Friday, December 23, 2016

Nintendo's Universal Worlds

I grew up with video games. If you asked me at age seven what my favorite place was, after Walt Disney World I would have told you it was the Mushroom Kingdom. Video games are dreamscapes, fantasy worlds that invite us in to escape. Along with cinema and amusement parks, video games are the third pillar of 20th century escapism - unapologetically popular entertainments which were created to amuse and distract the working classes.

If you dig into game design books, you'll see those links made again and again. The best games are said to aspire to be cinematic, and often are themselves pastiches of popular cinema - Die Hard on a spaceship, James Bond in an ancient pyramid. Disneyland is often brought up by game designers as a key inspirational space, a fully manufactured setting which is also clean, clear, and coherent across generations and cultures. Theme parks are just one other way to achieve immersion and escape.

And so, as a longtime Nintendo kid and a fan of the oeneric dreamscapes of theme parks, one would think that I would be preparing the paper streamers and rolling out the red carpet in advance of the announcement of the wonderfully titled Super Nintendo World - a mouthwatering expansion coming soon to Universal parks. And let's be clear here: I am. Having not been a fan of Cars, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, I finally feel like here's something elaborate that's aimed at me. As beautifully done as those areas have been or promise to be, my heart did not soar at my first sight of Hogwarts. But put a gold coin on a stick and have it spin around behind somebody's head, and I'm going to need to sit down.

So yes, I'm an easy mark. Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Metroid, Mega Man, and Legend of Zelda were my 'galaxy far, far away' growing up, and I'm going to have a strong reaction no matter what ends up getting done. But that doesn't mean I can't have concerns about what's going to happen, and thoughts on the dividing lines between how video games, theme parks, and films create meaning.

So here's our chance to take a quick overview of Nintendo and theme parks. I've stated before on this site that I think Disney has so far failed to do justice to both games and immersive theming at the same time, and perhaps we can dig under that a little. Not a lot. It's a huge topic, and the year is almost up.

Super Mario Disneyland

So what exactly did Universal get themselves into here?

Super Mario is series which as of late has largely confined itself to the Mushroom Kingdom, but in its early years often took bizarre and irrational detours to lands abroad - the middle eastern Sub-Con, the Asian Sarasaland, the expansive Dinosaur Land. The visual style of each game was often totally different than the ones before it - the ghostly, abandoned open planes of Super Mario Brothers that gave way to a landscape strewn with multicolored blocks and checkerboard tile floors in Super Mario Brothers 3. Yoshi's Island, a prequel set in Dinosaur Land, is manifestly lush and tropical in a way no other game is.

Yet the games have a sense of continuity not so much through their settings and gameplay, as their sense of otherworldliness. The Mushroom Kingdom is filled with bizarre and inexplicable threats. In Super Mario Brothers, there is a palpable loneliness and danger to Mario's mission - only compounded if you read the manual and discover that those plants and blocks are supposed to be the transformed citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom! Morbid. No other Mario game feels as lonely and haunted until you get to Super Mario 64, where the echoing, stone clad interior of Princess Peach's castle leads to some truly heart-stopping moments where Mario is suddenly no longer alone.

The Mario series, like all video games of their era, exist in a world of easily comprehensible symbols. Just as nobody needs an explanation of why you're whipping monsters and ghosts in Castlevania, everyone knows to avoid roaming evil-eyed chestnuts, falling rocks, and leaping fire. In the Mushroom Kingdom, anything that can potentially help you has cute eyes, and everything else has a fierce (or at least dumb) expression. You don't need a language to understand these signifiers.

Super Mario, and the Nintendo Entertainment System generally, was a Japanese import which was wildly successful in an era otherwise terrified of Japan's economic ascendancy. Think of the Tokyo-inflected urban decay of Blade Runner, or potboiler crime pictures like Black Rain or Rising Sun. Super Mario crossed a threshold that Godzilla, Speed Racer, Ultraman and Astro-Boy could not. Even today, Godzilla is still made fun of by a certain generation for being a Japanese import. But Super Mario? That guy was an Italian from Brooklyn. He was pure kawaii nonsense delivered in an Americana candy coating.

Mario's world, with its bipedal turtles, swooping clouds, mobile cacti and cheerful hillsides, is a world of symbols not dissimilar to the fevered imagery incubator of Disneyland. Disneyland is also a place of inexplicable dangers, except Walt Disney used ghosts, dinosaurs, pirates and cannibals instead of mushrooms and man eating plants. They come to roughly the same end: we see these things and know that there's danger up ahead.

Magic Kingdom and Disneyland controlled visitor's experiences by intentionally limiting the number of options available at any time; you can either stop in this shop or this attraction, or keep walking. There's usually only one or two options available at any one time. The linearity of the experience is the defining quality of a theme park, compared to the open grid favored by traditional amusement parks like Kennywood or Cedar Point.

This too is basically similar to the structure of many Mario games - levels must be traversed from left to right, and in a specific order, to reach a specific goal. The most logical way to lay out a Super Mario area for a theme park would be on the pattern of Magic Kingdom's Adventureland - a themed corridor leading to a specific destination.

This imagery-heavy abstraction is the key to understanding why both Disneyland and Nintendo worked so well across generations and ages - both the classic theme parks and early video games created a pressure cooker atmosphere of heated symbolic interpretation, and clawed their way into immortality for their efforts.

Disneyland sticks out in America's literal-minded chronology obsessed pop culture, but I don't think it's coincidental that the Japanese recognized this quality in Disneyland and wanted one of their own badly. After years of rejections, Walt Disney Productions finally relented in the mid-70s - and then, only as a way to get a quick cash infusion due to spiraling costs on EPCOT Center. Tokyo Disneyland opened in April 1983 - just three months to the day before the release of the Nintendo Famicom in Japan. There's a family resemblance between the aesthetics of the Famicom and the Tomorrowland section of Tokyo Disneyland, as if one influenced the other.

In the Mario games of my youth, Mario was a cypher, almost mysterious. He wasn't cuddly - his game sprites made him look stoic, serious. It required a certain degree of interpretation if you wanted to know why this Italian guy was murdering large numbers of turtles. What his personality was like was up to your imagination.

On television, as portrayed by wrestler Lou Albano, the New York aspects of Mario were emphasized - his goofy accent, his constant need for pizza. One of the only other American depictions of Mario produced before the current Mario character debuted in Super Mario 64 may be found in the Phillips CDi game Hotel Mario, where Mario is voiced by actor Marc Graue in a style very similar to Albano's Mario.

In this sense it's easy to see how Americans adopted Mario as one of their own, and it's no wonder that many of us were taken aback by the voice and childlike attitude of Mario in Super Mario 64. Until that seminal game, although you played as Mario, there was no insight into what Mario was thinking or how he would sound, if he could speak. This actually isn't all that different than the abstraction of a WED classic like The Jungle Cruise. What does Trader Sam sound like? It's up to you to decide.

And it isn't WED Enterprises that's building Super Nintendo World, nor is it 1983. The Mario of today is as different from the Mario of 1985 as WED Enterprises is different from Walt Disney Imagineering. And therein lies some of my concerns.

The Difficulty of Complexity

Games grew up quick in the 80s. By the time Nintendo had premiered the Famicom Disk System in 1986, a new breed of interactive narrative was being carved out by innovative hybrid games like Castlevania 3 and Metroid. With the move from 8 to 16 bit consoles in 1988 and 1990, hardware and social forces were in place to give rise to the sort of epic adventure stories that Square Soft and Enix were pioneering. Video games began to resemble the sort of lengthy narratives best contained in novels.

But Mario did not change. Super Mario World may justifiably be called one of the most gorgeous video games ever produced, but mechanically it was very much like the 8 bit games which had preceded it. The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past more or less hit reset on the Zelda series, offering up a hugely expanded take on the concepts behind the original game. But if we really want to dig into the strengths and weaknesses of the expanding scope video games, we really don't have to look much further than Sonic the Hedgehog.

A sort of stepping stone between the pared down, symbolic creations seem on the Famicom and the hugely elaborate spectacles offered on the Playstation and Nintendo 64, Sonic oh so briefly stole the crown from Mario. Sonic may have been built for speed, but he wasn't really built to last.

In 1991, Sonic was something new from the world go - his sarcastic expression and waggling finger taunting you from the load screen. But the first game was actually an awkward series of jumps presented in a glossy, promising package. Through 4 subsequent installments, the series improved bit by bit, before coalescing into the exhilarating Sonic 3  / Sonic & Knuckles.

These are games of surface pleasures - the smooth controls, the buzzing rock soundtracks, the cool looks of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Robotnik. But the release of Sonic & Knuckles in 1995 was also the end: SEGA was never again able to leverage the blue hedgehog to a widely successful game. Part of this is due to the failure of four SEGA hardware launches in a row, but part of it is because Sonic never convincingly adapted to a new kind of game - a game that didn't just zip from left to right.

And it was when Sonic was down for the count that Super Mario 64 landed and went off like a bomb in the industry - reshaping conceptions of what these kinds of video game characters could do. Today, Sonic is a beloved character, but experienced best and most often in games where he races, or jousts, or fights Nintendo characters. More young kids have probably played as Sonic in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games than they have in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

There's no longer any kind of brand expectation from Sonic. And the reason is because maybe Sonic never really was about being in excellent games - maybe it always was that Sonic is always just Sonic; a better design, a better idea, than an actual character. Maybe the most compelling Sonic product in years has been the cartoon Sonic Boom, a ludicrous weekly excursion into weird humor and lame puns. People like the idea of Sonic more than they do the phenomenon of Sonic.

Sonic briefly represented the future, but in the end he was no more than a fresh coat of paint on the same old problem: people liked these characters because they were simple and relatable. Sonic and Knuckles exist barely more as figures in a silent serial: the cool guy who taps his foot, the evil guy who laughs. Mario is barely more than an abstract vessel to carry viewers through his games.

But isn't this very close to how theme park operate, too? If we're being rushed through a set at 3 feet a second, we don't have time for anything but clear, unambiguous images. Where Sonic failed is when he had to be more than that - to carry a compelling narrative about anything more than smashing robots and being cool.

We could also look at Capcom's Mega Man. Originally about little more than an Astroboy knockoff defeating a mad scientist, Mega Man presented a surprisingly bright, upbeat future of whimsical but aggressive robots. Being an early game, it was not properly translated and released with little fanfare - leaving the door open for American kids to discover and speculate on what exactly the deal with Mega Man was. Was he a soldier? A police officer? A human on an alien world? Early video games on the NES, PC and Atari were imaginatively stimulating experiences because of what they left out, offering players an opportunity to fill in the gaps in their own way.

Capcom eventually rebooted Mega Man into an elaborate and dystopian technology parable, heavily inflected by Blade Runner and The Terminator. And while several of those games are terrific, the flagship Mega Man series was sputtering out. By the early 2000s it had been rebooted yet again - into a form that little resembled its bright, cheerful, side scrolling roots. Today Mega Man is relegated to cameos and nostalgia pieces, even less relevant than Sonic is.

But compared to SEGA and Capcom's efforts to grow their signature game series, Nintendo went and doubled down on Mario's essential abstraction.

By the time Nintendo was selling copies of Super Mario 64, Mario was up against competitors like Solid Snake and Cloud from Final Fantasy VII - games that could shock or emotionally involve players in ways they had never imagined while pushing buttons on their NES. Mario was an abnormality - a cheerful but basically inaccessible fellow, eternally bubbly, in a world of bright colors and happy endings. And he stayed that way. Like Mickey Mouse, attempts to update Mario inevitably failed - and unlike Disney, Nintendo actually recognized this. Even while they branched Mario out into elaborate new genres like racing and RPG, Mario always was just Mario - he only required that players accept him as himself, a sort of mascot.

The Paper Mario series is an interesting case study in this. Hugely immersive and unapologetically long, Paper Mario expanded the intricacy and mythology of the Mushroom Kingdom in ways impossible to do in 16 bits - and they did it without even requiring Mario to speak. The cheerful, red-hatted avatar was the eye of the storm while his presence allowed Nintendo to draw on larger and larger canvases around him.

And yet, strictly speaking in terms of market share, the Mario series had been on a downslide since 1996. Mario 64 had sold less than Yoshi's Island before it, and Super Mario Sunshine sold less than Mario 64. Reissues of Mario's 2D adventures continued to do well on new formats like the Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo eventually gave up and launched a new series of 2D Mario games: New Super Mario Brothers, which has become the staple of Nintendo's portfolio. New Nintendo systems now tout 2D, retro-style Mario adventures.

Yes, that's right. The buying public voted with their dollars in favor of 1980s style abstractions, and Nintendo gave them what they wanted. Disney would've buried their heads in the sand.

Simple Mario Super Show

Which brings us back to Universal, Disney's greatest competitor. As I've claimed elsewhere on this site, Universal's most salient characteristic is their insistence on constructing their attractions based on actual linear narratives. Disney has copied the attitude, but almost none of the specifics - troweling  elaborate narrative justifications on top of random events. Universal actually sets up plot points in their queues that they expect you to keep track of and understand they're paying off later, down the line.

The thing is that I'm not at all sure that theme parks are actually any good at telling those kind of stories, and audiences don't seem to care. It's nice if they're there for the kind of people who go to blogs like this, but it isn't necessary - the kind of simple storytelling represented by a falling rock in Super Mario Brothers 3 or a floating candle in The Haunted Mansion works just as well.

Directly compare two recent Universal extravaganzas: their Harry Potter rides Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts. Despite a typically elaborate narrative setup, nothing that happens in Forbidden Journey makes any sense at all - what you're doing, why it's happening, or why Harry is tolerating it. He even shouts at you in one scene thanks to your inexplicable adventure through Spiderville. Compared to this, Gringotts actually makes a lot of sense - it's well paced, it has setups and payoffs, it actually rewards an attentive rider.

But none of that matters all that much because Forbidden Journey does things that work in the narrative environment that rides create, whereas Gringotts is telling you the kind of story better told in a movie. The strengths of Forbidden Journey are themed design strengths - crazy action, immediate dangers, weird illusions. People get off Forbidden Journey excited and inspired. The ride where you bop around in a mine car and characters on IMAX screens shout exposition at you cannot compare, and guests leave somewhat underwhelmed.

Nintendo games are about mysteries, things left unexplained, unpredictable explorations of bizarre worlds. They aren't about, and they don't tell, linear, comprehensible narratives in anything but the simplest way. They're about experiences and emotions, not about writing and plot points.

I don't know if the charm of the best Nintendo games will translate to a physical medium. While Nintendo's nostalgic appeals and retro-style product help convince me that the folks at Nintendo at least know where their strengths are, I've got less hope that the American themed design industry, so obsessed with minutae and specific storytelling techniques, will be able to make the jump.

In Super Mario Brothers 3, there's a room in a World 5 fortress that's empty. There's no secrets to discover in it. It's only there for atmosphere - to make you think about where you are and what you're doing, and to feel the dark and lonely atmosphere. To me it signifies all that's compelling about old school video games - the creation of compelling spaces without explanations or finger pointing. These things aren't all jumping and shooting, or at least they don't need to be. That's the magic of Nintendo. That's what Universal needs to aim at.

The eye of the storm.

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!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Marc Davis and Pirate Gold

I've spent a lot of time on this blog praising Marc Davis. I've lauded his character design and taste in designing an attraction which few enjoy, Country Bear Jamboree. I've tried to bring attention to the sensitivity of tone in his 1971 Jungle Cruise. I've praised the original conception of the Haunted Mansion Attic scene - the one that didn't work - as brilliant. So let's step back for a moment and take a look at one time Marc designed something that didn't really work.

Besides discussing the Haunted Mansion and rambling about music, maybe one of the key elements of this blog has been Pirates of the Caribbean. I've made the case for the excellence of this experience at Disneyland, and mounted an elaborate defense of the maligned Florida version of the attraction. I've even tried to make the case that Marc Davis truncated the Florida Pirates with some care - care not evident because Western River Expedition was never built.

In some ways this post is an outgrowth of "The Case For The Florida Pirates", an essay now over a half decade old. Rather than force everyone back to read some old writing overstuffed with adjectives, I'm going to cover some of that old ground here and begin by looking at the unique narrative of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Florida.

The Florida Pirates: Narrative Structure

If you've read any of the official books on Pirates of the Caribbean, any official WDI-sourced literature, any of the blogs descending from these official sources, or even actually been trained at the attraction at Walt Disney World, you will have been told that Pirates of the Caribbean is a time travel story. Guests load boats in the present day, discover some dead pirates, drop down a waterfall, and travel back in time to see them sacking a town.

That is the official story. It's also, unfortunately, almost 100% bullshit.

Mind you, this actually is correct - at Disneyland, and also Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. Paris probably gets the prize for being the most coherent of the lot - guests pass through a fort destroyed in a Pirate raid, blackened with gunpowder and stewn with skeletons. Once on the ride proper, the boats travel back in time and we see the raid which destroyed the fort - pirates scale the walls, fight soldiers, and blast open an aqueduct. Shortly, we discover that the chaos extends to the town nestled at the base of the fort, until the reverie ends as the boats float into a gunpowder store room that explodes. Winding through the caves at the foundations of the fort, we discover the skeletons of the doomed survivors, who spent the rest of their lives guarding their treasure. At one point we can see where the destroyed fortress queue and the caverns below connect.

It's a very impressive experience, but by straightening out the chronology some of the power of the ride is dampened. Disneyland's original masterpiece makes almost no sense taken on a scene by scene level, but has an amazing associative power that goes beyond logic. As the boats wend their way through the twisted swamp into the darkness, then through the caverns filled with bones, we sense rather than are told that the layers of reality are being stripped away. By the time the full scale Pirate raid appears, despite having been foreshadowed from literally the moment the facade of the attraction is seen, we are throughly in its thrall.

But the thing about the nearly perfect structure of the Disneyland version is that it was accidental. One could also say that it's a mess. If you've ever had a personal project that came out amazingly well but not in any way that you intended it to, then you know what the design team of Pirates of the Caribbean was dealing with here. The natural inclination is to assume that it turned out well because your ideas preserved despite the rest of the project being a total disaster. If you were given the opportunity to do it over again, you would double down on your ideas and try to eliminate the things that gave you trouble, wouldn't you?

Early version that still ends with a fire!

That's what Marc Davis was doing in Florida. Here he was, given the opportunity to go back to the well and remove all of the extra stuff that was added to Pirates of the Caribbean because the scope of the project kept changing. No longer would the ride begin in New Orleans and wind its way to a Caribbean colony: we begin in the Caribbean town the pirates are going to attack. In one stroke that obliterates the location jumping and the time travel.

So why do we get into the boats and where do we go? By moving up the start of the pirate raid so it begins while patrons are waiting in line, we motivate the boats as escape vessels and add a sense of menace and urgency to the start of the ride. In Disneyland I guess we assume that we're loading onto boats to go on a tour of the Louisiana bayous or something, and make a few wrong turns before being sent back in time. The new plan means that the facade and queue can be devoted to setting up the idea that "the pirates are coming" rather than springing it on audiences halfway through the ride.

Why are the pirates coming? Well, we've already got all of the X Atencio dialogue establishing that they're after the treasure, because what else do Pirates do? At Disneyland they never find that treasure - a casualty of the fact that Marc Davis was pretty much just drawing random stuff under Walt's direction and then X Atencio would show up and try to make sense of it. So we add a new scene at the end where the Pirates have found the treasure. There. The entire thing is streamlined. We are in a caribbean village, the pirates attack, they spread chaos while looking for the treasure, they find the treasure and the ride ends.

Okay, so what about those skeletons at the start of the ride?


If you go back and read "The Case For the Florida Pirates", I pretty much just throw my hands up the air at this point. "It's a problem!" I shout. I've got something new to say about that, and we'll get back to it in a minute.

The Destroyed Fort

All of this narrative information, to have any effect whatever, needs to be set up properly in the queue. The facade and queue for Pirates in Florida really is a masterpiece, albeit one that's almost impossible to perceive now. WDI has done so much futzing with the start of the ride to bring it into line with the time travel story set up at Disneyland that they've destroyed what made it great to begin with, which has a negative effect on our comprehension of the attraction further down the line

It began with tiny things, but tiny things were always placed there by WED for good reason. Originally, the cannons along the roof of the facade would fire. You could hear this through a lot of Adventureland, and it was like a beaconing hand: "Come on in here! Don't you want to find out what's here?". But more importantly, it was a setup so we understood that this was a fort under attack.

Once inside the fort, a short entrance tunnel played a menacing version of the "Yo Ho" theme, but then the music went silent. It needed to, because then we heard the soldiers preparing for the pirate attack. A captain of the guard could be heard ordering the preparations for firing on the pirate ship, and occasionally blasts of cannon fire could be heard. This, combined with the occasional refrain of "Yo-Ho" echoing through the halls, was absolutely essential narrative information that also created the eerie impression that the pirates could be around any corner.

From there, the queues diverged through different areas of the fort, coming back together at Pirate's Cove, a secret rear escape route. Through openings in the cave walls, a distant pirate ship can be seen in the harbor. After a trip through the unexplored caves in the hills behind the fort, boats splash down in the bay, and the pirate ship has begun its attack.

Starting in the late 90s the cannons on the facade were heard less and less often as they went long stretches without being repaired. They were fixed in 2005 shortly before the attraction closed for its big movie overlay refurbishment, but when the show returned in July 2006 the rooftop cannons were silent. They had been muted at the request of Entertainment because they were considered invasive for the "Pirate Tutorial" show happening outside; as of 2016 they are only activated for an effect in one of the Adventureland interactive games.

Also in 2006, the entire queue was refurbished. The dialogue establishing that the pirates are attacking was not removed, but it was drowned out by new music played through the entire queue rather than just the entry area. Worse, instead of the menacing atmospheric music installed by WED in 1973, the music was now the mellow, atmospheric "Overture" played in Disneyland's entrance area. Given the eerie, darkened surroundings, the peaceful flute and rhythmic drums are, and remain, entirely incorrect.

In 2012, as part of the disastrous MyMagic+ program at Walt Disney World, the Pirates queue was again refurbished. This time Fastpass was added to the attraction, requiring a new merge point be created. Worse, the Fastpass side of the queue was cut through a wall near the entrance, removing one of the queue's finest features: the walk up the entrance ramp, then the slow slope down towards the dungeons. Thanks to an original design which did not take into account the very real modern need for wheelchair accessibility, the side of the queue intended by WED to be seen by most guests - the right-side dungeon side with the "chess" and "cave" show scenes - can now only be enjoyed by those with Fastpass.

This is just gone now.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that absolutely everybody understood the setup of the pirate attack in the same easy, clear way that everybody understands the trapped safari at Jungle Cruise: it's a more complex idea. but by removing, bit by bit, the indications that we are entering a Spanish fortress under attack, WDI has, either intentionally or not, made it possible to read the FL ride as a time travel story. And after all why would it not be a time travel story, with every other version being the same way? After all, two other versions of the ride begin with a trip past pirate skeletons and ghosts, setting up the time travel to come. What's the deal with the skeletons at the start?

But given that all of the circa 1973 evidence points us towards an unbroken series of logical events with no timeslip, really WDI should have considered what the significance of the eerie ship out to sea in the distance. Or the pirates heard digging in the cave by the loading area. Or maybe not, since these are two of Marc's finest touches in this ride, and losing them to force the ride to conform to their interpretation of it would be tragic.

Those Darn Skeletons

So really you've got two competing intereptations of the Florida Pirates, both of which appear to fail to explain specific and unavoidable design features of the ride: there's the WDI "timeslip" version, and there's my version, which I believe reflects what WED intended back in 1973.

WDI's version fails to account for the narrative setup in the queue and for the pirate ship seen in the "moonlight bay" tableau. My version has no good explanation for the pirate skeletons seen at the start.

Well, hold on.

Let's go back for a moment here and look again at the final ride. Ultimately, none of the "did you knows" and "fun facts" in the world matter beyond what can be gleaned by simply and purely just looking at the ride. And my mind returns again and again to that cave seen in the queue. Marc Davis put that cave there for a reason - it's the first concrete, unambiguous sign that pirates are indeed afoot - there they are, just out of sight in that cave! We hear the scraping of shovels and their drunken singing and laughing. We know from cultural association that they're digging for treasure.

Then we drop down into town and - at least before Captain Jack Sparrow became the main thing on everyone's mind - we hear, time and again, the pirates are out looking for treasure:

"Speak up ye bilge rat! Where be the treasure?"
"Do not tell him, Carlos! Don't be chicken!"

And then at the end of the ride, we see the fortress' treasure hold and that the pirates have discovered it. We're expected to take this as a clear indication of a narrative resolution. The idea of "looking for treasure" occurs before we get on the ride, during the ride, and as a resolution to the ride, uniquely in this version. It's the primary structuring feature of the Florida attraction.

So what is Dead Man's Cove about? We see the skeletons of pirates and hear the repeated warning "dead men tell no tales". In Disneyland, "dead men tell no tales" doubles as a warning: "the answers you're looking for aren't here". In Florida, it simply and only refers to the actual Dead Man's Cove scene, because the other scenes from the haunted caverns - the inn, the bedroom, the treasure horde - don't appear. In Florida, it's as much of an explanation as it is a warning: these pirates were killed to protect the location of the treasure buried here.

The scene is open to enough interpretation that other, competing speculation has advanced ideas that, say, this is a later band of pirates who killed each other over the gold buried here. I'm confident in my interpretation that the pirates were killed to silence them not only because the idea can be found in Treasure Island, the key source for the ride, but because X Atencio actually wrote narration intended for the caverns sequence that made this clear:
"Hear ye a dead man's tale, what dastardly deed! Brave sea men, these. Helped bury the gold, they did - then silenced forever. Cursed be that black hearted villain! But, stay - I told their tale a'fore, now I be telling it again!"

So this is definitely the burying place for treasure - a lost burying place, because the captain of the ship killed the men who buried it. And if we take the next scene - the skeleton steering a shipwreck - as an indication that the captain then went down with his ship, then the location of the treasure is well and truly lost, and we can now slot this tableau into the story the Florida attraction is telling. Remember, we hear pirates digging in a cave for gold, then board our boats and discover a burial location of gold -- in a cave.

This lost gold is why the pirates attack the island. Presumably, the lost gold was buried there generations before, back when it was mostly uninhabited. In years since, the Spanish crown has turned the area where the gold was buried into a sea-port, and ironically built fortifications right on top of the lost pirate gold.

This is why the pirates fire on the fort, dig in the caverns around it, and raid the town - they assume it was uncovered during the construction. Little do they know that the Spanish didn't find the gold, either - it's still guarded by ghosts and skeletons deep below the fortifications.

Marc was a keen observer of what worked and what didn't in theme parks. The notion of taxidermy animals "waking up" to start a show - an idea repeated for Club 33 and presumably coming direct from Walt Disney - was used again for the start of Country Bear Jamboree. After seeing how effective those unplanned subterranean caverns were at Pirates, Marc would have filed that away in his mind for later use. Marc repeated caverns in his designs for Western River Expedition, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer Island, and Enchanted Snow Palace, and said this to The E-Ticket in 1999:

"You know, you don't really know what's up ahead when you go down into the mysterious area beneath New Orleans Square where all the skeletons are. That mystery area works very well, with the the wind and the dampness, and then the voices."

Marc once said Claude Coats' work was "very commendable", so this recollection by him of the grotto counts as lavish praise. So it makes sense that he would have wanted to retain that element for the Florida show despite having intentionally removed the time travel concept. Going back to the core idea for Dead Man's Cove and building the motivation for the attraction around that tableau was a clever idea.

....which isn't the same as saying that the idea actually worked. There's plenty of Marc designed gags that didn't come off as well as, say, the stretch room portraits. For every few brilliant, snappy, instantly comprehensible visual ideas like the Ballroom duelists in the Haunted Mansion, there's something like the Mummy in the graveyard. I'm not sure I'm any closer to understanding what the deal with the Mummy talking the old guy is than when I was eight. Marc was uncommonly brilliant, but he wasn't perfect.


But it's not as if the experiment with the Florida Pirates was a total wash. Marc took the time to expand and alter Claude Coats' layout of the town sequence so that it's better paced and longer. At Disneyland, the boats approach the well scene from a slightly odd side angle, then turn and end up right in the Auction. In Magic Kingdom, the boats approach and ride alongside the well scene, then ride past some new Marc-designed architecture between the Well and the Auction that adds a bit more build and release to the experience.

At Disneyland, the haunted grotto sequences are brilliant, but they aren't really scary - mysterious, strange, but not scary. For Florida, Marc pushed the ceiling of the cavern down on riders and darkened everything, reserving Claude's beautiful waterfalls for a short scenic stretch at the start. The result - with the narrower caverns, darkness, and loud voices - was truly unnerving. When given the opportunity to rework Pirates a third time for Tokyo Disneyland, Marc brought back the bayou and the extended caves, but kept the low ceiling, the darkness, and the menacing tone. He also replicated the Magic Kingdom town sequences and the unload area - no trip back up the waterfall. Comparing Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland's Pirate attractions reveals much of Marc's thinking about some of his most iconic creations.

Tokyo's Pirates: a darn good compromise

Perhaps in the future some team of Imagineers will attempt to embrace Marc's ideas in the 1973 Pirates instead of work against them. Concieving of the attraction as being a compromised gloss of what was done at Disneyland is not just a disservice to Marc Davis, but it leads to poorly executed additions that do little to harmonize with what the attraction does well. There's no time travel. It's a linear adventure with an en media res opening, a strong motivating image, and an elaborate second act. It may not be as good as Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.... but almost nothing is, and certainly not anything built in the past twenty years by any theme park operator.

Florida Pirates is a good ride, but it needs special consideration - and it hasn't really gotten any since 1973, when it was built. It's time to fix it.


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!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Lost and Found From the Golf Resort

Let's hop on over to the Golf Resort this week for some historical oddities. I had been looking for a reason to put these online, and a recent episode of the Retro Disney World Podcast focusing on the Golf Resort - making heavy use of my research - seemed to create a good opportunity.

On this site I've focused a lot on things like the Golf Resort and Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village - odd experiments from the first few years that are markedly different from the sort of kiddie-oriented
fare that would begin to dominate the Eisner years. The Golf Resort is one of the strongest hints at the sort of laid back, for-adults vacation Disney was trying to create.

I've never spoken to anybody who stayed at the Golf Resort - or later, the Disney Inn - who didn't consider it one of the best things they ever accidentally "discovered" at Walt Disney World. It was fairly common for the overbooked monorail hotels to move guests across the street to its manicured greens, and many found they preferred the quiet, intimate atmosphere preferable to the hustle and bustle of the main hotels.

And that's one reason I've continued to put effort into keeping its memory alive - I have no interest whatever in golf, but the Golf Resort would be the kind of place that would attract me. Ironically for being considered an overlooked, remote option, it's nearer to the most desirable part of Disney property than most of their hotels are today. Had Eisner not sold it outright to the US Military in one of Disney World's periodic economic downturns, that property would today host a truly elaborate, profitable Disney hotel.

For all these reasons, plus general weirdness, the Golf Resorts holds a place in my heart. And when, as every so often happens, something Golf Resort related pops up online, I try to secure it. Which is how I bring you today two truly obscure little finds from the olden days of Walt Disney World.

The Golf Studio

One of the oddest sidebars to the Golf Resort story is the fact that Disney offered a genuine golf class at a rate of about $30 for two hours - or $35 if students wished for a few rounds of golf after the class. That's between $75 and $90 today, making this one of the most expensive and unique items in a Walt Disney World vacation of the era - and one of the most experimental.

It's hard to convey just how much effort Disney put into their golf courses in the 70s. The "golfing triumvirate" of Card Walker, Dick Nunis and Donn Tatum ensured that their resort would house three lavishly praised championship courses - making Disney World catnip for the sorts of folks who, like them, read golfing magazines. Disney even installed a 6 hole junior course that used synthetic turf - Wee Links, today called Oak Trail.

The Golf Studio was broken into two sections: instruction and video analysis. After an hour with a instructor in a conference room, students were videotaped practicing their swings. The swing would then be analyzed frame by frame back in the Pro Shop.

At the conclusion of the class, students were given a cassette tape to bring home with them - side A featuring general golf tips from Phil Ritson, a South African golf instructor brought in by Disney to design the program. The second side was an audio recording of the video breakdown session. They came in heavy black plastic cases that looked like this:

You want to hear what's on that tape, don't you? I will not disappoint. Direct from the late 1970s, here's a few minutes of Phil Ritson pontificating about golf swings, then a look into what you would have experienced back at the Pro Shop, featuring Paul Rabito and somebody named "Eddie".

I'm not going to tell you it's especially fascinating listening, but it's remarkable that we can hear it at all.

Classic Golf Experiences: The Walt Disney World Magnolia

If golf instruction is your bag, then have I got a treat for you. If golf instruction is not your bag, then I've still got a treat for you. Every so often something pops up online and you just have to roll the dice and take a chance that it'll be interesting. I took a chance on an unpromising little VHS from 1988 entitled "The Player's Guide to the Walt Disney World Resort Magnolia Course". It turned out to be one of the dorkiest Disney things I've ever seen. And I've seen The Boatniks.

Hosted by golf commentator Gary McCord, it's obvious that Dick Nunis - or somebody, but probably Dick Nunis - rolled out the red carpet for this small-time production. And, possibly inspired and a little goofy on the Disney vibes, the crew turned out a truly bizarre little film. It features ghostly dwarfs, invading chipmunks, "outtakes", an interview with Joe Lee, and more.

It's also, generally speaking, a very good record and overview of a part of Walt Disney World everyone knows is there, but not everybody has seen. I enjoy the aesthetics of golf courses but have no interest in the game, and this video allows me to enjoy a well-designed course without sweating in the Florida heat. There's a lot of conceptual overlap between theme parks and golf courses, both being totally artificial environments created for just one purpose. It's easier to appreciate Joe Lee's course design with McCord's goofily amiable commentary and occasional Disney character appearances.

And in case you think none of this is up your alley, there's a typically goofy Disney World montage at the start, and later on, a look at the model for Wonders of Life. Give it a spin, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Thanks to Michael Crawford for transferring both of these magnetic tape treasures to digital. And if you want even more Golf Resort, check out my historical overview at Return to the Golf Resort, or the entire Passport to Dreams Walt Disney World History portal.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Nine Essential Disney Theme Park Books

You know what everyone loves? Disney books. There's entire websites dedicated to them. It's not an uncommon activity on social media to post photos of your growing library. Every year, new and desirable Disney books are released - independently, and also through official channels.

But - you know what a lot of people are getting rid of? Books. Whether you want to blame the e-reader revolution or larger cultural changes, many people are divesting themselves of large collections of things.

On top of that, changes in online commerce have led to the creation of huge, vertically integrated book resellers on sites like Amazon who take in massive collections of used books and make their money back on shipping and volume. Today, you can buy practically any older book you can think of online for less than the price of a good lunch.

So it's a great time for collectors like me, because it means that books are available online from huge companies for basically nothing. No more waiting for something to list on eBay, no more hoping you land the winning bid, no more waiting for the seller to ship it - the way I got most of my Disney library ten years ago.

But I've been buying Disney books online for long enough now that it's easy for me to forget that not everyone knows what these things are. And, judging by social media, it seems as if somebody discovers one of these great old Disney books every few months that they never knew existed. Perhaps this humble blog can fill in a gap, raising awareness of these great books as well as providing some background on what they are and what to expect - and how not to be ripped off!

So I put together a list of what I consider to be (roughly) nine essential, affordable vintage theme park books. These aren't books that were published with informational purposes in mind - they were sold as keepsakes, and their pleasures are largely aesthetic ones. Please keep in mind that I'm limiting my discussion here to widely available books - Disneyland: The Nickel Tour is amazing, and badly in need of a reprint, but also costs $400. The books I feature here won't break the bank.

But, you know, you should get these while they're affordable. They're also books that have been out of print for decades, so there is a finite number of them floating around. I've got a lot of Disney books, and I've looked through many more - these are ten that always bring me pleasure, no matter how often I pop them open.

The Story of Walt Disney World

Also known as the "Big D" book - because the front cover looks like a big black "D" with the center a cut-out window showing the castle. The interior of the book is a class act - a behind the scenes look at the construction of the Vacation Kingdom, presented with the most charming late-60s promotional writing and typefaces possible. Some of the photos in this book are commonly seen, but just as many are still likely to be new to you was they were in 1971.

So here's the thing to know about the D Book. This book was in print through the entirety of the 1970s - it was sold alongside the "Pictorial Souvenirs" as the main keepsake book available in the Vacation Kingdom through at least 1980. As a result, the book is very common. It's far easier to come across than the original Pictorial Souvenir, and far easier to obtain than any of the GAF guides or ticket books. It's the most easily accessible piece of early Walt Disney World to purchase, because it was in print for so long.

The interior of the book hardly changed that whole time - at some point in the mid-70s, a few of the photos inside were changed, and the resort map on page 14 was changed from the Paul Hartley original map (the one that hung in hotel rooms) to an updated, and less interesting, "fun map" showing the Golf Resort and various tourists cavorting around the property. The text of the book is the same, but the photos chosen for the early 70s edition are a bit more idiosyncratic - fewer shots of sailboats on the Seven Seas Lagoon.

One thing that never changed was the banner reading "Commemorative Edition" on the front, which has led hundreds of eBay sellers who think they've got a real find on their hands and to ask absurd prices for this thing. Every single one of these things says "Commemorative Edition". Very few of them are from 1971. Every one of them has a printing run listed on the inside front cover. I've seen dates ranging from 1972 to 1979.

Even if I feel that the print quality and the photo selection make the pre-1976 version slightly more desirable, this is a terrific book, and well worth something in the neighborhood of $15. Beware of scalpers, but well worth the effort.

Walt Disney World: The First Decade

Printed in 1980 ostensibly as a counterpart to Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, if I had to choose a single object to put into somebody's hands which explains what the company was hoping to do in Florida and how sophisticated the place was for its first few decades, it would be this handsome book. Nearly forty years on, I'm still not sure there's been a better Walt Disney World book.

Printed on thick, glossy paper, with durable binding and filled with uniformly beautiful, evocative photographs, Disney intended this book to last, and it has. Much of the spine of the book later became the basis for the hardback souvenir guides in the back half of the 80s, but the text is denser and more serious in The First Decade.

It stops not only to discuss the attractions, but their design and how they fit into the park itself. It devotes four pages to a smart discussion and beautiful photos of the Magic Kingdom's hub. Following the park tour, the book touts the backstage operations, communications and waste disposal systems, and other innovations. It bothers to print photos of the Utilidors, and makes a better case for their importance than most enthusiastic fans can. It's probably the best Walt Disney world book ever printed, and perfectly preserves the spirit of that distant, early decade in amber.

This book is widely available, and hasn't seen the jumps in price that others on this list have in the past ten years. It's so well printed that any copy you buy will probably have held up very well. Although it's not tough to find copies below $20, I can't see anybody who loves theme parks, public spaces, urban planning or just plain beautiful books being unhappy with this book after paying as much as $30. It's an essential volume.

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Disneyland

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Walt Disney World

Oh, Birnbaum. I grew up as an Unofficial Guide loyalist, partially because by the 90s the Birnbaum guides had become generic and corporate in their text and message. But if you can get your hands on one of the early Birnbaum guides - red for Walt Disney World or blue for Disneyland - you will find one of the best books ever written about these places. These books are so good that Steven Fjellman interrupts himself in Vinyl Leaves to gush about them.

You know you're in for something special when you open up these early guides and the first page reprints a memo from Dick Nunis approving of Steve's efforts. Things get stranger when, in his introduction, Steve describes his wife jumping up and down and screaming at the prospect of "riding all the rides". Throughout, these early guides have real character as Birnbaum guides you through the parks with wit, a little bit of sarcasm, and an obvious love for a stiff drink.

The amount and variety of information Birnbaum has gathered up from all corners of the company and presented in this guide is staggering. While later day Birnbaum guides present some tidbits of information ensconced in some fairly bland discussion of each ride, Birnbaum's admiration for Disney fairly leaps off these pages. He doesn't just give you an overview of each area of the park, he goes into the architecture, landscape, and atmosphere of each in detail. He doesn't just summarize what's available at each restaurant, he tries to create a sense of its design and offers some smart remarks about how stand-out dishes actually taste.

Some caveats. Birnbaum's 1983 guide, which advertises EPCOT Center on its cover (above), was completed in a rush to get the book to print and so the information on EPCOT is brief and incomplete. EPCOT Center fans will want to pick up his 1984 guide for a much better overview of that park. Also, around the time The Disney-MGM Studios was getting ready to open, the text was already starting to become compressed to fit in the new offerings. While the late-80s guides are still enjoyable, it's those red and blue covered guides that are truly remarkable.

You can see why Dick Nunis approved. These things were written to be ephemeral little books, used for one trip and then discarded, but they're so well done they've survived as both souvenirs and historical records. Not bad for a travel book.

It's always been kind of tough to find old editions of these books exactly for the reasons I described, but if you see a red or blue cover Birnbaum, grab it!

Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow

Here it is, probably in the running with The Nickel Tour for the greatest theme park book ever published. This was written by Richard Beard, who worked directly for Disney and to be sure, this is definitely a promotional publication. Disney did their best to disguise this - publishing the book through Harry Abrams in New York - but that is what it is.

But what a book, and what a park.

Even die-hard EPCOT experts will be staggered by what's inside this book. Huge, colorful photographs accompanied by an intelligent text, this book makes the best possible case for what Disney hoped EPCOT Center could be. The print quality is excellent, and there's even fold-out pages for large format art and photos. The book traces the design and construction of the park - there's no real attempt to make excuses for the failure of Walt's future city to materialize. But this is an unusually compelling text, has excellent and abundant photos, and is a quality publication - Disney was making the case for why and how they built EPCOT through this book.

It speaks for a park that no longer exists. For kids to whom EPCOT was love at first sight, looking through this book can be emotional. It's much more like going to EPCOT than going to Epcot is. And there it can sit on your shelf forever.

This is the book that is seemingly re-discovered on social media every few months, and combined with a perhaps bland title, word has clearly not gotten out that this book is essential. Prices were high for a few years around the 25th Anniversary of Epcot, but have seemingly come down. So here's what you need to know when you go shopping:

First, there are three editions of the book, and they are all distinct. The first edition is simply called "Walt Disney's EPCOT", and pre-dates the opening of the park. The second is called "Walt Disney's EPCOT Center", and was published after the park opened. Both of these editions are large-format hardbound books - measuring 9.5 inches wide and 12 inches tall. They're both 240 pages long and have basically the same text and layout. The 1981 version consists entirely of models and artwork, while the 1982 version has replaced some of these with photos of the finished park.

The third edition is designated below its ISBN on the interior front page as "Special Edition", but it's easy to distinguish from the first two on sight. It's a smaller, thinner book, with a simple board hardcover front instead of the full dust jacket the 1981 and 1982 editions have. It's just 8.75 inches across and 11 inches tall, and has about 125 pages. The front cover includes the EPCOT Center "flower" emblem, and uses the actual park logo (right). This is a slimmed down version of the 1982 edition, and was published to be sold inside the park as a souvenir.

Some people, of course, will want to have all three. I suggest picking up the slim "Special Edition" first, which is the most common and a darn great book on its own, no excuses needed. From there, I think the 1982 version of the big book has a slight advantage for its mix of photos and art. It's not too tough to find the larger versions as library cast-offs.

However you find them, these books are wonderful and there's simply no good reason for ownership of them to be as confined to EPCOT super fans as it is. Seek them out, and the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years

Yeah, I know. So far this list has been very East Coast-centric, but what can be done when you've got heavyweight hitters like Walt Disney World: The First Decade all lined up? The early 80s were just a darn good time for theme park books.

One of these excellent books was Disneyland: The First Quarter Century. That book is something of an outgrowth of a souvenir publication available at Disneyland through the late 60s and early 70s, usually simply called Walt Disney's Disneyland. Written by Marty Sklar and published in a hardbound edition, it was an early attempt to give a historical overview of the park. Disneyland: The First Quarter Century revised that book, re-organized the text, added better photographs and a few bells and whistles, like card stock section dividers. I think The First Quarter Century is a terrific book, but I'm going to direct you to its updated version from five years later as being slightly better.

To begin with, it includes New Fantasyland, which is for this author a crucial component of Disneyland's appeal. The card stock section dividers have become plain decorative pages, which is not a deal breaker. And the rest of the text is absolutely intact and unchanged.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years is really more of a photo book of memories, especially when compared to its superb counterpart Walt Disney World: The First Decade. It includes historical photos of Disneyland laid out chronologically, with special attention given to celebrity and world leader visits. The last section is devoted simply to beautiful photos of the park from another time. In many ways, these books set the template for the kind of Disneyland book that still gets published today.

Disney did update the book one last time in 1990, now called Disneyland: The First Thirty-Five Years. I find this version to be by far the least compelling of the three, with few changes besides an even more compressed text and a few new photos. Additionally, the 1990 edition is often significantly more expensive than the 1980 or 1985 versions. So much of all 3 of these books are identical that you really only need one, and to me The First Thirty Years is the best compromise.

A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney's Disneyland

I knew I had to include at least one of these books, which were a staple of the theme parks until around 1990. But which one? The late-70s Walt Disney World version, with the globe cover, came close to iconic, but I knew this list would lean too heavily towards Walt Disney World publications. Of the rest, I liked this mid-80s Disneyland book the best, in futuristic silver!

There isn't much that these books need to do besides contain lots of photos and be beautiful, but this particular edition has a dense, elaborate interior which is especially pleasing, with classy calligraphy lettering and some truly unusual photos.

On top of that, this book represents Disneyland at a specific moment in time worth remembering. Back when Bear Country was still Bear Country, before Captain EO and Star Wars invaded Tomorrowland and America Sings was still spinning, and Cascade Peak was still standing. It was a park on the razor edge between eras - with promotional pages in the back trumpeting EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland - before the real changes began.

Disneyland: Inside Story

You know those websites that cover the history of Disneyland? They all originate with this book.

Now, if the Richard Beard EPCOT book is somewhat under-rated, then this book is somewhat over-rated. This is a book which is so influential that practically its entire spine has been disseminated online in the form of trivia posts, "do you know?" articles, tweets and other digital noise. This is not a book you're going to want to because it contains amazing information; there are more compelling books about the creation of Disneyland which have been built on the back of this one. This is a book that's worth owning because it's a beautifully created object.

Just like with EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, Disney produced Inside Story as a prestige product, intended to glorify their park. Once again published by Abrams in an oversize glossy edition, this is a park book which just plain looks beautiful. It's easy to imagine an entire generation of Disneyland kids pouring over it repeatedly (the way I was doing with my edition of the Imagineering book ten years later) before logging onto Usenet to talk Disneyland history. It's arguable that Disneyland: Inside Story, with its embrace of the parenthetical and adulation of Walt Disney, is the foundation of the online community.

Taking a step back, it's easy to see how Randy Bright combined aspects of Marty Sklar's Walt Disney's Disneyland book with aspects of Disneyland: The First Quarter Century to build a better mousetrap. Many of the stories from Sklar's book crop up again here, the same ones you've heard over and over again about cars parked in Frontierland and color blind tractor drivers. What Bright did was he added interviews with the designers who built the place and an extra layer of journalistic integrity. Most Disneyland books report briefly on the doubt and challenges related to creating the park in the 50s, but Bright takes the time to bring them to life in a way which makes them into genuine concerns instead of the quickly disproven complaints of negative nellies.

But it's also worth remembering that Bright was writing this book at an opportune moment in history. In 1987, Walt Disney had been dead a mere twenty years. Indeed, the sections of his book break down into Design, Construction, Very Early Disneyland, Pre-1966 Disneyland, and Post-Disney Disneyland. He even stops to describe the corporate takeover attempts of the early 80s with surprising candor.

The importance of this book means it's often sold for vastly inflated prices by those who primarily sell to Disney fans, but thankfully thrift stores, second hand book retailers, and used library copies are becoming more common. Unless price is no object, there's no reason to pay $60 for this book. It may take some hunting around, but I can't imagine than any theme park fan wouldn't find the effort worthwhile.

Walt Disney World (Souvenir Hardcover)

Here we go. This is the book that began my fascination with Walt Disney World. It's also still the most handsome souvenir book I've ever seen. These are truly obsession-worthy books.

I'm speaking, of course, of the hardcover souvenir books produced at Walt Disney World between 1987 and 1992. They don't really have a title, but their covers are instantly recognizable: embossed art around a central photograph of Cinderella Castle; pages and pages of remarkably classy photographs of the park; big Walt Disney painting in the front pages.

There's a couple of them. The forest green version was the original, published in 1987. The second edition has a cream cover and has been updated to include the Disney-MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Pleasure Island and the Grand Floridian. After that came the "20 Magical Years" edition, with a cover in blue and silver embossed art.

Here's the good news: all of these books are practically identical in layout and content. The book was expanded over time without sacrificing content. The deep basis for the book is Walt Disney World: The First Decade, of which this is something of an updated, slimmed down version. It's definitely more of a mass market souvenir than The First Decade, with less text and more pictures. But what pictures!

As an extension of the exemplary First Decade, these books really generate a feeling of what Walt Disney World was like before the booming 90s added too many things that were too poorly thought out. Visitors must have thought so too, because there's a lot if these out there, for relatively little money. As far as pictorial souvenirs go, this is amongst the most evocative to lose yourself in, and well worth the minor investment.

Since the World Began

If three of the previous books help to tell the story of Disneyland in all of its variance, then Jeff Kurtti's Since the World Began tries to do the same for Walt Disney World, and more or less it's still the best attempt at delivering the full package.

Walt Disney World is so contradictory and complex that in reality each of the parks could fill its own massive book, and such a collection of books would likely still gloss on the resort infrastructure, the dozens of hotels, Lake Buena Vista, Bonnet Creek, the golf courses, the water parks, and all of the rest of it. As a one-stop shop, Kurtti's book is limited in terms of what it can include, but in terms of giving a complete overview, it's still.... still the best effort available.

There are parts of the book where simply the same old facts and trivia about the parks are repeated, which is where the links between this book and, say, the souvenir hardcover are most apparent - I'm sure Disney provided the same packets and lists of information I looked through as a Cast Member. Since the World Began is not a research project, it's a very well done souvenir book.

Although published in 1996, the book is basically still pretty up to date. It includes sections on Animal Kingdom, the sports complex, and Coronado Springs, and since then (setting aside the expansion of DVC) the changes have not been as extensive as they were in the first 25 years of the resort. Since the World Began could be easily updated for, say, the resort's 50th and be fairly similar.

Somebody still needs to write the Walt Disney World history book extravaganza. I've done my best to fill in gaps in the early years, and much of the rest is a matter of public record. Since the World Began is not the telephone directory-size history book that Walt Disney World probably demands, but it's a really superb overview.

This book is also unique amongst souvenir books in that it's more text than images, by a huge margin.  Not even Disneyland: Inside Story seems so committedly... verbal. The book could probably benefit from a slightly more expansive layout and larger photos, and a slightly more in depth text, but this is the one and only place to start for anyone who wants to start learning about Walt Disney World, for two decades and counting.


Love the Disney World of old? Drop by our Walt Disney World History portal to see all of this site's history articles gathered in one easy to access place.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fun House: A Dark Ride Documentary

There aren't really too many really terrific theme park documentaries out there - at least ones written and produced with an eye towards objectivity and education. There's always been making-of television specials and the kind of "documentaries" Disney regularly commissions from the History and Travel Channels, but these are as much promotional tools as anything else. But a well-researched theme park documentary that has a point of view and a variety of subjects across a broad spectrum of the industry?

Well, I know of one. It was a large influence on my way of thinking about theme parks, and we're going to take a look at it today.

In the 1990s growing up out in the country, I did not have access to a lot of information about theme parks. I had grown up with our regional amusement center, Riverside Park - now known as Six Flags New England - every few years may be able to make a trip down to Disney. There was no such thing as streaming video, and a dial-up connection to a 56k modem was still years away for me. Amazon did not yet exist, never mind of the sort of information resource I've worked to make this site into. I wanted to learn more about theme parks, but my options were very limited.

Thankfully I was at the time a VHS hoarder and was able to capture this Discovery Channel documentary in 1997. When I watched it some time later, it really took my head off and changed the way I thought about my occasional trips to the orlando mega parks. Suddenly, the two worlds of amusement parks I had known - the regional parks like Lake Compounce and the Orlando extravaganzas - were contextualized as being two different expressions of a shared heritage. It was a revelation. The show was called "Fun House", and there seemingly is very little information available about it.

One could argue with certain points that the documentary makes. Its' two examples of cutting edge attractions are Indiana Jones Adventure and Terminator 2: 3D, and most theme park fans would not lump T2 in with all of the dark rides. At the end, it takes a dive into the world of IMAX films. Yet it's very easy to imagine an updated version of this documentary then moving on to discuss Universal's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Disney's Soarin' as examples of rides which build on the boom in themed projection technology from the 90s. The current champion for most cutting edge attraction operating is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which frankly isn't all that different than Spider-Man.

And on the other hand, this hour long show preserves a number of things which are now lost. The Old Mill and Le Cachot at Kenywood are gone, and Bushkill Park's historic Haunted Pretzel was destroyed in the Pennsylvania flooding in 2005. The lights-on tour of the Haunted Pretzel is a high point of this documentary, and worth watching to see exactly what the Pretzel Amusement Company was building in the late 1920s.

Oh, and thankfully the me of 1997 had enough foresight to include all of the commercials. Hop on board the Fun House and let's learn something!