This isn’t a post about The Last Jedi. This isn’t even a post about Star Wars. I don’t care whether you love or hate this film, its franchise, or have opinions about the Lucas era versus the Disney era. It is all irrelevant. Like everything else on this site, this is about Disney. Disney Parks, Disney films, Disney past, and Disney future.
It’s no secret that many Disney fans, particularly Disney Park fans, have a tendency to be… shall we say, resistant to change.
*cough* LUDDITES *cough*
This apprehension is not without merit. Over the years, we have seen many beloved attractions be replaced with objectively inferior experiences.
*cough* JOURNEY INTO IMAGINATION *cough*
Excuse me. I seem to need a lozenge.
But seriously, there is a subset of Disney Park fans who take to social media to complain about even the announcements of the smallest proposed changes to whatever attraction, restaurant, weenie, or — dare I say — park bench. We call this group “DisTwitter”. DisTwitter can be an egregiously intolerant group, and sometimes casual commenters are unfairly bunched in with them for expressing an opinion, but in most cases, when you hear/see “DisTwitter”, expect someone to be complaining about something changing.
With every change comes a slew of pros and cons, not the least of which being fan reaction. I’ve talked about changes to Maelstrom, Epcot, and Pirates of the Caribbean, and the reactions they elicited. I have even proposed changes myself to Main Street and the Carousel of Progress. I have even more ideas for changes I would make, or would have made, planned for upcoming site projects.
Reading the comments section of any social media post about an attraction that has closed or an area that has been refurbished, there are always a slew of people lamenting the change — not just not nostalgically, but derisively. Statements to the likes of:
“They never should have closed this ride.”
“They ruined the ride when they changed it.”
“Disney should bring this back.”
Heaven forbid Disney announces a change to a beloved attraction, for any reason, but especially to either add an intellectual property, or remove an element that may no longer be considered socially acceptable. Then you see comments like:
“Disney’s catering to the children/shareholders/social justice warriors!”
“They don’t care about original ideas anymore!”
…or my personal favorite:
“I will never go to Disney World again if they change/close this!”
Now, we could debate all day long about what is right or wrong about these arguments, but the question remains: why do Disney Parks fans have such an opposition to alterations? Change keeps things fresh, right? It keeps the parks and resorts from getting stale and boring. It keeps new guests in the loop as things they’re more familiar with are phased into the parks. What logical reason is there for this resistant discourse?
Believe it or not, the answer is political…
I’m not going to go too deeply into a political argument here. That is a thicket more dangerous than even Maleficent can muster. I can, however, safely divide the political landscape into two polar opposites: liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to have a looser, more malleable approach to problem-solving, while conservatives generally favor stricter, more structured solutions. Both groups, at their most basic origin, want what’s best, but have often incompatibly different viewpoints of what is best and how to achieve it.
Disney fans are not dissimilar. We all want an end result that we think Walt would have been proud of — but how can we be sure of what that is? Walt has, of course, been dead for more than 50 years, and there are currently no members of the Disney family actively participating in the company’s decision-making, so any questions of “what would Walt do?” are speculation at best.
We all want what’s best for Walt Disney World and the Disney Company, but have often incompatibly different viewpoints of what is best and how to achieve it. Sound familiar?
I have come up with unique names for the two sides of Disney debates:
In the red corner, we have the:
In the blue corner, we have the:
- Revere Walt Disney, the man
- Honor anything the man himself touched with his own hands
- Believe preservation of legacy content is key to Disney’s longterm value
- Revere Walt Disney’s ideas
- Honor Walt’s creativity and originality by encouraging new ideas
- Believe evolution and creation of new content is key to Disney’s longterm value
This is putting it in simple terms, and I’m sure there will be some disagreement among the Disney fanbase. None of this is set in stone, obviously. It is my own personal assessment based on decades of experience with message boards, chat rooms, YouTube comments, and modern social media. But the fact remains, most Disney fans either want everything to stay the same, or welcome constant change.
There is merit to both arguments. I first visited Walt Disney World in 1990. The Disney-MGM Studios was brand new, EPCOT Center had yet to transform into its un-Centered second iteration, and Magic Kingdom contained mostly untouched versions of its original ’71 offerings, plus-or-minus a few attractions and amenities. I have often said that if time travel were possible, I would return to that place and time so I could relive Walt Disney World prior to its major expansions and refurbishments.
However, I cannot deny that many things are more complicated now than they were then, and many of the more debatable changes came from necessity. The ’80s and ’90s brought a lot more competition to Disneyland and Disney World, some of it right outside their door. Expansions to Busch and Six Flags theme park franchises, the opening of Universal Studios Florida, the rebirth of destinations like Las Vegas and Midtown Manhattan — formerly known best for their seedy adult entertainment offerings — as family vacation spots, all took attention, and attendance, away from the industry Disney pioneered.
Magic Kingdom needed thrills. EPCOT needed better pacing and more entertainment. The Studios needed rides and reasons for return visits. Throughout the ’90s, many of these gripes would be addressed, with older, “classic” attractions becoming collateral damage. Fans of Disney World throughout the ’70s and ’80s lamented these changes, often blaming then Chairman and CEO, Michael Eisner, of trying to turn Disney World into “Eisner World” (which ironically would have only required minor modifications to the logo).
EPCOT Center had the most victims, and the loss is still felt. From the early-’90s to the early-aughts, Epcot lost all of its original Future World attractions, with several of the replacements not even bearing a resemblance to its predecessor.
The charming-but-outdated Kitchen Kabaret was replaced by the educationally-accurate-but-loud-and-obnoxious Food Rocks. The slow-moving Omnimover Audio-Animatronic extravaganza about transportation, World of Motion, was gutted for the fast-paced, sparsely decorated, mostly forgettable Test Track. The other slow-moving Omnimover Audio-Animatronic extravaganza about the future, Horizons, was demolished to make way for a nausea-inducing motion simulator, Mission: Space. The whimsical, memorable, iconic Journey Into Imagination became the short, dry, abysmal Journey Into Your Imagination — which lasted less than two years before the half-hearted compromise, Journey Into Imagination with Figment, took over.
More recently, the other parks have had controversial updates. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was closed and replaced with a Winnie the Pooh ride. The Enchanted Tiki Room was (temporarily) taken over by Iago and Zazu when it was Under New Management. Pirates of the Caribbean added characters from the movies and removed the less family-friendly scenes. The Haunted Mansion debuted a modified attic scene that introduced Constance Hatchaway, the black widow bride. Animal Kingdom replaced Camp Minnie-Mickey with Pandora: The World of Avatar, based on the critically-acclaimed, top-grossing James Cameron movie (that everyone seemed to suddenly forget or dislike months after its release, for some reason). Disney’s Hollywood Studios gutted The Great Movie Ride to make way for Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, “blasphemously”¹ styled after the recent Mickey Mouse shorts.
And the list goes on.
This is just the Florida parks, mind you. I’m not even mentioning the controversial changes in the parks in other parts of the world. (Mission: Breakout, anyone?) Nearly every exciting — or disappointing — new addition to the Disney Parks in the past few decades has replaced something original and beloved.
Most of us will agree that these were classic attractions, some of which having been inspired by original Walt Disney concepts, others having been opening day attractions that defined their park for a generation. We grew up enjoying these attractions, and we want our children to grow up with them too.
The Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland, which took guests through various scenes of plant and animal wildlife on some of the world’s longest and most famous rivers, complete with a narration from a live skipper, who would point out various sights along the way.
Much like the rest of Disneyland in the early days, the Jungle Cruise was based on a pre-existing Disney series, The True Life Adventures. As such, the ride tried its best to stay true-to-life. The opening day version of the Jungle Cruise had no puns, no lost safari, no Trader Sam, and no “backside of water”. It was just a dry, serious tour of the jungles of the world.
According to legend, in the early ’60s, Walt overheard a mother tell her son, “We don’t need to ride the Jungle Cruise. We did that last time.” Walt had already assigned Imagineer Marc Davis to spruce up the Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland attraction, and asked him to take a look at what can be done with the Jungle Cruise. Davis, famous for his sight gags, added most of the aforementioned scenes to Disneyland attraction, and even more to the Magic Kingdom’s version, turning a once bland, once-in-a-while ride into the beloved repeat classic it is today.
One of Walt’s favorite things about Disneyland was that it could be changed. Sometimes these changes were to accommodate Walt’s own ever-evolving imagination; but other changes, like the Jungle Cruise example, were to make guests happy. One of the shortest-lived attractions in Disneyland history was the Viewliner, which closed a little more than a year after it opened to make way for the Monorail.
But that was hardly a major attraction. The big question arises when we start to wonder, for example:
Would Disney close/replace Pirates of the Caribbean?
Or any other “classic”, for that matter. It seems unlikely, arguably unthinkable — but not impossible.
We’ve seen them come close on a few occasions. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was a reimagining of the opening day Disneyland attraction that took guests on a wild, winding trip through various scenes and locations inspired by Disney’s animated version of The Wind in the Willows. However, after 27 years of operation in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, it was closed (amid protests) to make way for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Likewise, Journey Into Imagination was a much beloved attraction from EPCOT Center’s Phase One, announced along with the park, and opened on its semi-anniversary. Completely original, with iconic characters, a unique ride system, and memorable set-pieces, Imagination was everything a classic Disney dark ride should be. A month after Mr. Toad’s closing, I-mag closed to be transformed into Journey Into YOUR Imagination.
The difference between these two refurbs is that Pooh has gone on to become one of the most popular Fantasyland attractions, even being duplicated in Disneyland (replacing their Country Bear Jamboree, another classic) and reimagined for Tokyo Disneyland (as the trackless Pooh’s Hunny Hunt), while JIYI was so unpopular that it closed two years later for the marginally less maligned Journey Into Imagination with Figment. However, what they share is an original attraction once thought untouchable, unceremoniously replaced.
So what’s stopping Disney from doing the same to, say, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, or “it’s a small world”? Walt’s hand was in all of these attractions (though The Haunted Mansion less so), so that affords them a layer of protection. Although it should be noted that Walt Disney’s original Enchanted Tiki Room was completely replaced in Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland, and the Disneyland original had an entire segment cut from it. Its long-awaited return to Orlando came with even more trimmings than Anaheim’s.
Pirates, Mansion, and Small World have all seen several alterations over the decades, though none of them have been completely replaced… yet. I won’t go into the details (some have already been detailed already in my other blogs), suffice to say that Pirates has had movie tie-ins and some censorship applied; Mansion has had mostly effects updates, a couple new attic scenes, and a holiday overlay in both California and Japan; and also on both sides of the Pacific, Small World has had Disney IP characters added.
But all of them have remained mostly the same as their opening day versions. Any small change to these attraction has been carefully balanced out to improve what’s already there, as if Disney is trying to say, “Look, we know some of you won’t be happy with these alterations, but look at how great everything is as a whole!” To put it simply, they’re afraid. Shanghai Disneyland opening with a completely different Pirates of the Caribbean ride based on the movies was enough to raise fans’ eyebrows. Imagine the backlash if at the next D23 Expo, Bob Chapek stepped onstage to announce that Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s Pirates would be permanently closed and replaced with Shanghai’s Battle for the Sunken Treasure².
I can hear it now…
“You can’t touch Pirates! That’s Walt’s!”
“Pirates has been here longer than any of us! You can’t replace it!”
“No one’s gonna remember the movies in a few years! The ride is forever!”
And these are all perfectly fair, logical arguments.
Well, maybe not, actually. You see, I, my friends, my family, and my followers consider Pirates of the Caribbean an untouchable attraction. I’m a little more flexible than some, in that I don’t mind enhancements and refurbishments that don’t change the fundamental ride experience.
However, my wife has been to Disney World three times, all with me, and all in the past five years. Most of the attractions that I love and would hate to lose — Pirates, Mansion, Small World, Tiki Room, Country Bears — she finds old and cheesy. When The Great Movie Ride closed after her first visit, she said, “Good. It was boring.” (Or something along those lines.)
To her, The Haunted Mansion is full of cheap effects and scares that you can buy at any Spirit Halloween. The animatronic ravens and the hands pushing open the coffin are some of her biggest gripes, and don’t get her started on all that ’60s music!
And it’s not that she’s a thrill-seeker. She loves Winnie the Pooh, Journey of the Little Mermaid, and the Na’vi River Journey. She was amazed by the Shaman of Songs and Hondo Ohnaka animatronics. She’s envious of Japan for their new Beauty and the Beast ride. One of her favorite experiences was the mirror effect at Enchanted Tales with Belle. Point being, as someone who never had never been to a Disney park until 2016, at age 34, she would rather see the new and amazing things that haven’t been imitated at cheaper amusement parks closer to home.
And I would bet my top Disney Dollar that she’s not alone. When the Universe of Energy permanently closed in 2017, it shouldn’t have been surprising. Ellen’s Energy Adventure was a 20-year-old, 40-minute long PBS special with has-been celebrities (whose surprising return to the spotlight in the mid-aughts probably delayed the attraction’s inevitable closure by another decade) and animatronic dinosaurs not dissimilar to the ones we saw at the New York State Fairgrounds the same year.
The Great Movie Ride was a tribute to movies that were mostly old and forgotten even by the time the ride opened. The animatronics were primitive, the cast members were amateurish at best (and once their spiels were prerecorded, they were pretty much only there to act out the couple of show stops — badly), half the effects didn’t work right, and the attraction had never seen a major update in almost 30 years.
What can we say about these attractions that can’t also be applied to Pirates, Mansion, and Small World — not to mention Carousel of Progress, Space Mountain, Spaceship Earth, Peter Pan’s Flight, and yes, even Splash Mountain? Tradition is one thing, but tradition requires those who uphold the tradition to also maintain it and adapt it for new generations.
“…That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”
The purist in me would like to think that if Walt were to walk through the Magic Kingdom today, he would be looking at all the old things that need to be improved or replaced, and barking orders at his Imagineers to do something about it yesterday.
A 47-year-old, hastily-made remake of a 53-year-old boat ride using 58-year-old technology? Replace all of it!
A 45-year-old roller coaster that’s been recreated and improved on in three other parks? Gut it!
A 26-year-old drop ride tenuously inspired by a 61-year-old TV series that almost nobody watches anymore? Tear it down!
Walt relished his traditions — he practically invented the art of marketing nostalgia — but he wasn’t above throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If something was no longer serving its purpose, or making him or the guests happy, it needed to be replaced by something better, even if that meant a temporary disappointment or inconvenience to the guests.
Now I am in no way suggesting that Disney demolish Pirates of the Caribbean, but consider this:
Pirates has long been under the microscope regarding its thinly-veiled misogyny and sexism, not to mention glorifying violence, vandalism, and substance abuse (a stretch, perhaps, but bear with me), and the movie franchise that had once revived the attraction has pretty much come to a quiet end. Splash Mountain’s reputation as being based on a racially insensitive movie that no one has seen in at least two generations (with the obvious exception of bootleggers) has finally caught up with it. Though the live-action characters are nowhere to be seen, all the dialogue is in the stereotypical African-American Gullah accent, and even the title “Br’er” is meant to suggest an uneducated person’s way of saying “Brother”. Our current social climate suggests the need for a change.
These are, of course, two of the most beloved and popular attractions in the Magic Kingdom, but what if Disney…
…closed both attractions, completely and permanently, demolished the buildings and façades and…
…hear me out…
…finally built the Western River Expedition in their place.
Obviously, there would have to be some changes to the original designs. Native American stereotypes would need to be removed, and their cultures would need to be treated with more respect. Most of the rest of the ride, however, could be completed as planned. The space allotted by removing two of the park’s largest attractions would more than make up the necessary space for the façade, queue, and massive show building. Its proximity to Big Thunder Mountain would finally join those concepts as originally imagined, and it would thematically tie together a Frontierland which, for some reason, has had an attraction with a southeastern influence smack-dab in the middle of it for nigh on to 30 years.
Disney Park management and Disney Imagineering have undeniably had their fair share of missteps in the past fifty-plus years since they lost their fearless leader and his unlimited supply of ideas. The latter, budget-slashing half of the Eisner era intentionally stifled creativity. Both tragedies understandably resulted in a fair amount of trepidation.
But failure breeds conviction. For every bad spell they’ve had, at least one good idea has risen from the ashes. Every creative drought brings a deluge of original concepts. More importantly, there is nothing that cannot be improved upon. The best Walt and his team at WED could do before 1967 has been surpassed by far. Disney has always been about doing better than the best.
If killing Pirates is what is needed to give us something better, we should welcome that. The loss of a great classic is tragic, but with today’s video technology — analog digital conversions, streaming, affordable digital cameras, with 2K, 4K, and 8K resolutions, wide-angle lenses, 3D video recording, and VR in 180º, 360º, and even spherical — we can relive extinct attractions virtually. Although some early attractions are already lost to time and technology, anything that has been open in the past decade is pretty well documented on this wonderful thing called the internet.
The willingness, and in some cases, necessity, of the Asian and European parks to reinvent what we’ve come to know as what defines a Disney Park are what make them dream destinations for even those who have called Disneyland and/or Walt Disney World their second homes. The absence of a Space Mountain does not seem to have negatively affected Shanghai Disneyland’s reception, and in fact, its modern replacement has proved so popular that they’re building one in Florida’s Magic Kingdom.
So I say, let’s embrace whatever changes may lie ahead, and trust that Disney would not replace a classic with dud. Could I be wrong? Of course. There’s always the chance that the upcoming Princess and the Frog ride will have more in common with Figment than Frozen Ever After, but if we never let them update anything, we’ll never know if it could have been the next Rise of the Resistance or Runaway Railway.
As Kylo Ren’s great-grandmother once said,
We should all be so accepting.
¹I’m being ironic here. I actually love the new Mickey shorts and their art style.
²On a personal side note, while much of the ride technology for Shanghai’s Pirates is impressive, including their Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones Audio-Animatronics and some of the special effects, I find the attraction’s over-reliance on projections instead of dimensional figures and sets lazy and forgettable.)