Tag Archives: Walt Disney World

GDP: Universe of Energy powers down

Today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post brings sad tidings.  As of this weekend, the Universe of Energy at Disney World’s Epcot is no more, and with it goes its animatronic menagerie of prehistoric beasts.  If you prefer your nostalgia in tangible form, they’re selling some commemorative merchandise.

In its original version, the attraction represented a lot that was off-putting about Epcot.  The theater segments on energy sources were so stodgy, so infused with belabored portentousness, that they made Spaceship Earth look like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  The last film seemed to drag on so long that you almost expected the continents to have a different arrangement by the time it was over.

But oh my, those dinosaurs.

Sure, they’re outdated now; they were already a bit behind the science when Disney rolled them out in 1982.  They wouldn’t have been out of place in a Charles R. Knight painting ca. 1900.  But they were dead ringers for the dinosaurs pictured in the books I read as a kid, except they were right there, in three dimensions, feeding and fighting and roaring their way through a three-dimensional primordial landscape.

I was still in elementary school the first time I rode U of E, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment when the curtain rose on a family of grazing sauropods and the theater seats started gliding into a swamp that you could literally smell.  It was awe-inspiring.

By Michael Lowin (Own work (own picture)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I had mixed feelings about the 1996 overhaul.  The new theatrical segments with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye were genuinely funny, and much more engaging than their predecessors.  But I didn’t care for Ellen’s animatronic cameo during the ride.  The elasmosaur seemed so menacing when I was young that it irked me to see him played for laughs.

Still, I guess the updates gave the ride a new lease on life.  Its replacement will be a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction.  I have mixed feelings about that, too.  The Guardians movies are a lot of fun, but between Disney’s acquisitions of Marvel and Star Wars, the parks are starting to look less like coherent themed areas and more like a patchwork of intellectual properties.

U of E’s last bow didn’t go off without a hitch.  It shut down during the sauropod scene, forcing the visitors to evacuate.  But the upside is that somebody was on hand to take video, giving us an up-close and well-lit glimpse at the dinosaurs.

We’ve still got the dino ride at Animal Kingdom, assuming they don’t tear it down for an Avatar expansion.

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Do theme parks need preservation?

Late last month the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the California park to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy ride.  That decision upset some people.  A petition to save the attraction has racked up over 30,000 signatures.

As someone who’s both resistant to change and a theme park junkie, I can sympathize with people who want to keep the Tower of Terror open.  I’m still peeved at Universal Orlando for closing Kongfrontation even though I like the Mummy-themed coaster that replaced it, and I might never forgive them for dismantling the Jaws ride to build yet another Harry Potter area.

The original Tower of Terror opened at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1994.  The California version didn’t get up and running until 2004, so the folks trying to persuade Disney to keep it open will be harder pressed to make their case than if they were advocating on behalf of a classic attraction with decades of tradition behind it.

An aerial view of Disneyland, 1963. EditorASC at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not to say that older attractions are untouchable.  Snow White’s Adventure was one of the Florida park’s original rides, making its debut when the Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971.  You’d think the ride’s age and the fact that it’s based on Disney’s first full-length animated feature might have been enough to keep it open.  In 1994 Disney gave it a major overhaul and a name change, and then closed it completely in 2012.  And Snow White isn’t the only longstanding attraction to get the axe.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was another 1971 ride that went the way of the dodo, and Disneyland’s PeopleMover closed in 1995 after nearly three decades of operation.

When you consider that Disneyland opened more than sixty years ago and Disney World forty-five, it doesn’t seem too out of place to start thinking of them as places of potential historic significance.  The value of some of the parks’ attractions and architectural features doesn’t just stem from their age.  For example, the Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Hall of Presidents feature pioneering examples of robotics technology.  The monorail systems at the Florida and California parks are interesting landmarks in the history of transportation and innovation.  And if a building can take on historic significance because it’s architecturally unique or an example of a particular style, maybe it makes sense to call Spaceship Earth and Sleeping Beauty Castle historic landmarks.

It’s possible that a conversation about places like Disneyland is one worth having in the historic preservation community.  But any effort to restrict Disney’s ability to demolish or modify their attractions is going to run up against the same issues preservationists face when they’re dealing with any other property owners, except this particular property owner has an army of lawyers at its disposal.  I wouldn’t want to see the Jungle Cruise get bulldozed, but I wouldn’t want to be the preservationist who has to go ten rounds with the Mouse House, either.

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From coonskin caps to lightsabers

In a few days, Disneyland is closing some attractions—most of them in Frontierland—to make way for construction of a new Star Wars themed area.  The Disneyland Railroad, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, and Tom Sawyer Island Pirates’ Lair will be out of commission for at least a year, while the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree, Petting Farm, and a frontier-themed BBQ restaurant are shutting down for good.

All the American Wests collide in Frontierland, from Twain’s Mississippi to the desert Southwest. By Chuck, aka SolGrundy on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/380968586/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s somewhat fitting that Disney is replacing parts of Frontierland with Star Wars, because it reflects some long-term changes in the relationship between popular culture, childhood, and historical memory.

For kids of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the American frontier was the setting for a lot of the mass media they consumed and the toys they played with, whether they were listening to cowboy-themed radio shows in the 1930s or watching the wildly popular Davy Crockett serial on the Disneyland TV series in the 1950s.  The Crockett serial starring Fess Parker was so popular that it became a bona fide part of the Zeitgeist for children of the 1950s.  According to the L.A. Times, at the height of Crockettmania, parents were buying 5,000 coonskin caps per day.  The same article reports that Disney moved some $300 million in Crockett-themed merchandise before the whole thing ran its course.  I ran that figure through some inflation calculators.  Turns out $300 million in 1955 would be the equivalent of $2.6 billion in 2015.  To put that in perspective, it’s more than the 2013 merchandising revenue from Spider-Man, the Avengers, Batman, and Superman combined.

I can’t think of any historical-themed franchise aimed at kids from my generation or since that has had that kind of popularity.  Sure, I had a few Western-style cap guns, pirate swords, and toy rifles when I was a kid.  But the dominant media and toys of my childhood took fictional universes as their setting, not the frontier or some other historical era.  Instead of Crockett and the Swamp Fox, we had He-Man and Han Solo.  By the time my generation of kids came along, moviemakers and toy manufacturers had traded in the West for Eternia and Tatooine.  Same thing goes for today’s kids, whose cultural touchstones are the fictionalized worlds of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on.

I don’t intend this to come across as a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-their-history” rant.  It’s not that children of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and 2000s were any more susceptible to mass marketing or any less susceptible to a fascination with the past.  It’s just that the media and products aimed at kids have changed.  There aren’t any historical TV shows that can command the kind of market share ABC’s Disneyland show had sixty years ago, when there were fewer channels and the whole country was watching the same programs.

And despite the popularity of “historical” shows like the Crockett and Swamp Fox serials, I don’t think anybody would argue that they helped kids of the 1950s to develop any sort of historical sensibility.  The people and events depicted in these old programs bear little in common with their historical counterparts.  Indeed, Frontierland itself isn’t even a fictionalized depiction of any particular time or place.  Instead, it’s an imaginative evocation of all the different Wests of our imaginations: the palisaded forts of Crockett’s trans-Appalachian frontier, the steamboats of Twain’s Mississippi, the saloons and dance halls frequented by cowboys and gunslingers, and the dusty mining towns of the Southwest.

Still, exposure to a fictionalized past can help spark an interest in the real one.  Perhaps a history-themed entertainment franchise with the sort of popularity enjoyed by Harry Potter or Star Wars would create a new generation of budding historians.  As things stand now, though, I doubt that a major theme park built in the 2010s would devote an entire themed area to the frontier.  An amusement park with a Frontierland made sense in the 1950s, but the West just doesn’t have the same hold on kids’ imaginations that it did in the days of Roy Rogers and Fess Parker.  The past isn’t the mass-marketed playground it used to be.

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