Written by Robert Niles
Published: May 2, 2005 at 11:01 PM
Dear Michael Eisner,
As thousands of reporters and media personalities gather in Anaheim for the kickoff of Disneyland's Golden Anniversary, I'm sure you've noted that this is the last major event you'll oversee as Disney's CEO. Many of my colleagues online are rejoicing over your imminent departure from the Walt Disney Company. Too bad for them.
Look, I've heard through the grapevine that you're familiar with how publicly I ripped Disneyland's newest attractions over the past few years. “A Bug's Land” and Frontierland's Pooh ride were not up to Disney's high standards, and privately, I suspect that your new team at Disneyland agrees. But a failures over the past decade should not obscure the fact that you were the best executive the Walt Disney Company ever had. Yes, even better than Walt. (Sure, no one can approach Walt's vision or pop culture impact, but you, I and everyone else who actually paid attention during Traditions class at Disney University knows that the company would have failed had Roy O. not been there to save Walt's behind on the business side.)
So as your PR staff instructs the world's press to look back upon 50 years of Disneyland history, let's talk about your legacy. Surely, you do not deserve to slip away quietly, your departure marked only by the cackling of fanatics on a few Internet message boards. Nor does your insight and savvy running the company over the past quarter century call for something as ham-handed as putting up a statute of you in a Magic Kingdom, or slapping your name on Disney's Burbank campus.
You see, across the esplanade from Disneyland stands a theme park that marks the turning point in the public's perception of your success in running the Walt Disney Company. Disney's California Adventure still needs an “E-Ticket” land that will elevate the park from an industry punch-line to an unqualified business and artistic success.
The park needs a great new, innovate attraction. You need a compelling swan song to illustrate your legacy. Perhaps one might provide the other?
A clone from Orlando, or a concept from Steven Jobs' Pixar crew will not do. Not when there is a concept from your past that so richly affirms your vision and that would work so well on the Disney's California Adventure stage.
In the early 1970s, a man named Tom Yohe met with you when you were ABC's Vice President of Children's Programming. He pitched you on an idea developed with three other men to set basic education lessons to music and animate them. You bought the idea on the spot and “Schoolhouse Rock” went on to define my generation.
Thanks to the series you bought, I learned that I could love grammar, math, American politics and a slew of other topics that I didn't always understand in class. Heck, I sat through hours of lousy Saturday morning TV just for the chance to watch a few more songs. By the time I went to college, in the late 1980s, “Schoolhouse Rock” was off the air, but any club D.J. in the country could rescue a slow night by spinning “Conjunction Junction.”
We loved, and continue to love, that show. And today, when my daughter struggles with her second-grade grammar homework, I drop “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly” into the DVD player and she gets it.
We Generation Xers who grew up with “Schoolhouse Rock” have kids of our own, and money to spend on family vacations. The series retains its appeal among we who watched it, and has not lost its power to entertain and instruct today' children. Why not leverage that appeal with a theme park attraction that will draw those parents and kids to Anaheim?
Don't just whip up some easy show, plowing through a few songs with forgettable costumes and choreography. Make this your legacy. Couple the most powerful and influential example of children's educational entertainment of the past 30 years with the latest in interactive theme park attractions. Make this the summary of all you have done.
Take what Disney's learned from building video game-inspired short-'em-ups like Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and build a “Schoolhouse Rock” dark ride, blending the familiar tunes with interactivity inspired by educational games from Disney Interactive. Send some Imagineers down to Legoland California, with instructions to devise a cooperative family competition like “Fun Town Fire Academy” while incorporating “Schoolhouse Rock” themes. Build the theme park playground to out-do all theme park playgrounds, but one that requires kids to respond to “Schoolhouse Rock” challenges to proceed through the play area. Give us a “Schoolhouse Rock” musical show, but demand that the audience be made an active participant in the show.
A “Schoolhouse Rock” land could take Disney's commitment to family entertainment to an unprecedented level of interactive excellence. No theme park has ever built a land with this level of family interactivity. No theme park has built that so explicitly would challenge kids to learn while entertaining them in a way no video game, movie or existing theme park attraction has. And no other project would better summarize and illustrate the long career of Michael Eisner than this.
Please, Mr. Eisner. Make this your curtain call. Greenlight it, then tell Bob Iger to put you in charge of assembling the design team – for one last hurrah. Put this land in Disney's California Adventure, and you will have given that park a unique identity that will draw two generations of fans to it, and entice new generations of fans for years to come.
“Schoolhouse Rock,” Mr. Eisner. What better way to finish your career than with the beloved and enduring property that helped launch it?
P.S. I hereby cede ownership of all theme park attraction concepts and ideas expressed in this letter to the Walt Disney Company. They are yours to build upon. Please, please do.
Walt Disney World
Tokyo Disney Resort
Theme Park Insider Books