Friday, February 23, 2018

Let's Have A Drink On It! Seven Seas Drink

It's back! Enough of you enjoyed my first foray into themed mixology enough for me to consider making this a regular series. And, as I'm able to invent or refurbish drinks, I will. So if you enjoy your theme park history sprinkled with some distilled spirits, let's have a drink on it!

This month's drink comes to us from the Polynesian Village, through a column written by Dorothy Chapman for the Orlando Sentinel - Thought You'd Never Ask, a long-running series divulging recipes for area restaurant dishes, including many at Walt Disney World. Published in December 1977, and republished the limited edition spiral bound book collection of the articles in 1980, The Seven Seas Drink immediately lept out at me - for reasons both good and bad.

Read it first:

This immediately got my attention for a few reasons. First, it was never republished elsewhere and has sunken into absolute obscurity. Second, it specifically calls for something a lot of old-time Disney World collectors have - the large, footed, frosted Polynesian Village tiki mugs.

And the third reason it lept out at me is because it's a total disaster as a recipe. Look at that - two kinds of orange liqueur plus orange juice? Squeezing an orange into the glass? Who would do such a thing??

And even worse, if you actually went through the effort to make the darn thing, it was a total downer - a sickly, sweet confection reminiscent of Orange Fanta and with enough sugar to give you a headache. Can it be saved? Is it even worth saving?

1980 Polynesian drink menu courtesy of How Bowers
$3.25 is roughly equivalent to about $10.50 today

Decoding and Improving, First Try

So what's going on with this drink? If you've looked at other Walt Disney World recipe guides from before the mid-90s, you may have noticed that Disney was not exactly a temple of great cocktail drinking, a distinction they still hold today. But in the 70s, things were even rougher, because the "specialty" drinks were not even fully mixed by the local bartender. Instead, Disney made use of a huge number of mixes.

And I don't mean huge bottles of Lime Juice Cordial - Disney made their own mixes, daily, in the same gigantic centralized kitchen which produced much of the food served at Magic Kingdom and the hotels. Working from early in the morning, white aproned kitchen staff would be hard at work mixing huge plastic buckets of mixes for Scorpions, Mai Tais, Banana Bogeys and Monorail Pinks. Distributed to the individual bars, barkeeps would merely have to dump out the correct amount of drink mix, add the base spirit, maybe some soda water, shake it all up, and call it a day.

With this in mind, it's easy to make more sense of the Seven Seas Drink - the recipe asks the barkeep to squeeze fresh orange and lemon juice into the glass to add some freshness back into the likely hours-old mix. If you looked at the "sour mix" and thought of Rose's Sweet and Sour, you're wrong - we're probably talking about the even grosser powdered lemon bar mixes, probably sourced from Franco's in nearby Pompano Beach. The Orange Juice was likely direct from the carton.

Anybody sitting down to make the drink today can simply substitute the appropriate amounts of fresh orange juice and fresh lemon juice and dispose of the need to squeeze citrus into the glass, then build the drink and stir. An approximation of the sour mix can be obtained by using half lemon juice and half sugar syrup.

This also explains the baffling choice to call for both Curaçao and Triple Sec, both orange flavored cordials - one sweet, one dry, both working together to keep the already astronomical sweetness in check. Today, we have access to the excellent Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, making such mixological tricks unnessecary.

Finally, there's the question of the rum. If any modern day Tikiholics are reading this, they likely gasped at the call for Lemon Hart Rum, since the Lemon Hart 151 is currently a beloved if scarce ingredient in tropical drinks. Based on reviews of Lemon Hart's modern portfolio and from Disney's instructions to cut Bacari Silver with dark rum, I'd say that Lemon Hart 1804 is the nearest modern match.

I've been unable to find Lemon Hart 1804, and the reviews online lead me to believe it's fairly mediocre, so in this case feel free to use any blended aged "Gold" rum you personally enjoy. Mount Gay Eclipse is a decent and widely available choice, and El Dorado 5 or 8 is even better. I do NOT suggest blending Bacardi Silver and dark rum as Disney suggests.

Finally, the grenadine contributes neither color nor flavor to the drink in the "dash" amount specified, so that can go right out. Here's what the Seven Seas Drink looks like if we adapt it for modern ingredients and methods:

Seven Seas Drink 2.0 
.5 oz Fresh Orange Juice
.25 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
.25 oz Simple Syrup
1 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
1.5 oz Gold Rum
Dash Angostura 
Shake very hard with crushed ice and dump, unstrained, into a Polynesian Village frosted mug. Garnish with the spent Orange shell. Drink with optimism.

If you make this and the original recipie specified in Thought You'd Never Ask, you'll notice only very minor improvements. Simply put, this is still far, far too cloying and sweet for its own good.

So let's see if we can start balancing this thing out, and we'll break all three of the major components down into categories.

Rum - The Strong

In a hotel bar in Florida in the 1970s, perhaps 1.5 ounces of the good stuff was enough, but today we can do better. I boosted the rum content to an easy to remember 2 ounces, which allows us to combine an ounce each of multiple rums for deeper flavor.

The suggested combination of light Bacardi and dark Meyer's is not that great to begin with, and in my opinion Bacardi is expensive and fairly insubstantial. Even switching the recipe over to using a gold rum, as I did in the halfway version above, yields a considerable improvement.

Frankly, though, I think in this drink the darker you go with your rum blend, the better. Unless you're absolutely dedicated to using a white rum in this, you can do better by combining a gold aged rum and a dark one. I ended up using an equal mix of Mount Gay Eclipse and El Dorado Dark for testing purposes.

Citrus Juices - The Sour

A half ounce of sour was far too little for this job. Looking to classic exotic cocktails for guidance, you'll see very few that use orange juice by itself, usually mixing it in combination with a stronger juice like passion fruit or pineapple. This is because, even when fresh juiced, orange is simply too wimpy to put up much of a fight against rum. I tried boosting the amount to 3/4 of an ounce of each orange and lemon juice, and got a much clearer citrus flavor.

Curaçao - The Sweet

Even with the excellent Pierre Ferrand and with boosted juice and rum, this drink needed far less orange liqueur. Few tropical cocktails use a full ounce of the stuff, and it's because it's really very bossy and can quickly take over a drink. Cutting back the Curaçao to half an ounce helped, but really, this drink needed some depth. So enter the secret of many an exotic cocktail: the spice cabinet!

Given that this is a blog about weird old Walt Disney World, not drink mixing, I wasn't about to tell you to make your own cinnamon syrup or something like that. As I saw it, there were only two viable bottled options: Allspice Dram or Falernum.

Allspice Dram we saw in my last cocktail, The Howling Dog Bend, and I love its spicy complexity, but in this citrus-heavy drink it simply did not fit in. Falernum is a spiced ginger syrup from Barbados, and it nicely rounded out the Seven Seas Drink with just a hint of complexity. I like John Taylor's, but Trader Sam gets very nice effects with the spicier BG Reynolds. You can also make your own fairly quickly, especially if you begin with a commercial almond milk, which I recommend.

So to your half ounce of Curaçao  add another half ounce of Falernum. Now we were getting much closer to a proper drink.

Finishing Touches

At this point I had to stop and consider carefully whether the drink was likely to continue improving, and moreover, what exactly the Seven Seas Drink was. After all, this was not some extravagant Donn Beach 11-ingridient opus - this was a resort drink, that tasted like oranges, intended to be enjoyed on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon. My inclinations to start floating 151 rum on top of it or adding hazelnut bitters were likely to only bring me further and further away from my goal, which was to improve the 1977 original. But I still had a few more tweaks to try.

I tried cutting half of the rum with Dry Gin, a common Trader Vic technique to lighten up a heavy drink, but the benefits here were negligible - we may as well have been using vodka. Instead, I found that the darker I took the rum blend, the more interesting the drink became, and ended up enjoying a blend of 1 oz El Dorado Dark to 1 oz Black Overproof Dark (think Lemon Hart 151, Gosling 151) the most. However, use whatever work for your interest and budget level.

I tried adding pineapple juice to the drink, but in both half ounce and ounce intervals it only seemed to muddle up the balanced citrus flavor. Speaking of the citrus, I found that bottled OJ works just as well as fresh - the fresh orange juice really only adds a nice orange shell that you can dunk in the drink. If you want to do this, you should use a medium-sized Florida-style juicing orange like a honeybell instead of the monster navel oranges that come from California.

Finally, I decided that the bitters weren't adding much to the mix. You can still use them if you like, but even after adding 3 very aggressive shakes to the mixing tin, I found the flavor was simply lost in all of that juice and rum. Besides, I liked that I had 3 measures of six ingredients, making my improved Seven Seas Drink one of the few tropical cocktails that was easy to remember, and the Bitters were throwing off that neat symmetry.

I like to use my Waring Drink Mixer to put this together, otherwise known as a milkshake mixer. If your go-to drink is a Mai Tai or Test Pilot you probably have already gotten one of these beasts, but for the rest of you, the milkshake mixer is entirely optional. I think it adds just the right texture to tropical drinks when blended up with crushed ice, and it somehow aerates and brings out the flavor in your cocktail syrups like falernum.

If you're using a traditional shaker, you're going to want to shake the daylights out of this drink until it's very, very cold, then open up the whole thing and dump the contents - ice and all - into your beautifully frosted tiki mug. Do NOT attempt this with a classic blender with a blade in it, because you'll just end up turning all of your ice to slush and cleaning the darn thing out later.

Seven Seas Drink Reborn
.75 oz Orange Juice
.75 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
.5 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
.5 oz Velvet Falernum
1 oz Demerra Blended Rum
1 oz Dark Rum 
If using fresh orange juice, place spent orange shell in bottom of 1970s Polynesian Village frosted tiki mug. 
Combine all ingredients and crushed ice and shake until very, very cold. Pour shaker contents, unstrained, into frosted mug. Add ice cubes as needed until mug is full. Garnish with spent lemon shell and drink through a long straw.

For garnish, I like a few pineapple fronds if I have them, but a nice big bunch of mint works just as well. Go ahead and stick an umbrella in that lemon shell - it's a resort drink, after all.

Did you like this for some reason? Check out our previous drink here, The Howling Dog Bend.
Or drop by the Walt Disney World History Hub for more 1970s Polynesian Resort!

Thursday, February 01, 2018

That Infernal Swiss Music

A few years ago, I previewed a bit of the work being done in an infuriating little corner of Disney music that I call "The Swiss Loops". This is a group of three or four Jack Wagner loops created at an unknown time consisting entirely of alpine music - yodeling, accordions, lederhosen, etc.

So grab your alpenhorn and feathered cap, and let's finally get this out of the way - we're going to plunge into those infernal Swiss loops. I hope you like polkas!

Pinnochio Street Music

One of the least appreciated areas of Magic Kingdom is the stretch of Fantasyland that runs from Liberty Square, up past what was once the Skyway Station, past Small World, and ends with Pinnochio Village Haus. On early blueprints, this is called the "Pinocchio Street" - an area of steins and Bavarian charm anchored by a Swiss chalet spitting out a steady stream of brightly colored sky buckets. Compared to the more prosaic and less elaborated themed west side of Fantasyland, and especially compared to the Fantasyland of 1955 which was still what Disneyland had, this little area was the seed that eventually would overrun the entire concept of Fantasyland, turning the whole of the area into Little Europe. It may not look like much to anybody who's been to the 1983 Fantasyland at Disneyland or the 1992 version in Paris, but for 1971 the Pinocchio Street was a major accomplishment, and had its own specific project name to prove it.

Regardless, what is likely the earliest surviving piece of music associated with this area was thankfully recorded by Mike Lee in 1991. It's only 30 minutes long, which puts it in line with other early music loops of its era, and the two Capitol Records LPs used in the Matterhorn Bobsleds queue BGM also appear in it.

Thanks to a snippet posted by the excellent website WaltsMusic, I'm confident in assigning a date to this one. The WaltsMusic segment, taken from Jack Wagner's collection, is the first seven tracks represented here, and is labeled "Village Haus Disneyland 1974". Since Disneyland didn't have a Village Haus in 1974, this has to be our date.

I'd give a lot to know if music played in the Skyway and Village Haus before 1974, but like a lot of early Disneyland and Magic Kingdom music, we'll just never know.
“Pinnochio Village Haus” 
Compiled by Jack Wagner 1974, Recorded by Mike Lee 1991 
01) Obervazer-Schottisch - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
02) Gruss Milano (Salute To Milan) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
03) Lusbübe-Ländler (Naughty Boy Ländler) - Ländlerkapelle Oberland [1]
04) Beim Augustfeuer (By The Bonfire) - Ländlerkapelle Bärner Mutze [1]
05) Tessin Melodies - Orchestrina Verbanella [1]
06) Urner-Polka - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
07) Am Hinterrhein (At The Source Of The Rhine) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
08) Unknown A
09) Unknown B
10) Unknown C
11) Der Klarinettenmuckel - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2]
12) Landlergrusse - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2]
13) Gruss aus Bayrischzell - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2]
14) Rund I’m Salzburg - Alfons Bauer and the Bavarian Entertainers [2] 
[1] A Visit to Switzerland - Capitol ST-10264 1964
[2] Music of the German Alps - Capitol ST-1-211 1959

For this track to be playing in 1991 seems astonishingly late considering that its replacement, fully considered below, had already been available for eight years by that point.

However, the 1990/1 date does line up with when Magic Kingdom was really starting to standardize their sound system - see my piece on Tomorrowland for another example. Once "Fantasyland West" received its new digital music playback system, of course it would receive the newer, longer version of the Swiss loop.

"Fantasyland West"

For decades, a 60-minute loop has been floating through the Disney music diaspora  called "Fantasyland West". Trying to identify the tracks in this loop has always been an absurd nightmare of yodeling, brass bands, and alphorns - after even just a few minutes, all of the yodeling begins to bleed together and my eyes would begin to roll back into my head.

Which is how things stood for years. This 60 minute loop played in the Skyway station at Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, inside Village Haus restaurants in California, Florida, and Paris, and heck, even at Tokyo Disneyland - here's a quick video where you can hear it. Besides the fact that it had seemingly been playing since anybody could remember, nobody had any idea where it came from or what it was made up of.

Most of the really early Magic Kingdom music loops were really odd lengths. But even if Disney had wanted to replace the Skyway / Village Haus loop as early as, say, 1975 - when both Main Street loops got filled out to a full hour - it's hard to imagine them having a good incentive to pay Jack Wagner to do the same work over again.  In the early 80s, Disney was moving to standardize the length of all of their BGM loops to exactly 60 minutes thanks to emerging digital formats, a standard that holds even today.

What makes more sense to me is that Jack prepared the 60-minute loop as part of his commission to prepare the music for Tokyo Disneyland. Many of his loops for TDL are interesting expansions and variations of his earlier loops at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, and all of them are a rock solid hour in length. It also makes sense that Disneyland would use the same loop as part of their New Fantasyland project, which saw the addition of a German-style Village Haus of their own.

Meanwhile, the discovery of "A Visit to Switzerland" on MouseBits by RocketRods and the tracks it shared with the Matterhorn Bobsleds made it much clearer the relationship between all of the various "Swiss" loops was much closer than it initially seemed. Except for one little problem...

Bi Eus im Schwyzerland: A Mystery Inside An Enigma

In mid-2013, our understanding of the Fantasyland West loop improved considerably when, with no warning whatever, most of the source tracks appeared on iTunes. Suddenly, we had track names and performing artists but with no real insight into where these things came from. The album in question was called "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland, Volume 3", released by the mysterious "Elite Special" and dated 1974. Trouble was, who knows if the metadata provided on the album was at all accurate. Even more worrying, the total run time of the digital release was nearly an hour - a total impossibility on the vinyl records Jack Wagner was working off of in the 70s.

Thanks to the magic of "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland, Volume 3", we can now show you Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser, who you've been listening to over a loudspeaker at Disney for basically your entire life:

So just who the heck was Elite Special? As it turns out, Elite Special was a sub-label of Turicaphon AG - founded in 1930, and which still exists today in the Swiss town of Riedikon (on the Turicaphonstrasse!). Once you have label and performer information, the rest begins to fall into place.

Its seems as though Truicaphon took a special interest in recording and releasing Swiss folk music in the 1950s - although for all we know, they were releasing these recordings on 78 records in the 30s. Alpine music being of limited interest outside of Switzerland, eventually the Elite Special sublabel was formed to recycle their music into budget LPs of the kind that haunted drug stores through the 60s - cheapjack releases with names like "I Remember Switzerland". Just looking at the mysterious track data and recording company history, that much of the story seemed obvious.

But I still was not satisfied with this "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland, Volume 3". I knew the chances that a single record had nearly the entirety of a Jack Wagner loop was too persuasive to ignore, but after weeks of checking databases and virtual auction sites in English and German, I could find no evidence of a physical release of Bi Eus im Schwyzerland - never mind Volume 3, I couldn't find Volume 1 or 2. I knew it couldn't be this obscure.

After literally years of downtime, in which Pixelated put the rest of the puzzle together, finding "Accordion in Gold" by Horst Wende, I was ready to try again - and I finally struck gold in the Worldcat, where "Holiday in Switzerland" had a single entry with nearly every track listed - the only thing missing was the track "Jodel-Polka". I even found a company in the United States selling a CD of the album.

I was so close I refused to believe that this was not the correct album. After another search through German eBay, I was able to find the actual LP - and "Jodel-Polka" was included. As it turns out, Jack had dumped practically the entirety of "Holiday of Switzerland" into his Village Haus loop, and in near exact album order, no less. With the 4-year mystery of "Bi Eus im Schwyzerland" solved, the Village Haus loop finally came into focus.

"Fantasyland West" / "Pinocchio Village Haus"Compiled by Jack Wagner, 1983
Reconstruction by Michael Sweeney, Foxxy, and Pixelated 
01) Obervazer-Schottisch - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
02) Gruss Milano (Salute To Milan) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
03) Uf Em Grätli (Up On The Cliff) - Ländlerkapelle Bärner Mutze With Sepp Sutter [1]
04) Lusbübe-Ländler (Naughty Boy Ländler) - Ländlerkapelle Oberland [1]
05) Beim Augustfeuer (By The Bonfire) - Ländlerkapelle Bärner Mutze [1]
06) Urner-Polka - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
07) S' Kantönlilied - Ländlerkapelle Heidi Wild mit Kinderchor [2]
88) Frohsinn (Schottisch) - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
09) Am sunnige Egge - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
10) Frühlingsfreuden - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
11) Alpenjodel - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
12) Heigh-Ho / Whistle While You Work - Polka Band [3]
13) En Heimelige - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
14) Jodel-Polka - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
15) Liechtensteiner Polka - Horst Wende und seine Accordeon-Band [4]
16) Die Fischerin Vom Bodensee - Horst Wende und seine Accordeon-Band [4]
17) Mi Freud - Jodelduo Josy Eugster, Helene Schwegler [2]
18)  Am Hinterrhein (At The Source Of The Rhine) - Bündner Ländlerquintett [1]
19) Mitenand Gaht's Besser - Ländlerkapelle Bergfriede, Jodelduo Josy Eugster und Helene Schwegler [2]
20) Aelpli (Schottisch) - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
21) Läbeslust - Berhely Studer [2]
22) De Würzegrübler - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2]
23) "Obe abe - une ufe" - Ländlerkapelle Edy Keiser [2] 
[1] A Visit to Switzerland - Capitol ST-10264 1959
[2] Holiday in Switzerland - Elite Special PLPS 30150 1973
[3] A Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom - WDP 1972
[4] Accordion In Gold - Polydor 249 306 1970

One of the nice things about having the actual Holiday in Switzerland album to look at is that it clarifies that not all of the tracks included in the loop are traditional songs. Nearly everything on Holiday in Switzerland is an original composition - these traditional folk music groups, which had likely been performing together since before World War II, and who recorded their efforts for a small, local recording industry would eventually go on to be heard by billions of vacationers in search of a cheap pizza in Florida. That's an exceptionally bizarre path to infamy, but it's a good one.

Also interesting is the inclusion of a single track by the Fantasyland Polka Band smack in the middle of the loop. Many versions of the loop begin with the Heigh Ho, but the loop does appear to play out as I've got it arranged here, with the Polka Band around the 30 minute mark.

The Polka Band was an afternoon offshoot of the Walt Disney World Band that hung around Fantasyland for a few years in the 70s, and their phantom appearance in their old haunt is intriguing. It reminds me of Jack's use of Fred Burri in the Matterhorn Bobsleds loop - a recorded testament of atmosphere music which was once recorded live.

Honestly, this is probably how all of Disneyland's music loops began - a tape would be played while the band went off to lunch. A few years ago, a tape was sold on eBay which supposedly played in the Skull Rock seating area of the Chicken of the Sea restaurant in Fantasyland. Without having a transfer of the tape to be sure we'll never know, but it appeared to be a recording of the pirate band which played in that area in the early 60s. Intentionally or not, this notion survives in the Matterhorn and Village Haus loops of today.

And with that romantic notion, I think we've found as good a place as any to finally put this subject to rest. Auf wiedersehen!

Ready for more? Visit the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Music Hub.
Or, hop a monorail to the past and spend a full "day" at the Walt Disney World of the 1970s by downloading Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Wilderness Lodge Video Fireplace

Every so often you come up with an idea so obvious, so stupid, that you're convinced somebody must have thought of it by now. And when it turns out nobody has, well, what's a fan to do? Just go out and do it herself, I suppose. Which is what I did.

Despite growing up in the northeast with a proper wood burning fireplace, and despite having access to a gas burning one in Florida, in my opinion nothing quite lands at that juicy intersection of nostalgia and kitsch as a good old video fireplace. The Yule Log tradition, after laying dormant for most of the hip 90s, has roared back to life in the digital age, and a quick search on YouTube will turn up hundreds of these things. Then as now, the attraction is in the extreme simplicity of the production: find a fireplace. Point a camera at it. Share the results.

The original video fireplace, the WPIX Yule Log, was a scant 17 seconds long, looped over and over, accompanied by the easy listening Christmas hits of the day - an amazing synthesis of midcentury plastic living, the modernization of mass culture, big hearted Christmas cheer, and extreme laziness (the hours-long broadcast meant the TV station staff could take the day off).

Growing up, my grandparents had a copy of the non-yule version on VHS, and that fascinated me even more - no stockings, no Christmas carols, just an hour of a fireplace doing its thing. There were other atmosphere VCR productions - aquariums, beaches, rolling hills - but none quite captured the strange magic of the idea of turning one boxy home furnishing into another.

And as a fan of the intersection of midcentury convenience culture, easy listening, and themed design, it's not too hard to see where my brain went - where's the Disney version of this? Not some generic fireplace with Disney crap piled around it, but an actual, at-Disney fireplace. And what is probably the defining Disney fireplace experience?

I packed up my camera and drove out to Wilderness Lodge.

It was the sort of blustery, overcast Florida winter day that really set the tone for being around a fireplace, and most of my time was spent sitting and waiting for the fireplaces to become available. There were so many that it seemed sensible to include as many as possible.

I really enjoyed making this, and even the editing of the subject came together amazingly fast. So on this cold January, put some Wilderness Lodge on your TV, and if you like this, show your friends and let me know!

Happy New Year's from Passport to Dreams!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Summer Series Hub Page


This hub page at the web blog "Passport to Dreams Old & New" is an easy reference for this site's occasional "Summer Series" - extended looks at a specific body of work, often chronologically arranged, intended to encourage exploration and discovery of overlooked corners of Disney.

The Age Of Not Believing - Summer 2014
A pseudo-legendary, vaguely suicidal retrospective on the Disney films released in a crucial period - between the death of Walt Disney and the release of Robin Hood, where what it meant to be a Disney film was shifting rapidly. There's a lot of garbage in this body of work, but there's some gems too, and I watched and wrote about all of them.

There's a lot here, but a handful of highlights for those who don't need to read the whole thing are in-depth assessments of The Happiest Millionaire, The Love Bug, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and an epic piece on Robin Hood, including it's lasting legacy and Disney's role in forming the modern Furry community (really!).

Week One - Monkeys Go Home, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, The Gnome-Mobile
Week Two - The Jungle Book, Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, The Happiest Millionaire
Week Three - Blackbeard's Ghost, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band, Never A Dull Moment
Week Four - The Horse In The Grey Flannel Suit, The Love Bug, Smith!, Rascal
Week Five - The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, King of the Grizzlies, The Boatniks
Week Six - The Wild Country, The Aristocats, The Barefoot Executive
Week Seven - Scandalous John, The Million Dollar Duck, Bedknobs & Broomsticks
Week Eight - The Biscuit Eater, Now You See Him Now You Don't, Napoleon & Samantha
Week Nine - The Magic of Walt Disney World, Snowball Express, The World's Greatest Athlete, Charley and the Angel
Week Ten - One Little Indian, Robin Hood, the legacy of Robin Hood

Summer Game Camp - Summer 2017
Growing up a video game kid, I worshipped the famous, fruitful collaboration between Disney and Capcom in the early 90s. But were they really all they're cracked up to be? And which ones are still worth playing? I played through all of them, in order of release date, to find out.

Part One - Mickey Mousecapade, DuckTales, DuckTales: Remastered
Part Two - Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers, The Little Mermaid, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck
Part Three - The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, The Great Circus Mystery, Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
Part Four - Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers 2, DuckTales 2
Part Five - Goof Troop, Disney's Aladdin, Bonkers
Part Six - Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, plus history and forgotten movie??
Final Game Ranking and Retrospective

Will there be more Summer Series? Only time will tell...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Conflict in Theme Parks

“Over the years Disney repeated to his animators: “Make it read!” Meaning, make the action distinct and recognizable. No contradictions, no ambiguities.” - Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original
You, the audience, make your way through the Temple of the Crystal Skull. You know Dr. Jones has been here - he's set up his base camp, disarmed booby traps, and his name is on the attraction marquee. But now he's vanished inside the temple, and his faithful assistant Paco, who can't operate a tripod, decides to send you directly into certain death!

....Hold on, back up here. Let's take this from the top.

We're all taught in Western storytelling that nothing can happen without conflict. There just can't be a story of renewal or growth without somebody running into some kind of obstacle, or antagonist. Many people think the antagonists are more interesting than the heroes who fight them. Even a cursory glance at a single scene from most major Hollywood movies and you'll see it's mainly a checklist of characters developing or resolving conflicts. Sometimes, when the conflict building isn't adequately disguised inside the narrative spine - as in the recent Hobbit movies - audiences rebel.

In contrast, theme parks seem to operate in an entirely different register, despite otherwise seeming to be a direct outgrowth of traditional Western art forms like theater and filmmaking. And while we conflate the effects of multiple art forms - think of those who consider an especially visually appealing area to be "painterly" - the fact is, theme parks construct their meanings quite differently than other narrative modes like cinema.

Although they've been the dominant narrative mode for most of the last 110 years, films have limitations. Film scholar Tom Gunning notes that "Whereas literature is never directly iconic, film, as a series of photographic representational signs, is. [...] In film, the excess of [surface detail] over meaning appears automatically with the photographic image." Films can depict dreams, but they can't really convey thoughts; they are full of surface details, but audiences must know which details in-frame are relevant. We begin to realize the unique difficulties of storytelling in the themed space when we realize that  filmic limitations apply to spaces such as Disneyland, but the difficulties are multiplied!

Unlike in a film, a themed space can be experienced in any order, and at any speed desired. Unlike a film, images may be examined from multiple perspectives, and linged over or rushed past as the viewer desires. And unlike film, the gaze cannot entirely be fully directed, although a truly exceptional themed space can "drag" the eye through it in controllable ways. Themed space shares the visual limitations of films, but without the benefits of editing!

This means that if you want to tell a story in a theme park with an identifiable bad guy, there can be no cut "back at the ranch" while the villains hatch their scheme, no leisurely unfolding of information through a first act. Themed spaces tell stories that hardly ever break down in acts; it's all action, as if you had to tell an entire film's narrative in the context of one huge action scene. Given these limitations, it's amazing that any theme park stories work at all!

So what's the solution? Theme parks tell stories that boil down to morsel size "storylets" with lots, and lots, of conflict.

On one end of the spectrum, we can look at an attraction like Alien Encounter, which had so many various conflicts going on at once it was confusing. There was the conflict of the X-S Tech Corporation wanting to demonstrate its very poorly tested teleporter technology, the conflict of Chairman Clench wanting to teleport into the theater but being unable to, the conflict of an alien bug wanting to eat the audience, and an extra layer of conflict of the XS Tech technicians trying to figure out how to get the bug out of the theater. If Western narrative wisdom about conflict were applied here, this would seem like a winner, and perhaps it would have been - in a feature length film! In the practice of an 8 minute theater show, with an excess of telling instead of showing, it all came across as a lot of shouting.

Another attraction where there's simply too much going on to be digestible at the fast pace required of a park attraction is Dinosaur - in this one two characters even get into an argument in the safety film! We think we're entering an ordinary museum, but surprise! We're going to be sent into the past in a time machine they built in their weird basement secret lab. Once on the ride we're required to keep track of multiple story threads simultaneously: we're supposed to be looking for and capturing a highly specific dinosaur, while also being pursued by another highly specific dinosaur, while also somehow getting out alive before a meteor hits - three jobs nobody associates with bounding around in the dark with dinosaurs. While Dinosaur checks the boxes of being a thrill ride, most guests forget one or two of these plot points while actually going through the darn thing, and the payoffs never register as well as they should.

If we want to look at a more successful example, we could look at the Indiana Jones Adventure, where we are asked to keep track of a missing person narrative about Indiana Jones, a not very fully thought out danger situation involving an angry Indian god, and finally our own desire to survive the ride. I think where Indiana Jones Adventure succeeds whereas Dinosaur fails, is because the first two conflict threads or storylets pretty much resolve immediately; they're only really there to keep us engaged while we're waiting in line, and manage to sneak in a safety film sideways without seeming abstruse. Pretty much right away Mara decides to kill us and Indiana Jones is recovered; with those resolved, the only remaining pressing concern is to survive the temple.

Indiana Jones Adventure and especially Dinosaur spend an inordinate amount of time checking the boxes of classical story structure, to really no discernible good end - ask anybody coming off either ride to identify what the main conflict in the ride is, and they won't. Or, more accurately, they'll fall back on descriptions of things that happened to them - we dodged the Carnotaurus, we avoided the rolling boulder, with no consideration whatever for the elaborate conflicts and storylets laid out inside the narrative for them. With such complicated considerations, the harried theme park designer starts to long for the simple life.


I consider these three attractions to be just about the most convoluted experiential narratives ever devised in the industry, and really only one of them works to any degree it was intended to, so let's back away from the double (or triple, or quadruple) conflict narratives and look at some middle-ground examples.

Let's consider Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as an example. Yes, there have been various layers of narrative complication added to the attraction over the years, mostly in the form of queue area entertainments, but when you get right down to it, the basic conflict of Big Thunder Mountain - the one you actually experience between getting on and off the ride - is that you decided to ride a runaway mine train, and now you are on a runaway mine train. Various things, little "storylets", happen to you while you're on the train, and each is more exciting than the last, until you arrive safely back at the station.

Or, to take another famous example, there are many opinions and rumors as to what the "story" of the Haunted Mansion is, but in reality the story is simplicity in and of itself - you, played by you, decide to enter a haunted house and you live to tell the tale. That's it. The ride implies universes of characters, connections, and backstories, but in the end it's really just the story of you spending a night in a haunted house. Does it really need to be anything more?

Perhaps the pioneering narrative conflict told in themed spaces is what we may call "Dodge The Witch", in which you avoid various dangers and make it out okay. Under the guise of "man vs. nature", The Jungle Cruise is basically a Dodge the Witch ride. Grizzly River Rapids is an very good Dodge the Witch - it may not have a grizzly bear, but it does have plenty of dangers and surprises. Even Disneyland's Matterhorn is an exceptionally carefully modulated Dodge the Witch, in which there's nearly nothing doing the storytelling except some steel track and an abominable snowman.

Yet aren't Indiana Jones Adventure and Dinosaur also Dodge the Witch rides, to some degree? Is there perhaps something to the fact that most riders blithely ignore all of the carefully modulated narrative information and conflict setup in these attractions and gleefully report that they did indeed Dodge the Witch?

Laff in the Dark, Early 1930s

Here, then, is one crucial distinction in the way theme parks tell stories and the way everyone else tells stories. A novel, or a film, or a play, must engage in a lengthy setup in which character are introduced, a situation is outlined, a conflict identified, and then pass through an inciting incident which sets the rest of the narrative in motion. Theme parks don't need to do this.

Why? The reason is because the only characters that really matter in theme parks are the spectators. That's the reason people visit, after all - we sail over London, we encounter some dinosaurs along the Disneyland Railroad, we ride the Hogwarts Express. This is what themed spaces can do that nobody else can, and it's the blend of passive and active participation that makes the places resonant. There doesn't need to be an inciting incident because it already happened when we entered the park.

There is conflict (or at least drama) baked into everything that we do at a theme park, because by their very nature theme parks are places of the exotic and strange. The unspoken contract that exists between the themed space and the public is that we will agree to be mildly inconvenienced while entering an attraction in exchange for being excited inside it - this is why it's disappointing, sometimes enough to make news headlines, when the ride breaks down and the excitement is ended prematurely. Themed spaces are orderly areas of pictorial effects which break down in irrational and chaotic images, briefly glimpsed, once we hop into that Mr. Toad car.

This is why the attractions that really matter, that really last, tie up the conflict with the theme of the attraction in a way that's seamless: we decide to enter the jungle, board our jungle steamship, and are guided through the various dangers. That situation doesn't need anything more than to be present to be understandable, it uses very clear, very understandable visual cues to work. Everybody knows that giant snakes and cannibals are bad news, and - uh oh - now it's happening to us!

This is also why a ride like Space Mountain can work across time and cultures in a way that the Delta Dreamflights of the world could not. Just as with Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain really offers amazingly little information about what we are doing or why - we're going into space, and space is weird. The drama is right there in the attraction name, and as far as theming goes, all that's really required is that the vehicles look like rockets and we're off. Again, riders bring more drama to the experience than the designers need to supply, because themed spaces work differently.

This also points towards one feature of themed spaces which the rules say would seem impossible in other media: the low, or no, conflict experience. There's the Enchanted Tiki Room, which 50 years on still enraptures audiences by doing nothing more than slowly coming to life. Consider also the Skyway, which requires severe interpretive methods to find any conflict in it. Or It's A Small World, where the entire darn point of it is that it's conflict free. Through the 70s, Disney repeatedly attempted to make a Small World movie, and repeatedly failed because to introduce conflict into that experience defeats the whole reason it exists in the first place.

During the construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney repeatedly instructed his designers just to "build something people will like". In theme park analysis circles we like to say that areas need a mix of A, C, and E tickets to be successful - a shorthand to refer to the "levels" of the attractions that are needed to flesh out any themed space. But it may be just as well to refer to these ticketing levels in terms of levels on conflict - this is why Tomorrowland doesn't feel complete without a Peoplemover, because the Peoplemover fulfills the role of the Mark Twain steamboat in Frontierland - a relaxed scenic experience with no plot or conflict to speak of.  The low conflict attractions round out the day with a variety of low-stakes experiences that are "safer spaces" than the Jungle Cruises or Space Mountains. Every child implicitly understands this unspoken dynamic.


This mass of data seems to suggest, more than anything, that there is in fact a diversity of ways to build a successful theme park attraction's story - there may be plenty of bad examples that hog the spotlight, but for every three unsuccessful, obvious examples, there's at least one where the thing works just fine.

What can be said is that conflict in theme parks can be implied in such a way to require almost no special treatment, or indeed even be a component of creating a compelling experience. The aesthetics of theme parks, and the unspoken contract between themed spaces and spectators, is such that there can be narrative inherent in simple visual designs and enveloping environments that can supplant the need for a formalized conflict. In this sense, themed spaces have a power to suggest narratives in a way nearer to the way that fine art like painting or sculpture can: through the deployment of such features as colors or shapes.

Although themed spaces are absolutely the nearest to cinema in terms of logic and effect, the theme park has a secret power that cinema does not: it can be iconic without needing to be abstract. Every so often, somebody comes along and tries to make a film that is played out entirely from one character's point of view, replacing the "I" tense in traditional novelistic storytelling with the filmed camera. This never ever works; it's easier for audiences to invest in screen characters depicted on the screen rather than as the screen.

Theme parks are films that happen to you, and they happen with no signposting or role playing. Think of the Disneyland Railroad: imagine if you made a film out of those events. You'd have an avant-garde film; mass audiences would say that it makes no sense, that it's outside their comfort zone. But millions ride the Disneyland Railroad every year and take its bizarre mix of nostalgia, sightseeing, and time travel totally at face value. That's the secret power of themed spaces, the power to compel without the need for a formalized narrative or even narrative logic.

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