Author Archives: Geoff Carter

Disnanisqatsi (Parks Out of Balance)

Disnanisqatsi

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.

Regarding Disney’s $4 Billon Purchase of Lucasfilm

This is what happened the last time George Lucas and Marvel shared a common roof.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Disneyland

Jayne and Sophia
“Jayne and Sophia” by Geoff Carter, digital photograph, 2009

Today, fellow themepunks, I’d like to introduce you to the most popular of my Disneyland photos, and one of my most popular shots overall. I snapped this one at Off The Page in Disney California Adventure in October 2009, and yes, I moved the figurines together; they weren’t positioned like this when I discovered them.

I have two reasons for posting this image here today. First and foremost is that this shot has found its way into the Tumblr/Pinterest/I Can Haz Cheezburger? realm of hazy authorship, and I need to assert my claim to this thing before it ends up being credited to some other horny idiot. Attention thieving scumbags: I have the original file and several other shots in the series, and it’s been on my Flickr page for three years–seriously, you’re gonna tangle with me on this? Commune with your fucking advice animals and let them talk some sense into you.

(Now seems an excellent time to remind you, savage reader, that this blog isn’t for kids. Also, I’d like to express my gratitude to Heather at I Can Haz Cheezburger?, who responded to my pissy email with more politesse than it deserved. LOListan is a fair and good-hearted commonwealth, it turns out.)

The other reason I’m posting here today is because I think the October 2009 visit that produced this irresistible image may have been my last trip to Disneyland. I can’t believe it, either. I’ve been to Walt Disney World twice in the last three years, and I’ve enjoyed my visits there–but I haven’t been back to the theme park(s) that inspired the creation of this bl-g for nearly three years, due to financial hardship and simple bad luck.

Naturally, I miss it. I miss the ways it feeds, and feeds on, my imagination. Some criticize Disney’s theme parks for being tightly-controlled experiences; they compare it to stuff like Burning Man, where you can pretty much write your own dusty-dicked adventure from start to finish. I’m not criticizing that–in fact, I’ve just agreed to attend my first Burn next year, in spite of my intense dislike of portable toilets. But it’s unfair to criticize Disneyland or Disney California Adventure for telling stories in their own way. No two people hear stories the same way. And where someone else sees a shelf of expensive figurines from Disney’s animated movies, I see this:

Sophia_and_jayne
Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at Romanoff’s, 1957. Photo by Joe Shere.

And that’s what Disneyland has always been about, to my thinking: It’s whatever you bring to it. If you’re a collector, you see the shopping. If you’re a parent, you see the Park through your children (or through the giant, smoking crater in your wallet). And if you’re like me, you see the artistry, the detail … and the coincidences. You look for these magical coincidences, and if you’re lucky, every so often you get a photo of one of them.

I’m happy to say that I’m a full-time working journalist once again. (You can read my stuff at Vegas Seven, a Las Vegas alternative weekly magazine, if you’re into that sort of thing.) And I’m closer to Disneyland, financially and spatially, than I’ve been in years. If I wanted to, I could drive there right now; it’s only three to four hours’ drive from Las Vegas to Anaheim, and the two-hour line for Radiator Springs Racers.

But today, I find it’s enough to want it. In a way, missing Disneyland fills the heart as much as actually being there does. The imagination stretches beyond the berm; you wonder what it would be like to go there with a friend who hasn’t been there yet (I yearn to be the Ray Bradbury-like guide to someone’s Charles Laughton), or you wonder if there’s something there you haven’t yet seen–some strange and wondrous coincidence, waiting to jump in front of you and challenge you to take its picture.

An Orange Clockwork: Soarin’ Over California, reviewed

Oh, Inverted World

In February 2001, I was invited to attend the press opening of Disney California Adventure. Disney paid my way, but the offer was only good for a single journalist acting alone. If I was to bond with anyone on this working trip, it would be with the media representative Disney had assigned to guide me through the brand-new Anaheim theme park.

It was not a good week for me to visit what had been freshly re-named “The Disneyland Resort.” I’d just broken up with a girl two weeks before, and I truly wasn’t feeling up to the single-rider experience. Doombuggies and Mad Teacups are meant to be shared. But work is work, and if Las Vegas Life magazine was to get the travel and lifetstyle piece it wso richly deserved, I had to nut up, paste a fake smile on my face and try to have real fun. There was no other way to approach it.

Days one and four were “travel days,” during which I enjoyed half-days in Disneyland proper, forlornly riding the train around the Park over and over again. On day two — February 7, 2001 — the gathered press was invited to preview the bars, shops and restaurants of Downtown Disney, as well as some of the DCA attractions. That night was a party for B-list celebrities and other dignitaries, a sneak preview before the new park opened to the public on February 8.

I was not amused. I liked Downtown Disney’s bars and restaurants — finally I could get a Cuba Libre withing staggering distance of Pirates of the Caribbean! — but the breakup painted everything dark, and Disney’s nice gestures (including a comped room at the Disneyland Hotel, complete with swag bag and the latest issue of Brill’s Content) only served to make me feel worse than I already did. If a swag bag lands on a hotel bed and there’s no Facebook to share it with, did it really happen?

And there was something else, a truth I was loath to admit even to myself: Disney California Adventure paled terribly in contrast with its neighbor. I didn’t dislike the new park then, and I never have — but even then I could see that a tremendous opportunity had gone only partially recognized. There were too many shops and restaurants and not enough attractions. Dark rides, the bedrock of any Disney park, were in critically short supply; DCA only opened with one, the justly maligned Superstar Limo (now replaced by a Monsters Inc. dark ride). The bulk of the new park’s attractions were either films, which you could watch once and be satisfied, or carnival-style attractions that were best enjoyed in summertime. (Disney California Adventure opened in the midst of a cold winter downpour.) Such were DCA’s failings that, a scant five years on, Disney would commit upwards of a billion dollars towards “fixing” the park — a process that will be completed this June, with a “grand re-opening” that I hope I’m invited to.

Anyway, on that preview night, I was mostly unhinged. Disney was serving up free vodka martinis and I slammed seven of them in quick order. I was wounded, spoiling for a fight. (Finally, I heckled the Brian Wilson-less Beach Boys, which got much of the bile out of my system.) I was in a perfect place to receive one of Disney’s patented magical surprises, and to my delight, I received one in Soarin’ Over California.

If you haven’t experienced this flight simulator attraction, either at DCA or at EPCOT, I advise you to skip the rest of this paragraph; it’s really something you have to enjoy firsthand. Its component parts are simply understood: a large, curved IMAX screen, an innovative gondola system that hangs you above that screen, and a magnificent score by the late Oscar-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith — to my mind, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written for a Disney theme park. Taken individually, these things give you a notion of how Soarin’ Over California works, but they can’t tell you how Soarin’ feels. For that, you need to wait in a 70-minute line, chuckle through the Patrick Warburton safety video, and take a seat in one of those suspended gondolas.

Soarin’ Over California is a dream. Pure and simple. In one guileless, inspired stroke of genius, Walt Disney Imagineering has managed to capture the sensation of flying in your dreams. The California scenes, sun-dappled and perfect, are projected at a sharp 48 frames per second, and the suspended gondola places you inside of them; your vision is deliberately fixed on the screen. almost without distraction. (You can see the dangling feet of riders above you, but that only enhances the experience; it’s fun to watch other riders “running” over the Pacific coastline, and lifting their feet to clear projected obstacles.) Evocative scents are sprayed into the gondola at key moments: pine, ocean, orange groves. And as cheesy as it all must look from the ground (or on YouTube), there’s something that happens to you in those five minutes that can’t be explained by simple mechanics. You come to believe.

Goldsmith reportedly came down from his first ride on Soarin’ in tears, and truth be told, so did I. I couldn’t believe that Disney had found the place inside of me that wanted to fly and played directly to it. When the ride ended I burst into spontaneous applause, and I wasn’t the only one; the assembled guests cheered wildly, and guests continue to applaud the conclusion to Soarin’ to this day.

Disney California Adventure was not a perfect theme park when it opened its gates, but it did boast one perfect attraction … and it was enough to make me remember that there was a blue sky above those low-hanging clouds. Writer Dave Hickey once complimented Disney’s ability to invest nearly anything “with the pulse of human aspiration,” and Soarin’ embodies that pulse in nearly undiluted form. For all of Disney’s talk of “dreams” and “magic,” it has been a rare occasion these past 20 years that Disney has built an attraction that transcends their lazy overuse of those words. And Soarin’ Over California rises to that occasion.

A thought, in parting: When I was growing up, the schoolyard wisdom was that a dream about flying was actually a dream about sex. That made no sense to me, seeing as I was having plenty of dreams about sex back then; my subconscious mind didn’t need to play coy. But if there is some truth to that — and who can tell if there is or isn;t — than every precious minute so spend on Soarin’ should translate to an equally excellent minute of getting laid. Only in California, right?

Back to Center

Once Imagined

Earlier this week I visited EPCOT. I happened to be within a hundred miles of my second-favorite Disney theme park*, and whenever that happens I pay and I play; that’s really all there is to it. I got a fever, and the only cure is more EPCOT.

I’m happy to report that I had a wonderful day. Though my newly-retired parents and I explored the park at a relative saunter, we managed to take in nearly all my favorite shows and attractions. The best attractions at EPCOT remain Impressions de France, Spaceship Earth, the Gran Fiesta Tour featuring the Three Caballeros, the Listen to the Land boat ride, and Test Track. Reflections of China, The Seas avec Nemo, and Maelstrom (which I did not see, sadly) are bubbling under the top five.

We did get on Soarin’, but I don’t count it among my EPCOT favorites because I consider it a Disney California Adventure attraction that wandered by mistake. And we had to skip Mission: Space, but I’m okay with that; I’m at best indifferent to it. To my mind, it’s not a true space pavilion: You learn nothing about the cosmos, and you’re even told right up front, by no less august a personage than actor Gary Sinise, that you won’t really be going on a trip to Mars; it’s all a simulation designed to test your ability to press a button when you’re told to press a button. It should be renamed Mission: Space Simulator, and it may well be, once I’ve sent a note to the Better Business Bureau.

In any case, EPCOT remains as eye-popping an experience as it was when I first visited the park in 1983. Obviously I’m older now, and I no longer believe that Disney has built the future and united the world, but the pop science still goes down smooth, and the shops, travelogues and restaurants continue to charm. You can say what you will about Disney’s Florida theme parks — the budget-bursting expense of visiting them,  the cultural and intellectual stasis some say they’re trapped in, the “declining by degrees” — but those parks continue to prove Disney’s ability to build and maintain a themed environment. Even its closest competitor — cough Universal Studios Florida cough, just up the road — was designed and built by ex-Disney Imagineers, which only goes to my point … and the monsterously expensive and admittedly awesome Harry Potter attractions aside, Universal’s parks don’t have that Imagineering shimmer and sheen. They don’t inflate the wrinkles out of your brain.

Since 1955, Disney has owned the theme park thing lock, stock and gondola … and EPCOT, with its high-minded concept, nakedly corporate lineage and awkward name, is proof positive of that. There’s no good reason this park should have worked and continue to work. It’s not “EPCOT Princessland” or “EPCOT of Adventure.” It’s the same permanent world’s fair it has always been, still stumping for big oil, room-sized computers and globalization — and remarkably, the kids Still Want to Go To There. They don’t care if the message is several years out of date. It’s the environment that’s winning them over; the ideas have become purely secondary to the wow.

Whatever you’re doing now, I want you to bow in the direction of WED in Burbank, circa 1975. Those original themepunks knew their shit.

Meanwhile:

  • The Disney Dining Plan is a stupid idea. But I’m mostly saying that because it tends to jam up Le Cellier at lunchtime, and I’ve been jonesing for their beer cheese soup since 2007.
  • The original Journey Into Imagination was lyrical whimsy. The “new” Journey Into Imagination is a fart joke.
  • O Canada, the CircleVision 360 movie now showing in the Canada pavilion, needs a top-to-bottom reshoot. It has too many aerial establishing shots and too many instances of Martin Short clowning in front of a bluescreen. Generally speaking, it’s a bad thing when you come out of a travelogue wanting to visit somewhere less than you did when you went in.
  • Short is a good choice for a host; he’s genuinely funny, and let’s face it, we can’t help but like him. (His SCTV “Monday Night Curling” routine, glimpsed briefly in the film, lays me right out.) But his tone in O Canadais too broad, too jocular, and that seems more the fault of the script and direction than the actor/comedian, who really works hard in the film. He leans into every joke, and he uses the word “diversity” as many times as he’s told. (I stopped counting at three.) O, diverse Canada. It’s both Red and Green. (Also, what is it with Disney pasting over EPCOT’s big themes with feeble comedy?  Short’s closing lines in O Canada — “How do I get out of here?” and “I need help” — should have been red-penciled early in the process; they land hard and flat.)
  • I miss hard science in Future World. Ellen’s Energy Adventure is equivalent to a disinterested father jingling his keys at a toddler.
  • The CircleVision 360 travelogues of World Showcase–O Canada and Reflections of China – both end with the narrator saying something to the effect of “The best part of our country is our people,” followed by a montage of faces. I would suggest that those people be moved into the heart of the film itself, as they are in the magnificent Impressions du France. Countries are, in fact, made up of people doing fascinating shit. I can view Niagara Falls from the air via Google Maps; putting real human persons in front of that vista, taking photos or getting married or whatever, is what makes it impressive.
  • I think CircleVision 360 is past its time. I’ll probably address this in a dedicated post soon.
  • I truly love Gran Fiesta Tour with the Three Caballeros, the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion. The excellent Passport to Dreams Old and New blog does a note-perfect job in explaining why.
  • Using low-resolution video images and ancient stock footage in 70MM Showscan films is unacceptable. If Disney truly feels that Symbiosis is what closes on Saturday night, they oughtn’t have dumped footage from that heartstoppingly gorgeous EPCOT original into Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable, where it only serves to make the aforementioned junk footage and Saturday morning cartoon-quality animation look even worse than it really is. That said, the opening of Circle of Life — in which the titular song is used over recycled footage from Symbiosis – is so affecting that I’m willing to watch the film again and again, relishing its opening and closing sequences and whistling through the artlessness that’s gunking up the works.
  • $10 margaritas? On what expletive planet?

*EPCOT ranks second in parks I’ve actually visited. Haven’t been to the parks in Tokyo, Paris, or Hong Kong. For what it’s worth: 1. Disneyland; 2. EPCOT; 3. Disney Animal Kingdom; 4. The Magic Kingdom; 5. Disney California Adventure (before the remake); 6. VMK; 7. Disney Hollywood Studios. Challenges to the ordering this list are cheerfully welcomed.