Monday, August 15, 2011

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

"But, Monsieur, we've had the same show!"
"Ja, since 1963!"
"My, how time flies! Get a life, you guys!
You're ancient history!"

I told myself I'd stop blogging about current Magic Kingdom stuff. And here I am, backsliding.

It's been a pretty up and down year for longtime Walt Disney World denizens. The early half of the year saw very controversial changes to the Haunted Mansion, changes made all the worse by the fact that the attraction was allowed to continue running while its finalie was being torn apart, resulting in some very poor temporary effects. When essential attractions like the Mansion are messed with, we as fans are completely without defenses. It appeared to get bad enough at one point that I was willing to give up on this blog altogether. If Disney was going to trample all over my attempts to argue for the artistry of the attraction-as-art-form by adding squirty gravestones and Chuck Jones ghosts, then maybe I should just pack it in.

Well, that was a bit melodramatic, but you can see how these were all very grim times. But I'm not hear to complain about what was done to the Haunted Mansion, and besides, I sort of like a lot of the results. No, I was on about Magic Kingdom.

On the other hand, major and important things did happen at Magic Kingdom. The monstrous Mickey's Toon Birthday Town Starland Fair closed, ending a nearly quarter century "temporary" reign of terror in the northeast part of the Magic Kingdom. If you think that's over the top you should probably stop reading this blog now. In other news, Mickey Mouse relocated to the long poorly-used space built for the Walt Disney Story in 1973, a space which had not been adequately justified since Aladdin was brand new in theaters. The east side of Town Square no longer feels evacuated, and this is a very important if subtle improvement to the entrance of the park. After all, you can only make a good first impression once.

And, oh yeah, there was this fire in the Tiki Room you may have heard about.

Now... there are a number of ways I could cover this event. I could talk about the history of the Florida incarnation of the attraction, how it lost its sponsor and identity in the late 1980's and continued to play to dwindling crowds until it was closed in 1997. Or I could talk about Under New Management, it's replacement, and its toxic reputation. I could point out how it opened the very same year that was ground zero for a seismic split in the fan community, the same year that saw the Toad-Ins and the closure of more than one classic attraction, the moment where fans first felt required to choose sides, to become dissidents ("haters") or toe the company line ("dusters") . Under New Management was very near the center of this maelstrom, and it still inflects all fan discourse today.

Or I could get even nastier and talk about the fire, how it mysteriously occured in such a way and place to destroy only the most objectionable elements of the show but leave the original 1971 components undamaged with the accuracy of a tactical strike. I could talk about how this happened for as yet unexplained reasons while the hated show was chugging into it's thirteenth year of scorn, on it's 666th week of operation, and on the very same day that Marc Davis died eleven years earlier. Call it the "divine intervention" theory.

"And now let's head towards the Sunshine Pavilion, host to your firey doom."
(try getting that view of Adventureland today...)

But, you know what? If you're on this blog you probably know all that stuff. I'm not writing to people who want to know the place to get the best corn dog nuggets or how best to use their Disney Dining Plan to get extra strawberries on their funnel cake. I am speaking to a niche market. You're as happy as I am that Under New Management was destroyed with fire. But I would like to take a small moment here to pity the underdog. Under New Management: you did everything poorly. There has probably never been another Disney attraction to evoke such a level of vitriol. Had Walt Disney been alive you would have been closed in five days and everyone involved in your creation fired. You became synonymous with the entire Eisner-Pressler regime and you ironically outlived them. Yours was a hounded, doomed existence.

Yes, there was much in Under New Management that was awful, but there was much that was instructive as well. I watched the show back to back many times to prepare my essay on Post-Themed Design, and came to believe that besides its obvious problems and apparent last minute butchery (by perhaps as much as half), that the attraction was most astonishing for its' utter failure to communicate to its' audience, it's vague feeling of non-resolution, of having not made its intentions clear. There was perhaps no other Disney show which had quite the epic breakdown between creative staff and audience as that one had. So yes, I feel sort of bad for Under New Management. It was kicked around so much that its true nature was never really commented on. It may not have been great but it was a fascinating "reading text".

I returned from the Magic Kingdom tonight with the extreme satisfaction of having seen a true Tropical Serenade in WED's beautiful Sunshine Pavilion, a structure and interior which in many ways bests the 1963 original. But the Disneyland original had an important advantage: it was where you could see the proper show. Let's be honest: as long as Under New Management was playing, Magic Kingdom was always going to be held back. We may have an awesome Haunted Mansion, but we still had that awful Tiki show. I'm happy to say that the tiki gods would be pleased.

I mean, yeah, it's not exactly what closed here in 1997. There's no fountain or anything to replace it, to begin with. I'm not sure anything is forthcoming, either, and we should probably resign ourselves to that. And not only does this new Tiki show cut the Offenbach number that Disneyland removed in the 90's, it goes it one better and removes the entire second half of "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing", the sing along segment. While the historian in me is somewhat leery of losing both the fountain and the sing-along, my practical side is very pleased.

It's wonderful to go to Disneyland and see their Tiki Room because audiences have an established tradition of the show much like the one we enjoy in Florida for Country Bear Jamboree: they whistle and sing along with it. In Florida, where the Tiki Room has never been as big of a deal, some pruning was called for. I believe that this is the right Tiki Room for Florida.

And the atmosphere, thank goodness, is still there. The show feels about the right length, Yale Gracey's wonderful atmospheric effects still drift dreamily by those perfect window dioramas, and Clyde and Claude once again hold court outside in the waterfall in their wonderfully strange preshow. If the mood of tropical reverie has been reduced slightly due to these cuts, then the show is never boring. It's snappy with a fighting weight and it's appropriate for a show that can lag deadly for modern audiences. I saw it four times today and not once with a variety of audiences did someone walk out. What I did see was looks of wonder and awe, hear appreciative laughter at Wally Boag's one-liners, and observe children and adults watching the room come to life around them in wonder. It occurred to me then there there's a whole generation of east coast kids who never had this experience; that this essentially simple show, a half century old, still something in it that still fascinates all these years later. This is a primal experience.

My concerns that bringing the show back would not be the right thing to do dissolved in that instant. Yes, it is of its time but also outside it. It is something worth preserving.

So there it is, we've got the show back, and it's something I'm sure we all thought we would never see; let's do our best to deserve it. I know my Magic Kingdom visits have been dramatically altered; instead of just stalking past the Tiki Room I can go inside and enjoy a very nicely done show. The idea of having something else to do in Magic Kingdom is astonishing to me because my cycle of activities has only shrunk with time; long gone are the days of running back and forth between Dreamflight and the Peoplemover for hours on end. Now I try to avoid that side of the park totally. In fact, my reaction is almost one more of astonishment than jubilation. The idea that thirteen years of a dysfunctional relationship with a major Magic Kingdom attraction can simply end overnight is almost incomprehensible.

But as much as this is about the past, it needs to be seen in the context of the future, too. Moving forward now that the most obviously objectionable thing in the park is gone, where do we go? Let's be honest: we're never going to get anything like Horizons, World of Motion, or Journey into Imagination back. Imagineering appears to do their best work on medium sized budgets these days and the financial structure and in-house production capabilities that made their "super productions" possible are just gone. On the other hand their big Fantasyland reboot looks very exciting, but it will be a very glossy safe type of thing. We will likely never again get a mid-range esoteric classic like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or El Rio del Tiempo. Imagineering now has an excellent five year track record of brushing up the classics, and now that Tiki Room has been squared away, it's time to reboot another important Magic Kingdom component.

I vote for the Carousel of Progress. Despite featuring, like the new Tiki Room, Walt Disney's name, there is not much of the spirit of his quality of showmanship left in it. And while the Rex Allen 1964 version wouldn't work today either, there should be some way to bring that version's strong, very admirably written central concept of progress into the show while embracing it's basic form. That form is a spinning furniture showroom. There's no nice way to work around that; you can't change that about the Carousel of Progress without making it into something else. The 1993 reboot grafts that concept onto a sort of lousy sitcom. But with some careful rewriting and a few aesthetic changes, this attraction could be enough to lure me back into Tomorrowland. And that's whether the song be Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow or Now Is the Time.

So go, and rejoice. It's a very important thing that happened in the Sunshine Pavilion this year, in both symbolic and practical terms. My love for that theater almost cannot be understated and now I will not have to suffer the slings and arrows of Gilbert Gottfried for the very special privilege of watching a Yale Gracey cloud drift silently across a blue tropical sky, sunlight glinting off the water, framed with silk plants. May this show be successful and endure another forty years.