Friday, March 30, 2007

Dialectical Montage and Disneyland

Author’s Note: Over time, I have come to believe that the only useful, acceptable way to analyze and discuss what the themed experience does to the human observer is to discuss it as an extension of what the filmed image does to the human observer. This extends to the title of this essay.

Dialectical is derived from
dialect, or language, languages carrying meaning. Therefore Dialectical Montage is nothing more nor less than how movies carry meaning through their editing patterns.

The purpose of this essay is to explore how film form – editing, camera placement, set design, lighting and on-screen movement – carries over through Disney films to Disney
land.

I have the unique and unfortunate distinction of having a birthday on the same day that not only
Horizons closed, but Claude Coates died – two enormous losses to the art of the theme show. Of the major designers who worked at WED Enterprises during their “Golden Age” (1963 – 1982), Coates was perhaps the most undervalued as well as the most gifted. He was responsible for atmosphere and place setting. A Claude Coates touch is the fully stocked market placed behind the wench auction in Pirates of the Caribbean. A Claude Coates touch is the utilization of Rolly Crump’s “living architecture” throughout The Haunted Mansion. A Claude Coates touch is the way the cavern walls in Pirates of the Caribbean part at just the right moment to allow you a perfect view to Dead Man’s Cavern, passed four minutes ago. Claude Coates’ art was brilliant manipulation but infinitely transparent: cinematics transposed to three dimensions effectively and almost invisibly.

“If God could do the tricks we could do, he’d be a happy man.”

The quote above is from The Stunt Man, a mini-classic of reflexive film. It is told to a convict disguised as a stunt man by a maniacal director while being swept across a fake battlefield on a monstrous crane. The film itself is concerned with the process of cinematic deception.

“I don’t want it to be like anywhere else in the world.”

The above quote is from Walt Disney, on the creation of his synthetic wonderland. Synthetic, of course, insofar as it is constructed of concrete and steel beams and fiberglass elephants. It is not synthetic in its’ artistry and its’ effect on the audience. Disneyland’s art is actually no more synthetic than that of the film art, despite being 60 years younger and still grossly undervalued by the critical elite. Yet Disneyland is a place that was conceived of and built by filmmakers and using studio resources that would not have been possible without Walt’s live-action units.

Disneyland is, in effect, a film, and its filmmakers were engaged in the art of the process of cinematic deception.
“The problem [we were having] with Mr. Lincoln was that were weren’t building a person, we were building an illusion”, says Marc Davis. Disneyland constructs illusory spaces as ethereal as those shadow-plays that film creates on a screen, and the resulting dream state – branded “Disney Magic” by the corporate world – is identical.

Disneyland is actually the next evolution of film, just as film was the next evolution of the photograph. Now the camera has been removed and replaced with a vehicle which moves through a designed space in a fashion not dissimilar from a camera trucking along on a dolly. This observation was, of course, not dissimilar to one made by Christopher Finch in his famous volume The Art of Walt Disney, but it skips over a crucial fact: although the best attractions are, in fact, cinematic, they are
not actually narrative.

So these attractions in fact usually relate themselves cinematically not to the narrative scene but actually the non-narrative montage: riders are shown a succession of images not through the device of a physical break in the material world of the attraction, but by moving effortlessly from one to the next in a vehicle. This forward motion actually becomes a form of montage, whereby one impression replaces another in the spectator’s gaze. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to relate the emotional experience of riding an attraction without actually just recounting the images which have been presented – the same thing can be said of montage.

At this point it may be useful for a basic refresher on montage. Film theorist-maker Sergei Eisenstein (right) posited that since film is the process whereby one image replaces another (24 times a second to create the illusion of motion), that the basis of film-making ought to be the process of montage, whereby one unit (single shot) replaces another, contrasting shot to create a collision of ideas and, thereby, meaning.

Montage has been applied to early attractions in generally crude form; the art of the attraction did not, after all, reach maturity until 1967. And yet there are prescient precedents in the form of
Snow White’s Adventures in 1955, where the directly linear mode of conveyance moved viewers past rapidly approaching and receding simple painted sets. The form of the attraction replicated, abstractly and then literally, Snow White’s famous flee through the forest in escaping the Huntsman. This famous and influential sequence has had a comparable influence on cinema as Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. Snow White itself, in turn, influenced Eisenstein when he saw it in 1937 as part of his effort to get his lost project Que Viva Mexico! finished in Hollywood. The influence stretches backwards too: Walt Disney had his animators watching silent films as research, and Snow White’s frenzied twisting and turning in the forest is comparable to Lillian Gish trapped in the closet at the climax of D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.

Snow White (1937); Broken Blossoms (1919)

There is, after all, a direct connection!

Of the variations on this concept of attraction-as-cinema tried by Disney throughout the years, Bob Gurr’s fantastic Omnimover system is the best vehicle to carry the concept of “seamless montage” in attractions, because of it’s ever-onward moving nature, the way it restricts the audience’s field of vision, and it’s versatility in direction. The Omnimover can selectively limit the audience’s view, first showing them, for example, a door being knocked on by someone invisible, then another with its’ handle turning, then a third being pried away from inside by ghoulish hands. Although all of these actions are happening simultaneously, the retreating action of the omnimover allows the viewer to organize the doors into a logical progression, creating the illusion that, as the vehicle progresses past the doors, the creatures behind are becoming more successful at escaping from behind them.

Disjunctions are created – rooms peel away into more rooms, stretch, expand, retreat into the infinite, narrow into corridors, part to reveal ghostly banquets, and yet none of this is explained away as anything more than the mercies of the house. For an attraction with a certain dramatic unity – it takes place in one house over the course of a stormy night – it is still an illogical flow of ideas. Even the house itself is subject to spatial, conceptual violation – rooms melt away into endless black voids through which rise staircases and hang chandeliers and lamps. Eventually the dramatic unities themselves are violated and the building turns inside out as an interior becomes an exterior and the distance and malleability of the ghosts solidifies into a tangible tableau of images, eventually climaxing as the ghosts themselves violate your “protective bubble”, your vehicle itself.

The Haunted Mansion does, in fact, have a motivating logic to it. The ride structures itself as a succession of moving through rooms, under arches, and through doors. The organizing logic of the experience is the house itself, although plot elements have been displaced in favor of a more anecdotal flow of information. In this respect the attraction is only partially relevant here, although the key conceptual item is that the Haunted Mansion still is not a narrative, and can therefore be termed as a “montage of ideas”, or, as Tony Baxter once succinctly put it, “Everything That Ghosts Do.”

A more relevant example would be
The Adventure Thru Inner Space, a Claude Coates specialty item in that the attraction was nothing but a succession of atmospheric but essentially irrational, surreal images scaled in such a way as to suggest “shrinking”. Although very famous for being a prime place for some private-public miscreantcy, drugs and sex (Tomorrowland was the province of teenagers, not Pixar, back then remember), it has rarely been forgotten by persons of a certain generation for providing the kind of surreal reverie Disney had shied away from for years – moving beyond the necessity to tell a logical story, it became a succession of bizarre and visceral experiences which seemed suspectly psychedelic even in its’ dry scientific jargon: “Although your body will shrink, your mind will expand!”

Yet in providing a flow of irrational experiences, visual aids and minimal music, the only structuring logic to the attraction being a narrator of suspect reliability which eventually resolved into a first-person interior monologue (one of the strangest excuses for that too – his thoughts are suspended in inner space??), the attraction eventually resembled a very extreme interpretive montage of space age pseudo science. With minimal scenery to look at and much darkness, the brain running on much output and too little input, the emotional experience becomes synonymous with the dream state of which film is also possible of replicating. Cinematically,
Adventure Thru Inner Space’s nearest contemporary is the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The next Claude Coates venture,
If You Had Wings, is the pinnacle of a certain kind of attraction in that it’s form most effectively replicates a montage. Here the montage moves from the kind of thematic unities of The Haunted Mansion and into pure abstraction, removing even the element of a set or setting in favor of projected and endlessly repeating film loops presented in logical but disjunctive patterns and united by what can be accurately described as a jingle. In effect, the form the attraction emulates is not an experience in a Haunted Mansion or even inside an atom, but a television commercial for Eastern Airlines.

And yet, finally, here is literal three dimensional montage, whereby the attraction presents an assortment of “clips” which the viewer may “edit” into any “sequence” through the act of looking from one to the next – a literal mechanized art installation which challenges even the material unity of a strip of film pasted together into a montage by fragmenting it into many strips, the form they take in the professional editing bay.

Eisensteinian theory tells us that the act of moving around even an image or two can result in an utterly different intellectual and thereby emotional cinematic experience, yet by exploding the filmed image into many filmed images, the attraction exposes the shot as the building block of the montage and the montage as the twentieth century’s most vital narrative form. In
If You Had Wings, ironically long after the Hollywood vogues of things like 3-D and Cinerama which gave birth to Circlevision, the filmed image finally leapt off the screen and into the material world, if in form only.

--

If these sorts of discussions of cinematic montage seem alien to the emotional experience of the parks themselves, they in some ways are. Yet these works are built by filmmakers themselves, filmmakers who learned their craft in a
narrative tradition which is just one form of cinematic potential. Eisenstein loved Disney’s films, considered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be the greatest film ever made, and admired Disney’s total control of the image through animated form. His live action films following Disney’s Snow White are invariably built on the cartoon, not the play - the play being the original model for the cinema.

Walt Disney's Snow White (1937); Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938)

After all, amusement parks and cinema go back a long way. Coney Island had its’ penny arcades, the penny arcade’s Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes being the key link between Eadward Muybridge’s famous photographs of a running horse and the Lumiere projection system, a link which Disneyland keeps alive through it’s own Main Street Penny Arcade and cinema. The link isn’t just inferred, it is spelled out for us: Photographs become Motion Pictures, Motion Pictures become Theme Parks.


Universal Studios was offering bleachers to view the action from as early as 1915, by the 1920’s there was an organized tour and by the 1950’s the famous trams were introduced. Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 studio was themed to being a row of Edwardian England cottages. During its’ aggressive expansion period of 1988 – 1993, Universal Studios Theme Parks hollered at us: “Ride The Movies!” But we had been since 1915, essentially synonymously with the emergence of the Hollywood Feature Film. Disneyland didn’t invent this, it just did it bigger and better than anyone before.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Adventures in Master Planning #1

Sometimes, you come across something in a theme park which strikes you as either exceedingly brilliant or exceedingly baffling. All of this is, of course, the domain of Master Planning, which (ostensibly) accounts for every angle, dimension and layout question which arises in a park. Master Planning can make a theme park revolutionary (Disneyland) or frustrating (Disney-MGM Studios). Even a company as large as WDI tries to keep everything in line, but sometimes…

Adventure One: Colonial Mansion?

A question which will probably haunt Walt Disney World for the duration of its existence is the rather baffling placement of the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square. Frankly, it simply smacks of desperation. Here was WED Enterprises, fresh off a triple victory lap with the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean, New Tomorrowland, and The Haunted Mansion, stuck in a room and told to re-re-invent the wheel they had just spent the past 15 year perfecting. Liberty Square, or at least the idea of a Liberty Square, would rise from the dead and would be joined with the Rivers of America and Frontierland to create a vision of American progress and spirit. Wouldn’t it make sense to put The Haunted Mansion there?

Yet the selection of Liberty Square seems almost arbitrary, after having ruled out Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Adventureland right off the bat. A Haunted Mansion on Main Street was drawn in the very early days of Disneyland’s master planning, but as the area developed a haunted house on that street would more or less measure up to sacrilege. And WED wasn’t yet ready to do a Western haunted house. After all, all that interior Victorian design that had been decided on for the attraction would look preposterous in the old west.

An early idea would be to put the Haunted Mansion all alone out on Tom Sawyer’s Island, a delightfully spooky idea until one realizes that not only would the show building be impossible to hide but the attraction would be astonishingly difficult to access. Marc Davis later made statements to The E Ticket magazine in 1999 which suggest that the same concept was also shortly considered for Pirates of the Caribbean, but nothing came of those, either.

And so Liberty Square it was. The building was shoved out onto the Rivers of America as far as it could go, to isolate it and make its’ appearance in colonial America less suspect. It could almost be a part of Fantasyland. Claude Coates designed a brilliant colonial-Gothic façade and it was all systems go. Let’s just hope they don’t think about it too hard.

This is not, however, to forget the subtleties of the placement of the attraction: Disneyland’s Mansion was placed where it could be and has always looked mildly incongruous, casually placed between you and any Indian Villages / Bear Countries in the area. Perched high on a hill on the outskirts of town, metaphorically and literally placed at the intersection of history and fantasy, the Orlando mansion’s atmosphere would be expanded and replayed to great effect at Disneyland Paris.

Compared to the images of decadence, decay and general spookiness summoned up by the popular image of the dark side of Old New Orleans, Disneyland’s Mansion is perhaps perched more comfortably than the Florida property’s version ever will be, but Disney fans ought to be thankful that the Mansion was always a part of Orlando’s Phase One development – after all, we know that in Liberty Square, the Mansion is significantly longer and better rounded than the Disneyland version. More potently, we know that Pirates of the Caribbean, an attraction of equal weight, density and importance but never planned for Orlando, was botched in the afterbirth. There’s food for thought: a version of Pirates of the Caribbean east coast which is as much of an improvement on the original as all of the other Orlando Phase One attractions were over their originals.

Early Walt Disney World guidebooks would try to pass off the Mansion as an evocation of Early American superstition and folklore, and very accurately described the house as the type of building it’s easy to imagine Ichabod Crane riding past on his way toward encountering the Headless Horseman. This is probably the best and most coherent reason for the Mansion being where it is, seeing as Americans tend to associate the country’s early history with Fall, in particular Thanksgiving, and it’s an easy leap to backtrack a month to the similarly ancient tradition of Halloween (regardless of what the Pilgrims would have thought of such paganistic merrymaking).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Steamboat Willie: Cultural Contexts

"Steamboat Willie" is an undeniably important cartoon in the history of the form. Ub Iwerk's animation has a fantastic and fascinating quality, it has a number of very funny jokes and it was a huge success in 1928 when it was released with a relatively novel synchronized soundtrack. Today the Disney company makes the short readily available in a variety of mediums, yet perhaps some Disney enthusiasts who are seeing it in the 2000's for the first time are rather confused or put off by what looks like an antique by most standards. So for the novice or expert, I've collected here a number of cultural contexts relating to "Steamboat Willie".

1. Music
In 1910, popular recording artist Billy Murray released a wax cylinder recording "Casey Jones" about the famous railroad engineer who sacrificed his life to get the mail to San Francisco. The recording was incredibly popular, so much so that the demand caused the gold master to wear out and the song was recorded again several times over. Although hardly known today, anybody who has heard it will probably never forget the haunting refrain of:
Casey Jones - going to reach 'Frisco
Casey Jones - but we'll all be dead
Casey Jones - we're going to reach 'Frisco
We're going to reach 'Frisco but we'll all be dead!

Just as today, a record of this popularity will inspire knockoffs, and one of which was "Steamboat Bill", a song about essentially the same thing but with a steamboat instead of a train and a race instead of the US Mail. This is the song Mickey whistles a few bars of at the very start of the short. The recording may have had a resurgence in popularity in the late twenties as there are two synonymous 1928 films named after it: Steamboat Willie and Buster Keaton's last independent comedy, Steamboat Bill Jr. The later is now a public domain film and may be watched in its' entirety below. Although some claim that Steamboat Willie is something of a takeoff on this film, the two are negligibly similar outside of their setting.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, 71 minutes)
Casey Jones (1910, perf. Billy Murray & Chorus, Edison Blue Amberol #1550)
Steamboat Bill (1910, perf. Arthur Collins)

The main theme of the film, however, is "Turkey in the Straw", an early 19th century tune, was popularized in so-called "Minstrel Shows" of the Civil War and post-Civil War period. Although most commonly known today as being reincarnated as "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" (originally "Do Your Balls Hang Low?" - no kidding!), it was popularized by these blackface revues throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth. Fair warning: the version with vocals below would be considered "racially insensitive" today.

Turkey in the Straw (perf. Willie Eckstein on piano)
Turkey in the Straw (1898, perf. Billy Golden, vocals)

2. Style
The thing we ought to remember today is that the style of "Steamboat Willie" was not unique: cartoons and cartoon mice are all drawn more or less the same in the 20's. Neither was this the first cartoon with a soundtrack: the ingenious Fleisher Brothers had devised cartoons with soundtracks of some form as early as 1926. What made Steamboat Willie stand out was its' innovation of what we now know to be a "click track" to keep meter correct, as well as its' excellence evident in its' extensive planning and Ub Iwerk's very advanced animation.

Mysterious Mose (1930, Fleisher Brothers)
Bimbo's Initiation (1930, Fleisher Brothers)


Character design of the time: Fleisher Studios' Bimbo, Disney's Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Warner Brothers' Foxy.

I've linked to two post-Willie shorts above for two reasons: One, the animation in these is really excellent and shows that Disney's output at the time wasn't actually nearly as good as that of several competitors: a way to even the playing field, so to speak. "Bimbo's Initiation", especially, may be the best cartoon of the first half of the 1930's and makes everything Disney did prior to 1935 look dull by comparison. No, those aren't Mickey Mice in the two shorts, they're generic cartoon mice of the period. Two, it shows how, even two years after "Willie", synchronized dialog and sound effects in shorts not produced by Disney weren't always exactly on point. This is why "Steamboat Willie" was so amazing: it was so precise. Just one year earlier Al Jolson had electrified the nation in "The Jazz Singer", which was only partially sound. Along comes the third Mickey short and the synch was so perfect and novel, it became a sensation.



Everybody who cares about animation history should be horrified by this.

While we're at it, let's pop the bubble that the terminally dull "Flowers and Trees" was the first color cartoon. Here's Ub Iwerk's delightful Flip the Frog cartoon "Fiddlesticks" from 1930, in glorious two-strip Technicolor, made shortly after Ub's defecting the Disney studio.

Fiddlesticks (1930, MGM)

It's undeniable that "Steamboat Willie" is a key film in the art and for its time, and today it is still enormously entertaining and charming, but it is a product of its' time, and it is an inevitable one. It's not so much a testament to Walt Disney that he thought of making a synchronized sound cartoon so much as he was the first to get there with such excellence. That he didn't go the way of the Fleishers, of the Terry Toons, and various others is the strongest early indicator of his skill and vision as a producer. And so while it may have all started with a mouse, that mouse was a product of his time as much as the wartime shorts are a product of theirs.

Note: Some versions in circulation of Steamboat Willie are cut. The film was cut for a re-release due to demands from the newly formed Hays Office film censorship board. Since the studio was not recording such things at the time, for years the cuts were not known to Disney. Some versions cut immediately after Mickey pulls the piglets' tails. After this, he picks up the sow and shakes the piglets off, kicking one overboard in the process. Other versions cut at this point. The full version has him proceeding to play the sow's teats like accordion keys. The version on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD and standalone "Vintage Mickey" is complete. The version played in Disneyland's Main Street Cinema is the censored version.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

If You Had If You Had Wings

Walt Disney World was conceived as a vacation destination in all of its’ forms back in the late 60’s and early 70’s – all of its’ forms, contrary to what our ardent but often short-sighted emphasis on the parks would suggest – its’ four golf courses, the Shopping Village, the resorts. This came complete with, seemingly perversely to current Disney practices, plugs for possible visits to other places in the universe not hosted or colonized by the mouse.

Among these pavilions was Eastern’s If You Had Wings, a rather strange way to promote air travel, designed by master layout man Claude Coates. The attraction, by virtue of its’ maddening deployment of repetitions of elements, Buddy Baker’s theme, and its’ then-unusual free admission, has fluttered its’ way into some corner of popular American culture. The aesthetic features of the attraction were primarily composed of minimal sets into which have been inserted projected footage of people dancing, playing, fishing, plunging to their doom, etc. Practically unimaginable today, Coates’ triumph was to create a refreshingly minimal attraction, not designed to attract attention, and all the more memorable for it. The spatial continuity the projections created was essentially similar to that of the traditional television commercial, whereby passengers move from one image to another designed to evoke exotic escape with minimal “filler” between.

As a phenomenon unique to The Magic Kingdom, If You Had Wings was merely interesting. Thanks to the lineage of location, crew, and conveyance, it is often coupled with Disneyland’s Adventure Thru Inner Space, with which it shares certain visual tropes (the entry into a dark void, white images moving across a dark wall).

Yet that comparison tends to reduce its’ form and content to an extrapolation of a prior success, which in reality the work itself bears little similarity to. Adventure Thru Inner Space was a relatively straight narrative, despite the unusualality of its presentation and content, with a clear inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action. If You Had Wings is less an antecedent of Adventure Thru Inner Space as it is a precedent of EPCOT Center and the mode of informational discourse practically invented for that park. It is important here to distinguish that the attraction may be only unique in the context of its predecessors, but in terms of its progeny, it is a genuine evolution.

The survivor of If You Had Wings is/was El Rio del Tiempo, a charming if much more seemingly accidentally fantastic attraction which outlived the Claude Coates piece by perhaps 20 years. As of the writing, the attraction is down for revision, after which it will return under a new name and with presumably new elements which may or may not be faithful to the lineage of the attraction.

The only World Showcase pavilion set itself entirely inside a contained unit, and the only pavilion in EPCOT Center which makes every effort to disguise its interior nature as a natural environment, the Mexico pavilion truthfully has less to do with EPCOT Center and more to do with Disneyland’s Blue Bayou, of which it is a very clear descendant of the original “Thieves Market” concept of containing shopping and dining in a swamp setting. The realized version of the Bayou dropped the shops for a boat trough, but Mexico unites them all into a reasonably harmonious unit under the auspices of a Mexican village. For this the designers must be commended, although less so for failing to replicate the reason the Blue Bayou is so successful – the Disneyland “great indoors” sacrifices depth for width – we can forgive the visible back wall because the Bayou seems to go on forever to the left and right of us. WED Enterprises, possibly in an exploratory mood, inverts the layout, achieving brilliant depth but no sense of width whatsoever and, in effect, a vista which only looks as great as it ought to from its’ farthest vantage point.

The Mexico pavilion and truthfully all of World Showcase is a victim of gross over-
spending on the part of Disney to get EPCOT open on October 1, 1982. At least one photograph exists showing a much larger and more complex Mexico pavilion and key attraction, El Rio del Tiempo, in model form. Even promotional materials supposedly approved by Disney betray the hand of budget cuts – Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow by Richard Beard, in its extensive library edition, not only promises us a Roman Empire section of the Italy pavilion, an Equatorial Africa installation, but a special effects show on the water’s edge inside Mexico recreating the Mayan myths. At least we got the volcano. (click for larger, above)

For a troubled pavilion, Mexico comes off among the cream of the crop among EPCOT’s World Showcase pavilions, not just because of its romance, but its impeccable showmanship, designed by people who were paying attention to precedent – for pure control of a dramatic space there is nothing in EPCOT which can rival the reveal of the second Mayan temple and volcano at nightfall. The effect is achieved identically to Disney’s highly regulated reveal of the castle at the end of Main Street: guests are funneled through two portals to the left and right of an intriguing structure, then deposited in a square area which must be traversed and exited via a single channel to reveal the fantastical transformation of space and time.


Ta-daa!!!

Mexico’s designers one upped this classic manipulation of space by adding obstructing arches and terraces, prolonging the full reveal even further, and placing a full marketplace and fountain in the way, adding extra show value. The deployment of repetition, of exiting a pyramid to view a second, distant pyramid, gives the transition a magical feeling. Furthermore, an emotional variation was added by making the square space, rather than a town square, a somber temple interior (originally) devoted to Mexico’s ancient cultures - not without a touch of menace - breaking up the lushly romantic exterior and interior with a moment of doubt, while also effortlessly advancing the rather obtuse concept of forcing visitors to walk the cultural evolution of Mexico. Even more remarkably, this tonal shift was repeated on the interior boat ride without seeming stale. This pavilion was built by people who knew about theme design.

El Rio del Tiempo, a holdover from a transitional phase in Mexico’s culture when it was deemed to be the next probable First World country, paints a rosy portrait of Mexico’s present and future that strikes many riders as dated or offensive. The past is treated with an aura of mystery and magic, and the Colonial period infantilized into a literal clone of It’s A Small World. But, like the rest of EPCOT, its form was unique and sophisticated – another maze of projected, filmed loops which rendered transitional space as essentially irrelevant set dressing. El Rio’s sets were more complex and emotional than If You Had Wings’, but the effect was similar, even including a maddeningly simple theme and a flat-on-the-floor rear projected image of a scuba diver (this was included in Horizons as well and both can be considered a nod to the Coates attraction).


Now, imagine they're Animatronics. See?

Like good designers, however, WED’s Mexico pavilion team wasn’t ready to merely repeat a success, and pulled in out of Disney history was a striking influence evident from The Three Caballeros, the 1946 Disney Studio release which was partially devoted to Mexico and took the form of a modified travelogue – much like If You Had Wings and El Rio del Tiempo. Exactly like El Rio, Caballeros features reappropriated live action footage of tourist areas, beaches, and merchants. Much of the motifs of pure romance, of night-time festivals and a fireworks finale is repeated. The influence is so extensive that both works include a Mary Blair inspired segment. This is, incidentally, why this author is not chafing at Disney’s attempt to integrate the two properties – they are aesthetically related, if not practically identical.


Aesthetic lineage between Three Caballeros & El Rio del Tiempo

El Rio del Tiempo as not a perfect work, with its’ brevity and poor decisions often under-
mining strong concepts – the opening segment, for example, featuring the story of early Mexican cultures told through dance. Since this is never explained to the viewers, what guests tended to see was exactly what was presented… people in strange costumes dancing to comic effect. The best touch in the whole segment – the final screen of Moctezuma contemplating a falling star which foretells the doom of his empire – was utterly lost.

Following this segment with a literal and tacky Small World reference (a friend of the author’s once called El Rio “It’s a Third World After All”), and then proceeding to show primarily Gringos enjoying the Mexican tourism trade, further dampened the mystery of the opening Peppers Ghost effect. Beard’s book assures us the design team was composed primarily of Mexican-Americans, but very little of this seems evident in the final result. And besides the incomprehensible finale where the Mexican people were portrayed as puppets on a carousel, the final scenes placed a strange emphasis on souvenirs one could purchase in Mexico (it was the last thing you saw), turning the whole presentation into a very overt sell where none was expected. At least If You Had Wings put its commercial value up front, even offering an Eastern reservation desk at the exit.

But the attraction still exerted a vibrant and wonderful mystery, a livelihood, and a thankfully short line. And it lived on, for years and years, outliving not only If You Had Wings, but that attraction’s similarly aviation themed replacement, Dreamflight. Its continued existence seemed to be mostly validated by the adjacent restaurant’s popularity, while throughout EPCOT many promising additions, such as Meet the World and Equatorial Africa, failed to materialize. As one of the last pieces of EPCOT Center left untouched after 25 years, by the time of the attraction’s closure, its time has clearly come. The only surprise is that it didn’t come during the “EPCOT Center Apocalypse” phase of 1994 – 1998.


Its importance can be summarized in its’ successful collection of many WED tropes under one roof for the first time: utilizing spatiality, the interior exterior, and uniting two Presentational attraction predecessors (If You Had Wings and It’s A Small World) into one blend, El Rio was perhaps the last attraction to come out of Disney’s “Magic Window” school of attraction design for many years, and the last minor attraction to come out of the Presentationalism style in the classical period to close. It will be missed.

October 1, 1982 – January 1, 2007