Friday, July 07, 2017

A New Auction Sets "Sale": Pirates Patrons Protest Propriety Proposal

On June 29th, 2017, the Walt Disney Company announced more changes to the classic attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates in Disneyland was the last attraction in the flagship park that Walt supervised himself. He never saw the finished product. He approved the delay of the grand opening until March 1967 — three months after he died of lung cancer. A version of the ride was hastily built in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1973 after guests complained that neither Pirates nor its proposed spiritual successor, the Western River Expedition, were available on opening day.

For those who need a reminder, the ride goes like this: We board a boat, then float through a series of caves and caverns featuring ghostly pirate voices and cursed skeletal remains. After passing through a pitch black cave, we drift between a pirate ship and a Spanish fort exchanging cannon fire and insults in a Caribbean village. We enter the village, first observing the pirates dunking the town's mayor into a well, torturing him for information on the hidden treasure. In the next scene, a captain acts as auctioneer, selling off the town's women as "brides" for the randy pirates across the river. After that, we see several pirates chasing women, and an out-of-shape pirate leaning on a set of stairs, a young lady's slip in his hand, his frightened would-be victim hiding in the barrel behind him. We then find that the pirates have gotten drunk, set fire to the town, and are basically having a rousing good time looting and plundering. A few of the pillaging pirates have gotten locked up by a backstabbing fellow pirate, and are desperately trying to coax the jail-keeping dog to give up the keys to their cell as it starts to crumble around them. Finally, a gang of pirates have found the armory (or the treasure room in Florida), and are haphazardly firing their guns around the room at each other and us.

This is how both versions of the attraction played out for three decades, with only minor changes to lighting, costumes, and Audio-Animatronic technology. That is, until 1997, when both attractions were refurbished, and a few changes were made to one of the scenes. You see, while the attraction depicted the kidnapping and ravaging pirates as playful scamps just looking for a little kiss on the playground, modern sensitivities shined a seedy light on the scene. These weren't innocent boys, they were pirates, and their intention was rape. The "Pooped Pirate" in this scene had particularly racy dialog, expressing his desire to "hoist me colors on the likes of that shy little wench," and being "willing to share, I be!"

Interestingly, each version got its own sanitized version of this scene. Disneyland's attraction more infamously saw the vice on display changed to gluttony, with the pirates running around stealing food from the women, and the Pooped Pirate becoming the "Stuffed Pirate", having overeaten. On the opposite coast, Florida's Magic Kingdom saw the pirates' greed. Instead of pleasurable company, the pirates were making off with a different kind of booty, stealing gold and silver and chests of valuables from the villagers, while the Pooped Pirate was simply tired from searching for a young lady with a box of jewels, still hiding in the barrel.

Following the runaway success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Disney made another controversial decision. A growing number of guests to their parks were unfamiliar with the attraction's history, and were only aware of the intellectual property from The Curse of the Black Pearl and its upcoming sequels. Complaints flooded Guest Relations at both parks: "Where's Captain Jack Sparrow?" So in 2006, coinciding with the release of the second film in the franchise, Dead Man's Chest, Audio-Animatronics of Captain Jack, as well as one of his nemesis Barbossa, and an impressive spectral projection effect of the sequels' newest antagonist Davy Jones, premiered in the attractions. Disney took this opportunity to fix the discrepancy of the chase scene by having the pirates in both versions stealing shiny goods, and the girl in the barrel replaced by Sparrow, peaking over the Pooped Pirate's shoulder at a map to the treasure room.

That's more-or-less what guests have seen for the past decade, with only minor cosmetic changes. In 2011, to tie the attraction in with the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, Florida's version added Blackbeard, alternating with Davy Jones on the projection effect, and the haunted grotto scene was enhanced with a mermaid skeleton and a lone siren's voice singing My Jolly Sailor Bold.

Each change over the many years had mixed receptions, with one camp arguing that Pirates of the Caribbean was a Walt Disney original and shouldn't be tampered with, and the other camp arguing that Disney attractions need to be able to change with the times, or risk alienating guests with less awareness of their history. This is the eternal argument regarding any change at any Disney park, really. How much change is too much? How adamant should the Imagineers be about preserving what's there for historical posterity? To put it simply, what would Walt do?

So here we are, a week or so after Disney officially announced even more changes to the classic crowd favorite, and the tension is palpable. The wench auction scene, one of the most iconic and recognizable scenes in the attraction — and incidentally, the only scene Walt himself saw completed — is having the overt sexual references removed. No longer will the pirates be buying and selling women as concubines, with a rotund woman on the block, and a red-haired woman flaunting herself to prospective bidders. Now, the redhead is a pirate herself, "assisting" (at gunpoint) the villagers as they unload their belongings, and the corpulent lady is proudly displaying a flock of chickens for sale.

First of all, I'd like to correct a few misstatements I've heard about the refurbishment. I've read countless comments across social media accusing Disney of "removing" the auction scene, or making it no longer an auction. The scene will still be there, and it's still going to be an auction. The difference being that they are auctioning off things, not people. Secondly, we have no confirmation that the popular catchphrase "we wants the redhead" is going away. It's very possible that the gag will now be that the Pirates would rather bid on the woman than the objects on display. At this point, no one knows.

Now let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I am okay with these changes. I'm honestly shocked it has taken Disney this long to make them. I'm especially pleased that the Redhead will soon become a strong lady pirate, something Imagineer Marc Davis alluded to in a painting that sits in the background of Disneyland's grotto scene. Look, I get it. Changing a classic is a touchy subject. Even more so when that classic was touched by Walt's own hands. But with the current sociopolitical climate being what it is now, this was all but inevitable. Something needed to be done to address these issues, and I'd rather see the ride changed for the future than destroyed completely.

Ideally for people like us, Disney would just put an age/height restriction on it to protect the children. The Looney Tunes Golden Collection is a prime example of how a company can own their shameful past while still respecting their art. Warner Bros. released all of their old racist and sexist cartoons on DVD, but with a disclaimer (delivered by Whoopi Goldberg) explaining that they were not for children, and their depictions "were wrong then and are wrong today". Disney could put a sign at the entrance of the attraction with a warning — something like "This attraction portrays violence, drunkenness, and behavior some may find offensive or questionable. Ride at your own discretion."* — but let's face it, we've all been to the Disney Parks. We've all seen how guests are. We remember ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Guests will ignore the signs, ride anyway, then go complain to Guest Relations about what they saw.

Unfortunately, Pirates of the Caribbean is so well-known by so many people of all ages around the world by now, an age limit is impractical. Guests expect that anyone can ride it. Also, Pirates isn't a DVD set on a store shelf you pay $50 for and take home for your own enjoyment. It is part of a much larger, family-oriented experience called the Magic Kingdom that you share with everybody, and it is included in the park admission you've already paid for. It is also a lot harder to communicate "people sensitive about misogyny should not ride" than "keep hands and arms inside at all times". The latter is a logical given, an objective warning for everyone's safety. The former is a subjective interpretation of stimuli one has presumably not yet experienced and therefore can't judge effectively.

"So who's complaining?" the refurb's detractors ask. "I'm not offended, and I don't know anyone else who is." "Why change it if nobody's bothered by it?" These arguments assume your opinion and experience are the same as everyone else's. Let's imagine for a moment that Disney has not received any complaints, that everyone riding Pirates is in on the joke, and no one is offended. (For the record, I'm sure that is not the case in actuality.) That does not change the fact that a ride in a Disney park is making light of sensitive topics like human trafficking, misogyny, and rape. Eventually, that will come back to bite them, whether from guest complaints, or someone using the attraction as an example in an exposé. If there's one thing Disney should have learned from the tragic alligator attack in June of 2016, it's that it's often safer to be proactive; and if there is a crack in the sidewalk, even if nobody has tripped on it yet, you fix the crack. That's just the sensible thing to do.

"What about the parts of the ride where they're shooting at each other and burning the town?" is another common argument, coupled with "What about the Haunted Mansion, where we see a body hanged and others decapitated?" Admittedly, it's sometimes difficult to draw the line between depictions of physical violence and (dare I say) social injustice. Both are evil in real life. The difference is, physical violence can be cartoonified. Social injustice, not so much. It's easy to pull off a bit of comedy slapstick with a wide and diverse audience. Rape and human trafficking are harder gags to sell.

It can be done, with the right audience. Family Guy and South Park have had long, successful runs of making jokes about inappropriate subjects. But those programs are intended for mature audiences who have a sense of irony. Irony is hard to get across to everyone. It takes a special type of sense of humor and a certain level of maturity that, unfortunately, cannot be guaranteed in any given guest at a Disney park, especially young ones. It should also be noted that the victims of violence depicted in The Haunted Mansion are ghosts. They are not living people. They may have been, but aren't anymore, and they are blissfully and gleefully aware of that fact. Look at the line of women waiting to be sold at the wench auction. Do they look gleeful to you?

"But they're pirates! That's what they did!" "Disney is trying to change/erase history!" "They're trying to pretend bad things never happened!" These statements, coupled with Pirates show writer Francis Xavier "X" Atencio's infamous "Boy Scouts of the Caribbean" comment, underlie what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what Disneyland is. Disneyland is not a museum. Pirates of the Caribbean is not a historical document. The pirate Audio-Animatronics are not accurate depictions of real-life pirates. Clearly, some inspiration was taken from real history, but in the end, this is entertainment. It is parody. It is a comical interpretation of things pirates did for the purpose of family-friendly amusement. To wit, I don't think real pirates sang jaunty tunes in harmonic unison while they murdered and pillaged and burned down settlements. (I could be wrong.) Also, the Magic Kingdom is not a place where we should be reminding guests of the atrocities committed by mankind throughout history. They come here to escape the real world, not be taught profound life lessons about human cruelty.

To be entirely accurate, Disney are not sanitizing history with the new auction scene. The fact of the matter is, sanitizing history is exactly what they were trying to do with the original scene. What was something pirates were known to do? Rape. What did Disney decide to show instead? Pirates taking wives, playfully chasing women with kisses, and the women giggling and playing hard-to-get. The Imagineers, by their own admission, put a lot of time and effort into portraying "kidnapping and ravaging" as just a bunch of good-natured fun, when it probably would have been wiser to cut it out entirely.

But rather than trying to justify the original Imagineers' decisions, most arguments I've gotten about why Disney shouldn't change Pirates literally boil down to "This is how middle-aged white men built the ride in the '60s, and we should respect their infallible vision." Problem is, Walt wasn't infallible. He knew what he liked, but he was still a product of his time, and so was Pirates. For example, Walt made a movie about an old black slave with a lovable grin who sang songs and told cute fables to white plantation children. He gave a black crow the name Jim and a gullah accent, and depicted dark-skinned, curly-haired, large-featured centaurs as the servants of pale-skinned, straight-haired, delicate-featured centaurs. Unfortunately, Disneyland wasn't made for only us fans who have insight into Walt's time period and sense of humor. Sometimes a joke doesn't come across as funny to others, especially if they are the object of it.

Pirates of the Caribbean was made in a more innocent time, when unwanted sexual advances were considered normal — boys being boys. They were everywhere in the media. James Bond in particular was notorious for forcing himself onto women, with the women eventually giving in every time. It was a time before women's liberation, before women were allowed to hold high positions at large companies. Most of the women at the Disney Studio worked in either ink & paint or costuming & makeup. Even Mary Blair, the famous artist whose inimitable style was the inspiration for the look and feel of It's a Small World didn't actually design that attraction. The job of interpreting her work into attraction sets went to Claude Coats, while the dolls were sculpted by Blaine Gibson. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, these same men would perform their respective tasks bringing Marc Davis' drawings to life for Pirates.)  For a bunch of men to make jokes about objectifying women was nothing unsavory back then, and women were subconsciously discouraged from speaking out against them.

Speaking of objectification of women, I personally think it's more important that we focus on the body-shaming aspect of the auction scene than its "historical value". As previously mentioned, the gag reads like this: The Auctioneer is trying to sell off a cartoonishly overweight woman. The bidding pirates are not interested, shouting insults such as "Will you be selling her by the pound?" Even the Auctioneer himself has trouble not calling out her weight, referring to her as "stout-hearted and corn-fed", and ordering her to "shift her cargo". Meanwhile, the slightly-built (she is just a pole from the waist down, in fact) and busty redhead is shamelessly flaunting her sexuality for the men's attention.

Forget for a moment the satirical depiction of rape and misogyny. Forget that we have a woman at the forefront who is literally "asking for it". What message are we sending to little girls with weight or self-esteem problems? Or grown adults, even? We live in a culture where bullying and body shaming are so commonplace and often ignored that it causes eating disorders, psychological complexes, and even suicide, especially in women and girls. Average size and weight for females are notably higher than our media widely depicts, and girls are taught by the songs they hear and the shows they watch that the popular girls are the ones who "put out".

I know what some of you are saying. "You're reading too much into it. It's supposed to be a joke. You're bringing social baggage to something that's supposed to be fun." Here's the problem with that way of thinking. You don't get to decide what baggage people carry. One in five women have been sexually assaulted. 52% of women are bullied for their weight or physical appearance. 65% have an eating disorder. And these statistics only take into account the women who have admitted it. There are untold numbers of women who suffer silently. Now we have a scene on a ride in The Happiest Place on Earth that confirms everything every bully and rapist has taught them. Fat girls are undesirable. Slutty girls get the attention. Men decide their value. Suddenly that scene doesn't seem so funny. It actually seems a bit cruel.

I understand why there's such a strong resistance to accepting these facts. Nobody likes to find out that they are responsible for something bad, even indirectly. "Not all men" is such a popular excuse for inappropriate behavior that we forget that this isn't about me, or you, or our fellow Disneyphiles who've laughed at these jokes for a half a century. No, it's not all men. It's not all people. It's not us. But it's somebody. And it's somebody's daughter, or girlfriend, or wife, or mother who has carried this burden for so long that it's often hard to pinpoint when or why it hurts. I love Pirates of the Caribbean. I love that scene. I have never been uncomfortable in that scene. Until last year, when I rode on it with somebody I love who has suffered with weight problems and bullying her entire life, and has been sexually assaulted. Then I felt terrible for being a fan of something that could cause emotional pain to someone I care for.

As with anything people don't like, there is of course an online petition to stop the change, using many of the arguments I have tried to debunk above. I suspect these people don't realize that it's too late. The fact that Disney officially announced this means it's going to happen. They're not going to stop something that has most likely spent years in planning, and is probably already in the building phase, because of a few thousand signatures on a petition. The Walt Disney Company has made a progressive decision, and as Walt himself said, "Progress is impossible without change." Times change. Sensibilities change. Walt's time is not our time. We live in a time when sexual assault and discrimination are no longer swept under the rug, they are called out. They are scrutinized by the media. They're discussed and judged by people everywhere, all the time. The reasons these jokes are inappropriate are no longer secret, nor should they be ignored.

If Walt felt like his guests were uncomfortable today, he would change it too. He did change things. Frequently, in fact. That was his favorite thing about Disneyland, that it could be changed. If a ride was failing to entertain, or a gag wasn't working, or a space felt empty, or even something as simple as a flowerbed being in a convenient walking path, it could be changed. The Jungle Cruise and the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland originally opened as straight adventures. After hearing guests describe them as "boring", he added jokes to the narrations along with Marc Davis' famous gags. Ironically, it's one of his most famous gags that, under careful scrutiny, is no longer funny, and should be changed.

So to quote a famous fictional pirate, "The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do." For instance, you can accept that the auction scene was sexist and offensive, or you can't. But Pirates is going to change, so you'll have to square with that some day.

So, can you accept a little change and hope for the best, or can you not?

*The text for this disclaimer was suggested to me by Matthew Bradley, @matt_bradz09, in a Twitter discussion.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Can Frozen Thaw Epcot's Oldest Attraction?

There has been an awful lot of buzz since Disney announced last month that they will be closing the Norway Pavilion's beloved Maelstrom attraction to make way for a new one based on 2013's runaway hit animated film, Frozen. Of course, I have my own opinion on this matter, but before I get to that, let me introduce you to the classic attraction that closed its big oaken doors just yesterday.

It's 1982, and EPCOT Center has finally opened to the public. After more than 15 years of planning, the grand park had transformed from an actual city in which people were to live, and work, and play, and learn, to a permanent World's Fair, showcasing world cultures and modern technology. World Showcase featured nine pavilions, each devoted to a specific nation: Mexico, the People's Republic of China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Other pavilions had already been announced and were in the planning phases (including Equatorial Africa, which was shown in model form during the park's grand opening television special), but none of them have yet to be built. Instead, the first two additions were Morocco in 1984, and Norway in 1988.

Norway was somewhat unique in that it had an actual ride as its main attraction. Previously, El Rio de Tiempo was the only ride in World Showcase. Like its Mexican counterpart, Maelstrom was a flume ride which took guests on a tour of the history and culture of its pavilion's host. But where Rio was a leisurely and colorful ride not unlike "it's a small world" mixed with If You Had Wings, Maelstrom was decidedly more dark and thrilling, reflecting Norway's viking heritage.

We begin our ride by boarding a typical Disney bateau adorned with nautical Norse ornaments, then ascending a lift hill while staring into the sparkling eye of Odin, who narrates the journey. After passing through a medieval Norwegian village, we enter a dark forest where a three-headed troll casts a spell on our ship, which then turns slightly, then plummets backwards down a waterfall. We flow (still backwards) through the glacial waters to the north, past a couple of curious polar bears, then through a lush gorge. Another troll appears and redirects us forward, down another waterfall, and into the modern-day North Sea, where we are surrounded by towering oil rigs. We then find ourselves in a sleepy coastal town where we disembark and await entrance into a movie theater showing a five-minute long (and quarter-century old) tourism film for Norway.

And that was pretty much it. The ride was short, with no discernible story, save for the first troll encounter. The audio-animatronics were crude and simple with minimal movement, and almost no dialog — again, except the first troll(s). What it lacked in cohesion it made up for in memorable moments. From Odin's eye, to the backwards drop, to the standing polar bear, to the atmospheric North Sea; Maelstrom was filled with one-of-a-kind experiences only Disney Imagineering could deliver.

Over the years, the attraction has developed something of a cult following. Being the closest thing to a thrill ride in all of Epcot until Test Track opened in 1998, it was the go-to attraction for anyone looking to escape the comparatively slow pace of the rest of the park. Fans knew the narration by heart, and would often recite it along with the trolls' dialog ("Back! Back! Over the falls!") on every ride.

But now it's 2014, and Maelstrom is the only Epcot attraction not to see a single update since its opening. Norway is no longer sponsoring the ride, nor the pavilion as a whole, and it's undeniably showing its age. Sure, it's one of the most popular attractions in World Showcase, but is that really saying much? World Showcase has two rides, three movies, and one E-ticket Audio-Animatronic multimedia extravaganza — in eleven pavilions. Considering the competition, it's no surprise Maelstrom is still relatively popular. And with no sponsor, the cost of operation and maintenance must outweigh its intrinsic value.

What, then, to do? The answer came from within the Disney studios. Their 53rd animated feature just happened to have a Scandinavian setting, due to taking its inspiration from a fairy tale by Danish storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen; and the film seems to take place in vaguely Norwegian territory. Fortunately for Disney, the film was an unexpectedly huge critical and financial success. With Frozen sweeping the box office, Academy Awards, retail outlets, and — for the first time in many years — radio waves, the decision was made to close the Maelstrom and replace it with a new, Frozen-themed attraction.

In the past, Disney has had hit-and-miss success with tying popular Disney characters and IPs into attractions faced with diminishing returns. Certainly, The Seas with Nemo and Friends has benefitted from its movie tie-in. Stitch's Great Escape, not so much. Adapting a film's setting and characters to a ride requires a delicate touch. Done right, and we get Ariel's Undersea Adventure. Done wrong, and we get The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

It's understandable that some Disneyphiles should be a little skeptical of such a move. After all, nobody wants to see their favorite attraction ruined by a poorly conceived movie tie-in (ahem… *cough!*Journey into Imagination*cough!*). But there is one thing they seem to be forgetting: Mr. John Lasseter. When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, Lasseter became the creative head of both animation and Imagineering, and ever since, both departments have been pumping out one hit after another. If you ask me, Lasseter is the closest the company has ever gotten to replacing Walt Disney himself.

While no actual plans or designs have been shown to the public as of yet, in order to reassure those who would continue to second guess this decision, I feel I can accurately speculate a few things with confidence. First of all, ask yourself, "What were the most memorable parts of the Maelstrom?" Undoubtedly, the backwards waterfall was the thing that kept guests coming back (no pun intended). Therefore, I am almost positive it will make a return. In fact, based on history, I'm willing to bet the ride itself will not change one bit. It will most likely just be a re-themed version of the original ride. Also, the trolls. Frozen already has trolls. Granted, these trolls are a lot cuddlier than the ones we're used to, but they're still trolls. And the polar bears? Well, this one's a little trickier, but I'm sure an appearance by Marshmallow will fill the gap nicely.

Of course, some people will never be happy with change, no matter how well it's done. To them, all I have to say is, you probably would have hated Walt Disney. Walt was never happy when things got old and stale, and he was always looking for ways to cross-promote his products. For example, many of the segments from the Disneyland program shown in the early fifties, including the Davy Crockett serial, was intended to generate interest in the upcoming park's themed lands. Peter Pan's Flight — long considered a "classic" attraction — opened with Disneyland only 2½ years after the film was released. Sleeping Beauty, the namesake of Disneyland's castle, wasn't released until four years after the park opened.

So while promoting a new property in the park is nothing unusual for Disney, this particular choice is ruffling a lot of feathers. Granted, they are in the minority, but they are very vocal. Frozen, for some reason, has polarized its audience in a way I haven't witnessed since James Cameron's Titanic more than 15 years ago. According to Rotten Tomatoes, nearly 90% of critics and audience members liked the movie, and from what I've seen, most of the ones who liked it, loved it. However, that approximately 10% who didn't like it seem to dislike it passionately.

Here is a breakdown of the negative opinions I have encountered regarding this announcement (paraphrased from comments I've read on several Facebook posts and online articles): They're going to ruin a classic. Frozen belongs in Magic Kingdom, not Epcot. This is just an attempt to cash in on Frozen's hype; and what will they do when Frozen is no longer popular? Let me try to address each of these concerns briefly.

I've pretty much already covered the first complaint. Maelstrom was long overdue for an update, to the point that a complete overhaul was pretty much inevitable. To us adults, it was a classic; but to kids of today, as well as a growing number of adults, the attraction was rapidly losing relevance. It was no longer the "thrill" it once was when compared to the newer rides in Future World, and the technology it used were archaic in a park that put so much focus on progress. It was also, in a word, boring.

The "Frozen belongs in Magic Kingdom" argument comes from an old way of thinking about Epcot. When the park first opened, there were no Disney characters. The idea was to keep the fantasy of Disney separate from the reality of Epcot. This didn't last long. Maybe a few years, at most. Guests were confused by their absence, and the characters have been appearing throughout the park since the mid-'80s.

The "cashing in on Frozen's hype" is the one the really gets me. It shows an ignorance, if you will, to the process of creating, building, and installing an attraction. As I already mentioned earlier, Maelstrom had its final operating day yesterday. That means whatever is replacing it is already complete. Disney would not close down an attraction while they planned for something new. It's very likely the new attraction was being developed in tandem with the film, and when the film proved to be a success, they went ahead with building and testing. While I have no concrete evidence to prove this theory, I think historical example will back me up sufficiently.

As for the concern about Frozen no longer being popular, thus potentially rendering the attraction passé, I have to ask you this: Why is one of the newest and most popular attractions at Walt Disney World based on a 25-year-old film? Why was Aladdin one of the go-to movies for most people when news of Robin Williams' death broke? Why is The Lion King the top-earning Broadway production of all-time? If there's one thing Disney features have, it's longevity. These films leave a lasting impression on people, especially children. And while opinions of Frozen may be mixed among adults, it is immensely popular with children. (Frankly, I've always felt The Lion King was grossly overrated. It was Hamlet of the Savannah with toilet humor and a dated pop-rock soundtrack. But look at how long that one has hung on.)

The children of today are the park-goers of tomorrow, and the vacationers of the future. Someday, this upcoming Frozen attraction will be the classic they grew up with and share with their children. And maybe in 25 years, they will be the ones complaining about Disney changing their favorite Epcot ride.

John, the father of another classic attraction, Carousel of Progress, once said, "At every turn in our history there was always someone saying, 'Turn back. Turn back.' But there is no turning back. Not for us. Not for our carousel." The same can be said for the Disney Parks in general. We will never see Horizons again, nor 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, World of Motion, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, or any of the countless other extinct attractions of our respective childhoods. But that's okay, really. Walt wouldn't have let nostalgia stand in the way of progress, and neither should we.

I, for one, am excited to see what they will do with this new attraction. I was one of the adults who loved Frozen. I think it is to this generation what The Little Mermaid was to mine. I will miss Maelstrom a lot, but what's great about the internet and modern technology is there are many ways to relive the Disney Parks of the past, through videos, and documentaries, and audio flow-throughs, and articles like this one. Just because it's gone, doesn't mean it will be forgotten. And it's very likely we will get something better in its place.

Just give it a chance. Don't judge it until you see it for yourself. If you're against it now, you may be pleasantly surprised. If you still don't like it, well, there's always the next refurb.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Carousel of Stagnation: Now Is the Time for Progress!

Some of my favorite Attractions of all time are the Audio-Animatronic extravaganzas Disney were producing from the '60s through the '80s. They were the type of things you couldn't find anywhere else. Some of these are still around — Pirates of the Caribbean, Spaceship Earth, and Carousel of Progress, to name a few — but most of them have been replaced by bigger, faster, and oftentimes cheaper thrill rides. Of those remaining, Carousel of Progress is one of the only ones Walt Disney himself saw through to completion.

Debuting at the 1964 New York World's Fair alongside other A-A classics such as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Ford Magic Skyway, and of course, "it's a small world", the Carousel of Progress was — as the current show describes it — "an immediate smash hit." The show depicted a "typical American family" as they progressed through the 20th century in four scenes: late-1890s/early 1900s, the '20s, the '40s, and the present/not-too-distant future. It was clever, funny, relatable, and educational (and not a bad advertisement for its sponsor, General Electric).

Progress moved to Disneyland after the fair, where it received a new post-show, and continued to draw crowds in the decade that followed. When Walt Disney World needed more Attractions for its barren Tomorrowland, the Carousel was packed up and relocated to the Florida park. During the move, it was given new dialog, an updated last scene, and a whole new theme song to reflect the sponsor's new focus.

Another decade gave us another new finale, and the loss of GE's sponsorship. The show received very few changes for a while, save for removing mentions of GE, and the once futuristic final scene became passé as technology met and surpassed what the Carousel depicted. Finally, as part of the Magic Kingdom's "New Tomorrowland" project in the mid '90s, a new Carousel was produced for a new generation. Building off of the existing sets and A-A figures, this version was fresher, funnier, and brought back the song from the original World's Fair and Disneyland. The last scene fit the atmosphere of both the show and New Tomorrowland perfectly, showcasing up-and-coming technologies such as voice-operated appliances, cellular phones — "not to mention 'laser discs' and 'hi-def TVs'."

That was nearly twenty years ago…

Nowadays, we all carry voice-operated, hi-def, cellular phones everywhere we go, and those laser discs have evolved into DVDs, HD-DVDs, and now Blu-rays. We don't put recipes "on memory" anymore, we save them to a digital Cloud. Video games look almost lifelike now, you rarely score points, and virtual reality was a flop. And with the internet being a booming market at the time of the last revision, you'd think they might've mentioned it, but nope.

But that's not even the worst offense of the oft-refurbished, never-updated, current version of the Carousel. You see, when the show premiered, it depicted time periods which Walt, and many other Americans at the time, would have remembered. There was the turn of the century for the grandparents, the Roaring Twenties for the parents, the Frantic Forties for the soon-to-be's, and a glimpse at the future for everyone. Today, there's hardly a person alive who remembers the '20s, let alone the aughts. Three-fourths of the show's story takes place in what is now the distant past. That's bad enough, but now we have a finale that takes place in the "not-too-distant future" of two decades ago, leaving a fifty-plus year gap in between scenes 3 and 4.

It is well past time the Imagineers addressed these issues. If the Carousel is going to continue turning for future guests, it needs to get up-to-date, and fast. This would be a pricey endeavor for what is generally considered a sleeper of an Attraction, but Progress has a decent-sized and devoted fan base, and introducing a new show to today's generation of park-goers could only boost its popularity. So what can they do?

Well, fix the time gap problem, for starters. There are two ways they can do this. The first would be to turn the clock ahead a few decades. The last scene should be in the foreseeable future, so set that in the 2020s. In keeping with the twenty-year gap between the scenes, that would set the rest of the show in the '60s, '80s, and 2000s. Those are all interesting and groundbreaking time periods, each with their own unique look and sound, and think of the possible references they could make:

In the '60s, the father could talk about events like the British Invasion, the space program, color TV, and even the World's Fair. The daughter could reflect the social and cultural changes of the time periods, being depicted here as a tie-dye wearing, peace-sign flashing hippie-chick, maybe getting ready for a rock concert instead of a trolley party. The younger son could show a more innocent side of the era, being a fan of The Osmonds, Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and maybe (through Disney's ownership of ABC) even Batman. The mother could be one of those new-fangled working moms, trying to juggle the responsibilities of home and a job outside of the house.

The father of the '80s could mention new advancements in technology — like the home computer, video cassette recorder, and cellular phones — crack jokes about "that B-movie actor from the forties" being in the White House, and proclaim his pride in America "winning" the Cold War. Might even be worth mentioning that new park Disney built in Florida — can't remember the name of it, but it sounds like something Walt talked about years ago… some kind of city. The daughter in this scene could be a pop princess, with wild hair and fluorescent clothes, Walkman on her hip, and Michael Jackson poster on her bedroom wall. Star Wars and video games would be the big things for the son these days. That new "Entertainment System" has taken over the den. Mother would be a full-time professional now, leaving the household chores for father to do in his spare time. And then, of course, there's old Uncle Orville, who has crashed the family's house to use their new indoor spa tub.

The turn of a new century marks a surprising departure from the home of the future we were shown fifty years ago. Everything is retro now, including the cars. Those huge, bulky cell phones of the '80s have made way for pocket-sized mobile phones, which everybody seems to have. The internet is now coming into people's homes, and it's faster than ever. In fact, the daughter now uses the internet to download all of her music, and she carries it all on something called an MP3 player… but she keeps tying up the phone line! The son is still into Star Wars and video games, but the new ones with all the 3D graphics. And he uses the internet to play games with kids around the world! Mother works from home now, allowing her to help out around the house, while Father has become a stay-at-home dad, something unthinkable in the '60s.

As for the 2020s and beyond… I'll leave that for the Imagineers to decide.

Earlier, I mentioned two options for rebuilding the Carousel from scratch. The other would be to keep the first scene in the early 1900s, but space out the scenes by 40-50 years instead of 20.  This would allow them to keep some of the pre-electricity gags, while addressing the issue of the timespan from the third to the fourth scene.

Many of these concepts would only require new dialog and redressing existing scenes. A new sponsor (maybe Siemens?) could help pick up the tab for the renovations, but I think Disney's doing well enough now — especially with Marvel Studios releasing hit after hit and New Fantasyland drawing record crowds — that they could probably afford to set aside a suitable budget for the project. Iger seems more willing to spend money on worthwhile endeavors than Eisner was anyway.

With The Enchanted Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree seeing significant cuts to runtimes and operating hours, it would be a shame to lose yet another Disney Park classic to the chopping block, especially one to which Walt Disney himself had devoted so much passion. The Carousel of Progress is a priceless and irreplaceable piece of Disney history that deserves to be treated with the same TLC Disney has put into other staged Audio-Animatronic shows like The Hall of Presidents and The American Adventure. Maybe then, we'll start to see some real progress.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Digital Devices Destroying Disney's Dreamworld

Ah, the digital age. Isn't it wonderful? A whole computer, pocket-sized and ready to cater to your every whim. A world of convenient devices at your finger tips. But what happens when worlds collide?

Walt Disney World is supposed to be a place where you can escape from the real world and its troubles; a place where you can lose yourself in, as the sign at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom puts it, "a world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy." Yet recently, as the digital age has taken a hold of America, it seems the world of fantasy has been injected with a heavy dose of reality.

Cell phones were the beginning, but when they first appeared most of them were too bulky and expensive to really create much of an imposition. Of course, now everybody has one, and as much as they are are handy for keeping track of your family, they are a royal nuisance when you are forced to hear someone else's conversations while eating lunch, waiting for a ride, and yes, even using the restroom. (By the way, if you feel so bold, next time you hear someone in a restroom talking on their phone, make the loudest, rudest noises you can. It may make them think twice about where they hold their "private" conversations.)

In my Guide to Enjoying Walt Disney World Through a Viewfinder, I recommend bringing a digital camera for taking pictures. They can make taking and saving pictures a lot more convenient than conventional film. Consequently, making something more convenient also tends to make people less considerate about it. With the ability to take as many pictures as you want (within the limits of your disc capacity, of course), and delete any that you don't, digital cameras have become a major source of annoying habits around Disney World. People will take pictures of anything, anywhere, with flash, for the unlikely chance to capture something, usually with little to no consideration for the people around them. Take a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean for a perfect example of this. These people are a reason why I created the Guide to Enjoying Walt Disney World Without Annoying or Offending Others.

The third thing that bugs me (though thankfully this is not am imposition on anyone other than the user) are iPods and other music players. Though I admit I wear earphones while I navigate the parks by myself, I never have them on when I'm with someone else. Plus, I have an excuse: I know all four parks inside and out and I am aware of the atmosphere, and that's important. The Attractions are only half of what makes Disney World magical, the other half is atmosphere, and half of the atmosphere is the sound effects and background music. By wearing earphones one denies him- or herself a huge part of the Disney difference. That may not matter to the person with the iPod, but it projects outwardly a lack of interest in what makes the place special.

It's a shame to see Disney losing control of its environment, through no fault of their own. There seems to be no clear solution either, nor do I believe Disney is looking for one. It's one of those problems that only bothers the anal-retentive Disney fanatics like myself, and frankly Disney seems more interested in attracting more new guests than keeping their old and devoted ones. But that's a topic for another entry...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Nightmare Before Thanksgiving

Someone once asked a friend of mine when she felt the Christmas season begins. She replied, "when someone wishes me a Happy Halloween."

Sadly, this is not a joke. It seems every year Christmas comes just a little bit earlier. All one has to do is take a look at the local shopping mall or department store to understand what I mean. No sooner do the cobwebs and jack'o'lanterns come down than the wreaths and tinsel appear.

Now it is one thing to be surrounded by Christmas while doing some early holiday shopping, but do we really need to be exposed to it while on vacation? If you arrived at Disney World around November 1st - the very day after Halloween - you would have seen all of the parks decked out for Christmas, and Christmas carols being played in various areas around the resort and parks.

I understand that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, and the rest of the world wouldn't understand our association between Thanksgiving (or the day after) and the Christmas season, but is it too much to ask to wait until Advent before we start ringing the silver bells? By the time Christmas Eve arrives, most people are so Xmased out that they couldn't care less if Rudolph saves the day or not.

And the characters? Starting November 1st, most of the characters are dressed up for Christmas. If I took my family to Disney World in early November and all of our pictures with the characters looked like late December I know I'd be really disappointed. I mean, Goofy's dressed up as Santa Claus, for crying out loud!

It could be just me, but I think November is too early for Christmas. Maybe the second or third week at the earliest. The sad part is no matter how much we hate being bombarded by Christmas this early, it's here to stay. So fa la la your heart out and try to keep the spirit. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year, no matter how much of the year it takes over.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Where Dreams Really Do Come True...

There is a sense of excitement in the air around Walt Disney World today, more so than usual, and a lot of that excitement is due to Disney's newest global celebration: Where Dreams Come True.

For 35 years now people have been coming to Disney World with the sense that there was something about this place that sets it apart from other amusement parks. Everyone knows that it's the only place where they can meet Mickey Mouse and Cinderella and many other of their favorite Disney characters, and most people are aware of the attention to detail Disney puts into their attractions and environments, but most people seem to have lost touch with what really makes Disney World such a magical place.

Unfortunately, in an increasingly negative and cynical society, a world where everybody seems to think they're more important than everyone else, it's difficult to get that magic across to people who see Disney World as a place where they must be made happy because they say so. Over the past decade or so, I've seen Disney World slip from a place where everybody is happy, to a place where everybody is whatever they want to be, and Disney judges happiness by numbers and profits. The attitude seemed to be to bring as many people in as possible, and if some of them left with magic, great; all the others still came aynway. Well, people got wise, and through all the cynicism came the voice of those who truly believed that Disney World could be so much more than what it was portraying.

Finally, Disney listened. With the Dream Teams roaming through the parks, Disney is poised to start making the magic themselves again, and I've already seen the results. This celebration is exactly what Disney stands for. Surprising people with magic that no one else can offer. Nearly everyone who visits the Magic Kingdom has wanted to live in Cinderella's Castle, if only for one night. Now Disney is offering the chance. You want to visit all five Disney Resorts? Now you can, if you are lucky enough to be chosen as worldwide parade grand marshal. Disney has even gone so far as to reward guests who do magical things themselves with an exclusive pin that commemorates the moment, which itself comes with a pin for that guest to reward another guest's magical moment.

This is exactly the type of positive reinforcement Disney needed. For too long, the squeeky wheels have gotten the grease. Those who complain the most and make the most noise have been running away with all the prizes Disney has to offer. Now, in order to receive the magic you have to become a part of it, and it seems as though most people are discovering this, if only on a subconscious level. It is bringing the best out of people and, most importantly, attracting the types of people to whom Disney has always reached out.

One of the Dream Team members was telling me a story recently about a Magical Moment. A random seat was chosen on Star Tours at a particular time of day and whoever ended up in this seat won a $500 shopping spree. The prize was won by a 9 year old boy. This boy and his father had planned this trip to Disney World together without informing the mother or sister. They didn't even know they were going to Disney World until just before they left.

Upon winning the shopping spree, the boy went through the shop buying presents for his sister first, then his parents individually. He had the presents for his mother and sister (who were on another attraction at the time) mailed to their home as a surprise for when they returned. He commented that he wished he could have won dinner at the Royal Table (a full service restaurant on the second floor of Cinderella's Castle) because his mother and sister had unsuccessfully been trying to get reservations all week. The Dream Team member (who was at this point in uncontrollable tears) made these arrangements for him.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, the boy bought himself a single, limited edition Star Wars watch with what was left over.

I am getting misty-eyed just typing this story...

This is exactly what Disney World is all about: bringing families together, creating genuine happiness, and making dreams come true. This celebration has brought the magic back where it belongs, and I hope to see more excitement in the coming months. With this celebration Walt Disney World has solidified its purpose in society, and has confirmed to even some of the most hardened hearts that it truly is a place "where dreams come true."