I began writing this blog for three reasons. First and foremost, I did it for my love of Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom in Anaheim, and to a lesser degree for my appreciation of the theme parks he inspired but did not personally create: Disney California Adventure and the parks of Walt Disney World in Florida. Secondly, I needed a place to test out ideas and concepts from the Disneyland-based coming of age novel that—it is becoming increasingly clear—I may not complete before Disney and others unknowingly use all the story conceits I’m employing in their own projects. (See: Saving Mr. Banks, Jon Favreau’s rumored Magic Kingdom movie and Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland, plus Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, among others. I’m not suggesting that my own story is as good as any of these [well, maybe Escape from Tomorrow]. I’m only suggesting that the longer I “revise,” the greater the chance these storytelling avenues will be discovered, and traversed, by others.)
But the primary reason I started Your Souvenir Guide was because, at the time, there were a bunch of blogs about what Disneyland looked like, but few talking about how it feels. And Disneyland is a place that one feels their way through, an emotional truth so widely accepted that Disney gets away with using it in their advertising, over and over, and no one says boo.
The precise nature and working mechanics of Disneyland’s emotional appeal is not something I can pin down in a few words (that would take, oh, the length of a novel), but I can give you the elevator speech, like so: Disneyland is a place where remembered feelings collect and stick. While the Park has substantially changed over the course of sixty years, the old hooks remain firmly in place: Space Mountain has always been a kid’s first thrill ride, and always will be; the Haunted Mansion has always been terrific theatre, and always will be; Main Street has always had a castle at the end of it, and always will have. The “basement” of Pirates of the Caribbean has always smelled the same; Dole Whips have always tasted the same . And you have always experienced these things through the channel of your emotions, and you probably always will. Your eight-year-old self is still caught on those old hooks, and he waves to you as you get caught on them again.
I’m happy to say that there are now several blogs exploring the history and psychology of Disney’s theme parks, and they’re doing a better job of it than I ever could. My favorite of these blogs is Passport to Dreams Old and New, by a longtime themepunk who writes under the name FoxxFur. (I don’t know her real name, and I’ll never ask it.) Passport to Dreams knocks my socks off. She provides exhaustive histories of Walt Disney World attractions, both deserved and undeserved; she produces sharp, hyper-literate theses on theme park design pretty much by the pound; and she’s sat through some Disney movies that, my God, I will never watch again. She’s got entries tagged “Park Theory” and “Presentationalism,” for chrissakes. It boggles the mind that Disney hasn’t hired her outright—if not to inform their design choices and efforts to maintain thematic continuity, then to keep her singular genius inside the beltway.
But earlier this month, FoxxFur tossed a bombshell into the mix. In a post titled “Notes on a Time That Was Not Happy,” she says right out: “2014 was the year I lost faith in Disneyland.” She goes on to say that Disney has failed to engage her personal fandom, which is built upon “three poles: excellent design, historical legacy, and conceptual integrity.” To her thinking, the design failure of Disneyland’s Club 33 expansion (resulting in several blunders, key among the the loss of the Court of Angels, one of the Park’s few quiet spots), the removal of the waterfalls from the lobby of WDW’s Polynesian Village resort (her “historical legacy” item), and the failed concept of EPCOT (manifested in the decision to open a “Frozen”-themed boat ride in the Norway pavilion), were all crimes unforgivable.
“I want to see passion projects, not spreadsheet low-risk investments,” she writes. “Disney controls the most remarkable creative staff in the industry and they set them to work toiling out things like Cars Land: beautifully done, emotionally hollow. Is it any wonder so many Imagineers are jumping ship to Universal Creative?”
Well, okay. First things first: She’s one hundred percent correct about the Club 33 expansion and the plotlessness of EPCOT. (I can’t speak to the Polynesian waterfalls; I’m a product of west-coast Disney.) Considering how beautifully the expansion of WDW’s Fantasyland was done, it’s utterly remarkable how artlessly EPCOT is being handled, and just how ugly and wrongheaded that Club 33 expansion is.
I’m in lesser agreement about the ascension of Universal Creative. I don’t think they’re all that. Without a J.K. Rowling riding herd on a project—essentially shepherding work done by other, more experienced artists and designers into another medium—you don’t get a Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. Universal did not invent the look of Diagon Alley; they merely inflated it to hide the show building. It amazes me that Universal continually gets a pass for its wearying assortment of shitty, TV-in-a-moving-box rides and strip-mall facades. Say what you will about Disney’s underwhelming Little Mermaid dark ride … but it will chug on, transporting thousands of visitors daily, long after Universal has swapped out Transformers and Despicable Me for some other 3-D motion crap. The human eye wants real dimension, real shape—and 3-D rides can’t deliver it. The best thing I can say about the beautifully-executed Harry Potter attractions is also the most damning: They are Disneyesque.
And as for Cars Land: Gee, I like it. But I liked the first Cars movie, too, seeing it for what it was: a love letter to a vanishing time. That phrase describes more than half of what is successful and beloved at Disneyland. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the Cars movies—as my girlfriend did not, when she saw Disney California Adventure for the first time last October—it’s possible to appreciate Cars Land simply as a preserved Route 66 desert town, with all its Googie neon signage intact. (Ironic that Disney should build such a thing, after it conspired with the city of Anaheim to eliminate such signage from the resort corridor surrounding Disneyland.) Cars Land is impeccably designed and beautifully lit, and its rides are legit fun. The photos I took of my girlfriend and me at the head of its “street,” framed by neon signs and the Cadillac Range, matter just as much to me as the photos we took in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. The feeling was there.
We ask Disney to transport us. Cars Land does so. It makes me want to go on road trips, just as Pirates of the Caribbean makes me want to burn down villages. The “emotionally hollow” argument seems attached to the common dislike of the Cars film, and frankly, I don’t agree with it at all.
But I’m not trying to diminish FoxxFur’s main point, which is a valid and important one: In many important respects, Disney seems to be losing the plot. But I would add a level to the discussion that none of us will like to hear: At least half of Disney’s recent blunders can be attributed to us, the theme park-going public.
It’s our own fault that The Enchanted Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree have been hacked down to accommodate shorter attention spans. It’s our fault that Club 33’s membership has swelled to the size of a religion. And it’s indisputably our fault that Disneyland is losing all its quiet spaces and out-of-the-way spots. Such things are difficult to maintain when nearly a tenth of Disneyland has become a parking lot for Volkswagen-sized double decker strollers.
To a large degree, Disney is reacting, not acting. Like Disneyland’s founder, who once demanded that a concrete walkway be laid over a path that visitors were cutting through a grassy knoll, Disney is attempting to contain and manage our stampede. Club 33 is exploding because we have a terrible craving to feel special, to be part of something exclusive—and a willingness to throw money at it. The Park walkways are being widened into freeways because we take up larger footprints than we once did. (The family with a Hummer in the driveway will easily convince itself that it needs a Hummer on the walkway, too.) And heaven forbid we take our kids to an amusement park without giving them games to occupy their diminished attention spans. MagicBands, dining plans, the cartooning of EPCOT—these are all monsters that we had a hand in making. We gain nothing by pretending that Disney made these decisions in a vacuum.
The only remedy I can suggest for these problems is that old chestnut, dollar voting. Club 33 won’t keep growing if less of us try to bust down its doors. But that only takes us so far. The sad fact is that both FoxxFur and I will keep attending our respective Parks even if the popcorn is replaced with buckets of warm butterfat with straws. We have to acknowledge, in our heart of hearts, that the Magic Kingdoms of our youth have been trampled down. Some of those old hooks have been wrenched free by the crowds, and our memories lost with them. And all we can do in the face of that chaos is find some new hooks, and allow ourselves to get caught on them. Maybe write about how that feels, once in a while. It would be nice if we could get back to the things that matter to us, like our unfinished novels, or who in the hell wants a goddamn Avatar-themed ride, anyway.