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Disneyland Ex Machina

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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.

(Disclaimer: 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 this list are cheerfully welcomed.)

I’m happy to report that I had a wonderful day. Though my recently-retired parents and I explored the park at a relative saunter, we managed to take in nearly all our attractions, or at least what’s left of them. The best attractions at EPCOT remain Impressions de France, Spaceship Earth, the Gran Fiesta Tour, 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.

Speaking of consumer fraud: O Canada, the CircleVision 360 movie now showing in the Canada pavilion, needs to be redone. It’s kind of awful. 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.

Not to say that Short isn’t a good choice for a host. He’s genuinely funny, and let’s face it, we can’t help but like him. (His old SCTV “Monday Night Curling” routine, glimpsed briefly in the film, lays me right out.) But his tone in O Canada is too broad, too goofball—shortcomings I’m inclined to ascribe to the script and direction rather than the actor/comedian, who really works hard in the film. If nothing else, his whole closing schtick—”How do I get out of here? I need help”—should have been red-penciled early in the process; it lands hard and flat and diminishes all the pretty views that came before. The misuse of Short points to Disney’s recent attempts to paste over EPCOT’s big themes with feeble comedy: Journey into Imagination has been reduced to a fart joke, Universe of Energy screwed into the equivalent of Ellen DeGeneres jiggling her keys at a toddler.

In fact, both of the Circle-Vision 360° travelogues of World Showcase—ní hǎo, Reflections of China—have enough problems to warrant do-overs. For example, both of them 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. Well, yeah. I would suggest that those people be moved into the heart of the film itself, seiing as 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.

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 was designed and built by ex-Disney Imagineers, which only goes to my point … and the monstrously 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.


  • 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.
  • I really, truly love Gran Fiesta Tour. The excellent Passport to Dreams Old and New blog does a note-perfect job in describing why I love the revamped boat ride, and I strongly suggest you follow the above link and read FoxxFur’s piece.
  • 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 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, relishing its opening and closing sequences, and whistling through the artlessness that’s gunking up the works.

Life On Mars?

I have not yet seen Andrew Stanton’s John Carter. From the sound of things, I had better hurry. The grosses from midnight screenings are pretty soft, and the critics are treating it lightly; my guess is that if it had been made by anyone but Stanton—whose two previous films both won Oscars, and deserved them—they would be laying into this thing the way Rush Limbaugh romances women: with remorseless, unforgiving gravity. The, ah, aficionados over at Ain’t It Cool News (sounds better than “savants,” doesn’t it?) like the movie okay, but they’re pushing it uphill, and their readers are rebelling. It’s a puzzling reaction to a movie that truly doesn’t look any worse than G.I. Joe or Avatar, both of which made gazillions of dollars even as people walked out of them in a haze of three-dimensional indifference.

The funny thing is that Disney seems to be encouraging people not to care about John Carter. I can’t think of a reason that Disney’s marketing arm, a more-or-less infallible alien intelligence, would do these things to a film they actually want people to see.

The Name on the Cover. John Carter of Mars is a swashbuckling hero; John Carter is a nobody who picked both his names randomly from a phone book.

The Trailers. Tell us nothing, and worse yet, they tell us nothing to symphonic Zeppelin. Symphonic Zeppelin. You might as well hang a sign on the thing that says From the culture that brought you “Heavy Metal 2000.”

The Font on the Poster. It’s Basic Commercial Black, as seen on the signage of the New York City Subway. Why not Interstate, as long as we’re pulling industrial fonts straight outta our ass? How in the hell is this flat, utilitarian typeface supposed to fire us up and make us wanna see some CGI Barsoomians, doing whatever it is CGI Barsoomians do? This is the font that Helvetica uses on its online dating profile to make itself look hotter than it is.

Uh-oh: Nikki Finke just predicted a $30 million opening weekend. John Carter is about to get its ass handed to it by The Lorax. I’m coming, John! Mi hermano! Blast the symphonic Zeppelin to distract them, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.

‘Have you ever seen a haunted house?’

Story and Song from the Hanted Mansion from David Witt on Vimeo.

Via my friend David Wahl, whose Mostly Forbidden Zone blog is one of my daily habits: A terrific animation of the classic Story and Song from the Haunted Mansion LP, created by his friend David Witt at Quasi-Interesting Paraphernalia Incorporated. I’ll never be able to look at the LP again without seeing these subtle movements in my periphery. Who knew an LP could be haunted?

From Here to Pandorlando

Okay, just this once. On the occasion of James “King of the Assholes” Cameron selling Avatar’s theme park rights to Disney, we’ll allow the WalDisCo to be nakedly reactive. This isn’t the first time Disney has parried a perceived threat to its theme parks (see every other article Jim Hill has written from 1998 onward), but it’s got to be the first time that they’ve telegraphed their counterstrike. It must have taken real restraint for Disney’s social media wonks not to send a message like this one to the usual influencers:

Yes, the Avatar attractions we’re now planning for Disney Animal Kingdom are a response to the runaway success of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As you’ve long suspected, we profit from our theme parks; they’re not a public trust.

No, we couldn’t come up with our own franchise to compete with Potter. Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars already have a presence in the parks, and we can’t build around them without screwing up already-themed areas at great risk; we don’t dare rip up that much Walt. Also, Tron has too narrow an appeal, Prince of Persia was a stupid idea from the word go, and you know what we’re doing with Cars.

Yes, you’re absolutely right: The reason we didn’t announce this at the D23 convention was because contracts weren’t yet in place. Good investigative work, o savvy observer of our business.

No, it doesn’t bother us that James Cameron is kind of an epic asshole. Why? Because’s an asshole who gets your money, again and again, despite his flat storytelling and crotch-grabbing award acceptance speeches.

No, we can’t put it in Disney Hollywood Studios. That’s not the park that so desperately needs paid admissions. And Avatar kinda fits into Animal Kingdom better, anyway, because it has trees and animals and stuff.

Yes, it would be nice to have those KUKA Robocoaster usage rights about now.

Yes, we expect Geoff Carter will show up, despite the fact that he’s never seen Avatar and he never, ever wants to see Avatar.

EDIT, SEPTEMBER 21, 9:30 A.M. PACIFIC TIME: Less than a day after I posted this entry, Disney released a statement that more or less approximates it in tone. You’re welcome, Mr. Staggs. I’ll invoice you shortly.

Two Minutes in Heaven: Disneyland’s dark rides, in review

Several years back a friend of mine visited Disneyland for the first time. His girlfriend wanted to go; he didn’t. My friend is over 40, sharply literate, and not one for whimsy. He likes his punk rock fast and arty, his movies slow and thoughtful, and his corporations engulfed in flames.

Shortly before he struck out for Anaheim, I gave him the advice I give everyone who doesn’t want to visit Disneyland but is compelled to go for reasons beyond their control: Look at the details and the artistry, and to try and divorce Disney now from Disney then.  Walt Disney didn’t build a theme park to compete with other theme parks, or to sell more monogrammed Cars 2 crapola; he built it because he wanted a place he could enjoy as much as his two preteen daughters. I told my friend to visit that Disneyland, the one Uncle Walt built without consulting a single focus group.

And he did. My friend loved Disneyland. He wasn’t wild about the crowds and the double-decker strollers, but he loved the architecture, the lay of the “lands, “ and nearly every single attraction he tried. One kind of attraction, however, engaged him above and beyond all the others.

“At some point, I decided that any one of the dark rides would be worthwhile,” he said, “and I was right.”

Disneyland’s dark rides are the gold threads in the Park’s tapestry. Other Disneyland attractions may enjoy more prominence, more pride of place (even my friend lavished fervent praise on the E-ticket attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, et al)—but without the dark rides of Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown and Critter Country, none of Disneyland’s marquee attractions would exist. They’re what Walt Disney started with: A trio of Fantasyland dark rides (Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), plus a steam railroad, a riverboat and miscellaneous spinners, train and boat rides. Imagination-wise, those dark rides did most of the heavy lifting in Disneyand’s early years: They are sealed worlds within Disneyland’s sealed world, and nothing of the outside world penetrates those painted scrims lit by backlight. You can’t even bring your own ego with you. You are a spirit, floating free through the storybook, enveloped in whimsy and wonder and fear.

One thing I couldn’t give my friend before his trip was a top-to-bottom rating of Disneyland’s dark rides, but I can give you one of those. For the sake of this list, I am defining “dark ride” as a two-to-three minute attraction based on one of Disney’s animated films, excluding those attractions that are too epic in scale to be called a simple dark ride (it’s a small world), more midway game than dark ride (Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters), or not located in Disneyland at all (Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sully to the Rescue). These are the attractions that caused an old, crusty punk to regress back into a teenage theater geek, and he’s far from being the only one.

The Critic



If the purpose of a Fantasyland dark ride is to put you inside the animated film upon which it’s based, this three-and-a-half minute dark ride is Disneyland’s most faithfully realized.  It truly is the real-life analogue of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland: the trip down the rabbit hole, the garden of singing flowers, and the marching playing cards are all represented here, and they make about as much sense as they did in the 1951 film. Love or hate the animated Alice, there’s no denying that it was a series of colorful and lunatic episodes without the heart Disney’s animators gave Snow White or Pinocchio. Oh, sure, the film has one of Disney’s plucky heroines at its center, but it’s not really about Alice: She stumbles into situations and scenarios without fully understanding or wanting to understand what’s happening to her, and she seemingly hasn’t learned anything by the end of the film. She has no character arc, just an inexplicable lost-time episode—and the ride reflects that, with your caterpillar-shaped ride vehicle bursting through a succession of seemingly disjointed set pieces, each one more fascinating and claustrophobic and terrifying than the one before it. In other words, this Alice a flawless translation from two dimensions to three. Alice, the dark ride, is everything it needs to be: a shot of candied hallucinogen, vividly colorful and manic.



Though shorter than the Alice attraction by more than a minute and fifteen seconds, the dark ride based on Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan routinely draws much longer lines; it’s not unheard of to wait longer than an hour for these two minutes and twenty seconds in Neverland. Themepunks and Disnerds cite a number of reasons for this: the enduring appeals of the film and its characters, a lower hourly capacity than other Fantasyland attractions, blah blah blah. The real reason for the monster success of Peter Pan Flight is that its ride vehicles are suspended from the ceiling, and this novelty—which is pretty goddamned unique, really—has yet to lose its allure in nearly six decades of near-continuous operation. I don’t precisely recall what Peter Pan was like before all the Fantasyland dark rides were refreshed in 1983, but I do know that the pirate ship ride vehicles have always hung from the ceiling, and they have always taken their sweet time soaring over moonlit London and starlit Neverland; the “You Can Fly” portion of the ride accounts for nearly half its running time. Frankly, I could spend hours drifting over those “streets” and through those fiber-optics stars, but minutes is all you get, and perhaps that’s the real secret of Peter Pan’s hour-long queue: It is the only one of Fantasyland’s dark rides whose excitement is still building even as it ends. That’s a stunt worthy of Hitchcock.



Two of the best effects in Snow White’s Scary Adventures occur even before you hop into one of the dark ride’s mine car vehicles. If you look at the window in the tower of the attraction’s castle façade long enough, you’ll see the Evil Queen part the curtains to glare at you. Touch the golden apple at the queue entrance and you’ll hear her cackling. There are other special effects in this effects-heavy dark ride that are just as surprising—the Evil Queen’s transformation into the Old Hag is clever and scary as hell—but none of them are quite as potent as getting the stink-eye and being laughed at. Don’t listen to your parents: The Evil Queen is real, babies.  She’s the true star of this aptly named two-minute dark ride, despite the ingénue’s name on the marquee; she is the Terminator wearing the leathery hide of Amy Winehouse. (Too soon?) And when the Old Hag “dies” at the end of the ride (some business with lightning; it’s all very ambiguous), it’s as unconvincing as Olivia Wilde’s death at the end of that cowboy/alien mashup. Run outside and look at the tower; the Queen lives on, unbroken, just as Wilde lives on in her own “House.” Please make the scary women stop. Actually, don’t. Not ever.

A Codger Called Winky



As I said of the Peter Pan dark ride, I don’t remember exactly what Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was like before it was gutted and rebuilt in 1983, but I do recall one thing with absolute certainty: it was better. The two-minute dark ride, loosely based on a 1949 animated short film that I guarantee most of you haven’t seen since childhood (if at all), is indeed a wild ride—you literally crash through it, banging through one set of painted flats after the next, never really getting a sense of what you’re looking at. I suppose a joyride is a joyride, but I’m old-fashioned: I like to know a little bit about the people and animals I’m running down with my car. What color are their entrails? How mellifluous are their screams? Mostly, I’m bothered that one of the ride’s best set pieces—the pitch-black “train tunnel”—is over so quickly that you never really get a chance to be scared. Then again, the next set piece is Hell … yes, that Hell. It’s red and steamy and demon-riddled and kind of wonderful, and it makes up for every last thing that came before it.



Everything Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride does wrong, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin very nearly does right. The winding indoor queue is atmospheric and packed with story details. The ride vehicles can be spun 360 degrees, helpful if you’ve missed a detail or simply want to ride backwards. The effects, the animated show figures, and the set design—every last bit of it is impeccably done. So why is it that this three-and-a-half minute dark ride seems so alienated from the witty 1988 film on which it’s based? Of all Disneyland’s dark rides, this one feels the least Disneylike to me; it replicates the frenetic pacing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s action sequences, but lacks the film’s emotion and sentimentality. It’s a pretty bloodless exercise, and while it’s easily to look at Car Toon Spin (and from nearly any angle, thanks to that usable steering wheel), it’s tough to make yourself feel one way or another about it. Dizziness is not an emotion.



Considering the richly detailed and breathtakingly gorgeous world painted into Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio, the Disneyland dark ride based on the film is surprisingly slight. The three-minute Pinocchio’s Daring Journey is a pleasant enough diversion; the Pleasure Island portion of the ride is suitably lurid, and Geppetto’s workshop is so cozy that you could swear you feel the heat from the “fireplace.” But there are no special effects really worth the mention (the “Pepper’s Ghost” effect that allows the Blue Fairy to vanish is used to far superior effect in the Haunted Mansion, which preceded Daring Journey by longer than a decade), and the story is even more difficult to follow than even the nearly plotless Alice dark ride, and it pivots largely on Jiminy Cricket yelling directions at you: “Don’t go in there! Look out! This way!” It’s like the time just after you got your driver’s license, when you thought it’d be fun to drive your parents to Applebee’s. How wrong you were.

Rogue Heffalump



I must confess that I’m coming at this three-minute dark ride from a disadvantage. The character of Winnie-the-Pooh never made much of an impact on me—not in A.A. Milne’s charming books, not in Disney’s 1966 featurette Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree (released almost a year to the day before I was born), and not in Disneyland, where Pooh merchandise sold gangbusters even before 2003, when Disney finally saw fit to give the tubby ursine his own dark ride. Still, I suspect I’d find The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh underwhelming even if I had drank the honey. There isn’t much to recommend the ride: the character animation is limited; the effects are modest and copied largely from Disneyland’s other dark rides; and the sets are pleasant but forgettable. I understand how it might appeal to very young children, being moderately paced, sunshine-bright and not the least bit scary, but little kids grow up, and there’s nothing here for older children, teens or parents. Two things in the ride’s favor: the wait to get on is rarely longer than five minutes, and as the Disnerds and Passholes are fond of saying, the air conditioning is nice and cold.

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