Sunday, December 4, 2016

Armchair Imagineering: Holiday Fantasmic!

The Disneyland Resort sure loves to celebrate Christmas. Not only do thematically specific decorations go up in most areas of both parks, but a handful of attractions get made over into holiday-specific versions of themselves.* The most notable might be the shows and live entertainment offerings, nearly all of which, from the humble and homey Dapper Dans to the extravagant fireworks display, are in holiday mode at this time of year. Disneyland has hosted any number of Christmas parades over the years. Across the Esplanade, World of Color is on its second holiday version. But there’s one live show that has so far bucked the trend: Fantasmic!
It’s not hard to see why—Fantasmic! is possibly the most complex and intricate performance in theme park history. Not only does it involve multiple types of live performers and special effects, but it was designed from start to finish to be a satisfying whole. It tells a complete story with a three-act structure (something almost never done in theme park entertainment), and the musical score is as much a symphony as a medley. It's amazing that something like this was achieved once; doing it all over again with a more specific theme would be almost unfathomably difficult.
But what is Armchair Imagineering for, if not indulging in these wild Blue-Sky ideas? Come brainstorm with me...
(Well, okay, technically for now you're going to read while I brainstorm, but I welcome any and all contributions in the comments.)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Imagineering Theory: The Frontierland Problem

BREAKING NEWS: Moana is fantastic. Go see it.

We Disneyland fans often enjoy discussing the Tomorrowland Problem—i.e., how do you go about portraying “the future” in an age when technology progresses as quickly as it does in this day and age? What you don't hear about much is the Frontierland Problem, which I will identify in a moment. To the best of my knowledge, this phrase doesn't even exist as a widely recognized term for a phenomenon that most guests may not think about, or want to.
The Frontierland Problem, in brief, is this: How do you depict a superficially exciting but very ugly phase in American history in a theme park setting, without either whitewashing the nasty parts or bumming out your guests? It's a problem that might not have arisen had Disneyland been built in any decade other than the 1950s, when white American machismo (of a clean-cut variety that seems paradoxical to modern eyes) was perhaps the dominant value in American pop culture. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the Western genre of film and television, which had its absolute heyday in the Fifties. In any other decade, Walt Disney—or at least his advisors—might have deemed the Frontierland concept not nearly marketable enough for mainstream audiences, and chosen a different theme for this largest of the themed lands, or at least diminished the “American history” presence in favor of nature or modern-day America* or something else related.
Might have. It is by no means certain. But it is well worth looking at all the small ways in which the sights to see in Frontierland have been tweaked over the years, as the guest base has grown more diverse and less forgiving of the whitewashed, white-centric Old West narrative. The Indian attack was removed from the backstory of the Burning Cabin and the Indian War Canoes were retooled into the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes,** leaving only allied tribes among Frontierland's Native population. The Golden Horseshoe's long-running show, featuring mild burlesque elements, came to an end. Gunplay was progressively downplayed. It's safe to say that mainstream America no longer considers Westward Expansion a period of unalloyed heroism on the part of white settlers and the U.S. Cavalry.
And that leaves both Management and Imagineering in a bit of a fix. What do you do when the entire theme of an important land has gone out of fashion? For the time being, the answer seems to be “Put it off for another day.” Tomorrowland is suffering from a lack of solid direction, but Frontierland is suffering from neglect, to the extent that large chunks of its real estate were deemed expendable in order to make way for Star Wars. The closest thing to a new permanent attraction it has received in over twenty years is the out-of-place Pirates' Lair overlay of Tom Sawyer Island. Granted, adding attractions to a land whose atmosphere relies on a sense of wide openness is automatically tricky business, but it's no wonder Frontierland's overall popularity has been declining when it never has anything new to say, when its former messages have become unpalatable but it has nothing meaningful to replace them with.
So what can they do? Well, in some respects the experiments are already being performed.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

After-Action Report: World of Color: Season of Light

I have never been what you’d call a huge fan of World of Color. For all the massive promotion when it first debuted, it has always struck me as distinctly inferior to Fantasmic! The reasons for this are numerous, but among them is that World of Color has always seemed so very commercial. From the very first iteration, it has come across as having the primary purpose of waving popular characters and recent or upcoming films in guests’ faces, spurring the purchase of merchandise and movie tickets. The previous holiday version, World of Color: Winter Dreams, was especially blatant about this, betraying its own theme—you know, winter—with the use of the song “In Summer” from Frozen.* They tried to pass it off as an ironic juxtaposition, but not many people were fooled. They knew a shameless advertisement when they saw one.
Thus it is with delight that I inform you that the new holiday version—World of Color: Season of Light—does not give me this impression at all. Instead of using the show to promote the characters, it uses characters to illustrate the themes of the show. There are no Disney songs in this one—just well-known Christmas tunes as performed by equally well-known singers (and one absolutely marvelous surprise, about which more later). Each song is accompanied by appropriate footage from Disney films and shorts, and the hey-look-at-our-new-movie vibe is kept to a minimum.
That said, it’s still fairly one-dimensional as a presentation. World of Color is by its very nature something of a one-trick pony, lacking the multiple facets of something like Fantasmic! or even a parade. So this is gonna be a pretty short post, focusing on some of the highlights that really stood out to me as making this one special.
  • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: The obligatory Princess/romance sequence uses this fairly infamous song, but there’s a twist—it’s the Idina Menzel/Michael Bublé cover, which swaps out some of the dodgier lyrics for more family-friendly ones. Combined with the footage of Princesses pulling away from their love interests (when we all know these stories have fully consensual, mutually fulfilling happy endings), it does a lot to redeem the song for modern sensibilities.
  • “Mele Kalikamaka”: This segment starts with clips from Lilo & Stitch. Then it continues with clips from Lilo & Stitch, before concluding with clips from Lilo & Stitch. I fully expected it to tease Moana at some point, since that film comes out in just a few days. But it didn’t. That alone speaks well for its sincerity—it would have been so easy to throw in a promotional clip or two, but they resisted the urge.
  • “Wizards in Winter”: This was the big surprise I mentioned earlier. Everyone knows who Trans-Siberian Orchestra is these days, but I don’t think many people are familiar with their work beyond the rock remixes of “The Nutcracker” and “Carol of the Bells.”** However, if just one of their original Christmas compositions has achieved any sort of penetration into public recognition, it surely must be “Wizards in Winter,” thanks to a YouTube video of someone’s elaborately synchronized home exterior Christmas lights that went viral some years back. Accordingly, this segment—the most over-the-top part of the whole show, making ample use of the laser grid as well as the fire jets—purports to be someone’s elaborately synchronized home exterior Christmas lights. The someone in question is Goofy, who is probably the only character in the Disney lineup who might believably use fire jets at Christmas.

Is there anything I would do differently? Absolutely. Well, maybe.
For example, there's a segment featuring music from “The Nutcracker” as sung, a cappella, by the Pentatonix...and illustrated with the dancing hippos and ostriches from Fantasia. Except...Fantasia has a “Nutcracker” segment, and it's not the one with hippos. (It's the one with dancing mushrooms and thistles that makes you wonder what the animators were on when they created it.) I'm being charitable and assuming they went that route in order to keep the tone light and portray explicit ballet dancers, but it still creates the impression that they missed an obvious target at close range.
Another aspect that seemed kind of odd was the complete absence of any acknowledgement of Hannukah. The Disneyland Resort's holiday shows can normally be counted upon to provide at least a token round of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” making the lack of such this time around a pretty glaring omission. I would rather they leave it out than force it if they couldn't find a natural place for it in the lineup, and anyway California Adventure has no shortage of diversity celebration this season, for which I have nothing but praise.
So it's not perfect. But it still stands head and shoulders above any other iteration of World of Color, and I highly recommend it as the perfect way to cap off a day enjoying California Adventure's Festival of Holidays.

* Among other songs from said movie.
** Which are actually entitled, respectively, “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” and “Christmas Eve – Sarajevo 12/24.” People don't pay attention.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Disneyland Dilettante 100th Post Special

I wanted to make this something spectacular. It's been nearly two years since I began this blog, and I've managed a post a week the entire time, plus one or two extras. I hoped to find some major source of inspiration and give my readers an early-early Christmas gift of something astounding.
Then...Tuesday happened.
It was the most severe gutpunch I have experienced in my life, and it killed most of my desire to write. I spent most of Wednesday in something like a sick daze. I'm getting better as I process it, but it's so rough. I thought so much better of my countryfolk than this. I honestly don't know how I'm going to get through the next four years (or however long it takes to impeach his orange ass and discredit his entire administration). But I will try to continue my posting rate. I have posts brewing from before this catastrophe, and hopefully my psyche is resilient enough to recover and keep providing content (in addition to all the real-world activism I will most assuredly be doing).
Because we still have Disneyland. We still have that. I'm going to need it dearly in the near future, to escape the horror of reality once in a while. That's what it's there for, isn't it? To be a better place than the world we live in?
So I offer you this for Disneyland Dilettante Post #100: 100 Disneyland Delights. Little bits of joy a day at the park can provide, even in these scary times.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

After-Action Report: Storybook Land Canal Boats

Walt Disney loved miniatures. This interest seems to be part of a broader fascination with extremes of size that gave us Mickey Mouse’s battles against giants in “The Brave Little Tailor” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” the immense dinosaurs and minute pixies of Fantasia, Alice’s size-shifting escapades in Wonderland, the tiny animal sidekicks in films such as Pinocchio and Cinderella, and perhaps even Adventure Thru Inner Space. A dramatic change of scale is a dramatic change of perspective, and Walt was all about seeing the world in unconventional ways. Combine that with the delicate and nimble touch required to craft miniature models, and it's not hard to see why he loved them so much that he decided to put an entire country of them in his park.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Kidnap the Magic: Disneyland Jack-o-Lanterns

Okay, help me out here. When did Halloween pumpkin carving become so...awesome? When I was a kid, riding my giant ground sloth to the playground, everyone I knew just drew a few triangles and circles on a pumpkin and cut them out with a kitchen knife. I felt fancy if I managed to include pupils in the eyes. I remember starting to see those specialty carving kits with the gnome-sized miter saws when I was in my teens,* and sometime between then and now, it just exploded as an artform.
Pumpkin has become a medium of sculpture in its own right—a feat all the more impressive when you remember that these globoid gourds are available only seasonally and the resulting creations are necessarily ephemeral. Despite its fragility, in the hands of an expert carver the flesh of a pumpkin can hold fine details as well as soft wood, and its translucency allows for subtle shading effects that only become apparent when the candle inside is lit. At the extreme end, we get stuff like this:

Most people probably don't have it in them to create anything that elaborate—I know I don't—but “rough image of a face” is no longer the default. Between the aforementioned carving kits and the widely available pattern templates, even the average neighborhood candy-giver is as likely to have pumpkins carved to resemble miniature scenes, or favorite media characters, as simple faces.
And occasionally, they turn to a Disney theme park for inspiration.
Disney jack-o-lanterns, per se...those are everywhere. Always quick to jump on the bandwagon of anything child-focused, Disney prints loads of pumpkin templates, in little booklets themed by character family. You've got your Mickey & Friends, your Princess, your Winnie The Pooh, your Pixar, probably your Jake and the Neverland Pirates. If you want a design specifically related to the parks, though, you're on your own. Naturally.
Nonetheless, some people pull it off, and it is my very great pleasure to show you some examples of their work. I had to work a bit harder than I anticipated (with some much appreciated help from The Sister) to collect all turns out that Googling “Disneyland jack-o-lantern” doesn't bring up many examples of homemade carvings by private citizens.
So without further ado...

Sunday, October 23, 2016

After-Action Report: Radiator Springs Racers

I have a love-hate relationship with Cars Land. The Cars franchise may well be Pixar's weakest concept,* and it really has nothing to offer me in particular. There are several reasons, but for our purposes here, the main one is that I'm not interested in cars. Never have been. And especially in the context of a theme park, where I prefer to be surrounded by things I don't see and hear every hour of every day. If it had been my decision to make, I never would have put Cars in a Disney theme park, especially not to the extent of building an entire huge themed land.
And yet...
And yet...
I cannot deny that Cars Land, apart from the dumb name, is really, really well done. I mean, look at this:

And that's not even the town part. This is the town part:

This is Imagineering at its placemaking best. The attention paid to detail here is phenomenal. You walk into Cars Land, and you're there, in a tiny town in the American Southwest, with jagged cliffs of red sandstone in the distance. I'm sure it helped that they had the setting pre-rendered in three digital dimensions for their convenience, but they still had to figure out how to create it in three actual dimensions, and it's stunning work.
A lot of cleverness went into the execution. The businesses of Radiator Springs have been translated into typical theme park fixtures. The hippie VW bus's “organic fuel” station is a beverage stand, the paint shop is a clothing store, the souvenir shop is...a souvenir shop. Businesses with no ready counterpart have either been adjusted or made the sites of rides. But the area's tentpole attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, isn't located in the town at all—it takes place on the outskirts, amid those magnificent buttes seen in the top photo.
I actually haven't been on it many times—three or four, total, since it opened. This is because a) it's in the park I don't favor, b) it's Cars, and c) the wait time frequently tops two hours. But I never regret riding it. It's too dang good...maybe the best execution of a ride concept in years.
Actually, calling Radiator Springs Racers a ride is underselling it. It's three rides in one, plus a fantastically immersive queue that expands on the source material in a charming way. I'll start with the queue since—as mentioned above—we're going to be standing in it for a while.