Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Branch Beyond the Window and Other Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(excerpt of a larger photo by rocket9 on flickr)

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

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

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

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

Or the beautiful dim pink light overlooking Town Square:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Seven Years Good Luck

Normally, I'm not really one to mark this blog's anniversary beyond the end-of-the-year recap. Some of this is because I don't really think anniversaries of things like websites is much to get excited about, and some of this is because the anniversary awkwardly comes in August, usually right when I'm busy with other things. But of course, those first few months don't really count because 1) the articles are terrible, and 2) I didn't really have a "vision" for this site until November, when I posted the two parts of "Two Shows By Marc Davis". I really got into those, and they set the standard (and style) for my own approach in the following years. When I noticed that we are now coming up on the seven-year anniversary (!) of the publication of those articles, and that this is concurrent with the 200th post on the blog, I figured it was high time to say something.

Passport to Dreams Old & New, whose title is a nod to Delta Dreamflight and which I probably should've changed in its first year, began on a lark. Upon moving to Orlando in 2003 I had allowed my old Haunted Mansion website to sit fallow, and in the intervening three years had found my relationship to the place, and to The Magic Kingdom in particular, to be shifting unpredictably. One of the odd things about a theme park is that when you are, yes, there on vacation, although you're definitely experiencing the place as it exists you're also experiencing some other place that doesn't really exist outside your head; where expectation and memory blur out much of the particulars.

In short after moving "to Disney" full time I had to learn how to truly see the place, and that involved going a lot, and going so much that both excitement and novelty finally wore out. In those first few years I was probably at Disney 3 or 4 days out of the week. Inevitably, that intoxicating freedom of being able to be there whenever I desired  soured to boredom.

And that probably would've been that for most people: I had my cake, ate it all, and would've moved on -- except I didn't. I found that the place was changing again, and now instead of a series of emotionally or ritualistically charged spaces, Walt Disney World was becoming something I could see on a micro or macro scale. Now that the urgent initiative to ride Space Mountain had been exhausted enough for a lifetime, I began to find new games to play with Walt Disney World, and the more games I played, the more my appreciation deepened.

In short I did things that no sane person on vacation would try to do at Disney. I spent a day where I made in my business to inspect every door knob and hinge at Magic Kingdom or EPCOT. I spent a full afternoon doing nothing but wandering World Showcase and staring at the way the ceilings of each shop or restaurant were painted. I rode the Haunted Mansion a lot. I found myself getting passionately involved with things like the Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree. I found that instead of an empty bag of tricks, the more I dug the more rewarding the place got. Combined with my increasing interest in Walt Disney World history, which circa 2005 had fairly limited coverage online, I started to see Walt Disney World in a way that few can.

None of this was really on my mind when I decided to experiment with this "blog" thing. There wasn't really much of anything to go on back then that may have dissuaded me. There was The Disney Blog, for news - a sort of outgrowth of those early hub sites like Laughing Place - but my main inspiration came from a duo of wildly influential early "single issue" blogs: Re-Imagineering and Epcot Central. I saw that a well-written article could change opinions, and that these opinions and ideas could (theoretically) start to circulate up through the fan community and, eventually, up through the company. I got to work. My instrument was a site called blogger and my thesis was that theme parks were art.

Around the same time, Jeff Pepper started 2719 Hyperion, which was the earliest example of what I think of as the well-rounded Disney blog, freely mixing up history, nostalgia, observation and review. In 2007, a rash of other blogs sprouted up - Main Street Gazette, Imaginerding, Progress City USA, If You Can Dream It, and more, and the blog as a major organizing influence in the Disney community took off.

It's interesting to consider that as recently as ten years ago, what we now know as a Disney blog didn't really exist. What did exist was articles on host sites that fell into two camps: Walt Disney World vacation planning, and park updates. The vacation planners have always had and will always have the biggest slice of the pie: the vast majority of people who go to WDW, and even those who go once or twice a year, spend no time engaging the fan community. These "cyclical" fans tend to have heat-up and cool-off periods of several months surrounding a trip, then simply drop off the community and don't think about Disney until they start planning their next trip. The truly successful sites - like Disney Food Blog - cater to this huge demographic of "planners" while also providing regular content for locals and regularly involved fans. I'm not in this group - if you've made it all the way to Passport to Dreams, you are either a hardcore fan or an interested party, which is why I can take certain things for granted in my writing. But the writing found here will always be a niche thing.

The fact that most serious Disney writing is inherently niche is the reason why you've seen more and more blogs joining umbrella sites like MiceAge - the park updates and vacation planning drives attendance, and the niche authors drive the content. And although I've considered it, I've never felt that my writing belonged on such a site - for one thing I'm unable to write to a deadline and for another, my stuff has always been a hobby for me, not a vocation. Once I stop having fun, Passport will die.

The good news is that this extended project doesn't yet have an apparent end date; in fact, this past year has been unusually active at Passport. I've finally created those sub-pages with navigation bars to steer readers towards the popular topics on the right, hopefully making seven years of my rambling earlier to sort through. My video posts have been very popular, so they will continue, and you can see additional weird stuff on my YouTube channel, including shots and angles that don't get the full edited treatment but still function as documentation. And still the words flow on.

In many ways I've avoided writing one of these celebratory posts for so long for the same reasons that are probably evident in this piece itself: there's little worth saying that can't already be said in the essays anyway. So instead of extending this least essential of essays, I thought I'd take the time to point out a few personal favorite pieces, some popular and some perhaps overlooked, and offer some notes on each:

Buena Vista Obscura: The World Cruise - 2011 - As far as a straight WDW history primer goes, I think this is my peak moment, and even moreso in that the history of this attraction was already in danger of being totally lost. It took me many years to even find somebody who knew anything about The World Cruise and laying out the sad history of the Seven Seas Lagoon sidewheelers was a long but fruitful process. As much as anything here, I'm proud to have rescued this obscurity for the ages.

Go Away Green - 2012 - Every year I try to do what I call a "micro-attention" piece, where I go take photos of very minor parts of theme parks and use them to build large stories about design. I think this is the best of these, about hiding things in plain sight.

Riding the Haunted Screen - 2013 - This piece from early this year seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, and it's not hard to guess why, as it's a) nearly 10,000 words long, and b) spends forever getting around to anything "Disney", spending nearly half its bulk outlining the development of the American supernatural thriller. I think that's a shame, because I worked hard to lay out my theories with full support, and this one was very much a labor of love. Give it another shot with a big spoonful of patience. Which makes it something of a companion piece to our next highlight from early this year:

Death of a Moonwalker: Captain EO - 2013 - laugh if you must but this one is, as of right now, my favorite essay on this site. It isn't so much because of my affection for Captain EO as it is the challenge of neither praising too much nor damning too little something I love dearly but also think is a ludicrous cultural train wreck. It's hard to write something that makes a case for anything by enumerating the virtues of its faults, but both technically and emotionally I've come nearest to writing the article I imagined here than at any other point in the past seven years. My objective was to provide a new perspective for both those who love and those who hate this controversial show, and I'm immensely proud of Death of a Moonwaker.

Three Jungle Cruise Mysteries - 2012 - I like to think this site is second to none at unpacking obscure WDW minutia, and this continuing saga of that one random Jungle Cruise staircase is some of the most fun I've ever had over-turning stones. I've also kept it updated over the years, adding more material as it's uncovered, so you can tell this is a subject dear to my heart.

Start to Shriek and Harmonize - 2011 - if the Haunted Mansion is the one subject I'll never truly escape then I think this essay is my finest moment on the subject. It's hard to find things that are disliked in this ultimate cult attraction, but those pop-up heads come the nearest to being universally panned as cheap or unimaginative. And that's where the story begins.....

Buena Vista Obscura: Johnny's Corner - 2012 - There is remarkably little online information about Central Florida before the Disney invasion began, although newspapers and magazines of the era paint a vivid picture of a near-panicked population and a mad gold rush on land. This is one of my proudest moments because the story stretches from the era following World War I up to our present day, using a little country store as a window into other times, and making the past seem to be a real, shared experience is what good historical writing should be all about.

The Case For The Florida Pirates - 2010 - I could easily instead have directed you to the overall perhaps much more serious companion piece to this essay, written about the Disneyland version of the ride, but much as with the Captain EO post included above, I'm somehow more partial to this essay, which attempts to draw out the positive qualities of the worst version of my favorite ride. That may seem strange or even counter-intuitive, but despite the reputation it carries, the Florida Pirates strikes me as a fascinating failure. I actually once submitted Fire In The Night as a writing sample to a degree program, so I clearly think it's no slouch, but overall I'm prouder of flying here against the grain and against common sense, and coming out with a darn good piece at the end of the gauntlet. Revisit it and think again about the reasons why we classify attractions, or any art pieces, as failures.

And in the end, in the face of such a torrent of words, what else can truly be said except thank you?

When I think of Passport to Dreams, I think of a truly valuable personal pastime which has put me in position to write some seriously rewarding material and also put me in touch with like-minded fantastic individuals the world over. What more can be expected from a silly little blog? Here's to many more!

This article juxtaposes photographs taken in my first months in Florida in  2003 with those taken last month.  What has ten years done to you?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sunrise Over the Polynesian

Here's a somewhat dispiriting paradox for you: the Walt Disney World theme parks are at their most beautiful when nobody can see them.

This isn't really by design, mind you. Once the last guests roll out of the park at night and the various facilities power down and turn their work lights on, and bit by bit as third shift rolls in, the "show lights" which make places like Magic Kingdom and EPCOT so beautiful at night turn off. Trucks and cars replace pedestrians. Even the street lights turn off, and the theme parks become dark, even beautifully sinister places. Many third shift employees bring their own stereos, and a patchwork of FM radios and CDs replaces the familiar peppy background music. Electrical generators create pools of light for projects amid the stark darkness, and sidewalks are hosed down. The parks become dark and dripping places.

Pre-Dawn sky, 2005
Then, gradually, the sky turns midnight blue and this strange place begins to turn back into the place we know, and that's when it happens. The open Florida pre-dawn sky gives way to a beautiful, indirect yelllow sunlight, somewhat like the light Disneyland gets out West in the first part of their day, and pockets of humidity become a gentle ground fog that settles over bodies of water. If the parks ever open at 7 am or 8 am around Christmas, some of the very end of this may be observed. By 10:00 am the air gets hot and humid and the light turns that Florida white-hot and the day truly has begun.

Pre-Opening Sunlight
As a Cast Member I savored these hours before the madness truly descended. Seeing the parks so clean and so empty and so lovely was a reward that made up for the pathetic monetary compensation, and I could see it whenever I wanted. I wish I could get there so easily still, but the parks are not open to those who don't work there in those morning hours, meaning I mostly have my memories and a handful of photos to guide me.

But, you know, you can go to the resorts whenever you want, and late last month I did just that. The Polynesian Village hasn't changed much since 1980 but appears to be next up on the block for Disney Vacation Club expansion, the same fate which brought us a huge tower sitting beside the Contemporary. Although hopefully the Polynesian iteration will be less destructive to original design elements than others have been - they have, after all, nearly no space to work with - it felt imperative to capture something of the feel of this easterly portion of the resort on the eve of the start of construction. Working steadily for about 45 minutes, I was able to capture a mostly unbroken sunrise over the Old Polynesian.

This is the edited version. Compared to some of my other videos, I've done very little to this footage - no music to accompany it, no reshuffling of shots - I did abridge certain shots with fades, but allowing for the fact that this condenses an hour of material into six minutes, it's as close to a real-time sunrise as you can get without being there.

I like the unedited feel of it - the true look and sound of a remarkable place coming online. My overall goal in these videos is to capture that dimension that motion pictures are capable of but photos aren't always - that sense of place and time and, like the Lumiere shots of Parisian street scenes, I've found that the camera plunked down somewhere and allowed to simply record can capture pools of magic. Listen carefully here, and you can hear the Walt Disney World Railroad being brought on the tracks across the lagoon, deliveries being made at the Polynesian, and more.

It's not quite like going into Magic Kingdom on your off day to watch the sun rise over Cinderella Castle, but it's close.

And check out my YouTube page for more videos, including unedited single-shots and some shorter edited sequences.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Raising - or Lowering? - the Dead

It's that eternal bit of Disneyland/Walt Disney World trivia that we can no longer escape. Everyone knows it by now. Even Steve Birnbaum put it in his earliest Official Guides, and it's given the unimaginative Walt Disney World tour guide slightly interesting material for lo these forty-two years: did you know that the stretching rooms in the Haunted Mansion go up at Walt Disney World and go down at Disneyland?

Yes. We know. Everybody knows. I'm sure children have this fact implanted in their brains at birth by now.

Where this factoid gains some life is when we inquire as to why the Stretch Room at the Haunted Mansion goes up instead of down at all, and most will readily respond: "oh, it's because of Florida's high water table!"

But I don't buy it.

Why? Well I'd first like to point out that Orlando, at the very center of the Florida peninsula, is in fact not at sea level. In fact, although Florida is indeed much nearer the water than many other parts of the country, Orlando sits a comfortable 90 feet above sea level.

Yeah, that isn't much, is it. Still don't share my skepticism? Well, let me then point out that the Magic Kingdom isn't built at ground level. There's those famous Utilidors underneath it, remember? The Utilidors are built at ground level, and walking around Magic Kingdom is very much like walking on the roof of a building. So that adds another fifteen feet, and even if the Haunted Mansion's lowest foundation is about level with the Utilidor, its facade and entrance is nowhere near ground level.

Not only that, but Magic Kingdom is actually built on multiple levels above ground level. As you walk up Main Street, there is actually an almost subliminal uphill slope before arriving at the Hub area. This makes Main Street seem longer from one end and shorter from the other, but the slope is so subtle I needed a level to show it:

Similarly, Liberty Square is entirely situated on a north-south incline, with the Haunted Mansion at the highest point and the Diamond Horseshoe at the lowest point. That's why you can get such an impressive picture of the Mansion from Frontierland:

Fantasyland is located on a plateau high above the rest of the park to get that welcoming forward sweep of the walkway to the castle that John Hench wanted. As the highest point in the park, this view allows us to directly contrast it with the lowest point in the park, which is the moat and Jungle Cruise. The height of this stonework wall is the vertical distance the park covers on pedestrian paths.

It's a Small World, Haunted Mansion's nearest neighbor, is actually buried a good ten feet underground, and below the water level is yet more concrete and earth nowhere near the original ground level. The gauge for the pedestrian level here is the bottom of the windows to the right:

To put it simply: the further south any one ride is at Magic Kingdom, the lower its elevation. The further north it is, the higher its elevation. In 1968, WED Enterprises placed three attractions on the very northern edge of the park: The Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and I do not believe that those choices were accidental.

So, you ask, so what? So that old "water table" thing is just a myth, so what?

Well, then why do the stretch rooms go up instead of down? Doesn't that still warrant an explanation? Think of it this way: the Haunted Mansion was, in 1971, still a relatively new attraction for Disney. They had just come off a ten year development cycle on it, and it had opened to a wild success at Disneyland. For Florida the plan was to make it bigger and better, but why would they bother to re-engineer the first major show scene? Wouldn't it make sense to simply replicate the original design, lift and all, especially since it was so successful and popular?

And don't get me wrong: it's an entirely different design. The Disneyland elevator room is a complex design like a telescope, where the rider car (the floor) pulls the walls down in three distinct stages. At Magic Kingdom, the whole thing is basically run on ropes and pulleys. Although it looks impressive on stage, the operation is actually fairly quaint. It's more like pottery making apparatus than a special effect.

Disneyland Showtime: a model door for the WDW Mansion
And all of this was being done post-haste. The entirety of WED was deep into planning and building the Magic Kingdom by 1968, and the Haunted Mansion was "cloned" nearly immediately. Consider this: when you're watching Disneyland Showtime, the famous Disneyland episode where Kurt Russell takes us behind the scenes of the ride, what we see being constructed is the Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion at WED in December of 1969 - the special aired in February 1970. In most photographs of the Magic Kingdom under construction, Haunted Mansion is the furthest along, and in fact reached the finish line first. She was ready to go.

Wouldn't the abbreviated schedule be an additional incentive to replicate the elevator? Was that ever the original plan?

Let me introduce you to the Haunted Mansion that was almost built.

The Importance of Style

Have you ever noticed that Disney likes to localize the Haunted Mansion in upstate New York, specifically in the Hudson River Valley and typifying whatever "Dutch Gothic" is? This is probably because this open, wooded region has deep Americana associations with Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman, but the house itself really doesn't seem to visually reflect anything specifically New England or upstate New York. It's more Old World than Old Cider Barrel. I think the Hudson River Dutch Gothic name-drop began very early in the pre-planning for WDW and was simply never really weeded out.

Let's unpack this for a moment. For one thing, a Dutch colonial mansion would've necessitated an estate built in the early seventeenth century, a full two-hundred years ahead of the Gothic revival house we got. And since practically nothing of the original New Amsterdam settlement remains, I think we can disqualify anything specifically "Dutch" about Disney's intentions - it's just an evocative phrase, meant to summon up an old house in the oldest part of the country, the Hudson, which flows out to sea at the port now known as New York.

Because so little of the Dutch colonial effort of the 1600's remains today, you're not going to get very far if you go looking for specific Mansion connections. However, you can see real-world Dutch influences that have survived the years. Here's an early photo of the Fairbanks House in Massachussetts, which is from 1637 and is basically the oldest house in America. The Dutch influence can be seen on the right-hand wing:

Of course, Dutch Colonials are still built today. The most famous haunted house in America is one; I'm sure you'll recognize it:

Trying to chase down the Dutch connection is a fool's errand. We're simply in the wrong style and wrong period. And while I'll bite into Gothic Revival more fully a bit later, it's worth keeping that question mark about Disney's old phrase lurking in midair just long enough to suggest that, in our minds, I think we're meant to think of the Mansion as built, with its widow's walks, tower, and proximity to the Columbia Harbor House to be more of a grand seaside horror mansion in the Cat and the Canary tradition. Imagine it atop a rocky buff with the crashing waves of a midnight storm lashing the coast below.

"Upstate New York, eh? Come inside for Buffalo Wings!"
Of course, Hudson River Valley could still work. Disney amusingly built a near-perfect replica of Sunnyside, the estate of Washington Irving, at the front of Liberty Square and called it Sleepy Hollow Refreshments, so somebody was doing their Hudson River Valley research in WED.

Roughly contemporary with the style, date, and location of the Haunted Mansion is this real-world derelict New York Mansion, Wyndcliffe, built in 1853:

Urban Ghosts
I think it's fair to say that the Haunted Mansion as we have it isn't traceable to any one specific visual source - in the way that the Hall of Presidents is modeled on Indepedence Hall, for example - and is more of a fantasy creation.

Whereas this really is a Hudson River Valley mansion:

As far as I know this piece was not widely known as being a painting of the Haunted Mansion until 2003, when it was published in The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies by Jason Surrell. In that book Surrell seems to brush it off as an unrealized concept, but this concept actually came very very close to reality. And notice: there are guests gathering outside on the porch and being let in through a door in the facade, exactly like at Disneyland. This requires a house on a hill and an elevator.

Disney had foundations for the Mansion laid in 1969 - among the earliest work done on the Florida property, since it could be done at the same time as the start of the Utilidor entrance. In most construction photos of the Magic Kingdom, which is to say most photos published where there's something to look at, you can see the Haunted Mansion show building sitting there all set - except for the facade. In Florida they did the opposite of what was done in California - they built the ride first and the house last.

Early 1969 - Haunted Mansion (nearest foundation) goes vertical with the Utilidor
Mansion (upper left) getting nearly complete while the rest of the park is hollow boxes
Facade finally goes up as the park rises.

Assuming that the interior show was ready to go out of WED in Glendale in the first few months of 1970, the interior "show finish" - animated props, set surfaces, ride track and all of that - would've been ready by mid 1970, a date which is supported by Tony Baxter's recollection that the Haunted Mansion was basically ready a full year ahead of schedule. Given this time frame, isn't it suspicious that they waited so long to build the facade?

Here's a late 60s colored elevation of the original Mansion facade, probably by Claude Coats, courtesy of Widen Your World. Although the theme park faithful will automatically know this, please keep in mind that this is a colored-in blueprint, not a piece of concept art:

Please expand that and note that there is a separate notation for the elevation of the unload area at the bottom right. As built, the WDW Mansion enters, loads, unloads and exits on the same elevation.

Okay, let's figure out what we are looking at here. We have a facade with two wings. On either side of the facade are porches that are probably waiting areas. Past the waiting areas we have shade structures that terminate in boxy square entryways, much like the one seen in the piece of concept art above. The curved shade structures and entryways would've housed ticket collection boxes and turnstiles, very much like the one that actually was built in 1971:

I'm somewhat hazy on how a double-sided operation would've worked here, because there's only one entry door - it's the green door on the left side. Still, the 1971 turnstile shelter and curved holding area are well designed, even if they're no longer used as intended: the holding area accommodates exactly 90 people, which is the idea load size for both the Foyer and Stretch Room. All the ticket takers had to do in 1971 was to fill the holding area, stop the line, allow the group to clear the holding pen, then fill it again.

There's a few other nice details about this 1968 facade. Notice the two cupolas on the roof - one for each Stretch Room. We can see the entrance columns for the "Haunted Mansion" plaques down in front and, one assumes, gate and fence, as well as a sloping front lawn leading up to the doors. In short, this would've been very much like the Disneyland Haunted Mansion's entry and queue, which was at the time these plans were drawn up being reworked to add additional queueing capacity. The overall visual tone, however, is very close to what was built - Dutch cornerstones, red brick, lots of stone, slate roof. There's just a few too many trellises on the roof for comfort, and those sharp spires on the entry ways look violent. Even more tellingly, every window is shuttered... this place is creepy. It's only slightly creepier than the Disneyland facade - about 10% on the sliding creepy scale - but enough to look seriously intimidating.

In case the concept art and the elevation weren't enough, here's a good view of it on a Magic Kingdom site schematic from March 1969, while the Show Building was already into vertical construction:

And two courtesy Widen Your World, from late 1969 and early 1970:

And then that's it. In early 1970, the trail simply stops. The earliest blueprint depicting the facade as it was built that I can find dates from March 1970. Some of the other Magic Kingdom blueprints continue to use this outdated layout into mid or late 1970. But that's it. By early 1970, Claude Coats had colored a new elevation for the Florida Haunted Mansion:

Examining the Layout

Okay, let's get detailed here. Looking at the 1968 elevation, we can identify the various pieces of operational infrastructure:

And, as we know, this is the layout for the Haunted Mansion facade area as built:

What's interesting is that when you get right down to it, the layout has not been altered at all. Try lining up both elevations to compare; how different is this, in reality?

I think what happened is that once Claude Coats knew he would have to re-design the facade to sit at the same level as the load area, he simply transposed the layout down. The second ticket and holding area would now be useless as well as in the way of the exit door, which would now sit at the same level as the entrance door, so he got rid of it.

The Florida Haunted Mansion facade is really a pretty ingenious case of form following function; in this case; the form was already determined by an aborted elevator configuration. The Florida facade is actually very tiny; only large enough to accommodate the stretch rooms. The Foyer area is disguised as a stone pedestal that the house sits on, and it's buried in dirt on two sides, further disguising its function. This construction photo, paired with the layout above, pretty clearly shows how the Mansion itself is really just a tiny wrap that conceals the empty space that the dual stretch rooms are hauled up into:

In fact, the biggest change is that the entrance door now faces west instead of south - it's in the exact same spot.

What's interesting is that the placement of this door in a darkened antechamber next to the main foyer area shows just how little the layout was altered. Disneyland has always allowed a little bit of daylight into their foyer, although as far as I can tell the shade structure enclosing the porch around the door has always been there to mitigate it somewhat. This is not a problem because there are no special effects in Disneyland's foyer.

Florida seems to have always had the Aging Man effect intended for a fireplace between the two Stretch Rooms, and daylight would very much compromise the effect if the foyer were arranged similarly to Disneyland's. This goes double for a facade built up on a man made hill in the harsh Florida sun, facing south, where rays could easily enter in the afternoon. Walt Disney World's door ended up being buried between hills, facing west behind a stand of trees, making that short hallway somewhat unnecessary, but it remains to this day - a small echo of what was once intended.

Awaiting guests on a rainy day - Martin/Warren video
Towards the Gothic

All of the preceding establishes that time was very much compressed in all of this. And although we thankfully do have a fairly complete idea of what Coats' creative process was in arriving at the final design for the Mansion, I feel that a key piece of evidence has been somewhat under-represented in Mansionalia circles, so it's time to take a good, long look at Decorative Art of Victoria's Era, by Frances Lichten, published in 1950 by Bonanza Books.

This book is not exactly a secret amongst Mansion fans - I've known about it for years. It was once part of the Imagineering research library. According to a post at, back in the 1980s David Mumford was the first researcher to notice the key role this book plays in the Haunted Mansion's development. You see, on page 105, we come across this exciting photo:

We now know the house to be the Shipley-Lydecker Mansion, now demolished, in Baltimore. Never reported are the additional wrought-iron details on the facing page, 104, which seem to have guided WED's choice of wrought iron back in 1963:

However I was slow in obtaining a copy of the book myself for many years. Figuring that the best of it would already be known, I was finally motivated to get my own copy - partially out of motivation to improve on the low quality scans of the book - in preparation for this article, only to find, as usual, that having the book in front of you changes things quite a bit.

Now, to be clear, there aren't many "smoking guns" to be found in this book, and nothing on the scale of that Shipley-Lydecker house photo, a completely unambiguous "gotcha!" moment. Still, after spending time with the book, I am firmly convinced it was a major reference guide for the design of the ride. Lichten gives clear explanations of the reasons why the Victorians lived the way they did, and follows up with copious illustrations, giving instructions on everything from furniture to chandeliers, wallpaper, and window hangings. There is an entire chapter on graveyards. Another section of the book carefully details the Victorian cross-stitch "motto", and Lichten's precise instructions on the floral border and type of frame are carefully followed for the famous "Tomb Sweet Tomb" sampler - since I don't know of any art for this particular detail, I'm inclined to believe it was inspired by Lichten's book.

And oh yes, on page 59, there is this:

This illustration appears as part of a chapter detailing the Victorian fascination with the medieval as derived from the poems and writing of Sir Walter Scott, especially Ivanhoe. Finding a parallel in the (then) modern fascination with Antebellum style and decor sparked by the success of the film Gone With the Wind (1939), Lichten traces the Victorian development of what we now call Gothic Revival and what it meant in its own day.

Now, call me picky if you like, but prior to obtaining this book, I considered the above only a pretty likely inspiration. With better detail now visible, it's easier to make a case for certain details of the Mansion... that chimney is darn close, as are the peaked roofs, gables, and even the Gothic cross on the central tower of the Mansion can be derived from this engraving.

But what a scanned image can't convey is what sold me on this being the clear, unambiguous source for the Florida Haunted Mansion, and that is the text surrounding it. As I studied the book I felt like I was there with Claude Coats back in 1970, becoming increasing convinced that this was the correct route to take.

This is the text that is directly above the illustration:
Despite the scarcity of good architects, the taste for the new fashion developed quickly in the United States, and by the 1830's there were many examples of the style. The Gothic was thought to be particularly well suited to the American countryside - a region characterized by the "wilder, romantic and more picturesque country where the hand of man has been only partially laid on the forest. This type of terrain," says A. J. Downing, the greatest American arbiter of architectural taste in the first half of the eighteenth century, "supplies the appropriate background for a style which sprang up among the rocks and fastness of Northern Europe." Mr. Downing's affection for the Gothic was responsible for innumerable example of the Old English cottage, and of residences of the Castellated style, as the domestic specimens imitative of castles were then called. Like mushrooms, the popped up on every hill in the more cultivated regions of the country, for country estates were then a fashionable indulgence, and the Gothic, the only style then considered appropriate for rural living.

In 1836, a traveler, describing his initial train ride on New Jersey's first railroad, indicates the early flowering of the taste: "Our ride to Philadelphia over the Camden and Amboy Railroad and up the beautiful Delaware was truly delightful, especially the latter. New and beautiful scenes continually opened to view - with fine country seats, built in imitation of Gothic castles, with towers and battlements standing amid a fine growth of trees of every kind..."
A few paragraphs later, Lichten may have inspired the Haunted Mansion's early landscape design, which included a stately rose garden, as well as the wrought iron terraces which cover the house and grounds:
As the nineteenth century moved into its sixth decade, the craze for the Victorian Gothic house must have reached its utmost in absurdity, for we find it dealt with by the writers of the day. James Russell Lowell accepted the challenge offered his pen by the sight of a ridiculous wooden castle, set on an unshaded, mathematically squared lawn patterned with flower-beds of equal geometric perfection.


Designers for [wrought iron] brought out patterns calculated to attract the eye of the romantically inclined. No longer need the owner of a new Gothic mansion enclose his velvety lawn with anything so commonplace as a white picket fence. Now he could purchase fanciful wrought iron traceries, as Gothic in detail, if not material,  as that of the most ornamental of ancient stone or wood carvings. As additional medieval garnish, the foundry men stood ready to supply porches and verandas patterned in formal Gothic trefoils or qua-trefoils, as well as garden pavilions - the latter affairs being frivolous counterfeits of the flamboyant traceries of a cathedral window. Over these lacy structures, the Victorian maidens coaxed vines to grow, to simulate the antique arbors of their sentimental reveries. And if the solemn English ivy, accustomed to a support of honest stone, refused to clamber over a deceitful edifice of iron, the light-minded native vines were found to be more accommodating and made quite as satisfactory if less poetically evocative green draperies.
In short, here was a great find - an architectural style not too far outside Liberty Square's era which blended old world and new (to better mix Liberty Square and Fantasyland) and which would harmonize with the high Victorian interior already designed. In short, practically everything about the exterior was inspired by pages 59-61 of Lichten's book. But if all of the above isn't enough, consider how Lichten ends her chapter on the Gothic:
"Many examples of the Victorian Gothic residence are extant, both in city and country districts: the substantial stone and stucco mansion as well as the wooden farmhouse and cottage, their eaves still supporting the remnants of the once-so-fashionable edging of wooden lace. Where the battlemented stucco castle stands deserted, once trim trees and shrubs crowd the jungle-thick, and push exploring fingers through broken windows of many-colored glass. In the dark of the moon, fog drifts about the ruined toy-like turrets. Morayama's or Arzelia's bower is given over entirely to bats and rubble, and the thrust of strong vines has pushed apart iron traceries.

In truth the decaying structure conveys to the present-day observer the same sense of horror and mystery that the medieval ruin conveyed to the popular mind. Lacking the patina which the mellowing touch of time and nature give to the ruins of the middle ages, the abandoned Victorian Gothic domicile, its shoddy fabric disintegrating before one's eyes, has today become the artistic and literary symbol of "the haunted house".
There's really only one alternate that exists between the abandonment of the 1968 Federalist facade with its elevators and the arrival at the 1970 Gothic facade. It's very close to the final product, perhaps indicating that the path here was set right away, with a buried foyer, conservatory and level exit hall:

I think this is likely a half-measure, although I do like the steps up to the facade from ground level. By early 1970 the Gothic Haunted Mansion with the raising stretch rooms was being assembled on-site in Florida and the Federalist facade would be forgotten for over three decades.

Up or Down?

The only thing that's missing from this narrative is the reason why, during construction of the ride, in early 1970, the original plan was abandoned, and the simple answer is that I don't know and I'm not sure if we will ever know.

If you're a long time reader of this blog then you'll know that I love to return to that eternal question of why the Haunted Mansion is in Liberty Square, and I've spent tens of thousands of words justifying it conceptually and artistically. But here's the likely, final reason: they wanted to put it on the north side of the park where it would be properly elevated so they didn't need to even worry about Florida's high water table. I really think that's it. Say what you will, but the Magic Kingdom was an impeccably planned project.

I still believe that what we are looking at here when we corral all of this evidence and all of these schematics is some sort of remnant of a technical gaffe. When you are building a theme park, you don't want to go doubling back to re-engineer a problem you've already solved, which is what Coats was having to do here. He had lots of other stuff on his plate which also had to be ready for October 1, and his friend Marc Davis probably wasn't even involved in the 1971 iteration of the ride. Simply put their initial plan was the obvious one: repeat the elevator, exactly as it is at Disneyland. What stopped them?

I have exactly one lead on this. In David Koenig's More Mouse Tales, printed in 1999, Koenig cites information he culled from an interview with Cast Member "Haught" on page 111:
"The [Haunted Mansion] finally opened six years later, then briefly closed. To lower guests so they can walk underneath the railroad tracks to the main show building, the Haunted Mansion uses a pair of elevators. But, about six months after the ride opened, the elevators stopped going down. Somehow, water had seeped into the elevator pits and caused the lift mechanism to fail. By putting green dye in the water, repair workers were able to trace its source to the Rivers of America. Maintenance pumped the entire river, then resealed the elevator pits."
 Six months after August 1969 puts us exactly in February 1970, which is slightly before the facade of the Florida ride was redesigned to ditch the elevators. If this is a coincidence, it's one that strains credulity. Sadly, I have no information to back up this story, nothing in Disneyland Line, nothing in Los Angeles area newspapers, and most of the memorandum of that era was long ago destroyed and so is not on file at Disney.

Originally, the Rivers of America at Disneyland were lined with mud. Today, they are lined with concrete, and I don't know when the concrete came in - whether in 1970 or some later date. The Magic Kingdom's River has always been concrete, and I'm going to assume that it was the intent from the start, as Florida's sandy soil would likely sucked up any clay lining Disney would've put down.

Did the water leak spook the designers of the spooky house? Having to close your attraction after only a few months to reseal elevator pits after weeks of misfiring effects and years of development may have just been the thing to do it.

And if that's true, then there's an irony lurking behind all of this: for all my complaining and railing against the water table pat explanation, it may be true -- not Florida's water table, but Magic Kingdom's.