Sunday, July 23, 2006
Fuddy Duddy Strikes Back
I’m not quite 40, but apparently I’m already a fuddy duddy. That’s what one of my blog readers called me last week (see comments in the post "All Princesses, All the Time).
In my 15 years in the entertainment industry, I’ve been called lots of things, many of which started with the same two letters, and generally they’ve never gotten to me. For some reason, “fuddy duddy” did.
Look, despite my protesting turning Akershus into an all-Princesses dining experience, I am not unfriendly toward kids. I’m fully aware that it was as a kid myself that I became enamored of Disney.
It’s just that Disney in general, and Epcot specifically, hold happiness and discovery for everyone, not just kids. By making Disney increasingly into a kid-oriented company, the executives there – and in the theme-park group particularly – do themselves a disservice and, sadly, sell Disney short.
Take, for instance, the difference between Test Track and Spaceship Earth. They were designed and developed by completely different generations of Imagineers, and it shows.
Test Track is the “new” regime: fast, loud, frenetic and bearing only a teaspoon of storytelling and discovery. You leave Test Track thrilled … and that’s about it.
Spaceship Earth is the “old way”: leisurely, elaborate, rich and designed to entertain completely. It envelops the rider in 360 degrees of story, and if it doesn’t demand that attention be paid, it rewards riders who concentrate and focus.
The thing is, entertainment in general today is made for undemanding audiences. They complain if they’re not entertained and couldn’t care a whit about nuance and artistry. If it moves fast and looks shiny, that’s all they need. Is there anything wrong with that? No. Heck, one of the very first movies ever made was of a train pulling into a station. It thrilled and mesmerized audiences, but it had no story and aspired to nothing more than providing a sensational rush of adrenaline. But moviemakers soon learned they could do much more with audiences than just thrill them; they could tell stories and captivate them, they could create an emotional and intellectual rush, not just a visceral one.
Walt Disney knew that, too. Most of the first attractions at Disneyland were not much more than gussied-up carnival rides. But knowing that, like cinema itself, a theme-park experience could immerse and involve guests, Disney took things to a new level. The pinnacle: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
It’s ironic that some 40 years later theme-park designers have not only failed to reach those heights, but have actually caused their own industry to retreat. The closest that Disney has come to replicating the lengthy, fully immersive, story-driven attractions have been Star Tours, The Great Movie Ride and the Indiana Jones Adventure; the “newest” of these is 11 years old.
Epcot was once the proving ground for the best that Disney theme-park designers had to offer. They created enormous, elaborate attractions that took the ride-through concepts of The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean and pushed them to new levels. Universe of Energy, Horizons, Spaceship Earth, Journey Into Imagination, World of Motion, El Rio del Tiempo and Maelstrom (despite its shortcomings) built entire worlds and took riders on a true adventure utilizing every trick possible, from Audio-Animatronic figures to innovative ride systems to multi-media showcases.
Epcot’s most recent additions, Mission: Space and Soarin’, as good as they may be, just sit there and show you a movie, moving you around some. (Well, moving you around too much in the case of Mission: Space.) Disney has devolved from epic, full-scale shows to a seat with a TV screen in front of it.
What does this all have to do with being a fuddy duddy and (supposedly) not liking loud children? Everything.
Because Disney has shortchanged itself, and nowhere is that more apparent than at Epcot. It has given into the notion that the child-rearing techniques favored by many parents today – namely, sitting your kid in front of a box with moving images – should be the basis for its theme-park rides. It has gone the easy route by dumbing down Epcot and removing virtually all of the wonder and discovery and making it into a place where you can see lots of familiar cartoon characters.
Disney has scaled down its dreaming in the name of being more kid-friendly. And if you can’t get your dreams from Disney when you’re a kid, where can you get them? More importantly, if Disney tells you your biggest dream should be to meet Cinderella or find Nemo, it’s kind of sad – the dreams used to be a lot bigger than that.
Disney should want more than to sell tickets, get people to turn to ABC and make sure little girls wear Princess dresses. It used to want that – EPCOT Center was a shining example. No, it wasn’t Walt’s EPCOT, but it was something pretty extraordinary, something no other company could ever attempt to design or create.
So, if wanting Disney to be as bold, as inspiring, as wonderfully creative in 2006 as it was in 1976 (stop with the Shaggy D.A. jokes, you know what I mean) is being a fuddy duddy, I guess I’m a fuddy duddy.
The truth hurts, I guess.