(Note: I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts folder for quite a while now, as I had originally intended to post this shortly after returning from my Disneyland trip in May. I just haven’t been able to figure out how to finish it up until now.)
Since its disastrous (even by Disney’s own accounts) opening day in July of 1955, Disneyland has seen over 600 million visitors cross through its turnstiles. Sports stars with hastily constructed endorsement deals can’t wait to get there after major victories, but Soviet leaders can’t get there at all (Nikita Kruschev was famously denied a visit to Disneyland when he visited the US in 1959.) With nearly 17 million visitors in 2009, Disneyland is the second most visited theme park in the world, although in a somewhat ironic twist, #1 is the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, a park which is in many ways an imitation of Disneyland (although the Magic Kingdom does have its own merits as well.) So what draws the people to these parks?
As anyone who has been there can attest, as a pair of amusement parks, the Disneyland Resort isn’t the type of place people go expecting thrills. Although it could be said that California Adventure has a couple of bonafide thrill rides in California Screamin’ and the Tower of Terror (and the case could probably be made for Space Mountain and Splash Mountain over in Disneyland as well,) even those are relatively tame compared to the more extreme coaster offerings at a place like Magic Mountain or Cedar Point. For that matter, even Wild Waves, the Seattle metro area’s token theme park offering, seems to rival the Disneyland Resort in quantity of thrill rides (although, to be fair, “Thrill” may be a generous assessment for some of the stuff there, as noted in my previous post on the subject.) And yet, in spite of this, the Disney parks are constantly among the most attended parks in the world (as anyone who has ever had all those attendees in front of them in the line for Space Mountain can probably attest. )
So if people aren’t coming to Disneyland for the thrills, what are they coming for? Well, the simple (and probably official answer if I bothered trying to acquire one) to that question would likely have something to do with “Magic.” Surely by now half of the sentient creatures on this planet have spent much of their childhoods subjected to images of Tinkerbell flittering around Sleeping Beauty Castle wielding an enchanted magic wand of sparkleizing (+2 for the D&D nerds), but in most cases it’s a lot more subtle than that. Where Disney truly stands out from the rest of the competition is in their theming. Within the parks, it seems that they have found ways to theme even the most mundane of objects, and the attention paid to detail is far beyond what you’re going to find in most other parks. At the same time this can also come across as being contrived (after all, no amount of fancy theming is going to convince anyone that McDonald’s food is anything besides McDonald’s food) but still, it’s undeniable that when Disney gets a hold of a concept, they’ll go as far as they possibly can.
This doesn’t stop when a ride has been designed, built and opened either. The Imagineers are constantly taking advantage of whatever new technologies they can to tweak and improve rides and shows throughout the parks. Tn fact, they’ve got guys in Imagineering these days whose job consists entirely of adding little tweaks and enhancements to existing rides and shows. Some of these changes are significant (like the recent additions of classic Disney characters to the It’s a Small World ride or the slightly dubious retconning of Jack Sparrow into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride) but most of these changes are more subtle things like upgraded animatronic figures and improved effects that aren’t likely to get much attention, but still add to the experience. Because of all these changes, most people who visit Disneyland on a relatively infrequent basis can expect to find significant changes between their visits. But when all is said and done, what is the goal of all of this tweaking and tinkering ? To not be noticed, of course.
Obviously when one considers the people who make the investment of time and money required for a trip to Disneyland, there is an expectation that they will be bringing at least some degree of willing suspension of disbelief along with them. After all, people generally go to a place like the Disneyland resort expecting to be entertained, and for most people (especially children) there’s an added (and largely tolerated) dimension of willing belief that comes from not knowing any better (a Santa Claus/Tooth Fairy situation, if you will.) And as is inevitably the case with other such mythical creatures, eventually the realization comes that Mickey is, in fact, someone in a costume. An incredibly elaborate costume, but a costume nonetheless. Sure, most of us do a pretty good job of maintaining the illusion of the whole thing for the enjoyment of the children who may be along for the ride, but try as we might, there comes a point where you just can’t deny that it’s all fake.
Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it, but it does create an entirely different perspective on things. For one thing, it tends to make flaws stand out a lot more than they would otherwise. On my most recent Disneyland visit, I’d say the most glaringly obvious example I saw of this was on rides like the Haunted Mansion and Indiana Jones Adventure where DLP projectors are now used to show animations for things like Madame Leota’s face and the singing busts in the graveyard (these serve as replacements for older film-based projection systems for the same effects, presumably adding a lot more reliability in the long run.) For the most part the effect works quite well, but there’s a well-known issue known in DLP systems known as the “Rainbow Effect” that, through a combination of spinning color wheels and persistence of vision, can cause an image to momentarily “split” into its red, green and blue components if the viewer’s eyes are moving quickly past it. Most people who ride those particular rides probably wouldn’t be bothered by a little thing like that, but for someone with at least a basic understanding of the technology involved and knowledge of that specific issue in particular, it immediately turns into a major distraction and an immersion breaker. Again, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it, but the tendency of the reticular activating system* in the Human brain is to focus inordinately on the flaws once it’s spotted one.
If you happen to be an Imagineer, chances are that you’re well aware of this situation, and have probably spent plenty of time trying to work around it. Obviously no amount of pixie dust is going to convince some people that they aren’t looking at a carefully devised illusion. So what do you do? In this case, the best you can hope for is to be able to create something and have people not be able to figure out how it was done. And I do have to say that for at least the first time I rode it, this was true of the Tower of Terror. The problem is that even if you can fool people once or twice, there’s just too many sources of information available to the general public these days, so it’s virtually impossible to maintain even that level of disbelief for long. Even so, the ultimate measure of success or failure for a ride or a show is going to be one thing: How much the guests enjoy it.
Then again, maybe there’s a completely different approach that would work here. If you can’t convince people to suspend disbelief for your carefully devised fantasies, why not try giving them something they CAN believe in? I’ll have more on this in the next post, coming (hopefully) later this week.
Update 11/12/10: The promised followup to this post can be found here:
The Magic of Real Things
*One of the few things I can still remember from a college class on group communication that I think I mostly slept through. And, as such, probably a case in point as well.