May 1, 2010

Audio-Animatronic Musicals Dead at Disney Parks

At one point in the not too distant past, Disney developed several musical variety attractions. The trend began in 1963 with the opening of "Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room" and continued on with various shows opening in many theme parks around the world. This was a good fit for the time as American television was dominated by comedy, music, and variety shows.

The spectacular success of "Tiki" meant there would be more to come. Eventually, there was a duplicate of the show in Florida dubbed "Tropical Serenade", as well as two others at the opening of the Magic Kingdom park, "The Mickey Mouse Revue" and "Country Bear Jamboree". In turn, the West Coast gained its own bear hoedown as well as another show - a tribute to America and its music, just in time for the country's bicentennial with "America Sings". With all these shows, theme park fans across the country had several chances to sit down and relax while they were entertained in air-conditioned comfort. A big bonus especially in the humid and hot Sunshine State.

The Magic Kingdoms were not the only Disney parks to receive these types of musical revues. The 1982 opening of the groundbreaking EPCOT Center, brought us Kitchen Kabaret, a strange little show about nutrition hosted by fruits and vegetables. For all of Disney's talk about the park heralding the next century, this cabaret was very retro, exactly the type of attraction that earned Disney parks the teen reputation of being "the place old people went." Or even just a place for little kids. (Think about the pizza hall Chuck E. Cheese!) It was an extremely long 12 years before this show was retired, but unfortunately it was replaced by an even worse presentation, Food Rocks.

Tokyo Disneyland's opening saw the first overseas presentations of the Magic Kingdom's shows, aside from "America Sings" which, thankfully had no place in Japan, and the Land pavilion's musical theater- which shouldn't have happened anywhere. Wiser heads prevailed for the planning of Disneyland Paris. None of these shows were featured, and the planned Beauty and the Beast musical theater presentation was axed in favor of other attractions. I must admit, since this is my favorite Disney animated movie, ( Do I really need to qualify this by saying "hand drawn"?), I was very much looking forward to this show.

Although initially quite fun, these musical shows were starting to wear thin with each repeat viewing. Attendance began to drop. Marc Davis' charming American characters found a new home in Splash Mountain, and the Mouse's Revue in Florida took up new digs at Tokyo's opening. A poorly planned and executed replacement for Serenade opened in Florida as a desperate attempt to keep an audience. At the Happiest Place on Earth, the Bears vacated their California home and made way for an English cub, with Food Rocks retiring for Epcot's version of the only California Adventure classic, Soarin'. In the middle of this transition time, the Imagineers wisely dropped plans for an alien cabaret to replace the poorly aging Carousel Theater in California. The era of theater shows starring animatronics had passed.

Being a music lover meant these shows had a longer life span for me than maybe necessary. Some shows weathered better than others. Having a soft spot for Hawaii and looking back fondly on our many vacations there, I was thrilled when the original Tiki Room was beautifully restored. I wished Disney had saved one theater for the Bears, but that was more for nostalgia value than anything else. (A rumored remake with famous country singers would have held some interest for another few years, however.)

Just recently, I listened to the full recordings of the Disneyland shows from the 50th Anniversary set. Sad to say, but I found myself thinking these shows needed to be replaced. The Jamboree was charming for its time. America Sings, as much as I appreciate the talent of Mr. Davis and his sense of humor, has aged the worst of the lot. Even my beloved Tiki Room survives as a pleasant distraction due to my love for the islands.

Attractions aging poorly is not solely the domain of animatronic musical theater. Disney faces the same kind of challenges with its reliance on 3D film-based attractions and also with stage productions using live actors. Due to its large base of international versus local visitors, the Florida parks can last longer with aging shows and films, but not so in California, as evidenced by the feeble crowds for "Muppets" and "It's Tough to Be a Bug". Viewing the latest plans for California Adventure, we see the Imagineers themselves understanding the struggle they face. New adventures either involve interactivity or those that physically move us from place to place, all the while telling a great story.

The biggest lesson here for Disney is to understand their audience is constantly looking for something not found elsewhere. Disney cannot continue to rely on yesterday's methods and whatever is easiest (or cheapest) to do. In fact, while these types of musical shows are quickly disappearing stateside, you won't find audio-animatronic musicals at Hong Kong Disneyland or at the still coming Shanghai Disneyland either. Developing new technologies are a vital part to keeping things fresh and to bringing return visitors. Disney cannot allow their competition the luxury of beating them at their own game by passing on cutting edge ride or show systems offered by outside firms.

While in the parks, guests desire something new and different. Particularly in California where it is so easy to travel between parks, a variety in types of attractions and experiences contribute to keeping visitors around through mealtime and into the evening hours.

Balancing these truths and budgets are all part of the new rules for today's theme park game. As shown by the public's lukewarm reaction to the poorly executed but quickly improving California Adventure, rewriting the rules doesn't always work. The lessons learned at this park prove it is better to do it right the first time or pay the price. This time, they won't get increased attendance for a song.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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