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This past weekend, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom offered a sneak peek of a revamped Hall of Presidents, now including President Obama, to annual passholders (with separate screenings for Cast Members). By the end of the day Sunday, regular guests were admitted to the attraction as well, and full-blown soft opening appears underway. The attraction opens publicly on July 4th.

The verdict by most reviewers online and in discussion boards has been positive, and in some cases glowingly positive. Yet this is a difficult attraction to review completely and in a way that will appear objective to all readers, because as I see it, Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) seems to have done something new here: on the surface of things, they appear to have taken sides politically. I've already witnessed first-hand that this makes some people react less than favorably to the show. It probably won't be the majority of people who dislike it, but the days of the attraction being seen as a fully neutral presentation are gone, at least for now.

The attraction sports new marquees, a new countdown clock indicating how many minutes until the next show, and a new subtitle: "A Celebration of Liberty's Leaders." There are new movies (well, slideshow presentations), and they are displayed in eye-popping, unrealistically bright and cheerful projections, the result of a switch to digital projectors. It's jarring, in fact, how "fresh" that part of the show looks when compared to your memory of the dingy, cracked, faded, and often dirty film print that used to run here.

But this is no mere freshening of the same show, with the new president plopped into place at the end. This was a fundamental rethink of the show's purpose, scope, and orientation. The bottom line is that the show now offers park visitors an actual, honest to goodness thesis: everything in American presidential history, it claims by virtue of a new storyline, has been inexorably leading up to this moment, and the election of Barack Obama is the culmination of a long "development" in us as a culture and a society. There will be many who cheer this line of reasoning, but it strikes me that others may resent the apparent taking of sides. Had John McCain won the election, would the show celebrate in a similar way?


The lobby is mostly unchanged, though the new title is visible here,
and a new display case shows outfits worn by several First Ladies.

Of course, Obama's presidency is historic in a way that McCain's would not have been, if for no other reason than Obama's multiracial background. His victory reflects a major change from the past, and the revamped show would want to acknowledge that. It would be hard to have any objections on these grounds.

But no matter how you personally voted in the 2008 election, we all recognize that some folks voted for candidates who didn't win, and those folks are arguably being excluded in the celebration promoted by the new show, since the show is not as neutral as its previous versions had been. That's the problem with developing a "story" out of the list of presidents over time; such a narrative by definition creates the impression that Obama was supposed to win…and furthermore implies that anyone else was supposed to lose in that election. I think this will alienate some folks.

Let's back up to the start of the show and take it from there. We begin with the familiar preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and quickly turn to the early story in Philadelphia. Our new (disembodied) narrator is actor Morgan Freeman, with a comforting and familiar voice that has the suitable gravitas the role calls for. The narration points out that America was going to be different from the beginning because it would not be a monarchy; we would dare to choose our own leader. And our first leader, George Washington, would further solidify our national character by opting to step down after two terms. The man who could be king, Freeman notes, was really just "one of us" and only wanted the title of citizen of the United States.


Washington is shown returning to his family after serving the nation.

If there's an obvious theme to the slideshow, "one of us" would be a reasonable choice. The phrase itself is repeated several times in the narration, and the remainder of the slideshow unfolds with cherry-picked history designed to imply that the country moved forward only when a humble commoner was in command. Only some presidents even warrant a mention, with others left entirely unmentioned.

Andrew Jackson comes after Washington, and he is lauded for being non-aristocratic by birth, and allowing the unwashed masses admission to the executive mansion after his election, much to the dismay of Washington insiders.

From there, we fast-forward to Abraham Lincoln and the looming Civil War, for which the presentation goes to a wide-screen format, using even more of the Circle-Vision screens. Some of the audio here is recycled from the previous show. Lincoln is also shown as a common man, for he was self-taught, and unassuming. But his beliefs in the equality of men stand above his other traits.

The Civil War section of the slideshow concludes with the screens separating from each other to create a pocket of space on the stage, and a few curtains rise to reveal Lincoln himself, seated. There are other curtains all around him, and the curved curtain immediately behind him will show the sharp-eyed visitor what's to come: other presidents are lurking just behind the curtains, but for now, we are only treated to Lincoln, and a special curtain crafts a bubble of space to make this "private performance" possible.


Lincoln has always moved gracefully and realistically.

Lincoln delivers the elegantly concise Gettysburg Address in its entirety. The screens had been showing the site of the battle of Gettysburg, so it's logical for Lincoln to deliver this one speech rather than a collection of speeches pasted together as was done for his World's Fair debut.

After his speech, the screens recombine for more slideshow images. We see a few drawings (airplane, transcontinental railroad) that snap into still photographs with the sudden pop of a flashbulb, neatly transitioning the slideshow from the age of paintings (which it had used exclusively until now) to the age of photographs (which it will use exclusively from here on out).

Up next is Teddy Roosevelt, who is celebrated for his unique combination of tough-guy credentials and soft-spoken approachability. It is Teddy, we learn, who was humble and populist enough to consider the executive mansion to be just a house… a white house, and proclaimed that that would be its simple name ever after.

The presentation switches to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the slideshow highlights first that FDR was a mortal, even fragile, human himself, crippled as he was by polio. Then, we are told repeatedly that FDR created hope out of despair, and his calm voice reassured the worried masses.

We skip to John F. Kennedy next, and the parts of his speeches that are played make evident that the torch is being passed to a younger generation, and that the world is being changed in radical and fundamental ways. (If you look at the right-hand screen at this point, you'll see a young Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton meeting JFK).


A young Bill Clinton.

There is no direct discussion of the remaining presidents, but several are given a chance to speak with no voiceover by the narrator. Morgan Freeman sets up the sequence by intoning that presidents are at their best when they convey what's already in the hearts of the populace, especially during times of tragedy. LBJ mourns the slain Kennedy, Reagan eulogizes the Challenger disaster victims, Clinton consoles Oklahoma City, and George W. Bush takes the bullhorn at Ground Zero to exclaim "We can hear you, the world can hear you." Bush's quote originally continued with "and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon," but this was cut and replaced instead with a crowd chanting "USA" over and over again.

The inclusion of Reagan and Bush provides a bit of counterbalance; it's not like the show displays only presidents from the liberal end of the political spectrum. But the highlighting of only some presidential profiles does reveal a preference for distinct change. Look again at the list of biographies and the qualities associated with each person:

Washington (humble) Teddy (populism)
Jackson (of common birth) FDR (provides hope and reassurance)
Lincoln (stresses equality) JFK (pass the torch and change the world)

It's surely no accident that these are many of the attributes often cited in Obama's presidency by the media. It would be quite hard to imagine this very slideshow used to introduce President John McCain, but it's easy to see it as an introduction for Obama. Indeed, the argument is all but said out loud that the history of the American presidency has been leading us up to this point, and that Obama's election was inevitable.

The show then opens up to the stage, as the curtain rises and the assemblage of presidents becomes visible. The screens, as they separate, display a launching Space Shuttle as they make room for the stage, and we hear an uncredited Ronald Reagan giving part of his speech about the Challenger: "Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."


The presidents are scattered around on both sides of the stage.

As in past presentations, the narrator makes a roll call of the presidents, with a spotlight briefly illuminating each one, who nods at the audience when his name is called. After George W. Bush, though, Obama's name does not immediately follow. Instead, the George Washington animatronic stands up and delivers a brief speech, explaining to his audience that he only had the confidence to take office because he took an oath, just thirty-five simple words that have been repeated by every president ever since.


The first president introduces the current one.

This provides the cue for Obama, and he recites the oath of office. Then, the narrator presents him to us formally, and he delivers a brief speech:

The American dream is as old as our family, but as timeless as our hopes. It is reborn every day in the heart of every child who wakes up in a land of limitless possibilities, in a country where "we the people" means ALL the people. We may come from different places and believe different things, but what makes us American is a shared spirit: a spirit of courage and determination, of kindness and generosity. It is a spirit grounded in the wisdom of the generations that have gone before us, open to the unimagined discoveries and possibilities on the horizon that lies ahead. Let us enjoy it, cherish it, defend it, and pass it on to our children as the bright and beautiful blessing it is: this enduring American dream.


It's soon to be "dawn in America," or something like that.

As he speaks, the starscape behind Obama is replaced by a rosy dawn, and then a waving flag projection. This is a much more active projected image than the sedate "flag in the sky" cloud formation seen in past versions of the show.

Meanwhile, the swelling music crescendos into the last two lines of America the Beautiful:

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
from sea to shining sea!

With that, the curtains close, and the twenty minute show comes to an end. As I see it, it's no accident that the last line is one of "brotherhood" and implied belongingness. For indeed, the show's theme ("one of us") is repeated throughout. The more one thinks about the theme, the more it makes sense.


It's technologically impressive, but emotionally underwhelming.

Sure, it's pretty easy to see the surface meaning: Obama is "one of us," with "us" being the everyday people in America, rather than part of the rich elite. He came from a working-class background.

For African-Americans in the audience, the phrase has a second meaning in that this presidency marks the first time they can say that the new president is "one of us."

But this simple phrase has even more permutations. It could even be viewed from the perspective of the presidents themselves, as if they are reassuring the audience that the newest president is just like them; he is "one of us" now and part of the presidential brotherhood.

If all that sounds overly cerebral, it's probably intentional and yet another way the show is honoring the newest president--because, after all, being cerebral is another attribute often associated with Obama.

It would be fairly simple to extend the "cerebral" argument right down to the very tone of the new show. Using the simplified rhetoric of Aristotle's appeals, one could say that the old show banked on ethos (the character of the speakers) and pathos (emotion, in the form of stirring patriotic music). But while the old show used "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to inspire and whip up nationalism almost to a frenzy, the new show only briefly introduces music, and to my ears the bit of "America the Beautiful" that we hear is not nearly as inspiring a song. It simply doesn't soar at the end, so the last ten seconds of the show feel somehow flat and anticlimactic.


Obama the intellectual.

In fact, one could almost argue that the "pathos" of the show has been replaced by Aristotle's last appeal, logos (logic). That brings us back to "cerebral" and intellectual, and here the attraction's storyline seems to back up this interpretation. In offering a thesis about the inevitability of Obama's presidency (academics would call this a "teleological" approach), the show functions in the end analysis as a well-constructed, logical argument (rather than an emotional one).

It was a bold, and maybe even daring, move for the Imagineers to head in this direction, since the attraction could be considered more neutral until now. But you may find as I did that the longer you dwell on the nature of the changes -- the more likely you are to see them as not only well-intentioned, but also well-positioned.

Simply adding Obama to the presentation might be politically safer, but the designers opted to freshen the show, and the only way to inject vitality and newness into the presentation is to, well, CHANGE it. "Change" was the tentpole of Obama's platform, and he did win the election, so it's hardly revolutionary to adopt his position in the new attraction. After all, history, as they say, is always written by the victors.

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally.

2009 Kevin Yee


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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link. Kevin is currently working on other theme park related books, and expects the next one to be published soon.

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