The bread-and-butter of much discussion throughout the Disneysphere is the perceived decline of Imagineering and the attractions it creates. Many of these focus on the question of licensed works as opposed to original concepts, having observed a decided lack of modern classics in the vein of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion or Journey into Imagination. Most seem to be running statistical tallies on the number of thrill rides or E-tickets, shedding a tear over each new C-ticket attraction and Princess meet n’ greet. Despite the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World being the best-attended theme park in the world, beating out Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure by more than 10 million visitors in 2013, well-intentioned fans are frantic over the need for a “Potter-Swatter” or Disney’s need to step up to the plate when they already own the field. To put it in perspective, 10 million is a little more than the attendance of The Louvre in 2013, or the total number of visitors to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.
Oddly absent is debate over the single most important dialectic problem in Imagineering design today… The problem cutting to the very heart of what a Disney theme park experience is, regardless of whether it is a ride or a meet n’ greet, an E-Ticket or a nice bit of place-making, a true themed-park or simply an amusement park encrusted with diverse franchises. It is often mistaken for being the debate between “story” and “theme” but it runs even deeper than that. It reflects the very nature of how a guest subjectively determines the success or failure of an attraction. That problem is the issue of spectatorship versus experientialism.
A slow process throughout the Eighties and Nineties transformed the attitudes of Imagineering towards seeing theme parks as a storytelling medium rather than an immersive experience. Under the reign of Michael Eisner, the decree went out that “it’s all about story,” and the new generation of Imagineers attempted to force fit the medium of the theme park to it. According to The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland, even a setting like Main Street USA has a “story,” as did the original version of Pirates of the Caribbean.
It wasn’t always that way though. Marc Davis, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men and a chief designer on Pirates of the Caribbean, specifically contradicts it:
“[Walt Disney] didn’t like the idea of telling stories in this medium. It’s not a story telling medium. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates. You don’t see a story that starts at the beginning and ends with, ‘By golly, they got the dirty dog.’ It wasn’t that way.”
When the Imagineering Field Guide claims that Jack Sparrow, Barbossa and “these characters from the films were interwoven into the existing story, all the while ensuring that the spirit of the show remained intact,” (pg. 60) we can see the first problem. There was no existing story! Imposing a story about Jack Sparrow in and of itself violated the original spirit of the show.
This is not to say that these attractions did not have a motivating logic behind them. Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and their vintage did have a structure that unfolded according to the needs of the experience. Consider the Haunted Mansion: the guest is personally welcomed into the house by the Ghost Host, who explains that we are about to embark on a tour of strange sights. We catch fleeting glimpses of these things in the form of stretching and changing portraits, but the Ghost Host challenges our perceptions. Is it only our imaginations? After loading into our Doombuggy, we are assaulted by invisible spirits straining to cross over into our world. Sensing our sympathetic vibrations, Madame Leota calls them out of the aether, and we proceed to a swinging wake. The Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize, and in the end, a hitchhiker threatens to follow us home as a diminutive bride beckons us to hurry back.
The motivating logic of this “story” is not a narrative, but a set of experiences placing the guest at the centre of an adventure. It is the guest who is touring the Haunted Mansion, the guest whom the Ghost Host addresses, the guest whose sympathetic vibrations release the 999 Happy Haunts, and the guest that the Hitchhiking Ghosts want to escape with. Though Imagineers were conscientious of tying Constance to images in the Stretching Room, she still does not add a narrative element to the ride. Hers is little more than an extended gag that is very much in the spirit of the rest of the Mansion. The house itself provides the cohesion of the experience, moving us forward through doorways and passages rather than cuts and dissolves. At the core of it is the guest’s own adventure.
This tradition goes all the way back to the original dark rides, where the guest was cast in the role of Snow White, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad and Alice. Each one follows a structure comparable to the refined form in the Haunted Mansion: in Snow White’s Scary Adventure you are running through forests and dungeons, in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride you are careening through the streets of London, in Alice in Wonderland you tumble down the rabbit hole and in Peter Pan’s Flight you are flying over Neverland. In their original form, prior to their slight renovations in 1983, guests did not watch Snow White or Peter Pan: they became Snow White and Peter Pan, assuming their roles in the adventure, sharing their experiences. They are all defined by the quality of being experiential.
Lest this be dismissed as nostalgia, one could point to numerous modern examples whose Imagineers understood this fundamental point. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye calls direct attention to the fact that every guest riding it is a tourist by making that the motivating logic of the ride. In it, you play a tourist visiting the temple when things go awry and Indy must come to save the day. In Tokyo Disneysea’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo has invited you to become a member of his crew and pilot one of his exploratory submarine pods. Star Tours casts you as a passenger on an express starliner, and in the newest version, one guest even turns out to be a Rebel spy. Lord Henry Mystic has invited guests to his Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland when little Albert opens the magical music box. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror articulates this whole principle most succinctly when a Rod Serling sound-alike states categorically “in tonight’s episode you are the star…”
By contrast, the weakest Disney attractions in recent memory all place the guest as a spectator to a disjointed sequence of tableaux from someone else’s adventure. The three most recent Fantasyland-style darkrides – Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid – all share this problem. An ideal Little Mermaid ride would have had Ariel touring us around under the sea and rescuing us from having our own voices stolen by Ursula. Instead we merely sit in a cart to watch dimensional vignettes from the movie. Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sully to the Rescue has the same problem. The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage places us in a cramped submersible to watch cartoons. Phantom Manor takes the Haunted Mansion format and draws the guest out by making it about the conflict of The Phantom and Melanie Ravenswood. The story of Splash Mountain suffers terribly by being disjointed vignettes from a film that nobody in North America is legally allowed to watch.
The most egregious offense was perpetrated on Pirates of the Caribbean. In the original, as Marc Davis said, the guest experiences the idea of pirates. The structural arc of the attraction begins with the guest falling into a cavern of skeletonized pirates and their dusty treasure trove. A disembodied voice – now long-gone – warns that we’ve seen too much and know where the cursed treasure be hidden. We emerge from those caverns to have our own lives put at risk in a town being sacked by pirates who are becoming increasingly inebriated and immoderate. Eventually, their excess spells their own doom, and possibly our own if we stay trapped with them. Our last glimpse is of a pair of skeletons, the last remains of the last two pirates who killed each other for treasure. Through the harrowing ordeal we come to realize that the peril was not merely to our bodies but to our souls, for the cursed treasure was not a treasure that was cursed. No… It is treasure itself that is cursed. We get to enjoy the swashbuckling idea of piracy on the Spanish Main as well as a powerful moral message (that conveniently justifies the puerile vicarious excitement of enjoying a good pirate attack). In the current version, guests are reduced to mere spectators sitting in a boat to watch the antics of Jack Sparrow, and they don’t even get to see the good parts. He just pops up periodically to remind guests that he’s the focal point of this adventure, in case they missed how everyone else is constantly talking about him. In the end, instead of the poetry of this morality play, we see that Jack Sparrow got away with it and piracy is okay (I suspect that wouldn’t hold up in the event of a piracy lawsuit from Disney). It is now Jack Sparrow’s adventure, not our own. And nothing is more satisfying than watching the adventures of fictional characters whose lives are more interesting than our own, right? Isn’t that the whole point of Disneyland? Or is it?
In lieu of the immersive experience that places the guest at the centre of their own adventure, we see an increasing reliance on cheap tricks to retain our attention. Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlasters is a giant dimensional video game. Toy Story Midway Mania is not even that: it is literally a video game you can buy for Nintendo Wii. Reportedly, the MagicBand/MyMagic+ initiative will give affluent parents the option to purchase an animatronic character wishing their child a happy birthday. I would not be overly surprised if we start to see an increasing number of smartphone apps that serve similar purposes, say, a Haunted Mansion “ghost hunting” app that posts your in-ride photos to an online leaderboard (and Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). On the other hand, things like A Pirate’s Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas and Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom are at least done right. In the latter, Merlin enlists your help, and you take an active role by casting spells that stop the villains.
The situation is honestly not doom and gloom. As evidenced by my list of positive examples, this dialectic problem is still producing numerous attractions in both styles. Nor are all attractions of either necessarily all good or all bad. Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage is a wonderful, brilliant, and charming attraction at Tokyo DisneySea that is very much on the spectatorship side of the ledger. To give credit where it is due, this is neither an exclusively Disney issue. Something Universal did well to figure out is that people are fans of Harry Potter because they like the idea of being a student at Hogwarts, and they are more than happy to sell you the ephemera to pretend you are. Fans want robes, scarves, and $50 wands, not a tschotcke with Mickey dressed as Harry.
This tug-of-war will probably continue for many years – perhaps indefinitely – with certain types of franchises taking up certain sides. For example, the arrival of Marvel attractions will necessarily involve watching The Avengers do heroic things, while more original concepts may furnish guests with the opportunity to do heroic things. I hope, however, that it eventually settles for fostering engaging experiences over passive spectatorship.