Sunday, June 10, 2012

Disneyland Ch-ch-ch-changes: Innovation, or Just a Push to Sell More Merch?

In 1970, when I was five years old and we were still living in New Jersey, my dad took us on a road trip out west. Our trip to California naturally included a visit to the Magic Kingdom. There is approximately fifteen minutes of home movie footage of our visit to Disneyland. It includes shots of the park and the costumed characters, but mostly consists of shots of cute young women in miniskirts (obviously Dad was holding the camera).

One thing the footage doesn't include is my most vivid memory of our visit to Disneyland: the Haunted Mansion. I was a neurotic little girl, and the experience of visiting the mansion terrified me to the point of tears. The Victorian ghosts in the ballroom, whirling to a demented, discordant organ waltz; the rattling coffin and its distressed occupant's muffled voice: “Lemme outta here! Lemme outta here!;” the long, dark, narrow hallway in which a candelabra floats; wispy spirits soaring howling into the dark sky from the attic roof; the trembling tombstones; the skeletal arm of a corpse, shovel in hand, as it tries to dig its way out of a stone crypt – this all must have proved too much for my fragile nerves. (I was kind of a nervous wreck as a kid. The intro to the T.V. show “Outer Limits” was enough to send me running from the room in terror.)

As anyone who has visited the Haunted Mansion knows, the ride isn't entirely dark and morbid; there are fun, silly elements, which were most likely added to lighten the mood and to make the ride less frightening for children. Singing tombstone busts, onto which the comical faces of real life men are projected, sing about the “grim grinning ghosts” who come out to “socialize.” The ride's narrator informs us that the ballroom guests have just arrived for a “swingin' wake;” the bouncy song played in the attic mentions the “silly spooks,” as if to reassure children that they have nothing to fear from these ghouls.

Perhaps the goofiest group of ghosts appear at the end of the ride. As the narrator of the ride warns, “Beware of hitch hiking ghosts!,” these menacing fellows greet the riders:

The ride concludes with the doombuggies riding past mirrors, in which images of the hitch hiking ghosts mysteriously appear next to the riders. These comical hitch hiking ghosts couldn't be less frightening.

Yet it was at this point in the ride that I distinctly remember looking in the mirror, and seeing my reflection - a sobbing, frightened little girl in ponytails (I don't remember which ghost was trying to "follow me home"). So despite all Disney Imagineers' efforts to lighten the darkness of the ride, it must have been lost on me when I was five years old. The horrifying aspects of the Haunted Mansion were apparently too overwhelming for me, and probably for thousands of other children before and since.

Fast forward to adulthood – and I love the Haunted Mansion. It's not only one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland, it's one of my favorite places in the world. I have a passion for all things 19th century, so I love the the whole theme of the mansion. (Its architecture was based on the homes in New Orleans' Garden District.) The Imagineers paid strict attention to detail, from the pet cemetery outside to the flowered, fading wallpaper, to the portraits and furniture vases and dying flowers, to the Victorian costumes of the ballroom dancers. And despite its morbid, Gothic elements, it's also deliciously campy and charmingly outdated. It seems to capture certain kitschy elements of the 1960's as much as it does the Victorian age. The fact that the cars used in the ride are called “doombuggies” and that the ghosts are attending a “swingin' wake” immediately date the ride (does anyone even talk about "dune buggies" anymore?).

Here's a link to the whole ride, in case you've never had the pleasure of experiencing it. (I suspect that those with zero interest in Disneyland have stopped reading this a while back.)

My favorite attractions at Disneyland – the so-called “dark rides” - all have that same winning combination of attention to design and detail and period accuracy, as well as 60's camp. And it's geeks like me and my friend – I'll call her “E” (she's so Disney-obsessive that she actually works there now!) who think these classic attractions should be preserved, just as historical societies work to preserve public buildings and private homes of significance. It's not that I'm against all changes to the rides, as long as they're done with the same high quality Walt Disney was known to demand, and in the spirit of the original attraction.

When I first heard there were going to be changes to the Haunted Mansion, I was appalled. Disneyland (understandably; they are ultimately a huge corporation that wants to make a profit!) is very motivated to push their movies and products, and often alter their attractions to promote them. I was afraid they would incorporate the Eddie Murphy "Haunted Mansion" movie into the ride. Fortunately, they did no such thing, but the changes they did make, in my opinion, improved the ride. They removed the cheap, doll-like bride in the attic (she looked like something out of a makeshift carnival Halloween house), with the glowing red heart:

and replaced her with a realistic video projection of a murderous bride.

The new bride (whose name is apparently Connie), is a pretty blond; she looks like a deranged soap opera star. She smiles maniacally and cracks morbid jokes: “I do . . . and so I did!;" “'Til death do us part,” as her bouquet disappears and is replaced by an ax. In the wedding portrait, the groom slowly disappears and is replaced by another groom, and yet another; we are lead to believe that she's murdered several of her husbands. (Fortunately, they've kept the demented, discordant piano accompaniment of “Here Comes the Bride” played in this part of the ride.)

I particularly liked this change to the Haunted Mansion, because it seems like it was made to improve the ride, instead of to solely to sell goods – which brings us to the changes on "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Johnny Depp of the Caribbean

The recent changes on “Pirates of the Caribbean” seem to just be for the purpose of hyping the movie franchise, and nothing more. In order to promote the Johnny Depp “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies (which are, ironically based on the ride), they've added an animatronic “Jack Sparrow,” the pirate portrayed by Johnny Depp in the film. Though it looks like they tried to make him blend in with the other animatronic pirates who have been fixtures in the ride since the early 70's, he still looks out of place. He looks too detailed and realistic. Whereas there's a cartoonish look about the other pirates, Jack Sparrow looks like, well, Johnny Depp, exactly like Johnny Depp. He seems to be placed in random spots throughout the ride, with no real purpose except to remind the rider to go see the next “Pirates” movie.

Soundtrack music from the movie has also been added to the attraction. As the rider's boat emerges from a dark tunnel, music from the movie begins to play; it immediately suggests a certain mood, like soundtrack music is supposed to. Before the addition of the movie music, there had been an eerie silence at that point in the ride, interrupted only by the pirates' shouts and cannonballs. Hearing the soaring orchestral score makes me feel like I'm in a movie theater, instead of traveling back in time through a dark tunnel to the land of pirates. Like the addition of Jack Sparrow, adding the movie music is only there to remind the rider of the "Pirates" movies; it doesn't contribute anything interesting to the ride.
It's a Small World – or, USA! USA!

There had been rumors swirling for some time about changes to Small World - there was talk that a “USA land” would be added, as well as Disney characters throughout the ride. Ultimately, the changes weren't as bad as I expected.

Although Walt Disney was an integral force behind the Small World attraction, it wasn't originally part of Disneyland. It was created for the 1964 New York World's Fair as part of the UNICEF pavilion, and was designed by Walt, along with the wonderfully talented Mary Blair, Marc Davis, and several other Disney Imagineers. The ride hadn't featured any Disney characters until recently. Characters such as Ariel, Pinocchio and Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” have been placed throughout the ride. The characters were designed in the same style as the original Mary Blair dolls and, unlike the Depp/Jack Sparrow figure on the “Pirates” ride, they seem to blend in well. (I especially liked the addition of the "Alice in Wonderland" characters to England, as Lewis Carroll is such a part of classic English children's literature.) 

I have to wonder why the decision had been made to add Disney characters, over 40 years after the ride's debut. It feels like a piece of history has been tampered with, given that the ride was part of the World's Fair. I'm not sure what the reasoning was – did they suddenly want to keep the ride more consistent with the rest of Disneyland by adding Disney characters, or was it to try to sell more Disney character merchandise?

More perplexing than the addition of the Disney characters is the addition of the North America room. This bothered me for a few reasons. The first is that the design of the room and the characters (which includes Woody the cowboy and his gal pal Jessie, from “Toy Story”) doesn't equal the quality of the Mary Blair design; it looks cheap by comparison, and not nearly as detailed. Second, North America is portrayed as the Wild West, with cowboys, Native Americans, horses, barns, cows, etc. There's no Manhattan, there's no Golden Gate bridge, no big city element at all. Look, I realize I'm not talking about high art. Iit's Disneyland, and probably anyone who isn't a fan of classic Disney attractions wouldn't understand why I'd be so picky.  But the Imagineers are known for both their enormous creativity and their strict attention to detail; not including any city element to a portrayal of North America seems lacking in both. I'm a city-dwelling American; perhaps we just appear as cowboys and cowgirls to the rest of the world? Or maybe the room just wasn't as well thought out and designed with the loving care and detail that Mary Blair, Walt and the other Imagineers would have given it.

Don't Mess With the Tiki Room!

Walt's favorite attraction at the park was the Enchanted Tiki Room. It was the first Disney attraction to use Audio-Anamatronics, a technology that enabled mechanical humans and animals to appear very life-like. Those who have visited the Tiki Room are familiar with the colorful birds, and their hilariously bad accents and stereotypes. There is Jose from Mexico, Michael from Ireland, Pierre from France and Fritz from Germany. Jose complains, upon being woken up from his nap to start the show, that his siestas are getting “chorter and chorter;” Fritz, the German, comes off somewhat strict and authoritaran; Pierre the French bird, when introducing the lady birds, gushes with enthusiasm: “Collette! Suzette! Fifi! Gigi!;” and Michael the Irish bird has a brogue that sounds about as authentic as the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

The theme song is ridiculously catchy and performed in a Polynesian lounge style that was all the rage in the early 60's, when the show opened. The show is charming and wonderfully dated. After the opening theme song “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room," performed by the male birds, the female birds descend from a giant perch that emerges from the ceiling. White-plumed and bejeweled, the lady birds break into “Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” and Jose implores the audience to sing along. It is difficult to imagine the typical texting teen, to whom the word “tweet” now has an entirely different meaning, engaging in this sing along without embarrassment. (Fine; let them busy themselves with their smart phones if they're bored by the show.) I've seen the Tiki Room show dozens of times, and I get a kick from the bemused expressions of the people in the audience. I imagine most of the out-of-state tourists are thinking, “This is just so unbelievably corny and outdated, but it's really cute and hilarious.” I'll sometimes see people singing along with the “Birdies” song, laughing at themselves for doing so. I like to think that even the typical American Disneyland tourist, usually saturated with reality shows and high-tech video games for entertainment, seems to understand that he or she is experiencing something really special and magical.

Disney geeks, of course, have always known how special and magical the Tiki Room is. And that's why I was dismayed, several years ago, when there were rumors that the soundtrack would be “updated.” My mind went to dark places; my first thought is that the kooky early 60's Polynesian feel of the music would be replaced by some hip hop track, with a rap by one of the birds.

I don't know if the geeks had any influence, or if the rumors had simply been exaggerated, but ultimately the changes to the Tiki Room were very minimal. The soundtrack was remastered, not replaced, the birds were cleaned and had missing feathers replaced, the thatched roof was repaired, and the audio animatronics were updated internally (while still maintaining their old look). I wasn't looking forward to the Tiki Room being modernized, so I was relieved to find out it had simply undergone a much-needed restoration.

Walt Wanted Change and Innovation, Not Fluorescent Pooh
I've read that Walt Disney wanted Disneyland to be a place that was constantly changing and evolving. I have a hard time believing, though, that he would have wanted timeless, endearing attractions like the Country Bear Jamboree, to be replaced by something vastly inferior like the hideous, fluorescent Pooh Bear ride. (The experience of riding the new Winnie the Pooh attraction after the Country Bear Jamboree closed, might require another nerdy Disneyland blog post).

Fortunately, classic attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Small World still remain, and the changes, though some of them are unnecessary and annoying, don't affect the overall magical experience of these rides. I hope the people behind the changes at Disneyland are respectful enough to know what a disaster it would be to do away with any of these classic dark rides, or modernize them beyond recognition. Don't get me wrong; I understand that Disneyland needs to sell merchandise, and that there's a lot of marketing involved. But when rides are altered solely for the purpose of marketing, they're missing the point. Walt Disney was obviously hugely successful and became a very wealthy man, but he initially lost money when Disneyland was built because he was so passionate about making it perfect. A lot of love went into creating Disneyland, and I sometimes wonder if the current heads of Disneyland have forgotten that.

I think Disneyland, as was Walt's wish, should continue to change and evolve, with the innovation, imagination and quality which would have made him proud. As the park is now over sixty years old and a part of southern California history, they need to respect and preserve the aspects of the park that remain timeless, entertaining, creative and unique.

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