Disneyland and the Theme Show
The Art of Environmental Design and the Architecture of Reassurance
In the December of 1978, there was an article published in New West Magazine titled “Disneyland is Good For You.” In the piece, John Hench, who fancied himself as WED Enterprises’ resident intellectual, explains the underpinnings that helped Disneyland become an American institution. Calling on scholars such as Freud and Jung, Hench applies existing dissertations to the themed space to show how the design of the park renders premeditated responses from park-going patrons. Hench’s writing proposes two theories: “The Theme Show” and “The Architecture of Reassurance.” The first of these expounds on the question of “How?” with regards to design and production, while the latter demonstrates “Why” the product and the medium tends to reverberate.
John Hench’s writing has always held a particular resonance with me, for it helped me question the “how’s” and “why’s” of themed spaces when I first began to construe my own ideas over a now-weathered copy of “Designing Disney.” I’ve carried those constructs from childhood trips to the near present as much of my writing has been predicated on the inquiry of “why does this work?” I feel that it is an important question to ask and understand before embarking on designing something on one’s own. If one can interpret and grasp elements of success from previous works, then one can build a visual vocabulary of good taste, so to speak.
This particular essay derives from similar observations and experiences. From late-August 2013 to early January 2014, I worked at Disneyland as a Jungle Cruise skipper. It was never my ambition to work in theme park operations, but I felt that it was paramount to do so in order to gain a better understanding of how these parks function. I am extremely glad that I did so. Working in the Jungle coupled with the 105 trips I made to the park (printing a ticket for CMs on each entry makes it easy to count) gave me the best possible education regarding “The Theme Show.” So I felt compelled to write, possibly for the last time on this site, about the elements of “The Theme Show” at Disneyland that struck me as particularly interesting.
Being a string of observations, I tried to condense these thoughts into short vignettes to quell the ambition of the piece. It’s best read casually as a collection of short anecdotes. Enough precursory banter: let’s get started.
MAIN STREET U.S.A.
We begin with “Scene 0” as the guest first passes through the turnstile. The approach to the park has greatly changed since the days of Hench’s prime: an esplanade has replaced a parking lot. However, Disneyland’s exhibition has remained the same. The elevated train track that Walt Disney’s contemporaries warned against (thinking that guests would not be inclined to ascend a staircase for an attraction) is complemented by a floral arrangement in the likeness of Mickey Mouse. As we begin to delve into film similitudes, this is the establishing shot, which is accompanied by a title card reading “Disneyland” on a plaque adorning the train station.
More importantly, the design of Disneyland’s “Scene 0” is more about what it doesn’t show you, than what it actually does. Besides putting Walt’s pet train project on a pedestal, the train station effectively blocks any premature viewing of the facades of Main Street U.S.A. and Sleeping Beauty Castle. The train station is the first of Disneyland’s “wienies” or strong vertical elements to draw visitors in, acting more like a magnet than a carrot on a string, so to speak. By entering through either the left or right tunnel, the guest is denied of the vista at the end of Main Street U.S.A. that is Sleeping Beauty Castle. What this does – is to let the visitor take in Town Square and Main Street first, as a necessary scenic progression.
I think that castle parks work best when they try to avoid brusque transitions. Hench argues that calculated scenic progression is paramount because “nothing has an identity of its own until it’s related to something else. If you can control that relation, you can control identity. You can use images in a literate way.”
There’s an old anecdote that dates back to the planning of Disneyland where guests were to pass through a tunnel centered at the base of the train station, instead of as we know it today: one on each side. Supposedly, Walt nixed the center tunnel for exactly this reason. As we pass through the tunnel, attraction posters from each of the forthcoming lands. The argument that these function as an “overture” of sorts is nice to think about. Passing under the train station on either side acts as a fade, revealing the next scene.
“Scene 0” continues to influence Theme Park design to this day – a similar practice was employed in 2012 in the rework of Disneyland’s second gate: Disney California Adventure. On Buena Vista Street, the Hyperion Bridge that houses the monorail denies the viewer sight of Carthay Circle until it is passed under – and at that point the “newer” facades have divided the street in time period and everything in the frame of the viewer relates in time.
Abstract vs. Thesis Statement
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”
“To all who come to this happy place: welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past…and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America…with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
Printed above are two well-recognized recitations in both Disney and Theme Park circles. The first can be found stamped above each of the entrance tunnels on the left and right sides of the Main Street train station. The latter is found at the base of the flagpole in Town Square near where Walt Disney gave the speech on July 17, 1955.
I’d like to argue that the latter acts as a thesis statement, while the former acts as an abstract or statement of purpose. In 1955, one needed qualifier of “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy” to delineate between the real world and the nascent amusement enterprise that differed so much from it’s predecessors. The same holds dreadfully true for modern-day Los Angeles.
The dedication plaque is much more interesting, for it brilliantly outlines much of the Disneyland experience in just a few sentences. I’ll try my best to dissect it. “To all who come to this happy place: welcome” acts as a nice introduction and a wonderful sound bite, while “Disneyland is your land” suggests the role of the participant. “Here age relives fond memories of the past…and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future” introduces the ideology behind some of the themed spaces and the timeline that laces the longitudinal line of the park. To reiterate Hench, “this park was even planned like a motion picture, to evolve and unfold in time so that a thread runs through it.” Lastly, “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America…with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” This is by far the most interesting line with regards to artistic intent. Understanding intent to the best of one’s ability is vital to effectively appreciate and evaluate content. Not only does this last line imply that an undercurrent of Americanism, it also sets the layout for what Hench calls “The Architecture of Reassurance.” I’ve always found it impressive how in just a few lines, the dedication speech can so effectively umbrella the scope of Disneyland’s fiction and non-fiction content, while simultaneously addressing entertainment, education, and inspiration.
Town Square and Main Street
There are two cannons that sit in Town Square. I’d wager that not many people actively ponder their role on Main Street. There’s a dichotomy between a once staple of military warfare and a space that embodies an admittedly idealized summation of American life pressed at the verge of the electric era. I wonder if it’s any coincidence that these bookend the dedication plaque which claims that Disneyland is dedicated to “the hard facts that created America.” The cannons, as well as their sister cannons in Frontierland, are examples of what Hench would refer to as “threats to diffuse” in a themed space.
The cannons are diffused by the agent of time. The twin cannons are prime examples of “antiquated threats,” a part of a larger picture that explains why Disneyland’s reassurance is so successful. Hench argues that guests are stimulated by the diffusion of threats and by putting them into situations where they can “win.”
Yes, Disneyland is a masterpiece of urban planning but we must remember that just over a dozen animators designed the park in a year’s time. This leads me to believe that Hench’s thoughts (‘Disneyland is Good for You’ is dated in late 1978) are more retroactive than hard-set in the design process. I don’t always agree with John Hench, and even the writing ‘Disneyland is Good for You’ is near fully unctuous and partisan. Heck, I wouldn’t be shocked if John Hench ghostwrote the whole thing, come to think of it. However, it is still one of my favorite references and I strongly agree with his two fundamental principles toward Themed Entertainment design.
Retroactive analysis from either John Hench or myself shouldn’t discount anything, Disneyland is design based on good intuition. These WED artisans were very well read and were quite experienced. That intuitive taste shines through. Main Street, for example, is an amalgamation of a few different towns. It’s well known that Disneyland’s Main Street draws more from Harper Goff’s hometown of Fort Collins, CO than Walt Disney’s Marceline, MO. Hench even recognizes this in “Disneyland is Good for You” saying “the forms of these buildings are locked into old associative forms. The old forms weren’t designed by some person at a desk, an architect – the designers responded to a kind of group dream, a group aspiration.” An aspiration that the early WED artisans, comprised of art directors hailing from the motion picture studios, like Marvin Davis (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, The Asphalt Jungle), Harper Goff (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Casablanca), Wade Rubottom (The Philadelphia Story), Harry McAfee (San Francisco) and Harvey Gilette of the Disney Studios’ Art Department were all able to contribute to.
Marvin Davis, who held a degree in architecture from the University of Southern California, produced a noteworthy set of elevations for Main Street U.S.A. in late 1953 based on visual development and story meetings for Disneyland with Walt himself. In that era, a common technique to produce these renderings would be to have a brownline reproduction of one’s sketches made, and then they could be colored over in pencil – allowing for color comparisons over a common façade. John Hench had commented that Main St. was a prime example for his beloved color theory, for each of the individual storefronts’ color palettes reflected their offerings inside e.g. “pastel colors for the Candy Palace and greys and blues for the menswear shop.” While most of the facades share a common cornice line adorned with an ornamented pattern, exercises in meaningful color are one tool to help differentiate one from another. Populated by Bill Evans’ nascent trees and Bob Gurr’s ingenious Omnibus tailored to fit the scale of Main St., the pedestrian space features a bevy of movement and color.
A common sentiment towards Disneyland’s Main Street is that it is quaint because it is smaller. It’s a persuasion that has particularly bothered me because, other than the facades having to frame castles of radically different sizes, the prominent buildings of Disneyland’s “Scene 1” are all quite large. City Hall, modeled after Fort Collins, CO’s courthouse, the Opera House, and the Emporium are all prime examples centers of visual interest. The latter of which was intentionally made large when Harper Goff noticed an abundance of shoppers frequenting Knotts Berry Farm’s ‘old-time’ general store. There’s a reason that the lower levels of Main Street’s facades are scaled at ninety percent too, it stems from an old western film trick to make the heroes look larger than life. The reason for forced perspective on Main Street is not out of structural requirement, but to carefully frame the guest experience. Main Street’s forced perspective is well publicized, but reiterating her grandest magic trick is important. Of course, I’m referring to the angling of the facades towards Sleeping Beauty Castle, which makes it appear that the street is longer looking towards the castle. The inverse of this effect is that at night the street appears smaller with the Main Street Train Station appearing closer to the spectator.
Any bustling urban space needs its entertainment centers. Main Street’s is a stately simple, yet elegant Opera House. Inside, the lobby space offers a heavy dose of meta-commentary on Disneyland, Walt Disney and America…. and this is OK. In this space, Disneyland concept art, models, and memorabilia are presented concurrently with a celebration of American values and the life’s work of our 16th President. It is the cardinal example given if one was to form a talking point on Disneyland as an expression of American values.
The immediate preshow area is quite elegant and is done in good taste. There’s a small fireplace that is stylistically similar to the one found in John DeCuir Sr.’s “The Burden of War” found hanging in the lobby, to the right of the scale model of the United States Capitol building. The preshow video gives the show proper context and the presence of Walt Disney feels natural in his pet project. The Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show takes the tone of the lobby and exemplifies it on the stage. It is the perfect mixture of Disney showmanship and the intimacy of a late 1800’s Mid-American stage show.
What I personally admire about the show structure is the subtle oscillation between grand and intimate scale. The show begins rather humbly, only illuminating the bronze eagle sculpt at the crown of the proscenium arch. Then, the blue curtain is raised to reveal an underlying red curtain, which then parts to reveal the video screen. The video portion begins with the grandiose Paul Frees narration with an orchestral arrangement of “America the Beautiful” but the show slowly shifts to a more intimate Lincoln speaking about himself accompanied by a traditional Americana score. Yet, when the John DeCuir Sr “The Burden of War” piece is shown in the tableau, the tone of the presentation changes once again as the overwrought Civil War sequence begins. The “Two Brothers” sequence borrowed from EPCOT Center’s American Adventure show, once again serves as a pendulum between grand and intimate scale, before setting up the stage show portion with a striking and large patriotic display, accompanied by “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
At this moment in the show, the curtain closes once again before doing something very interesting. The exterior blue curtain parts to reveal the Emile Kuri-inspired set dressing featuring Lincoln seated in front of a red curtain, framed between twin sets of two Grecian ionic columns. Frees primes us for what is about to occur by speaking the iconic line “And now, the skills of the sculptor and the talents of the artist will let us relive Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” as the tall and imposing Lincoln figure rises from his chair. It was amazing to watch even the most jaded of modern audiences be humbled by the act, despite its debut almost fifty years ago. The trick is so grand that as it is happening, Frees shares with us exactly how it is done. The line doesn’t necessarily fall on deaf ears, but rather allows us to perceive it in the right way. Audiences know that this isn’t intrinsically Abraham Lincoln, but at Disneyland we can hear him speak once again in a compelling fashion. We can experience the extraordinary in this particular setting, not found in the outside world.
The first line in Lincoln’s speech “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty” is said without any non-diegetic accompaniment. This is a wonderfully calculated decision because the crescendo to the moment is accentuated with action (the Lincoln figure standing), narration (“skills of the sculptor and the talents of the artist”), and the background music (orchestral score). This pause gives Lincoln the full attention of the audience, before the non-diegetic music is reintroduced. Another moment in Lincoln’s speech that I find to be especially poignant is when Lincoln points to the globe prop stage left as he says “all the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a trek on the Blue Ride in a trial of one thousand years.” Aside from the mention of my home state, I appreciate how showing the figure interacting with a static prop makes the illusion even more convincing.
The Lincoln show concludes on the grandest scale as the show lighting dims, allowing the lamp prop on the table to shine brighter as the red curtain in the backdrop opens to reveal a blue star-lined backdrop, representing the infinite. Lincoln sits as the lighting changes to silhouette his figure. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” has reprised as the projected profile of the Lincoln Memorial sculpt appears over the blue background. The pendulum between grand and intimate ends on the highest of notes.
Pierre L’Enfant and Hub Spaces
Bear with me for a moment here. The parallel between the design of Disneyland’s “Hub” space and another “White City on a Hill,” our nation’s capital is actually quite interesting. I dabble into American History on the side and this has always struck me as worthwhile to discuss in Theme Park circles. Our nation’s capitol had the luxury of being designed by scratch, under the guidance of French-born architect Pierre L’Enfant. Here’s a little insight into L’Enfant’s thought process as laid out in a letter to George Washington in 1792:
“Having determined some principal points to which I wished to make others subordinate, I made the distribution regular with every street at right angles, North and South, East and West, and afterwards opened some in different directions, as avenues to and from every principal place, wishing thereby not merely to contract with the general regularity, nor to afford a greater variety of seats with pleasant prospects, which will be obtained from the advantageous ground over which these avenues are chiefly directed, but principally to connect each part of the city, if I may so express it, by making the real distance less from place to place, by giving to them a reciprocity of sight and by making them thus seemingly connected, promote a rapid settlement over the whole extent…”
The key here is “reciprocity of sight.” I have always found a bit of poetry in Disneyland when one can look from the inside of a wooden fort of an idealized American past and have a straight viewpoint of a gleaming white rocket ship representing a bright American future. But beyond artistic expressionism, this addresses operational concerns. The Hub acts as a compass rose and a meeting place that allows the park guest to collect their bearings.
While no one can control exactly what a guest looks at or where he or she chooses to go in a three-dimensional environment, design can certainly suggest it. There shouldn’t be a visual cacophony competing for attention, instead a finite amount of choices. To quote Hench, “when we come to a point in the park that we know is a decision point, we put two choices. We try not to give them seven or eight so that they have to decide in a qualitative way which is the best of those. You just give them two. Then we get the guy farther along and he has another choice, but we’re not giving him four to being with. We unfold these things, so that they’re normal.”
These beckoning hands or Walt’s term of “weenie,” derived from silent comedies, actually, help recommend a guest’s choices: a towering rocket ship for Tomorrowland, a steamboat whose movement and bells and whistles beckon us closer to Frontierland, or the most stated of them all – Sleeping Beauty Castle whose drawbridge offers a view of King Arthur Carousel’s enticing kinetics.
One of Disneyland’s flagship attractions since opening day has been ‘Dumbo the Flying Elephant.’ Over 58 years later, one of the ride vehicles is proudly displayed in the Smithsonian and the attraction still garners 30 minute waits for an attraction that hasn’t changed much from the original Arrow Development manufactured spinner ride. Why?
I’d argue that the answer is emotional context.
Walt Disney saw Disneyland as the logical “next step” in family entertainment. For years, the man had received letters inquiring to visit the place where Mickey Mouse and the other animated characters in the Disney canon lived. An element of fantasy has always been quintessential for Disneyland’s success. Without Sleeping Beauty Castle at the end of a vista, Main St. U.S.A. resembles more of a Greenfield Village than what we know today. I have always believed that Disneyland’s value proposition was “to do and experience things that one could not anywhere else” and a castle at the end of a vista is a spectacular call to adventure.
So, a Bruce Bushman brownline sketch of pink elephants rotating around a common axis has intrinsic meaning because it allows the park guest to fulfill a desire based on previous emotional context, stemmed from the animated film. Hench explains this upper-hand in an episode of The Disney Family Album “We do try to use the material that’s in film because people know it and recognize it and it helps a great deal to have something they already know, it’s something, of course, that they’ve already loved.”
The Fantasyland Dark Ride Palette
Through Sleeping Beauty Castle, we have a visual magnet in King Arthur Carousel, which was moved forward during the 1983 Fantasyland renovation, a design project that I personally adore. Changing from a medieval tournament visual aesthetic to a storybook village, the new form not only is an artistic upgrade, but also the pedestrian space often informs the load areas found beyond the facades.
The original Fantasyland attractions stemmed from the same vein as the Laugh in the Dark attractions operating in seaside amusements. The vehicles had to be quiet, able to round corners and tight turns with ease, simple to replace/repair, and able to operate continuously with ease for over twelve hours a day. Disney enlisted the help of a ride manufacturer, then known as Arrow Development, to assist in the manufacturing and fruition of most Fantasyland dark rides, as well as other Disneyland entities. Arrow Development worked closely with WED Art Directors Vic Greene and Bruce Bushman as well as Roger Broggie and Bob Gurr to faithfully reproduce the sketches into convincing three-dimensional representations. Powered by an electrical bus bar attached to the guide rail, and insulated from the track by Nylon wheels, which delivered a smooth ride, Disney’s dark rides were smooth and swift.
From the artistic side of the aisle, the nuanced quality of the Disney attractions is not attributed to a regurgitation of the animated film. Instead, the three-dimensional attraction empowers the guest experience the story in a different way. We have the opportunity to enter the various story worlds and experience them firsthand. The earliest way of achieving this was through the Fantasyland dark rides.
The ever fantastic Nickel Tour speaks to this better than I ever could:
“Ken Anderson had worked on many of the original animated films, and as he sat thinking about his assignment to create the dark rides he began to realize the limitations inherent in this new art form. While the guests were busy bouncing around in those little cars, they would have no time to appreciate the subtleties of character and plot that are so important to a motion picture. So rather than try to tell a linear story, he chose to rely on the emotions conveyed by the environments where the stories took place.”
“There would be three of these dark rides in Fantasyland. Snow White’s Adventures, the first of the three, would work not because of the story or of the characters, but because of the richness of its settings…the sparkling diamond mine, the castle dungeon, and the dark, scary forest. In contrast, the environments of Peter Pan were intriguing because they would allow guests to experience the sensation of flight. And last, but not least, the maniacal Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride would tap the emotion of unbridled chaos. (pg. 21)”
“Disney artist Claude Coats was brought over to work on the project (Mr. Toad). “At that time,” he recalled, “most of the blacklit rides were little scare rides where a skeleton rattled and a skull popped out. But Ken’s storyboards showed that Mr. Toad, or Peter Pan, or Snow White could be told, not quite as a story, but at least as a mood that gave you the feeling of that story.” (pg. 22)”
In essence, the original Fantasyland attractions are mood pieces. The diversification of emotive tones is important and the WED artisans were keen enough to recognize that too much “dessert” is never a good thing. As Hench says, “If the only images present were of funny animals, the mechanics of reassurance would not be effective – it’s necessary to supply threats and disarm them, to defang the worst demons and make a world demonstrably safe for the funny animals to play in.” In describing attractions that follow this pattern, Hench attributes the reassurance to the fact that we, as protagonists, “win.”
Peter Pan’s Flight
The east side of the Fantasyland courtyard, Peter Pan’s Flight and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, is home to attractions whose literary roots stem from English literature. Opposite King Arthur Carousel on the west side of Fantasyland, Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, hail from German and Italian literature, respectively. Perhaps the loveliest façade of Fantasyland belongs to Peter Pan’s Flight. In-between the large clock tower and the larger façade that houses the attraction’s exit is a window that features diegetic dialogue of (presumably) Wendy telling bedtime stories to the Darling children. Despite the spatial discrepancy between façade and dark ride show scenes, the effect works quite well and gives credo to Fantasyland being a lived-in space.
The façade for Peter Pan’s Flight is an evocative example of the faux Provincial Revivalism architectural style that the designers of New Fantasyland looked to tap into. “Storybook Architecture” as it is commonly referred to, takes advantage of emotional context to give Fantasyland a more appealing environment than it’s Medieval-themed predecessor. The façade is also quite textured, mixing Gustaf Tennggrenn-esque woodwork with other materials like iron, brick, and glass. Giving the timing of the project, I’m very confident that much of the building materials were shared with EPCOT Center’s World Showcase pavilions, notably Germany and the United Kingdom. The clock tower is a grand and enticing visual indicator of the ride experience and is a brilliant visual rhyme with the Bavarian castle façade that houses Snow White’s Scary Adventures.
John Hench uses Peter Pan’s Flight in his book as an example of communicating identity through staging at three levels: symbolism, representation, and sensory information. In Designing Disney, Hench insists that Peter Pan’s flight is a representation of the animated feature and that the sensory experience parallels that of the film’s characters. But the value proposition of Peter Pan’s Flight comes with what Hench calls the symbolic level, “flying” in a pirate ship represents broader expressions like adventure, daring, and sometimes beauty.
Dark ride designers walk a very fine line when adapting a film to a dark ride. There is a call to avoid redundancy by telling the same story, but a steady aversion from creating something that resembles a direct-to-video sequel. The original Fantasyland dark rides were less about re-creating them, than letting animators create new kinds of experiences based on the films. Hench’s thoughts are probably the best argument as to how emotional context helps a retelling of a film condense into a truncated, albeit different, experience.
To recap, an animated film relies on character development and nuance in facial expressions to convey emotion. A ninety-second dark ride does not have this luxury. Ken Anderson’s genius was to realize that a successful dark ride was to emphasize environmental design: put the guest into the story world by emphasizing the animation backgrounds instead of the foregrounds.
I had the great opportunity to listen to Imagineer, and recently inducted Disney Legend, Tony Baxter speak on the New Fantasyland project. He explained that when the design team was looking for what would be the courtyard’s fourth dark ride (which became Pinocchio); many features were eliminated for their singular environments. Post-Walt films like the Jungle Book or Robin Hood are predominantly single setting. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Baxter after the presentation and he was kind enough to volunteer almost an hour of his time.
One thing I learned from Mr. Baxter that day was the use of theatrical lighting as a transition device in expository dark ride scenes. Each of the five dark rides discussed in this section utilize the technique of lighting the first and final scenes of the attraction with traditional theater gel-based light fixtures, before transitioning into darker spaces lit in black light. From a story perspective, this works pretty well for an attraction like Peter Pan’s Flight, where we can travel from a lit indoors to over a nighttime London skyline. Yet, the medium’s non-linear qualities allow an attraction like Snow White’s Scary Adventures to have a different exhibition.
On the Peter Pan ride after exiting the Darling window, there is an immediate change of scale that accompanies the change in theatrical lighting. To remedy this, the ride does two things. First, to the immediate left of the ride vehicle there is a window with real curtain material, instead of a painted flat. That building and window are scaled appropriately. Then, the focus is shifted to buildings scaled much smaller whose facades are completely painted. There is a lovely staging on the left hand side of a path curving out of our sight featuring several three-dimensional scaled lampposts fading into the perspective work. It is an effective diversion for a brief period of time, for when the ride vehicle turns towards the smaller London facades, we have adjusted to the scale. It is a wonderful trick.
After the rider has passed over the town of London and around the focal point of the (not-so) Big Ben clock tower, a glowing moon marks our transition into the next space. The moon, which appears to recede endlessly in the distance, is another brilliant design to achieve the illusion of extended space in a very small show building. The moon that riders see is a reflection (one might want to check over there right shoulder, next time). The next show scene, the “Starfield Room,” operates similarly. The wonderful fiber optic effects give the impression of a much larger environment than the confining show building, while fulfilling both the parallel of the film’s characters and the rider’s desires to fly through the stars. The third act occurs at the end of the Starfield show scene after seeing Skull Rock from above, the ride vehicle functions like a film camera and we zoom in to view a final set of vignettes. These last show scenes are cleverly separated by the ship’s sail. This allows Peter Pan and the Darling family to be seen twice and also masks the view of the leading ride vehicle.
Snow White’s Scary Adventures
Much of the aesthetic of Snow White’s Scary Adventures is derived from the work of a Disney artist named Gustaf Tennggren, beginning with its castle façade with faux medieval and Bavarian styling. On the exterior, there is a seamless transition between Sleeping Beauty Castle and the castle walls of the Evil Queen. One could probably derive this from their shared geographic lineage, but it’s easy to conjure complementary faux stonework.
The queue for Snow White’s Scary Adventures does much to inform the potential rider of its content, much more than its predecessors. Two gothic and imposing lanterns frame the marquee, supported by two large stone columns. The top half of the façade appears to be wider, the larger shape recalls a feeling of intimidation as The Evil Queen periodically peeks through the curtains of the window. It is a moment of tension; the façade appears to be leaning in looking down at the viewer. What makes a themed façade believable is that it is consistent with our preconceived idea of what the space represents.
This notion is further reinforced in the attraction’s queue where, upon entering, we round a slow curve to reveal a vignette of the Evil Queen’s dungeon space. For a nearly static tableau, the scene does wonders to reinforce the mood of the attraction and to ‘weed out’ smaller riders who may be too afraid. Our familiarity with the film allows the set dressing to make sense, while spatially making sense within a Bavarian castle. Having seen the queen above in the tower, the diegetic “off-screen” audio perpetuates our fears that she may be around the corner, up the false staircase. It is a wonderful primer to the attraction.
What I think is most effective about the façade and the queue space for Snow White’s Scary Adventures is that it puts an emphasis on both the scary and lighthearted properties of the film and seamlessly condenses them into a single image. It is haunting and foreboding, while simultaneously enchanting and inviting. I’m hard pressed to think of many examples of a dichotomy like this being communicated visually through a façade.
The Dwarf’s cottage façade in the load area exists for a very specific purpose: its chimney hides a support beam that needed to stay in place. One may find a very similar technique used throughout the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction using chimneys to accomplish the same effect. Before entering the cottage, there is a lovely artistic moment on the wall parallel to the cottage where a texture has been placed over the scenic paint that accentuates the theatrical lighting (usually blue) when lit.
Once again, theatrical lighting is used for the first show scene as we traverse through the Dwarves, dimly lit, but warm cottage. We are first shown its Tengrenn-esque interior with moving clocks and forest animals through the window, but our viewing is directed as the ride vehicle turns revealing a Snow White figure on the staircase before the animated dwarf figures.
As we leave the cottage, the lighting changes to the ultraviolet patterns of the old tradition. The mine scene is embroidered with several “1982” effects found throughout the New Fantasyland project as well as in the EPCOT Center project. The scene provides a good transition from the cottage to the castle in terms of mood and scenery. The use of stratified wooden-painted archways helps give the illusion of vertical constraint of being in a mine as well as, and more importantly, break up and frame the show scenes to the left of the ride vehicle during the straightaway portion. The arches help infer a faster progression through the space, without passing under these visual indicators it would appear that the vehicle was traveling at a slower pace.
In conversation, I’ve argued that Snow White is the most cinematic of the Fantasyland dark rides. The next show scene is probably the strongest example, in my opinion. The diegetic audio of the dwarves singing gives way to a non-diegetic instrumental version of “Dig, Dig, Dig” in the mine shaft. However, the Leigh Harline orchestral underscore that accompanies the turning of the ride vehicle as it turns towards the closed crash doors of the Witch’s Castle is a sublime moment. To add to this, the vulture figures turn their heads in the direction of the doorway, further suggesting our focus. This synchronicity is particularly understated, but it is something that is intrinsically felt by riders.
The projection mapping effect in the room with the witch figures on synchronized turntables is tactfully and tastefully done. Because we first get a view of the scene from a long shot, we have the time to properly assess the space before the close up shot. I always felt that the, now extinct, Florida Snow White show didn’t give the scene the necessary time to breathe. Despite the effect being a test for the durability of the effect to see if it could be applied to Indiana Jones Adventure, the illusion adds a lot to the scene and opens the door for future projection mapping applications.
But the crowning achievement of Snow White’s Scary Adventures is the chase scene through the forest. It is the dark heart of the ride and the scene from the film that is best primed for dark ride adaptation. The effects in the forest are pretty transparent; even less experienced riders could probably figure out how they’re accomplished. It relies on its simplicity and darkness achieved through negative space. Take a look at the lighting for that scene, the only type of overhead show lighting is ultraviolet lighting. The other light source in the show scene emits from inside the hollow trees….and that’s all that is needed. The design of the track allows us to inherit the heroine’s perspective in an active medium.
Pinocchio’s Daring Journey
Taking over the space occupied by the Fantasyland Theater in 1983, the designers of Pinocchio’s Daring Journey had a unique opportunity to craft their own track layout, instead of having to conform to the original track design of the 1955 rides. This has resulted in the longest dark ride in the Fantasyland palette, clocking at almost four minutes. I’ve always liked the exhibition of Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. Like the sails of the flying pirate ships sailing into the bedroom in Peter Pan or the motorcar bursting through the fireplace in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the doors opening every twenty seconds to reveal a puppet show is an effective visual moniker. Like the source material, the story of Pinocchio is much more than a puppet show and as the ride vehicle makes it’s first turn, we as riders see that this is the case: viewing an imprisoned Pinocchio before seeing the Stromboli figure.
What I find most interesting about Pinocchio’s Daring Journey is that the villains that inhabit the various environments on Pinocchio’s travels anchor the show scenes and act as modifiers to the ride path, even with Jiminy Cricket’s constant forewarnings (I’d rather traverse down those forced perspective corridors that he tends to hang out in). This is a clever way to illustrate ‘choice’ – the real refrain of the animated film. I just praised the cinematic score of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, but Pinocchio’s Daring Journey also has elements where the sound design is more than noteworthy. The cardinal example of this is as the ride vehicle approaches the crash doors at the “gate” of Pleasure Island. Listen to the audio next time. The music is wonderfully muffled. Then, when the doors open, the audio is clearer and louder. This helps accentuate the spectacle of the Pleasure Island show scene. Like many of the 1983 Fantasyland attractions, alternate character dialogue is used for better re-rideability.
There is a clear narrative crescendo in this attraction. With each show scene the scenic paint gets darker in hue, the music turns more sinister. As the vehicle progresses through the Pleasure Island scene, the instrumental of “Hi Diddle Dee Dee” is accompanied by sounds that resemble a carnival barker and later raucous fighting. This builds unease and tension before the real dark heart of the attraction. The painted flats that act as set pieces become more imposing in form. As if there was any doubt that “we,” as riders, were on the wrong path, the vignette of the boy turning into a donkey (in the room with the pool table with the ridiculous forced perspective) shows us otherwise.
The following show scene of the boys-turned donkeys in crates evokes a melancholy feeling of helplessness. It adapts the part of the film that I always fast-forwarded through on my VHS tape as a child, but we have no such luxury here. We keep traversing through this ride, which at times, does echo Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey” almost too perfectly with the “Belly of the Whale.” The environment changes to a dark coast with particularly interesting faux rockwork to the right of the ride path, we continue into the darkness until the flash that accompanies the Monstro pop-up. With the exception of the entrance into the Pleasure Island scene, I find that the ride is very isolationist. One really gets the impression of being alone in the environments. The ride even makes an attempt to hide the preceding ride vehicle exiting the village scene with the wishing star by having a painted flat wall block the sightline. The flat also hides the slanted three-dimensional perspective work underneath the star effect, exclusively intended to be seen after the ride vehicle turns the corner. In that second-to-last show scene, the ride path encourages spectators to look straight ahead to appreciate the Pinocchio Village, before seeing the wishing star and the correct perspective of the street from the proper angle.
The ending, heavily influenced by Albert Hurter’s production design, animated clocks and toys, is a vast relief from the unsettling endings of Mr. Toad and Snow White’s Scary Adventures.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride has a unique trait that allows it to differentiate itself from the other dark rides of the Fantasyland palette: its source material is unfamiliar to most of its audience. Few people, aside from myself, list the postwar package film as their favorite Disney film, but the funny thing is having seen the film is not a prerequisite to the attraction. In fact, all one really needs is to understand is that we are mirroring the motor mania of an irrational toad in an old-time English motor coach.
A statue of our famous friend, Mr. Toad, stands proud above the marquee in Ken Anderson’s stately Toad Hall (a similar statue was planned outside Peter Pan’s Flight, but was axed when the budget grew to large – prompting Tony Baxter to advise to future designers “always integrate the statues into the architecture”). Out of all the Fantasyland dark ride offerings; Mr. Toad shares the closest lineage to the Pretzel-era of dark ride design but is unmistakably cut from the Disney tradition of true experiential attractions.
The key to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is the illusion of speed. Electricity driven to the rear drive by way of a bus bar attached to the guide rail can only power the car so fast and quietly through thousands of tight turns a day. This is a rare case where the ride path is brought to the forefront. Long hallways are uninspired and rarely work for an attraction like Mr. Toad. They offer little surprise and low excitement. The key to this trick is near-constant turning. This also allows the designers (who were working with the show building with the least space) to utilize the multiple show scenes into creating an illusion of progress. We can traverse from Toad Hall, to the English Countryside, to Downtown London in just a few seconds. This brevity helps sell the notion that the ride vehicle is moving faster than it really is.
Of course, there is a second element, one that is much more evident, that sells Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and that is convincing the rider that the ride vehicle is out of control. One thing that I admire about the attraction is its propensity to guide the rider exactly where he/she doesn’t want to go, despite the futile efforts to govern the steering wheel time and time again. I think the ride’s thesis statement comes very early into the attraction, one can watch it occur every 20 seconds or so from the queue space. One can watch the motorcar conventionally enter through a set of doors, only to unconventionally crash through a fireplace three seconds later. It shows prospective riders that without warning the ride vehicle may bounce off of an object, swerve, or collide with anything at anytime. Our appeals to this absurdist fantasy stem from our desire to step into the story world of the animated film where a construct like crashing through a fireplace is plausible.
Like the Pretzel dark rides, Toad uses a variety of flat matte paintings. This two dimensional representation is done primarily because of a lack of show space, but in turn, it taught me a great deal about perspective work and the blending of two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements to form a cohesive set. The strongest effort of the latter lesson is found inside Toad Hall where real set decor like chandeliers and bookshelves coexist with flat matte paintings, but somehow create a seamless environment (all while hiding utilitarian needs like sprinklers and work lights, I may add). This is achieved by interstitial three-dimensional features that protrude from the flat sets almost like a bas-relief to fill out the space. The end result is a convincing blur between the two and is quite fascinating. The bookcase behind the operating console is a good example of this. It also houses some lovely props that hint at residence, while artfully concealing a show effect, saving the surprise of a falling suit of armor. Another example is my favorite scenic element in the ride: the perspective of the dock fading into the London Waterfront.
A dark ride like Mr. Toad uses many flat sets, similar to the ones found in traditional theater. However, in a dark ride (especially Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride) we are within very close proximity to these set pieces, even if we are zooming by them. Even the best seats in the house are still plenty far away from the back wall in a traditional theater show. This distance can remedy several design depravities. Even the colossal backdrop for the Primeval World diorama is a good six feet from the very back of the set. This is a testament to the artistry, however stylized, found in these attractions. One facet of dark rides that we can attribute to the Disney tradition of themed design is the extensive attempts to blur the “back wall,” so to speak. An important tool is the use of a technique known as trompe l’oeil. What trompe l’oeil does is to create an optical illusion that tricks the eye into thinking that a two dimensional image exists in three dimensions. This allows ride designers to extend the space, or in Toad’s case trick riders into thinking they are heading in one direction before abruptly changing direction.
There’s something to be said about an attraction where the storyline is completely unfastened and the emphasis is put on the physical actions of the ride vehicle and the environments being traversed through. This is why I appreciate that the exposition in Indiana Jones Adventure is relatively quick, because the constructs are thrown out the window after someone inevitably looks into the Eye of Mara and our course is altered. The same is done here as soon as our motorcar crashes through the fireplace and like Indiana Jones Adventure, all one can do after that is hold on. But even attractions that have no inherent objective for longer than a few beats still have clear narrative pacing. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride clearly utilizes a building crescendo, a climax with the train scene and resolution in the absurd hell ending.
The train sequence is commendable because it relies on auditory cues and negative space. It reminds me much of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” effect where portions of the shark were not seen and only hinted at on screen due to mechanical failures and budget constraints. The result of this is a Hitchcock-ian “the less you see, the more you get” it allows riders to construct their own reaction. Lastly, somehow the mad coughing of the devil in the last show scene somehow reinforces the absurdity and diffuses the grim ending to the attraction.
Alice In Wonderland
In the spirit of content dictating form, in the early 1950’s WED was planning a walk through attraction based on Alice In Wonderland. I so wanted to write about Bruce Bushman’s brownline concepts for these that Matt at the quite excellent “Vintage Disney’s Alice in Wonderland” blog was willing to share, but, alas, I never found the time. Scroll through them on his site here.
What followed was a dark ride attraction that is vastly different than the show playing today. Guests rode in a large caterpillar past flowers and large popouts of characters such as the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. In fact, it may be the earliest example of Brogdingnagia, or using large set pieces to simulate shrinking down in size, in Disney attraction design.
Alice in Wonderland must have been a dream project because its content is so ripe for dark ride adaptation. Look at the production design for the layout of the film: colorful interludes displaced between periods of vast darkness. The film’s sporadic storyline, which, with the exception of a few story beats, can be told in a completely non-linear fashion: perfect for a dark ride. I find the Tulgey Wood sequence is particularly admirable, for it and Snow White’s forest chase scenes might be the truest adaptations of animated films ever found in a dark ride.
There’s a great deal of merit in Fantasyland’s complimentary areas, outside of the main courtyard. The charming Storybookland Canal Boats work in tandem with the Casey Jr. train. It dawned on me recently that Walt’s train obsession really was all encompassing in the early design of the park. Obviously, there is the Disneyland Railroad, but there was also the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland in Frontierland, which evolved into Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Tomorrowland had the short-lived Viewliner, which progressed to the monorail. Casey Jr. exists as Fantasyland’s train. My favorite moments in that attraction are when the instrumental audio of the song plays and the train is just traversing over rolling hills. Sometimes attraction design can be just that simple.
A happy accident occurred when the Matterhorn was built. Forced perspective mountains border the alpine village in the Storybookland Canal Boats scene. From the canal path, there is an illusion that the village is at the foothills of the Matterhorn. Of course, the Matterhorn was built on top of Holiday Hill to conceal the Skyway structure, so we can attribute this genius design to fate. Storybookland’s charm lies in its miniature settings. I think the Pinocchio sequence is the best of them because of this relationship with the Matterhorn and how it wonderfully recreates the tracking shot from the film.
Near the castle sits Snow White Grotto. Johnny Hench’s sly intentions aside, the space is more than charming. The tapered waterfall and the proportioned deer figure do sell the illusion, even if whole thing was conjured from the beginning. The audio cues are a nice touch, bells ringing from the cathedral portion of Sleeping Beauty Castle and the singing voice of Adriana Caselotti echoing through the well. Inside the castle is a brilliant walkthrough that mixes practical effects with new technology. It is not an understatement to say that it’s one of the very best attractions in Disneyland.
I don’t have a lot to say about “it’s a small world” other than I quite like it, especially the topiary garden and the facade. It’s interesting to watch how Mary Blair worked with a set visual vocabulary of shapes, shapes that when manipulated can resemble the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For some reason, I can never get over how lovely the perspective pool in front of the Taj Mahal show scene is. I think there is definitely an ‘it’s a small world’ appreciation arc: one loves it as a child, inevitably become jaded or tired by it somewhere in adolescence, then come around in appreciation for life. I’m confident that I’ve reached the third stage and implore others to do the same.
Also, the Matterhorn is so dearly important. I used to spend inordinate amounts of time just trying to trace the river and water features that circumference the mountain. The attraction was notably rough on my body (I found that the front seat works best for me), but it’s such an interesting ride. The attraction simultaneously balances beauty, horror, the thrills of a coaster, and breathtaking views of the park. The design of the two tracks is unique enough that it takes a very deep familiarity to be able to predict the turns.
NEW ORLEANS SQUARE
Without Herbert Ryman, New Orleans Square would not have the same visual composition that it employs today. When Walt Disney expressed disappointment with the project, Ryman chose to take the existing facades and set them in a different configuration. Ryman took the flat conceptual renderings that mostly faced the river and divided it into thirds to allocate for pedestrian space. The arrangement was changed to resemble a neighborhood. Ryman explains “I had split the three walls open into three facades. I believed that the winding streets curving out of view would arouse people’s curiosity and invite them in to explore.” Royal St.’s slow curve is one of Disneyland’s greatest achievements in design and it can tell us a lot about effective spaces. Unlike an open space where energy can be dispersed, our collective attention is focused as New Orleans Square invites further in to explore its charms. Balconies and overhead walkways that constrict our view of the subsequent streets help frame the space and have the unique power to contain our vantage point of the square’s ornate colors and details, despite the fact that we often are steadily moving forward. The gradual curves and curlicues allow a slow cinematic reveal to the subsequent spaces but offer us plenty of diversion in the themed retail offerings, that far surpass Main Street U.S.A’s purchasing charm.
Occupying a prime piece of real estate at the bend of the river, New Orleans Square embodies the spirit of “the Gay Paree of the American frontier.” John Hench once said, “When we add a new element to this system (Disneyland), we have to consider very carefully what the facility is and what it will do to round out a guest’s day. It’s got to be a new experience, but it’s got to fit in harmony with the others that are here.” New Orleans Square does this perfectly, as the Mark Twain Riverboat links the river area, which now spans three different locales (Desert style terrain along the Rio Grande, Hannibal Missouri of the 1840’s, and the New Orleans of the Old South).
New Orleans Square is scaled much differently than the facades of Disneyland prior to 1966. In fact, the scale used is very close to what would be used in designing the Magic Kingdom a few years later. It’s easy to get lost in New Orleans Square, but it’s also easy to find an exit or change direction. It is also easy to find the spot of Court of Angels; in fact, it was almost difficult not to stumble upon it. The Court of Angels was, perhaps, the greatest diversion and transitive space found in Disneyland. At the time of this essay being published, there is uncertainty to the future of public access to the space, which would be a tremendous shame. I think themed environments work best when they reward a visitor’s curiosity for exploration. In this case, visitors were rewarded by a moment of serenity in Herb Ryman’s pocket of New Orleans.
I tend to wax poetic about the pleasures of immersion; I think this was a fantastic example of an environment as the attraction. The space achieved a level of immersion and yet it was rarely, if ever, questioned on how it was done. I think that is laudable. The Court of Angels featured aesthetic assets lifted from the facades on New Orleans Square’s main alleys (balconies, ironwork, brickwork, pastel colors) but gave them a new configuration. At night the stringed popcorn lights radiated from a central point, just as the cobblestone tile radiated from the central point of the staircase. The space was the heart of New Orleans Square and I believe that it is a gross violation of artistic intent to block it off from public view. Pardon my acrimony, but the issue is something I feel very strongly about.
Moving on, if pedestrian spaces invoke a sense of discovery, I’d like to argue that attraction spaces add a narrative of danger and mystery.
Pirates of the Caribbean
I really, really, did not want to do this, but it’s time to talk about story in a dark ride pretense. It’s a tired argument and the word “story” has been somewhat burdened in discussing themed design, but my talking points necessitate it. There is something at the core essence of both Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion attractions that warrants discussion from a narratological standpoint. There’s a popular discourse that dark rides are not ideal storytelling mediums – and I do believe there is merit in that notion, but I believe that attractions inherently do tell a certain type of story. Proponents of the “anti-story” argument will quickly point to a Marc Davis quotation, but beware, because reading the quote blindly indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of both Davis’ pointed context and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
(Walt Disney) didn’t like the idea of telling stories in this medium. It’s not a story telling medium. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates. You don’t see a story that starts at the beginning and ends with, ‘By golly, they got the dirty dog.’ It wasn’t that way.’ – Marc Davis
See, I still think this quote is more than relevant, and not just because Marc Davis was a seminal genius. I believe the key here is the sentence most overlooked in the quotation. “You experience the idea of pirates.” Experiencing the “idea” of something leaves an impression. In Space Mountain, we experience the “idea” of space travel and in Peter Pan’s Flight we experience the “idea” of flying through the stars to Never Land. Even Bill ‘Morgan’ Evans spoke of the Jungle Cruise said “what we endeavored to do was to create what the armchair traveler might envision as a jungle experience,” the “idea” of a True-Life Adventure. If we recall Hench’s theory on representation and sensory information as well as the value proposition on Pirates of the Caribbean’s attraction: “sail with the wildest crew that ever sacked the Spanish Main.” We can see that this aligns with the “idea” of piracy.
I happen to like the compromise of “experiential stories” or “experiential attractions” and think that they work best when they put the visitor into these exotic spaces and endanger them, in a sense. In this instance, the rider is the protagonist. This is more powerful because, I believe the story of the rider’s experiences far trumps trivial minutiae of an attraction’s storyline. So, in an “experiential story,” if the rider is the protagonist, who/or what is the antagonist? Hench in ‘Disneyland is Good For You’ attributes the antagonist to the symbolic theme of a challenge. He explains, “What we do here is to throw a challenge at you – not a real menace, but a pseudo-menace, a theatricalized menace – and we allow you to win.” I love the term ‘theatricalized menace.’ I think it is a perfect description for what I consider to be the antagonist in an experiential story: anything that has the potential to endanger me (ghosts, anthropomorphic trees, pirates, rifles, waterfalls, and in the case of Indiana Jones Adventure – confusing South Asian deities).
This, in correlation with harmoniously intertwined themed environmental design, is what John Hench calls “The Architecture of Reassurance.” In my opinion, this is the cornerstone of Theme Park Theory and the driver of Disneyland’s enduring success.
In addition to participating in our own narratives, we also experience them passively. I have no qualms arguing that attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion DO tell stories; it’s the format of the narrative media that is different: it is something that the average rider is not always accustomed to. For example, I believe that the artistic intent or the fundamental objective of an experiential story is: (bluntly) for the rider to experience something. Rather it is “the idea of piracy” or a “tour of a haunted house,” experiential stories are written for the audience. This is what makes park stories revolutionary, worth exploring instead of dismissing. What is exciting about a laxly defined experience like Pirates or Mansion is that the authorial intent is “we define what we take away from the experience for ourselves.” That’s why I’m OK with things like “The ‘We die on the Haunted Mansion’ theory” even though I don’t buy into it at all. I think there’s merit in guest empowerment in individual analysis for these attractions. If one buys into it, it enhances the experience. But if one doesn’t, there is no consequence and it doesn’t change the ride experience. My interpretive framework for the two would probably be, simply, “the idea of piracy” and “a tour of a haunted house.”
If we are the protagonists in an experiential story, we rarely have an objective. Hench argues, “It goes back to the one universal human dynamic – survival.” The threat is taken away as the rides end. It is amazing how many experiential attractions operate under this pretense, yet differently. Space Mountain does this through pure thrill and extreme negative space, Pirates has a tension in the form of “Will we will be noticed by the drunk and armed pirates?” The Haunted Mansion is probably most explicit on the theme of survival, daring us to find a way out in its first act. Even during my Jungle Cruise spiel, there was sometimes a nervous tension interlaced with humor about my ability to drive the boat and/or if it was equipped properly to make it through the jungle without sinking.
Imagine if the theme of survival was projected onto an ancillary character and we watched his/her journey, it wouldn’t be nearly compelling, that is unless we directly mirror the actions of the character like in Splash Mountain. We are invested in an experiential story because it stars us. Ghosts are trying to spook us; Pirates could attack us at any moment. That tension is what keeps our attention and we experience euphoria at the end of the attraction when the tension is released. We escape the burning city by ascending a waterfall, we do not share in the guilt of the pirates.
However, the characters inside these attractions do have clear objectives and therefore do tell stories.
In Pirates of the Caribbean, the protagonists of the story world have clear objectives: the group pirates want pillage and plunder and rifle and loot the Caribbean town. The antagonists in their story world are the armada, city officials and law-abiding citizens. The exposition could either be the eternal nightfall of the Blue Bayou, the talking archway skull, or Bombardment Bay, while the resolution is clearly their eternal damnation in the caves. Jack Sparrow, however, is forced into a story that he is clearly ancillary to. The movie characters are there to recall our feelings for the films. I do like the score added to Bombardment Bay, but there is an overall disconnect because they are fundamentally different forms of storytelling. The story polemic exists because the addition of the three Jack Sparrow figures introduces a form of linear storytelling, which disrupts the previous organization of show scenes: by tone.
An important, and my favorite, essay in theme park analysis is called “Fire in the Night,” written by my friend Foxx. I highly suggest it to anyone who has made it this far into this essay. I’ll add my thoughts on the attraction as a supplement.
‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is the finest example of what I consider to be the primary lesson that I learned from studying Disneyland: the dimensional environment needs to be the first priority in design, with the story in a supporting role. It’s not an edict, but rather a personal preference. It has to fit the goals of the project. In a three-dimensional environment, the viewers’ focus can be suggested, but often the participant is enveloped in a glorified motion picture set. Background and layout work move to the foreground. There’s a reason that Claude Coats was a master of his craft, he had done animation backgrounds for almost two decades before Disneyland. Coats understood landscape architecture. His structures and layouts for the Caribbean town achieve civic and artistic sensibility. The caves scenes simultaneously balance beauty and gothic horror. The moody, negative spaces of the Blue Bayou and Bombardment Bay allow striking visual contrast with a southern plantation mansion and a striking galleon, respectively. ‘Pirates’ is a visceral experience, rather it be the fog or the cannon splash in Bombardment Bay, to even the olfactory sensation of smelling the water.
The eternal nightfall of the attraction allows our eyes to often fail to notice the disparity between set and sky, but it also lets our minds fill in the details. There is shockingly little to both the Blue Bayou restaurant’s set and the décor found along the ride path in the exhibition scene. A stately mansion façade, candlelit tables, and a half-dozen stringed lights are all that is necessary. We load the attraction at Laffite’s Landing, where an aged wooden aesthetic has replaced the brick archways and tan walls of present-day New Orleans. Forward motion in the queue space mirrors camera movement; our views are constantly changed by new impressions and new show scenes. The slow, timid drift into the Bayou allows the attraction to breathe and establish tone. To our left, decidedly lower-class wooden swamp set décor juxtaposes itself with the stately southern mansion on the right. We find ourselves placed right in the middle of the Old South, before moving into darkness. A voice beckons and warns us about bloodthirsty pirates waiting to board at anytime before we drop into the dream state, the heart of Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
I found the cave sequences to be more than poignant, and not solely because I was raised on its truncated Florida successor. I think that the tension it builds is noteworthy. Unlike an attraction like Indiana Jones Adventure, which conveys a much different pace, (“cranking it up to 11” early on, so to speak) Pirates of the Caribbean relies on tension and release. This is what makes the reveal of the Wicked Wench pirate ship so grand and satisfying when we finally see piracy in its glorified form.
The ride vehicle, a nondescript bateau, is a good and capacity-friendly example of content dictating form. We sail with a crew: it is a shared experience. This is unlike the Haunted Mansion attraction that prides itself on creating an experience of isolation, directing our vantage point precisely. In Pirates, the openness of the vessel allows us to more freely explore the dimensional environment. ‘Pirates’ suggests our viewing by its animated characters in the latter portion of the ride. But in the cave sequences, our viewing is suggested by placement of the show scenes as well as elemental cues – sound, water, and light. The finest example of this follows the storm effect; the lighted set keeps our attention to the right-hand side of the bateau, before hidden speakers on the left time call our attention to the lit propping with the vain skeleton lying on the bed. When the cave wall obscures our view of the skeleton, our attention reverts to looking forward where the skeleton sitting on top of the treasure pile is perfectly framed by the cave wall. Diegetic audio of the player piano immediately brings our sight back to the left hand side where we can view the parrot skeleton as well as the maps on the walls. Just before we reach the treasure room show scene, there is an opening on the left hand side that allows us to peer through the caves, revealing a waterfall. This use of dual-sided set pieces give the illusion of the caves stretching infinitely, despite that we have already passed that waterfall only minutes earlier.
This has all transpired before a single pirate has been spotted in the attraction. Incredible. John Hench describes the thought behind the design process in a 1996 interview:
“When you get in, you see on the door: “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (So you expect to see pirates. Then you get on the boat, so you think: “This is okay. We’re going to see pirates.” The boat goes out and the first scene that you see is the restaurant. So people think: “Hey, these are not pirates. These are people having lunch. What happen to the pirates we are supposed to see?” Then we go down the chutes, and it’s where the pirates were. But they’re all gone. There is nothing but skeletons down here!”
“Well, it was never supposed to be like that. Walt died before we had finished. The original idea of Walt’s was that you came down there, into the caves, and there were no pirates … But they had been there just seconds before! There was a hot meal on the table, steaming. There was no jewelry hidden. Walt wanted this atmosphere: They were supposed to live here, they’ve been outside somewhere, but they could come back at any minute and catch us…”
“Then, you were supposed to discover the city, where they were. But because somebody liked skeletons and that they discovered that they were (available) at a cheap price, we used too many skeletons all over the place, and (the public) got the wrong message. Now people don’t know what it was…”
We can take Hench’s slight at Mr. Davis with a grain of salt, because the scene has played brilliantly for almost fifty years and has been since replicated. I always got the impression that if John Hench had to differ to anyone, it was always Walt Disney. The key to this passage is that Walt, the ever arbiter of good taste, wanted to build atmospheric tension that Pirates could be around at any moment, before the revealing them in the cardinal show scene. The beauty of Pirates of the Caribbean is that it is abstract enough to be open to interpretation. I’m sure yours has the potential to be fundamentally different than mine. But in this abstraction, the attraction works on a basic level because the show scenes all fit under an umbrella of a shared expression. No scene stands out as fundamentally misplaced. The attraction is as much of a ghost story as it is an attempt to mirror what it would be like to have sailed the high seas with real pirates. The artistic medium allows us to do this without guilt or consequence; we escape up the waterfall, as the pirates cannot.
Coats’ Caribbean town is the greatest motion picture-esque set ever constructed for a dark ride. It is littered with light fixtures, open doors and windows, textures and décor along the beaches and waterfronts. John Hench called Pirates of the Caribbean “redundant in its details” and it’s true. I tried to make running lists of every light fixture, open door, or any attempt to extend space, but doing so is a truly Sisyphusian effort. Yale Gracey’s clouds against the dark, textured ceiling continue to trick even modern audiences, they de-emphasize that there is a need to look further upward. Coats’ understanding of civic design arranges Marc Davis’ vignettes in public spaces and connects the two sides of the waterway by arched bridges. These bridges help separate the show scenes, blocking the subsequent landscapes reverting our attention to the character animation.
As I mentioned earlier in this essay, Ken Anderson realized in the earliest stages that a dark ride had to function differently than a feature film. Blaine Gibson, who took Davis’ character designs and rendered them in three dimensions, realized this too saying ““In a ride system you only have a few seconds to say something about a figure through your art. So we exaggerate their features especially the facial features, so they can be quickly and easily understood from a distance. If you examined them closely, you’d find the nose, the cheekbones, the ears, the eyes all somewhat exaggerated. The frowns and the grins are all exaggerated, too, because we have to instantly communicate ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy.’ We try to provide the illusion of life.” The balance of Davis’ comedy and Coats’ atmosphere is commendable, but I think the dichotomy is not as strong as it is printed. Claude Coats had to be responsible for framing all of Davis’ characters in the show scene and Marc Davis had a hand in the scenic design.
More than anything, Pirates of the Caribbean portrays a romanticized look into “the idea of piracy.” When researching the lives of actual pirates, Marc Davis saw that their lives were particularly unsexy, most died in poverty of venereal disease. He made the right choice to portray them in their glorified fictional context. Davis’ decision reminds me of the classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In the film, James Stewart’s character, United States Senator Ransom Stoddard, is attributed for killing the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance. When Stoddard returns to the Western town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, he reveals to a local newspaperman that it was Doniphon who killed the outlaw and that he had been living under a false claim. Upon learning the truth, the newspaperman throws out his notes and states, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Haunted Mansion
This section is going to be tragically, or perhaps mercifully, brief because I only had three days to experience the Haunted Mansion before it was reverted to the holiday overlay. However, here are a few thoughts:
Entering through (almost!) the front door is a stately different experience than the (better) Walt Disney World counterpart. The foyer area is quaint, but the pattern on the flooring wonderfully mirrors the shape of the stretching room(s). WED had a proclivity for designing reoccurring motifs into their attractions and I believe this was one of them. Born out of necessity, the stretching room is a wonderful sleight of hand. Our attention is directed at the stretching portraits, but what is going on around us is far more interesting and sells the illusion. The mantle hides the lighting and speakers necessary for the illusion to work, concealing the sound of the elevator with the sound of wood creaking and stretching. The pattern on the wallpaper only works because of its shape. Vertical stripes show no repetition, they appear to stretch endlessly. Slowly, the mantle also rises to completely sell that the entire room is stretching. The gargoyle statues that hold the candles have moved from just a few feet above our heads to a significant distance away. By the time the Ghost Host narration has accentuated the room’s transformation, it is too late – we were too busy looking at the portraits to see the real show. The stretching room commands our attention and then uses it against us.
I like how the Mansion builds tension in a very similar fashion to Pirates of the Caribbean. Just as ‘Pirates’ denies us viewing of any pirates for a considerable delay, we get impressions of ghosts in The Haunted Mansion before the séance room. This tension is accentuated with the help of the omnimover in my favorite stretch of the attraction. Our ride vehicle turns to see the brilliant endless hallway, then pivots to see the Sisyphusian vignette of the coffin in the conservatory scene. Then, the narration beckons us to “listen” as we approach a set of doors. The first is being knocked, moved automatically by an invisible hand, the omnimover pivots to show a handle turning, the omnimover reverts to our attention to the previous view only to see a shadow beckoning over a constantly rotating clock face. All of these animations occur simultaneously, but the omnimover – acting as the camera and director, breaks up the chaos and arranges these in a linear progression.
The Haunted Mansion presents death and macabre, a subject that we are familiar with and shows it to us right in front of our eyes in a new light. The sequence of vignettes is more similar to an operetta, than anything. The reassurance lies in the impression that even in death, the most macabre of topics, there is still levity.
Frontierland at Disneyland was influenced by the Old West of the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1948 and, of course, Walter Knott’s Ghost Town at nearby Knott’s Berry Farm. I failed to get much of a sense of Frontierland because, to me, it seems to be heavily anchored by the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction, which was under refurbishment for the duration of my time in Anaheim. I think this also led me to not fully grasp the Big Thunder Ranch space, dismissing it as event space for longer than I should have. Then, one day while walking through Big Thunder Trail, a favorite of mine, I realized that Big Thunder Ranch works great as an extension of the attraction. One can feast on an all you can eat barbeque as if they had just worked 14 hours in a mine and real life goats are there to pet, supplementing the audio-animatronic ones in the attraction.
Because Disneyland’s river area is so undefined, it’s easy to include the Rivers of America and Critter Country in the same breath of conversation. The dynamism of the river is really at the heart of the Disneyland experience. The stately Mark Twain Riverboat, the grand Sailing Ship Columbia, the rustic rafts to Tom Sawyer Island, and the manually-powered canoes all paint different expressions of the American experience. It shows that there is no such thing as “one America.” Kinetics give the impression of life.
The Mark Twain is still the most important vessel on the river. If one were lucky enough, I’d advise sailing at night after dusk. The light on the top of the boat is used to highlight figures along the river, often distracting from ‘Fantasmic!’ preparations, another example of suggested viewing. Emile Kuri’s interior work on the Sailing Ship Columbia is a Disneyland treasure. The space under the deck brilliantly plays like a living museum installation.
There’s a lot of discussion about interactivity and producing active user content. Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes have been doing this, in one form or another, since 1956. I never quite connected with Frontierland as a child, and despite liking a few classics, I don’t particularly care for Western films. That being said, I’ve never felt so in tune to any land then when I’m on the Explorer Canoes. It just hits on every level for me. I like getting an up close view of the audio animatronics, or viscerally being splashed by the water spraying from the paddle in front of me. One becomes part of “The Theme Show” in an engaging context.
Splash Mountain is an interesting case. By all intents and purposes, the attraction shouldn’t have any business being situated on the Rivers of America. But it’s there, and for some reason, it kind of works, despite having a criminal transition from the Haunted Mansion space. I don’t know a lot about the development of the project for Disneyland, but it seems like the designers learned a thing or two for the Florida show. In Florida, the drop sequence is used as the “wienie” for it occupies land primed for that, there is also a calculated viewpoint of Cinderella Castle as the log floats around the edge of the mountain. In Disneyland, the drop is de-emphasized, compared to its Florida counterpart, which features a viewing area. Instead, riders drop to a space that requires a pedestrian effort to seek out. Again, don’t know much about the design in these regards, just sharing my perceived oddities about the attraction.
When I was in the Magic Kingdom the other week, I observed that perhaps the reason that Splash Mountain works along the river is that its source content is derived from American folk tales. The Disneyland Splash Mountain even accentuates this notion. The first interior room in the queue features a fireplace, a gathering place where stories are told and a placard above the mantle reads; “Now this tale didn’t happen just yesterday, nor the day before, but long, long ago.” It begins the exhibition of the story, quite literally, almost as Uncle Remus was narrating it.
Some of my friends disagreed, arguing that Remus and Twain are drastically different and shouldn’t be categorized under the same umbrella. My argument is that they are different fabrics on a patchwork quilt. Of course, this is in the same vein of reductionist philosophy that John Hench wrote about. I know that this type of theory wasn’t actively being devised when planning Splash Mountain, who readers of this blog will probably know that the majority of animated figures in the attraction were repurposed from the America Sings show.
Splash Mountain follows the same reassurance pattern that John Hench derived from thrill rides like Space Mountain and the Matterhorn: “expose the rider to a threat and then take the threat away as the ride ends.” Splash Mountain is interesting because it has two parallel plotlines. The first is the account of the protagonist, Br’er Rabbit, running away from his home while being pursued by the antagonists, Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. The second regards our experience, the riders as protagonists facing the antagonist, the mountain itself and the ever-present threat of dropping/getting soaking wet. Tension builds as the antagonists get closer to their goal, the lighting dims, and anticipation builds, as we get closer to our climax. Everybody riding it knows what’s about to happen, we’ve seen it from the queue. When the threat is taken away at the end of the ride, the tension is released and the closing musical number sells the reassurance.
I always found the idea of a ‘Toontown’ to be at least moderately interesting. While I like the establishing shot forged from a sunken entry under the railroad track, I always longed for a tunnel entrance to play up the separation between the human world and the cartoon story world, as seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? However, I suppose the contrast of the Small World Mall and Toontown isn’t as strong as the dichotomy between 1930’s Los Angeles and Disneyland’s eighth land. Toontown relies on expressive forms through architecture to communicate the visual structure of the land. The buildings take an anthropomorphic and expressive personality. Some attempts are commendable because they communicate in an instant. The forms of the buildings appear that they could ‘squash ad stretch,’ like in the animated pictures, at any time. Sadly, they never do.
Toontown does house a dark ride that merits discussion in Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. Earlier I argued that attraction spacey add an element of danger and mystery and in previous essays I have claimed that some attractions work as frontiers, the themed entertainment equivalent of a child sitting on their father’s shoulders to catch a better view. Frontier attractions extend the environment past the shop facades and pedestrian spaces. Toontown’s architects had to determine what the frontier space was going to be and the Team Disney Anaheim building and Backstage Disneyland were hardly alluring choices. Instead, the design team chose to highlight the back alleys behind Toontown. Since a decent portion of the Roger Rabbit explores a darker Toontown, this is an admirable choice. Two facets of the film that I find to be especially endearing: 30’s Hollywood Noir and cartoon character cameos are woefully ignored in the ride adaptation. However, both are hinted at in the queue space – which I personally feel to be a stronger environment than the ride.
Instead, the significant value proposition is the ability to spin the car 360 degrees, creating a Mad Tea Party experience on a linear track. From a design perspective, there must be careful considerations to conceal lighting rigging and sound equipment that would normally be hidden by means of directed viewing. Like its spiritual predecessor, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the ride vehicle appears to bounce off of walls and set pieces. On-ride, there is a commendable use of mirrors in both the “Bull in a China Shop” and “Power Plant” show scenes. Arches are used to frame the mirrors, but give the illusion that it is purely an architectural detail. The tone of the attraction changes for a few beats when we see Roger Rabbit being held by the weasel in a straightjacket that somehow possesses electrical abilities. The notable aesthetic element of the ride follows: a wonderful perspective painting that gives the illusion of falling while traveling laterally.
A fundamental problem that exists today in Tomorrowland is that there is a lack of a unified form. Unlike Main Street where the elevations of the facades play off of each other, I think the clash of styles creates discontent. There are also major issues with the pedestrian space. The attractions on Tomorrowland’s main midway used to be populated with shows that played to high capacities: the welcoming omnimover of ‘Adventure Thru Inner Space’ and the large CicleVision theatre. The Tomorrowland attractions of today now necessitate queues that extend outside and often stroller parking under the PeopleMover track extends into the walkways. If that wasn’t enough, the land is bottlenecked at the entrance by the placement of the Astro Orbitor.
In general, I’m sick of the argument that Tomorrowland is unsustainable because time will catch up to it eventually. I think that’s ridiculous: creating classic content vetoes that argument. Space Mountain, which has anchored the land in concept, is a prime example. I think Space Mountain works best as an abstraction and other than the safety video featuring a disturbingly tanned gentleman, it really offers no context or information about the ride. I like that. It lacks the warmth and eccentricities of the Florida show, but the smoothness of the ride track is commendable.
I think the addition of Space Mountain in 1977 was paramount in perpetuating the concept of a Tomorrowland with levels. The removal of the elevated speedramp really hurts the calculated reveal of the structure. I think any themed space that can use levels should and an urban environment like Tomorrowland is ripe for it. There’s a natural intuition to be curious and ask “what’s up there?” and “how do I get there?” I think that being on the second level is part of Club 33’s allure. Designing through levels is economical: space can be conserved. Designers should take advantage of this.
It is also paramount that Disneyland keeps her submarine lagoon, because the medium of the submarine ride vehicle is so powerful. From a design standpoint, a submarine ride inspires me so much because it is inherently experiential. Only at Disneyland can you explore space, time, and the vast depths of the ocean. But as an experience creator, there is almost total control over directed viewing. Even in precisely governed viewing experiences like the Haunted Mansion, one can still manage to tilt one’s head and view what is not intended. In the submarine ride vehicle, we are sat behind a pane of glass and can only observe it like a television screen. There are logistic concerns with syncing the audio and show elements for riders seated at either end of the submarine, but ultimately each rider has the same view. The bubbles that simulate diving and resurfacing act as dissolves. Having never rode Davis and Coats’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I was enthralled to finally experience the potential of the medium.
Primeval World remains my favorite thing in the whole park and not just because it reminds me of an old-school Disney showmanship existing for no apparent reason. I think that if one wants to learn how to design layouts for dark rides there are two preeminent places to look: the Caribbean Town in Pirates of the Caribbean and the Primeval World diorama. It is because they frame the character animation so effectively while simultaneously forming an exotic and believable environment. It is also no coincidence that Claude Coats planned them both.
The tunnel that separates the Grand Canyon diorama from the Primeval World diorama show building acts as a transition to black. This is noteworthy because the first scene in the diorama, shown as a panning shot from right to left, is forged from the darkness. It is a stark contrast from the light blues and bright red and orange hues of the Grand Canyon diorama. Although the story conceit that the two dioramas are separated by time is ridiculous, it’s almost irrelevant because they’re inherently different experiences. One hears the main theme of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Mysterious Island” while still in the dark tunnel. The constant tremors of the score immediately portray a sense of drama and it accompanies the limited animation of the figures. Unlike the Stravinsky dinosaur sequence in Fantasia, the medium is not conducive to synchronized motion, especially because the railroad trains are so long that each train car is looking at a different show scene. The Herrmann soundtrack is an excellent choice and reinforces the tone of the layout.
The first show scene is sharp and dark, lit by green and blue gelled theatrical lights. Threatening and sharp foliage is silhouetted in black allowing the glowing eyes of the two Dimetrodon figures. This is where the first calculated transition in the diorama occurs. One can notice the color change in the backdrop and a change in lighting. These certainly help, but the diorama’s primary transitive agent is the scaling of the foliage between the show scenes. Think about this for a moment, the dinosaurs shown in the diorama are of vastly different sizes. Yet, at no point does it appear as if we are “zooming in” or “zooming out.” The foliage props that surround the vignettes and that are painted into the background effectively structure the experience. It is an absolutely brilliant trick.
I think everyone can recognize that when the train emerges from the first dark scene and sees the Brontosaurus pool, it is considered a reveal into a larger space. Yet, I think most fail to notice that the show scene is no taller than the last, the size of the figures and the negative space trick our eyes into thinking that. The vignettes are well done too (Marc Davis claims that the Brontosaurus reaching for the vegetation is his). Yet, these sets are huge (take my word for it) which empowers the sets to have depth.
Every once in awhile, there is an abrupt change in a scale that necessitates more than a simple change in scale via foliage. Have you ever wondered why that Pterodactyl that always seems to sneak up on the train is perched so close to the glass? It’s to distract the viewer from perceiving the extreme change in scale. By the time we collect ourselves, we are already viewing the Triceratops show scene, complete with it’s own appropriately scaled foliage. Coats uses this trick once again before the shift in scale in the last scene with the fighting Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Right before that vignette is a large Triceratops skeleton that distracts the viewer. The last show scene is lit differently, in red, so the palette is cleansed for the final show scene to be framed properly. This is something that I’m convinced Claude Coats must have brought to the Horizons attraction at EPCOT Center, using a spaceship model to distracting from the dwindling forced perspective of the Mesa Verde crop scene.
The diorama is redundant in its detail. It is very tricky to see from the train car but one can notice footprints in the dirt in the foreground of the Struthiomimus watering hole and faux rockwork surrounds the Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex vignette in places unseen to the rider on the train. With so much emphasis on technology in modern attraction design, I’m ever impressed with how low fidelity and analog the diorama is. Niches like subtly using archaic, by today’s standards, projectors to have a cloud effect on the background and the lava effect which tremendously outshines the one used in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage makes the attraction so very impressive to me. Hat tip to Mr. Claude Coats for paving the way, I’m so grateful for it.
Indiana Jones Adventure
We enter the attraction queue through a series of clustered set décor that give the impression that we have stumbled into a base camp, not unlike the one overrun by gorillas on the Jungle Cruise. These vignettes were originally designed to run parallel to the Disneyland Railroad when the attraction incorporated the train, Jungle Cruise, mine ride and jeep ride (which became the attraction we know today), but now rests on the western shores of the Jungle Cruise. Nearly every Jungle Cruise I gave, I thought about what it would be like to detour into the temple. Alas, at the forefront is the actual troop transport from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is poetic given that the actual ride vehicle is a variation on this design. The base camp rewards those who explore it. The generator gauge gag that runs over 120 psi when advised to “keep below 80!” is a precursor to the amount of attention given by archeologists not named Indiana Jones in the attraction’s story world.
At the edge of the basecamp is the temple façade, preprogrammed with thousands of years of weathering and forced perspective ladders. The thin columns that frame the entranceway subtly give the impression that the temple could collapse at anytime. We pass obvious foreshadowing in the form of several snake motifs on the way inside the temple, up a bamboo ramp. A prevalent texture of Adventureland attractions, bamboo, is a linking aesthetic component between the other Adventureland attractions (Jungle Cruise, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and Tarzan’s Treehouse). There’s an uneasy mix of aesthetic styles between prewar Hollywood-inspired exploration and a centuries old temple in India’s Lost River Delta, already being reclaimed by nature. I like how this builds tension. It foreshadows a battle between ancient mythology and what modern (in the parameters of the story world) technology.
The antechamber that we first enter features a mural with the ride’s antagonist Mara holding the three gifts that tempt visitors to the temple. It is the first visual expression of the ride’s exposition and plot exhibition: Indiana Jones has discovered a lost temple where an ancient idol lures visitors with the promise of one of three gifts: earthly riches, eternal youth, or visions of the future. The only condition is that no one may look into the “eyes of the idol.” When the funding ran dry Indiana Jones and his friend Sallah agreed to conduct tours to raise capital. When tourists began to disappear inside, Indiana Jones agreed to return inside the temple to uncover its mysteries. After being missing for a week, Marcus Brody (a supporting character from the films) has asked Sallah to continue the tours, in hopes of finding Indiana Jones.
Now, this is a hefty exhibition and it is not directly expressed. Rather, it takes multiple readings of documents found in the queue to piece together the whole puzzle. These documents are first found on a table in the antechamber with the mural. Let’s continue with the queue structure before addressing the attraction narratology. Passing the antechamber, the queue tapers into a narrow hallway where an obelisk stands in the proceeding room. The obelisk represents the four perils that Mara can incur: fire, rats, spikes, and snakes. The design of the space allows the viewer to travel around the circumference of the obelisk and view every side. Upon exiting, we slope downwards to enter a canyon reinforced by bamboo. The space offers a respite from the claustrophobic tunnel as natural light floods the pathway. As the viewer looks up to the natural light, the towering trees of the Jungle Cruise are visible to give the illusion of progress deeper and deeper into the jungle wilderness. But more importantly, the tapering of the queue only to open to a larger space is a reoccurring and powerful visual motif that registers on a subconscious level.
What is shocking and inherently brilliant about Indiana Jones Adventure is how conducive it is to a themed space. The temple provides the necessary component of exoticism primed for a Hollywood adventure while the nature of the source material allows the utilitarian elements of a queue to be rationalized. For example, in the Bamboo Canyon, from a utilitarian perspective, the bamboo divides the entrance queue from the exit queue. From a story perspective, the bamboo was erected to help shade the space and to provide handrails. The bamboo and the netting beneath it feel natural because they are made from appropriate materials, but they are seamless because they are “belong” to the themed space. A better example is the lighting that is strung along the queue. “Work lights” are believable facets of an archaeological dig, but what makes the design work extraordinary is how the cabling flows through the temple, often showing where it has been drilled through the stone. Indiana Jones’ office is constructed from the empty delivery crates and the stacking of gasoline canisters is the separating device for the gates in the loading area. This is a painfully realized themed environment.
What trails the Bamboo Canyon is the narrowest portion of the attraction queue, our path winds between stalagmites in a cave suggested through audio to be riddled with bats, before depositing us in the next chamber. Recalling the film, the “Spike Room” has been praised for its interactivity. Seemingly, Indiana Jones has already diffused the booby trap, but a bamboo pole of doubtful sturdiness is holding it at bay. Despite warnings of “Do Not Touch” a firm tug of the bamboo pole triggers the animation of the lowering ceiling. The finished product is a fantastic effect when operating and not nearly a far cry from the Herb Ryman rendering of the scene, minus the “guide” cast member.
The spike effect not only rewards the user for observing the set, but it lets us have a physical impact on the space, thus enhancing the illusion that the Temple of the Forbidden Eye is a genuine and dangerous place. The next chamber, with the crumbling blocks, was meant to operate under similar conditions: stepping on the diamond shaped tiles triggers an effect of blocks that appear to be falling from the ceiling. The shape of the tiles recalls familiarity from similar ones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, just as the rollers at the intersection of the wall and ceiling invoke familiarity of the ones in Temple of Doom. A third interactive element is found in the middle of the rotunda room where pulling a rope invokes a negative reaction from an archaeologist working below.
The amazing thing about the queue for Indiana Jones Adventure is every time the queue path emerges from its claustrophobic spaces, it does it in escalating and grander fashion. The Rotunda Calendar room, with the scaffolding that perfectly frames the mural of tributes being paid to Mara, is awe-inspiring because it contrasts the small space that we just occupied. This is a calculated establishing shot. The Rotunda mural cannot be seen from the block chamber because designers chose to have an already-triggered column intentionally obstruct the view. It makes the reveal even grander.
The film room is validated by the sound and shadow of the projector prop perched above. The period newsreels are true reflection of the serialized fiction that derives from the source material. When we see the actors in the film reel video lined outside of the temple, we recall our own experience as we find ourselves in their shoes. The newsreel supports the construct of a “Hollywood Adventureland” and is an effective reinforcement of the exhibition. Past the film room is Indiana Jones office, which is lovely and redundant in its details. The queue then winds to give a brief view of the loading area before splitting into two lines leading up to the mezzanine level. Once on the mezzanine level, prospective rides can view the loading area from above through three symmetrical Indo-Islamic windows. The motif is repeated in the exit staircase on the right hand side, framing the South load. At the end of the straightaway a descending staircase reveals what I consider to be the design heart of the attraction.
I am referring to the lovely faux natural light source that is located above the “island” load space. The stonework is adorned with overgrown vines with separate lighting packages for night and day. Besides being a beautiful focal point to distract anxious riders, the static scene serves a much more interesting purpose.
The next time you find yourself waiting on those stairs to board your transport, try to imagine if the scene didn’t exist and there was just a level stone ceiling. The vertical constraint of the space would structure the “shot” in a widescreen perspective. Without the design above to look at, our attention would be directed left to the right, viewing the space where we ascend the stairs. The result of this is the South load appears to be an afterthought – pushed off to the side. Instead, what this focal point does is to create a false symmetry between the duel load stations. The “Load Skylight” show scene suggests our attention upwards: the stone walls restrict our view of the troop transports (making a distinct effort to do so on the right-hand side) so our vision is directed in portrait orientation. This is a singular moment in the design of the attraction and another grand reveal at the end of a tapered corridor.
Once seated, a carefully jerry-rigged cluster of mirrors allows us to see the preceding car enter through one of three doors. This permits a view of riders going through a different door than your car. The “Chamber of Destiny” is an especially nice trick, holding five doors, with only three shown at one time. The motion base on the ride vehicle makes it seem that we are assuming a sharper or wider turn to the left or right (if the proper door sequence is illuminated), but in reality, we travel the same curve every time. Traditional theater techniques are employed in the proceeding corridor. Theatrical scrims give the illusion of solid walls when lit from the front, but fade seamlessly when lit from behind to reveal bas-relief “golden alcoves.” The vehicle noise is non-existence as we “float” towards the Mara idol. The splendid “E Ticket Magazine” recalls that Imagineer Dave Durham wanted the ride vehicle to mimic the floating motion of the ghosts that emerge from the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The exposition finally has led to the catalyst of the story when someone inevitably looks into the eyes of the idol, despite the near redundant warnings.
Here’s what makes the queue for Indiana Jones Adventure ingenious: every element has primed us for the attraction. From a story perspective, the much-praised interactivity of the queue has less to do with entertaining prospective riders while waiting, or even rewarding them for interacting with the themed space. Instead, it conditions the rider in an interesting way. If a designer shows them that spikes will fall from the ceiling or a humorous audio cue will play if a pole or rope is pulled, despite written warnings, the cardinal caveat is likely to be ignored. After we traverse through the “Tunnel of Torment” past the Indiana Jones figure holding back the “Gates of Doom” we round into another pitch-black corridor, which sets up a dark ride reveal only bettered by Pirates’ Wicked Wench sequence. Once again, the queue’s proclivity to contrast tapered straightaways with wide-angle, cinematic vistas saves its piece de resistance for the largest show scene.
Earlier in this essay, I wrote on how Indy resembles Mr. Toad when all constructs are disregarded, resulting in a madcap dash. In Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride the ride vehicle’s personality is accentuated through the twisting track layout. In Indiana Jones Adventure, the ride vehicle’s personality is accentuated through its motion base. The motion base allows the ride vehicle to mimic the collective emotions of the rider, like recoiling when faced with a giant snake. It is able to pull back, lean, or imitate terrain.
A poignant moment in the attraction is when the vehicle stalls, leaving riders in the darkness for a brief few seconds (this stalling also helps with show timing and keeping vehicles in their respective safety zones). This animation profile was actually developed around the time of the Indy ride with the larger scale (incorporating the train, Jungle Cruise, and mine cart ride). In the earlier iteration of the jeep ride, there was to be a faux collision with a mine car that necessitated the ride vehicle to recoil and stall. Now it works in a different fashion, allowing the transport to be put at a standstill in the darkness with no bearings of our surroundings.
Another sequence occurs on the bridge over the “Cavern of Bubbling Death.” The ride vehicle leans back to suggest our view of two snake statues that frame the bridge. When the stone pillars begin to emit green smoke, the transport decides to high tail it to the mainland, only to give the illusion that the back wheel has broken through the bridge floor, supported by audio cues of creaking wood and spinning tires. The ride vehicle puts on a performance.
The ride, after the exposition, is a wonderful bit of non sequitur. And this is OK. The forward motion of becomes camera movement and our views are constantly changed by new impressions of the next show scene. Riddled with antagonists, we overcome bugs, skeletons, ghosts, snakes, rats, a giant boulder and, of course, – big steps. Some of these are experienced visually, but others are experienced viscerally. We can feel the warmth of the fire effects or smell the smoke fog. While I dislike the aesthetic of the dart room (they got it right in Tokyo), I admire the convincing physical effect of air streams fooling our senses into thinking that arrows are narrowly missing our heads. I even enjoy the exaggerated snake figure, lovingly nicknamed Fluffy. Tony Baxter was right when he insisted to George Lucas that a snake of that scale needed to exist, because in a dark ride one cannot zoom in, like a camera, on a figure to make it seem larger than life.
Of course, I would be remiss to mention the spectacular finale where the walls of the room that surround the transport moves forward to create the illusion that the ball is rolling toward the ride vehicle. The motion base imitates backing up and keeps the riders level, while the vehicle is actually slowly moving forward over the crest of a hill. When the crest is reached, the vehicle moves in unison downward. The “car wash” effect is one of the best illusions found in a dark ride when it is timed properly.
Thematically, Indiana Jones Adventure works in Disneyland because it derives from serialized fiction. This prewar escapist literature appeals to our both of our inner desires to inhabit exotic spaces and a lost time. Indiana Jones fits in an Adventureland context as an archetypal hero in the same vein as the Lone Ranger or Zorro in Frontierland, and the K7 Spaceman or even Captain EO in Tomorrowland. But the ride experience on Indiana Jones Adventure is much more about “the idea of Indiana Jones” than “the idea of Adventureland.” It recalls on our familiarity of the films to forge a new experience in which we are the stars. We mirror the perils faced by Indiana Jones in engaging fashion. The end of the attraction features Indy heavily breathing in a posture conducive to resetting the animation cycle, we share the common sense of relief when it is over, but we still feel the urge to return to the Temple of the Forbidden Eye for another adventure.
The Enchanted Tiki Room
Go see it. Get a dole whip. Take it inside with you. Enjoy the rhythm of the lanai preshow area. The value proposition is very simple “to put on a show” and the Tiki Room delivers: the writers knowing how to structure a show seen equally from every vantage point in the theater to build to a climax. Really, this is all that needs to be said.
The World Famous Jungle Cruise
Alright, here we go. Working at the Jungle Cruise taught me much more than I could have bargained for about park operations, the “theme show,” and myself. It is only fitting that I saved this section for last.
Aside from Indiana Jones Adventure, I strongly feel that the Jungle Cruise has the best queue space in all of Disneyland. The two-story, and admittedly out of scale (notice how large it is compared to the buildings across the street, and how many trees are used to obscure it), Victorian boathouse truly embodies the cinema exotica of a Hollywood Adventureland. It acts as a buffer between the pedestrian space and the river/foliage curtain of the Jungle. I could tell you that the story behind the boathouse beginning with that it was built in 1911 to offer weary travelers, missionaries, and scientists a rest, respite and a cup of tea. Or I could tell you that it was abandoned in 1928 after a Malaria outbreak, only to be reclaimed by budding entrepreneurs in 1930 to facilitate trade via jungle launches. Or even that a stove fire decimated the roof in 1932, timely considering the depression dried up the funds for repairs. Even the justification for the attraction (inspiration struck for a budding tourism market when a well-known American film director wanted a tour of the local wildlife for a film shoot) is largely irrelevant. Although it explains some aesthetic choices in the queue, it does nothing other than corroborate the existence of the ride. What makes the queue for the World Famous Jungle Cruise singular is its ethos.
For a long, long time I couldn’t fathom why the queue reminded me so much of Sunset Boulevard at Disney’s MGM Studios. I felt that there was more than just the obvious: constructed and designed around the same time, World War II era, and a healthy dose of Glenn Miller Orchestra tunes. I couldn’t understand why a being inside a British Colonial boathouse felt so much like a wartime street in the middle of Los Angeles. I think the answer is that they both share a serialized Hollywood treatment. The Jungle Cruise has less to do with the words penned by C.S. Forester in 1935 when he wrote “The African Queen” but more to the Hollywood adaptation of the novel in full Technicolor. The queue establishes a proper tone that lays the context for the ride. Much of Disneyland’s show sets are essentially Hollywood treatments on real-life period pieces. Remember, motion picture designers built Disneyland.
Setting the Jungle Cruise in 1938 adds another element to the exotica. Unifying the buildings in a singular time period reinforces the spatial awareness that Hench talks about. Even though they all have different aesthetic styles, there is a common thread that runs through them and they acknowledge each other, running all the way up to the poignant transition from Adventureland into New Orleans Square. I feel that guests do not actively pick this up, perhaps because the technology found in the far corners of the world is decidedly dated and remote. But to the close observer, the queue actively rewards those who are paying attention with its charm. One will learn about the humble origins of the Jungle Cruise and its British Colonial influence. Then encounter one of the Jungle’s creatures, the hornbill animatronic (a dear favorite of mine) that used to be apart of the attraction, now perched above the stairs to the second floor. This allows the figure to be seen even on low attendance days when the queue fails to reach the upstairs portion.
There’s a definite emphasis on sightlines in the Jungle Cruise queue. The entrance is perfectly aligned with the first left turn of the jungle, so, if timed right, the first thing that incoming riders can see is a drifting towards the unknown of the jungle. My favorite visual element of the queue is the “Air Afrique” poster, found immediately around the corner. This is only because the same poster hung in my Honors College building that I lived in/frequented for four years in my undergraduate studies. It’s a little sappy, but I had never left Ohio to live somewhere else: when I saw that poster in my new “home,” it gave me a sense that I belonged there. Underneath the staircase is a magnificent chessboard fashioned from animal tusks, native feathers, and shotgun shells. Upstairs, the staging for the Infirmary and Office décor is top notch. The open-airy queue gives the potential rider many opportunities to take in the apparent vastness of the Jungle and to watch the steady flow of boats return and disappear into the distance.
I have always quite fancied the dedication written for Adventureland in 1955:
“Here is adventure. Here is romance. Here is mystery. Tropical rivers – silently flowing into the unknown. The unbelievable splendor of exotic flowers…the eerie sound of the jungle…with eyes that are always watching.”
Granted, the Jungle Cruise was about the only thing in Adventureland in Disneyland’s nascent years, but the dedication reinforces how important the attraction is to Adventureland. It offers the grandest frontier for the setting and executes it flawlessly; we can all thank the brilliance of Bill Evans. The foliage is so convincing that there were times where I couldn’t discern real animal sounds vs. the natural sounds whatever was lying behind the jungle “curtain.”
I was amazed how the track layout of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, essentially no different than the ordinary switchbacks found in most queue spaces, had the power to completely envelop and immerse the rider. With each turn of the switchback, there is disorientation, but there is also order. I really liked being able to accentuate in my spiel how each turn of the Jungle represented a new and exotic river of the world.
The Jungle has some really interesting designed sightlines too. It teases Schweitzer Falls in interesting fashion before we pass through it and the rockwork of the African Veldt scene is strategically molded to block premature viewing of the Trapped Safari vignette. It was my role to suggest attention, too. For example, there is an interesting effect after the squirting elephant teases the boat where the Gorillas have shot explosives in the water and a large burst of water simulates an explosion. Often, guests would be too preoccupied with “Squirt” to fully see it. So it was my duty to divert their attention forward before the show element occurs. Not always easy.
Instead of a design analysis, like the previous portions of this essay, I’d rather give the reader an impression of things I learned about “The Theme Show” and what I thought makes a good skipper.
The earliest, and best, lesson that I learned is the importance of balance in “The Theme Show.” There are a lot of elements that one has to balance as a Jungle Cruise skipper. The first being the mystery and vastness jungle environment itself and the interplay with the humorous show scenes. It was an honor to be able to observe the timelessness of the Marc Davis designed gags over twenty times a day. They’re so good that they transcend conventional linguistics, especially on boats that featured riders who did not speak English. There would be silence until they saw the Trapped Safari vignette or the Indian Elephant Bathing Pool. I think Marc Davis really knew how to get the most out of the medium, too. Those elephant audio animatronics feature very little movement. However, they are arranged in a dynamic staging that allows the squirting water to act as the primary kinetic feature. The spiel is also very nuanced: vocal inflection, timing with joke delivery, eye contact with the audience, stage presence, good taste in humor, and the all-important selection of jokes. Lastly, any safety concern is a priority. This includes knowing how to drive the boat at the right speed through certain sections of the jungle. All of the boats have different personalities and eccentricities that skippers pick up on (in retrospect, I preferred the ‘Ganges Gal’ best). Sometimes safety necessitates a break in show, like when guests would all too often stand up in the boat.
This being said, the main characters of the Jungle Cruise are the Jungle and its inhabitants. It could be admittedly difficult to remember this when I had a stellar boat with guests that laughing at every joke. I had to keep in mind that I was a supporting character. The guest is the protagonist and the skipper is a zany supporting character that they would encounter on a 1930’s tropical expedition. I very, very rarely deviated from 1938-conscious dialogue in my spiel (my last boat with all my friends on it doesn’t count, because on your last trip conventions literally go out the window). I dislike pop culture references or meta-commentary on other Disneyland attractions in the spiel, because they detract from the grander picture. The guests are there for a singular experience. They can get topical pop culture references from watching a late night show monologue in their homes, but they can never replicate the feeling of drifting through the jungle into the unknown on a crisp 1938 evening. I learned that if one pushes the beauty of the Jungle and presents it with sincerity, the guests responded. Of course, I’ll miss all of those puns. I refrained from writing this section entirely in them. I do, however, feel more qualified to be a show writer for those dreadful things, if that’s ever necessitated of me.
Working the “Jingle Cruise,” and debuting the Jungle’s first ever holiday overlay was an exciting challenge for me. When I first heard about “Jingle” I thought that there would be a sort of “Catch-22”
a. Tell only Jingle jokes and the trip becomes over-saturated and the Jungle loses some of its mystique and appeal. I quite liked most of the holiday jokes, but they tended to follow 4-5 comedy tropes that could become redundant if told exclusively.
b. With Disneyland’s large Annual Passholder population, if I chose not tell the holiday joke during the show scene, I could hear audible disappointment, no matter how funny the joke was. Guests expect to hear that holiday twist. Again, they also expected a winter wonderland blanketed in snow and holiday hats on all of the animals.
Us skips had to endure trial by fire, but like I said before, it is all about a careful balance. It was just another element to juggle in the Jungle equation. We figured it out, which was a testament to the Show Writers who knew that it shouldn’t/wouldn’t be 100% holiday jokes. Our wait time was higher than normal, which allowed guests to explore the beautiful upstairs queue and tasteful holiday décor. I felt extra pressure to perform knowing that they had made a time investment in their day to come ride my boat.
I was giddy about having my name on the attraction’s “Naughty List” until my dear friend snarkily, yet lovingly, asked how it felt to have worked the attraction for three months, occupying a position on the list that Harper Goff and Marc Davis didn’t. That effectively, and humorously, quelled my excitement.
I never thought I’d get to work both an opening day Disneyland attraction and to debut something completely new, so I feel extremely lucky.
Looking back, I miss the fog in the morning and how the sunlight hit the hippopotamus pool at the right angle through the trees for a brief period at the start of the day, the sound and smell of the boat engine, the friendships that I made with my fellow skippers, the smell of the gunpowder on my hands from a long day of hippo shooting, and working front load on a slow evening watching the boats disappear into the void.
Epilogue and Acknowledgements
My Disneyland journey has been over for a couple months and this essay is probably overdue, so I’d like to say thanks to some people and give a look into ‘what’s next?’ I have already embarked on my next adventure. I am already enjoying my first quarter in pursuit of an MFA in Themed Entertainment Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I am already engrossed in my work well into a project where I am actually practicing themed design. It is an exciting opportunity for me, for I never thought I’d be able to study this at any collegiate level. Sadly, this probably means that my days of writing essays for this site have come to a close. I will most likely find a format to share my portfolio work that stems from my class projects and, of course, you can follow my silly theme park musings on Twitter over at @Progressland. I thank you for reading this far, or scrolling down long enough to find the end. Without this venue for publishing my essays, I would not have met some wonderful people or have learned so very much about this art form. I am very thankful for that. I appreciate anyone who took time out of their day to listen to what I had to say about Theme Parks. In the time that I was in Anaheim, I met some wonderful people and had some excellent conversations.
Below is a short list of people that I interacted with during my time out west that helped shape this essay and engage thought in one form or another:
Brad Zimmermann, Michael Crawford, Matt Feige, Guy Selga, Ian Kay, Jeremy Thompson, Jon Beer, Joseph Matt, Keith Gluck, Jeff Heimbuch, Steven Johnson, David Cobb, Dave Smith, David Younger, John Donaldson, Andy Castro, Brian Rechenmacher, Dustin Trabert, and, of course, all of my fellow skippers at the World Famous Jungle Cruise.
As we say in the Jungle, “move it up, skip!”
Why Space Mountain Works:
Environmental Storytelling and the Thrill of the Unknown
“We were alone. Where, I could not say, hardly imagine. All was black, and such a dense black that, after some minutes, my eyes had not been able to discern even the faintest glimmer”
- Jules Verne “Mobilis in Mobili”
At its best, Space Mountain is an abstraction: both in form and in concept. Just as the classic “Pirates of the Caribbean,” at Disneyland acts a visual extrapolation of the “idea of piracy,” “Space Mountain” follows a similar line of thought, touching on the “idea of space travel,” often without revealing specifics. I like to call this themed design mode “environmental storytelling.” In environmental storytelling, the guest acts as the protagonist, while the changes in environments and the staging of various tableaus (in both the attraction and the queue space) gives the impression of progression through visuals, instead of through dialect or narration. The best attractions that employ this medium often pass the cultural litmus test of ride repeatability throughout generations.
We can trace the origin of this approach to the advent of Themed Entertainment design in 1955, more specifically during the development of the Fantasyland dark rides. Ken Anderson, one of the primary WED artisans assigned to the project, realized the medium’s limitations: guests would have little time to appreciate the subtleties of character development that are essential to a feature film while bouncing around in their ride vehicle for a little over two minutes. Anderson’s genius was his telling of these stories not through linear sequences, but rather through the emotions conveyed by the environments of the stories. Twenty years later, Space Mountain debuts in the Magic Kingdom and tells a different kind of environmental story.
It’s not an immediate thought but, on the surface, Space Mountain is riddled with contradictions. It’s name: “Space” implying an endless, negative void contrasts with “Mountain,” a solid, concrete, and tangible entity. Along the same lines, its gleaming bright white exterior is balanced with the negative of the dark star tunnel and the near-pitch black environment of the projection space. Aesthetically, it’s a much different experience than the colorful interior of planets, pedestrians, and PeopleMovers that John Hench sketched in 1965.
This is a great example of effective visual communication. Space Mountain’s exterior linear pattern acts as a visual magnet. Prospective riders and armchair astronauts are drawn closer as they look upward to the spires that point towards the sky. It’s a great moment that I love to observe when I’m in the park. In a sense, it almost evokes of a Robert McCall painting of astronauts waiting for their own departure. I think that’s the point. Foxx from the unrivaled “Passport2Dreams” blog has coined the term “Theme Architecture” to describe Tomorrowland, and subsequently, Space Mountain’s architectural style in her essay “The Tomorrowland Problem.” I couldn’t be more fond of the distinction. Hench recalls that “(Space Mountain) begged to be cone shaped; it wanted to echo the expanding spiral of the ride itself.” The cone-like structure allows for clever forced perspective towards the top of the mountain. At our eye-level, the base of the ‘mountain’ is imposing. The exposed T-Beams that lace the exterior of the structure have come to an ending focal point, which appear to be shortly in the horizon. George McGinnis recalled, “a spherical form would be perceived as space related from a show standpoint.”
The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was originally designed to emulate the success of Disneyland’s iconic New Tomorrowland of 1967, with Space Mountain becoming the pivot point. Clem Hall’s 1973 concept for Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland suggests a faithful directive to the final realization. In John Hench’s book, Designing Disney, Tim Delaney recalled, “the timelessness of the structure allows us to change our focus for the attraction. Originally, we were in a time fascinated by what the future might become; now, the focus is to create fantasy about the future.” The “cartilaginous structure,” as Hench described, does maintain an enduring futuristic presence, but is vague enough to have thematically fit, to a reasonable rate of success, through the lenses of multiple Tomorrowland incarnations.
Since it’s introduction to the Tomorrowland model, it seems to have served as a literal and metaphorical anchor to the Tomorrowland model. To see how it has assimilated to the themed space over the years, let’s take a look at the following:
Walt Disney’s original Tomorrowland dedication on July 17, 1955 states:
“A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements…. A step into the future with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals, the atomic age, the challenge of outer space and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.”
Now we can compare the statement to John Hench’s thoughts in 1971:
“(Space Mountain) evokes such ideas as the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown.”
There are some definite parallels, despite Disneyland’s Tomorrowland of 1955 and the Magic Kingdom’s fully-fleshed Tomorrowland, twenty years later, existing as very different environments. Hench’s thoughts are narrowed due to speaking on a singular attraction, but the biggest takeaway (and a cardinal “theme” behind many successful themed attractions) is the sense of exploration. Instead of the exploration of ideas through exhibition in 1955’s Tomorrowland, the fantasy-based journey is manifested with Space Mountain. I make the distinction of a “fantasy”-based journey, because Space Mountain’s predecessor was the very linear, hard science-fact Rocket to the Moon, which attempted to approach the venture of space travel from a very realistic lens. Along with the switch from a direct approach to a fantasy approach, and perhaps more importantly, is the switch from a “passive” show to an “active” environment. As the best themed attractions do, Space Mountain allows us to inhabit and explore environments that we would not have the chance to do so, outside of a theme park.
This also harps back to a discussion on “frontiers” in themed attractions and themed environments. Attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, or the Rivers of America allow us as observers to receive a better impression of the environment that we occupy. They extend the environment past shop facades and detailed walkways, often taking us to “real” places. It is the themed entertainment equivalent of a child sitting on their father’s shoulders to catch a better view. But “frontier” attractions also can serve as a wilderness for a themed environment and with these attractions there is an implied danger. We do not know what lies beyond the first corner on the Jungle Cruise or as we pass into the mined caverns of Big Thunder Mountain. Space Mountain is no exception, providing the ultimate “terra incognita” for Tomorrowland, once occupied by the primitive (in comparison) Flight/Rocket to the Moon. This “danger” is mostly implied. It is not simply because one may be afraid of a roller coaster, albeit one in near-complete darkness, but because the risk of casual space flight is part of the bargain. As a participant we are entering an unknown environment.
Some of the best themed environments in the world present to us a time and place unavailable to us in the real world, but often are rooted in some familiarity. We may not be familiar with inhabiting a space station, but we are comfortable with planetariums and are often eager to compare. The correct aesthetic choices create emotion through tactile and environmental means. Again, Hench nails the concept of Space Mountain in ways I fail to dictate: “the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown.”
Now that we have examined Space Mountain’s fundamental themes, so to speak, we can begin to explore it’s minutiae from the outside in. To start, something that I think is particularly interesting about Florida’s Space Mountain is that it given to us in whole. We can see it from almost every angle. .We can easily observe it from the railroad, the brick-laden pathway to the Contemporary Resort, from the ferryboat, and even traveling on World Drive. However, at no time can we actually get close enough to touch the structure itself. We are separated by green space, fences, and by show buildings.
When we traverse through the entranceway to Space Mountain, we first enter an open chamber as we walk on railing-laced pathway. There are tall spires that reach the ceiling towards our left, but the main focus is on the back-illuminated panels that draw us forward. The copy on the main side reads: “Welcome Space Travelers (STARPORT Seven-Five), Your Gateway to the Galaxies.” However, this was not the show originally presented in this room. To best understand the thematic sensibilities of the current show, we must look at what occupied this space in the past and the inspect the changes thereof.
Upon descending the entrance ramp, guests were originally greeted by Nipper the Fox Terrier: RCA’s mascot. Enclosed in a slowly rotating spaceship and accompanied by his ever-present phonograph, it conveyed “RCA Welcomes You to Space Mountain.” RCA”s musical theme “Here’s to the Future” played here and in the elaborate post-show. You can see George McGinnis’ faithful rendering of the scene to the left. Following the entrance room, guests enter the ever so memorable “Star Tunnel” corridor.
George McGinnis recalls that early plans for the Florida pre-show’s second room were quite different. Claude Coats had fashioned an intricate interior based on Werner Von Braun’s “space wheel,” probably similar in fashion to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Space Station V.” Coats’ space wheel would feature audio-animatronic figures living in an interior habitat, accompanied by rear projections of space imagery. McGinnis worked with Coats’ concept to have it be retrofitted for Space Mountain’s interior. According to McGinnis, this concept was scrapped due to a moving ascending belt would move too many people into the loading area at once. If the ride would be delayed by any reason, Space Mountain’s upstairs queue space would have overflowed. The costs associated with Coats’ use of audio-animatronics were probably another large determinant. However, Coats maintained his audio-animatronic tableaus in the post-show: RCA’s Home of Future Living.
In its place, McGinnis designed what we now know as the “Star Tunnel,” a long winding, ascending corridor that leads guests to the main queue room and the loading area. To fill the interior space, McGinnis utilized a great bit of WED Illusioneering with his “Infinity Windows.” Some of these spaces originally gave RCA their proper due in the queue, while others featured mirror illustrations of starfields, planets, spaceships, and rockets. Due to their convex shapes, they play a trick on the viewer’s eyes as they are walked past.
But surely, these windows can’t be the sole reason why Space Mountain’s queue is so memorable. Perhaps a broader look at queue functionality is in order.
In 1992, anthropologist Stephen M. Fjellman wrote a comprehensive overview of Walt Disney World called Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America. Calling the Vacation Kingdom “the most ideologically important piece of land in the United States,” Fjellman explores the resort’s impact on society and culture, while exploring it’s thematic devices: such as the cinematic scope of its attractions and landscapes. I find Fjellman’s classification of queue structures to be fascinating and of interest to this piece.
Fjellman’s “Five Basic Elements of Disney Line Practice” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 206)
- The Hidden Line
- The Illusion of Progress
- Sensory Entertainment
- Cooling the Line
- Loading/Unloading of Attractions
Fjellman’s “Three Basic Forms of Lines at Walt Disney World” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 207)
- The Open Snake
- The Preshow Balustrade
- Inside Corridor
(as well as combinations of these patterns)
So now, with Fjellman’s classifications, and an early diagram of the Space Mountain’s interior (taken from “The E-Ticket Magazine Issue 30 and assembled in Photoshop), there is only one more facet I’d like to explore: it’s soundtrack. In doing so, it is essential to discuss the 1985 makeover dubbed “RYCA-1.” Specifically, I would like to talk about the musical variations that were introduced. RCA’s “Here’s to the Future” had been replaced by a few pieces of music, the “Entrance Music” and “Star Tunnel” as well as the lyrical “We’ve Come So Far.” Kudos, again, to Foxx from Passport2Dreams for confirming my suspicions that the composer of these pieces was indeed, George Wilkins.
I suspected Wilkins, not only because of the time period that we are discussing, but rather his mastery of transitions of musical signatures. Wilkins’ earlier effort with the Horizons score is a fantastic, if not the greatest, example. Recall how Wilkins was able to transcend genres and blend the music for the Robida Flats area by following the same chord progression as “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in the proceeding scene, then later repurpose “New Horizons” to fit each scene in “Tomorrow’s WIndows,” i.e. using traditional rural instrumentation for the Desert Farm scene. Wilkins was able to do this again by blending the three compositions for Space Mountain ever so seamlessly by having them follow the same chord pattern.
The changes in tone come with differences in instrumentation, tailored to mirror the intended queue experience. Let’s follow the queue experience, once again, through it’s soundtrack. The “Entrance Music,” with it’s regal french horn melody, evokes Hench’s “excitement of setting out on a journey.” I almost feel as if the piece acts as a call to action, starting with long-toned strings then phasing into a staccato movement accentuated by light hi-hat symbol work. It’s upbeat and keeps us moving forward. I’ve expressed this before, but I think the greatest special effect in Florida’s Space Mountain is the auricular transition between the “Entrance Music” and “Star Tunnel” compositions. It’s a seamless, yet instant, movement in tone. The “Star Tunnel” composition is permeated with theremin-like sounds that always evoked what a shooting star may sound like, a high note descending rapidly before fading into the distance. It’s especially poignant when passing one of McGinnis’ convex illusions and the sound effect happens to be in-sync. Eventually, “Star Tunnel” fades into a piece that I see commonly referred to as the “Third Tunnel.” In this selection, the common theme is still there, but is masked by darker, ambient tones. There’s a significant increase in audible texture as the number “shooting star” sound effects increase, as well as the “com chat” track from Disneyland’s Space. The dynamic is carried over to the load/unload area as a result of the 2009 refurbishment.
I adore the 2009 refurbishment of the attraction, because I believe it strengthens the Florida show’s strong suits and preserves its eccentricities. Enclosing the load space makes the environment even darker, a facet that is absolutely essential for the gradual dim. Not being able to see the ride structure is essential for the illusion of the on-ride lighted tunnels to work as transportive mediums. Also, the control buttons for the inoffensive interactive games bring some nice accent colors to the deep blue queue space.
One last note, the “Check Invisible Oxygen Dome” pre-flight backlit signage was the hardest I had genuinely laughed in a theme park since the first time I saw MuppetVision 3D.
I would now like to take into consideration everything that has been discussed about the queue thus far and apply it to Fjellman’s classifications.
1. The Hidden Line – Fjellman actually cites Space Mountain as an example, as the flow of guest traffic in the Star Tunnel often moves swiftly, leaving the majority of the queuing portion to the switchbacks before the loading platform. This can be observed in the diagram shown earlier in this piece.
2. The Illusion of Progress – In designing effective queue spaces, it is essential to provide the guest with movement or other stimulation to ease the tension of lenghty wait times. Fjellman rationalizes that adding more “open snake” turnstile channels will promote near-constant guest movement and increase wait time tolerance. Even though the potential majority of wait-time is held in the loading area, common guest perception assumes that once they have ascended the top of the Star Tunnel that boarding is immediate, hence the illusion.
3. Sensory Entertainment – Before the 2009 refurbishment, guests were able to see part of Space Mountain’s infrastructure, allowing anticipation to build through seeing the kinetic movement of the ride vehicles above. Now, the experience is different and the main sensory element (other than total immersion into darkness) are the interactive video games.
4. Cooling the Line – Refers to Walt Disney World’s necessary practice of air conditioning it’s queues. It is noteworthy that the Florida iteration put it’s loading and unload stations on the far side of the show building to draw the queue inside, while in California and Tokyo a more significant portion of the queue is held outside. It’s design by necessity as the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain has become a respite for many tourists to the Vacation Kingdom from the hot Florida sun.
5. Loading/Unloading of Attractions – It’s noteworthy that the two tracks are nearly identical, but are mirrored. The 2009 refurbishment has upgraded the loading experience by introducing fictional written commands on backlit panels.
There’s not a whole lot for me to analyze (in this piece at least) for the on-ride experience. I do find the blue and red tunnels to be poetic bookends to the ride experience, especially because they act as portals. I do enjoy the symmetrical show staging on the lift hill as well, the designs of those control towers have withstood the test of time.
There’s much discourse over the lack of an onboard soundtrack. I don’t believe that I subscribe to that thinking as of this time (I have yet to experience Disneyland’s Space). I believe there is merit in both practices. I’ve always appreciated Florida’s because, if I suspend disbelief, I can rarely anticipate when there is bound to be a tight turn or sharp drop. Disneyland’s Space Mountain embraces the aural cues and everything is in syncopation. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, it’s just different. My ideal improvement would be to illuminate the other ride vehicles to get a better sense of the echoing chaos of the interior space. As a rider, I often hear the other rocket ships but never see them and I don’t appreciate the disconnect.
The winding corridor denies the guest the ability to see the load/unload space and the “upstairs” switchbacks for quite some time. It’s a long, ascending march in the darkness. As riders, our eyes have adjusted to the low-light level by the time we have reached the boarding area, but how did we get there? It’s the abstraction of this space fantasy that counts. “How?” and “Why?” simply fail to matter.
In the queue, we observe diagrams of galaxies real and fictional before we gaze into “real” star-fields. If I had to make an argument, I would say that the beginning of the queue employs the more abstract elements (the spired towers and ballpit-like laced floor of the entrance room) and that the elements of the attraction based in realism (the control tower, the rocket ride vehicles themselves, and the diagetic sound elements) materialize in the latter half. However, I think Space Mountain is one of the few themed attractions where that kind of thinking is deemed unnecessary. If we return to looking at a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can understand that the effect of the film would be heartily diminished if it explained itself through every act. 2001 and Space Mountain each work best as ambiguities.
Let’s face it, from a narrow on-ride standpoint, Space Mountain is truly a just roller coaster in the dark. However, the average park guest to the most veteran park aesthete will argue to the contrary: and that is a testament to the marvelous illusion that it is! And in this case, we owe credit to one of the best designed queues ever built.
In March I was practicing creating faux retro pieces in Adobe Illustrator and I mocked up an advertisement for the “Date Nite at Disneyland” events of old. I got a really good response, but I kept returning to the piece examining it’s flaws and thinking that I could do a better job if I was to attempt it again. Luckily, I had a free weekend to do so!
While I’m still not comfortable with the typography in either piece, I do like my color selection better here. I thought it would be fun to play with light reflecting off of the castle at sunset.
I hope that you enjoy! Thanks!