Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You Do Have Wings, Orange Bird

 And as long as man dreams, and works, and builds together, this citrus will go on, in your life and mine.

There's a thing about the Carousel of Progress that's unintentional and so usually goes uncommented on, but it's a thing I think about often and one I'm thinking about now, and that is its circular shape. It's not that it's just a circle or a wheel; it's that it's a cycle which endlessly repeats despite the fact that the show is about "progress", a unilateral move forward, out, and up. Yet the show obsessively returns to the turn of the century. No matter how much progress is made, a secondary meaning of the shape of the Carousel of Progress could be that "everything old is new again".

That's pretty much the story of the Orange Bird's life - everything old is new again. The Orange Bird was lately honored at Magic Kingdom in a morning ceremony outside his old stomping grounds - Sunshine Tree Terrace. He now, in fact, adorns the signs of the Juice bar he called his home, a very visual tribute to the many Magic Kingdom fans who have stuck with the park through wax and wane, a very explicit call-out to the cognoscenti: We Have Heard You, And You Matter.

Top: 1971 Bottom: 2012
 But, really, does it? Why does the Orange Bird matter whether he's on the sign or not? It's a somewhat ironic fate for a character who was only ever designed to sustain a part-time, short-term arrangement as a mascot for Florida citrus products, not unlike any of the other totally forgotten Disney-designed characters as part of sponsorship deals. The Orange Bird transcended the likes of Mohawk Tommy and Clutter the Squirrel, and we ultimately must ask: why? What about the Orange Bird has that special spark?

Well, we could talk about the most obvious thing, which is his cuteness. But it isn't just his cuteness, it's that the Orange Bird is cute in a very specific way that contemporary to where we are now. Generally speaking, in the United States and Europe, when we tend to design cute characters, they usually turn out looking basically like jowly cherubs:

What we've been seeing for the past several generations is an increasing trend away from the traditional Western forms of cuteness, ie, cuteness based on floppy puppies and pudgy babies, and towards the Eastern version of cuteness, especially cuteness imported from.... Japan.

Following the end of World War II there was an attempt to import American-style capitalism into Japan, an attempt which was essentially immediately very successful in a country which was so war ravaged that citizens were being encouraged to eat sawdust and peanut shells. Throughout the 1950s and 1960's, during a time when American characters were becoming more stylized and less lumpy, Japan embraced Western "beauty culture" until a new generation of kids began to shift paradigms away from beauty and fashion and towards simplicity and childishness - towards "cuteness". The new cute characters were minimalist and simple: unlike Mickey Mouse, who had a personality and backstory, Hello Kitty required one to use her imagination. She didn't even have a mouth.

From there, thanks to pop-cultural ambassadors like Nintendo and Sanrio, Eastern-style cuteness began to conquer the world.

The Orange Bird, created in the late 1960's, is localized at the moment of transition away from Western dominance and towards the East. His design is both minimal and modern, making productive use of the orange's circular shape. Although it's impossible to claim that Orange Bird established the wave, he has ridden it well into the 21st century while other mascots from his era now look quaint.

Another component of the Orange Bird's ongoing popularity is the way he represents an era of marketing and capitalism that has passed us by. Disney and Florida Citrus joined forces in the late 60s, in the era of the massive World's Fair spectaculars. There is currently a great deal of interest in World's Fairs, and part of that interest is what seems to our modern eyes to be the absolute improbability of them. Who today would spend money to build a massive, beautiful building that's going to be torn down in two years?

Of all of the original Magic Kingdom sponsors, Florida Citrus Growers was amongst the most prominent, alongside Eastern Airlines and RCA. They not only sponsored an anchor Adventureland attraction, but it was an attraction housed in a huge rambling three-part structure which took up the entire Western boundary of the land. The anchoring show, inside, was basically a fancier version of Disneyland's classic Tiki Room, although oranges had replaced the pineapples on the fountain in the center of the room. The pre and post shows, however, were totally new experiences, with two toucans chattering above a cluster of oranges behind a waterfall and a relaxed eating area at the exit under the synthetic green leaves of an orange tree where the Orange Bird swung happily away in the tropical breeze. This was the Sunshine Tree Terrace, the star of our story today, and in the days of Florida Citrus' sponsorship, it was the site of any number of orange related delicacies, as recounted in this 1972 article rescued for posterity by Michael Crawford:
As could be expected, orange juice and grapefruit juice are featured on the Terrace menu, but other specialties include tangerine soft freeze, a sherbet-like mixture of orange juice, tangerine concentrate, tangerine oil and sweetener; an orange juice bar on a stick and a jellied citrus salad composed of broken orange and grapefruit segments, grapefruit juice, sugar and gel.

Also offered is tangerine cheesecake, comprising cake topped with tangerine and orange glaze sauce; citrus tarts of heavy cream in an open shell, topped with orange sections and glazed orange sauce, and crepes ambrosia, a delightful mixture of oranges, tangerines, marshmallows and coconut dipped in heavy cream and rolled in a French pancake.
Now this complex is hardly as elaborate as some of the better World's Fair pavilions of its era - Disney was likely going to build a Tiki Room with or without Florida Citrus - but it still represents an era of thinking about commercial investment that would not fly in today's "economies of scale". Looking at a list of Disney's sponsorship partners of the era can be a little intimidating - who really remembers that it was Monsanto who sponsored Circle-Vision 360 in Tomorrowland, or that Welch funded Troubadour Tavern in Fantasyland? Yet all of these companies contributed time and a lot of money to have their name associated with Disney World - often with very difficult to distinguish immediate benefits. These sponsorships were absolutely essential not only to operating the park, but to getting it built in the first place.

EPCOT Center was based on the sponsorship deal more than any other theme park in history, and in today's era of investment concerns, has spellt disaster for what was once Disney's most daring and original theme park. There still are dozens of sponsors at Walt Disney World, but their presence is much more limited. There's no longer a special theme song or an attraction devoted to telling your marketing story. Probably the very last attraction to ever be recognizably in the classic Disney sponsorship mold was Delta Dreamflight, and that was back in 1989. Even Test Track, an extremely elaborate sponsored pavilion from 1996/8, could easily be sponsored by any other car manufacturer instead of General Motors, and indeed as of this writing GM is in the process of shifting the pavilion to focus less on their corporate brand identity and more on their Chevrolet imprint.

If you're a company looking to sponsor a pavilion today, what your financial investment is likely going to buy you is going to look like this:

 A tiny sign. That can be easily removed. In some way, it's hard to blame companies for not wanting to step forward more often. Based on a hugely significant cash outlay and yearly maintenance stipend, a lot of these companies are  getting only a cursory involvement in the attraction, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a strong involvement that can completely backfire.

But the funny thing is, most of Walt Disney World's unique things and characters and concepts that are most beloved are those tied to corporate sponsorships. Kodak's Dreamfinder and Figment. Kraft's Kitchen Kabaret. General Electric's Horizons. Florida Citrus Grower's Orange Bird. When the sponsorship agreement died, in every one of these cases, the properties did too. And the Orange Bird, he wasn't just a theme park character, he was a cross-platform marketing tool, appearing on television, in "Miss Florida Citrus" parades, on records, comic books, and in fruit stands across the state as the mascot for Florida citrus.

So the Orange Bird raises an interesting question, if by proxy. Now that widespread corporate sponsorship on a scale seen in, say, the RCA Space Mountain or the Monsanto Adventure Thru Inner space is no longer fashionable, what was the value of these to begin with? How many of us have spared a sunny thought or two for Monsanto because of "Miracles From Molecules" in complete ignorance of their current activities? How many of us instinctively reach for Kikkoman Soy Sauce in the grocery store because of a restaurant they sponsored twenty years ago? Eastern Airlines-Walt Disney World material is amongst the most readily sought-after material on the secondary market. I know I instinctively think of Delta when I think of airlines because of uncountable numbers of trips through Dreamflight.

What is the value of a lifetime of brand awareness and loyalty?

Today, the Orange Bird is no longer a Florida citrus thing - he's a Walt Disney World thing, and an old one at that. At some point he stopped being about selling your oranges and became a fetishistic nostalgia token, traded on memories. There's a final component of the Orange Bird that needs to be discussed, then.

Right now there is a generation of young people starting to finally exert themselves economically, voting with their dollars. and what these young people have voted for, time and time again, is a category of things we have no real good name for yet and so have been dubbed "retro". T-shirts are printed now to look as if they're already 30 years old. It's astonishingly easy to go into youth-oriented stores and see products designed to emulate the look and feel of products from twenty years ago, when these people were young... to recall the look of NES games, vintage cartoons, forgotten breakfast cereal boxes. Today people restore Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Apple II computers with the level of care and attention generally associated with steam railroad enthusiasts. Young kids walk around with things like Atari 2600 controllers on their shirts, a system that died out before they were even born.

The "Peter Pan Generation" has consistently embraced things which are in many ways throwbacks in reaction to the previous regimen of Generation X irony and detachment. Things which once seemed childish, laughable, or not to be taken seriously are being taken seriously. It is not a kitsch movement. The new generation wants to unironically embrace things like Disney musicals, clunky old electronics, and cultural obscurities because they seem purer and less corrupted and worn out than our current Dancing with the Stars era.

Culture Theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker have termed this "Metamodernism", a sort of post-post modernism, an embrace of things seen as purer, less ironic, and less detached than our current culture. In Disney fan group terms we can see this in the current interest in EPCOT Center attractions which in their day were seen as suspect, kitsch, or laughably out of date - often with the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers watching from the sidelines in horror. There is both an interest in a return to cultural naivety and a distance from taking such things too seriously -  informed naivety, pragmatic idealism.

The Orange Bird is uniquely suited to the "New Sincerity". He stands at the cultural crossroads, between Modernism and Post-Modernism, between Cute and "Kawaii", between retro and modern. The young people of today, who grew up in an era when Pikachu and Super Mario were more recognizable characters than Mickey Mouse, see much to embrace in the design, history, and cultural significance of the Orange Bird. Put simply: the Orange Bird was astonishingly serendipitously poised for a comeback.

Earlier today, D23 made good on their promise to be an official conduit between the fans and the company by unveiling a variety of Orange Bird surprises at the Magic Kingdom. The bird now graces the attraction marquee, sippy cups, shirts, and so on. What's better, a dedicated Sunshine Tree Terrace poster is now on display under the train station:

Ruthlessly swiped from Attractions Magazine!
 Guys, seriously. This is serious. The Orange Bird is on a poster under the train station. This is a commitment to history. Because Disney history doesn't belong in a museum, it's a living part of you and me.  Disney history is Disney culture. The Orange Bird song and Orange Tree have been re-recorded under the watchful eye of Dick Sherman, which handily effaces the Orange Bird's linked history with social discrimination. But the biggest surprise was the return and restoration of the original figure in place at the Sunshine Tree Terrace:

Actually a real thing!
But what does this mean to you, a person reading this article on the internet? I mean, if you grew up with the Orange Bird and love him dearly or if you are a person who came to the Orange Bird through the historical record, either way, this is a massively important gesture on the part of D23 and the entire company. This isn't a multi-day event in a hotel ballroom or a convention, it isn't a temporary thing that goes away in a few days - that bird is back, up there, on the facade, above the juice counter. He's back there because of you.

Yes, that's right, you. The Orange Bird's unbelievably unlikely revival came about because of fan interest. It began, perfectly enough, in Japan, with a wave of new Orange Bird merchandise which probably was half due to his right kind of cuteness and half due to Orange Day, a marketing "holiday" where couples are encouraged to exchange citrus and citrus-colored products. If that sounds like something the citrus industry dreamed up, you're absolutely right. What a beautiful resurrection- snatched out of obscurity to sell citrus half a world away.

From there, the drumbeat started to sound stateside, on sites like Widen Your World and this site here, Florida Orange Bird products began to appear on eBay with more frequency, and Disney Design Group picked up the little guy, featuring him on pins, vinyl toy merchandise, and shirts (these are the same folks who are single-handedly bringing back the resort's evocative original logo, by the way). Last February, the Disney Parks Blog gave the character even more exposure, and last May's Destination D event prominently featured an Orange Bird t-shirt. Richard Sherman sang "Little Orange Bird" in front of an audience of hundreds of paying customers, and for probably the first time in forty years.

The last year or so has actually been something like the Adventureland Spring, which began with Iago being fried like a marshmallow in the Tiki Room, continued through citrus-heavy activities at Destination D, became even stronger with the 40th anniversary of the resort and the re-opening of the Enchanted Tiki Room and a beautifully restored Swiss Family Treehouse, and - seemingly - climaxed with the return of the Citrus Swirl and a frenzy of internet activity.

The Orange Bird became a cypher for fan interaction, a symbol for dedication stronger that that signified by, say, Figment, who never fully left and who still has, after all, an attraction at EPCOT. I remember making an Orange Bird shirt at home in 2006, years before Disney's official ones became available. Orange Bird was gone, a true extinction and obscurity, and had become a signifier to a specialist audience. What better symbol for the Florida parks? He symbolized our history and heritage, both Old Florida and Disney Florida in a single stroke of a pen.

Let's lay it out clearly: this is the very first permanent thing in the history of Walt Disney World that is there because of the internet-centered fan base. Not even Journey into YOUR Imagination was killed because of the internet, which was too small and spotty back then to leverage much fear. This is D23, Walt Disney World, and interest groups moving in perfect harmony. This happened because of us. This is something to be proud of.

It's small, yes, but it's huge, too. It's huge because this is the sort of thing we fantasized about D23 being able to pull off at its inception. It's huge because Walt Disney World has never thrown its fans so much as a bone. It's huge because it proves that small things - like pins and shirts and blog posts and forum signatures - can build to bigger things. We need to stand up and support this and keep that little orange snowballing down the hill. It's proof that maybe, in the end, it's all worthwhile.

Because to us, and now to Disney too, the Orange Bird symbolizes us all. He's jumped on the Carousel of Progress now too: everything old is new again.

Enjoy your Citrus Swirl, you've earned it.


Orange Bird event photos provided by Travis Munson of DisneyProjects. Follow DisneyProjects on Twitter!

The Carousel of Citrus:
Walt Disney's Forgotten Characters by Kevin Kidney
Little Orange Memories by Michael Crawford
Sunshine Tree Terrace by Mike Lee
Oh, Little Orange Bird by Moi
Florida Orange Bird Returns to WDW by Jennifer Fickley-Baker
An Enchanted Opportunity by Michael Crawford
A Ray of Sunshine by Michael Crawford
Florida Orange Bird by Fritz
Orange Bird Quest by Hoot
Orange Bird Lands on New Merchandise by Steven Miller
Orange Bird Returns to Adventureland by Jennifer Fickley-Baker