Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Walt's Time at Disneyland

There's been a lot of talk recently about Walt as a "change agent" at Disneyland (I think you all know why!). This made me want to evaluate how much change happened at Disneyland during Walt's lifetime. This will surely be incomplete (the encyclopedia and thesaurus aren't done yet, OK?), but it may serve as useful background in talking about the fluid nature of Disneyland. I'd also recommend a Re-Imagineering post from June 6, 2006 titled "Disneyland is NOT a Museum!"

Thanks to my work-in-progress daily history of the Resort (which I describe here), I didn't need to go to too much trouble to see what changed between Park opening and December 1966. I didn't have many preconceived notions of what I would figure out from an overall examination such as this. One thought I did have centered on land: when Walt was around, there was always room to grow. Building a new attraction did not require taking out an existing one, which is usually the case nowadays. Even back in the 1990s Imagineers could shoehorn the Indiana Jones Adventure into Adventureland and put Mickey's Toontown outside the Berm, but that does not appear possible now without radically reshaping Disneyland's Backstage area. I found that when Walt replaced one attraction with another, it was almost always an upgrade to the concept--he didn't abandon the core of the attraction, he just did it better.

I emphasize here what was refurbished or closed and not really what was new. New additions such as the Snow White Grotto, Holidayland, the Flying Saucers and New Orleans Square didn't replace much (sorry, Chicken Plantation!). I am also concentrating on the built environment (and there mostly on attractions), ignoring other operational changes that would affect the Show, such as Disneyland taking over from many lessees, or redesigned walk-around character outfits (which, again, was an improvement of the concept). As lessees changed, Main Street shops especially were renovated, but many times the theme of the store remained the same. (OK, the shoe store did get the boot!)

The Phantom/Tomorrowland Boats were the first attraction to close--they just plain broke down and the capacity was awful. The Airboats, which also took its premise as a sort of boat ride, didn't pan out in 1956, but in 1957 the Motor Boat Cruise opened in Fantasyland. Principle change was to the boats: they lost their distinctive styling, but actually managed to make it around the track. The Motor Boats weren't in the exact spot of the Tomorrowland Boats, which itself became the Submarine Lagoon. Walt retained both the idea of a boat ride nearby and a large body of water in Tomorrowland.

The Mickey Mouse Club Circus, was, of course, an abject failure. (I almost typed the "Mickey Mouse Club Failure"!) Its removal, then, was pretty quick--though for some unknown reason Professor Keller got to continue for another season. The Junior Autopia replaced part of the site; in turn, it was replaced by the Fantasyland Autopia, and the land is still Autopia today.

The Canal Boats of the World initially had little to no theming. Actually, saying it had any theming at all is overly generous. In June 1956 the attraction reopened as the Storybook Land Canal Boats. In one sense it was completely new, but it wasn't totally surprising. One gets the impression the Imagineers would have done this by Disneyland's opening had they more time and money.

Perhaps the greatest example of Walt's tinkering and plussing can be found in Frontierland. Upon opening there was some transportation out into the "wilderness," like the pack mules and stagecoaches. But there wasn't really a lot to see out there besides the dirt and the other Guests. Almost as soon as the Park was operational, Walt had the area closed off and renovated. The Natural Arch Bridge and the Rainbow Desert were new, but most impressive was the Rainbow Caverns (the Impossible Rainbow Caverns). But even this didn't satisfy Walt, and in 1960 Nature's Wonderland debuted. The Rainbow Caverns remained--he must have thought they did this right--but the desert area was greatly enhanced with early animatronics and area developments like Cascade Peak.

As a new attraction, the Viewliner didn't displace much (excepting the made-to-fly Yacht Club). But it didn't last long because Walt had something better--the Monorail system. And in many respects, the Monorail was like the Viewliner on an aerial track, down to the body styling. And speaking of trains, Walt added two engines to the line and modified the coaches to give Guests a better viewing experience of the two dioramas added along the line since Opening Day.

Some of the Tomorrowland exhibit changes don't exactly fit into this theme of improving on the concept, just because they were so different. The Satellite View of America was replaced by The Art of Animation (which fits into Tomorrowland about as much as America Sings, right?); the Aluminum Hall of Fame was replaced by Fashion and Fabrics Through the Ages; and the Bathroom of Tomorrow was replaced by Fun Fotos. Of course, that first Tomorrowland was a bit of a mishmash, anyway, and we could say that the 1967 renovation in its entirety was the improvement of the concept.

The Opera House had no defined role when the Park opened. It served as the lumber mill and so wasn't open to Guests. Before Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln came over from the New York World's Fair, it hosted a series of inconsequential exhibits.

Even with restaurants, the themes remained consistent when improved. I guess the Plaza Pavilion's Adventureland seating area wasn't the best themed area in Disneyland, but the intent was to give you that tropical feeling--dramatically improved upon by the Tahitian Terrace. The Plaza Inn was similar in spirit to the Red Wagon Inn, but done in an even more luxurious style.

I don't really know how to describe what kind of change Walt brought. It seems to me that he basically got it right at the Park opening, and we can see this today with the way the Magic Kingdoms around the world have so closely modeled themselves on that first iteration of Disneyland. Walt didn't bring about wholesale change; when he added something new, it was usually on "virgin" land. I have no idea if he had a long-range plan, or if he really would have devoted himself to Florida. (Maybe Dick Nunis would know!) Based on the above examples, it seems likely that "it's a small world" would still be at the Park today, perhaps radically changed in terms of aesthetics or technology, but preserving the attraction's basic message.

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