John Holdun

Themed Attraction Longevity

it's a small world
“it’s a small world” by HarshLight

It was back in 2006, after reading a post on the mysterious group blog called Re-Imagineering, that I first wondered about the longevity of attractions at Disney parks. In this post, the author explores the various ways that Disney spokepeople have used and abused the tenet that “Disneyland is not a museum,” particularly in defense of a new and unpopular change, particularly when that change ensured the collateral damage of an old and popular favorite. We have to add Disney film characters to “it’s a small world” because…it’s not a museum?

There were rapid and frequent alterations of Disneyland in its early years as Walt and his employees continued fussing with their project and slowly discovered what makes a theme park work. That fussing seemed to decline after Walt’s death. Some of this surely relates to the fact that there was not a clear creative successor and that progress under Walt was often faciliated by his mediation skills. The warring styles of Marc Davis and Claude Coates in The Haunted Mansion illustrate his absence: the project started under Walt but opened after his passing. But I think even more than that, Disneyland gradually became a museum as a tribute to its departed founder. I’d guess that there was a general sense that the designers who survived Walt were hesitant to make sweeping changes without him because they didn’t know what he would have wanted, or even if they did, a dissatisfied public would exclaim that this is not What Walt Would Have Done. This popular aversion to change continues today, and after so many decades there are certain Disney parks properties that must feel untouchable.

Imagine if the pace of reinvention in the early years of Disneyland continued, or even accelerated, through present day. I’m not just talking about plussing, or overlays, or even reconfiguring show scenes. Imagine if Pirates of the Caribbean was something we knew existed under New Orleans Square in the 60s and 70s, but it was replaced by a story about psychic French artisans in the 80s. Since 2009 it’s been a 15-minute extended rendition of “Friends on the Other Side,” and at the last D23 we saw some concept sketches for a new Mardi Gras-themed attraction. Perhaps none of these later iterations would be quite as good as the original, but maybe some of them would be even better? What if Imagineering thought of these spaces and robots less as a museum installation and more as a theater company?

One problem, of course, is that this could get quite expensive. Designing new stories, sculpting new figures, altering mechanics—all of this takes time. It’s cheaper to repair a torn costume than it is to sew a new one, and audiences are coming back to see the same stuff over and over anyway. Then again, this traveling theater company idea was a cost-cutting measure when the cast of America Sings became the cast of Splash Mountain. Moving these figures over there, pointing this light in that direction, recording some new audio…a little could go a long way. Charting the career of certain prolific characters could even become its own pastime for the nerdier fans among us (🙋‍♂️).

And while we know that long-time fans clamor for the Classics to live forever in stasis, we know that those same audiences go wild for the new stuff too. It’s sad that we lost The Great Movie Ride, but Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway looks like it could be incredible. And yes, The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management) was hot garbage, but it wouldn’t have been nearly so difficult to endure if it was the seventh or eighth or ninth iteration of performances in The Enchanted Tiki Room, and we knew there’d be something else there next season.1 Designing for true extensibility and remixing, and then keeping up with that concept, would probably even increase demand. This is why there’s a slightly different fireworks show every few years, right?

I don’t really see Disney doing this any time soon. But for anyone that is looking to create a new theme park driven by character, story, and environment, and wishes to avoid the reputation of a Disneyland knockoff, consider looking at your space more like a city full of many potential and ever-evolving settings, and less like…a museum.2

One more thing: If you’re interested in attractions that push the limits of what it means to be a theme park, check out my company, Variable Stage!

  1. In thinking through this model, I’ve nearly convinced myself that ride tickets weren’t such a bad idea. What a concise way to gauge popularity (and maybe a more affordable way to visit the Disney parks)! 

  2. It’s hard to say just yet, but I think Evermore is trying to do something like this—they’re transforming their space dramatically each season with a new story that brings sweeping changes to the entire space, and maybe brings people back each season, too.