Friday, August 21, 2020

Harold's Lost World of Snow

"It will be going the same speed it always has, but it will seem faster."
- John Hench, Disneyland Line, December 1977

In 2003, I took my first trip to Disneyland, and Disneyland is one of those places that rewires the way you think. Besides absolutely taking my head off and stuffing it back on in a new way thanks to their incredible Pirates of the Caribbean - still my favorite ride ever - I discovered one of the great loves of my life: the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

I've spent a long time thinking about the Matterhorn, and a long time riding it, and it's one of those rides where I find my ardor for the experience cannot be contained by a logically structured essay. I suspect many folks are the same way about certain things: they can't say why they like it so much, but they do. I probably have never loved a roller coaster more than I love the Matterhorn, which says a lot about my priorities.

For one, comfort isn't one of them. The Matterhorn was rough in 2003, and after installing new bobsleds apparently made out of pottery and saran wrap in 2012, it got rougher. Those 70s Arrow Development sleds didn't seem to sit as low to the track and had better shock absorption, but the 2012 bobsleds are like a gigantic speaker pushing vibrations right up into your posterior. I haven't really cared; I've kept riding the thing, my feet pushed into the nose of the car, my hands gripping the handle bars, body tense and ready to absorb the pain.

I do it not because the Matterhorn is a great rollercoaster, or even because it's a landmark roller coaster. The Matterhorn, along with the 1975 Space Mountain, shakes you like a rag doll, which modern coaster enthusiasts absolutely do not like. They prefer their terror to come from drops and g forces, not being rocked around like a dead cat in a barrel being sent over Niagara Falls. As I said, I don't much care for roller coasters. I love the Matterhorn not at all because it's a coaster, but because it's an amazing experience, and there's only one of them in the world.

It's hard to say how much I would have liked the 1959 Matterhorn, with its hollow interior. What can be said is that the decision to enclose a roller coaster inside of an artificial mountain is one of those Walt Disney ideas which has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it is almost impossible to imagine a world where it does not exist. I'm fairly certain Walt got the idea from the Rutschebanen at Tivoli, a sort of scenic railway that dashes in and out of a scenic alpine mountain (with a fake cow in a field on top!). But as usual at Disneyland, the scale of the effort and the decision to combine it with a world famous peak made all the difference. The Matterhorn turned the idea of a fiberglass mountain into a genre, and Space Mountain would make it into an institution.

There is also just something about the other-worldlyness of the Matterhorn that works in some impossible to articulate way. The way it rises up and hooks with the little shadow just under its peak added by Fred Joerger - the way it hangs there against the hazy California sky, seemingly always further away than it really is. You can walk all the way around it, something you cannot do with any other stateside Disney mountain. That fact, and its central location, transforms the Matterhorn into something that exists for the pleasure of everyone, even those who do not ride. This is landmark design for pleasure, and it's been repeated endlessly since - I'm certain that the size and dreamy unreality of the Matterhorn is the basis for the height and effect of Cinderella Castle in Florida, for instance.

And yet all of that is literally just on the surface, what was put there in 1959. What I really love is the 1978 version, which in my opinion is an absolute stone classic in how to perfectly structure a themed experience, and do it so simply it's almost subliminal.

Storytelling in three dimensions is hard, and even harder because it rarely needs to conform to dramatic beats. Instead it could be said that most successful rides need to introduce a dramatic situation directly involving riders, then build and riff on that situation in a variety of interesting ways. Riding bobsleds down a fake mountain is pretty interesting already, but the wrinkle of introducing a rampaging monster really pushes the Matterhorn over the top. The idea supposedly goes back to Walt Disney, but how easily it could have turned out wrong.

Lets begin on the approach to the Matterhorn from the Hub. As we draw near, there is a surprise: the trees part, and a huge waterfall comes into view. The waterfall instantly suggests that there is going to be more going on in the Matterhorn than we expect, yet the Matterhorn looks picturesque, inviting with its alpine trees and flowers. A mountain stream winds around the base of the mountain, which somehow looks like cold mountain water thanks to the contrasting landscape around it.

Yet thats not quite the whole story. The whole top of the mountain is open, effectively turning its upper echelons into a gigantic loudspeaker which bellows out the unearthly roars of its resident monster. Even less comforting is the whistling wind which can be heard everywhere around it. This is the introduction of the dramatic conflict of the ride; the Matterhorn looks peaceful, welcoming, and charming, but.....

For my money no other theme park deployment of this concept comes even close to the raw elemental energy of this juxtaposition - the Matterhorn looks welcoming and inviting while also warning you to stay away. In the 70s, WED did a lot of this sort of stuff, and perhaps the wolf howl that emenates from the Florida Haunted Mansion and the booming cannons which once heralded the facade of Pirates of the Caribbean are predecessors. But those were really just atmosphere, whereas the approach to the Matterhorn initiates the dramatic conflict which will inform your entire experience: what's gotten into the Matterhorn?

The 1978 Matterhorn operated on the principle of suspense, and so the dramatic thrust of the story (will I escape?) mapped perfectly onto the build and release inherent in all coasters. This was an experience where the physical sensations of being on a coaster really meant something. The slow approach, the cheerful yodeling music, the wait at the bottom of the mountain ready to be released into the pitch black interior all built up anticipation. Of course all rides create anticipation, but the cheerful gemutlicheit of the Alpine landscape had an edge to it thanks to those unearthly roars.

The fact that the ride was going to be scary was announced instantly by the lift hill's perpetual gloom. The long monster roars were interspersed with screaming sounds, supplied by a speaker. The suspense of the lift hill is briefly released once the bobsleds peak and slowly begin to head downhill, then replaced with another kind of suspense. One of the best Disney jump scares of all time - the glowing eyes in the dark - illuminate with a ferocious roar, and now the rest of the ride is a long downhill slide where you are never entirely sure where the Snowman will be next. I've been on the Matterhorn probably a hundred times and I still sometimes forget exactly where the second Harold is.

Harold is one of the best designed theme park monsters of all time. The original design is a perfect distillation of a monster; long white hair offsets his blue face and hands, defining a fierce looking body shape as a silhouette, instantly comprehensible as a threat. Long hair above the eyes de-emphasizes the forehead, making the creature seem less human. Two thirds of the face is an open mouth full of teeth, the white teeth highlighted against the dark scream of a face. The nose is tiny, almost invisible, and the eyes are asymmetrical, making the yeti seem fantastical, an appropriate resident of Fantasyland. Harold was literally reaching hands, a mouth full of teeth, glowing red eyes, and almost nothing else.

But the thing is, nothing else was needed. Under the best circumstances you could get maybe 5 seconds to look at him, and those key elements: mouth, red eyes, reaching hand read perfectly from a speeding bobsled. As Ken Andersen told the E Ticket in 1993:
"You didn't need a lot of animation because you were moving. You were moving so darn fast that what you did was supply the movement for the characters."
That was the brilliance of Harold: he hardly moved, but he looked and felt alive. The long downhill escape, as well as his sudden reappearance, caused riders to fill in with their imaginations far more than was really going on.  More than any mountain-dwelling monster who has suceeded him, Harold really felt like he was chasing you, popping through secret caves and dashing down rock wall faces in an effort to cut you off. The physical structure of the ride itself worked perfectly to put you off the wrong foot; was that roar coming from ahead of or behind me?

The Matterhorn was a long build of suspense, followed by a chase down to the bottom, the splash of the glacial pond the release of the tension. Compared to the Matterhorn, Big Thunder was one damn thing after another and Space Mountain was just weirdness, but the Matterhorn felt like real peril, and it was peril created with some light-up eyes and three figures that moved only just enough to create a sense of motion. It was, in its own way, brilliant.

I didn't really start to understand just how good the Matterhorn was until Expedition Everest opened at Animal Kingdom a few years later. I admit that the Matterhorn created in me false expectations of a suspenseful, "boo" kind of experience, which Everest really isn't. Beautifully mounted, the attraction doesn't introduce its dramatic conflict until over a minute into a three minute ride. It's nearly another minute until we see the shadow of the Yeti, who honestly seems more interested in tearing up railroad tracks than chasing riders, and there's a final confrontation mere seconds before the ride ends. But the real thing that I couldn't believe when I rode Everest in previews, the thing I walked off the ride saying, is that the multi-million dollar yeti was gone by so fast you could barely register that he moved at all. Fusty old Harold inside the Matterhorn gave just about as good of a show at a fraction of the cost, and his mountain had actual caverns inside it!

For my money, Disneyland's new Snowman figure has the same issue. He looks terrifically fierce, and he snarls and lunges at the cars, but the pure, streamlined, communicative power of that goofy 1978 figure has been lost. The new figure has a visible forehead, which makes him look a bit more human, and his mouth opens and closes, a detail often lost because you're by him way too fast. He seems almost realistic, and to me this makes the new Snowman less visually appealing, less like an appropriate resident of Fantasyland.

But really the biggest issue is that those reaching hands are gone. The new Snowman is grabbing the ice wall around him like he's climbing out of a cave, but that image of him reaching for the cars was really important. Look at the silhouettes; there's no comparison.

The new guy seems like less of a threat; when you pass him a second time, he's twisted around to the side as if he isn't even expecting you to come upon him. He's louder, and he looks meaner, but its harder to feel like he's really and truly out to get you.

The trouble is that the window of comprehension for understanding something you coast by in a bobsled can be measured in micro-seconds, and the new Snowman just doesn't cut it. Blaine Gibson had fully absorbed this fact of theme park life and was a master at sculpting figures just the correct side of impossible to read in a flash. Think of all the figures in Pirates of the Caribbean, sculpted in mid-smile or mid-scowl. Think of the Hitch-hiking Ghosts, with their hugely exaggerated extended thumbs.

Think of how much artistic skill it takes to correctly draw attention to something as small as a thumb.

Blaine sculpted Harold's scowling face in a permanent scream for a reason, and he gave him huge reaching hands for a reason, and grossly exaggerated their size so you couldn't miss them. That version of the Matterhorn's monster was fit for the job.

On a similar track, the same team in 2015 removed the ice crystal scene and replaced it with a new hoard of destroyed Matterhorn ride vehicles, like bobsleds and skyway buckets. The previous ice cavern scene was nothing amazing, but you could look over and see the crystals and hear the music and instantly understand that you were looking at some crystals. The new scene just looks like some random stuff, and you're past it before you can figure it out. Worse, nobody going into the Matterhorn fresh in 2020 (2021?) is going to understand what they're looking at, making it a weird in-joke that doesn't really look like anything. That's a shame, because most of the Matterhorn is spent looking at snowy rocks, and anything to make it feel a bit more like a real place was a help. Like the Snowman figure upgrade, it was a great idea on paper, but in practice is a misfire.

From This 2014 Video
But the change that really stings me is moving your initial encounter with the Snowman to the lift hill. This makes some sense, but those glowing eyes were truly a perfect jump scare, and set the tone for the rest of the downhill chase. The slow ascent up the mountain in the pitch darkness listening to the wind howling built up terrific suspense, increased by the fact that Disney pumped in occasional scream sound effects to this scene. Was it another rider on the coaster, or was it....?

Then, the lift hill crested, and the first few moments of the ride were gentle. You relaxed. Then Harold's eyes lit up in the darkness and scared the tar out of you. I screamed on my first ride. And then you spent the rest of the ride on edge, expecting Harold to come bounding out at you again at every turn. That was the moment the ride had been building towards since you first laid eyes on it with its beautiful flowers, glistening waterfall, and baleful whistling wind.

I'm sure new riders enjoy the Matterhorn plenty, and I'm not here to make some absurd claim like Imagineering "ruined the ride". It's still lots of fun. But the previous version changed the way I look at theme park rides because of how much it was able to do with so little. That 1978 refurbishment, when you get right down to it, was a lot of rock work, three figures that only barely moved, some sound effects, and light-up eyes on a stick. But they totally transformed the tone and feeling of the Matterhorn, and gave it unique shape and rhythm. And they did it without changing the track.

And that's what the Matterhorn became for me, a kind of yardstick I use to measure all other rides: did the designers get the absolute maximum out of what they chose to build? I find this useful because it de-emphasizes the tech and the design density that Disney and Universal tend to get caught up in and looks simply at effect. Does what they spent money on really work?

The Matterhorn brought Harold to life with the simplest means, and did so in a way that was straightforward, understandable without words or preshow videos, and easy to maintain. The new version is flashier, but in sacrifing that elemental sinplicity of what was done in 1978, it is in my opinion significantly less powerful.

Because that's something that maybe gets lost in discussing the Matterhorn; it is one of the great scary Disney rides. Harold was designed to startle jaded 70s teenagers - who may otherwise have brought their business to a place like Magic Mountain - and did so in a way that was not so intense you couldn't still bring a six year old on the ride. Harold has moved out now, and try as I may, I've never quite warmed up to the new guy. The Matterhorn I fell in love with at 18 is now another resident of Yesterland, and I miss it dearly. That hollow wind still blows in my heart.


While I have your attention!

I thought I'd take some time to answer a few questions I've been getting recently about this site and to explain what the future holds for it.

I should probably begin with some context: this site, and text-based blogs generally, are enjoying a fraction of their old readership.

Time was, I could spend 2 weeks writing and editing a post that would reach an audience of over 20,000 people. Today, my posts are averaging about 2,500 people and capping out at around 7,000 on the high end. And the fact is, I haven't met a single person under the age of 25 who is a self-professed retro theme park fan who learned about them reading sites like this. They've learned everything they know on YouTube. It's fair to say that the time of the informational blog seems to have passed. 

Which is why I wrote a book. That book is one reason I began posting shorter form pieces (like music loops) in 2015. The past few years have been weird for this blog, and this year has been a desert. This is because I've been seriously perusing getting the thing published since last November and the complexities of doing that have taken up all of the spare time I used to devote to writing blogs.

The good news is that the book is coming out this year; my next post will be its announcement! The bad news is that given the time commitment of writing blog posts vs the work that goes into writing a book, it makes more sense to write more books. I've already begun work on my second book, and now that I have a publisher, I hope to get it done in 2-3 years instead of 5 years this time.

This site has seen a spike in readership since the pandemic began, and its been wonderful seeing old readers and new coming back to enjoy my writing. I never wrote a word on this site for money or fame, and I have no intention of stopping writing. I actually have about four unfinished pieces right now that have been either delayed by work on my book or other issues. 

So basically: more content is coming! I thank everyone who has stuck it out with me or has just recently discovered my stuff. It is amazing to me what this little writing exercise has turned into, and I want to keep it going as long as possible.

So till next time: stay cool, my friends.