Monday, June 18, 2018

Imagineering Theory: Who is It For?

This question came up in the comments on my Niche Vs. Pastiche post, and I decided it deserved a post of its own. Who, when you get right down to it, is the target audience for Disneyland and other Disney theme parks? Is it the same for all of them? Should it be the same?
And of course, embedded in the is of the question is an implicit ought: Whom should the Imagineers attempt to court with their projects?

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Wonderful World of Color Schemes

Come to think of it, Disneyland has meant more to me than rides and characters since I was a child. I've been noticing the art on display there since middle school at least. One of the facets that always stood out to me was the iconic color schemes of certain attractions. We're talking, I would get bored in class and start doodling in those signature colors, because it reminded me of the park. (When I wasn't trying to draw the attractions outright, that is.) We're talking, if those particular combinations showed up anywhere else, it would give me the warm fuzzies.
So I figured I'd gush about them here, for your amusement. I may or may not have anything insightful to say about how the colors work on psychological level—that aspect was largely lost on me, for whom the Disneyland! connection overrode anything else.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Imagineering Theory: Niche Vs. Pastiche

In my ongoing quest to figure out just what makes the themes of theme parks tick, I've started to think that maybe the specificity of a given theme plays a big role in how well it's received. Is it better for a themed area to mimic a defined time and place, with accurate details, or does it work better when it plays things loosey-goosey?
Ultimately the answer is probably highly subjective. Some people need a high degree of verisimilitude to feel immersed in the fictional world of a theme park, while others are fine with a rough interpretation that engages their imagination to fill the gaps. Heck with it...some settings work better with a high degree of verisimilitude, while others work better rough. Let's call the two approaches niche and pastiche—the perfect specific fit vs. the patchwork. Plus they rhyme with each other!
Both approaches are very much in evidence in the Disneyland Resort. The ultimate niche area is surely Cars Land, which mimics its source material basically to perfection. Shall I post the two images again? I'm gonna post the two images again.



Meanwhile, the best example of pastiche is probably Frontierland,* which combines elements as disparate as a Mississippi River paddleboat, a saloon decorated with Texas longhorn racks, a Mexican town square, and a Gold Rush mining operation, yet makes it work because it all fits within the continuum of the “Old West” as understood by guests. Historical accuracy is not the point; Disneyland is not Colonial Williamsburg. The object is to get across a general idea, and Frontierland succeeds very well—none of its attractions feel like they don't belong to the overall area theme, which is more than you can say for some themed lands.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Seriously Though, What Is The Deal With This Fandom?

At the base of the sprawling magnolia tree out in front of Pirates of the Caribbean is a massive ship's anchor. I am very sorry not to have a photo I can show you, because it's quite striking. It appears to have lain there for quite some time—the tree is slowly enveloping it and the metal is rough with corrosion. Oddly enough, the anchor's rope is still attached, in perfectly fine condition, and if you follow it up through the branches of the tree and then over, you'll find that it originates from...
...Tarzan's Treehouse. Which was, of course, built from the wreckage of a ship.
This is one of those Disneyland details that I find absolutely enthralling—a literal connection between two entirely different attractions in two different lands, whose only real point of similarity is the presence of sailing ships. There is an excellent symbol-logic to it: the one thing these two attractions have in common, the thematic bridge between them, also serves as a physical bridge between them. It's almost mystical, isn't it? One can easily imagine a dream-scenario in which the themed lands are more profoundly separated than they are in fact, with no linking walkways, but the anchor rope remains and serves as the functional bridge between New Orleans Square and Adventureland—a reward for those daring enough to walk a tightrope or swing hand-by-hand underneath. What other surprising connections might or should exist in such a fanciful version of the Happiest Place on Earth?
Are you with me so far? Now for the real question. Why is no one else talking about this stuff?

Monday, May 21, 2018

Space Mountain and Mickey Mouse

 First of all, happy Victoria Day to my faithful commenter Cory Gross!

What exactly defines a Disney-quality theme park experience? There seems to be broad agreement that Disney is the gold standard in theme park design, but what exactly does WDI do that gives its output that little extra edge? Does it even do anything all that differently anymore, or is it just coasting on its reputation? Something that troubles me a bit is the tendency for the mainstream public to judge attractions according to just two factors: 1) how kinetically exciting (fast, bumpy, etc.) is it, and 2) does it feature characters I like? Hence a phrase I have coined which also serves as the title of this post: Space Mountain and Mickey Mouse.
It's easy to be dismissive of this mindset, to brush these people off as ignorant, imperceptive, shallow, or whatever buzzword gives you the maximum sense of superiority over them, but I am coming around to the idea that it's largely not their fault. Nor is it entirely WDI's fault. Or even Upper Management's fault, although as the ones with the lion's share of the power to change it, they need to own it.
The “Space Mountain” half of the equation is easy enough to explain: it's part of the overall cultural emphasis on speed and thrills. You could probably get an entire series of essays out of examining the reasons behind this larger trend, but that's not the kind of sociology project I'm suited for. I'd rather tackle the “Mickey Mouse” portion, which seems to me to be less obvious, and therefore more interesting to speculate about.
I'm starting to think it's actually, at least in part, a generational thing.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sentimental Paleontology: The Other Space

Let's not lose perspective: the Tomorrowland Problem is old. You could make a case for it being as old as Disneyland itself—we all know that Tomorrowland was the one area that was severely skimped on back in 1955 due to time and budget shortfalls, and what was there was so immediately dated that the land received a major upgrade before the park turned five. What we don't acknowledge as often is that said major upgrade already represented a partial departure from the themes of science, technology, and realistic futurism in favor of a dose of pure fantasy. The Submarine Voyage—a celebration of technological achievements allowing humanity to explore parts of the world that were previously completely inaccessible—was also a veritable showcase of popular myths about the ocean, presented as though they were as real as the coral reefs.
And honestly...I have trouble figuring out why. This early in the game, the Imagineers could hardly have been running short of futuristic inspiration. Did they think a realistic undersea voyage was too boring? If so, why create the Submarine Voyage to begin with? If, on the the other hand, the fantasy material was included due to the attraction's location on the boundary between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, why don't we see more crossover content in other boundary attractions that debuted in this era?
Moreover, several years down the line, the “World on the Move” Tomorrowland makeover would have been the perfect opportunity to refine the Submarine Voyage into something more on-point. But instead, the Imagineers doubled down on the fantasy by adding live mermaid performers to the Lagoon. That experiment didn't last, for reasons that vary depending upon who's telling the story,* but the overall point is that this ride has been part of Tomorrowland almost since the beginning, and its most fantastic aspect was immediately established as its most iconic.
They've never really known what to do with Tomorrowland.

The mythical aquatic singing sirens...of the future!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Armchair Imagineering: The Ideal Kingdom

It's inevitable. Dabble in Armchair Imagineering long enough, and sooner or later you'll get the urge to try your hand at designing an entire park. There are two main ways people go with such a project—either they attempt to put together their personal Platonic ideal of a Disneyland-style “Kingdom” park,* or they craft their own answer to Universal Islands of Adventure with a bunch of Disney's purchased IPs.
This is an example of the former.
It's times like this when I really wish I could draw well. I would love to be able to create a tentative map of my vision here, or some concept art for the original attraction ideas. But alas, that gift is not mine, so you and I are stuck with text.**
My goals here are severalfold. I wish to distill my 40 years of Disneyland memories into something that hits all the sweet spots of both my nostalgia and my current tastes, while also having things to offer the younger generation of fans. I want to iron out some of the wrinkles that have resulted from decades of making-it-up-as-they-go-along, while still preserving the charm that this methodology has produced. I want a park that's chock-a-block with things to do, at all levels of intensity, while still having room to grow. I want immersive worlds that are just complete enough to prompt guests to fill in the blanks themselves. I want to get back to the principle that the guest experience is primary.
A great deal of what follows will be intimately familiar. Hopefully, enough of it won't be to constitute a transformative improvement. Or at least to be intriguing.