Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Universal's Magnum Opus: Spider-Man

Several weeks ago I spent the better part of a day re-riding what I consider to be the second-best ride in Orlando, right behind the Haunted Mansion: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure. This may come as a surprise to some of you and indeed had the 1990s not brought the end of Horizons, Journey into Imagination and World of Motion, it would probably be much lower on the list. In fact, Universal's brilliant Kongfrontation! would probably have knocked it several notches lower, but Kong met his end just a few years after Spidey began his crazy romp through New York, and to my eye Universal Creative has never bettered this dark ride.

The problem is that until the last few weeks I've never really felt I had much to say about Spider-Man. Like Indiana Jones Adventure, it's greatness was so self-evident that there seemed little reason to either pick apart or defend its greatness. However, in mid-2012, Universal Hollywood opened a new take on the Spider-Man ride experience called Transformers: The Ride, an experience re-designed around a new franchise due to Universal's regional control of the Spider-Man character in theme parks. Transformers was such a huge success in Hollywood that Universal brought it over to Orlando, building and opening the east coast version in less than a year. I rode Transformers a lot in Hollywood, and again in Orlando. It's a great ride. But Spider-Man is better.

So, we must ask the question: why? What about Spider-Man makes it inherently better? Looking at it simply on paper, Transformers has an edge in several respects. It's a crazier ride than Spider-Man, taking you directly into a war zone between giant robots. It's got better 3D effects and it makes better sense of some of the gags Spider-Man used. It has Optimus Prime thanking for for saving the world, and I don't care who you are, that's something everyone wants. Its use of flying effects is even more thrilling and convincing than Spider-Man. But it's missing something, too.

Transformers and Spider-Man

Theme Park Insider
First, let's look at Spider-Man alongside its flashy new sister, Transformers: The Ride.

Although Spider-Man's 2012 visual upgrade has helped close the gap between the two rides in many respects, Spidey is still an intentionally cartoonier experience. I often decry tooniness in my articles, but it just works like gangbusters in Spider-Man. Spidey has an immediacy lacking from the usual take-you-inside-the-cartoon visual vocabulary employed successfully by, say, Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin (which it vaguely resembles). Some of this can be attributed to Universal Creative's successful adaptation to the tone of comic books and pulp adventure serials: crazy action with a healthy seasoning of sarcasm. The villains in Spider-Man are absurd: instead of simply trying to kill you for discovering their secret hideout they take time to terrorize you with various objects (electrical plugs, pumpkin bombs, tongues) in a way that makes nearly no sense at all but adds to the sense of lighthearted menace. This same ride wouldn't work with Batman villains.

Transformers, by contrast, almost takes itself too seriously - a trait inherited from the unfortunate Michael Bay movies. Even the fairly likable Transformer we ride in throughout the experience, Evac, could stand to develop a sense of humor. In the preshow video Evac reprimands us: "You can either thank or blame me later!" and on the ride mostly offers helpful advice like "We've gotta get you out of this city!" or "Reverse thrusters! Full power!"

"We've been hit!"
Evac: no Paul Frees, to be sure.

The primary villain of Transformers, Megatron, admittedly not historically noted for being any fun, spends most of the ride playing Rodan to Optimus Prime's Godzilla while occasionally taking time out to swat at scaffolding or pull riders off a building. It's clear that Transformers expects us to take the Megatron threat fairly seriously, and the result is a bit less fun. If anything Transformers makes it clear that Megatron could kill all of the riders very easily, which somewhat undermines the credibility of his threat level when we miraculously survive every encounter. These Decepticons don't seem to be very good at what they do. Because Spider-Man's villains still behave according to the absurd established rules of comic books villains they, paradoxically, seem to pose more of a threat to riders.

And speaking of that threat level, perhaps there's something to be said for rides where we, the riders, are intent on escaping a bad situation rather than charging forward into it. Theme park attractions from the very start have used the "something-goes-horribly-wrong" cliche, and perhaps the theme park default situation of eluding cackling witches, mummies, dinosaurs, snakes, and gorillas is so deeply ingrained that we respond to it warmly but unconsciously. Transformers makes us heroes in a war zone and instead of attempting to escape the Spidey villains we constantly, recklessly endanger ourselves inside Evac. This unconscious lineage perhaps makes is easier to feel invested, and thus alarmed in Spider-Man, which may contribute to the sense of its greater resonance.

I think it's also fair to say that Transformers relies on screens much more than Spider-Man does, which is a difficult thing to try to quantify. Both attractions use 3D screens to drive their narrative, but I think the overall difference has to do with the kind of screens and their staging. Transformers' screen-based scenes tend to involve simulated motion; you careen down a busy street, go through the belly of a robot, and fly sideways through a skyscraper. Spider-Man, largely, uses the 3D screens as extensions of sets to do things that can't be done with sets; exploding walls, endless warehouses, city landscapes. We could call this a "Cinerama" approach vs the "Virtual Back Wall" approach. There are exceptions, of course: Transformers' first few screens are indeed virtual rear walls and Spiderman in its last few minutes as the SCOOP ride vehicle careens through midair is practically entirely screen-based. Yet I think the fact that there is indeed a lot of set-based stuff in Spider-Man is what makes the difference, even if subconsciously. You can still take your glasses off in Spider-Man and still see plenty of stuff.

Transformers is, essentially, a ride through CG action scene where I'm more comfortable calling Spider-Man a dark ride with 3D elements which do things normal rides can't do. Appropriately, Transformers is a far crazier ride experience. When Spider-Man was new it seemed that no ride would ever outdo it for hyperactivity, but both Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Transformers are so crazily tightly paced that even modern audiences accustomed to the vomit-cam find them overstimulating.

Along with Transformers' approximation of 2010's cinematic language, it comes with some unique moments which, to me, pose challenges to the "reality" of the theme park experience. Theme parks have always been predicated on the idea that crazy things are happening to you; you survive the burning building, escape the Haunted House, defeat the monster, dodge the rolling boulder. As a result most successful theme park attractions aim for a degree of realism, often manifest as detail. You feel as if you have been transported to exotic environments without the "mediating influence" of a camera lens or motion picture screen.

"I learned this from Hobgoblin!"
Transformers twice violates the "reality" of the theme park experience and emulates the movie experience, and while I can't say that the result "breaks" the illusion, it is a very odd, unique moment in theme park history. Twice the ride goes into slow motion - exactly as it would were we watching an actual Michael Bay movie in our local AMC multiplex. The action and sound slows down to allow us to register a crucial detail, before speeding back up.

In others words, for a few moments we're no longer doing crazy things like we see in movies, we're doing things that only the motion picture camera can do. This is a new level of collusion between dimensional space and cinema space. Of course there's always been a number of Disney attractions which use not just film language, but film itself to carry an effect. Let's point accusing fingers at Soarin' Over California as Disney's most obvious offender here: we start off pretending we're going to be hang gliding (on a bench), but once we're up in the air - surprise! - it's a movie. And not only that, but it has dramatic music and editing which is central to the whole darn effect of the thing. Soarin' allows us to fly through a travelogue. There's no pretense that it's really an accurate hang gliding simulation.

So it's not as if Universal is "guilty" of imposing cinema rules on its patrons while Disney is "innocent". But I must admit that the slow motion segments of Transformers trouble me, as a theme park partisan and as a cinema person, more than I expect they should. To me it seems that these brief segments (and they are brief, a couple seconds each) require us to make a conceptual leap about the limits of our own abilities than I'm unaccustomed to making in a theme park, which further contributes to my sense that the fairly straightforward Spider-Man is a better and more convincing experience.

Spider-Man and the Complexities of Illusion

Let's start digging a bit deeper into The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and I'd like to begin by talking about its queue.

Islands of Adventure largely has superb queues, and with the addition of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is probably the best theme park in the United States for narrative queueing experiences, but it's important here to discuss exactly what having a "great queue" entails. I think the rubric for a great queue is a sliding scale relative to the value and duration of the ride which follows it, and the reason is because an elaborate queue unconsciously signals to a prospective rider that the ride which follows will be a special experience. A simple or crudely themed ride preceded by an elaborate queue will be perceived as a letdown, whereas the best queues link up harmoniously with the ride experience to create a true "first act". Indiana Jones Adventure and Forbidden Journey are two of the biggest, craziest rides ever, so their elaborate queues feel justified. The Little Mermaid ride at Magic Kingdom has a gorgeous facade and queue - better than the ride which follows, in fact. I've spoken to many tourists who felt let down by Mermaid because the queue set them up for an experience far better than the ride delivered. So clearly there is such a thing as "too elaborate a queue".

I think Spider-Man hits the sweet spot exactly. On first blush there isn't too much to it - especially compared to richly textural experiences like the Tower of Terror, but looks are deceiving at Spider-Man. To my eye, this queue is the only area of the "island" the attraction is situated in - Marvel Super Hero Island - where the conceit of "being in a comic book" is successfully carried off. There's a simplicity and directness to the visual treatment of this idea - the slightly weird, flat false doors, exaggerated perspectives, and monochromatic background "details" which convincingly fills in enough of the Daily Bugle to make it seem like a real functioning place while guiding the eye towards the queue video which should be the centerpiece of the experience.

Kongfrontation Queue - Charting UO
Queue videos are something of a dirty idea in Disney circles - just about the best thing I can say about Everest, for example, is that its queue sets up the ride on visuals alone - but overhead videos are a Universal tradition and Universal is especially good at creating them. The reason why Universal rides often (but not always) benefit from queue videos is because of Universal Creative's much more ambitious use of narrative in its attractions.

Disney and Walt Disney Imagineering spill a lot of digital ink about the "storytelling" of their attractions in promotional materials, but the fact is that Disney is just not very good at it. Disney theme park stories tend to break down into two categories of narrative: book report attractions and experiential narratives. Book report attractions are best typified by the new Little Mermaid dark ride at California Adventure and Magic Kingdom, which rely on a sense of participation and closure through familiarity with pop culture texts. Experiential attractions, which can have varying degrees of narrative involvement, are about experiences and places which happen to you as you travel through them, fabricating a new narrative as it unfolds about your experiences. Think of the Jungle Cruise, which can be said to be a story about our experiences in the jungle. Most Disney attractions can be located somewhere on a line that stretches between these two poles.

But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, Disney doesn't tell stories so much as set up situations and build environments, which is a different thing. This is why it's hard to quantify what Disney does so well using the limiting word "story", because most of the actual narrative experiences boil down to "you saw some weird things", or "we went fast".

Universal, on the other hand, has maintained more visible roots as a product of a motion picture company. Their California attraction is less a theme park than a movie studio tour that also has some rides. The vast majority of their attractions are based on some existing property and narrative. They are far more likely to use the "silver screen" as the dominant feature of their attractions. And in a way that Disney largely moved away from in defining their "house style" in the 1950s and 1960s, Universal is far more wed to the ongoing narrative structures of the Institutionalized Mode of Representation in American mainstream film.

It is, after all, a production studio.
Universal attractions use their queueing spaces to set up locations, characters, and ideas which you are then expected to mentally track as you move through the attraction to be able to make any sense of what happens. Some Universal attractions use Hitchcock's beloved "MacGuffin" to drive their events - the Allspark in Transformers, E.T.'s flight home, an ancient curse in The Mummy. If you don't pay attention to what's being said in the various preshow rooms of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, then the experience makes literally no sense (to be fair, it only barely makes sense if you do).

Look at the Men in Black attraction at Universal Studios Florida. Taking a cue from the film, it presents itself as a remnant of the 1964 New York World's Fair, drawing on the theme park audience's familiarity with the Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom. The introductory room is a ludicrous dusty ugly jumble of stained glass panels complete with a fake attraction entrance to "The Universe and You". As the Sherman Brothers-esque soundtrack swells, then breaks, the attraction is revealed to be a front for a MIB training facility. After an appropriately crazy adventure battling aliens, our memory is "wiped" and the cars return to an unload station... for the fictional "Universe and You" attraction, advocating the idea that aliens, in fact, do not exist. This is all very clever but does not even overshadow or overlap the ride itself, which greatly bests WDI's efforts to create a "ride-thru shooting gallery" attraction. But you can miss the whole thing if you didn't pay attention in the queue and foyer areas.

Spider-Man hits a sweet spot in this case as a great deal of the concepts conveyed in the pre-show are the sort of "narrative housekeeping" that plagues all theme park attractions of its era: the danger of the situation, why "tourists" would be allowed to do this, etc. But the main plot points are conveyed time and again on screen after screen: a group of Super Villains have a green levitation ray and have ransomed the Statue of Liberty. Everything else we need to know is conveyed on the attraction's marquee.

And as for the always-finicky plot point of sending "wet behind the ears tourists" into the seat of danger, Spider-Man here has use of the anti-heroic, absurd J. Jonah Jameson, and his actions are actually in character. We may wonder if Buzz Lightyear would send a group of new recruits into battle against Zurg, but for Jameson it's just another day at the office. Much of the entertainment value generated in the queue comes from the dissonance between his absurd bluster and the obvious danger riders are placed in; at one point he's even seen placing a call for another group of tourists!

Spider-Man queue details with "background fill" paint
I find the rest of the queue to be uncommonly carefully thought out. Ordinarily the "overhead TV screens" method of storytelling grates against the basic situation presented in a theme park, where it rarely makes sense that so many televisions would appear in such an area. Would NEST have quite so many built in video screens as they seem to? But if there's any place where constant narration and visual input of events happening just outside the building in a danger zone make any sense, it's in a news room, and that's where Spider-Man puts us.

Spidey also plays some fun tricks with the state of the Spider-Man "franchise" circa 1999. The queue itself is presented in an elaborated version of the flat facade style of the rest of Marvel Superhero Island, an aesthetic more or less invented (fairly unsuccessfully, let's owe up to it) for the area. The ride itself however has always been presented in a unique CGI look which to me fairly successfully bridges the gap between a flat drawn image and what we would expect to see if we were actually confronted by these comic book characters. In between comes the cartoon.

"Remember me, kids?"
The queue videos are presented in the style of what was then the dominant method most American kids would've been exposed to Spider-Man: through the Saturday morning cartoon. In 1999, this is how we would've expected Spider-Man to look. Because all we see of Spider-Man until he lands on the hood of the SCOOP is through a TV screen, of course he looks the same as he did on TV. When we see drawings of Spider-Man or J. Jonah Jameson in the queue or on the ride, they're drawn in what was then the modern Marvel comic book style, befitting representations of characters in 2D media. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man rallies all of these media representations of the same character as a way of preparing us for very aggressive encounters with them in the more immediate environment of the dark ride. All of the "faces" of Spider-Man collapse into one face when we finally come nose-to-nose with him.

Spider-Man's meta-textuality is clever and sets it apart not only from everything else in Islands of Adventure, but practically all of the other "enter a fictional world" attractions. It creates a unique Spider-Man that's related and complimentary to but not identical to any other Spider-Man experience; in this way it's fortunate that Universal got this ride built before the motion picture adaptations began to roll out in 2002. Transformers is greatly hampered by being wed to the style and association with the Michael Bay movies which inspired it, although Universal Creative did go to great lengths to make the ride comprehensible to those only versed in the 80's cartoon. Transformers is still affected and informed by a specific source material in a way that Spider-Man escapes. This may account for the increasing sense that Spider-Man is a more timeless ride experience.

What is it that makes a ride timeless over any of the other exhibits and rattle-around trips that drift through theme and amusement parks over the decades? After all, at first it's hard to tell. Haunted Mansion was met with mediocre reviews, Space Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure caused enough injuries to require modifications, Back to the Future and Jaws broke down constantly, and Forbidden Journey courted controversy with restrictive seats and over-the-top intensity. At the time it seemed like these public dramas would never go away, but time heals all wounds. What is it that makes a theme park ride a lasting classic as opposed to an attraction of its time?

Or, to turn it around, what makes a ride last longer than, say, a popular film? When it was new the big selling point of Spider-Man was the fact that it was in 3D, but 3D is no longer the selling point it was and the lines continue. We can watch 3D movies at home now if we wish but the market for that product has been steadily imploding.

I think the thing that the great classic theme park experiences provide doesn't have a lot to do with the property or the concept or even the details, since time and again those have shown to be variable and open to endless interpretation and variation: it has to do with providing the concept of a "pleasurable illusion".

It isn't that it's a convincing illusion, although it can be, as in the Hall of Presidents. It's that it has to only be convincing enough for us to suspend our belief and pretend we're fooled. Momentarily, our adult credulity dissolves and we fly over London, or with Harry Potter, or slip amongst pirates unnoticed. The intense emotional reaction that sometimes results is as much from the attraction as it is our recognition and joy at feeling unburdened of rational doubt. We know very well we're not actually flying over London, but we want to feel that we are, and we cry.

Spider-Man is the best example of this dynamic in the Universal canon. We know very well that we're looking at 3D images on huge screens but our awareness of this only heightens our appreciation for the cleverness of the effect. This makes the effects into a sort of mental game, and so when those pleasurable illusions defy our expectations in noticeable accumulations of details the result reinforces and flatters our attention.

In a way, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man gets better the more attention you pay to the details that reinforce the "pleasurable illusion". There's the initial projections that create the shadows of scuttling rats or Spidey swinging on the rooftops above us, not 3D projections but ones that extend and reveal space. 3D characters frequently appear to "stand" on dimensional set pieces, to the extent that some riders think there's more screens in the ride than there are. There's fairly complex spatial cues which go by nearly unnoticed but reveal the extent of the care that went into the conception of the ride. At the start of the ride, Electro notices riders and leaps up onto a catwalk; the cars race under the catwalk to escape. Listen and you'll hear Electro running above the car before he drops down in front to threaten the SCOOP with a high power cable. That's the sort of easy to miss detail that is highly fetishized in Disney circles.

The greatest scene in Spider-Man, where the "pleasurable illusions" are at their most convincing, is the Hobgoblin vignette where the flying villain lobs pumpkin bombs at riders. Thanks to careful considerations of perspective and set design, one of the bombs appears to detonate into the support structure of a bridge, resulting in an actual explosion as the bridge begins to collapse on top of riders. The gag is masterpiece of timing and design, and with nowhere else to go from there, the ride immediately proceeds to its aerial climax.

This is why, fifteen years later, there's nothing quite as great as Spidey landing on the hood of our attraction vehicle to warn us, not even the similar moment in Transformers. It's one of those things that seminally breaks the rules of theme park attractions, like seating ghosts beside us or sending our boat unexpectedly backwards. You can only break a rule once, and so Spider-Man immediately sets us up to expect a new and exciting experience. It doesn't let us down. The ride is a masterpiece.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Adventureland Veranda & the Jack Wagner Exotica Records

From 1971 to 1994, the Adventureland Veranda sat at the entrance to Magic Kingdom's Adventureland and welcomed travelers with airy open porches, dark burnished wood interiors, lazily turning fans, and a healthy serving of mellow exotica music.  For nearly a quarter century this mysterious mood and mellow tone rolled out across the entrance to Adventureland, creating a very different mood than what welcomes you to the area today. And the music was essential in setting the scene.

Now, after several years of chasing down Jack Wagner's music selections, I believe I've come to know that there were two Jack Wagners: the innovative, dedicated Jack and the Jack who was more willing to slap together any old appropriate music. Certain styles of music seem to have ennervated him more than others, and it seems to me that he truly found his raison d'être when compiling music for Adventureland. No mere aural wallpaper, many of these loops are carefully considered masterpieces.

One myth that seems to dog Wagner is that he put together his musical loops from records he had sitting around his house, and although he was a former DJ and so almost certainly had more than a healthy amount of music, this idea is absurd. Looking at the track listings for things like Bi eus im Schwyzerland, Vol. 3 it's easy to imagine Jack plodding back off to the record shop in hopes of finding just one more LP of Swiss Music, because Music of the German Alps was a bust.

But I completely believe the story when it comes to the Adventureland tracks. Jack seems to have loved exotica music, and once you start identifying and decoding the tracks, you start seeing the same music popping up again and again. And guess what? He had terrific taste for the stuff. Eventually, you can assemble the "Wagner Exoticas" into an impressive collection of your own.

Just a few from the collection
So the Adventureland Veranda tracks hold a special significance for me. But first we have to ask: where did the music play, and what did this mean? Since this particular restaurant has been closed for the better part of a generation, let's establish some sort of understanding of the layout of the Adventureland Veranda. Let's look at this 1977 Magic Kingdom blueprint:

(Bet you didn't know that odd circular sun room past Aloha Isle was named the South Seas Terrace, did you? Well, neither did I.)

The main interior section of the restaurant where the service counter, cashier, condiments and some tables were located was a large semi-circular room denoted here by the yellow section. The bulk of this room survives intact and may, as of this writing, be seen by visiting the Tinker Bell character meeting space. The below photo shows this interior "donut" with the brightly-illuminated service area behind it.

The red sections on the diagram are the actual Verandas for which the restaurant is named. These also still exist, although today they serve as storage rooms. The south-most section nearest the pedestrian pathway from the Adventureland bridge was used as a character greeting location for many years. Although their sliding shutters are no longer invitingly open as they once were, the verandas of the Veranda still live on.

The final blue section on our diagram which rambled out towards the breezeway is the only part of the original Veranda to not survive until the present day; it was absorbed by an expansion of the public bathrooms in 2009. This was the furthest-flung seating and the tables and chairs were still there until 2009.

The First Music Loops - 1971

For several years now, an hour long loop of music identified as "Adventureland Veranda 1973" has been circulating in a new digital dub of an old tape circulated amongst collectors. I'm not only pretty certain this is authentic, I also believe that it is the original 1971 music. It also, to me, represents Jack Wagner's unique genius for background music. It's worth remembering that Wagner was working on the original slate of 1971 Magic Kingdom loops blind - there was no park to go to to observe in situ, and his probable one trip to WED up in Glendale was full of art that may or may not have been translated into reality. It's worth remembering that WED themselves often described the Veranda's exact theme in uncertain terms. The Preview Edition Guide describes the Veranda as an "old Caribbean village setting", while a blurb in the Orlando Sentinel describes it as "south seas food in a Tahitian setting", neither of which are really correct. The Veranda combines Caribbean, South Pacific, Pan-Asian and Continental influences into a synthesis all its own.

How inspired and unexpected, then, that Wagner's music is heavily Asian-tinged - sometimes lush, sometimes seeming to be authentic world music recordings, but always intoxicating, with the music bleeding in and out of chimes from a bamboo wind catcher - much likes ones that hung inside the restaurant's upper level balconies. 

Unfortunately I know very little about this BGM. The first and last songs come from a 1963 Percy Faith album called "Shangri-La!", another from the record "In A Hawaiian Paradise" recorded by the budget Mantovani-esque 101 Strings Orchestra. If anyone reading this recognizes any of the other music, please speak up!

Interestingly, this hour-long loop seems to only be half the story - it represents what played in the interior of the restaurant. The exterior seating areas had an entirely different loop! I was first made aware of this by Mike Cozart, who reported the existence of another hour-long loop associated with the Veranda which featured entirely different music selections with the sound of exotic bird calls mixed over the music. Without much to go on for this lead, I filed that away in the back of my head until last year, when I was combing through live audio recordings from 1983 sent to me by blog reader Dave McCormick. Several times during his trip, Dave and his friend stopped to sit at those verandas facing the Magic Kingdom hub, and faintly behind their conversation could be heard unfamiliar exotic music with bird calls mixed on top!

Thanks to John Charles Watson on TikiCentral.Com forums we now know that the song captured by Dave in 1983 was "I'll Weave A Lei of Stars For You", from the Webley Edwards/Hawaii Calls Orchestra LP "Soft Hawaiian Guitars". Samples from this same record appears in later Wagner loops for Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland.

Although two loops for one restaurant seems extravagant - one inside and a different one outside - it is consistent with my finding about the early Wagner loops, which suggest that the Magic Kingdom originally had more unique loops in more places than was strictly necessary, and that over the years these loops were often retired or combined with others.

The Second Music Loop

Interestingly, at some point it seems that the original Adventureland Veranda Interior loop was replaced with another, although the date is uncertain - Mike Lee at Widen Your World remembers this second loop but not the early Asian-style one, which has led me to think of it as the "Kikkoman Loop". Kikkoman soy sauce signed on as sponsors of the eatery in 1977. The new music is more heavily Hawaiian-inspired, and by the early 90s it was playing exclusively through the entire restaurant. When the unique original exterior loop vanished is unknown, although thanks to Dave we know it survived at least into 1983.
Adventureland Veranda Area Music [ca. 1977 - 07/1994]

Running time: approx. 32.30

01. Ua Haav Arve Are [1]
02. Blue Hawaii [3]
03. Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii [3]
04. Now is the Hour [4]
05. Harbor Lights [2]
06. Song of the Islands [2]
07. Moon of Manakoora [2]
08. Lovely Hula Girl [2]
09. Hawaiian Paradise [3]
10. Moonlight and Shadows [3]
11. Whispering Sea [5]

[1] Beachcomber Serenade: Mood Music of Tahiti and Hawaii by South Sea Serenaders (Tahiti Records)
[2] Golden Hawaiian Hits by Duke Kamoku & His Islanders (GNP Crescendo)
[3] Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii by George Bruns & the Hawaiian Strings (Vault S-127)
[4] Pearly Shells by Arthur Lyman (GNP Crescendo)
[5] The Versatile Henry Mancini by Henry Mancini & His Orchestra (Liberty 3121)

Notes: Playlist based on a 1992 live recording provided by Mike Lee and compiled by wedroy1923. AprilDecember generously provided a rip of Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii on MouseBits, which greatly aided in compiling this playlist. Thanks also go to Kaiwaza on the Tiki Central discussion boards for identifying track #11.

I won't post a full loop of this version here due to the fact that the vast majority of this music is already commercially available on iTunes. The one album that isn't, George Bruns' amazingly evocative Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii, which was probably not even ever commercially released (I've never seen a single copy without its "Not For Sale" sticker), can be found on MouseBits.com here.

A good quality live recording of the entire 1977 loop may be heard at Widen Your World's Adventureland Veranda resource page here.

Both of these loops, and probably the mellow "Exterior" loop that for now remains a mystery, are real corkers, and to me perfectly encapsulate why these early BGM tracks obsess me. The ingenuity of the music selections, the chimes Wagner probably recorded on his porch, the fading, and the sequencing creates room tone which perfectly complements the desired mood. This is where background music, so often just aural wallpaper, edges into the sublime. So head out to the kitchen, whip up a hamburger, top it with Kikkoman teriyaki sauce and a slice of pineapple, then hit play on these exotica tracks and chew slowly - you're in Adventureland now.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Chasing Captain Cook

Captain Cook's Hideaway, I thought I was done with you.

Back in June 2010, I wrote - and ammended - a series of articles about Captain Cook's Hideaway, the earliest place for Cast Members to drink in the first ten years of Walt Disney World. Captain Cook's and especially their in-house band, rock-folkies The Salt Water Express, have since risen to something of a place of prominence in Disney circles, thanks to their goofy look and elusive hit single from 1972, "Can You Arrive Alive on 535?"

Footage (and music!) of them even cropped up at the 2011 Destination D event sponsored by D23, where Robert Christopher and Gary Stratton appeared in a mildly traumatic promotional short as pied pipers, leading a group of teenagers on a Magical Mystery Tour to Grad Nite 1975.

I thought I had covered Captain Cook's Hideaway sufficiently. Despite some initial confusion, I even identified where I thought it was located. The lounge is described as follows in a 1973 Vacationland:

"For guests desirous for a dark rendezvous and the strains of a haunting guitar, Captain Cooks Hideaway provides both, as well as an outside patio romantically bathed in soft candlelight."

In many late 70s' souvenir books the following photo appeared, depicting what appeared to be this outside patio:

And working backwards from this photo, I identified an aerial view of the Polynesian Village showing where the patio and thus where Captain Cook's was probably located.

Which, to me, seems to be pretty solid evidence. Well, in the past few weeks I managed to turn up some interesting primary documents from the Polynesian, one of which was a cast member orientation guide from way back in 1971 - far enough back that it was simply called the "POLYNESIAN HOTEL". But the real discovery here was two pages showing exactly where everything was in the Great Ceremonial House and Outrigger Assembly House in 1971.

And - surprise - Captain Cook's Hideaway is in the "wrong" place!

The spot I had previously ascribed to Captain Cook's appears to be filled by the "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse", a child care facility. What's most shocking about this is this space still more or less exists - as the seating area to the Polynesian's cafeteria, still called Captain Cook's. Although the original space appears to have been slightly larger to accomodate a bar, it always has been and continues to be a spot with just a handful of tables weirdly crammed inside it.

Although I'm delighted to learn that this particular space at the Polynesian seems to have always been a tiny room with tables, I was simply agast that this spot in particular was Captain Cook's. This was the hopping Cast Member after-work hangout where Salt Water Express sang about State Road 535? You could hardly fit three more tables in here.

A October 1971 Walt Disney World News also mentions the outdoor patio so there must have been a "spill-over" outdoor section very much like the one that still exists today, only servicing those with alcohol instead of Dole Whips.

I went digging back through my files and found that mentions of the "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" at the Polynesian persist on and off until the mid-70s, when it seems to migrate to the Contemporary Resort Hotel, possibly opening up its original space to an expanded Captain Cook's.

So if Captain Cook's expanded into the old Clubhouse space, then it makes sense that Barefoot Snack Bar would take over the old Captain Cook's space, which is the original arrangement which most of us remember from the late 80s and early 90s. That arrangement still exists today, although the seating area has now taken over the original menswear shop.

I was also able to find a clipping at the Orlando Public Library which mentions Captain Cook's:

53 seats seems like too many for that original 1971 corner location even if they were also counting the patio. Since the article also mentions the Tangaroa Terrace, the family restaurant built in a custom structure outside the Great Ceremonial House in 1974, 53 seats (about fourteen-seventeen tables) may describe the lounge's second location in the former Clubhouse space.

As for Salt Water Express, their story is an interesting one. In March 1975, the Vacation Kingdom's most popular duo moved to the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village to open the lounge attached to the Village Restaurant, hilariously named "THE CHUMMERY":

It was such a short lived stint that they may have never played there at all. Disney was advertising their return to the Polynesian Village within a few weeks.

Bob Christopher and Gary Stratton's contract was renegotiated in 1976, at which point they began appearing under the new name "Stratton & Christopher". In-house references to the group (and their popularity) begin to decline from that point onward, and by the late 1970s seem to vanish altogether. In the early 80s they seem to have moved to a well-reviewed restaurant called Limey Jim's at the US-192 Hilton Resort.

They pop up again in California in 1986, filing a trademark on their name and logo which may be viewed here. I haven't been able to find much past that. Besides the few pictures gathered here, no recordings of either Salt Water Express or Stratton & Christopher seem to survive. Which is a real shame - I know I'd love to hear "Can You Arrive Alive on 535?" at least once in my life.

The Polynesian Resort is now in the process of being dramatically altered - a new wing is going up in what was once open lagoon space, the name is reverting to the Polynesian Village, and sections of the hotel are closing one by one for remodeling. Renewal is a constant cycle of life at the Disney hotels, although none feel as sacred or personal to me as the Polynesian. Since the Tambu Lounge was relocated out to the lobby during the refurbishment which changed the original Papeete Bay Veranda into 'Ohana, maybe this newest refurbishment can bring back more vintage Disney names than just the one for the whole hotel.

Too long relegated to an eatery in its former location selling burgers, it may be time to reclaim the name of Captain Cook and attach it to a new Captain Cook's Hideaway, selling stronger stuff than Dole Whips. It would be a nice nod to the past in the one Disney hotel which seems most thoroughly drenched in it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Branch Beyond the Window and Other Details

The experience of a theme park is pretty similar to that of a well-made film, isn't it?

Well, yes it is. But even if we move beyond the convenient fact that this idea is the main crux of most of my writing, it's an comparison worth making because most of the people who created the Disneyland classics were film people. Marvin Davis, Dorthea Redmond, and Harper Goff were brought in from film design to work on Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. And those who came from the Disney Studio's animation department were already working for an organization revered as the most perfectionist and artistically significant of Hollywood's golden age. Film language is coded deep into the DNA of good themed design.

It may be interesting, then, to get outside Disney and think about the subject from the perspectives of filmmakers not imbued with the Disney culture. In this spirit, allow me to introduce Carl Theodore Dreyer.

Now, for those who aren't cinema buffs, it's worth noting that Dreyer is amongst the very few thoroughly, universally canonized film directors; his name is uttered in the same breath as names like Bresson, Ozu, Renoir, and Eisenstein. Practically every film he made from 1928 to 1962 is considered a top-tier masterpiece (even if there were only five!). But the Dreyer whom supplies our upcoming quote is not the grand old man of cinema; these are the words of an up-and-coming director, making an atmospheric drama in Germany in 1924 called Michael.

Michael is fairly obscure, although its status has grown in recent years due to prominent home video releases. Still, of all the great things Dreyer has said about film making over the years, one little comment has kept rolling around in my head for nearly a decade. This is Dreyer speaking to a Journalist about Michael in 1924:
"Isn't it particularly difficult to make a film where atmosphere is decisive while the narrative takes second place?"

"Yes it is. The pictures must be arranged according to the rules of art. It is necessary that the director have a sense of the pictorial. Things must fit together. Every picture must be a true picture; a unity. But, in addition to that, each individual object found in, for instance, a drawing room, must be genuine. And even objects that are not seen, but only sensed, have to be there when they even to just some extent contribute to giving the room character." [Emphasis mine]
Now, when I first heard this, the idea struck me as absurd. After all, cinema artists from Méliès on have understood the power of cinema's limited frame; it implies an endless space and continuous action much like reality but can significantly exclude anything undesirable. This is why we can still make films set in vintage periods like the Gay Nineties or old west: if you don't point your motion picture camera at those telephone lines off to screen left, then they don't exist. The motion picture frame includes by exclusion. Similarly, anything off-frame that's "seen but only sensed" doesn't exist.

Méliès' set for A Trip to the Moon, 1902
But in another sense, the more I thought about this quote the more sense it made. After all, we all know what it's like to see actors laboring for reality inside a bad or unconvincing set, and so in many ways the cinema set is as much to set the proper atmosphere for creativity as it is to capture on celluloid the apparent image of an imaginary space. In the 1910's, D. W. Griffith broke precedents by insisting on placing real glass panes inside the windows of his sets; they had previously been empty. Why include something the camera or audience won't see?

Yes, the camera won't know that the glass is real, Griffith reasoned, but the actors will, and will adjust their performances accordingly. In 1922's Foolish Wives, Griffith admirer Erich von Stroheim used real glass in windows, real bullets in guns, real water in lakes, and most famously real champagne and caviar in dining scenes - as much as he wanted, for as many takes as it took. Decried by Universal as another frivolous expenditure, we can see here Stroheim leveraging the difference between things seen and things sensed.

But this train of reasoning really began to come together for me last year in the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. The ride was stopped and we were all gathered in the portrait corridor waiting for operation to resume. As you probably know, in this scene there are four windows on your left. The first two have the famous "rainy night" effect diorama outside them, but the last two windows have their exterior shutters closed. Lightning still flashes through these, but there's no cool effects to see outside them.

But, but.... if you crouch down next to the second to last window and wait for a lightning flash, you can, in fact, for that split second, see some branches outside the window.... just as you would expect. Why bother with these at all? Hardly any guests would ever notice them, and I bet you'd never bother to look for them if I hadn't just bothered to point them out to you. to the right you can see my most successful attempt to photograph them, and even then they're kinda tough to make out.

I think the main reason those branches are there isn't because they're an "Easter Egg" or some kind a testament to Disney's "attention to detail". I think they're there because they're needed. The first two windows set an expectation for a pattern: trees outside the windows, some spooky fog, lightning. And although the human eye may not be wired to decode on sight what fake lightning flashing outside a fake window may look like, we do know what light passing through branches looks like, and the first two windows set us up to expect some branches outside that window. In other words, almost nobody will see it because it's there, but everybody would sense it if it wasn't. The branches are insurance against a break in the illusion (by the way, yes there are not branches outside the fourth window, but nobody looks at it anyway because the line turns right and there's the busts there to distract you).

User "dland_lover" on MiceChat
The more I thought of it, the more the "branch outside the window factor" seemed to speak less to every-detail perfectionism or foolish consistency as it did to Dreyer's insistence that things "not seen, but only sensed, have to be there when they even to just some extent contribute to giving the room character." After all, there are few cinematic "magic spaces" where atmosphere is more decisive than in the stylized film world of a theme park.

Take the example of Big Thunder Mountain: the rocks are fake, but the attraction is littered with authentic antique mining equipment. The equipment isn't just about being authentic, however, and it isn't just about it being difficult to successfully build fake mining equipment. The equipment not only validates the stuff that WED did build for the ride - just a bit salted through makes everything look more real - but it validates the mining operation as a real thing, and because the mine is real, the mountain becomes real. If you think you're too clever to be mentally tricked by this, just consider that Big Thunder Mountain is, in fact, almost totally hollow. It's hard to visualize that, isn't it? that's what the value of things sensed rather than seen can add.

For whatever reason, Claude Coats was amazing at knowing exactly how much of the illusory world is needed to carry the illusion and where a few corners can be cut. More than Haunted Mansion, consider his terrific Caribbean seaport in Pirates of the Caribbean, which unlike Mansion's collection of flats and walls really is mostly there. The success of this ride is largely due to Coats' atmospheric direction in both the cavern and town sections.

But have you ever noticed how fully integrated Coats' town is with the action of the pillage narrative? His staging solutions are so simple that it takes a moment to stop and realize that somebody had to sit down and figure out how the whole thing should hang together. His sea-port is designed but it feels organic. Take note of how the location of each action is mirrored by the content of the scene. For example, the town's mayors and magistrates have been rounded up to be interrogated at the town well. The well is in an impressive public space with a central gathering point. This spectacle of indecency to public officials is being performed in the most public area seen in the attraction's fictional town, immediately implying that the Pirates represent not just a physical but an ideological threat. They are upending social structures.

Consider how easy it would've been to change this idea a little bit and lessen the impact. There's no reason why the well has to be in front of Carlos' house; it could've been a bit off to the left and his wife could've popped out of a window to the right. But it wouldn't be as funny or memorable. Would you have made this same exactly right decision if you were forced to design Pirates of the Caribbean from scratch?

Which brings us to my favorite instance of Coats' staging in the ride. Following his dictate of design following narrative, we move to the public market where the village maidens are being auctioned. This is happening directly in front of a huge building labeled "MERCADO". That's probably obvious, you've no doubt noticed it before. But have you ever noticed that you can actually see inside the market?

Yes, we can write this off as just more detail, but why is the detail there? Well, it's because this allows Coats to visually juxtapose the chain of brides with the market of produce behind them: these women are being treated like wares to be quickly consumed by the highest bidder.

But more than that this detail is the sort of thing that make Pirates of the Caribbean a true picture; in Dreyer's words, a unity. It's easy to throw a lot of detail into theme parks and end up with overkill because what's more important than having details is meaningful details. Everything we expect must be present, but nothing we don't expect or don't need to see is needed.

This, I feel, is what contributes to the sense of peace and relaxation experienced at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland, while parks of more recent vintage can feel cluttered, chaotic and unpleasant. There's just enough detail to allow us to suspend our disbelief, but not so much that the parks lose their sense of pastoral simplicity and beauty. Everything looks carefully vetted, designed, and built, compared to the visual chaos of a typical urban "strip".

We associate careful detail with the classic WED period of 1964-1984, but it's been there since the start. How many of you, for however long you've been going to Disneyland, have ever noticed that Sleeping Beauty Castle thoughtfully includes a chapel?

 (detail enlargement of a 1957 photo posted at Gorillas Don't Blog)

You may have noticed this before; it's one the right side facing Main Street. This is a common enough feature of genuine historical castles to not be noteworthy in and of itself, but due to its placement on the east side of the castle, which is an uncommonly photographed angle, and a half-century of tree growth on the Tomorrowland side, it can be downright tricky to spot it.

But once you do spot it, the real trick is to come back and see the chapel at night. All of the windows on the castle are lit up bright, welcoming yellow... except the chapel, which is lit internally by candlelight.

That's a detail which, to me, moves beyond the traditional "wide, medium, and close shot" methods used by Imagineers, which more lay out guidelines for consistency. To me, the marketplace behind the Auction, the tree branch outside the window, and the candles in the chapel are some kind of as-of-yet unnamed kind of themed design detail, which is the detail inside the detail, the sort of thing that you half don't expect to see but you go looking for anyway and there it is, waiting for you. It creates a satisfaction that goes beyond the normal level of detail presented by, say, a themed door knob. It's the discovery inside the discovery and it makes the false theme park world seem real, and lived in.

It's always been an ongoing project to make theme parks seem more convincingly realistic, especially in the hollow areas of themed facades which all too easily can appear to be the hollow or functional spaces they are. The tradition goes back to the start: this July 18, 1955 photograph from Daveland shows what the earliest WED designers probably thought of as "set dressing":

The "stuff-on-balconies" school reached its apotheosis in New Orleans Square in 1967, of course, but the Magic Kingdom in 1971 included balconies in as many niches as possible, sometimes to great effect. The simple balcony above Aloha Isle in Adventureland, stuffed with wicker chairs and faux foliage, has been firing the imaginations of observers for decades.

Stuff-on-balconies can only go so far, however, and Disneyland's other main method of creating imagined extended space is the "light in the attic" method: lamps in upper windows. There are fewer examples of this in Disneyland than expected, and most of them look pretty much like this:

(excerpt of a larger photo by rocket9 on flickr)

In 1971, the expanded scale of Magic Kingdom allowed Disneyland's designers to experiment with some of these techniques in a larger scale, and the result is very interesting. Instead of simply placing lanterns behind lace curtains. Magic Kingdom's Main Street has actual rooms in the upper level of its facades.

The rooms, of course, are nothing more than a few feet deep. It's actually a wall which encloses the upper level of the Magic Kingdom's office areas, but some well chosen wallpaper and props and the effect is very beguiling. It's also nearly impossible to photograph; the human eye can very easily distinguish between the various surfaces involved in the depth illusion - a richly patterned wallpaper viewed through an elaborate lace curtain - in ways that the camera eye cannot, but I tried very hard:

In person, this effect is nearly subliminal. I've only noticed it in the last few years, but the illusion that there really are Victorian parlors and drawing-rooms behind those windows is remarkably convincing and only fails from certain angles, which is certainly more than should be expected from details within details within details.

To avoid foolish consistency, however, some of the windows do use the simple Disneyland-style lamp, curtain and cloth, as in this handsome tribute window for Yale Gracey:

Or the beautiful dim pink light overlooking Town Square:

This one doesn't have any light inside it but it does have a full-sized chair and table and very intricate "back wall", which can only be seen by those looking very closely during the day:

The curtains hanging in the windows act as diffusion screens to make the textured rear walls - really only a few feet away from the windows - appear more distant than they are, and the illusion holds so long as the floor and ceiling remain hidden and the wallpaper chosen has small, intricate patterns. It's one of the most successful forced perspective illusions in the park. Elsewhere, in Liberty Square, the space above Liberty Tree Tavern is enlivened very simply but effectively in a window only visible from the courtyard behind the Christmas shop:

A chandelier is hung inside an unfinished attic. From the perspective of the street, the unfinished interior visually translates as the rough beams we expect inside of a colonial tavern, and a whole interior is implied for those who bother to find it:

There are other, less specular uses of lights and props throughout Magic Kingdom, although most do manifest in the traditional "light in the attic" rather than 'implied interior" seen above. However, in 1982 in World Showcase, WED Enterprises took another stab at the illusion and ended up with some interesting effects.

The "lighted windows" are applied with less regularity than throughout Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom is about nostalgia and exploration and so a warm feeling is created through elaborate displays of lights (except in the "dangerous" area of Adventureland). World Showcase is more about culture and its treatment of lighted second floor windows varies more widely: while Germany wants to create a feeling of warmth and gemütlichkeit and so uses many lit windows, the small British village of the United Kingdom pavilion feels almost sleepy at night due to its mostly darkened interiors. Until you get around the back towards the London flats, there's just a lonely lantern burning in one darkened upper window, one of EPCOT Center's most haunting details:

Contrast the United Kingdom with France, represented by Paris. EPCOT's facsimile doesn't just evoke the city of light through use of a boldly lit fountain; the France pavilion works overtime to imply a busting cultural metropolis just behind and beyond those windows and doors. Elaborate, half-glimpsed lights hang in the windows above the entrance to the Impressions de France attraction:

Diffusing curtains make these very hard to make out, but this fictional "upstairs" space is validated by the nearby second floor restaurant facing the water and, facing the United Kingdom pavilion, the upstairs art gallery, sadly long since closed.

 But the best touch, for me, is around the corner down the "provincial" side street. Many of you, no doubt, have noticed the glass-enclosed artist's loft in this area...

photo by Al Huffman
...but how many of you have seen the artist who lives there? If you return at night you can see him painting:

Yes, it's just a little cutout, but to me this is the ultimate example of the "Branch Outside the Window" effect. If you just so happened to see this one detail early in the day, wondered if it was supposed to be an artist loft, then just happened to walk back that way later and had your suspicions confirmed? How many have done that? A few dozen a year?

To me, this is what makes the difference between the sort of detail we've been discussing today and the run of the mill sort of detail which Imagineering can now do with their eyes closed. Very few may notice these sorts of things, but the cumulative effect cannot be undervalued: the impression of an organic world where there is none.

To me this sense of inevitability of these sorts of details is the mark of a great, assured artistic creation. To paraphrase Dreyer, the theme park designer must have a sense of the pictorial. Things must fit together. Every picture must be a true picture; a unity. But, in addition to that, each individual object found in, a theme park, must seem genuine. And even objects that may not be seen, but only sensed, have to be there when they even to just some extent contribute to giving the park character.

That's the difference that a great designer makes. The branch behind the window, rarely seen, but always sensed.