Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Integrity

"I've always said that there will never be another Disneyland, and I think it's going to work out that way. [...] This concept here will have to be something that is unique, so there is a distinction between Disneyland in California and whatever Disney does in Florida." - You-Know-Who
Walt Disney World is now forty years old. That's two entire generations - a lot of water under the bridge. Forty years is long enough for Walt Disney World to, in human terms, grow up, go to school, get a doctorate, have several children, and a mid-life crisis. Now... Disneyland is going to turn fifty-seven in July, a even more impressive number to be sure. But you know what? The difference in time between the opening of Disneyland in California and Magic Kingdom in Florida is now, frankly, insignificant. The time that elapsed between these two dates - from July 17, 1955, to October 1, 1971 - is sixteen years, two months, and fourteen days. Babies born on Disneyland's opening day were not yet drinking age when the Magic Kingdom opened. And now we're forty years on from that.

Let me put that it even more context. If we took the length of time between the opening of Disneyland and Walt Disney World and subtracted it from today, we'd land at or about in December of 1995. Toy Story is the movie hit of the holiday season. Earlier that summer, Die Hard With a Vengeance and Goldeneye were the summer blockbusters. I bet most of you reading this have a pretty clear memory of 1995. Better than 1955 or 1971, at least.

Put simply: Walt Disney World is old, and Disneyland is only - slightly - older. I bring this up because it's time that we start thinking in long terms about Walt Disney World instead of short term. Yes, ticket prices will go up again this year, stupid things will be built, and that silly little food hut over by Frontierland will try to cut back their menu again. But these are, in the long term, passing things. Moreover, there's an attitude about the differences between Disneyland and Magic Kingdom that is simply no longer historically tenable.

Disney is a west coast organization. They may have been founded by Midwest boys, but all of their major corporate infrastructure, most of their executives, employees, and people who sweep up around the Corporate HQ - they're California kids. And because Disneyland is in California, because the culture of California is super isolationist, and because Disneyland was the first Disney theme park, the natural tendency is to say that Disneyland is the super special, historically interesting, most unique, Walt Disney-approved park.

But, you know, forty years is a long time. And Walt Disney World did not exist in a vacuum those forty years. She has a lot of interesting history too, even if that history did not always invariably involve Walt Disney.... although he was there too. But Walt Disney World very much exists in the shadow of Disneyland, despite Disneyland being hardly large enough to cast a shadow to consume the whole place. There's a lot of stuff to talk about there, as the last five years of my blogging here have tried to suggest. I've been at this blog for five years and I've hardly talked about EPCOT Center - 1982 - or even so much as broken the 1990's.

Disneyland is California pop culture and Disney is a California company, so Walt Disney World history has largely been obfuscated, ignored, and stymied by her own company. I say this as a Walt Disney World researcher, and an independent one, too - I've spent years scrambling after scraps, half-remembered facts, and dead end rumors. Truthfully, the spread of social media has turned out to be the key to connecting myself with like-minded individuals from far-flung corners of the country, and allowed us to pool our resources and expertise. Disney is doing very little to help our cause. And while Disneyland is being treated to triumphant restorations and returns of classic attractions; built, marketed, and sold as loving tributes to the illustrious past; Walt Disney World is.... well....

What Walt Disney World is doing is it's being drawn towards the center of the storm like it's the eye of a tornado, or maybe, a hurricane. That eye is Disneyland. Disneyland has become the officially sanctioned, corporate approved, regardless-of-all else Norm. And in that process, these California kids are gradually sucking the unique culture out of Walt Disney World.

Take, for example, the Jungle Cruise. When I worked at the Jungle Cruise, from time to time, WDI would send over a new spiel for us to learn. Very often, this spiel was by and large copy-pasted from a pre-existing spiel... one meant for Disneyland, asking us to make jokes about baboons on the veldt who were never installed, show scenes in the Disneyland queue installed in 1994, or other such non-sequiturs. This made it very difficult for us to follow the script, but moreover it showed how out of touch Disney could be with their own history. And especially it showed no regard for the idea that unique coastal joke traditions may have been created at the Jungle Cruise in Florida in the past three decades.

Clearly the same man.
This came to a head several years back when new scripts were distributed to be followed at all costs - no exceptions allowed. This was after my time, but I've spoken to several friends about it. Both Jungle rides have always ended with a bare-chested 'native' peddling shrunken heads, although they could not be more different visually. Accordingly, over the years the Florida skippers began calling the figure "Chief Namee" instead of the scripted "Salesman Sam". Now they, and all new skippers call him "Trader Sam" - the same name used at Disneyland since the scene's inception. And another tiny scrap of Walt Disney World tradition is thrown away.

A more recent example, if you don't mind. In 1971, Magic Kingdom opened "The Enchanted Tiki Birds in a Tropical Serenade", just one of a complex of Adventureland features sponsored by Florida Citrus Growers. Although the actual tiki bird show was the same one - aurally - as "Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room" at Disneyland, visually the theater was an entirely new experience, quite different from the intimate little room which still plays on at Disneyland. It was technologically quite different too, with all new figures performing all new actions for the Florida show, beautifully animated by Wathel Rogers, as technology had come quite far between 1963 and 1971. And it was prefaced with a unique preshow, wrapped inside a unique new building, and followed by a new "post-show": The Sunshine Tree Terrace, where orange cheesecake, orange soft serve, and orange chiffon pie were served. The entire complex had its' own name - The Sunshine Pavilion - and even its own mascot, the Florida Orange Bird. It had its own Dedication on October 20, 1971, alongside the Contemporary and Polynesian Village hotels. This was a new show designed for a new, and important, sponsor.

Almost as much fun as New Years' Eve in the orange groves
The show itself was returned to us last year, but the name was not. Now it was "Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room", the same name of the original Disneyland attraction, as if "Tropical Serenade's" life cycle could be conveniently swept under the rug. Although the unique preshow returned, the original 1971 holding area music compiled by Jack Wagner just for the Sunshine Pavilion did not. Instead, that same piece of music that has been playing for about a decade outside Disneyland's bird show took its place. Disneyland has again replaced Walt Disney World history. All of this is especially ludicrous because the 1971 Sunshine Pavilion loop circulates online amongst collectors and is not especially hard to find. This could have been obtained, for free, after probably less than an hour of searching.

You probably see what I'm getting at here, but I'd like to go on.

Pirates of the Caribbean's 2006 movie tie-in reboot happened at Disneyland and Walt Disney World on parallel time lines. It's no surprise that Disneyland's version got all the love and attention, since it's a brilliant ride, but that doesn't excuse what happened in the Florida version. The Barker Bird outside the attraction was removed - a unique Florida Pirates feature with a unique Florida Pirates history. Absolutely nobody connected with the refurbishment has ever managed to explain to me why this happened, it just did. He was removed and was last seen -- at Disneyland, promoting the fourth film last year. At the same time, the Florida "talking skull" figure was removed, although Disneyland's similar figure was not. Again, nobody seems to know why - it just happened.

But the real thing that proved that a lot of these people were Disneyland kids imposing their Disneyland-centric views on a ride they were not familiar with happened in the queue, and again it was a piece of music. The Disneyland and Walt Disney World queues could not be less similar...

...and so, those 1973 Pirates designers, the same ones who did the beloved Disneyland show, elected to use a unique, spookier piece of music in part of the new queue instead of Bruns' sprightly Pirates Overture, a piece called the Pirates Arcade music, which was far slower with some eerie segments, perfect to set up the attraction to follow.

...but moreover, this music then faded out, giving way to a very carefully thought out textural sound scape, with several unique pieces of audio echoing down those corridors to unique effect. In 2006, the Pirates Overture was thoughtlessly dropped in to the 1973 queue, and worse yet, it plays through the entire queue instead of just in the spots WED intended. In one careless move, a careful and intentional choice was obliterated in favor of a direct lift from Disneyland and, on top of that, the Overture plays now through the entire queue, drowning out the original 1973 sound scape. Disneyland history replaces Walt Disney World history yet again.

One final example. In the 2007 Haunted Mansion refurbishment, which was in many many ways tasteful and carefully done, this same Disneyland infection struck. The main site here in the Corridor of Doors scene.

The Florida Corridor was pretty barren compared to the Disneyland version, which always had those cool framed "family photos" of ghouls. I have no conclusive evidence, but I believe Claude Coats left these out of the Florida version on purpose. It is certainly one of the few exclusions in a version of the Haunted Mansion which included so many expansions and reproductions, so its absence is both unique and remarkable. Furthermore, instead of the amber and blue lights from the Disneyland version of the scene, the Florida Corridor of Doors scene was lit in a pallid and uncomfortable red, created by special red globes placed over the hurricane glass lamp chandeliers.  The entire scene was capped with a new gag not present in the Disneyland version, with a pair of hands prying off the corner of the final door.

Those red globes - a photo from 1999
 Now, I don't know why Coats did all this, but it has all the earmarks of being intentional. Perhaps he disliked the way the ghoul photos distract you eye away from the doors? And the red light made the corridor feel more claustrophobic than it really was - the red walls signaling danger unconsciously to the mind. The doors were painted a strange green-grey to appear brown under the red light, just like all the other doors elsewhere in the attraction. The 2007 refurbishment crew added the long-missing ghoul photos, but they removed all the red light and, for good measure, took the ghoul hands off that last door. Now the scene was just like Disneyland's - the way it was always meant to be.



They very probably undid Claude Coats' carefully planned intentions in the process.

Now, I have this to say, and I love Disneyland dearly, but when it comes to Walt Disney World -- to hell with Disneyland.

Disneyland has a colorful and unique history. But so does Walt Disney World, and Walt Disney World's history has been slowly whittled away these past few years by thoughtless and presumptive choices, choices held up only by ignorance of the unique local culture of the Florida park.
WDI has the resources available to make these decisions, and do the research, but I suspect the research doesn't get done because the assumption is that there is no research to do. It takes very little effort to make those forty years of history go away in a poof. Historical preservation is a creative act - it takes someone who recognizes the value of the history to want to save it. And the much-maligned and uncreative boilerplate moniker "DisneyParks", implying an interchangeability between all Disney outdoor entertainment, becomes more true each day.

WED East, 1972
To some of you, my above examples probably seem like minor things to you, and they are, but they're minor and meaningful things that hit me very close to home. Because, you know, in broad outlines, Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom are pretty similar - they both have castles, haunted houses, pirate rides, fancy malls at their entrances, and world of fantasy tucked away in back. It's the small things that make the park - like the smell of Country Bear Jamboree, that thick perfume of sawdust and motor oil, or the unique sound of the station brake at Big Thunder Mountain, that distinctive and Florida-unique hiss.

Walt Disney World needs to start thinking long-term now, now that forty years have breezed past. They need to seek out and maintain a roster of talent who know and have Walt Disney World bound into their blood and every fiber of their body the way Disneyland does. So far, the last two decades they've been content with Marriott hotel managers and accountants, people who don't see past the ends of their own nose. And lots of being led around by the wrist by Disneyland. But Walt Disney World, she isn't the second Disneyland. She's the first Walt Disney World. And she needs to start acting like it.

Relevant Addendum: Michael at Progress City, USA weighs in eloquently on this piece.