose use has been contested for as long as it has existed. When the front of the building was constructed in 1971 it was a facade for a hotel which never existed, and the facilities for the Walt Disney Story were actually built onto the east facing-side for the opening of that 1973 attraction. Over the years the space has been used for theme park preview centers, promotional campaigns and timeshare sales without really ever finding a satisfactory reason to exist, and if there's anywhere in the Magic Kingdom as it existed in 1971 in which I would approve of the permanent installation of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the Hospitality House is it. Chief amongst the Magic Kingdom's many sins is the number of spaces walled up and neglected in the busiest theme park in the Western world. If Disney is ready to find a long-term use for this cavernous but neglected space, I'm ready to approve of it. So long as the interior sets for these meet and greets are tasteful and appropriate to the Victorian setting, this proves to be a significant upgrade for characters long relegated to garish cartoonish settings.

And of course we would be remiss not to mention the absurd demolition project which has finally started to make good use of the 20,000 Leagues ride plot and will finally send Mickey's Birthdayland/Starland/Toontown Fair off to a merciful end after a painfully protracted twenty-two years, or over half of the existence of the entire resort complex herself! The verdict is still out on what the expansion will be like and is likely to remain so through 2011, but the good news is that work is finally, belatedly, underway. Perhaps future generations won't believe us when we tell them that Disney once closed an attraction and spent almost twenty years replacing it with something... but I somehow doubt it. GRADE: B+

Cantina de San Angel Inn and Via Napoli - Moving over to the EPCOT Center, which for once got all the cool stuff this year, we find Disney investing in some new restaurants which pose interesting aesthetic challenges in relation to fitting in with the pre-existing thematic infrastructure. The longtime lakeside Mexican restaurant has been totally demolished and rebuilt as a double-purpose take-out and sit-down restaurant, and although the take-out food is quite tasty, it doesn't really impress from the outside. Make no mistake, for a double-purpose restaurant crammed into a tiny footprint it's fairly nice but the relatively unadorned side directly facing the original Meso-American pyramid makes more of an impression of being in a strip mall than a theme park.

2 bed, 3 bath home for sale in beautiful Windermere, FL

On the other hand there's some top-notch efforts around the sides of the structure and facing the lagoon, some very evocative false balconies and rockwork, and the main dining room comes complete with windows specially designed to sell tables expressly for views of Illuminations. This is the real reason it exists, of course, and your personal preferences will largely determine whether it's an inoffensive addition or just another sign that the day of the locust is at hand. The original Cantina at least kept a low profile and blended easily with the rest of the pavilion from across the water. The new building, painted a bright yellow and red, for better or for worse is impossible to ignore. GRADE: C

But the second effort this year, Via Napoli, across the water at the Italy pavilion, impresses. WED left the Italy pavilion unfinished back in 1982, and the lame back wall and open air on two sides made this painfully obvious. 27 years later, Disney has finished the job, and I find the effort admirable. The massive Via Napoli building, from across the water, looks just like it always belonged there, and the thematic work done leading from the former "back wall" of the Italy pavilion towards the front doors of the new structure has been carefully judged to appear a natural extension of the original work. Once inside, the restaurant helps to extend the feel that the pavilion continues off into some imaginary horizon line rather than terminating in a parking lot. Windows towards the east look out towards an original WED berm seperating Italy from the American Adventure which has been adorned with decorative trees and a gravel path, and it is a surprisingly effective evocation of some sort of Italian countryside. Tall half-round windows grace the back wall, but far above eye level, and look out towards a distant, again pre-existing line of trees. The backstage areas and parking lots have thus been cleverly screened out, but the treetops suggest a rolling countryside beyond the back wall which does not exist.

In the close-knit club of World Showcase pavilions, very few seem to extend past their "back wall" and continue on forever, an effect which is traditionally achieved with "Stratification" design concepts. Mexico creates an otherworldly nocturne and so seems outside the boundaries of the "three walls" courtyard layout these buildings create. Only France seems to ramble on past our view, an imaginary Paris just behind the Palais du Cinema. We can now include Italy in this group, and the interior designers of this new restaurant (not WDI, by the way) did a bang-up job. Oh, and the food is really good. GRADE: B+

The Power of Song, Imagination and Dance - And oh yeah, this ludicrous thing called Captain EO is back. It's about Michael Jackson battling evil in outer space with his rainbow-beam hand lasers and a bunch of Muppets. Captain EO is sort of big news for us Retroists, and before I go into too much detail it must be first adknowledged that the return of this attraction was, and is, provisional. Of course Jackson died last year and this was a big reason for the return of this show, as was the overall poor attendance of the lame-brained, annoying Honey I Shrunk the Audience 3D show. That that attraction, based on a movie series nobody cares about anymore and which actually, embarrassingly took over the entire Imagination pavilion, has finally been laid to rest accounts for half of my enthusiasm for Captain EO. The other half is that I was surprised to find I actually liked it.

Now nobody's going to mistake Captain EO for high art, but one of the reasons I find it so refreshing is that it is so unlike the bulk of cinematic product being extruded by Hollywood today. I grew up at the tail end of the height of the post-Lucas Hollywood, where big absurd fantasies with elaborate special effects sequences dominated the summer Blockbuster. Today when we look at a movie like Willow or Legend it seems outrageous that it was made at all, not only for the pure overachieving scope of the movies but the fact that at their core they're based around such simple premises. This is the Lucas doctrine at work and of course he had a lot to do with what's both good and bad about Captain EO. It is a cheerfully laughable film.

So that may account for a lot of my positive reaction to the movie. I have no particular attachment to Michael Jackson or his brand of mid-eighties mischief, but here is clearly a personality who is a cultural force to be reckoned with, making a movie for teenagers at the last possible moment before youth culture went permanently ironic. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot by Vittorio Storaro, who ten years earlier had last been on a cocaine bender somewhere in southeast Asia making Apocalypse Now. EO can reasonably be slotted alongside Thriller from 1983 and Bad from 1987, both of which were also directed by major talents - John Landis, fresh off An American Werewolf in London, made Thriller an overambitious atmosphere piece and Martin Scorsese made Bad right before embarking on The Last Temptation of Christ. With beautiful miniatures by Industrial Light and Magic which look marvelous in 3D and bankrolled by Eisner-era Disney, this is a prestige attraction from another time. It may be a cultural dinosaur but it is as slickly oiled an entertainment machine as can be desired and in 3D, widescreen, and 70-millimeter, watching it it's hard not to eulogize a Hollywood machine which has totally abandoned this mode of entertainment.

From a directorial perspective, Coppola's choices are appealing. Wide shots play in depth at the appropriate moments and the film is very well paced, feeling far shorter than Honey I Shrunk the Audience despite being about the same length. Storaro of course is an immensely talented cinematographer, and although I can't make any claim that either of these men took this project very seriously, their superior talent is up on the screen. Whoever was calling the shots on the 3D effects also clearly was patterning them on the more memorable moments in Magic Journeys, the Murray Lerner 3D picture which opened with EPCOT in 1982, which was ever stranger and freakier than EO. Fuzzball fluttering around recalls the children's kite from Journeys, EO's rainbow beams recall lightning being shot out of the screen by a witch, and even the beautiful opening shot of Journeys, a slow crane down through tree branches, is replayed in reverse at the very end of EO.

It's also frankly a memorable piece of hokum. Despite having not seen the movie in at least eighteen years I never quite forgot the opening asteroid exploding in your face (at least as exciting as the similar 3D effect that opens It Came From Outer Space) or the memorably menacing Supreme Leader sticking her claws through the screen. This still is scary stuff for kids but it makes Captain EO's eventual triumph all the more pleasing. The cultural semantics moving inside concepts like transforming an H.R.-Geiger-knockoff-planet into a vaugley Greco-Roman paradise populated by choreographed dancers with Flock of Seagulls-haircuts are probably too bizarre and complex to unpack here, but it makes the film an honest and unabashed hoot. Would Disney today feel embarrassed to present audiences with a cuddy red Whatsit with butterfly wings who gets his own closeup during a musical number to sing "We are Here To Change the World"? Would cultural watchdogs today jump all over Hooter, a bizarre slobbish diminutive elephant wearing a wife-beater tee who throws food at the screen?

Captain EO is to be taken entirely seriously.

Probably. But audiences looking to feel superior to Captain EO are missing out on half the fun. There is so much retro EPCOT Center atmosphere oozing out of that theater now, with a darkened, synth-laden waiting area, absurd theme song and purple, purple, purple, that it's almost criminally depressing not to be able to jump right next door and ride Journey into Imagination or play in the Image Works. But what Captain EO represents most to me is hope. The film, of course, is optimistic in a way that mass-market entertainment no longer is - Captain EO is a messenger of peace who triumphs over evil with his cute companions and awesome dance moves. The attraction is a revitalization of a film which looked hopelessly dated in 1994 when it was removed but which to us today seems more classically dated. Since EO has appeared on the scene in EPCOT, Kodak has departed as sponsor of the pavilion, the glass Imagination pyramids have begun to change colors again and a new attraction within seems like it may finally arrive and put the embarrassing last twelve years out of our minds. Maybe what EPCOT really needs is a little more EO and a little less of everything else. GRADE: embarrassingly, A-

COMMENTS: Walt Disney World needs to start working harder to maintain her standing in an increasingly competitive environment. Her Captain EO science project was great for her circle of friends, but does the rest of the class really enjoy it?


Passport to Dreams, Slowly and Only Sometimes - Looking back over my roster of posts this year, I've noticed that my rate of output has slowed considerably. It's about twenty-two posts, or a rate of about one every 16 days. Of course those numbers are skewed because three of the posts were nonsense or filler and four of them are really one post which I stretched out to last a month. Actually, despite what I wrote way up at the start of this artickle, blog-wise this has been a banner year for me, and some of these rank amongst my favorite accomplishments. My visitation stats have been fairly consistent, so I must be doing something right and major thanks should go to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, who said this about me:
"...might just be the most insightful culture and art writer I've ever read."
I really have no idea what to do with praise like that, but I am very honored!

In other news, you'll notice I've also joined an Ad network, Main Gate, who advertise specifically for the Disney circuit and so far have proven to be reliable, amiable and excellent. One look at the list of bloggers served by Main Gate and you'll see that, aside from Passport to Dreams, they are all excellent resources and reporters. This also puts me in the hilarious position of having Walt Disney World advertising on my site at the same time I'm criticizing them. You may enjoy this however you see fit. Please know that each click supports Passport to Dreams by subsidizing my otherwise financially crippling habit of buying old Disney World stuff on eBay, the same stuff that allows me to write history articles like those you see below. I'm not too proud to tell you this, so go ahead, click through and enjoy.

I've much belatedly switched to a new Blogger template and decided that cream on navy blue is just a bit too much to ask for people reading my 15,000 word dissertations. I'm doing my best to make the template as memorable as possible, and now that I've got a new color scheme to play with, expect to see more of my signature silly rotating banners and more bizarre obtuse references to things nobody remembers.


Buena Vista Obscura at 2719 Hyperion:
Captain Cook's Hideaway (plus followup)
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part One
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Two
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Three
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Four

History and Esoterica:
Mr. Franklin's Travels
Snapshot: The Great Southern Craft Company
Take Your New Disney Friends Home!
The Host Community
The Art of the Hall of Presidents
Snapshot: Olde World Antiques
Shakedown at the Magic Kingdom
Good News from the Vacation Kingdom

Theory, Dissection and Commentary:
An Aesthetic Profile of Caribbean Plaza
History and the Haunted Mansion
The Case for the Florida Pirates
Nine Shrines of the Magic Kingdom
The Third Queue

Rank Silliness:
One if By Land, Two if by Sea... Now It's 1973!
I'm Not Dead Yet
Showdown at Castle Court
Special Thanks To: George Taylor, Michael Crawford, Mike Lee, Scott Otis, and everyone else who either listened to me blather or helped me get my info together enough to post.

You Should Be Reading: Long-Forgotten, a Haunted Mansion blog that's way smarter and more interesting than I am.

Thanks very much for being a part of my efforts here at Passport to Dreams in 2010 with all of your links, your discussion, comments, and support. It means a lot to me and see you in the New year!


Photo Credits: Exprcoofto (via Discussion Kingdom), Disney Parks Blog, MouseInfo
This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival. Head over there to see more great Disney-related posts and articles.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Third Queue

When I was young, most of my memories from Walt Disney World involved waiting in line. I can't speak for everybody, but I suspect most people would agree. I have stronger memories of the facade and queue of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, for example, than anything that happened on the ride until about 1995 - I was totally fixated on those wooden cutouts of the Mr. Toad characters above the exit tunnels of the ride, and especially Mr. Winky, mostly because I had no idea who he was supposed to be. The Haunted Mansion, too, holds strong memories, for staring at the outside of that creepy old house wondering what could be inside is one of the most strongly inherited Walt Disney World memories for most children. And I'm fairly sure that five year old me remembered World of Motion more for the sweeping line of cars slowly ascending into the show building than for anything the ride was actually about.

Digital version of a childhood obsession, thanks to Spencer Cook

I bring all this up because the state of the themed queue - a Disney practice if there ever was one - seems to very much be in a state of flux right now. Less than a month ago (at the time of this writing) Walt Disney World opened her brand new "next generation" queue at the Winnie-the-Pooh attraction in Fantasyland. It is as fully accomplished as one could reasonably expect. Despite the small footprint, there is a very successful woodland atmosphere and some charming activities. Crawl through Pooh's house (much more fun than walking around it, by the way). Stomp on a circle and a gopher pops out of a hole. Turn a crank on a box filled with balls to make them jump around (while wondering what this has to do with the 100 Acre Wood). But honestly, it's all very nice.

Indeed the removal of the "Renaissance Festival" theme is more of a relief than expected and there's some very elaborate sculptural work to tie the facade into the nearby Round Table restaurant. A new undulating brick wall visually links the area to WED's 1971 handsome brick planters encircling the Mad Tea Party next door, a master planning detail that shows somebody attentive to meaningful detail was at the reins of this project. Imagine - a new addition designed to effectively blend with 40 year old details - if only the 90's Tomorrowland reboot had had such considerations!

But for all that, let's be honest - there's very little in Imagineering's brand new Winnie-the-Pooh queue that couldn't have been done by WED Enterprises in the 80s. Nothing in it seems much higher tech than what we could play with in the original Image Works back in 1983, several generations of ride design ago. And I don't mean this in a negative way - I think it's the secret to the new queue's success, why so many people who are ordinarily quite hard to please have lined up online to praise it, myself included. This is a brand new addition to the Magic Kingdom, a park in which newly designed rides sit alongside patently old-school theme park experiences like the Swiss Family Treehouse, or attractions which have been basically unchanged since opening day have been given a few new special effects to seem fresh again. A totally high-tech new queue would seem out of place sitting five feet away from the Mad Tea Party, which has been basically the same since 1972 and itself is descended from a Disneyland original from a half century ago.

But that doesn't exactly make a great case for this new fancy gee-whiz queue being very "next-gen", a word which is being bandied about wildly online (and, presumably, inside Disney) a lot these days. In the Indiana Jones Adventure, itself an attraction closing on fifteen years old now, there is a throw-away gag in the queue where you can pull on a rope and drop an unseen archeologist into a pit below. It's a very low-tech audio gag that Bob Gurr could have worked up in 1955 with a lever and a reel-to-reel tape, and really nothing in the new Pooh queue is much fancier than it. But that is just one moment in the long Indiana Jones adventure queue line which is more about shadows and atmosphere than interactive gags. This new Pooh queue is a different thing entirely - it's nothing but interactive gags, dozens of ropes and archeologists - it is a constant and uninterrupted playground. Of course this is placed in front of an attraction aimed at young children, so it may be too early to chalk Walt Disney world Next-Gen Queue initiative up to being Pooh's Playful Spot Due. But what is this brave new world of waiting in line that we're promised?

It is recieved wisdom that Disney invented the switch-back queue. There is no real reason to doubt this but no real way to prove it either, of course. As far back at the late 60s and early 70s one can find Marty Sklar talking about the innovate use of queues to make the wait in line go by faster, and one can define the very original, the very basic Disney queue as a long switchback working from front to back while approaching a painted wall where the load point is. The mural behind the loading area of course is as old as the dark ride itself, dating all the way back to the Pretzel Amusement Company's earliest efforts. In this way we can see an attraction like Snow White's Adventures as being directly descended from the classic midway Laff in the Dark, even while the Disney versions dramatically altered the way those later dark rides were built.

Disney's main innovation and departure in 1955 was to replace the traditional "back wall" with, in fact, no wall and a beautifully designed manufactured landscape. Trompe l'oeil becomes terrain, the "scenic switchback". The earliest example of this may be the Jungle Cruise, but I think the most beautiful one is the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which is an exciting, fascinating wait in line by virtue of... yodeling music and manufactered rocks.

But for all that, honestly, we don't think of Disney's best queues as being plain switchbacks, even if they secretly are. If we cut the roof off the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean queue and look in, we'll see that the switchbacks are unpredictable because they wrap behind walls and around scenes, they're actually pretty much just like what still graces the front of Snow White's Scary Adventures (see below). Even the beautifully linear Space Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure queues eventually reach switchback areas, just not immediately or obviously. These queues, the "secret switchbacks", are a later innovation on the part of Disney and are what is generally thought of as the "themed queue", atmospheric treks which set up some component of place or atmosphere, indicators of an advanced state of themed design. In the context of Disney-designed attractions, this mode was more or less invented for the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean, although Disney did not always use it for every attraction. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, for example, is more or less a simple "scenic switchback" queue, at least in the original design of the attraction (built in Florida in 1979).

How themeing obscures function:
Left: Pirates queue top down view. Middle: Pirates queue with walls removed
Right: typical traditional switchback queue
(Red arrows indicate direction of pedestrian travel)

The ultimate example of the "secret switchback" is the Florida Space Mountain of 1975, which perhaps may be the single queue which most deserves the title of "pre-show". When WED designed the attraction they placed the loading point for the roller coaster at the far end of the Space Mountain show building, and the truly epic winding queue to get there is one of Walt Disney World's true glories. It was originally designed to serve as a product exposition of sorts for the RCA corporation, although a 1985 refurbishment (confusingly called "RYCA-1: Dream of a New World") removed much of the apparent reason behind all the windows and scenes. Still, as originally conceived, this is the only queue Disney ever built that I know of where guests were encouraged to enter just to see the pre-show RCA displays and post-show RCA Home of Future Living even if they did not wish to ride the roller coaster, and could do so without surrendering an E Ticket.

It's simply a beautiful, expertly executed experience, and the real world seems to fade away slowly as we descend into the perfect dream state. The surrender is so complete that nobody ever seems to notice several significant logic gaps which the queue sees no reason to explain, but rather leaves mysterious. How, for example, do we end up in outer space? It's just there, at the end of a hallway, as if outer space could be on the other side of any ordinary door. But the immersion into the dreamscape is so total that the neccesities of the typical approach become unnessicary, uninteresting. Think of the way Pirates of the Caribbean establishes (with a show facade or front) the ostensible location of the action of the attraction before it goes about slowly pulling you into the supernatural night-scape, slowly introduces the world you will be inhabiting. By comparison Space Mountain is the supreme act of confidence: are you in space, or are you not? The show never seems to decide, staging open windows into starscapes, weird "launch" rooms floating in the cosmos, and other eccentricities with expanded-consciousness 70s casual ease. Compare this to John Hench's earliest form of the Flight to the Moon attraction in 1955, which went to extreme lengths to make the illusion of boarding a flight into outer space convincing, including a "spaceport" holding area and a corridor simulating a telescoping tunnel into the rocket nosecone. Space Mountain may be all flash and flare, but what glorious misdirection it is.

In 2010, a Disney-style "secret switchback" queue opened at the Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, and it is one of the very best ever. The queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is literally the best part of an already brilliant attraction, and has immediately required use of qualifiers in this article about Disney queuing spaces. It is so good that it makes the actual onride experience, which is a clever use of provident sets to link animated creature figures and projected images, seem much more real and tangible than it really is.

The Haunted Mansion, similarly, conjures up an ethereal "house" out of painted walls and suggestive darkness and so we think there's more there than there really is, but we believe the house is really there because we've seen its' exterior. It's hard to not be fooled into believing that there is a real interior inside a solid looking exterior house or facade, or a real room behind a solid-looking door. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey achieves the same effect with a convincing miniature Hogwarts and an awe-inspiring, overachieving queue, and so can be seen as an important lesson in the effect a prudently-designed queue can have on the ride itself. But that queue is essentially a perfected version of the Disney model, similar in many ways to the texturally magnificent Indiana Jones Adventure, with much of the same sense of awe. Details peek from unexpected niches and magnificent, fleetingly glimpsed tableaux are tucked into obscure corners.

The only distraction is the convoluted plot being conveyed throughout, but this is of course a Disney offense as well. The keystone of the "secret switchback", the "themed queue" is that although these waiting areas disguise their true purpose with entertainment, atmosphere and mystery, they feel essentially linear although they are not. We feel lost in the Castillo del Morro or the Temple of Mara, we tour the various rooms and classrooms of Hogwarts, but the net total of the ground we've actually covered is very little. We twist and turn back and forth just like outside Snow White's Adventures, but the special accomplishment is a feeling of linearity.

This brings us all the way back to Pooh and Friends in the 100 Acre Wood. While there is nothing particularly special about the layout, theme or even conceptualization of Disney's new "third generation" queuing experience, the sense of distraction has now reached a zenith. There are constant amusements, from bizarre suction-cupped sunflowers that click when they are turned to unusual water features scattered throughout a well-themed landscaped terrace. It's foolish to compare this to richly realized special acomplishments like those queues at Tower of Terror or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but it does indeed feel like something original being formed before our eyes. The issue of entertaining patrons while waiting in lines has existed for as long as there have been attractions, and early showmen used "Laughing Sals" or carnival barkers to draw attention and pass the time. It's unlikely that Leon Cassidy ever imagined children stomping on platforms to cause gophers to pop out of holes would ever grace the front of a dark ride, but in an era when patrons are more likely to look at handheld video game systems or cell phones than any measure of delicate and beautiful themeing, a compromise must be made. Disney is leading this charge.

In the queue of the future, everyone smiles a lot!!!!!

I shall call these "super switchbacks". The emphasis is not on illusion but distraction, constant amusement, limitless pleasure. You aren't just waiting in line to get on the attraction, the attraction is already happening to you as soon as you walk near it. The effect this will have on future themed design is difficult to gauge at this early point, but the effect on this particular ride, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, is easy enough to assess. For the first time ever I had a good experience with the ride. The increased atmosphere outside obviously helps, but because I stomped on a circle to make a gopher pop up and turned a bizzare sunflower, the ride's many flaws - cheapness, tiny scale, general confusion - seemed less important than the cumulative effect of the entire experience, from door to door. This is a smaller scale version of the effect Universal Creative accomplished with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, although of course the ingenuity of the two attractions is not comparable. If the "super switchback" can make me want to experience again a twelve year old attraction I'm inclined to dislike, how will it affect the experience of an already superior attraction? Will the hushed, funeral atmosphere of the outside of the Haunted Mansion suffer? Can such a concept encourage patrons to get into the screwy mood of the Jungle Cruise?

This could become a massive sea change in the way we experience theme parks. Disney is prepared to drop a billion and a half dollars to find out. As Margo Channing would doubtlessly advise, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

See also: The Long, Lonely March, The Case for the Florida Pirates, On Walking Attractions


Photo Credits: Virtual Toad, The Disney Blog/John Frost, Disneyland Postcards, Laff in the Dark, Lost EPCOT

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nine Shrines of the Magic Kingdom

Nearly everybody who talks about the Magic Kingdom eventually tromps out that old canard that the Magic Kingdom offers fewer quiet, secluded corners than Disneyland. While this is technically true, it is essentially meaningless. Disneyland grew up in fits and spurts of construction and so certain areas bear the stamp of eccentric construction which wedged areas into some sort of conceptual or literal dead end. Anybody who's used that bizarre little arch that leads from Carnation Gardens on Main Street into Racho del Zocalo in Frontierland knows that this unique feature was more a consequence than a goal of expansion. The time, expense, and limited space afforded by the first ten years of Disneyland construction absolutely ensured that strange little back corners would come into existence, but I think it's fairer to see these as inevitable consequences than admirable qualities. They're fun, yes, but they're also accidental from a strict design perspective.

What I'd like to celebrate here is not the conspicuous accident, but something I've taken to calling the "engineered miracle". And for all the complaining I've just done about Disneyland, she has perhaps the most famous of them all: The Court of Angels in New Orleans Square.

The Court of Angels is indeed a beautiful place, and her beauty and fame is such that many southern California families take their annual Christmas picture on those winding steps. It is so famous because the moment you first see it, it is one of the most indelible moments to be had at Disneyland; whether you stumble out of a nearby shop or get lost looking for the bathroom, the atmosphere is quiet, contemplative, almost sacred (assuming it's not filled with Annual Passholders taking Christmas photos, of course).


But for as beautiful as it is, you'd be foolish not to find the courtyard. It's about as conspicuous as can be. If you walk past Royal St leading into New Orleans Square and turn left past Cafe Orleans, you have a perfect view into the courtyard, with the steps framed in such a way to invite you right in. From this view, past the old perfume shop, it is almost as directly stated a "weenie" as Sleeping Beauty castle at the end of Main Street. Since almost nobody takes this road, most people find the Court by worming their way through the heart of the Square and coming across the side entrance. Either way you go, there's even a sign placed outside inviting you in - this is not accidentally placed, and it is not accidental that you found it.

Come inside!

WED Enterprises' ability to guide you directly towards their "secret gardens" is one of their strongest assets, and although the Magic Kingdom may not be strong in the accidental corner or the back-of-the-house pathway, it is absolutely rich in the "engineered miracle", the moment of cinematic design which leaves an indelible stamp and marks the themed space as a consciously conceived, deliberately constructed creation. The Magic Kingdom simply sings a song of design, and I'd like to highlight what I think of as nine of the best places to appreciate this.

Now nearly everybody knows these days about places like the rocking chair porch in Liberty Square, so I will not include these here. What this is a list of places I invite you to spend as much time as possible in. Unlike certain areas of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom's multifaceted, rich tonalities are not immediately evident, especially now that some of these innovations and brilliant moments have been imported or duplicated at other parks. These are just nine places where everything satisfying and unique about WED design comes together, and they never fail to make my heart soar.

Liberty Tree Tavern Lobby - Throughout the Vacation Kingdom, Disney profitably experimented with the concept of restaurant design, probably due to saturation with the concept in the development cycle of New Orleans Square, where they fitted four unique restaurants with a variety of styles and furnishings. Of all the gorgeous restaurants Disney created in this first decade - the high-ceilinged Magnolia Room with her rough hewn rock wall, the airy Village Restaurant with an open hearth and indoor forest, and the queen of them all, the Empress Lilly - I sometimes think that Liberty Tree Tavern is amongst the best. Although the interior decorations have been greatly revised, the layout still bespeaks of complexity and tact. If you can't appreciate how the various speckled-glass windows peek out at carefully framed, bucolic Liberty Square landscapes, each carefully selected enough to be a canvas, you're not trying.

A great interior deserves a great first statement, and the Tavern assembly hall is one of the best, with its great rock fireplace and sturdy, dark stained paneled walls. And who could forget two of the coolest - if tiniest - bathrooms in all of Walt Disney World, tucked way upstairs behind the eave of the roof? The balcony overlooking the lobby is another chance to admire this memorable space, but the narrow climb upstairs is the real joy. The bathrooms are located in such a way to suggest upstairs rooms, of course, much like the real lodgings Disney's tavern is modeled on, and anybody who has never ascended the stairs and imagined gripping a burning taper on their way to some upstairs lodging in a dark night in the eighteenth century is missing half the magic and brilliance of this place.

I am a New Englander, and like most people from that area I carry with me a strong association with that land and its' history, and Liberty Tree Tavern speaks very strongly and authentically to me as a Revolutionary War tavern, much like authentic examples I have visited and enjoyed. And I guess that's the real compliment - rather than being 250 years old, Disney's version is 40, and it's flat, open, and unlike a real tavern in general shape and appearance, but the spirit is there, and strong, and memorable. It may be the real Spirit of '76 in Liberty Square.

Alligator Bayou - This is a scene alongside the Rivers of America, and although I've spoken in the past about my admiration of this scene in particular, I'm going to frame it in context a bit first. What this really is, is a scene lifted more or less directly from the Blue Bayou Restaurant at Disneyland, although of course context, in this case, is everything. It is a Marc Davis design, and he likely thought it up back in 1963 when the Blue Bayou was going to be called the "Thieves' Market" or "Blue Bayou Market" and have multiple shops and restaurants in it. While the concept and figure do appear in the Pirates of the Caribbean of 1967, they do not really mirror Davis' concept art at all, whereas the Florida version is a perfect match, down to the crooked sign above the shack reading "Alligator Bayou", the "Bait" sign on the door, and the flattened gator skin on the wall. And whereas the Disneyland version is more of an atmospheric curiosity on your way into the ride, the Florida one is the full-blown atmospheric tone poem in and of itself... with an additional Davis sight gag of a dog and a jumping fish.

But why is it there? Well, "Beacon Joe" (as the figure in Florida has always been known) was a 1973 addition to the pre-existing "Alligator Bayou" scene along the Florida river. More to the point, by Summer 1973 Disney would likely have known that the Florida Pirates ride would not be replicating the Blue Bayou scene and so the figure was free to place along the river without creating redundancy. But the success really is in the placement here, because the effect of the same scene in the bright open air is so dramatically different than the effect of the scene shrouded in artificial semidarkness that the lift is forgivable. The music is different too, less mysterious than the Blue Bayou version and more lonely. It echoes all through that part of the river, across the water and through the trees, and more than just another audio track in a fake wilderness full of them, in lends the scene the gravity and dimension of authentic, poetic Americana.

And so Beacon Joe with his dog, rocking away his days right on the edge of the wilderness, becomes one of those really unforgettable Magic Kingdom moments, an infinitely calming scene as the Riverboat steams past. I've always thought of it as Marc's John Ford scene - quiet, slow, but full of understated humor and simple beauty. It's hard to make a case for much of the changes to the original Pirates ride, but I'll take Beacon Joe over the "Bayou Old Man" any day. The people at the Oriental Land Company must have thought the same thing and the Beacon Joe scene was added to the Tokyo Disneyland river in 1987 along with Big Thunder Mountain - despite already having the same figure in their cloned Blue Bayou from 1983.

from Ford's 'Steamboat Round the Bend', 1935

Hospitality House Courtyard
- Years before I became aware that the Gulf Hospitality House on Main Street (today the Exposition Hall building, soon something else again perhaps) was intended to be a hotel, I knew that the little side court to the south of the main entrance veranda was something special, something worth lingering in, a common area for a simple but beautiful guest house. For many years it was the entrance to The Walt Disney Story attraction, and it's hard the say whether or not all the features which can still be appreciated today were there on opening day in 1971. With big, fruit-bearing trees to the north and that gorgeous fountain amid landscaped steppes up to the train tracks to the south, pebble paths and climbing ivy, it's one of the most unexpected surprises in the Magic Kingdom, a very beautiful and down to earth little pocket of the Vacation Kingdom.

Stop by sometime and you'll be surprised, especially in the morning or at dusk. The water in the fountain may no longer run but the sunlight filtering through the wide veranda past the berm is such an understated effect it can be hard to remember it was designed. Although the Hospitality House never featured rooms, the building is connected to the Magic Kingdom service tunnels, probably for laundry and other anticipated needs. We'll never know what the Main Street Hotel would have really been like, but we can enjoy this little flower garden, a short stay in a neverland of Walt Disney World, in its own way as memorable as the Contemporary's Grand Canyon Concourse or the artificial Polynesian garden just across the water.

Top of the Swiss Family Treehouse - certain attractions are absolutely essential, and the Treehouse is one of them. Most of the original "lands" in the Magic Kingdom featured what could be called an "orientation" attraction - the Riverboat showcases and embellishes Frontierland-Liberty Square, the Skyway showcases Fantasyland, the WEDWAY, Tomorrowland. The Treehouse is Adventureland's "orientation" attraction, and it sings a song of design miracles, most obviously at the very top, alongside the 'Master Bedroom', where the intricate Adventureland Veranda facades may be reinspected from a new angle and beyond it one may observe the castle, the rising intricacy of the Fantasyland rooflines, and the dramatic angles of Tomorrowland. It's one of those places where WED seemed determined to impress upon you the scale of their achievement, and the perfect angle the Master Bedroom is situated at - cheating out back towards the hub - is the best indication of this. Father and Mother don't have a skylight in this version; they have an entire Kingdom to look out upon. Who can blame them?

One aspect of this scene which is lost today is that WED next had the pedestrian path wrap around the side of the Master Bedroom and face back towards the Seven Seas Lagoon, where I imagine an astonishing view across the water of the Polynesian Village awaited. In the foreground, poking up through the trees, were the three tall spires of the Cambodian Ruins of the Jungle Cruise and, farther back, the very tips of Schweitzer Falls and the lions' den. Growth has made this view largely extinct, although a sign is helpfully placed to inform us that this is the "Jungle Lookout". Perhaps in the future some clever Imagineer will selectively trim back the tops of the wall of bamboo and let this scene impress again.

Early postcard demonstrating a view from the "Jungle Lookout": At the very left is the top of the treehouse, to the right two of the three spires of the Cambodian Ruins.

Small World Gate
- The Magic Kingdom differs most markedly from Disneyland perhaps in her ruthless efficiency, in the way that everything is designed for maximum ease of utilization, of movement, of supply. Buildings are clustered so that restaurants in very different areas are fed from the same kitchen. Pathways are extra wide and all of them slope downhill into drainage systems. Entrances from non-themed areas take the form of large gates which can be rolled open wide enough to drive trucks through, which is actually what happens at night. Sometimes these are carefully themed. Sometimes they're not.

One gate which is carefully themed and placed and which indeed may have the most elaborate work around it is the gate which sits between It's A Small World and the Fantasyland Skyway, what is referred to officially as the Small World Gate. It's placed quite low relative to the pedestrian path, down a rather steep hill which leads to a wide road between the show buildings for The Haunted Mansion and It's A Small World. I bring this up because it's necessary to understand why it's so carefully done; because we pass it from an elevated perspective, if the Small World Gate were simply placed in the same plain way most of the others are, the show buildings for Small World and Mansion would be easily visible. Disney had a better idea. It's important to know all this to identify how a potential liability was turned into a beautiful feature, probably the only such gate in the entire Magic Kingdom to have such a carefully orchestrated effort at disguise.

The area is positively scenic, and it is scenic despite the fact that the sole purpose of it is to drive trucks in and out of Fantasyland. The side of the Small World building has been treated with an elaborate castle wall, and additional interest is created with climbing ivy, arched doorways, and wrought iron lights. A decorative arch frames the gate, restricting the height of trucks entering or leaving but screening out much of the utility road behind it. In short the utilitarian nature of this rather ugly access point has been artfully disguised; you've probably been walking past it for years without thinking about it.

But moreover it's a perfect place to stop and admire what WED got right about Fantasyland in 1971 instead of what they got wrong. Later pundits often point to the lack of quaint European atmosphere in this 1971 version of Fantasyland, but you can put the lie to all that by lingering for a few short minutes around the side of It's A Small World. Directly across the way is a row of Bavarian facades that put the Germany pavilion at EPCOT to shame for simple charm and elegance, and the Alpine landscape is lush and vibrant even without Skyway buckets puttering along overhead. The 1971 Fantasyland, which for too long has been stripped of her strongest visual components - the submarine lagoon and the Skyway buckets - has come under fire for not being as carefully or elabortely themed as the Disneyland version, a charge which for me has always seemed unfair (especially since Fantasyland in Disneyland was redone twelve years after WED's admirable effort in Florida). Small World Gate is a perfect spot to get away from the crowds, sit alongside the climbing ivy, and admire the pitched rooflines, old world chimneys, and basic appeal of an area where the design experts at WED took a sow's ear and made from it a silk purse of astonishing beauty, the engineered miracle itself.

Hall of Presidents Rotunda
- Attraction holding areas in the 1970s were a fairly basic concept. At the time that Walt Disney World opened in 1971, many of the queue areas were still based on the Disneyland model -- fairly plain switchbacks outside of the attraction. There was often a focal point alongside the queue, whether it be the show building's facade or a wall mural, and oftentimes they simply zigzagged along merrily alongside the load area with no particular memorable emphasis. The Jungle Cruise trundled along for twenty years past bare walls with no soundtrack, and many waiting areas like Peter Pan's Flight and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were only slightly more elaborate. This was really just a few steps removed from "cattle corrals" outside carnival rides, and it would not be until the construction of the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean that the concept of really elaborate waiting areas, of holding areas that could be fully developed atmospheric experiences, would be introduced.

The lobbies of the original Magic Kingdom theater shows - perhaps because the designers decided that audiences sitting still through a whole show cycle needed something a little more complex to look at - took a different tact, from the odd three-terraced preshow area of the Enchanted Tiki Room to the fairly plain, tiny lobby afforded Country Bar Jamboree. Flight to the Moon was a plain glass walled chamber with a digital countdown above the entrance doors, and Mickey Mouse Revue featured trompe-l'oeil pink and white scenery on all walls of their lobby. But the Hall of Presidents received by far the most effort.

The Hall of Presidents rotunda is still one of those places that seems utterly hallowed even today: quiet, contemplative, and authentically stoic. It is often confused for the Oval Office of the White House or the Great Rotunda of the Capitol; in reality there's no effort to even replicate a fake of either of these famous sacred halls of government but Disney's version is so subliminally effective that it immediately recalls such government spaces without remotely resembling any of them in the least. The fascinating fake skylight in the center of a shallow "dome" which suggests great height without bothering to actually achieve it; ten pillars ringed with complex plaster work; crisscrossed ceiling beams and sturdy baseboards, all in white, accent a rich blue and gold carpet to create a sense of a space seemingly imperturbable. In fact, the only thing that gives away that there is more of the show to follow is the functional open space and curtain-shrouded entrance. The elaborate detail of the Hall of Presidents waiting area may be a reflection of the fact that it was Walt Disney World's prestige project, or perhaps that it was expected to (and did) play host to huge crowds for its first ten years. Today, more or less unchanged for forty years, it's one of the few authentic pieces of 70's Walt Disney World left to linger in.

Pirates Courtyard
- Caribbean Plaza's great achievement and also primary identifying visual component is the alternation of bright, sunbleached stone with dark, gloomy woodwork. Courtyards dot shops and restaurants with goods tucked in gloomy back corners and windows seem unable to let in enough light. I've suggested in the past that this effect is intentional and that certain areas of Caribbean Plaza accomplish a leisurely "simulated sunset", where light slowly fades away and we penetrate dark interiors into the dark and constant night of the Pirates ride. Nowhere is this more evident than the Pirates of the Caribbean entrance plaza, a dreamy twilight of a place bordered with dense jungle on one side, a sun splashed courtyard on the other, and the heart heart of the fortress dead ahead. This side court is our item of interest.

This little back area, which once served as an exit point for a shop, and once had a working fountain, is one of the Magic Kingdom's most distinct side trips, the Florida analogue to the Court of Angels except unlike the Court of Angels it doesn't even seem like you're supposed to find it. It seems today to be some strange forgotten space, there to add subliminal atmosphere to the breezy entrance plaza nearby, like a set you're not supposed to enter. But you can. Inside are charmingly downscale doors and windows, a fascinating forced perspective balcony running along two sides, and these fascinating ceramic geese overfilled with silk plants which seem to have been beamed directly from the 70's into my subconscious. Even on busy days this odd little courtyard seems deserted, but in it is everything beautiful and strange about the Magic Kingdom. Those of us with an even keener eye for obscurity will recognize it as the staging area for the cover photo of the only album ever cut by longtime Magic Kingdom entertainment group J.P. and the Silver Stars, under the title "Walt Disney World Adventureland Steel Band", a rare comingling of two Florida-specific obscurities.

Even looking at that LP sleeve, I can't believe that that photo was taken in Florida one sunny summer morning long ago. I can't believe I've stood in that same spot and I can't believe it's all still there now.

Jungle Cruise Temple
- when there's what one might term "layman" discussions of the attractions which Disneyland and Walt Disney World share, the discussion basically tends to follow single bullet-point exclamations. Like: "Pirates at California is better because it has two drops" is really an inarticulate version of "Pirates at California is better because it's longer", which itself is barely skirting the real issue, which is that the California version of the ride is both longer and better. But so it goes, and in such cases one is apt to hear: "Jungle Cruise in Florida is better because it has that temple".

This is absolutely true but somehow not remotely enough.

It's very difficult to articulate the tidal pull that temple holds over those of us who grew up with it and coming upon it is one of those Walt Disney World moments that never leaves you. As adults, we can carefully watch forward of the boat and observe how the river has been expertly designed to gracefully pull into view scenes from unexpected directions, which tend to alternate between scenes of beauty, menace, and humor. But the moment those Cambodian ruins pull into view, massive, larger than life, both beautiful and scary, is one of the supreme moments of the engineered miracle at Walt Disney World. Adults still gasp and children quietly simmer away in anxiety. This is a primal experience.

What happens inside is even more unexpected, and it does not involve booby traps or skeletons, for this ruin had been moldering away in half sunken splendor for ten years by the time Raiders of the Lost Ark landed on the scene and forever changed the popular conception of what exploring an old temple would be like. It does involve cobras hypnotically swaying amid treasure and heaps of "Old Scratch's Mystery Mine"-style jewels, a tiger menacingly peeking through a hole in the wall, and music that seems to have echoed right out of time, bouncing off those old crumbling stone walls for untold millenia. The effect is more sacred than scary, and although there is nothing overtly supernatural happening here, the implicit effect is that that old Monkey God's power is still alive and well in this dark and gloomy place.

Next time through the temple admire that every square inch of the walls are carved and decorated, even those crumbling support beams crisscrossing the ceiling, and how the ceiling dips and undulates and the walls slide this way and that to suggest a temple thrown out of alignment by an earthquake. Watch how the walls slowly move away to reveal new information, always twisting out of sight unexpectedly to suggest greater space that there really is, and note those obscure friezes and murals of ancient peoples falling off the rough hewn blocks. This is also an elemental experience, the bright hot sunlight of the jungle replaced with the cold, dark, wet interior of the temple, then back again, a play of elements and sights and senses that worms its way into our unconscious. This is the definitive discovery and exploration of an ancient mystery site. It doesn't just elevate the Florida version of the attraction above the California version, it shoots it right up into the realm of mastery.

The mood inside the temple eventually turns to levity with monkey comedy, and this obliges me to comment on the role of humor in the Jungle Cruise generally. This is an attraction which is universally remembered for its strings of scripted punny jokes and obscure wordplay, but I'd like to point out that all of the comedy actually designed into the ride works marvelously. All of the Marc Davis gags are actually really funny and memorable, from the gorilla looking down the barrel of a gun to the monkey with a jar stuck on its hand.

The excellence of the design of the ride is only fully appreciable if the ride is experienced in total silence with no rambling narration. Since the general public does not ever see the ride in this way its reputation is as a rather cheesy creation... but in my eye the Jungle Cruise is a class act. The Cambodian Ruins segment of the Jungle Cruise show is a microcosm of the tones of the Florida ride, tones which the California show is largely without: natural beauty and creeping unease. The Marc Davis led Florida show reveals these beautiful or menacing or silly landscapes to us through a dramatic, cinematic reveal actuated by a masterfully designed river track; in California we simply come across these scenes stuck alongside the boats. It is the difference between a ride cobbled together from different versions and a mature, carefully controlled vision. Apprechiating the Sunken Temple is a key to unlocking the secret brilliance of the Jungle Cruise, as undiluted and effective a piece of WED design as still exists in Florida.

One more word about comedy. As much as the Temple scene in the Jungle Cruise is many things - a brilliant design, a lens through which to view the rest of the ride, a memorable and essential experience - it is also a shrine for Marc Davis, and in it we can find many of his skills and interests, but above all we find his masterful blending of comedy and unease.

I bring this up because it's been suggested by... me, amongst others... that one way of viewing the tonal shifts in the Haunted Mansion is a split between Claude Coates designing scary and atmospheric stuff and Marc Davis designing funny ghost scenes. This is just one way of viewing it, but it was never intended as anything other than just one way. If we look through Davis' designs for Disney we see him constantly mixing comedy and fright throughout his output, and not just in the Haunted Mansion. For one thing there's this Temple scene at hand, and of course there's also Dead Man's Cove in Pirates of the Caribbean, as effective and undiluted a piece of Marc Davis as you'll find. I suggest we elevate the sunken Temple and the Florida Jungle Cruise in general into the realm of accepted, rather than received, classics. She's labored far too long in her little ghetto of half-scorn.

Keel Boat Dock
- In that slim little Imagineering "Field Guide" to the Magic Kingdom from five years ago, it was suggested that one linger in the exit area of Big Thunder Mountain to observe the sights, sounds, and engineered miracles of a totally designed landscape.... and that book was almost right. For one, it's difficult to enjoy much of that little elevated boardwalk outside Big Thunder Mountain because a massive tree now blocks your view of the mountain and of course those gurgling geysers have been turned off for years now. But besides, there's a better place, a place where everything sacred and brilliant and beautiful about the Magic Kingdom comes together. It's the exit area for an attraction that's been closed for fifteen years.

Down on that little boardwalk near the Haunted Mansion, just north of where the Riverboat docks, is as close to heaven as you'll find in the Magic Kingdom. With the Haunted Mansion to the north, the Riverboat and Frontierland's flickering lanterns to the south, with Aunt Polly's Dockside Inn jutting out into the river on piers, this is the best place in the Magic Kingdom to experience a real clear blue Florida dusk, as the sun slowly sinks behind the silhouetted outline of Big Thunder Mountain, perfectly positioned behind Superstition Bridge connecting the two halves of Tom Sawyer Island, the bridge's red lights reflecting off the rippling water. It's one of those places where The Magic Kingdom, not even a half century old, seems as placidly eternal as nature herself.

It's difficult to describe how beautiful this area is, so you'll just have to see it for yourself. Head down the exit ramp of the Liberty Belle nearest the Haunted Mansion. At the bottom, turn right and either head through or unlock the old wooden Keelboat exit gate (this is permissible and easiest to do after the Riverboat has ceased operation for the day). One thing I love about the Magic Kingdom compared to Disneyland is how her Old Man River seems so much more natural and intimate, and as you stand on that low boardwalk inches above the water and listen the feel the water lapping and that mountain rising in the back, that's all the confirmation you'll ever need that theme parks, too, can be a kind of art.


This post is part of the Fourteenth Disney Blog Carnival. Please click here to see more Disney Blog Carnival articles!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Good News from the Vacation Kingdom

It all started with... Marty Sklar, believe it or not.

No, not the Walt Disney Company, and no, Marty has not regressed through time to usurp Mickey Mouse as Walt Disney's greatest creation. But anybody who knows Sklar and especially vintage Disneyland promotional publications knows the strong hand Sklar had in shaping the public "voice" of Disneyland and, later, Walt Disney himself. As relayed in issue 30 of the late, great E-Ticket Magazine, Sklar's very first job for Disney was in creating the "Disneyland News" paper souvenir sold on Main Street, USA for the first few years of the operation of the park. As Sklar says in his interview,

"The original summer, we sold 75,000 copies of the Disneyland News at ten cents. That was what Walt wanted. He wanted people to have it, and to get the world out about Disneyland, so ten cents was the price. [...] The newspaper was initially used and distributed to motel and hotel operators in the Southern California area, and then we decided we needed something a little slicker than that. That's how the Disneyland Holiday magazine came about, and we broadened that out and distributed it to Arizona... to anyplace that was within a day's drive of Disneyland. We started the Disneyland Holiday magazine, and then when Holiday Magazine threatened to sue us, we changed the name to Vacationland Magazine."

Our article today does not focus on Disneyland publicity, but in this story we can see the seeds of the Walt Disney World publicity machine coming into being. Walt Disney World did indeed open with editions of Walt Disney World Vacationland magazine, and it was distributed throughout the southeast -- I have one stamped "ST. PETERSBURG KOA" and each issue featured advertisements from local area attractions such as Busch Gardens and a Disney-penned article about places and things to see in the Florida area, such as Tampa Bay's Gasparilla festivities or Old Key West. The back page of every issue was a full page ad for Cypress Gardens, an attraction Disney would help put out of business 35 years later. So Walt Disney World Vacationland was directly descended from Disneyland News, but perhaps surprisingly, Disney would also print a promotional newspaper - not for external circulation, but internal - and this time, it would stick around for some twenty years.

Walt Disney World News, as it was initially called, was a basic but richly detailed four or eight page "periodical" published once a month, detailing what to do and what to see around Walt Disney World. It was distributed to hotel guests in their check-in folder and also to Magic Kingdom visitors at City Hall and the Gulf Hospitality House, and may have in fact been the first ever Magic Kingdom guide map, as the familiar GAF guides did not begin publication until 1972. The center of Walt Disney World News issues featured a luxurious two-page spread on the Magic Kingdom, her attractions and facilities, and a very large map.

In a way this was a smart idea because one cannot go anywhere near a Walt Disney World News without absorbing an enriching wealth of detail, and being forced to leaf through a newspaper to find your way around a theme parks means you're going to be thumbing past pictures and text about recreation, golf, the Contemporary Resort and the Polynesian Village, and in those early days Disney was especially concerned about getting the world out about all the other great things in Walt Disney World beside the Magic Kingdom. One of the great treasures of these publications are the faux ads, comic strips and assorted silliness they featured on a regular basis for the first ten years, either as "ads" or just strange asides to the reader.

So let's turn back the pages of history and flip through some of Walt Disney World News' highlights. And of course no look at the first ten years of the publication would be complete without an opening look at the headline itself.

This classy, original logo was the very first (you can see this comes from Vol. 1 No. 1 in the lower left there) and persisted until at least late 1975. Long before color invaded the newspaper in the mid 80's, Walt Disney World News was printed in a restrained dual-color system, black and white text and grey scale photos with a bold splash of colored headlines, the color changing each month. February 1972 was light blue, for example, and July 1972, shocking florescent green. It was tasteful, restrained, attention getting and pleasing.

This strange interim version lasted only one year - 1976 - but the new name, "World News", would be resuscitated for use in the mid and late 80's.

This logo closed out the first decade, from 1977 to 1981.

...before becoming this, for the resort's "year-long, smile-wide" (ugh) promotion. The Walt Disney World Tencennial, by the way, is probably Disney's best ever Disney World promotion, because it lasted an actual 12 months and ended with the opening of EPCOT Center.

Early issues of Walt Disney World News featured some strange oddities, including these memorable ads for obscure facets of the Vacation Kingdom:

This was back when the Pro Shop was stranded way out all by herself with the Palm Lounge and Magnolia Room in the Golf Clubhouse, years before it was expanded into a hotel, and so may have needed all the advertising she could get! And don't forget to buy your daily Fruit Basket at the Polynesian Village. Mahalo!

...and an opening day television listing and advertisement brings the 1971 WDW News home. I love that that Wonderful World of Disney gets her own section of the television listing. The idea of watching that splashy, bizarre 70's intro to Wonderful World of Disney in the comfort of your brand new Polynesian Village room, Cinderella Castle glittering across the Seven Seas Lagoon, is my idea of paradise. Maybe in a former life.

These glorious and exciting advertisements come to us from a June 1975 Walt Disney World News. The color that month was a pleasant pine green, as can be seen. I can't think of a single better sell for the Hoop-Dee-Doo than we have here. In fact, it makes me want to go see it right now.

It's 1976 and things are aqua blue as the cool guy with the sunglasses attacks us because we haven't yet been to the Contemporary Racket Club! I don't know who those "Pros" are we see above us in the Golf Resort ad, but I do love the tag line "And challenging golf. For you and the pros. At the Golf Resort." Since we learn in this issue that the Trophy Room now features fondue there's a double incentive to go.

This is the byline for an "article" about the Palm, Magnolia, and Lake Buena Vista golf courses, and it simply cracks me up. Who is "Murph" and how do we known we can we trust his advice?? Certainly his name conjures up images of some old guy in a floppy white bucket hat clenching a pipe between his teeth as he sinks that perfect Birdie on hole 12, but again, why just that enigmatic name... Murph? Not Murphy. Just... Murph. Whoever he was, Murph breathlessly advises: (you should read this aloud with great importance)
"But the Magnolia's most awesome 'monster' is number 17, probably the toughest hole of all of the Walt Disney World courses. This par four beauty has frustrated scores of pros and ameaturs alike. The tee shot, past water on the left and a virtual jungle on the right, must be a long straight ball."
Murph: Walt Disney World's greatest forgotten character.

Below is the byline for "Talk from the Top", a monthly article detailing who will be performing at the Top of the World supper club and when. This makes for strange reading for those of us 35 years later who are not primed to recognize names like Marilyn McCoo or Buddy Greco. This feature had been running in WDW News since the very start, but for some reason in 1976, and only in 1976, is it a "column" complete with a byline. It's anybody's guess if Barbara Stuart really existed!

April 1978 brings the handsome 70's-looking-guy at the Racquet Club, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous "Like To Extend Your Vacation" ad, and a very nice look at the "Sun Banks" logo, now Sun Trust. Sun Banks' building across from the Walt Disney World Village was brand new back then and today survives as a rare unchanged pocket of 1970's Disney goodness.

I've always found this drawing of Jose to be fascinating, perhaps because he doesn't seem to actually be speaking into the phone. This ad is reprinted in French and Spanish directly below the English text I've scanned here, by the way. In 1982, Disney put the French text above the Spanish.

And the 1982 WDW Information Channel listing brings home our brief tour of the first ten years of Walt Disney World News. Of course it's only the smallest taste, not representative of the wealth of detail, information and evocative writing these wonderful time capsules possess. Still, I hope it whets your appetite for more or just provides a look into the distant past of Walt Disney World, an echo of an era that seems more remote with each passing day.