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  • William Prevor

Losing Sight of the Story: Is Disney Forgetting its History?

PBS, in its American Experience series, declared that “Walt Disney created a revolutionary vacation destination when he opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955.”

Yet Walt Disney didn’t invent amusement parks, his great contribution was to create a “theme park” and a “theme park” in its very essence requires story consistency – that is what theming means.

Disneyland was a triumph but it also would be a laboratory for how to do better theming. Indeed, when Disney set about planning what would become Walt Disney World, it is said that plan was influenced by an experience Walt Disney had at Disneyland. As Mental Floss reported:

Legend has it that Walt Disney was once strolling around Disneyland in Anaheim when he saw a cast member in a Frontierland cowboy costume wandering through Tomorrowland. He felt the incongruity was disruptive to the “magic” people were meant to experience at the park, and decided to do something about it at his next park.

Jody Jean Dreyer worked for Disney for three decades. She went on to write a book titled Beyond the Castle: A Guide to Discovering Your Happily Ever After. She was interviewed about the book by Fast Company and the interview detailed what exactly was done to deal with Walt Disney’s search for thematic integrity:

When it came time to start construction on Orlando, Florida’s Disney World in the ’60s, park executives planned a novel way to create the magic of seamless production: They built an entire underground labyrinth of tunnels, support areas, and business offices. Called “utilidoors,” short for utility corridors, the tunnels permit park personnel to secretly slip underground to take supplies from one area to another, shuttle characters to a parade, or even just take a lounge break.

“Underneath, it’s this entire city that’s alive with people scurrying around, and things are moving place to place,” says Dreyer of the underground kingdom. “You’re able to do all the back-of-the-house without your guests ever having to see. You don’t want anything to interrupt the story.”

That innovative problem solving–coupled with obsessive attention to detail–just to please guests, is what makes Disney . . . well, Disney. “That’s the magic.”

Yet there may be less magic in Disneyland very soon.

Recently Disneyland Resort News reported that starting June 8th, 2018 there will be a “Pixar Pals Dance Party” in Tomorrowland. The publication detailed that some of the characters that will be participating include Woody, Jessie, Russell, Dug, and Green Army Men.

So it seems that in 2018 Disneyland is intentionally scheduling not just a cowboy – ghosts of the one that offended Walt Disney so long ago -- but a cowboy and cowgirl to appear on a regular basis in Tomorrowland.

This is not even to mention Russell and Dug from UP who also do not belong in Tomorrowland, although I can see some argument for Dug due to the advanced technology of his collar. The worst part is this is not the first time something like this has occurred.

Last year at Disneyland a correspondent for visited Mickey’s Halloween Party at Disneyland where they had a very similar dance party featuring almost, as it seems, the exact same character line up.

Why is Disneyland showing a disregard for Disney history, for consistent theming and the specific frustrations of Walt Disney? Simply in order to fit an unrelated character into a dance party with modern music into a land that is supposed to be about technology and the future?

The truth is that Disney has a branding issue with the way it is handling Pixar in general. Pixar Animations Studios produces great films. Pixar is, however, a company, not a theme. These movies can be about anything. So when Disney takes Paradise Pier in its California Adventure theme park at the Disneyland Resort – basically an old California Pier/Boardwalk –and reimagines it as Pixar Pier – the story disappears. Now it may be very popular, the iconic characters from Pixar films will probably attract many more people than ever cared about an old California boardwalk. But it is just a random collection of characters, there is no unity or story.

In a sense it is a step backwards to the pre-Walt days when amusement parks were disjointed entities strung together.

One of the staples of a Disney Parks experience since the opening of Disneyland is story consistency. Each themed land has only attractions and characters that fit that theme. This, of course, has its exceptions such as select shows or parades however the illusion is always meant to be maintained.

It is, of course, possible to integrate stories. Woody and Jessie can be sent to outer space with Buzz Lightyear and be given space suits. Russell and Dug can get caught up in a time-travel story that takes then to tomorrow. But none of this has happened.

As the plan now stands a cowboy will, without rhyme or reason, just appear in Tomorrowland. A little bit of magic will die and Walt, wherever he might be, will shed a tear that his concerns are now so lightly considered within the company he built.

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