There is no point keeping it a secret any longer: Alex Voltaire and his wife are going to Disney World this January! I am embarrassed to say that this will be my ninth trip, and my first since early 2009, when I made a short visit on my way to visit George McGovern’s best friend, a retired Methodist bishop who lives in the Orlando suburbs. This is going to be a rather special trip for me, since I get to take my wife for our first trip together, and for what will probably be the last trip in many, many years without children in tow. I love pointing out the trivia and the lore behind the parks, you see, and try to share that without becoming an insufferable traveling companion. By now it is probably clear that I love Disney World, and I love it all the more now that I can approach it as a historian, and deconstruct each of the ride’s assumptions, and how each ride is a product of the worldview that made it. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, revolutionized the immersive nature of amusement park rides– but it was changed in the 1990s when it was clear that the debauchery and the scenes implying sex trafficking (all the bride sales? all the woman-chasing?) were problematic, even despite the creators’ light-hearted intentions. Then, the ride was changed again about 5 years ago, to make room for Jack Sparrow and company. After all, how could a ride called Pirates of the Caribbean fail to account for one of Disney’s most successful movie franchises in this generation? You might note that many rides in Disney World are significantly shorter than they were 25 years ago…have our attention spans dropped? See, the rides tell us the story of the last few decades, whether they were intended to or not. So when Disney World changes or renovates or “re-imagines” its marquee attractions, we lose a tiny bit of our heritage along the way.
The trips to Disney World that were most memorable to me were, of course, when I was significantly younger. My memories of my first three trips with my family, in 1988, 1990, and 1993 (when I was, respectively, 4, 6, and 9) Disney was at the top of its game then, with a younger generation of imagineers and script-writers. like Marty Sklar, George McGinniss and Thomas Fitzgerald, working alongside classic Disneyland hands like Rollie Crump, Xavier Atencio, and the Sherman Brothers. Collectively, they made the 1980s and 1990s a silver age of imagineering. Disney had a inclination to educate, a charge to inspire wonder rather than thrills, and a commendable reluctance to cross-pollinate its theme park attractions with its films.
10. Penny Arcade (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1995). Main Street, U.S.A., the passageway through which all guests enter the Magic Kingdom was intended as a facsimile of turn-of-the-century middle America. Modeled after the World’s Fair era of St. Louis, during Walt Disney’s childhood, Main Street was designed to give you a glimpse of life when your great-grandparents were alive. To help do this, there had been, since time out of mind, a penny arcade, where for a penny (or in some cases, a nickel or a dime), you could experience the cheap amusements of those bygone days- including hand-cranked mute-o-scopes, and automatic cali-o-scopes, which showed humorous vignettes and pratfalls. Obviously, the idea wasn’t to net Disney a profit, but to add to Main Street’s thematic appeal. Naturally, it was closed in 1995 to make room for an athletic-wear store.
9. Monster Sound Show (MGM Studios, 1989-1999) Similarly, back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Disney-MGM Studios operated on a conceit of being an actual functioning film studio, and Disney often went to great pains to record television shows or produce animated work there. More than that, the park aspired to teach the public about how films and television were made. One very effective demonstration of this was the Monster Sound Show. A guide showed us how a number of mundane ordinary objects could be used to make ghastly, spooky, and ominous sounds. To show the art of it, it recruited audience members to provide sound effects for key moments in a black-and-white film, with our novices often flubbing their cues and mis-timing the sound effects. It closed in 1999 to make room for the widely-panned Drew Carey’s Sounds Dangerous. Carey played an incompetent detective who takes a micro-recorder with him on a sting. Large parts of it took place in the dark and tried to fool the guests’ auditory senses, but it is still widely regarded as one of the worst attractions in Disney history.
8. El Rio de Tiempo (Epcot Center, 1982-2007) From Epcot Center’s opening to this very day, the World Showcase half of the park did not offer much by the way of conventional attractions. The true attraction was in strolling around, shopping, eating, and drinking your way around each country’s pavilion. I’ve visited about half of the World Showcase countries in real life by now, and they are, at best, tourist-friendly caricatures of the nations they represent. At worst, they are absurd and borderline offensive, reducing Germany to a bier-guzzling Bavarian village, and Italy to a pizzeria and a jewelry shop. Along these lines, the old boat ride in the Mexico pavilion towed a careful line between “loving recreation” and “lowest-common-denominator stereotype.” The beginning of the ride attempted to show some traditional Aztec dances and the cosmology behind them– good! The end of the ride features videos of Mexican market hawkers enticing us to buy sombreros and maracas– bad! Add in some unnecessary “It’s a Small World” type doll-animatronics, and you get a brilliantly unfocused ride that spills out everything associated with Mexico at its unwitting riders, not unlike Montezuma’s Revenge. The ride was drastically altered 5 or 6 years ago to incorporate the Three Caballeros, following a loose storyline of trying to find Donald aboard a magical flying sarape. Yeah.
7. Extra-TERROR-estrial Alien Encounter (Magic Kindgom, 1995-2003) In the mid-1990s, Disney fashioned a New Tomorrowland, a steampunk retro-future with dark lighting and neon accents to replace the sterile beige-and-white color scheme that had characterized the area since Disney World opened, evoking a little bit of Jules Verne and a little bit of Buck Rogers. The centerpiece of this New Tomorrowland replaced the ancient Mission to Mars, and for a short time rivaled even Space Mountain as Tomorrowland’s marquee attraction. The show ran on the conceit that the audience was watching a teleportation demonstration gone horribly wrong. A dangerous alien breaks loose from its cage, and wrecks havoc on the audience, who are all harnessed into their seats with little room for movement. The lights go out, and terrifying sound effects make it seem like your neighbors are being eaten, or that the alien is breathing down your neck. What I love most about this attraction is how cruel and mean-spirited and completely un-Disney it was. It was toned down to become more Disney friendly in 2003, (and- notice the trend here?- tied into an existing Disney property) by becoming Stitch’s Great Escape. “Stitch Encounter”, as it is derisively known, is widely considered the worst attraction on Disney property. Nice going, guys.
6. Kitchen Kabaret (Epcot, 1982-1994). Most of the Epcot attractions during the early years were expressly modeled on a classic Disneyland attraction. World of Motion used many of the visual puns and comedy of Pirates of the Caribbean. Horizons was envisioned as a kind of sequel to Carousel of Progress, looking to the future as the Carousel looked to the past. The aforementioned El Rio de Tiempo was a Mexican It’s A Small World. Kitchen Kabaret was its Country Bears or Tiki Birds, a musical revue emceed by a colorful group of characters, in this case singing fruits and vegetables that educated us about the four food groups. What made Kitchen Kabaret a stronger show than its predecessors was its faithfulness to form– it expertly followed the German cabaret tradition, and even incorporated a few Vaudeville routines for good measure. It transitioned beautifully from an Andrews Sisters spoof on the breads and cereals group, a straight man-and-joker comedy routine featuring a ham and an egg, a tropical cantina featuring fruits and veggies, and a dairy group replete with homages to Mae West and Eartha Kitt. It was an eclectic show to be sure, but the animatronics and the music were all very nicely done.
5. Original “O Canada” show (Epcot Center, 1982-2007) The Canadian government had a longstanding beef with Disney’s presentation of their home– it emphasized the outdoors in general (and lumberjacks in particular) to the nth degree. In a way, this was great– it is exactly what most Americans in the audience wanted to see in a Canada film: lots of vistas of the Rocky Mountains, icy plateaus, untamed wilderness. These are the things that Circle-Vision was made for, allowing audience emersion into the stunning natural beauty of our neighbor to the north. By the new millennium, though, the film had aged badly: men and women in establishing shot were dressed unfashionably even for Canadians, footage of hockey games included teams no longer in existence, and the level of technology depicted was very much early computer age. The revised film corrected these problems, but created two new ones that made it unwatchable. Given Disney’s fetish for celebrity appearances in rides, Martin Short was added. (This was, for those keeping track, his third appearance in a Disney attraction, after “The Art of Disney Animation” and sex-education film “The Making of Me.”) Short’s goofball humor ruined much of the dignity and majesty of the original film. The second problem was its insistence on emphasizing cities, giving us city skyline after city skyline of one indistinguishable urban space from the next. You have to know your audience, and while challenging their stereotypes is fine, Disney ought to have known that nobody gets in line to see footage of downtown Calgary.
4. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1998). Mr. Toad was there when the Magic Kingdom opened its doors, but was elbowed aside to make room for Winnie the Pooh’s ride during the Pooh Bear’s mid-90s cultural renaissance. Toad loyalists fought this with a fervor and intensity befitting of J. Thaddeus Toad himself, failing in Orlando, but keeping the attraction open in Anaheim. This ride was a worthy cause for such efforts– although in its technology, it was a simple fun-house thriller, the ride’s unexpected twists and turns, and its ability to go off-script from the movie (including a brief sojourn into Hell) made it a hoot.
3. Delta Dreamflight (Magic Kingdom,1989-1998). Dreamflight took over the reigns from “If You Had Wings,” another aviation-themed ride from the park’s early years. Perhaps the most Epcot-ish attraction ever shown in the Magic Kingdom, Dreamflight was in turns a humorous and thrilling look at the history of aviation. It poked fun at the old barnstorming days, and the early years of trial-and-error as inventors determined just how to make a person fly through the air. What I remember most was probably my favorite special effect in all of Disney World- a rotating series of lights that made you believe your ride vehicle was traveling up and around, as though inside of a cylinder. The ride ended by showing you all the fantastic places Delta Airlines could take you, with some nifty early computer graphics to boot. Pure, wistful, corporate kowtowing, Dreamflight was still, as its theme song’s lyrics maintained, “the most wonderful flight of your life.” At least Dreamflight had the dignity of being succeeded by a very good ride, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.
2. Journey into Imagination (Epcot Center, 1983-1998). Damn, did Disney close a lot of great rides in the late 90s! At one point, JII was the park’s second most popular attraction after Spaceship Earth. The show lived up to its name, being truly imaginative and wondrous, in showing us how the imagination could inspire us. The ride took us past scenes of show business, ice palaces, gothic horror, and scientific discovery, with the purple dragon Figment and his hirsute master, the Victorian inventor Dreamfinder, as our hosts. But the ride’s most compelling scene was its first– through an ingenius use of turntables, Dreamfinder moved alongside our vehicle for the first few minutes of the ride to introduce us to both Figment and the concept of imagination itself. This ride should have been kept intact as a Disney classic, in the same way that you just don’t mess with Haunted Mansion or Jungle Cruise- but its two bland, and most offensively of all, unimaginative successors, both starring an ineffective Eric Idle, insult the audience and wastes its time.
1. Horizons (Epcot Center, 1983-1999). Today, our view of the future is cynical and dystopian. Between Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and even the Hunger Games, we prefer bleak, despairing views of the future. Virtually the only good thing about the 1980s was its refusal to do the same. Horizons is a hopeful view of how technology will help us in the 21st century, allowing families to stay closer. And that is what makes the ride work- its human, beating heart. This isn’t full of sterile and technocratic promises, but follows a fictive family who can stay in touch although dispersed into a myriad of different environments- a desert farm, an underwater city, and even a space colony. Although the 21st century is, so far, not quite so littered with holograms and form-fitting jumpsuits as Horizons suggested, the advent of Skype is just one thing among many that Horizons got quite right. A long ride (nearly 15 minutes) that took its time and never rushed us, it was an immersive journey into a future every one of its riders wanted to see.