September 21, 2009

Disney's Struggle Between Art and Commerce

The age old tension between art and commerce is nothing new to the Walt Disney Company. It has most recently raised its ugly head in the departure of Dick Cook, but it has been going on since the beginning of the company.

From Walt Disney himself and his struggle to finance his films and Disneyland, to the current miscalculations of the suits regarding the public's taste for little imagineered parks like Disney's California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland to the "fourteenth" direct-to-video episode milking The Little Mermaid success, the Walt Disney Company has struggled to find the right balance.

Even in this newest Disney age, where the hopes of die hard fans rest on John Lasseter, there is much to be hopefully cautious about. Some projects are done from love, some from the need for cash, and a rare few blend both ends of the spectrum, creating a happy medium where fan and accountant rejoice. To be successful for the company, both fiscal and artistic sides must come together. More money means happier investors and more cash for new projects. New projects will excite consumers, and they will support product they like with their money. And so it goes on in an endless cycle.

The Disney theme parks are where you'll see the most obvious effects of this struggle. Films and their merchandise come and go, but the parks are places where concrete and steel and the work within create something much more permanent and less easily forgotten. Let's start at Walt's original park.

While Disneyland in Anaheim was a smash upon opening, time and money took its toll from the beginning. Tomorrowland was nothing more than colorful banners, a few set pieces, and a couple of attractions mostly supporting corporate sponsored exhibits. Of course, Walt and his team quickly remedied the situation, and the park was improved upon and expanded quickly until the time he died. The list of the expansion ensured new guests and return ones as well. The first major expansions brought attractions that are beloved and still exist today: The Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Monorail, Submarine Voyage topped the list, but it was just the beginning. With the public response to Audio-Animatronics and The Enchanted Tiki Room, it seemed money would no longer be a problem for Walt's magical park. Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion continued to draw crowds, their cash, and created a happy company and investors.
Walt died, times changed, and poor management left the park mostly untouched. With the exception of the amazing Indiana Jones Adventure, nothing new of substance was added in the later years of the 20th century. Thankfully, the pending 50th anniversary of the park made new management take notice, and Matt Ouimet made sure Disneyland sparkled for its celebration.
Fast forward a few years to the much heralded return of the submarines. Tony Baxter finally discovered just the right property in Finding Nemo get the suits to agree to bring life back to the lagoon, but the end product delivers an expensive but fairly boring product. Kids flock and queues are full. The lagoon is saved. But to what cost to the original futuristic Tomorrowland theme?

On the other hand, Tony and team's detailed redo of the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthru is a labor of love. Painstakingly remade, the result's a gorgeous product, created for the love of the parks and done within a fairly reasonable budget.

Next example: Pirate's Cove at Tom Sawyer Island. Regardless of the all public relations work, the dilution of the Mark Twain theme to satisfy the lust for more Pirates experiences brings the once popular attraction back to life, yet it also delivers a strong sense of commericalism to the island.

Much the same can be said of the upcoming and sure to be popular changes to the park across the way. In California Adventure, we'll see the addition of Ariel's Undersea Adventure and Carsland and its Radiator Springs Racers. Are they in theme? That will be debated for ages. Terrific attractions for this poorly designed park? Sure looks like it. As I mentioned earlier, the astounding disaster of California Adventure and its poor reception from the public punctuates the struggle. Disney tried to put one over on its hardcore Anaheim fans by building a second rate second park. The wiser public voiced its opinion by not spending the money to go, and it was back to the drawing boards again to find the balance of quality and financial success.

This art and commerce tension is not limited to the West Coast. In fact, I would guess it is even more pronounced than in California.

The plans for the recently announced Fantasyland expansion in Florida's Magic Kingdom look terrific and are correctly in theme. The princess franchise and experiences and The Little Mermaid are preciously where they belong. For the company's arguably flagship park, Fantasyland needs to look more like something out of a realm long gone versus its current and tired incarnation, and the decision to make it stunning is long overdue. Disney management (and those amazing Imagineers!) gets an "A" here, even though it would be a nice touch to include something for the guys!

Epcot is another story. Any lover of this park, and anyone who saw EPCOT Center at its opening, would have to give a failing grade to the most recent changes. Detailed long ago on this and many other blogs, the changes to the World Showcases of Mexico and Canada are dreadful. The Nemo and Friends overlay to the once elegant Living Seas gets a slightly better grade, yet it has brought activity to this once empty attraction.

Disney's Hollywood Studios gets a pass, as the designers and accountants can throw just about anything in this catch-all park and make it "in theme".
The lush and gorgeous Animal Kingdoms suffers from the art and commerce struggle. It's been this way since its opening. Before the addition of Expedition Everest, the park relied on its artistic touches and lots of foliage but lost big points with guests for lack of beautiful new attractions due to shortage of cash.

Plans were quickly put in place, resulting in the horrible Chester and Hesters Dinorama. Thankfully, this cheaply built mess was followed up by the exquisite but expensive journey to discover the yeti. Next came Finding Nemo- The Musical. Beautiful, surprising and artsy, but it is another animated character addition. The mix of new additions to the park pack in the crowds as well as bringing added capacity.

The Walt Disney World Resort Hotels also display this art/commerce tension. Compare Pop Century with The Grand Floridian. There are more than "Guest Needs" in consideration here when the plans for expansion are made. It was shocking to realize the same company could design both!

Beyond the United States, the situation remains much the same. The tension is a worldwide phenomena.

Look at the world's most beautiful Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris. The innovative and distinctive Le Visionarium had to give way to the popular Buzz Lightyear, just as Captain Eo eventually gave it up to Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. The park needed new attractions but was short on cash. The same can be said for the minimally themed Temple du Peril. At least this park has enough theming to made up for the mistakes!

Not so fortunate next door, where the very ugly younger sister resides. Following the California Adventure business plan, The Walt Disney Studios Paris opened entirely void of charm and warmth. Tepid reaction and again, loss of incoming cash, made the company rethink its plan. Just like its California counterpart, Imagineers tossed in the cheaper version of Tower of Terror and a couple of off the shelf attractions: the highly themed carnival ride Cars Race Rally and the not quite as highly themed Crush's Coaster. The park's next steps will be telling. If the newest Parisian addition is the Ratatouille attraction that has been detailed on Disney and More, the future looks much brighter even if coming after its recently acknowledged and very cheap looking Toy Story Land.

Above image perfected by Disney and More.

In Asia, Hong Kong Disneyland is a delightful park to view. The greenery is lush, the detail evident. Yet its shortcomings include a carbon copy castle, minimal "E" tickets, and a variety of character meet and greets in place of attractions. Thankfully, the incredible looking Mystic Manor is on its way- but so is Toy Story Land, a bare bones addition that inventive concept art cannot disguise!

Even in Tokyo, the art/commerce struggle grips the suits. Even the most unique of all Disney parks, Tokyo Disney Sea, has made steps to increase capacity and attendance at the price of dumbing down this elegant place. The Tower of Terror is a masterpiece, new theme and all. Raging Spirits? Not so much. Further, does this park really need Toy Story Mania or Turtle Talk shoehorned in? Absolutely not! But it is being done anyway. New attractions come at too high a price.

Things do come full circle. It seems the executive branch at the Walt Disney Company finally understands that quality will bring both crowds and profit. Maybe the success of the recently announced additions at the D23 Expo will flood the coffers, making investors happy and realigning to something Walt Disney always knew: Don't shortchange the customer- give them the best- and they will love you for it.
(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photos copyright Mark Taft.)


SamLand said...

Very interesting take on where the parks are going. As I was prepping for my upcoming WDW trip, I was reading through the Unofficial Guide and Jim Hill’s comments. Virtually every rumor about an upgrade was linked to adding characters to the attraction. That is too bad. Everest may be the last attraction ever built that wasn’t linked to another property. And look at Everest. Spend all that money and let the main feature (the Yeti) just sit there broken. Harold in the Matterhorn is scarier. The whole meet and greet Fantasyland is great if you idea of a theme park visit is to stand in a line to get an autograph. But it leaves the rest of us out of the loop. My guess is the “value-engineering” is already being done. Not to sound like a downer but I think current management sees things in only short-term bursts and Wall Street matters for more than the fans. They will milk the parks until the inevitable backlash starts and then they will retire comfortably.

If Disney was really serious about improving the parks I would start by paying your Cast Members a living wage. That one thing would do wonders and would take advantage of the one thing that makes Disney different – the people. Make working for Disney prestigious again. For those who grew up in Southern California in the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s, a job at Disney was something everybody wanted. Today, it is your second choice because you didn’t get hired at In ‘n’ Out Burger which pays about 25% more. But that would take imagination…

Mark Taft said...

So, So right, Sam!