Thursday, September 27, 2012

How It Was Done: Part Two

(from Institutions / Volume Feeding, October 1972)

Disney: The People Pros

It takes a special kind of man to risk his family's savings on Snow White.

It takes a special kind of man to borrow on his life insurance in order to open a $17-million amusement park in a place no one had ever heard of before-unless they remembered Jack Benny's nasal train announcer calling "Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc-a-monga."

It takes a special kind of man to build an organization that has a unique management style, where channels are kept open. Where everyone-down to the proudest sweeper-calls the company president by his nickname.

That special man-Walt Disney-is still very much alive. When top management speaks, it's as though Walt and his brother Roy (the financial wizard) were still around. As though any decision, large or small, would have to be approved by them. Nothing is done half way. It's either done right or not at all. And hang the expense.

This "Disneyism" (almost a kind of "religion" among employees) comes through loud and clear. No wonder. Walt himself stated that his proudest accomplishment was: "Building an organization of people that enabled me to do the kinds of things I wanted to do all my life."

The kinds of things he liked to do? He liked to have fun. He resented the fact that when he took his two small daughters to an amusement park, he had to sit on a bench and munch peanuts while they whirled on a carousel. Today's result: Disneyland in Anaheim and Walt Disney World in Orlando, where guests number three adults to each child.

The millions of people who pour through those gates have fun. They're entertained. They're given a total experience. Everything is one show, whether it's a heart-in-the-mouth visit to the Haunted Mansion or a mouth-watering meal while dining in an elegant swamp. Anyone-whether a senior citizen, a kid, a Senator or a real live princess-who goes to Disneyland or Disney World and isn't sprinkled with pixie dust should call the nearest psychiatrist.

The pixie dust is on employees, too, whether they're waitresses or show boat captains. They don't wear uniforms; they go to wardrobe and pick up their costumes. They're cast in roles. They're on stage. Even middle management employees who do not have direct contact with guests (all Disney customers are always referred to as guests) must do a stint dressed as a Disney character-Goofy, Mickey Mouse-and gallivant around with guests for a while. That's when they get the real "feel" of "Disneyism." That's when it's clearly understood that seeing joyful faces makes the whole thing work. Show biz. Entertain the guest. That's what Walt had in mind in the first place.
A gigantic wardrobe is kept busy creating thousands of Disney costumes.

There were times when what Walt had in mind was not necessarily what his brother Roy had in the company pocketbook. Example: Watt decided to build a Matterhorn. It would cost $7-milion. Roy put his foot down. No way could they afford $7-million to build a mountain. Roy left for Europe. Walt called an executive meeting. "We're going to build a Matterhorn." he informed them. "And when Roy gets back from Europe, let him figure out how to pay for it."

The brothers were close. Roy once said, "Together, we are a success. Separately, Walt would've been a cartoonist for the Kansas City Star and I would have been a bank teller."

Walt was not only a dreamer and a gambler, he was a perfectionist. He put his show business ideas into foodservice - even at a price no normal Operator would pay. Prime example: The Blue Bayou Restaurant (the elegant swamp, replete with flashing fireflies, frog "gribbits" and even a pleasant "swampy" smell) was opened five months before its accompanying ride, "The Pirates of the Caribbean," was completed. The Blue Bayou was a smashing success and highly profitable. Walt walked in one day and demanded that the restaurant be closed until the Pirates ride was ready to operate. "The restaurant complements the ride and the ride complements the restaurant. We can't have one without the other. It's the total show. Total entertainment." The Blue Bayou was closed.

Card Walker, president of Disney Productions, emphasizes, "We don't have profit centers. We have experience centers.  Profit comes if the experience is right." That's why Disney can afford to build a restaurant with a million-dollar interior and charge a guest $1.00 for a good meal. Jack Lindquist, VP of marketing, explains, "We look at Disneyland or WDW on the bottom line. The total. If a restaurant doesn't make it but a customer needs it, we'll make up for the loss somewhere else."

Disney's expertise is moving people - whether on bridges or trams or speedy monorails. Moving them in the right way - without guests being aware of the flow pattern.
Part of the reason is the nature of the Disney experience. The average kid on the street isn't aware that his hot dog isn't prepared by Mickey Mouse. And if that hot dog is bad, it reflects on the entire Disney operation. Walt loved hot dogs, and had his food management team scour the countryside until they found the way lo keep hot dogs (and buns) hot and tasty. This Quest for serving food "The Disney Way" also prompted management to eventually buy back all the concessions previously awarded to companies like Stouffer and an ABC subsidiary. They weren't Disney People. One operator, in fact, insisted that his supervisory staff be called "Mister." This definitely wasn't Walt's way. It wasn't his management philosophy.

Some of these philosophies (called Disney Democracy): Don't departmentalize. Use first names. Everyone must be involved in everyone else's business. Keep the channels open so you can make a decision in a hurry. John Hench, VP- Production of WED Enterprises, the design division, explains, "Among other things Walt left us was the habit of mixing people up and having them freely discuss and criticize all aspects of our operation. We cross division lines, and get into each others departments." These, and other "Disneyisms", would make the average hotel and foodservice operator shudder. But they sure work for Disney.

Guests enjoy limited menu items in an atmosphere of Medieval charm - after all, they're in a castle! Patrons pay for their meal as they enter the restaurant. Menus and decor in all Disney foodservice operations are meticulously coordinated to created a total atmosphere.
King Stefan's cook serves orders fast & furious.
President Card Walker comments, "The Disney Democracy is corny, but it works. We're friendly. We have a thing going with one another. The channels actually are open. If you departmentalize, you develop empires."

This philosophy, however, has caused problems for traditional hotel people- and some have left the Disney organization as a result. One ex-Disney hotelman complained that hotel maintenance was impossible to handle because it fell under the jurisdiction of the Park's overall maintenance department, rather than the hotel manager's.

The key to the management team is the Park Operating Committee at Disneyland and the Disney World Operating Committee at Disney World. Each week, the heads of each division meet end talk it all out. Everyone knows what the other guy is doing. If a decision is to be made that affects more than one division, they all decide - whether it means raising the price of a hot dog or raising the price of general admission.

Card Walker runs Disney as he plays his favorite game - golf (he shoots in the 60s). Expertly and quickly. "I love to hit the ball, but I'm impatient to get to the next shot," smiled Walker.

Moving people is what it's all about - and Disney uses every conceivable mode of transportation. Even an expensive and colorful showboat. Nostalgia reigns. There aren't any mustache-twirling gamblers or dancing girls - but it sure is a fun way to get around!
This impatience became most apparent when Disney World opened. "I wanted to crawl in a hole," admits Walker. "We didn't have time to get scared - it happened so fast. It was a miracle we made it. We weren't finished. We weren't trained. But we did it. Sure, we've got problems. But we've got enthusiasm!"

This enthusiasm, emanating from the president down to the WDW "lodging host" (bellman), kept Disney World going for those first months of calamity. The atmosphere was rough, but employees were so sincere and enthusiastic that a lot of mistakes were simply shrugged off by guests.

Disney masterplanned an entire city in the swamplands of Florida. They opened 2 hotels (1500 rooms) without ever having been in the hotel business before. "We were naive. Hilton never would have done it," quips Jack Lindquist.

Disney did everything on its own, from generating power to operating its own telephone system and computer and mail system. These are merely a few facets of this ultra-modem, vital community. The problems, even with all the enthusiasm, were monumental. Lindquist, based in LA., admits that the California-based personnel dreaded putting a call through to WDW in Florida because the phone system was so atrocious- "I suggested using carrier pigeons!"

Other problems ranged from lost luggage (imagine the trauma to a four-year-old when his security blanket is lost) to improper billing. But through it all, WDW is still turning away 1,000 hotel reservations a day. And repeat convention business has already been booked for next year.

Twirling in Alice in Wonderland's teacups is lots of fun. Even the Mad Hatter would join in the merriment.
The American Bar Assn. convention typifies both the good and bad. In the rniddle of the convention, a power failure knocked out all lights and air conditioning. Management improvised. "We immediately sent the conventioneers flashlights and champagne," states Dick Nunis, executive vice president. "And when they checked out, they found their room rates were cut in half." The tribute came when the Association said if would be back next year.

"We had a lot of growing pains." states Walker. "At first, we wanted to run the hotels separately, but we were wrong. You can't separate merchandising. It's all the same. We can't run our hotels in the typical, traditional way. We have to approach it with the Disney method of moving people. It's actually a people-handling system. We're in the hotel business, but we've got different parameters. Even though we were entirely pleased with our Architects at WDW we've now decided that in the future, we'll do it on our own. If you can design a Matterhorn. you can design a hotel. Everything is one show, and the hotels are as much a part of the entertainment as the Theme Park."

"Creatively, we have all the options. All we have to do is to plug them in and consider the priorities." Dick Nunis admits that these priorities are sometimes problems - the biggest of which are time and money. Disney isn't immune to these traditional dilemmas. But the enthusiasm is so contagious that everything seems to work itself out.

The critical evaluation of what Disney has done in planning its "city" has been mostly positive. Even a sophisticated writer for New York Magazine suggested- only half in jest- that the citv hire the Disney organization to manage its   services. When asked about this, Disney people shrug it off by saying: "Run New York City? Never. The weather isn't right."

(Navigation: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How It Was Done: Part One

 What you are looking at is the October 15, 1972 issue of "Institutions/Volume Feeding" magazine, in which the magazine announced their annual "Changemaker" award for Walt Disney Productions. It is a 20 page magazinge insert, numbered from page 65 to page 100, meaning it was likely part of a larger publication. You and this magazine are going to shortly become very familiar.

I have not been able to find much information about Institutions/Volume Feeding out there, except to say that it existed and serviced the hotel and dining business sectors. What I can say is that the insert is lavishly produced; well written, with beautiful color photographs - some behind the scenes - and fully fleshed out with interviews of the people who were actually running Disney at the time. Being an industry paper,  the article focuses heavily on the food and hotel side of the new Walt Disney World operation, with very interesting details on buying, cooking, and money handling.

I'm making it sound very technical, aren't I? Here's the thing: in all of my years of reading Disney related items, this is one of the most essential pieces of writing on the company I've ever read. You must read this.

More than being about buying and selling hamburgers and dining tables, this magazine is an industry-inside look at the attitudes and philosophies which ran Walt Disney Productions during its golden era. And, given the current cultural climate surrounding the Walt Disney Company of 2012, it frankly reads like a slap in the face.

I'm not above saying that the executive committee profiled here is beyond critism or reproach - this was written in mid-1972, in the crazy, hazy days following the hugely successful debut of Walt Disney World - these men were flying high, full of optimism and ideas. The Arab Oil Embargo was still in the future, as were the shrinking expectations and horizon of Project Florida's tomorrow. These guys had issues. They thought small, ran the movie studio into the ground, failed to build enough hotels, then blew all of the company's wealth and resources in a single theme park venture.

But they also produced the Polynesian Village, The Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain, Lake Buena Vista, The Empress Lilly, and all of EPCOT Center. Warts and all, this was a company that still dreamed big and did things unconventionally. This was a group of men who sat down and for the first time asked themselves that question which echoes down the musty corridors of the studio: "What would Walt have done?"

These men lived in awe - and fear - of Walt Disney. In retrospect, it's remarkable that the 20th century actually produced such a man, and they lived with him. They were used to pleasing his high standards. And Walt was one of the toughest bosses of all time. You can still feel his prescence in their words here.

So there's that. This article also shows how, until the entree of Eisner in 1984, the Walt Disney Company was very much a small, family run company. They had a single small lot in Burbank that they used as a movie set when they could and two satellites in Anaheim and Orlando. This was the company that was getting into bed with multinational corporations and international governments to build EPCOT Center.

The size of the company today is something none of these men could have predicted, and the Hollywood mentality of the current company is something Eisner brought with him from Paramount. So when you read these men describing how they run the place like it's a corner grocery store, we need to realize both that this approach is impossible today, and that it wasn't very smart back then, either. The same slowpoke approach seen in these pages was what steamrolled this executive team out of existence ten years later. Disney was slow to change and it cost them dearly. So when I say it reads like an indictment, I'm not kidding, but it also needs to be seen in the context of the trouble this sort of thinking caused.

What this is, finally, in an invaluable primary resource for understanding why and how Disney did the things they did in this crucial era. Those just entering Disney circles need to understand this era and the thought it entailed on Disney's part to understand the criticisms leveled at it - not unfairly, I think - today. This ought to be required reading for everyone in the company. It demonstrates, simply and eloquently, their exceedingly high standards and why they asked "What would Walt do?" and why we should still be asking it today.

The issue is split into three articles, each of which will be presented as a separate post, with relevant corresponding images from the text. The first one will be posted tomorrow, with parts two and three following in weeks two and three.

I hope you'll find it illuminating and, like me, a little infuriating. This was the era when saying "a dream is a wish your heart makes" about Disney wasn't marketing bulrush - these men were strange mixtures of businessmen and idealists who pulled the whole castle in the sky down with them.

And now, Passport to Dreams Old & New proudly presents: Walt Disney Productions: The "Imagineering" People Pros!
Third Annual Institutions/Volume Feeding Changemaker Award

In the Magic Kingdom of the entire Disney corporation, emphasis is always placed on the individual-whether he be guest or employee. It is this deep-rooted philosophy - originating from Walt himself - firmly believed and carried out by management, that has been the key to success. It is the constant check for quality and the real, unabashed belief that a guest passing through a turnstile does not necessarily represent a dollar sign. To do this successfully and still maintain a profit is where Disney shines.

This-all of this-is "imagineering." It's innovation. It's a fantasy land on the surface, but behind the scenes it is an efficient, profitable, benevolent operation. The people responsible are professionals-not necessarily food or hotel pros, but people pros.

Those who enter the Wonderful World of Disney-whether they be guest or employee_-come out a little bit different. Happier. Jubilant, perhaps. They have an experience firmly embedded in their Memory Factory. They've been a part of the Total Show. Disney has changed them. Disney is a Changemaker.
(Navigation: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lightning in a Bottle? Storybook Circus

In the northeast of Magic Kingdom, for some time now a new area has been slowly taking shape. No longer a fully sovereign entity from Fantasyland, Storybook Circus has been expanding to fill the footprint of what once was the park's absolute nadir of themed areas: Mickey's Toontown Fair. Toontown was largely groan-worthy, a middling collection of half-ideas. Storybook Circus is, with some qualifications, pretty excellent, and this despite having a smaller area and a chief purpose no more ambitious than when this space was occupied by Toon houses. Yet the Circus is undoubtably more compelling and has been very well reviewed, and really digging into what makes this area work beyond the usual superlatives of "color!" and "texture!" is an experiment well worth carrying out. Let's get to it.

Storybook Circus is what one could call a "microland" - an area of minor square footage with a unique theme often presented as a sort of side-attraction to a larger area, usually designed exclusively to anchor a major attraction - Caribbean Plaza is one example, and Bear Country, at Disneyland, can be seen as another. Storybook Circus houses a number of attractions aimed at children, none of which are really much better than "C ticket" level attractions - Dumbo, a kiddie coaster, a train station, and a water play area. What distinguishes these "C" tickets is that they are given "E" level treatment in Storybook Circus.

But to really dig into the accomplishment of Storybook Circus, we have to first reacquaint ourselves with the history of Disney's "official" kiddie zones.

It used to be that the totality of the experience of a Disney park was aimed at the entire family, and the whole experience was understood to be, in some ways, juvenile, regressive, a return to youthful wonder. There have always been exceptions - the Great Moments with Mr. Lincolns and Hall of Presidents of the world - but these were in the minority. Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom were designed to be of interest to people of all ages, and this accounts for their staying power.

The rift began, I think, in 1982. EPCOT Center was the very first Disney theme park to address itself to a specifically adult audience, where Bass ale replaced Pepsi and epicurian dining supplanted burgers and hot dogs. In response, Magic Kingdom began to swing in a more juvenile direction, a process fulfilled by the opening of Mickey's Birthdayland in 1988.

Yes, Mickey's Birthdayland. Mickey's Birthdayland was created to ostensibly celebrate the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse, and was carved out of a small access road between 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Grand Prix, achieved by shortening the car race attraction by several hundred feet. It consisted of a petting zoo, hedge maze, some tents, very crude "Duckburg" facades, and the main attraction - Mickey's House, which was a walkthrough exhibit comparable in concept to the Swiss Family Treehouse with a Mickey stage show at the very back. There was also a separate tent which housed an opportunity to meet Mickey in his dressing room.

Why his dressing room? Because after leaving his house you'd enter a warren of tents which housed a large stage where the "Minnie's Surprise Party" show would be performed, making the separate dressing room attraction a logical extension of the stage - truthfully, the reason for the area to exist. It's worth dwelling on that for just a moment because each new version of the "Meet Mickey" attraction in its various guises has never really strayed from the dressing room concept, one which was only beholden to the stage and the area's temporary nature to exist.

But "Meet Mickey" outgrew its intended purpose. From the late 50's until the late 80's, meeting Mickey was largely a randomized affair, much as meeting other characters was until fairly recently, where one could walk by any old Magic Kingdom facade and unexpectedly find Mickey standing nearby. It was a spontaneous process, one open to chance and improvisation, which is why it captured the imagination of the public. But it was not until Mickey established a permanent headquarters and guests were told that all they had to do was get in line and be guaranteed an "audience" with Mickey that this simple side-activity began to morph into something ominously important. Today there is hardly a single spontaneous character interaction left anywhere in the theme parks, so Mickey's Birthdayland actually is the start of a massive shift in the public's perception of the code of conduct of these costumed mascots.

Birthdayland was otherwise hardly important or revolutionary. I saw it many times as a child and I can hardly remember anything about it except that when you reached a dead end in the hedge maze, you would get squirted by a colorful plastic pole. Although it was a temporary area done on a big scale, it was still a temporary area. Seen today, the most interesting thing about the Birthdayland area is its indebtedness to the Disney comic books. Mickey's Birthdayland was "set" in Duckburg, USA, and the style of the buildings and scenic details was a loving tribute not to Duck Tales, but to the famous Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks. This meant that the area did have a classic "Disney" feel appropriate to the Magic Kingdom, even if the "Disney" feel was decidedly... low rent. That would have been well and good and the area would have eventually faded out, the Mickey attraction relocated, and all could have been well. But even before the area was rechristened "Mickey's Starland" and made an official permanent part of the Magic Kingdom, something happened to alter its destiny. Just four days after Mickey's Birthdayland opened in 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit premiered in theaters.

Roger Rabbit was a huge success, popularizing the word "toon" as an identifier of a "cartoon being" and posited that these characters were outsiders of the Hollywood community living in an urban ghetto on the bad side of town. This is a funny farcical concept that the film plays off well, creating an environment that the Looney Tunes, Disney, and Fleisher characters could all credibly co-inhabit for the purposes of a single film. The important sequence to us comes near the one-hour mark where Eddie Valiant drives into Toontown:

This sequence is a confection for the film where the animation staff has managed to insert a staggering number of references to classic cartoon output. The stylization of the sequence overall more strongly suggests something more akin to early Termite Terrace or Fleisher animation than anything Disney ever did:

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit", 1988
"Red Hot Momma", Max Fleischer Studio, 1934
This is in service of the film, where Toontown has a definate hellish atmosphere despite all the color and motion. It's actually threatening, a parody of film noir, especially in the "alley" sequence modeled on Dick Tracy:

This sequence may be the last vestige of a great American tradition of grotesque animation. Disney did work with menacing atmosphere in cartoons like Donald and the Gorilla, and outright horror sequences in everything from Snow White to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but the grotesque shapes, colors, and motion of Toontown is largely absent from classic Disney animation. Here's a relevant background from Donald's Lucky Day, an atmospheric 1939 short, which has similarities to Roger Rabbit:

But most of Disney animation shows animal characters living in modern suburbia, with houses and props only just this side of unreal. They are, in short, plausibly naturalistic. If you watch any old Mickey, Donald, or Goofy cartoon made between 1934 and 1955, you're going to see something like this:

"Mickey and the Seal", 1948
Bambi, for another example, goes to great lengths to depict credible wild animals living in a bucolic but naturalistic forest. By contrast, Warner Brothers cartoons tended to depict Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc as wild animals living in a cartoony but still identifiably natural environment. The Fleischer studio, located in New York and staffed by hard-drinking blue collar men, tended to depict hellish urban landscapes or totally surreal phantasmagorias: left to their own devices, the Fleisher studio created broken lamp posts, boarded up windows, and bars filled with skeletons. These are credible environments, but they're also credibly run down, abandoned, and condemned:

Both from "Bimbo's Initiation", Max Fleischer Studio, 1931
Take a moment to look at the loving detail put into loose floorboards, that crooked picture staked to the wall, the menacing tableau of the knife and cards at the front, or that dusty old kicked-up floor rug at the back. Think of how much easier it would have been to draw a rug that lay nicely and orderly flat on the floor, in the way the Disney studio would have done. This is what Toontown was channeling to derive it's hellish urban atmosphere. Toontown was a fantastic invention for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but treating the concept as canonical across the board and good for all American animation does a great disservice to the Disney, Warners, and Lantz characters who also appeared in the film, all of whom emerged from unique aesthetic styles and studios.

So in fact the best thing about Mickey's Birthdayland is that, by getting out the door just before the Roger Rabbit craze hit, it managed to realize Disney cartoons in a classically Disney way. It really did look like Mickey's house, the way you always imagined it:

When Disney tried again five years later in Disneyland, the area was no longer Duckburg, USA, the traditional Disney township, and was instead Mickey's Toontown. And Michael Eisner - the man who re-christened a Song of the South-themed log flume "Splash Mountain" because his first major success as Disney CEO was the 1984 comedy Splash - Eisner made sure that the style of the area closely matched that seen in another box office hit:

It probably seems like I'm being very down on Roger Rabbit, and I'm not. The film is wonderful, and it's grown into a real classic. But replicating the style of the "Toontown" sequence into an entire area which only the Disney characters inhabit was a real mistake. That style was only ever devised to make a universe where Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny - two characters who starred in very different films from very different studios - live in the same place and seem credible. The style of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not that of Disney animation. It wasn't even released as a Disney film, but under the "Touchstone" banner invented by Ron Miller in the early 80s.

There is also something to be said about the wisdom of attempting to recreate this particular visual style at all: buildings designed to move and sway and sing are one thing, but building the style necessarily involves freezing it into plaster and lathe and in that process something is lost.

Yet by 1993, the "Toontown" concept had already spread like crab grass. Some of you may remember the "Bonkers" cartoon of the early 90s, with Bonkers being a Toontown cop, an unacknowledged riff of the Roger Rabbit franchise. What Disneyland built in 1993 is what people of that era would have expected to see, and there is of course a Roger Rabbit ride nearby to motivate the style. But doing so means that the "Toontown" concept was replacing over sixty years of visual continuity of films and in cartoons and even theme parks. Despite the name, this was in no way "Mickey's" Toontown.

For Walt Disney World's 25th anniversary in 1996, Mickey's Starland was converted into Mickey's Toontown Fair. Along with the genius idea to turn the castle into a pink birthday cake, it was a year of highly suspect "birthday gifts". Toontown Fair was certainly more elaborate and unique than Starland, introducing a kiddie coaster and a very nice Minnie's House attraction to compliment Mickey's House. It was ambitious, yes. But with ambition came clutter.

The idea itself made very little sense. The "Birthday Tents" sort of made sense as places where birthdays conceivably could be held, and in the span since 1988 had achieved some importance as revenue centers for the Magic Kingdom - the "Meet Mickey" tent in particular. Meet Mickey was moved to the tent nearest the railroad tracks so the "Mickey's House" queue led directly into it, and the house itself was remodeled at this time. This is a shame because this remodel was a significant downgrade. What had previously come off as a pretty credible place where Mickey could live was toonified, filled with "inflated" architecture, and many scenes lost their pictorial elegance, especially the kitchen which became a disaster zone courtesy of Donald Duck.

The other tents became shops and character greeting areas, probably as mandated by a limited budget and a theme park reluctant to give rid of an already profitable complex. We'll hear this again in ten years.  Due to its limited footprint,  Toontown offered a lot to look at but very little in the way of the large depth compositions that the rest of the Magic Kingdom is filled with - and whatever the merits of Starland, it wasn't cluttered. Toontown Fair generally looked far worse than it really was from most angles, with clashing colors, textures, and all form of visual input assaulting the eye. But it did align the area with the Disneyland Toontown and the Tokyo Disneyland incarnation opening that same year, making the "Toontown" concept a visually and conceptually integrated one across three theme parks of the Disney empire.

Other theme parks tried their own "Starland"s. Six Flags has had areas lightly themed to popular children's franchises such as Looney Tunes and The Wiggles since the early 90's. Universal Studios Florida opened Fievel's Playland in 1992, based on An American Adventure 2 but with a probable conceptual antecedent in the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Playground which appeared at Disney-MGM Studios, down the road, in 1990. This firmly established the unofficial rule that theme park playgrounds can only be themed to areas where you're really small, because kids like to feel even smaller than they are, or something. Disney is reluctant to let this idea go, recycling it most recently in the lackluster Toy Story Playland.

Meanwhile, Islands of Adventure ran with the idea of areas themed to illustration into no less than half of their 1999 Islands of Adventure park, drawing together areas based on American comics, Sunday Funny Papers, and illustrator Ted Geisel. It's hard to pick out exactly which of these areas is the "Toontown" - Universal Creative did an interesting job splicing aspects of the style across three distinct areas. Suess Landing has the droopy, flowing architecture but is really more comparable to a Fantasyland, with its simple flat rides and kid-oriented activities. Marvel Super Hero Island uses flat cutouts and perspective tricks to create a dynamic atmosphere, but Toon Lagoon comes nearest to the "Toowntown" mold, with balloony architecture and interactive street elements. And, if it be doubted, the "Sweet Haven" microland of Toon Lagoon is proof that balloony architecture and dimensional cartoon style, when done well, need not be as ugly as Mickey's Toontown. The fact that Sweet Haven is themed around Popeye, a character created by Max Fleischer Studios, only deepens the irony. One suspects that Disney just isn't very good at making things look toony and credibly grotesque.

I trace this entire history of "kiddie" areas up because I think it's essential to keep all of this in mind when talking about Storybook Circus. Mickey's Toontown is your baseline, that's what to expect. Twenty years of theme park history across all of the major industry players have conditioned us to associate areas of the park for children with distorted fiberglass architecture, limited texture, balloony scenic elements, and a less than attentive regard for fine detail. It is very much to the credit of Storybook Circus that it whole heartedly rejects all of these things. I think this is very much responsible for the initial surge of very enthusiastic reviews this area has received, although that initial wave was reviewing only a tiny sliver of what the area will eventually become. Still, some of the early positive coverage was in large part due to an immediate instinctual understanding that Storybook Circus was not to be Toontown Fair Mach 2, but a new kind of "kid zone".

I personally think that this time around Imagineering has finally delivered something that fulfills the demands of being an area "for kids" which also offers something for adults. It's an area that won't look absurd or dated in ten years because it turns the clock back to a design sense that existed before the concept of a kid's area did. It is classical, and so it has an inherent longevity.

Storybook Circus is still under construction but at this point enough of it has been built that I feel that a review of it's complexities would not be a disservice. To begin to discuss Circus, we should discuss how it came to be.

An expanded version of Dumbo had been planned for Magic Kingdom for some time, based on a two-sided Dumbo attraction with a water play between the two spokes first designed for Tokyo Disneyland. This Tokyo concept art is what was first shown to the public as the new Florida Dumbo. See Cinderella's Golden Carrousel off to the left there?

In Florida, Dumbo was slated to appear in an area around the Fantasyland Train Station also accommodating the Disney Fairies merchandise line and some new version of the "Barnstormer" kiddie coaster. This was in what we could call the "Jay Rasulo" version of the Fantasyland expansion project. Rasulo had been making his bread and butter on the Princess franchises for some time, and the initial Fantasyland Expansion plans reflected this clearly.

At this point, the Circus area was little more than some blobby smears:

Once Tom Staggs took over as Parks Chairman in 2010, the Expansion was called back for re-writes. In the interim, Walt Disney World had gotten cold feet on the "Fairies" franchise. Despite the enthustic support of John Lasseter, 2009's direct-to-video Tinkerbell sequel sold about half of what the initial one had, and the pixies had yet to find a consistent audience or place in the parks. Instead of gamble on an expensive area, Operations requested that the successful Toontown Fair tents be retained (I told you we'd be hearing that again). And thus Dumbo's circus expanded to fill the whole area.

It still looks pretty hazy at this point, but about a year later, Disney released the first piece of concept art that gave us reason to think that the Circus could end up being pretty nice:

This shows the greatly improved layout, foliage, and colors that have actually begun to be installed on the old Toontown Fair site. Still, questions remained. Why a circus? Do people today connect to the concept of a circus as an exciting, desirable entertainment venue? Wouldn't this look more temporary than the area it was replacing?

Storybook Circus seems very much to be an evolution of the "Dumbo Circusland" developed for Disneyland in 1972, with it's entrance marquee, scattering of tents, and central Dumbo attraction. It's also interesting to consider that as early as 1972, there was sufficient demand for Dumbo to split it off into its own dedicated area.

Although the model isn't very detailed, it also doesn't take much to imagine that this area would end up looking tired pretty quickly. But the concept lingered on until the late 70's, when it was probably killed by the decision to redo Fantasyland entirely.

Storybook Circus is a great deal more ambitious than it needs to be, and that begins with the fact that it is an area with a history. It doesn't have a backstory, contrary to the tedious modern Imagineering tendency to explain every single thing with a convoluted and impossible to comprehend motivating narrative. Storybook Circus invites scrutiny but pleases in the same way the original areas of the Magic Kingdom do: by implying more than it says. One doesn't read Storybook Circus, she reads into it.

The Circus is set up in an area which clearly previously existed before the Circus' arrival. Dumbo is set in Florida, but the Circus is not a Floridian one; it's set up somewhere in the Midwest, what was probably a little cow town called Carolwood Park. Carolwood Park contributes pre existing railroad tracks, billboards, barns, and train roundhouses to Storybook Circus, and gorgeously crafted rambling stone walls - implied farmland. Along with the heavily vegetated areas, this Circus brings to mind an atmosphere vintage and rural, some vaguely defined sense of pre-modernity. It's the imagined rural youth of American myth.

Although the decision to not replicate the Florida setting of Dumbo seems at first blush to be a missed opportunity, calling the area "Carolwood Park" and hauling in an unexpected vintage patina allows the Imagineering team to bring in an unexpected thematic depth to the area. The use of the name "Carolwood" isn't just an empty name drop; although Dumbo is the reason for the area to exist, the star of the show is the Railroad.

The railroad had previously provided important conceptual links on Main Street and Frontierland, but it grows into a central role in this area. When you enter, you're directly facing a train and train roundhouse - that's the introductory statement! Your other options include arriving on a train, or walking in via Tomorrowland and directly facing a train. WDI has covered all of the bases here. The entire area is, in fact, motivated by the train, because the Circus arrived on it. You can actually see the train spur line that branches off the Walt Disney World Railroad leading to a train turntable where the individual acts and circus wagons split off to set up. You can follow the wagon tracks in the "earth" as they roll off the turntable, a trail of peanuts embedded in the ground alongside animal tracks leading to Dumbo, monkey tracks towards the Barnstormer (where Goofy co-stars with a monkey), and so on. None of these subtle details are at all obvious or vie for your attention. This is the great thing about the Circus: it has a motivational integrity but you have to go looking for it.

And of course by being called Carolwood Park, being set in the Midwest, in some far off once upon an Americana, the area brings in the ghost of Walt Disney's childhood. Disney harbored a fascination with the circus, of which Dumbo is only the most obvious example. There are also a scant dozen shorts, Toby Tyler and Fun and Fancy Free, and the fact that Disney bought and restored an entire Circus wagon train and ran it through Disneyland to a Circus he staged inside the park twice daily.

Is Storybook Circus not only the circus of Dumbo, but the circus of Walt Disney's imagination? It certainly seems so. And by telling that story, it also seems to tell the story of the impetus behind the entire Magic Kingdom itself. It's the origin story for the entire theme park. It's a neat trick because the area suggests this all on its' own. You do the work.

On a strictly aesthetic level, besides that interestingly meta groove it hits, the Circus is an unqualified success because it has an astonishing and beautiful array of textures. The stone walls, the weathered bricks, faded woods, and leafy foliage speak to an attentive eye towards the more lasting grace notes of the existing park, and could not be further from Toontown Fair. The Casey Jr play area, which is designed to closely mirror Ward Kimball's charmingly fluid design seen in Dumbo, is still fully fitted with detailed hinges, latches, hooks, wheels, and real metal parts. Instead of a smooth fiberglass sculpture of a train, it looks and feel like a real train. There's even a brass bell that actually rings - not a piped in sound effect!

These textured timbers holding up the roof of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant look like they've had a lifetime of service. Remember that these poles are actually brand new:

Or the undersides of the Dumbo queue's "wings", which could have been smooth drywall or a drop ceiling, are full of timbers, beams, brackets, bolts, and other signifiers that this structure had to be built. Thousands of people walk underneath this every day without realizing how beautiful all of it is because it's all fake. It's so fake that bypasses credibility to become convincing. Notice how each hanging fan has chains dangling to turn them on and off; the detail is so natural that we never stop to think that these fans are controlled by a switch and so the chain is purely decorative and had to be put there by somebody. When was the last time you were honestly fooled by a theme park?

Outside The Barnstormer: real canvas, real leather, real metal, real wood..... the dirt is fake.
Another example of Storybook Circus' superior attention to detail may be seen in their treatment of the old "Goofy-crashes-through-things" sight gag. Toontown Fair had perfectly sharp Goofy-shaped holes:

Storybook Circus' holes are equally absurdly shaped, but they actually look like damage has been caused to real, tangible objects:

That sort of stuff tends to add up to a lot in the mind. One of these looks like somebody put care and thought into the presentation of the gag with room left for fine texture, and the other looks like a bunch of Imagineers getting jiggy with a band saw.

Storybook Circus interprets its landscape in terms of hills and terraces, which is one aspect I've identified as a common satisfaction factor in themed design areas - is there a lot going on visually and can you have more than one view of any given area? This is one of the reasons New Orleans Square is the best part of Disneyland, and the Circus has staircases, walls, hills, and elevations galore. This is something else Toontown failed to capitalize on, positioning all of its elements as it did along one long, even, steady slope. In Circus we walk upstairs towards tents, we walk down to get to the railroad station, our mind and our eye is engaged. The terraces and elevations make Storybook Circus a pleasure to experience.

Other touches impress equally. Circus thematics imply gaudy lighting, but the new area makes good use of popcorn lights in effective displays. Disneyland and Magic Kingdom make use of traditional carnival modes of attractive light displays, from Main Street's popcorn lights to twinkle lights in the trees of the Hub, and Storybook Circus fits in easily, providing a smooth and visually coherent transition. Here's Dumbo seen from the Mad Tea Party:

And the Mad Tea Party, seen from Dumbo:

Touches like that make the Circus feel like an old friend instead of, as in the case of oh so many theme park additions, an unwelcome invasion.

There's also something interesting going on over at the new Dumbo. Dumbo has never really been worthy of extended notice - it's always been pretty much the same ride in a circle over a concrete pit, with some minor Circus emphatics to dress up the spinner base. In 1983, the Disneyland Dumbo had a number of embelishments added, such as gears, workings, and pinwheels, but it was still just a fancy ride over a concrete pit in the middle of Fantasyland. The pit was now filled with water.

What we see in the history of Dumbo is a slow push in the direction of being a "real" ride, a fully thematically integrated ride, and now it seems as through WDI has pushed the ride concept of Dumbo to its limits. I cannot think of a single thing that could have been done to the new attraction, that has not been done, to snazz it up without changing the ride's essential format of being a hub-and-spoke over a concrete pit. There's now two Dumbos, and they spin in opposite directions, creating an immediate sense of visual excitement. The ride has been plucked out of the concrete wasteland and dropped down admist rolling hills and spreading trees, and has a circus tent backdrop connecting the two spinners modeled closely on the one seen in the Dumbo film. Instead of just an empty room full of switchbacks or a false front, there's a whole experience awaiting us inside the tent, full of texture, and hanging lights, and a circus ring, and everything. At night, LED lights turn the water-splashed pit below the Dumbos into a swirling kaledescope of colors, a display so impressive it draws people in who simply sit and stare at the thing - it's a better show than the fireworks.

But for all those emphatics, all that texture, once you get into your Dumbo it's just a 90-second spin in the air above a concrete pit. This is a C-ticket ride with E-ticket trimmings. Is this bad? There's always been different grades of rides in Disney's "castle" parks; that's the reason Dumbo was a C ticket, after all, and don't forget that it cost you about half of what it cost to ride Haunted Mansion; what were you expecting? But by surrounding a simple ride with so many beautiful textures and tones, somehow the whole feel of it has changed and so we must ask: what is it that makes a ride an "E" ticket? Is it a lot of content or perfect form? If you spend enough time enjoying the exterior, the indoor queue, and so on, it's possible that Dumbo, from door to door, offers more to see and enjoy than some of the shorter "official" E-rides like Mission: Space. How strongly does content dictate our responses to rides as "important" ones in our daily experience of the parks?

I think what Dumbo is now is a new kind of spinner ride that we haven't seen yet. It's a simple ride, but instead of presenting itself as just a simple ride, space is reserved for "doodling in the margins". It's the Hope Diamond of spinner rides, so beautiful and so fancy that we visit it and ride it and see it just because it's there and it looks impressive. I couldn't tell you the last time I rode Dumbo when it was over behind the Carrousel, but I've been on the new version dozens of times. At what point does a park experience cross a line out of being a sideline activity and become a "main course"?

What Dueling Dumbos promises to do is finally to make all of the other spinner rides at Walt Disney World look pretty lousy. Why wait thirty minutes for the Astro Orbitor when Dumbo is three minutes away, looks nicer, and never has a line because now there's two ride mechanisms? Or is the average person's experience of the theme park less compartmentalized? As Fantasyland and Storybook Circus ramble on into history, we'll learn something about the attention spans of vacationers, I'll wager.

And speaking of responses, it would be remiss to close out any discussion of Dueling Dumbos without mentioning what the interior queue is. It's a playground, and not an Image Works or Winnie the Pooh Queue-style playground, but an actual circular rumpus room with nets and slides and all the other things. The idea itself is interesting: since the number one complaint of guests is and has been waiting in lines, and since guests are always looking for new places to sit down on, why not let them do both while waiting "in line"?

I am not really in a position to comment on the playground itself. It is certainly more visually interesting than anticipated, with deep purples, popcorn lights, and some nice details at the edges. I do not have a child, and so the playground is of no practical use to me. It is better done than the Pooh playground it "replaces" (the one across from the attraction), and indoor and air conditioned to boot, making this an ideal spot for families. One could make arguments about whether or not Disney should actually be in the playground business, but it's already there and what is there is visually attractive and, one assumes, appropriate to its use.

So we must ask: what made Dumbo, the Flying Elephant a "classic"? Was it the location? The promotional photos? The ride? By moving the ride to a new location, Walt Disney World is betting that it will remain a "classic", and they have the thematics, the queue space, and the capacity to back this up. But whether it be the location - in a construction zone - or the fact that only so many people a day want to ride Dumbo, the crowds have not materialized - the attraction which handily garnered 45 minute waits now struggles to draw queues above 20. This could be because the capacity is now so high - sixteen Dumbos per ride system, two ride systems each, two holding pens per ride, and five-hundred feet of linear queue plus a "queue lounge" sounds more like Space Mountain and not Dumbo, the Flying Elephant.

Since the lines have never materialized, the utility of the "queue lounge" playground is somewhat doubtful. It's already an entirely optional experience most of the time, and guests are unlikely to fully understand why they're being corralled into an empty kiddie playground and "forced" to sit down for fifteen minutes. We are programmed by over a hundred years of attraction development to expect to stand in a single file line and slowly progress to the front of a line to board an attraction. Disney proposes to redefine this, and the question is not only whether or not the public will understand (never mind embrace) this concept, but whether or not the attraction they chose to implement this on will ever again warrant such an elaborate pre-show area.

But the Dumbo queue is really just a side-attraction in the Circus. This tiny area shows more wit and invention and a more attentive eye to texture and detail than has been seen in many a Disney theme park area in many years. But what is the special extra touch that captures our attention, despite all the texture, despite all the care, and despite all the good work that's gone into the Circus? I finally realized what it is while looking at this photo:

That's a good fake electrical pole, with the vintage transformer, and now that its lights and high tension cables are up as of this writing, it looks even better. Disney has done plenty of fake power lines before - those in Tokyo Disney Sea and Animal Kingdom stand out - but this really captures a charmingly vintage feeling. Looking at it, with Casey Jr. nearby, one can't but help be reminded of Dumbo and the singing crows.

Looking at Dumbo again, and I think this is the key, the area seems to, for the first time, be evoking its' specific blend of animated charm and textural detail:

I think the secret of the area's success is that for the first time Imagineering has created a satisfying dimensional representation of the feeling of Walt Disney's animated output in its' golden era. There is a pervasive simplicity, a rural feeling, a naive charm. I think this accounts for the area's already sterling reputation: it's the first thing Disney's built since themed design went permanently sophisticated with EPCOT Center that feels the way Disney things used to feel. It feels simple and unpretentious and naive in the way the rest of the Magic Kingdom does.

That naive sense of fantasy and design is what people pay to get into Disneyland and Magic Kingdom to experience. The return to another place and time is complimented by the return to a less sophisticated design sense. I can't quite pinpoint yet what exactly Circus does to recapture this lightning in a bottle, although if I had to guess I'd say it's a largely unconscious response to Toontown Fair. Toontown, based not on classical Disney designs but on Roger Rabbit, did never and will never be a comfortable fit with the rest of a "castle park". But Storybook Circus fits right in, and could have always been there. I think it's fortunate that it actually is.