March 6, 2014

Removing My Disney Rose Colored Glasses

It's time to remove my rose colored lenses. Or so I thought it was the first time I posted this article over 4 years ago. But check it out again in its revised form... Are my conclusions the same?

I am officially removing my Disney colored lenses to see some harsh but liberating truths. Dare to join me? Be forewarned, it may change the way you vacation... and the way you look at the Company we love.

Truth Number 1:
It's time to admit to something the fans refuse to acknowledge and the executives at the Walt Disney Company have known for decades: The company Walt built has very little left of him in it. Very little. His name means family entertainment to many people, but youngsters seem to think he's akin to Mr. Clean, a made up spokesman for a product. And the Company does throw his name about when they need to use it. Smart marketing but sleazy.

If you want insight into the real man, head to San Francisco for the Walt Disney Family Museum. Here's the real man, not the bigot imagined by Meryl Streep. Husband, father, creative genius. It was love- not money- that created Disneyland, lest the current suits like Bob Iger forget.

The Walt Disney Company is now first and foremost a business, no more personal than any other. Especially with Diane Disney Miller now gone. It is one that has demands placed on it by its investors and its leaders. The bottom line is money. Chinese, European, Japanese, or anyone else's. It just doesn't matter. It's the new American way; the guiding principal of the last few generations. Make money fast, make a lot of it, and deal with the horrible consequences later. The consequences others must pay while those charged with tending to the company rip it off for personal profit. Cynical? Yes, but real.

Truth Number 2:
The Disney theme parks are no longer an expression of love for or the commitment to excellence in artistic expression. Just like use of the name, too many of the parks - especially those in Florida- are living on their reputation from two decades ago. I'll linger awhile here as the Disney parks are the primary reason why I am interested in the doings of the company.

This change began with the purpose for the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Florida. Flatly, Michael Eisner was threatened by the arrival of Universal Studios. Being determined to beat them at his game, the chief okayed the construction of the third theme park on the Disney property. Upon its opening in 1989, it was a beautiful but very little gem. And it has turned into a dingy patchwork quilt of creative unity and nominal financial success. Star Wars may one day be its saving grace, but for now, it will not be for awhile. By the time Darth Vader shows up, it could be too late.

The amazing Twilight Zone Tower of Terror truly is worth this adjective, but there is an equally off-putting series of B grade shows to balance it out, making the park fairly forgettable. The (now closed) Sounds Dangerous was pretty bad. Not even the very funny Drew Carey could save this attraction from being a placeholder at the near center of the park. Is American Idol really better and more of a tribute to the genre than Superstar Television? No. At it is past its prime, just like the show that inspired it. Think about the state of The Great Movie Ride. It should be the park's centerpiece, its heart,  and pride and joy, but it is woefully behind the times in both subject matter represented and the "state of the art" in presentation.  Perhaps its that Disney's live action film division has yet to find much ongoing success beyond Pirates of the Caribbean.  The relative hit of Toy Story Mania does not make up for 15 years of unimpressive additions and half-hearted maintenance.

Money and making it also motivates what is and isn't happening at the rest of the Walt Disney World property. Before you scream "Fantasyland Forest", think about its last major addition. Or even the minor ones. Monsters Inc and Stitch? Ugh. It's the Harry Potter threat that is pushing the company to finally take action. Even this beautiful looking addition comes with a mixed bag of new attractions. I'm thrilled the Little Mermaid is making its way to Florida. Love the movie, love the music. It's about time! But the end result is less than stellar and certainly not satisfactory for an hour long wait. Budgeteering is responsible for taking a prime property and turning it into a less than E Ticket experience for all ages and for all time.  Do not get me going on Epcot and Disney's Animal Kingdom! Both are being left to rot in the bigger picture, and Avatarland / Pandora may be beautiful, but it will not be enough.
Truth Number 3:
The suits will often do what it takes to make a dead park a success.  Due to the first point made, the executives are determined to make this happen. Thanks to the beautiful Buena Vista Street and the incredible Radiator Springs Racers at the heart of Cars Land, California Adventure 2.0 is a big success. Who can resist a park with retro Walt Disney references or Radiator Springs Racers? Not me- or anyone else with small children in tow. It happens overseas, too. Throw in one excellent Mystic Manor (Not based on any film! How can they do that?!?) and a re-imagined Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Grizzly Mountain), and the crowds show up

Truth Number 4:
The Walt Disney Company can no longer make great films without animated characters. My point is made by presenting the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Film number one is excellent, and Johnny Depp couldn't be better. Live action, you say? Yes, but is there a character any more animated than Captain Jack Sparrow? Pirates aside, Disney films seem to have fallen flat- and the removal of Dick Cook seems to validate that Robert Iger and much of the executive branch of the company agrees with my Truth Number 4. Thank God they bought Marvel to pull in some real superheroes who can bring in some super huge Box Office results.

Truth Number 5:
The company Walt built can no longer build great attractions without using characters and stories from their films. Regardless of their greatness, Expedition: Everest really is the Matterhorn Bobsleds revisited, with Mission: Space and Soarin Over California also being new takes on old favorites from Walt's time. Originality at the Stateside parks is dead, particularly at Walt Disney World. Whether the wonderful Imagineers aren't given the freedom to do so or cannot come up with great ideas for something original, sometimes they cannot even build great attractions using the characters they do have (see Ariel's Undersea Adventure).

Truth Number 6:
The company's focus is now "International first, United States second". It's a smart and savvy business move. The company we love is playing whore whenever it can. (Remember Truth Number 1?) Setting aside human right violations and whatever else it needs to, the company wants the big bucks from China. Disney is an established name in the Western Hemisphere, land and people conquered. All the Disney characters own the younger student world here, so its time to move on to untouched territory.

Truth Number 6 explains one of the reasons why Shanghai Disneyland and a park in South America are on the horizon. It also explains why Walt Disney World has remained relatively untouched, why Disneyland was left to rot once upon a time, and why the company thought they could fool us with the original California Adventure, and the Walt Disney Studios theme park in Paris. Thankfully, international moneymen are holding the company's feet to the fire of quality. Disney parks fans with frequent flyer miles to burn have many new and great options if they want true Disney quality- starting with the incredible Tokyo DisneySea.

Truth Number 7:
I couldn't do it any better- and neither could you. There's a real reality check. Though we may view ourselves as budding Tony Baxters and Joe Rohdes, the truth is we are not. These men and women at Imagineering are the last of a great bunch- at least until someone else comes to the helm of the company. For now, they are stuck navigating the turbulent waters of politics and finance just to survive the for the ability to potentially be creative. We are a different America and a different people than we were in Walt's time. Innocence lost and dollars gained. There's the tradeoff.

(Art and photos copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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