Friday, July 13, 2018

A Personal Magic Kingdom Wish List

One of the troubles with writing a blog like this is that although the posts that I push out onto it stay there to be read in the future, one can't go back even a few years without immediately starting to find ideas and assumptions that I wouldn't make today. Passport to Dreams has been a terrific forum for me to clarify thoughts and reach conclusions about things, but the whole trouble is that the more you know, the more you're positive that you don't know, and I think anything written before around 2010 or 2011 these days is a little suspect.

For example, talking to others and doing my own research into the Walt Disney World of the past has permanently undermined my faith in personal nostalgia. It doesn't take too much digging to find opinions of those fans that preceded you that undermine your own; the vocal supporters of If You Had Wings have all but buried the internet legacy of Delta Dreamflight, an attraction I thought highly enough of to make lyrics from it the very title of this blog. But once you start going back even further, to previous generations of fans, the waters become even murkier; how do you reconcile the fact that there are those who feel that the removal of Nature's Wonderland and installation of Big Thunder Mountain permanently ruined Disneyland? There are, presumably, even older fans than that who felt that Disneyland really started to go downhill when comedy elephants were added to the Jungle Cruise.

IS RESTORED" - me in 2003
And yet, and yet. At the same time, I'm now seeing what's happening to the fans of the stuff that came after my glory years. There are those nostalgic for the 1994 Tomorrowland Transit Authority narration, gone since 2009 and which I personally hated. There was, believe it or not, an online furor over the removal of the gaudy 90s decorations inside World of Disney. But it's hard not to look upon such things with a generous eye; after all, I hated when my stuff was removed, and the generations before me hated when their stuff was removed.

And so this post is something I maybe might have written in the early days of this blog in a radically different way. I've been putting it off for years for just such a reason, and only recently have I finally felt like I've made peace with the fact that all of the stuff that was so sacred to my childhood wasn't necessarily integral to that of others', never mind those who are children right now - today (Star Wars fans take note).

Which itself is a long winded way of saying that I feel like I'm finally ready to make this list something other than a long list of demands for the return of every last thing removed from Magic Kingdom since 1990. That is almost certainly what it would have been in 2007, and possibly in 2011. I've seen similar lists from younger folks who want, say, every single thing done to Fantasyland to be recalled and see the clocks turned back nearly exactly as possible to 1971. There are, to be sure, a good smattering of pet peeves to be found, but hopefully balanced with a good amount of experience and a healthy skepticism that not all changes are by definition terrible even if they are not per se terrific.

The one stipulation I've placed is to consign myself to the realm of the reasonably practical with the park as it exists right now. If I were given carte blanche and a limitless budget, I certainly would love to bring back every quaint shop and attraction of Main Street, but I'm also not convinced that would be anything but a largely symbolic victory. Fifty years changes a place and a culture, and it is not my job here to rail against that. So instead I've presented a list of nine reasonably possible alterations that I feel would tangibly improve the Magic Kingdom of 2018.

Tomorrowland Theater Problem

So one of the big problems inherent in the design of Magic Kingdom is that they radically underestimated who would actually show up to the darn thing. Despite the success of Disneyland and the test balloon of the World's Fair, in the end Disney erred on the side of elaborate theater attractions, predicting that Magic Kingdom would attract an older crowd that just wanted to get out of the damn sun.

That's not quite what happened. In order to close the gap between what was on offer and who was there, in the years between 1972 and 1975 Disney promoted some pretty odd things as "thrill" attractions, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Star Jets. The problem wouldn't be fully resolved until the 1980 opening of Big Thunder Mountain.

One odd result of of this miscalculation in the 60s is that every single Magic Kingdom area except for Adventureland has a massive theater right at its entrance. This isn't so obvious now, but perhaps no other area is as burdened by this as Tomorrowland. Since the 70s, guests have had to keep walking past two variously unappealing theatre shows to get to the good stuff. Disneyland has always had two similar buildings at its entrance, but at least one of them has always been some sort of ride!

The Circle-vision theater is a bit more flexible due to its size, but the Flight to the Moon space to the north has always been more problematic. Redoing the space into Alien Encounter and then Stitch did not solve the problem, and Disneyland opted out of the whole mess by shuttering their twin theaters and then turning them into a pizza parlor.

After 50 years it's time to admit that enough is enough and abandon the theater concept at the front of Tomorrowland. While the Alien/Stitch building isn't large enough to accommodate a dark ride, what it could accommodate is a lengthy queue, dark ride boarding area, and a few scenes. From there, Disney could wall off the front of Tomorrowland and dig a tunnel connecting the two show buildings, allowing vehicles to travel to the much larger Circle-vision theater space for the bulk of the ride. Riders could enter thru the Stitch building and exit thru the Circle-vision building, which would be pretty cool, I think.

And while we're at it, it's probably time to close the 20-year-old Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin around the corner. As the oldest and worst of all of the Buzz shooting rides, it's out of place and there's already a Toy Story shooting ride in another park. I'd close and gut the whole thing, perhaps splitting the difference between the Circle-vision space for the two rides.

There could even be a room where the two rides share a show scene - how cool would that be? Imagine seeing two different dark rides interacting with the Peoplemover running above them.

To be clear, I'm not expecting a great new concept dark ride here, but simply any kind of ride would be a better use of the space that what they have now. Have a cute Stitch ride on one side and a Big Hero Six ride on the other. Or perhaps The Cat From Outer Space. Um.... Unidentified Flying Oddball maybe? ....Disney really kinda sucks at creating sci-fi movies, y'know?

Grizzly Hall Rescue

Disney does not know what to do with Country Bear Jamboree, and this is a problem.

Bear Band has always been one of those "you get it or you don't" things, and the fact that things have gotten this bad is not all that surprising. In the days when Disney heavily marketed Country Bears, inside the park and out, the show could make a respectable showing, but now that it's competing with two of the biggest attractions in the park just down the street, people no longer feel like they have time to discover Country Bear Jamboree. Everybody reading this blog probably knows (or has been in the past) one of those people who walked clear by it, never giving it a second thought. When I tell many people that Country Bear Jamboree is one of my favorite things, the incredulous look I get speaks volumes.

But the fact is that those who do go in to see it tend to enjoy it more often than not, and having sat through probably hundreds of showings of the bears, I'm here to tell you: especially in the original 15 minute version, the show flat out works. It's weird for a few minutes, but when audiences finally surrender to its weirdo charms, it always brings down the house. Al Bertino and Marc Davis really knew their stuff. This, coupled with the recent cultural shift away from irony, places CBJ in a position to continue to be a minor favorite.

Notice those words: minor favorite. Disney, for their part, has decided that the problem with Country Bear Jamboree is Country Bear Jamboree, and various efforts have been initiated in the past 15 years to introduce newer country music, or have the bears sing Disney songs, or turn the thing into "American Idol".

But here's the thing, is that you can't make Country Bear Jamboree into the afternoon parade. It's never going to be a massive crowd pleaser, because by its very nature it's very, very weird. Country Bear Jamboree is a cult favorite, except Disney insists on treating it as a box office disappointment. The problem here isn't Country Bear Jamboree, but Disney.

Specifically it's the Disney who has insisted, more and more, that guests turn themselves into type A psychopaths, planning meals, lodging, and even attraction times down to the smallest detail. Given how stressed they've made everyone, and given that the attraction always was sort of a cult item, fewer and fewer guests are going to be in a position to give it a chance.

Disney already tried to fix the problem, by cutting down the show - from 15 minutes to a measly 10. This ignores the problem totally, because it again assumes there this is some wide, popular appear to be extracted from a cult attraction. There isn't, and those who liked it fine as it was are now less likely to stop by, while doing nothing relevant to draw in those new viewers it needs. Given that Disney is now looking at messing with the show again, more catastrophically, it obviously didn't work. It's time to save Grizzly Hall.

Country Bear Jamboree is never going to be the headliner attraction Disney wants it to be, and any further changes risk messing it up even worse than it is already - they don't make Disney like this anymore, and nobody has ever improved on a Marc Davis anything by changing it. Ever. So what if, instead of trying to turn the show into something it isn't, we found a way to change the conversation around it?

If people aren't willing to take the time to see Country Bear Jamboree, then what needs to be addressed is its role as a "value proposition". It's a 10 minute show, inside in the air conditioning, which is a fraction of the time the average guests spends standing outside having a nervous breakdown in the July heat. If they don't see the value proposition in getting out of the heat for any reason, then perhaps they need added incentive.

So my idea is to turn Grizzly Hall into an ice cream parlor.

No, seriously. Imagine taking out the back wall of the lobby so when you enter, you can see into the theater. There's now an old-fashioned saloon bar dispensing soda and ice-cream, and the seating area is the theater. Rip out all of the benches, and have multiple tiers of big comfortable booths with charging stations facing the stage. Oh, and every 30 minutes or so, the show begins!

This way everyone could have everything. Those not interested in the show can come and go as they wish, but those who would enjoy the show but would never otherwise made the time to see it can discover it as an added value to relaxing indoors with some ice cream. And those of us who love the show can "Rent Space" in the theater by buying some food. And, most importantly, the show would finally be turning an actual profit and pulling its weight in the park.

Who knows, maybe with all of those positives we can even get a longer version of the show back.

Ghostly Grievances

Okay, here's some petty stuff. I said I had some, so let's get detailed!

I think the 2007 Haunted Mansion refurb is one of the best Disney attraction redos ever, and secured a future for this beloved attraction. But that doesn't mean everything's exactly perfect. And here are a few of my pet peeves I'd personally love the address about my home away from home.

The first isn't so much a peeve as it is just something I still don't understand. In 2007, the Graveyard vocals were finally fixed and synchronized after about 15 years of being all over the place, which was great. But for some reason, they replaced most of the vocal tracks with new ones!

I don't think the new vocals are awful or anything, but I still don't understand why this was done. I don't even think it dramatically changes the ride experience, but the sheer weirdness of even thinking of doing something like that still just nags at me.

My second grievance is at the start of the attraction. Until 2007, Haunted Mansion kicked off with a slow crawl past some creepy portraits with follow-you eyes. I loved this introduction to the ride, setting to my mind the perfect tone of the house being alive and watching you. I don't think the replacement scene is bad, but what puzzles me is that the portraits were relocated to the barren Load area but the eyes were covered up!

I think if anything the effect would be even better on foot, and give people something to really enjoy while in line to get on the cars. I'm positive that this one isn't WDI's fault, though - I suspect that Operations requested the effect be axed under the belief that such an interactive effect would cause a bottleneck. I'd like to point out that such an effect has worked fine at Disneyland since August 1969 without causing a bottleneck, but given that Ops themselves insist on running the attraction improperly, stuffing far too many people into each Stretch Room and therefore causing a bottleneck, perhaps their wishes shouldn't carry so much weight.

My final gripe is a bigger one, and it has to do with something that I do think negatively affects the attraction. In 1969, Claude Coats was given a chance to re-think the Mansion for Florida, and made a number of improvements which I think make the MK model the definitive version of the attraction.

One of the biggest changes was in the Corridor of Doors, which dramatically improved the impact of the scene. Now lit in oppressive red, the scene was given a visually improved breathing door effect and a new climax, as a dead looking pair of hands are prying the top of the final door off its hinges. To my young mind this was an iconographic high point of the attraction, a moment where it really felt like the Haunted Mansion was a direct and immediate threat.

It also greatly improves the end of the scene. At Disneyland, few guests notice the last breathing door on the left because their attention has been directed off to the right. When the Doombuggies pivot past the final door and turn to face the clock, most people naturally keep looking straight ahead instead off looking down to see the bulging effect. Moving the main punctuation up to the top of the door simply stages the effect where most are prepared to see it, and also prepares you to be looking up in time to see the clock. The effect was a sudden, startling flash as you realize that the ghosts are getting ever nearer to you.

Well, in 2007 they removed the red lights - and they removed the hands. I was told at the time that an executive inside WDI decreed that no ghosts should be seen before Madame Leota summons them, to which I say fine - but that also means you've gotta take the hands off the coffin a few feet away. Personally I think the hands were a great touch, and as something drawn by Marc Davis and okayed by Claude Coats, I trust the opinions of those guys more than anyone else. I'm resigned to never seeing the blood red lighting again, but let's bring back the hands, please?

Tokyo's version shows how the gag looked in context, video by LMG_Vids

Oh, and you know the changing portrait in the Foyer? It's projected from the rear, and bounced off a mirror, meaning it's flipped twice and is seen from the right way around from the guest side. In 2007, somebody forgot about this, and flipped it to account for the rear projection, but not the mirror. He's been facing the wrong way for 11 years.

Pirates' Slow Slide Into Incoherence

One thing that I feel gets short attention in Disney circles is the role of Walt Disney and his studio in the cycle of American art we retrospectively call the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many elements of this man's career that seem incomprehensible to those of us looking back eight decades later are rather typical if we compare him to the likes of Daryl Zanuck or Louis B Mayer. The thing is, without certain contexts, we run the risk of making too much hay out of something that the larger culture of the era took for granted. And one of those facts of life of making movies once upon a time was the Production Code.

The Production Code was the result of one of those times where society is struggling with the normative changes brought about by a booming but still young Industry. Because Cinema was a media form that could reach such groups as women, children, and immigrants, the result was a morals panic in 1922 and again in 1934, each time bringing new standards for motion picture producers to abide by and increasingly strict controls.

Because Disney produced animated cartoons - not musicals and crime pictures - the influence of the Code is rarely discussed in relationship to his productions. But it was such a pervasive influence on popular culture that it created norms which would have seemed so obvious to not even be worthy of mention. And in the case of criminal behavior, the Production Code is entirely clear: if you break the law, you've got to pay the consequences. Usually this simply meant killing off the villain at the film's end in a way which seemed either accidental or coming about of their own doing. This is why so many classic Disney villains fall to their deaths: the hero really couldn't just outright kill them without needing to, under the Code, be killed off themselves.

Which is really one way of saying that the Morality Play construct of Pirates of the Caribbean, rather than being some grand artistic statement as it's been made out to be by writers such as this one here, may not have even been a consideration in 1966. Pirates were bad guys, so they must come to a bad end. And for audiences and storytellers who grew up during the enforcement of the code, it would have been simply a matter of course to be concerned with depicting this: of course the pirates must die, it's simply the way it is done!

But that's only half of the story. Come now and let's jump forward in time about forty years, when a new Pirates of the Caribbean is being created that caters to the expectations of a new audience.

This audience has grown up accustomed to films where the main characters may be not all that sympathetic and where evil is not always punished. For this audience, it makes sense to present pirates not as criminals, but as fantastical creatures from a storybook come to life. But more than anything there's one concept which the entirety of this new Pirates will be staked on: the notion of the anti-hero - a character type not seen in a single Disney film of the classic era.

And that, more than anything, is the thing which totally disrupts Pirates of the Caribbean, and why Jack Sparrow seems to so totally change the meaning of the attraction. The entire concept of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is that piracy is bad and immoral and crimes will be punished, whether that be exploding in a burning warehouse, being stabbed over a treasure chest, or slowly dying in a cave full of pilfered treasure. But the mere existence of Captain Jack Sparrow suddenly turns a clean, clear group of villains into a group of villains where... some of them? Aren't bad either?

Add to this the fact that Barbossa, a fairly clear cut bad guy in the first film, himself returned in later films as a Jack Sparrow-esque antihero and is depicted as actually leading the band of Pirates that attack the town on-ride. Instead of getting the feeling that these crimes are being created by a disrupting force, identifying characters audiences have already accepted in other media forms as the driving characters in the story necessarily changes the inflection of the actions.

And then there's the merchandising, which regrettably plays a role in all of this too. Now to be clear, it's not like Disney hasn't always been selling pirate hats and swords and letting children buy them and run around the park pretending to stab each other. I was purchased a tiny metal pirate gun when I was five and I used it to shoot all of the animals on the Jungle Cruise. Kids will be kids. However, for a long time Disney has really been pushing the angle of "join the crew", no more so that at The Pirate's League, where boys and girls can be made up into pirates and pirate-princesses or mermaids. There's also an interactive Adventureland game where you band together with Jack Sparrow to search for treasure. The emphasis, time and time and time again, is on joining the crew, the same crew that we can see on the ride burning down a city!

The moment you back away from the position that the ride was designed under - that pirates are bad news - is the moment when you then open up the possibility for debate of "well if the Pirates are such fascinating fantastical beings, then why are they doing such awful things?" and that's when you start losing the heart of the ride. Are we supposed to admire the pirates? Are they heroes or villains?

It's clear that WDI's position is that instead of a morality play, Pirates of the Caribbean is an action-adventure, an action-adventure to fit with the popular action-adventure films of its era. Jack Sparrow is like a layer of sweet frosting plopped on top of this brooding atmospheric rock. It may make it more fun, but it doesn't mean its a cupcake.

I think the Magic Kingdom version is nearer to that action-adventure than the others, and pretty much always has been. But if they're going to commit to that tone, then more work needs to be done not only to clarify who exactly is supposed to be the good guys and who is supposed to be the bad guys, but how all of this fits together.

I'd do this by bringing back a new version of the Blackbeard captain in Bombardment Bay and losing all of the mentions of Jack Sparrow in the well scene. You can then take Jack Sparrow out of the well scene and move him upstairs, near the start of the ride, where he can establish that he's looking for the gold - a motivation consistent with his character in the films - and perhaps hint that the caverns are haunted. If the queue were then re-worked to make it clear that you are in a fort and the pirates are coming to attack the town, then we could have an unbroken chain of action from the start of the ride to the end. Add some exciting music to the exit and you've got an action ride.

Of course the real question is whether at this point it's worth redoing the ride to better present the film material at all. Prior to the 2006 reform, Jack Sparrow mania was at a fever pitch, but already the films have receded from the public eye. WDI removed the Davy Jones waterfall from Disneyland this past year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see most of the film materials slowly being phased out over the next decade. It may seem like commerce beats art more often than not, but one nice thing about art is that it tends to last and last while profits fade.

At a bare minimum, MK Pirates needs help on its setup. The current attraction gives no real hint that you're supposed to be entering a fort being attacked by pirates, and the loss of the firing roof cannons does nothing to help this. Additionally, the queue was redone in 2006 and the Glendale-based design team slapped the Pirates Overture music all over the entire queue, totally messing up the creepy tone that had been established since opening day and drowning out the dialogue establishing that the pirates are coming to attack further into the queue. Since the roof cannons were refurbished to make them part of the Jack Sparrow game, turning those on a constant loop, returning the "Pirates Arcade" music to just the entrance tunnel, and turning up the volume of the queue dialogue are three 100% free things WDI could do tomorrow to improve the front part of that attraction.

Consider the Background

Given that I'm pretty well known for this these days maybe this isn't so surprising but I really wish somebody would sit down and rethink the area music at Magic Kingdom from the ground up. I don't think parks per se need to constantly be evaluating their musical background, but Magic Kingdom has overall made fairly few changes to the locations and kinds of music they play since the 1990s, and I think this can lead to bad "legacy" changes sticking around longer than necessary.

For instance, all of watercraft that ply Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon are trapped in the early-00s "Radio Disney" mode, and the result is I think fairly embarrassing. Relaxed instrumentals and perhaps ocean-going music really would do a better job setting the atmosphere for these minor vehicles. Similarly, especially given that new ones are supposedly en route, not playing up-tempo music on the monorails is really a lost opportunity. These sort of minor improvements can really help set expectations and pace the experience, so you don't have the absurd juxtaposition of, say, playing 90s pop covers on a ferry boat that moves at a snail's pace.

Similarly, I think Magic Kingdom overall needs a total rethink in the sound department. Some areas, like Liberty Square, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, or the Tangled bathrooms, are perfectly fine, while others I think really could be improved with new music selections. Given that the expanded Hub area seems to belong as much to Fantasyland as Main Street, stately music would go a long way towards improving the feeling of that area. Similarly, Cinderella Castle has been playing the Disneyland Paris castle area loop since at least the mid-90s, and for that castle the choice is entirely wrong. For the first 20 years, Cinderella Castle played a short vocal version of "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes", and all it takes is a trip to Tokyo Disneyland to hear what an impact that track has in situ.

In other cases, I think less music would be just as effective. Frontierland can keep its upbeat Western music around the entrance, but there's an opportunity here to create a more dynamic soundscape, perhaps with plunked banjos or honky tonk pianos coming from upstairs windows. How cool would it be to walk along the Rivers of America at night and hear the crickets and frogs of the Mississippi instead of the hum of Florida cicadas?

Similarly, Adventureland has been playing upbeat drumming and steel drum music since 1993, another track taken over wholesale from Disneyland Paris, and it does nothing to set the tone. Languid exotica music as well as some strategically placed speakers on the landscaped hill across the moat playing jungle bird calls would really bring the area to life, setting the correct mood of mystery that's being missed right now.

To be abundantly clear here, I don't think every track needs to be changed at Magic Kingdom, never mind changed back to what it was in the 70s and 80s. There's plenty of places where what's playing there now is as good or better than what was used there before, such as Tomorrowland. And while I'd jump at a chance to return the WEDway music to its ride, I think the 2003 Tomorrowland music does such a good job setting the correct tone that there's no need to change it again. But there's other areas of the park where the design of the area says one thing and the music says another, and I think bringing those into closer harmony would really improve things for everybody.

To give just one more example, MGM / Hollywood Studios recently had the entire entrance of that park totally redone from a musical perspective with an integrated "vision", and the effort made a huge difference. Music can improve or detract even when the design of a park remains static, but I think Magic Kingdom feels like a very different place than it did even ten years ago, so there's a real opportunity to improve here.

That Dumb Hub Stage

Yes, it's back. Already my number one remaining complaint about this park, I still think the Hub Stage is a terrible, terrible decision, and on top of that, doesn't even make much sense for the theme park built in Florida. Do people really enjoy standing in the absolutely merciless sun to watch the 30 minute long shows that happen here?

A few years back, Disney announced they were going to build a new indoor theater off Main Street, a decision I applauded. The project hasn't moved forward, leading to online rumors of cancellation. I really do think that, given the choice between standing out in the sun and sitting indoors to watch a Mickey Mouse show, most guests will choose the latter. Given all of this, I'm hopeful that the Main Street Theater is simply delayed, or will return in a better form, and that once open it will start reducing Entertainment's absurd reliance on a hub stage. I think the hub stage would be a nice venue for band performances, or seasonal events, but it's time to stop pretending that this dreary slab of fiberglass is remotely an appropriate location for staging increasingly long and elaborate shows.

If nothing else, if the number of shows on the Hub stage were even at a bare minimum halved, this would allow time for Operations to bring out those Main Street Vehicles, which Magic Kingdom's Main Street hurts for badly. If it were up to me to start from scratch I'd lose the Hub stage permanently and build a theater facing the castle where the poorly-utilized Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station is, but really any move forward on this totally senseless arrangement is a good one.

Restore the Peddlar's Passage

Did you know that Liberty Square had two of its buildings cut fairly late in the game? They were right across from each other, near the Riverboat Landing, and while one of these has received its very own write-up on this blog nearly ten (ack) years ago, it's the one across the way that I'd like to focus on here.

The north side lost building of Liberty Square (above) was originally intended to feature artisan crafts like woodworking and blacksmithing, and when it was cut, designers replaced it with a short-lived open green space. This stuck around for maybe a full year total, when the constant out of control queue for the Hall of Presidents required that the south half of it be turned into a covered queue for the attraction. It stayed like this for some time until the grass was paved over and replaced with a bunch of circular planters, which is the arrangement that's still there to this day. Over the years it's hosted various popcorn wagons and merchandise options, before settling into its current role as an outdoor food market circa 2002.

So here's an situation where Magic Kingdom has been utilizing a building they have no real need of, a covered queue with an open air network of umbrellas and random tables, for a perfectly good purpose, but due to the very nature of its temporary setup, not doing it as well as it could be done. And here's the thing: there's already a 100% attractive structure that was designed 50 years ago by John Hench and Herbert Ryman that's just sitting in their archives unused.

So what I'd do is pull the blueprints, make the necessary adjustments for modern accessibility, and put it up on the spot of the old queue and circular planters. The same food options can be offered in the interior space, with the added benefit of not needing to operate at reduced capacity when it rains every day.

Oh, but the thing is that the design benefits to Liberty Square would be huge. Designed to resemble a charming series of colonial cottages very much like the ones behind the Liberty Tree, it would restore one of the biggest cuts to the design of Liberty Square when the building got the axe: the narrow, atmospheric alley that was supposed to run between the side of the building and the Hall of Presidents, an area called the Peddlar's Passage. Liberty Square has always been charming, but imagine an opportunity to bring back an intimate alley from the designers of New Orleans Square that was lost for 50 years while also serving to improve an existing problem area in a way that Disney is actually honestly prepared to spend money on these days. The blueprints exist in the Archives in Glendale. This could be real.

The Rivers of America and Railroad

I long ago decided that I really have no interest in working for Imagineering, so for those of you who do and are fighting the good fight: I salute you. But if I could join and do just one thing, one single thing I'm absolutely chomping at the bit to redesign isn't a new Horizons or Mr Toad or Journey Into Imagination, it's the Rivers of America and Walt Disney World Railroad at Magic Kingdom.

The Railroad in particular has always been a real wasted opportunity at Walt Disney World, although I do prefer it to the slightly more elaborate Railroad in Paris, which never quite creates the feeling of removal that makes the WDWRR so interesting. Pretty much all of the railroad rides except for Florida's is landlocked, and as a longtime Magic Kingdom rider I find something evocative about riding the rails at night, where the forest surrounding the back of the park really feels endless. As a result my redesign of the Railroad would probably be vastly simpler than most: just a few simple gags here and there to keep interest high without spoiling the atmosphere. I'd for sure send the train through a new tunnel which would block out that terrible overpass on the edge of Fantasyland, I'd also theme the rear of the Pirates of the Caribbean show building that everybody sees plain as day before the tunnel, but the rest would be simple atmosphere building stuff.

For instance, it would be nice to see a jungle animal or two as we pass through the "outskirts of Adventureland", and I think Disney missed a huge opportunity when they cut up the plane from The Great Movie Ride into pieces and tossed it out instead of moving it to sit alongside the railroad tracks for clever visitors to ride the Jungle Cruise and finds its rear half.

The back stretch of Magic Kingdom has always just been sort of a nothing area, and in the early days this was even presented as "a view of untouched Florida". Today it's seen more as "the outskirts of Fantasyland", which is absurd, but if that's what it is, that's what it should look like. I'd move the rattlesnake and frog-on-a-stump vignettes to be nearer to the Frontierland area, nearer to the Indian village, and do something with the idea that Fantasyland is somehow supposed to be nearby. Perhaps some fantastical boats plying the retention pond, or, to play into the idea that this its way outside the "nice" areas of Fantasyland, some crumbling castle walls would add a sense of romance and mystery.

The tunnel that goes under the overpass could be claimed to be part of the mine of the Seven Dwarfs, and have a jeweled forced perspective tunnel that leads off in the direction of the new coaster. Another approach that would be interesting is to imply that the villains hang out way outside here; Stromboli's wagon parked alongside the river or Prince John's carriage from Robin Hood would be a cool touch. Honestly, the area's so green and underpopulated that it would be super cool to pass by Robin and Little John hanging out around their camp.

Past Tomorrowland, the Railroad provides views of the Seven Seas Lagoon and the Contemporary, making it the only castle park to really try to integrate the railroad, park, and resort area into one scenic view, but I've always thought more of an effort to imply that we're getting closer to Main Street, and that the Main Street Citizens come hang out here, would be cool. It can be something as simple as a Model T Ford parked underneath a tree with a picnic set up.

Nice shot of the boat, but don't forget the "dangerous" floating logs!
I feel that the Rivers of America needs far less work, although an extensive re-landscaping would be great. The real trouble with the Rivers of America is that a "hazard" scene was removed in 1972, although the ride has continued to pretend that this part of the River is somehow dangerous. Originally the scene was a bunch of branches sticking up out of the river (left), a detail lifted from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. The branches went away almost immediately, and since then they're been pretending that underwater shoals are the reason we're supposed to be concerned. The trouble is that underwater shoals look like nothing, whereas branches are at least a good visual indicator of a threat, so the scene doesn't work at all. Something needs to be installed to look at between the Burial Ground and Pirate's Cave, and additionally I've always felt that expanded propping along the shoreline of the Haunted Mansion was a missed and obvious opportunity.

Another thing I'd like to do is install a number a "show" boats in the river alongside Liberty square, to better carry the idea that it and Frontierland and supposed to be bustling port towns. This idea went away when the Keelboats did, but some prop tall-masted ships sitting alongside the docks of Liberty Square would really tie together the north part of the land. Oh, and of course, something needs to be done about that burning cabin. I don't care if it never burns again, but it needs to be fixed up and turned into something attractive to look at if that's the case.

This has been a longwinded and fanciful ramble, perhaps more than any other in this list but I think it's nice to point out that even without a Primeval World diorama and fancy Star War-blocking waterfalls, there's no reason why simple additions couldn't turn both of these attractions into real winners.

And One Last

Okay, one last petty one. I love Magic Kingdom Small World, and I don't care if you don't like it, or think that Disneyland's is better. I love this ride. But in the otherwise excellent 2005 refurbishment, why on earth would they remove this absolute masterpiece of a visual gag from the final scene?

You laughed, admit it. It's still funny. Bring it back.

If you enjoy long winded design essays like these, then you should check out our Theme Park Theory Hub Page, where there's a lot more like this. Thanks for stopping by!


Joe Shelby said...

I like the idea of turning Country Bear Jamboree into something more of a snack place. First, it brings it a little closer to what Marc originally designed it for (Mineral King). Such shows did get to be successful, if expensive to maintain, with restaurants like Showbizz Pizza and the 80s/90s version of Chuck E Cheese's.

The idea of you're just eating and occasionally a show pops up is what they did to the Disneyland Golden Horseshoe, now a quick-service restaurant space. Every half hour or so, they come out and do a small show, some with audience volunteers, some straight out comedy/singing. Nothing of the quality of the original, of course, but still a fun interlude.

About the only problem is that, when eating in shows when there's no pressure to focus on the show, some people just don't know when to shut up, and it can be very offputting. (I say this as someone who's worked in renaissance festivals and drunk quite a bit in irish bars over the years).

stu29573 said...

Good post! I agree with (almost) all of your ideas. The improvements to Liberty Square and the train are actually pretty exciting. I'm not sure about the Country Bear Ice Cream idea, since all I'm seeing is an ice cream version of Chuck E. Cheese, which I'm pretty sure is NOT where you were going.
My main HM gripe continues to be the "interactive queue" which completely destroys any story run-up before the attraction, and, in fact, makes less than zero sense on so many levels. Kill it. Kill it dead.
I like the idea of a (or a couple of) dark ride(s) in Tomorrowland, and would even take a Pizza Port over a shuttered attraction. I liked Timekeeper in the southern theater, but don't care for Monsters Inc that much (pretty much a one and done attraction) and I'm always up for a good dark ride. Big Hero 6 has a good following and, I think, fits better into Tomorrowland..
The hub stage IS horrible, and all of the "improvements" to the hub area make it feel less like a relaxing castle lawn and more like a...theme park.
If only imagineering would listen. However, my expectations at this point couldn't get much lower, I'm afraid.
Good post! Thank you!

bfth said...

Agree with you on MANY points.

Would love to see the Country Bears be better attended and integrated. Does anyone else remember when Buff, Max and Melvin were also in the restaurant next door and kind of continued the show there (after the show was over)? The Country Bears are hookey and FUN...cutting down on the time does nothing for it, but your suggestion DOES.

I am also of the mind that Pirates are the bad guys. There's nothing wrong with that. Pirates are NOT supposed to be PC. Hence they should be chasing after the women (and not the other way around) and the red head should be auctioned and not a pirate herself. Again, I say Pirates are NOT PC. (Isn't that the whole point?)

Now, when are you going to make your suggestions in regards to the rest of the parks? (Yes, I'm screaming bring back Horizons! And what the hell do you think you're doing to the Universe of Energy?)

Anthony "Pants" said...

I don't have anything to add except to say that I really enjoy your take on things. I read so many Disney blogs and books and feel that there is nothing left to learn, but you always teach me new things and a new way to approach the parks.

FoxxFur said...

Quick point before we continue here:

"PC" has become a rather abused talking point when discussing Pirates of the Caribbean this year, and in my opinion is a vast simplification of a complex subject that I've tried to address here without ever evoking this meaningless phrase or indeed the current controversey.

If you'd like to discuss Pirates, please feel free, that's why I brought it up. However, comments that are abusive or turn on the internet echo chamber will not be approved. Everybody has a different standard for what they find acceptable in entertainment, and "PC" turns these differences into meaningless generalizations, so let's please be respectful of everyone's perspectives.

ericpaddon said...

-I understand the point made at the outset about how we often have the most virulent reactions to what first replaces the stuff that we enjoyed but the amazing thing is that in my 18 year span of going to WDW between 1975 and 1993 (a dozen visits) I always tended to have the sense that there was a neat orderly evolution taking place whenever something did change. I loved "If You Had Wings" dearly but I was savvy enough to understand from following the news about Eastern's financial trouble that the attraction wasn't going to stay the same if Eastern was on the ropes. As it turned out, I never was there during the "If You Can Fly" interlude but when I returned in 1990, I was more than happy to accept "Dreamflight" as a competent successor that fit in the existing themeing. Likewise, the addition of "Splash Mountain" always seemed like something that augmented what was there.

-I always feel like my May 1993 visit was on the very tipping edge of when WDW lost its way (my only visit since then was June 2004). So much of the park was in need of the kind of generational overhaul that Disneyland successfully went through 1967 with Tomorrowland and 1982 with Fantasyland but it seemed like the understanding was that when a big change has to be made keep things true to the *spirit* of what was once there. WDW lost sight of that completely when it did a Tomorrowland overhaul that really didn't quite know what it was doing for unity of theme, and it also thanks to the mentality of Disney management and the state of the company caused by the financial failure DL Paris was initially, meant that the overhaul wasn't going to be accomplished in the way that DL did in 67. With hindsight, I'm glad I got to do that last Mission to Mars trip in 93 and that 20K was still there (I always thought one day we'd see it spruced up with a more elaborate sub ride to accommodate new technological capability. Was that unreasonable to have thought?). And I still remain grateful I saw one of the last showings of the original "Hall Of Presidents". The instant a decision was made to alter the program, it forever lost its ability to be a genuinely non-partisan attraction that could appeal to Americans of all political leanings.

-Disney's desire to shape its changes based on what was the currently hot property of the moment led to other damaging decisions that have been noted with the Pirates changes, and of course "Under New Management" would also fall in that category. The management never realized what was clear to me as a kid back in the day that an attraction like "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" could become a favorite of mine without my ever knowing what Disney movie it came from. They sacrificed "art" and its timeless nature as conceived by Walt and the Old Guard in favor of being trendy and the results that have been done in WDW and EPCOT for that matter have never worked.

-The damage has long since been done and the clock can't be turned back to 1993 and a plea for more sensible decisions to be made regarding where WDW went. I fear that I am now too far removed from the Park to ever be able to go back and form any appreciation for what there is now to ever become objective again. As I near the half-century mark of my life, I admit I cling even more to the nostalgia for what is gone with the gratitude that a portion of it can still be accessed thanks to camcorder videos and audio tracks. But even if WDW could still be improved, the days of it being a "Magic Kingdom" I really don't think can ever come back.

Chris said...

Thanks for the awesome post! I've had a lot of similar thoughts about the Magic Kingdom over the years, and I would absolutely love it if they followed your Liberty Square suggestion. For some reason, an area of the park I couldn't have cared less about as a kid is now my favorite land. There's so much awesome that could be done with a more intimate colonial-themed area... I'm thinking something New-Englandy, maybe involving baked apple desserts and/or cheese.

As for Country Bears (and Tiki Birds), this may be heretical of me, but I wish that both shows would feature constantly new and fresh material from musical theater/comedy writers that love the theming/concepts of either attraction. I don't have to hear the same songs every time, except for "Mama Don't Whoop Little Buford," which is sacred :P A little Star Wars-style randomization, some Ray-Romano-style "Take Two" alternate jokes for the mounted heads, a rotating show schedule... a little freshness goes a long way with content-based attractions. Maybe make Henry a "living character" who can interact with the audience a bit in between songs. Or give him a series of brief humorous anecdotes about travelling to the places the audience members are from, gleaned MyMagic+ style.

I think the most depressing thing about making this kind of list, though, is the realization that if the people in charge actually cared about the guest experience or making an artistic connection with people, a lot of this kind of stuff would already have been done. It feels like no one with any power cares, and no one who cares has any power. But that's been true since at least Expedition Everest. So I should probably get over it lol.

Tim said...

I totally agree with you on Tomorrowland and Pirates, but I think if Country Bears went back to the longer show, did fewer shows a day, and announced each show time like The Hall of Presidents, it would make people pay more attention to the Country Bears, and would maybe be something you fit into your crazy "Fast Pass Schedule". I know a lot of people check out Carousel of Progress waiting for their Space Mt. or Buzz Lightyear Fast Pass times.

As for Haunted Mansion I don't think anything you mentioned is petty, it's annoying to me that they slowly keep changing the WDW version to the DL version. The Corridor of Doors scene in particular was much different for the first 10 years or so that the ride was open, and it had a bit of a narrative to it that tied the whole Corridor together, but that's completely lost now...

The "green light and smoke machine" effect you posted as a Tokyo Disneyland effect, was also in WDW up until the early 1980's, and the second to last the door that bulges out from the middle, which still has the green light, also had hands on either side of it and the smoke machine effect as well. Nearly all the doors in the corridor had green lights behind them, and one of the other doors had a stationary hand on it near the top of the door frame... but what was apparent was it all related to the first scene with the coffin, and the green light seemed to somehow be responsible for "reanimating" the corpse in the coffin. Then you'd see the same green light and same hands trying to escape from behind the doors, and as you left the Corridor you saw the shadow of a hand swiping passed the face of Grandfathers clock, giving the impression that one of the corpses had finally broken free.

There were also 8 black-lights hidden in the ceiling of the Corridor that that made the "whites of the eyes" in the Demon-Eye wallpaper glow in the dark, but it all had a very psychedelic 70's vibe to it that seemed real outdated after EPCOT opened. The black-lights were the first thing to go, then the smoke-machines, and once the smoke was gone you could see that the hands on the second to last door that bulged from middle had no arms, they ended at the wrists like the hands in the coffin, so they were removed, and then it just limped along with only the red lights in the chandeliers and the one door with hands until the late 90's as you mentioned... but I'd like to see some version of that brought back

Sarah boo said...

I think it could be possible that Black Beard from the classic Disney film Blackbeard’s Ghost was actually an anti hero. He was a a classic pirate bad guy who has been put under a curse as a result of his terrible pirate behavior. When he is first brought back by the Dean Jones’s character, Steve Walker, Black Beard isn’t interested in anything but his old behavior patterns. As the movie progresses he eventually becomes the hero of the story. He saves the day for the track team, Steve and fellow professor Jo Anne Baker, and most importantly, the little old ladies who live in the Inn.

FoxxFur said...


I think the case could be made! I actually was close to bringing up Long John Silver in the classic 1950 Disney film as the nearest example, but I think both he and Blackbeard fall a little more squarely into the comic villain template than anti-heroes. They certainly were steps on the road there, however. Thanks for stopping by to read my silly thoughts!
- Foxxy

Melissa said...

My main beef with the current version of Pirates is that it's become such a patchwork of different Visual and musical styles. The original had a seamless aesthetic from start to finish. The original Mark Davis-designed figures don't look like they belong to the same species as the super-realistic Jack Sparrow and Barbossa figures. I don't know if there is a cheap and easy fix for that, though. If I were blue skying, I gut the ride and rebuild it from the walls out.

simoneyes said...

Oh my god, straight cackling at the last one. I missed that gag by a few months in my one and only trip to WDW and it is now on my list of Lifelong Regrets. Genius.

FWIW: you have earned the right many times over to make cantankerous comments about how the Disney of Your Day was the best of all possible Disneys. I appreciate your inclination to refrain from doing so, though.

Cory Gross said...

Wait, what are they doing to Country Bear Jamboree? I don't know what it is, but it sounds like I won't like it. That was one of the attractions that I absolutely fell in love with on my first and so-far only trip to WDW. Even the shortened version I saw was bang-on, entertaining, charming, ridiculous, and awesome. Your ice cream saloon could work, but so could the idea of simply scheduling playtimes for a longer show. That would make it seem more like an event. Could try that with the Tiki Room too, but for the love of God, put back in the part where you are invited to sing like the birdies sing.

There are changes I have liked, and changes I have not liked. I don't really know anyone who hates changes at Disney for the sake of hating changes. It's just the bad decisions... Things poorly executed from the get-go, things that are done well but a bad idea to begin with (*ahem* Pandora), classics changed poorly for dubious reasons (Pirates)... that I have issues with. But I also have to face facts that ain't nobody cares. The loss of Disneyland's Tower of Terror, the complete re-fracturing of DCA, and the latest round of Pirates vandalism kinda' broke me. It's hard for me to care about any of it, because none of it cares about me or what I think. In the meantime, a trip to a National Park costs about a fraction of a trip to WDW.

Disneylandfan85 said...

The idea of converting the Country Bears show into an ice cream parlor sounds cool, but isn't there already an ice cream parlor on Main Street?

Unknown said...

I love the idea about putting some of the villains along the back side of Fantasyland in in view of the Railroad. If they aren't going to give is a real live Snuggley Duckling tavern to go into and enjoy, why not build a set along the back of the park for the train to chug past. There could be evidence of some of the villains from their vehicles outside including Stromboli's wagon, Jasper's van and Cruella's car...among others.

Mat Black said...

...but what about new places to sell t-shirts and plush toys? That's all Disney seems to care about today.