Friday, April 28, 2017

Making It "Disney"

Recently, I had a reaction to a new restaurant at Walt Disney World that I can not remember having had before. As this blog has (voluminously) shown, I feel no particular need to like everything Disney does. I think most of the changes they make to their properties fall somewhere in the middle of my range of expectations, and only ever so often does something truly bad - or truly good - get put out.

Last year, I wrote a lot about Disney Springs, and I still stand by that piece - I like it plenty. I've been there more often that I ever visited Downtown Disney near the end of its run, and as a local I'm not bothered much by the fact that its buildings aren't slapped head to toe with Donald Duck.

But I was pretty deflated when Fulton's Crab House returned from its huge remake as Paddlefish. Over the summer I had already prepared myself for the worst - crossing the bridge across Village Lagoon, I could see that the interior had been gutted down to a steel skeleton. That had really taken the wind out of me - it was hard to see what I still thought of as the Empress Lilly more or less demolished. Yet as it was slowly rebuilt with a recognizable shape, colors, and even a brand new (immobile) paddle, my hopes rebounded. Yet when it finally opened and I saw the first interior images, I could not escape my gut reaction: "That's not very Disney."

Easy WDW

Like a lot of gut reactions, this struck me as immediately absurd but difficult to escape. A tour of the facility later reassured me that there was still some charm left in it, but my mind kept nagging away at the conversion: given one of the most impressive things at Walt Disney World, they did this to it?

But was the Empress Lilly ever "Disney" not begin with? Why would I argue that the bizarre modernist / Southwest pastiche Contemporary Resort is classically Disney, despite hardly having anything "Disney" in it for much of its history?

What makes something "Disney", anyway?

Let's be clear, the question was raised by Walt Disney to begin with. He's sort of both the rule and the exception, because pretty much anything he did was by default "A Walt Disney Production". But besides things like Orphan's Benefit and The Wise Little Hen, Walt produced an eclectic batch of films. There's the difficult to categorize wartime films like Education for Death and Victory Thru Airpower, and the manifestly adult, sensual pleasures of Three Caballeros. Many of the Silly Symphonies seem fairly infantile, but The Old Mill and the first segment of Fantasia are practically experimental films. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a sci-fi potboiler that ends with a nuclear explosion. Even Disneyland is wildly eclectic - if there weren't a huge Mickey Mouse face at the front gate, how many in 1955 would have doubted there would be anything especially Disney inside that landscaped berm?

By the 1960s, Walt was on a totally different wavelength, fixated on New Orleans and cities of the future. The question of "Disneyness" is one that Walt's artistic staff struggled with themselves:

"WED had designed some imaginative shows for the parks, but we seemed to be getting away from our heritage. Pirates of the Caribbean was a big hit, but what did it have to do with Disney? What we needed was a reminder of what Walt had accomplished." - Bill Justice, on creating The Mickey Mouse Revue 
"My primary concern is that none of this material was 'Disney.'" - Marc Davis on Pirates of the Caribbean

Walt Disney's lieutenants continued their leader's eclecticism, building a golf retreat, a campground, a few dinner theater shows, and finally a shopping complex. From our modern vantage point - looking back from a time when we're drowning in cheap 2017 t-shirts crowded with the same five Disney characters - this seems to be a golden era when Disney built really risky, unique things.

Throughout the development of Lake Buena Vista, Walt Disney Productions was adamant that it be a totally unique entity from Walt Disney World - so much so that they did not even build a road that connected Magic Kingdom to it. You had to drive back down World Drive to I-4, then drive up 4 to 535 and enter Lake Buena Vista that way. Disney billed it as "Host Community to Walt Disney World", which probably didn't mean much more to random visitors than it would today.

What media coverage Lake Buena Vista got in 1975 was overwhelmingly local and fairly positive, especially following the energy crisis and national recession. In the 1975 Annual Report, Disney trumpeted attendance gains at the Magic Kingdom, while more modestly reporting the opening of the Shopping Village has "helped grow attendance". If actions speak louder than words, then here's one that shouts: within a year, a program to refurbish the Village had begun. In 1977, the Empress Lilly debuted, and with it came a name change for the whole complex: the Walt Disney World Village.

It isn't hard to guess at the reasons. The Village was built in a totally contemporary style, but 1977 renovations added fantasy elements - not just the Lilly with her endlessly churning paddle wheel, but Mediterranean statuary and shops with more whimsical names and decor, like "It's A Small World After All". The name itself points to a direction the Village was pushing towards throughout the 80s: more Disney, more fantasy. While the 1977 Annual Report stayed mum on the changes, in 1978 Disney noted: "The record year in Florida was reflected in substantially improved operations for Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista. The improved picture is also being impacted by our continued efforts to expand the entertainment opportunities available to our Lake Buena Vista guests and visitors."

In other words, it didn't work, and needed improvement. The Walt Disney World name - a brand WDP was so eager to divorce from their shopping village in 1975 - was needed to convince visitors that this new attraction had something to offer. Arguably, it's kept working ever since then - the Village grew into Downtown Disney, a concept which has opened in every Disney resort complex in the world.

But if everything that has happened before will happen again, then all of this is familiar. And while I've written a lot about the aesthetics, convoluted backstory, and infrastructure upgrades of Disney Springs - the aspects this blog finds most compelling - as another prong in Disney's absurd steeplechase of the affluent, Disney Springs is yet another front. And while I've been the subject of angry rebuttals for my doubting the profitability of certain stores, the fact remains that, as a shopper myself, there's precious little there than I find compelling.

I'm not alone. It isn't hard to find similar notes in the less regulated courts of public opinion on the internet - forums, Trip Advisor, Yelp - even in largely positive appraisals. For me personally, it's enough to enjoy the architecture and urban planning, duck my head into a few shops, get a sushi roll and a cocktail, and leave. Those with who have traveled great distances and expect something more, those with small children, or those looking for bargains, seem especially flustered and intimidated by the size and grown up ambience of Disney Springs.

And so Disney Springs, like Lake Buena Vista and Downtown Disney before it, joins the roll call of history's questionably 'Disney' things - a list that includes, to be abundantly clear, some of Disney's best, most interesting moments. Fantasia, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Contemporary Resort, TRON....

But it's a delicate balance - one informed by decades of perception, expectation, and precedent. Before the opening of Disneyland, there was practically no association between Disney and fairy tale castles - There's one seen in the final shot of Snow White, and one that is a major setting of Cinderella. The logo of the entire company is today a fairy tale castle. There's even new product that seems to exist entirely to try and deliver more of the kind of imagery they are renowned for in the public consciousness - various live action remakes of fairy tales, the whole of The Princess and the Frog, multiple kingdoms in Frozen, etc.

This same fairy tale overkill has been injecting the theme parks as of late too - a period in time I hope we will look back on "the castle wars". It began with Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland, which added an entire addition to Cinderella Castle out back and two extra castles behind it, belonging to the Beast and Prince Eric. Then along came Shanghai Disneyland with their colossally proportioned castle with a boat ride underneath it. Magic Kingdom expanded their castle again in 2014 by adding new turrets on the hub, and now Hong Kong Disneyland is threatening to put a castle-hat on top of their existing castle because the Hong Kong government isn't about to let their Disney castle be so tiny compared to Shanghai's.

"Now with 40% more castle!"
The fact that castle iconography is sprouting up everywhere like mushrooms is not accidental, and will no doubt be welcomed by the types for whom Disney is nothing but animated fairy tales for children. Disney is bending over backwards to "make it Disney" for their paying customers.

But a castle is just a castle - it only became a culturally loaded symbol once Walt Disney made one the icon of his hugely influential amusement park. Today it's impossible to separate the two - when Shrek wanted to make fun of Disney, it did it by introducing a fairy tale castle and a robotic doll show inside. It's nothing but a symbol - a flexible one, and one that can cut both ways.

Disney may own the imagery, but ownership does not always guarantee mastery. Just as Fantasyland has become an overkill of castles, Disney has a bad habit of slapping Mickey Mouse on everything as a first attempt to repair problematic design. Like the phalanx of cutout Mickey heads added to the Transportation and Ticket Center attempting to disguise a building that's just begging for demolition:

To the Grand Canyon Concourse in the Contemporary, an expensive resort Disney has trouble selling rooms in. If people don't like it, it must not be Disney enough, and what's more Disney than a colossal Mickey head?

I can't think of a single situation where the "slap a Mickey on it" approach actually works, and so much of Walt Disney World has been allowed to fall behind the curve of fashion , that there's a lot of it now. But between the extremes of "not Disney enough" and "giant sheet metal ears", there has to be a middle ground, and it's a middle ground that Imagineering has been groping towards for the past 30 years.


We live in a world of multinational corporations, and I write about one of them that is the economic steward of a number of works I admire. But I write this acknowledging that even defining what "Disney" is, is increasingly impossible. I'm an old school Disney fan, and so I believe that Disney is absolutely not Pixar, nor is it The Muppets. Or Star Wars and Indiana Jones, or Marvel, or Club Penguin, or any of the other hundreds of things that float around inside the Disney IP biosphere. But when I look at Liberty Square, or Frontierland, or even Disney Springs, I do see Disney. Why is that?

Well for one thing, these are public places which are ostentatiously designed and which create insular universes. And while I may get my kicks at Disney, I'm promiscuous - I was a teenage mall rat, and I still enjoy going to a good mall because it scratches that same itch for some sort of engineered, controlled public universe. Neither am I a Disney snob - I also go to and enjoy other theme parks like Universal, and even regional amusement parks. I will go to and enjoy any place that gives me that same sense of harmony, of energy, of place.

I drool over stuff like this about as often as Disney stuff.

So we could say, on a basic level, that to make something "Disney", it needs urban planning, attention to detail, and a sense of harmony. That sense of harmony is crucial, and it's the reason why a normal mini golf course doesn't come off as Disney but a high-end mall does.

It's the reason why, prior to the Disney Springs conversion, thousands of guests daily milled around thru the Downtown Disney Marketplace, trying to avoid the rest of the complex - whether subconsciously or not. It's the toughest thing to get right, and it's the toughest thing to maintain - Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida has practically no harmonized public spaces at all, just a series of facilities in different aesthetic silos. Harmony is that X factor, the thing that the rest of life is missing, the thing that art tries to correct.

It's the reason why Tomorrowland strikes everyone as a hodgepodge of random stuff - the various reboots of the area always come down to some new stuff placed on top of the existing original structures, so that there is a contrast between clean lines and futuristic bric-a-brac. Those clean lines underneath the new theming always speak louder than what's in front of it - there's a disconnect in meaning and form and that sense of harmony is disrupted.

Consider Liberty Square - the diminishing perspective and solid symmetry of the Hall of Presidents creates the impression of stability and stateliness which reflects the theme of the show inside. At the Haunted Mansion, a similarly opulent and stately structure has gone crazily wrong, with weird spikes everywhere, an asymmetrical conservatory, and with both wings jutting towards the viewer menacingly - a totally different thematic statement than the Hall of Presidents. Then consider the Liberty Tree Tavern, with its three doors, wide veranda, white turned columns, and approachable scale - what a sense of hospitality it creates from the road. All of these structures have harmonized their theme and purpose into their designs, and harmonize with each other, to create that pleasant vibe.

All Ears Net
It's also the reason why "throw a Mickey on it" never, ever works. The mere appearance of Mickey does not guarantee charm, despite what Disney seems to think - the cutout Mickey heads all over the Transportation and Ticket Center aren't theming so much as the design equivalent of branding on cattle. They assert ownership in a way which is intended to be reassuring and welcoming, but comes off as a hollow.

It's because the "Disney" accents on the TTC, or in the Grand Canyon Concourse, or even in many areas of Downtown Disney, are - like castles - just symbols. They speak a different design language than the rest of the area. Whereas the area around it may be visually saying "This area is really impressive, and unified, with beautiful colors", the giant Mickey head always shouts: "Property of Disney!".

Making It Disney - also known just as proper theming - has multiple approaches, ranging from the hard sell to the soft touch. The hard sell is what you see on 192 in Orlando - giant oranges, wizards, and mermaids perched on nondescript buildings. They're "themed" in the loosest sense of the term - they've got a big fantastical doodad glued onto the front.

Or there's the soft touch - the warm colors, white pillars, and shaded porch of the Emporium on Main Street invites you in even before you know it's a gigantic shop. The colors, kinetic activity, forced perspective illusion, and kinetic harmony of Hollywood Boulevard invites you down it, drawing you into the heart of the park, The palm trees are like landing beacons, inviting you to keep walking to find out what's at the end of the street.

Or you could put a huge Mickey hat there. But as John Hench liked to say, good taste costs no more.



Anthony "Pants" said...

Excellent article. I don't really have much to add, but it did give me something to think about.

Your point about Tomorrowland is so true. Disney really needs to fix the two US Tomorrowlands and make them more harmonious.

Unknown said...

New post, yes!

"Slap a Mickey on it" is a nice summation of what I think a lot of people fear with the continued influx of pre-existing character driven attractions in the parks (e.g. overlaying Maelstrom with Frozen, the continuing changes to El Rio del Tiempo, Mickey potentially taking over the Great Movie Ride, Guardians of the Galaxy potentially to Universe of Energy, etc.); characters will always have a place in a Disney theme park, but there's a fear that the lack of original, not-overtly DIsney attractions betrays a lack of confidence in marketing anything that doesn't have a logo or property on it that most guests don't immediately recognize. After all, if you just "slap a Mickey on it" the people will come, so why bother with the details and immersion that made the original attractions to uniquely "Disney" in the first place? It's a scary thought, since that type of thinking in the old days would have meant no Pirates, no Mansion, no EPCOT Center, etc.

stu29573 said...

I think part of the problem is that theming requires vision, and a global approach fufilled through tiny details. That takes talent, intelligence and committment. Disney hasn't shown much of any of these things in decades. Hence, the Micky heads or the "IP of the week." It's cheap, lazy, and tacky. This is, of course, just my opinion...

Berimon said...

I've got nothing to say but thanks. So...


Tim said...

A lot of the DVC units have been getting cheap "non-themed" make overs lately that are really pissing off the people how joined the Vacation Club 25 years ago for that "Disney touch"

For me a lot of what I think of as "Disney", in terms of architecture around the parks, comes from movie set designer Marvin Davis. His sense of proportion and use of colors are ingrained in my mind as being what the Disney parks are supposed to look like. He was hired by Walt in the early 1950's to design the buildings for Disneyland in part because of his work on the 20th Century Fox, Marilyn Monroe film "Gentleman Prefer Blondes". Every time I see that film I feel like I'm watching a Disney movie because of those stylized, 1950's, "Golden Age of Hollywood" sets.

Unknown said...

I just want to tell you how much I love your insight and look forward to reading each new post! I'm totally gonna work "slap a Mickey on it" into my vernacular... But seriously, thank you for taking the time to write these blog posts. They make me think critically about WHY I so enjoy all that Disney stuff I typically just consume superficially and take for granted. Most of what you wrote appeals to me on all levels and takes me back to my wonderful childhood all at the same time. Please keep up the great work. With all the content on the Internet, your collection is my very favorite, and that's the highest compliment I can offer.

Griff said...

Joe N - I'm sorry to say but I see no reason to assume Disney will ever build anything theme park related that is not tied to a pre-existing franchise ever again, the modern corporate world is all about branding, branding, branding.

Why take a risk on building something as permanent as a theme park attraction that's all new and not based on a franchise that's already popular? When was the last time Disney built an all new theme park ride in the United States? Expedition Everest? It's sad but that era has simply passed.

In fact I would go as far to say that the Guardians of the Galaxy makeover for California's Tower of Terror says some really bad things about the state of mind for the theme park division at the moment, the fact that they would crap all over the beautiful facade with the ugly as sin Guardians of the Galaxy crud is well, it's not good.

Not to be all negative Nancy though, I'm so glad they got rid of that Mickey hat at Hollywood Studios and the fact that they would go through the effort to do so says something positive.

Andrew Raymond St├╝ck said...

I second Joe N's fears. If the powers that be think all people want them to do is "slap a Mickey on it", then indeed, "why bother with the details and immersion that made the original attractions to uniquely 'Disney' in the first place?"

The travesty that is the Guardians ride at DCA is a good anti-artful-Disney example. DCA's Hollywood section always felt half-assed until the Tower of Terror was put in, and then somehow the whole area was redeemed, even though the Tower was around the corner down an alley. Though the urban planning aspect was a still a mess, it was just such a good fit that it still managed to bleed a sense of harmony into the area that has now been savagely ripped out.

RightBlocker91 said...

I agree that details are the key to creating that "Disney" feeling. What's more Disney than the Liberty Tree Tavern, the staircase that leads to the restaurant in Cinderella Castle, the landscaping of the Polynesian Village Resort, or the twinkling white lights in the trees in the Hub? None of these delights screen "Disney" or relate to a specific IP (with the exception of the castle stairs). As Tim noted above, the recent redecorating at some of the DVC resorts leaves much to be desired. Why? It's missing that Disney touch. The all-immersive approach to lands, attractions, and even resorts set Disney apart from all others. Disney, in my mind, has always been equated with good taste, intelligent design, and artistic flair. The example of Hollywood Blvd. - with and without that dreadful hat - is one of the clearest examples of "classic" Disney vs. the "slap Mickey on it" attitude that sometimes violates the thematic rules of Imagineering.
Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

Cory Gross said...

To me, the epitome of "slap a Mickey on it" is Mickey's Fun Wheel at DCA. It's SO bizarre that I'm sure it has to be a joke... Responding to a focus group, survey based process in which customers stated they wanted "more Disney", Imagineering vengefully slapped a giant Mickey Mouse head on the Ferris wheel. There you go, there's your "more Disney." The irony of it is that the original Sun Wheel actually BETTER reinforced the Victorian theme and distinctive artistic elements of it (i.e.: the sun logo, which I actually quite like). I don't mind slapping a Mickey on things as a decorative element in an otherwise unthemed space, like the TTC, but not when you're actually supposed to be theming it.

In the discussion of the DVC rooms, I'm reminded of my honeymoon experience at WDW. The evening of our wedding, we stayed at the Banff Spring Hotel... A luxurious hotel designed like a Scottish Baronial castle, built in its current form in 1928, currently owned by the Fairmont chain, in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It's a stunning place and one of my favourite places in the world. The room, however... the $700/night room... was as generic as possible. It was modeled as if by executive decree to follow the pack in current, generic, hotel room design. In fact, in any of the historic Fairmont hotels I've stayed in, the room has always been the weakest part. So much so that I've stopped being excited about the cachet of actually staying in them, since I can get a generic room at the Motel 6 and just come over to the expensive fancy hotel for dinner or something and enjoy basically the same experience.

So the following night we were on the plane to Orlando, and by noon checked into our room at Port Orleans French Quarter. Holy smokes! What a difference! The impeccable theming of the public spaces carried on into the room itself... It was wonderful! There was a framed antique Mardi Gras fan on one wall, a print of the design for a Blue Bayou-type restaurant on another (I forget the exact picture, but someone told me later it was an ultimately unused design), gingerbread scrollwork in the doorways, lovely printed wallpaper... It was just delightful and harmonious with the theme of the resort. We loved it, and were frankly a bit shocked at the night and day difference between this $300/night Disney hotel and a $700/night historic luxury hotel.

I think that contrast validates what you were saying about making things Disney. I think I unintentionally lit onto some of these same things in a piece I recently wrote on the difference between theme and decoration, but you've also laid down the challenge for me to really think about a define what *I* mean when I talk about something being "Disney" that isn't simply based on a Disney IP. Thanks!

Melissa said...

I've tried to put this into words before, but never succeeded. Thank you so much!

tamajinn said...

Great article-- the phrase that really stuck with me is that Disney used to build really "risky and unique things." This is what it all boils down to-- with the new trend of building attractions based on already-popular properties, the riskiness, the uniqueness, is draining away. I hope that Pandora has recaptured some of the quaintness and beauty that has always set Disney apart. I'm trying to avoid spoilers until I get to go, hopefully in the next year or two. Thank you for another eye-opening article. I think I speak for all your fans when I say that I wish Disney would hire you as a consultant!

Unknown said...

No no, Tamajinn- i don't agree! If Disney hired her as a consultant, we'd lose her as an objective, critical blogger/analyst! I totally agree with you the rest of your post, though.