Unhappily Ever After? The Last Days of Snow White at Walt Disney World
by, 05-16-2012 at 08:42 PM
The past week was spent touring around Central Florida. It has been an amazing experience and I want to thank everybody who came out for one of my talks in support of Walt and the Promise of Progress City. You saw the extended version of those talks in last week’s column: Walt Disney's Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. I had a blast.
I also want to send a special shout out to all of the podcasters, webmasters, and traditional media types who generously gave me their time. The incredible week was topped off with a speaking gig at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale last Friday as part of their Creative Inspiration series.
And the fun continues. This weekend is the MiceChat Gumball Rally on Saturday and a very special book signing at the Walt Disney Barn in Griffith Park on Sunday, May 20 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. I hope you will be able to join me at the birthplace of Imagineering and Disneyland. If you have never been to the Barn then you owe yourself the visit. Over the years, the volunteer crew have continued to ‘plus’ the environment and have turned it into a loving tribute to Walt, the Man.
While I was in Florida, I took a trip to the Magic Kingdom specifically to pay my last respects to the soon to be removed Snow White’s Scary Adventures attraction. After 41 years, Snow White and her mighty little troop are being evicted by a coup made up of Snow White’s fellow princesses who were jealous she got so much space. They will replace the Snow White ride with a princess meet and greet. Once again, our fair maiden has been banished outside of the Castle walls to fend for herself while trying to share space with seven men of varying temperaments. They'll take up residence in a small mine ride in the new Fantasyland expansion. Maybe it is all for the better. Maybe not.
interesting shot with the work lights on
I like the Florida version of Snow White. The rooms seemed huge compared to the attraction in Anaheim. In Florida, they had enough room to tell the complete story. The attraction was made for bigger crowds and the three-row ore cars featured seating where the back row was higher than the front row. I do not know if this really mattered, but I always thought it was pretty cool.
Not a long wait, but a great people eater
As my ore car made that final turn toward the exit doors, I tipped my hat toward the ear waving Dopey on the bridge one last time and realized that an era had ended. It is up to Werner Weiss and Yesterland to write a proper obituary. I am grateful that I can still visit Snow White in Disneyland.
As I was walking away, I was reminded that this type of dark ride was another Disney innovation. In 1955, the combination of story, space, and black lights (Ultraviolet) was as revolutionary as Audio-Animatronics and motion vehicles would become in later years. In the mid 1950s, black light was a novelty. Walt’s Imagineers were at the forefront using black light in their arsenal of presentation technologies to aide in the storytelling process.
Prior to the opening of Disneyland, the use of black light in rides was sporadic and usually reserved for scenes meant to scare. Imagineer Claude Coats noted, “Skeletons rattled around, but there was never a theme or a story to be told.” Imagineer Bill Martin described these early rides “like the Tunnel of Love, for instance, where boats followed each other through a canal...that was a dark ride. When we went back East to visit all those amusement parks, all we saw were the ‘iron rides’ and midway attractions, but no dark rides like we were planning, using “black light.”
Coats summed the Disney innovations, “The big improvement we made over what had been done before was the way we left people with a little two-minute experience within a certain story that they had known from our animated films. Now they got to see it in a more dimensional way, and these were interesting ways of doing it. In a very small space you can make things look larger, using forced perspective in paintings.” Coats added that “black light is a better illusion than it would be if it were painted like a mural in incandescent light. The rides wouldn’t be nearly as good if they were incandescent, regular light, because they’re not large enough.”
“The opening and closing scenes in the dark rides are incandescent light instead of black light, for instance,” said Imagineer Tony Baxter. “We felt that lighting them that way would segue more effectively from the real world into the fantasy world.”
With the exception of Peter Pan, each of the Fantasyland dark rides is driven by the dramatic and evil elements within the films. As you are being chased by the villain or your own folly, the walls appear to get progressively tighter and tighter. The only relief comes when we are released into the sunlight. Coats recalled, “At that time, most of the little scare rides (at other parks) had very little mood or storytelling qualities. Ken Anderson’s storyboards had shown that Peter Pan or Snow White could be told in, not quite a story, but at least a mood that gave you more than you had if you just went through and saw scary things.”
Ken Anderson suggested, “One thing we intended was that everybody on the ride would understand that they were Snow White. As you rode the attraction you were taking Snow White’s place...you were the girl that was being threatened.”
Martin noted, “Ours were the first dark rides as such. It’s my feeling that our first three rides in 1955 (Snow White, Peter Pan, and Mr. Toad) were original and kind of breakthrough.”
The original version of Snow White’s Scary Adventures opened on July 17, 1955. Ken Anderson had worked on the original 1937 film and he was put in charge of the Disneyland project. He said, “There wasn’t a lot of pre-planning and artwork done on this ride. We mostly just went down to Disneyland and built it.” Bill Martin did the track layout and most of the sets were just painted flats with the exceptions of a Witch holding the apple, some of the scary trees, and the “Falling Boulders” scene at the end.
The original thirteen mine cars ran on a single rail guide track and were built by Arrow Development. They were meant to look like they were hand carved by the dwarfs. There was no lap bar, just a rope that hooked across the door of the vehicle.
Even in those days, parents would complain and Coats said, “We got some letters about the witch scene in that ride. Walt never seemed to mind. He thought that children would sometimes have to learn that things were scary, you know.”
The Snow White attraction changed substantially when Fantasyland was reopened May 25, 1983. The exterior changed from a two-dimensional tournament tent facade to a fully realized three-dimensional German Gothic manor. The scary apple that was activated by touch, the Evil Queen peering down from the upper window (an effect inspired by the Magic Kingdom), and a dungeon laboratory scene was added to the queue. Baxter said, “We knew from Florida that we needed a way to discourage people with little kids who get scared, before they get on the ride. Now we never get complaints about Snow White ride being too frightening, because those people are weeded out by the scary pre-show area.”
The Imagineers expanded the show building and extended the track 100 feet. One major concession was the rider’s point of view. As you recall, you were meant to play the role of Snow White. But Ken Anderson said, “Nobody got it. Nobody actually figured that they were Snow White. They just wondered where the hell Snow White was. One of the biggest reason we had for redoing it in 1983 was to put Snow White in there...which we did.”
The loading area now features a three dimensional Seven Dwarfs cottage with a chimney that is designed to hide a support pillar. Once again, you enter the Dwarfs cottage in incandescent light but that quickly changes to black light once you leave the safety of the room. One thing that has not changed is the abrupt ending. Over the past couple of years, the attraction has been upgraded with additional light effects. Snow White remains a splendid way to spend a couple of minutes with the film that saved Walt’s studio.
Alas, Snow White's days in Florida are behind her. But what do you smart readers think? Is there a role for the classic Disney stories in the modern parks? Is a Princess meet and greet a suitable replacement for a classic dark ride? Would love to hear your thoughts.
Sam Gennawey is an urban planner, historian, and author.
If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you'll love his book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man.