Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ten Big Design Blunders at the Magic Kingdom

Well, nobody's perfect.

I spend a lot of time talking about Magic Kingdom on this blog because I believe it's a remarkable place. Walt Disney was right; you can only do Disneyland once, and Walt likely took the secret to doing it twice with him to his grave. Magic Kingdom is the park where the foundations for how to do theme parks moving forward would be laid, while expanding and, at least for 1971, improving on a lot of what had come before.

But that doesn't mean it's free of black eyes; really, no theme park is. And having spent as much time pulling the place apart to see how it ticks as I have, I've collected observations of flaws, eccentricities, and just plain bad choices but never had any good place to collect them.

I'm going to try to keep this focused on problems having to do with design, or aesthetics, or operations, with special attention paid to choices which disrupt already existing areas or which cause huge complications down the line. What you won't see a lot of is nagging on things which have markedly better, or different, versions elsewhere: we all know that Pirates at MK isn't as good as any other version, or that Disneyland's Small World facade is a huge deal in all of the other castle parks and which many miss at Magic Kingdom. I've got more interesting things to discuss here.

Let's begin the countdown.

10) Walt Disney World Railroad's Cement Overpass (1971)

It never really occurred me when I was a kid that there's actually nothing to look at along the Railroad at Magic Kingdom. The long trip past trees, some more trees, and some plastic wildlife never really struck me as a problem until I saw Disneyland's Railroad, which has unique scenery, intriguing views into Fantasyland, and ends with the Grand Canyon and dinosaurs. It's hard to top any ride that ends with dinosaurs.

I always thought that the point of the Florida train ride was that it was a simulation of what rail travel could have been like, and especially at night as the train creeps through the bamboo outside Adventureland, it's easy to forget that you're not chugging though a boundless wilderness filled with hostile creatures. The front two-thirds of the ride has never been the problem, as it has always offered a good view into Tomorrowland and Frontierland, a look at Walt Disney World's marvelous Seven Seas Lagoon area, and a fine, if not exactly thrilling, bamboo thicket.

But the back third - what's always been called the back stretch - has never been fine. Since 1971 it's been an unsimultated ride through a swamp, unsimultated because it really is a swamp. In the earliest years the spiel on the Railroad attempted to present this as a view of what this area looked like before Walt Disney World was built, which is just about the best spin you can put on it. This most disappointing stretch of the ride climaxes with the ultimate disappointment: a ride underneath a concrete overpass!

Dick Nunis hated how spare the Magic Kingdom railroad was compared to its Disneyland counterpart. He relocated scenes intended for the Jungle Cruise to the back stretch, and kept pushing for a Matterhorn that the train could ride though and see a blizzard. I've long joked that the addition of a few dummies plus a silk flame in a barrel could improve the overpass with a simulated hobo encampment.

It isn't hard to guess why it's gone nearly fifty years looking the way it does. The concrete overpass is the main way into the Magic Kingdom for employees and service vehicles, so it falls under the umbrella of facilities, not guest show, and as a piece of infrastructure, it's super duper important. The bridge can't be closed to be rebuilt into something better themed without massive complications, complications which understandably are best to avoid. It's one of those problems that falls between poles and thus doesn't get addressed.

Ever notice that the supports are designed to resemble a train trestle?
I think the solution need not be any more complex than a plain tunnel around the train, perhaps a vintage wooden one, with a simple facade on the side the train approaches to block views of the concrete overpass and the buses which regularly traverse it. It could probably even be built without needing to close the ride. It's one of those fairly easy fixes that gets put off forever because there's no immediate tangible benefit to them. But I wish Magic Kingdom would see their way clear to committing to smaller scale issues like this. We're coming up to the big 50 with this park and should be way past the era of exposed concrete overpasses.

09) Open-Air Mad Tea Party (1971)

I think everyone agrees that the Magic Kingdom's Mad Tea Party is sort of in a quandary. The roof has never been very nice and it's always been in an odd spot, at least compared to Disneyland's near-perfect tea cups. But I've always found spinning around under that roof to be attractive, and now that I've seen Disneyland Paris' Mad Tea Party, which has a beautiful roof but a sluggish turntable and unattractive teacup designs, I think it's fair to say that Magic Kingdom's has it where it counts.

But that doesn't wave away the fact that WED Enterprises botched the Mad Tea Party big time in 1971, when it opened without a roof on it. The park was characterized by an overall lack of shade in general for her first few years, but no ride was as severely impacted as the Tea Party.

It is incomprehensible to me that this was done by a company so thorough that they built a multi-million dollar tunnel underneath this same theme park, yet opened a totally exposed teacup ride in a region characterized by brutal heat and apocalyptic rain showers. The cups would bake out in the sun, their fiberglass seats becoming uncomfortable, their central metal rings impossible to touch, then liters of water would fall into the cups every day, requiring the ride to close, and stay closed, while each cup was carefully mopped out after the rain had passed. According to some opening year cast members I've spoken to, the area underneath the tea cups flooded more than once.

As we know, Disney worked fast once the problem was recognized, and by 1973 the tea cups had their roof. One could write this off as part of the normal cycle of working the kinks out of any large, new venture. Given how much went right in 1971, it's remarkable how little went wrong. But this one still makes me laugh as much as it boggles my mind. With the Mad Tea Party, we see a company run by a bunch of California boys finally having to learn what bad weather is.

08) I Love A Parade Route (1971)

Have you ever noticed that the parade route at Magic Kingdom makes no sense?

I didn't at first. When you grow up with something its easy to assume that that's just the way it's supposed to be. Seeing Spectromagic blaring its way through Liberty Square and Frontierland was the sight of many a Walt Disney World trip for me. But after seeing Disneyland, and enjoying the way the parade route there does not affect the atmospheric west side of the park, it occurred to me what the cost of running a parade route through it really is.

For one, the Frontierlands of Disneyland and Disneyland Paris benefit from a variety of planters and landscape features which do a far better job creating the atmosphere of an old west mining town. The parade route running through those western facades and so near the river really precludes many features which at Magic Kingdom could visually soften the area and improve its atmosphere.

Also, and especially at Magic Kingdom where the least successful areas of the park feel less like environments and more like freeways, it robs the west side of the park of a sense of intimacy. It creates wider walkways and more clutter in the part of the park that doesn't benefit from them. And why the heck does the parade go there, to begin with? Doesn't it make just as much sense to limit the parade route to Fantasyland and Main Street?

I puzzled over this for years until I remembered some very old photographs I had seen. As it happens, Magic Kingdom's parade route is ported over directly from Disneyland's parade route in the 1960s. The parades at Disneyland in this era started on Main Street, turned left through Frontierland, and ended over by the Haunted Mansion! The parade route did not seem to change to its current route, from Small World to Main Street, until the 1970s, which is about when Disney began building very tall and wide parade floats.

Here's Disneyland's Christmas Fantasy parade making it way past the Aunt Jemima Pancake House in the 60s:

So Magic Kingdom, interestingly, has retained the "bones" of some Disneyland history long since past. I'd love to see a Magic Kingdom with a relocated parade route to reflect Disneyland's. It's easy to imagine how much more pleasant Liberty Square and Frontierland could be with spreading trees and more benches. Of course, given that the staff entrance to Magic Kingdom is on top of where a relocated parade barn would need to go and New Fantasyland is taking up the rest of the space, this is one change we'll never see at Magic Kingdom, but it's interesting to know where it came from.

07) Stitch's Supersonic Celebration Stage (2009)

Everything old is new again!

That's good news for the Peoplemover and the Carousel of Progress, but it's bad news for remembering mistakes that were made long, long ago.

The background here is that in 1980, Magic Kingdom turned what was originally an open seating area West of the Carousel of Progress into an open-air stage, the Tomorrowland Theater. This stage was, in a word, lousy. The backstage facilities were no more than some permanently-parked trailers, the seating and "walls" were pounded into asphalt with pegs. The seats were standard metal baseball bleachers. If, like me, you ever went up on the stage, you could hear its simple metal framework shifting and creaking under your weight.

The Entertainment Department hated using this creaky old thing, and who can blame them. Disneyland's Tomorowland gets a lot of energy from the stage and bandstand in the center of the land, so the idea of moving the Tomorrowland stage to a central location and rebuilding it as a more permanent venue was a good one. But literally everything else about this idea was misbegotten.

Entertainment's plans for the stage were originally extremely plain. What little ornamentation exists on the side and front of the humongous box was added by Imagineering late in the game. The entire structure is out of scale for the area it inhabits, introducing aesthetically irrelevant purple boxes. But the fatal mistake was that the whole thing was built with no seating and no shade structure. Although everything else about the original Tomorrowland Stage was cheap, the stage did at least have shade canopies and seats, meaning that people could be persuaded to sit and see whatever happened to be playing in that theater.

The new stage opened one especially hot Spring in 2009, an open air theater sitting in a sea of concrete in the hottest, most punishing area of Magic Kingdom. The show it opened with, Stitch's Supersonic Celebration, has developed quite the toxic reputation in Disney circles, partly because it closed after only a few weeks and partly because Stitch Mania had already played itself out by 2009. But really, it didn't have much to do with the show. Any show that asks its audience to stand or sit on a concrete expanse in Florida in the sun is not going to do well.

This photo from Attractions Magazine really says it all.

Attractions Magazine - 2009
 In many ways it was a hilarious replay of what happened with the Mad Tea Party in 1971 - except the Tomorrowland stage never got a roof, or seats. It's now back in nightly use as a dance party venue, but I wouldn't be surprised to see this stage go the way of the dodo if any of the Tomorrowland expansion plans ever materialize. It's one of those "enhancements" that cost a lot of money, didn't work out for anybody, and many would rather it be quietly swept under the rug.

06) Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (2012)

Disney really has been struggling with bringing interactive media into its theme parks. While the panic began way back in the 80s with the ascendancy of Nintendo into daily life, the latest generation of kids who grew up clutching smartphones replete with cheap, addictive games like Angry Birds sent Disney into an all-out panic tailspin in the late 00s, and instead of pushing forward immediately with park improvements that could encourage kids to look up from their smart phones, they responded by launching competing cheap distractions of their own.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is a great idea. The notion of discovering secret, out of the way pockets of Magic Kingdom and battling monsters there is a great one. But instead of carving out new quiet areas and encouraging real exploration, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom drop its game portals thoughtlessly into any existing area it could find. Portals are often just steps away from major pedestrian paths, usually hidden in such a way that isn't really hidden at all.

But really the biggest problem with Sorcerers is that it's a lousy game. Since the 80s, various companies have tied to compete with traditional controller-driven game play under the notion that the controller is an artificial imposition and that a superior game would somehow dispense with the buttons. Since the 80s, these experiments have always been a failure, and the reason is because a game pad is nothing but the most convenient way to make a game easy enough to play to allow the player to focus on the truly compelling elements of gaming: rhythm, timing, and strategy. You can't focus on perfecting the rhythm of sword blows if you have to swing a big heavy sword.

Simultaneously a similarly misguided idea was born that, since the best video games are often cinematic, one way to improve games would be to make them like interactive movies. This line of thinking led to the infamous Full-Motion Video games or FMV, which combine the thrill of watching a low budget movie with occasional button pressing. This type of game is even less immersive than even the crudest video games. Sorcerers combines both of these bad ideas into a phenomenally dull game.

The actual game play involves holding up (nifty) collectible cards pointed at a screen, except instead of watching something enjoyably trashy like a Troma film (as in the case of many of the better FMV games), you're watching a straight-to-DVD Disney sequel. The main way to improve your game play is to collect better cards, which can be traded or, of course, bought. There's no skill involved in actually playing the game outside of building a deck of powerful cards. This may seem to be superficially similar to playing card games like Magic or Yu-Gui-Oh, except in those cases you're strategizing against a person who has cards you don't know about. Sorcerers is no more complex or satisfying than assembling a burn deck. I had a burn deck when I was a kid and after using it three or four times I realized I wasn't actually playing the game even if I won. I had the same sinking realization the first time I set out to play this game.

But really the most regrettable thing about the game is the damage it does to the environment of the theme park. If you had to walk down obscure side paths that led only to a Sorcerers game portal or through a network of themed rooms that would be one thing, but none of the game play stations are at all hidden. This means that simply by walking around the theme park you're constantly seeing poorly animated Disney villains on televisions poking out of windows, and hearing things like explosion sound effects. In an environment as carefully crafted and thoroughly controlled as Magic Kingdom, that's not just out of place, it's downright disrespectful.

05) The Grand Prix Raceway / Tomorrowland Speedway (1971)

Walt Disney really liked highways, and as a man of his generation, who can blame him? They were cutting edge, brand new, and America was really good at building them in the 1950s. When Disneyland opened with its own micro-highway in Tomorrowland, the notion of being able to drive a tiny car on a modern highway was intoxicating to many Southern California kids. Astonishingly, the ride was so popular that at its height Disneyland ran three Autopia rides - the Tomorrowland Autopia, Fantasyland Autopia, and Midget Autopia.

Given how of its time the romance of a space age road was, on paper it makes sense to re-theme the car ride into something more modern by 1971. The late 60s and early 70s in America saw the start of the true mainstream fascination with motor sports which is with us today, reflected in films like Grand Prix and The Love Bug. Racing culture derived from the gear head car kids of the 1950s, so it can be claimed with a great degree of accuracy that the racing theme of the Grand Prix Raceway is the next evolution of the modern highway of the Autopia.

But, but. The Disneyland Autopia has aged surprisingly well and the Raceway has not. Already by the 1960s, the Autopia was becoming pleasantly lush and today it's a veritable forest - the most dense area of scenic vegetation in Disneyland outside of the Jungle Cruise. This makes a ride on it surprisingly rewarding - perhaps a reminder less of space age super transit than charming drives in the country. While LA's freeways have widened from two to four to sixteen lanes, the Autopia now looks cute and cuddly.

The Magic Kingdom Speedway isn't bad in the scenic department, but it's hard to call it "pleasant", exactly. The track replicates the wide open spaces and long turns of a real grand prix track, and although four decades on it has nicely mature trees and beautiful views of the castle, it's still a stark open expanse of concrete. The Grand Prix theme means that the Magic Kingdom's car ride accommodates four lanes of traffic, instead of the more intimate two at Disneyland, and features such decorative items as a large paved embankment and one whole overpass. Its placement nearer the center of the park means it's impossible to avoid the sights, sounds and smells of the ride, whereas at Disneyland the ride is reasonably well isolated in the far corner of Tomorrowland.

This is one case where the new idea that was sound on paper made an even bigger mess in practice. Raceways, whatever else may be said of them, are not aesthetically beautiful places and Disney proved it not only by building this attraction but by building a real raceway in front of the park in the 1990s. It's a shame that one of the few Magic Kingdom attractions to effectively never change is such a dud visually.

04) How To Misplace A Mountain (1992)

This one's tough to talk about, because Splash Mountain is a Magic Kingdom classic and deserves a place in that park, as do Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear. It's wildly popular, well designed, and is still - still - a major headliner attraction at the park.

But it just doesn't fit there.

Consider for a moment the disjunction between the homespun aesthetic of Splash Mt and the rustic river town of Frontierland. Frontierland is frontier men and fur trappers; Splash Mountain is a homespun quilt. There's a few attempts to blend it into the environment - many of the tunnels are now mine shafts and the music has a "bluegrass" twang to it - but the more you notice it the more and more apparent it is that the design team on this ride was just destined to get clobbered trying to fix the problem.

Splash Mountain gets in through a side door, I think, thanks to the fact that Country Bear Jamboree already existed in the area, and being descended from Marc Davis designs for America Sings and Song of the South, Splash Mountain fits in just enough to not seem like a gross contradiction. Until you realize that the red Georgia clay of the mountain is down south, not old west, and the romantic South isn't "Frontierland" no matter how you try to define it.

What elevates a poor thematic placement into the top five is that it makes mince of the careful architectural and conceptual progression of Magic Kingdom's river district, the true heart and most accomplished area of the park.

Liberty Square sweeps from upper New England (The Haunted Mansion) down through Philadelphia and Virginia (The Hall of Presidents) before heading west and transitioning to Frontierland at St. Louis (The Diamond Horseshoe). It then proceeds through the frontier territories, perhaps Kansas and Colorado, before arriving at cowboy vernacular architecture (Pecos Bill Cafe), then heading direct for the great Southwest pueblo architecture and monument valley (Big Thunder Mountain). This means that Splash Mountain's "deep south" is inserted directly into the section of the progression which once had a unified southwest and desert rock look. Lots of trees and an orange-red color help ease the intrusion, but an intrusion it indeed is.

The progression, of course, was intended from the start and would have ended with Thunder Mesa instead of Big Thunder Mountain, but of course Big Thunder was designed to replicate the sort of rock work we would have had surrounding Western River Expedition, so the careful progression was retained into the early 90s.

Just as unfortunate, Splash Mountain is out of scale for Frontierland. This part of the park was designed to sit on a lower elevation than Adventureland and by the time the facades ramble out towards Pecos Bill, they were originally quite short. The need to have the pedestrian path cross over the main drop of Splash Mountain means that a large hill was added at the end of the street, spoiling the forced perspective of the Pecos Bill facades until they were rebuilt at double height a few years later. More significantly, the elevated view of Big Thunder Mountain from the top of the Splash Mountain hill steps on the forced perspective of Big Thunder Mountain, which originally rose gracefully at the end of the otherwise flat Frontierland area like a beacon and looked absolutely colossal.

Really the only upside of Splash Mountain's placement is the absolutely terrific views of Liberty Square and Cinderella Castle from the top of the main lift hill and pedestrian bridge. That's the reason why it's there, and it's understandable and obvious. Of course, we can ask if the view of the castle is really all that important - Disneyland's faces some trees and, far away, the Matterhorn, and Tokyo has a general view of Westernland, and nobody thinks that there's something seriously missing when they ride those versions of the ride.

In many ways this is a tough call because the spot it was built is really the only place in Magic Kingdom it could have realistically went without building a self-contained Critter Country, which of course could not be directly on the big river, an important feature. Still, if I could move that mountain to an equally appropriate place in the park, I would.

Steve Burns

The gorgeous stretch of land between Country Bear Jamboree and Thunder Mountain, with spreading trees, flowers, and split-rail fence, was one of the few areas in that Frontierland to feel genuinely rustic. And it seems to be a shame to lose that beautiful original train station, and that sense of a town way out on the edge of nothing, in the bargain.

03) The Emporium Expansion (2001)

This one was brutal.

I probably don't have to explain what this one was, because even to new visitors, it's obvious that the giant facade which fills what was once Center Street shouldn't be there. This isn't to say that it looks out of place, per se, but there's something about its interior being extraordinarily out of scale and the way it unbalances the neat, four-block symmetry of Main Street that just draws attention to itself.

Two other castle parks have lost their West Center streets: Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland. Disneyland's is the least objectionable, having retained all of their old architecture and simply filled the street with an open-air cafe. Even later additions of increasingly disruptive shade structures at least retain the sense of there being a street, even if it is an impassible one. Hong Kong filled their center street with a shop in the style of Magic Kingdom, but did actually find an okay compromise by making the structure a glass-domed Victorian greenhouse which still allows you to look up at the original architecture it displaced. If anything it looks even more out of place on Main Street than the Emporium expansion, but it manages a more pleasant overall effect.

The thing about the Emporium expansion is that it didn't need to be so severe. There was no compelling reason to destroy those opening day facades, slap a roof on the space, and put up a new front. Relocating part of one stock room was all that was required to expand the Emporium west, through the old Barber Shop, and wrap it around the back of the West Center street facades to connect on the other side. This would likely have resulted in much more, and more pleasant, floor space while maximizing an area that everyone enjoyed. Heck, they could even have done what Disneyland Paris did and wrap the Emporium around the existing barber shop and added another entrance. Crazy talk, I know.

And that's the thing: when you look at old photos, family photos and promotional photos of Magic Kingdom, you see the Flower Market and Center Street a lot. I've watched dozens of reels of 8mm home movies and seen probably thousands of amateur photographs and Center Street is one of those things that everyone bothered to photograph, along with the monorail, the castle, and the parade. I've seen enough family photographs in there over the years to know that it was like the Court of Angels at Disneyland - a space of hallowed ritual.

Shops come cheap and easy at Disney World; they may appear in corners, under tents, or in the open air. But people don't buy things if they don't first and foremost like what they see. Atmospheric, accomplished areas like West Center street are the reason for profit, not an opportunity to profit. When theme park operators forget this, they not only shoot themselves in the foot by deracinating the value of their parks, but they rob future generations of the glory of the Disney art of the show.

02) Cinderella Castle Stage (mid-70s)

This is one that seemed harmless at the time, but has grown and grown to the point where it's done real damage to the park it once enhanced.

The castle forecourt has always been used as a stage in one way or another. Originally the area between the forward sweep of the ramps into the castle was a mildly raised platform used for band performances. In the mid-70s, a small stage went up in that space, used for Kids of the Kingdom performances and marching band shows. Sometimes, it was used for a bit more. By the 1990s it would host the occasional special event show for the Christmas parties.

The first real change came in 2001, an elaborate stage show called "Cinderella's Surprise Celebration", which ran five times daily and featured permanently parked bright cartoon gifts on the stage. For a show introduced to celebrate the birth of Walt Disney, Surprise Celebration was a poorly written embarrassment. This was the one where Peter Pan defeats Captain Hook by dropping him through a hidden trap door on the castle parapet - and if that sounds intriguing to you, it was accomplished by having the Hook actor duck out of sight.

The show pointedly departed from its predecessors on the point of being loud. It could be heard from everywhere the the hub area and in most of the entrance areas of the various lands. For better or worse, this is the show which killed off the Main Street vehicles - guests were allowed to congregate on the road in front of the castle, and operations responded by simply deciding to stop using the vehicles instead of going up against the heavy-hitting Entertainment department for use of the tarmac.

The next show, Cinderellabration, raised the stakes by adding a taller, more elaborate stage, daytime fireworks, and annexing the entire Hub as the viewing area. This show was billed as a "gift" from Tokyo Disneyland to Magic Kingdom to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Disneyland (no, Disney couldn't explain this logic either) and Entertainment decreed that those huge trees in the middle of the hub must go because they interfered with sight lines for the stage. And so the beautiful original hub was paved.

Cinderellabration was mostly a crashing bore, frequently putting the tiara-ed kids it was directed at to sleep, and so was retired quickly. Dream Along With Mickey, the show which replaced it, returned to the basic format of Cinderella's Surprise Celebration, featuring an appearance by Captain Hook and Smee and having Maleficent crash the party. Mickey and friends originally wore blue and silver outfits appropriate to the Year of a Million Dreams sweepstakes promotion which coincided with its opening, and since Disney's newest hard ticket event was the Pirate and Princess Parties, the show dutifully broke down into Pirate and Princess sections. And it ran seven times a day, meaning the interior of the castle was inaccessible from 9:30 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon. There's people who have been to Walt Disney World multiple times and don't know you're even allowed to walk through the castle.

A show which has the audience shouting marketing slogans to defeat the forces of evil, Dream Along With Mickey is a show that could only be loved by a Marketing executive, but it's become a Magic Kingdom stalwart. It if makes it to Spring 2016, it will have been running for ten years, and of course the Hub being emptied of all features except standing room for the castle stage paved the way for such questionable features as the similarly disruptive Move It, Shake It dance parade.

This means that maybe the most important land in the Magic Kingdom - the first one - has been subjugated to a supporting role as the host for a variety of inappropriate parades and shows. No other Disneyland-style park has thrown the period atmosphere of their Main Street under a bus so thoroughly. Walking onto Main Street at Disneyland and Disneyland Paris is a joy because it looks and feels like what it's supposed to be - horse drawn carriages, the rattle of a vintage car, the calming music all contributes to the sense of this being a real city. Without the grace touches, including Center Street mentioned above, Magic Kingdom's street sometimes feels like a funnel towards a castle where Mickey Mouse is screaming at you through a bullhorn.

Now that the Hub is finally being rebuilt into something which better balances atmosphere and traffic, Magic Kingdom really needs to start assessing the appropriateness of what they're subjecting their paying customers to. Main Street doesn't need a blaring dance party, three parades, and an endless character breakdown, it needs to be allowed to be itself. Character shows can happen in other places, too.

The introduction of the stage to the castle in the mid-70s began a slow degradation and increasing disregard for the thematic authority of one of the few Magic Kingdom areas to have a valid claim to a connection with Walt Disney. If I could go back in time and prevent one thing from happening at Magic Kingdom, it would be this. A beautiful Main Street, twinkle lights in the trees, that view of the turning carousel through the arch of Cinderella Castle, and the ability to walk up to and walk through a fairy tale castle is a right you should have by paying your ticket to walk into this place. It's so important and I don't think most people know what they're missing by trading it for a poorly written character show or a better view of some fireworks.

01) Mickey's Birthdayland (1988)

It really is remarkable that such a quickly built little trifle has had such a remarkably extensive legacy.

If we take a step back and think about what it offered and what it begat for a moment, it becomes apparent that the core of the Mickey's Birthdayland, the Meet Mickey attraction, doesn't make much sense. If you simply go from the bulk of the material that made Mickey famous - the clever and brilliantly executed cartoons - a dressing room doesn't seem to be a logical place to encounter him. Mickey Mouse should be out having adventures, not perfecting his look in front of a mirror. The combination of the suburban house and dressing room, with or without the stage show from the original incarnation of Birthdayland, implied less "dynamic beloved character" and more "retiree".

So there's the immediately problematical fact that Birthdayland codified a Mickey attraction which doesn't do the guy any favors at all. I know people who absolutely loathe Mickey Mouse because for their entire life he's been nothing but a character who toes the line and tells you what to buy, or how to feel. He deserves better. In the past there were several efforts to raise his profile in the parks in a way more consistent with his character. Bill Justice's Mickey Mouse Revue had huge pacing problems, but Mickey conducting that cartoon orchestra was and remains irresistible, and if Mickey didn't have much to do besides conduct, at least you could watch him doing it throughout the show,  putting him on par with a Tiki Bird or Mr. Lincoln.

In the late 70s, Bill Justice and Ward Kimball worked on an attraction called Mickey's Madhouse, which was intended as a tour of a cartoon studio in black and white where riders could see such films as Orphan's Benefit being "filmed". This would have combined a Mr. Toad-style dark ride with a car on a roller coaster track, providing a few thrills along the way. Notice that both of these attractions were headed up by former animators.

By now every Disney park has a "Meet Mickey" attraction, and it's a shame, because the proliferation of this specific idea of what a Mickey attraction is means that a more inventive one is unlikely to ever get built. Pretty much the most appropriate venue for Mickey Mouse available today is Fantasmic, which prioritizes his heroic and resourceful qualities. Mickey's Philhamagic is a telling example of the rest: it's named for him, he's on the marquee, he's the first thing you see upon entering the building - and it's a show starring Donald Duck.

And yet we should also discuss the lasting physical legacy of Mickey's Birthdayland: tents. Many, of course, are quick to point out that Birthdayland used tents because it was meant to be a temporary attraction, but one wonders how long that temporary status lasted: a week? A month? Remember that by the time the Disney-MGM Studios opened the concept to use the park as a real movie studio had already been abandoned, so it's not as though Disney in the late 80s wasn't used to putting a spit shine on a bad decision.

And so Mickey's Birthdayland gifted us with tents. Tents that will never ever go away.

The Mickey's House - Stage Show - Meet Mickey attraction lineup proved to be extremely popular, so much so that Birthdayland was "promoted" to permanent area status in 1990 and called Mickey's Starland. Nothing changed; it still had the same low budget look. The area was rebuilt into Mickey's Toontown Fair in 1996 as a "birthday gift" for the 25th anniversary of Walt Disney World, which made the whole area much more permanent and introduced some clever touches but increased the volume of the noise and clutter.

The three north most Starland tents were retained for Toontown, becoming the queueing area for the "Meet Mickey" attraction (now upgraded from a dressing room to a Judge's Tent). Additional meeting areas were packed in around the Mickey attraction, eventually settling on a lineup of three Princesses - who, like Mickey, just hang around in tents all day - as well as a selection of Tinkerbell pixies.

By 2001 the Toontown tent complex had become the single most profitable structure per square foot at Magic Kingdom. Mickey was the anchor, pulling crowds into Toontown, then dispersing them through a variety of shops and photograph locations. This profitability would ensure that the tents would survive yet another round of renovations- Storybook Circus.

Storybook Circus managed the impossible, which was to turn an area of Magic Kingdom which had no business ever existing into something which feels like it belongs there. It accomplished this by leveling everything and starting over. Of course, before this could be done, the cash cows - Mickey and the Princesses - had to be relocated to Main Street, where Mickey received a much more appropriate attraction and the Princesses didn't. They would have to wait for their own lavish attraction, which would displace the Snow White's Scary Adventures dark ride.

Despite the fact that the reasons for the success of those tents were being scattered to the winds, it was proclaimed by fiat that the tents must remain due to their profitability. What had previously been the Princess Tent was transformed into Pete's Silly Sideshow, a permanent venue for Mickey, Donald, Minnie and Daisy with a nicely done circus theme. The crowds never quite returned to their original levels. What had previously been a bustling store where Princess dresses and Mickey dolls flew off the shelves now seems nearly abandoned after nightfall. The Sideshow meet and greet has started closing early.

The legacy of Birthdayland is not just a legacy of questionable designs but questionable practices. It initiated the concept of having to wait in line to see a character, which has destroyed any sense of spontaneity these encounters used to have. And particularly at Walt Disney World, there's no such thing anymore as just coming across Pluto, Goofy, or Baloo, and the fact that they are kept out of sight in locked rooms means that demand for them is artificially inflated.

The Mickey attraction has given us Mickey's Birthdayland and Mickey's Toontown Fair, and it wasn't until 2012 that Imagineering was able to pry those cartoon aesthetics out of Magic Kingdom - nearly 25 years. And in the bargain it also led to the closure of the Snow White dark ride, which is one of those things that ought to be a birthright of Disneyland-style parks.

Now that the power of the circus tents is on the wane, it really would be a nice gesture to finally lose them and build a permanent ride in that spot. The three Storybook Circus tents take up about as much room as the Mermaid ride next door. The basic problem is that the use of tents, no matter how nicely you build them or how intricately you theme them, still evoke temporary structures and, by extension, cheapness. Cheap ideas and cheap aesthetics are what Birthdayland initiated, yet it must be said that the new Magician Mickey and Fairytale Hall attractions are far above its standard, leaving just those three tents as symbols of Birthdayland's enduring legacy.

We may not ever be able to at this late date scrub Birthdayland loose from the Disney parks, but finally seeing the tents fall would mean that its most objectionable aspect - its aesthetics - will finally be banished to that great theme park in the sky.


I've been accused not unfairly in the past of being extremely tough on Imagineering when I dip my toes into the world of critique. Long posts like this are never easy to write, and I hope that my evident respect for the parks manifest elsewhere on this blog will help balance the grumpier aspects of this piece. Those are my ten big regrets. If you could change or move anything at Magic Kingdom, what would your choice be?

Do you enjoy long, carefully written essays on the ideas behind theme parks, like this one? Hop on over to the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Theory Hub Page for even more!