Friday, August 18, 2017

Letter to Disneyland Concerning Upcoming Recent and Changes at California Adventures

Hello and Kindest Regards,

My first trip to Disneyland was in 1983, when I was five years old; on my seventh birthday, I was given an X-Wing Fighter in a hotel room across the street from Disneyland in what I considered to be the best day of my life at the time; when I was 23, my girlfriend agreed to marry me sitting on a bench in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, which then took the top spot for best day of my life; in 2013, I took my wife and four daughters to Disneyland 52 times and my wife worked as a Jungle Cruise Skipper. I just want to establish that, yes, I’m some kind of Annual Pass Fanboy, and I understand how common that is. But I have also made some of my greatest memories there and see it as part of the landscape of my life. That being said, I understand that Disneyland is a business and not a museum, as we often hear, nor is it my personal backyard or there to cater to my whims. Nevertheless, I have a concern that I would like to share, and I hope that you will take this concern seriously and not just write it off as someone trying to preserve a piece of their own memories, like so many of us often do when talking about the changing nature of Disneyland and the concept of Yesterland.

I have heard a rumor, and granted it is only a rumor, that California Screamin’ will be rebranded as an Incredibles attraction, likely to help promote the forthcoming Incredibles 2. Now, I understand that all of Paradise Pier will be experiencing a Pixar overlay, and perhaps this temporary event has triggered the rumor of the permanent rebranding, or maybe this permanent rebranding is only being considered; clearly, I don’t know. But regardless of the prospect of this change, I think that my comments are valid ones and ones that you should consider as you move forward. I’m not stomping my foot petulantly and insisting that you leave my precious things in your park alone, but I am trying to offer an outside perspective; the perspective of someone who cares deeply about the inherent spirit of the park and understands the mandate to forever change and expand the park, but who is not bound by research groups and notions corporate synergy. My perspective should be valuable, and I encourage you to read on with an open mind.

In recent years, there has been a push to “plus” attractions at Disneyland, and these changes have been, for the most part, very exciting ones. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t love the changes in the track of Big Thunder Railroad or the improvements of The Matterhorn’s Yeti. And while there are plenty of people who complain about changes to Pirates of the Caribbean, I understand the need to change with the times and to cater to a younger audience who was likely mystified at the absence of their favorite pirate as they rode through. However, it seems to me that these improvements often are a shortcut to fulfill a promise to Anaheim to spend money making improvements and to drum up synergy and promotional opportunities. There are two such changes that do not resonate well and I feel that they find their reflection in the rumored plans for Screamin’.

The first and probably least controversial of these changes is the rebranding of Soarin’ over California to Soarin’ over the World. This was a major step backwards for California Adventures for two reasons. The firs reason is that it goes against the grain of the original concept of California Adventures as a celebration of our state. That, in itself, is understandable, though a negative. The second reason is because of the damage this change has done to Disney’s storytelling. The concept behind Soarin’ over California was focused—seeing the diversity of California in both ecological and cultural terms. The ride was calm, atmospheric, and devoid of special effects (aside from the golf ball, which was undoubtedly the cheesiest moment), making a true hang gliding simulator. The replacement ride has traded in the story and simulation for cheap sensation. We are treated to some of the most cliché and familiar sights from around the world, all with impressive, special-effects driven cuts between each section. The result is not something more exciting, but something more bland. There was surprise and interest in experiences acres of orange blossoms and desert landscapes that are new to the eye that is totally absent when seeing the Eifel Tower, yet again, or a totally unrelated Moana tie-in island. The story doesn’t connect and we are left with something that doesn’t feel like a hang gliding simulator, but a mishmash of familiar scenes with splashes of out-of-place action.

The second major change, as you can guess, is the change of Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! Unlike many Annual Passholders, I went into this change with the utmost confidence in the abilities of the Imagineers. I am also a very big fan of GotG, and I have written about them quite extensively for a website for which I freelance. I thought that it would be hard to let go of Tower, but that we would get something much more exciting in its place. Unfortunately, that is not how I feel about the end result. The end result feels like a 199-foot commercial. There is no doubt that the concept was seen as a way to better utilize the Marvel property that was purchased at a very high price; that it was also seen as synergy, helping to promote the new GotG movie that came out around the same time. And it feels exactly like that. Again, the atmosphere of Tower that was so rich, immersive, and compelling was traded for quick sensations and familiar faces. I’ve gone on the ride once and, to be honest, I’m kind of done with it. I don’t want to see these characters on a screen—that’s why I go to movies. The drops are fun, but the music doesn’t feel “Disney” to me in the least. The package, the whole package, isn’t there; it would be more at home in Universal Studios or Six Flags. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. And I never thought I would say that about an attraction at Disneyland. You guys do great jobs with movie rides (hello? Indiana Jones?) but GotG should have gotten its own ride instead of just being a commercial overlay on this one.

This is why this rumor about Screamin’ is so concerning to me. It feels like the same money decisions and synergy decisions that motivated the Tower change. I understand that there must be a consensus among those in charge that Screamin’ is “under-themed,” but this isn’t true. The theming of this ride is subtle, but complete: it is a steel rollercoaster that is themed like an old wooden rollercoaster that would be found on a seaside boardwalk or pier in California. It does its job perfectly; as a huge fan of roller coasters, I can say that this is my absolute favorite in the world. I won’t be so bold as to say that any change would be a detraction, but I would say that if a change is going to happen, the question of motivation must be asked: is this for the improvement of the ride, or is this for the improvement of the bottom line? It’s clear what the answer was for GotG, and I think that if you search deeply, you’ll agree with me that the wrong decision was made.

I am not one to stand and yell at a Plaid in the park that I paid a lot of money and I expect to get my way. I am not one to tell you that “if you make this change, I my family will not renew our passes and will take our money elsewhere!!!11!”; it’s not my style and I don’t see that behavior at all as motivating. I am offering my perspective as one who is not bound by the same rules as those who are planning; by those who are tasked with justifying their paychecks. I know that it is the imperative of companies to make money and to watch the bottom line. I know that Disneyland is not a museum. But I encourage you to consider the overall experience.

The changes you make are professional ones and are important to your job, but they also leave a legacy; Disney, and especially Disneyland, carries a heavy burden. It is clear through the tones of social responsibility that your films depict that you understand this burden (see Moana, Zootopia, and Frozen as good examples). But the social responsibility of storytelling is no small one; it is clear that the ability to tell stories and create fictions is the ability that sets people apart from animals. Fiction is our most human attribute. Your decisions in the flagship of theme parks—the flagship of resorts and family entertainment—should be about more than synergy and promotion. Incredibles 2 will do very well without this synergy. It simply doesn’t need it. But to further tarnish the experience of Disneyland lovers after what has been done to Soarin’ and Tower would be a travesty. Already the E-Ticket rides at DCA have been trimmed down thanks to these changes. Yes, The Incredibles is a good story, but the characters are somewhat annoying—it is unlikely that you would be able to translate them to a fast ride in any way that isn’t obnoxious.

Take the wider view here. Stay away from message boards of cynics all you want—I know that I do! But consider the legacy that you leave behind. With the kind of power that you wield in the realm of storytelling, you are tasked with much more than your jobs. If you think that I am granting you too much importance, I am not. Everything that Disneyland does resonates down the entertainment food chain and lands firmly on the pallets of our children. You are helping to construct a world for our children in a way that no group of people have ever done in history since homo Sapiens left the trees. You can explain this to your shareholders who likely will be making enough money as it stands. Do good with this power and stop letting other concerns tarnish it.

Thank you very much, if you’ve managed to get through this whole letter. Feel free to contact me at any time, as I would love to discuss this further.

Sol Smith, MFA, EdS

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