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Robert's Tour, Part Seven -- Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Robert returns to his home park to watch a new show, and reflect upon his former park's performance over the past decade.

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Published: July 22, 2004 at 8:28 PM

Lake Buena Vista, Florida -- I find myself thinking more deliberately when trying to draw objective conclusions about Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. After all, this was the park I worked at for five summers and the park I’ve spent more time in than any other. Even though I left the company in 1991, the lessons learned in Disney University have not faded from my memory and I retain a cast member’s devotion toward protecting this park. Ultimately, however, it is that devotion which prompts me to criticize this park when it fails, and celebrate it when it succeeds.

The Magic Kingdom (please, not “Disney World,” that’s the whole resort, not just this one park) is the world’s most popular theme park, attracting more than 14 million visitors last year. You don’t just drive up and park in front of this park. No, once you’ve parked, you must then ride a ferryboat or monorail past the immense Seven Seas Lagoon.

Talk about an entrance. No theme park imparts a more dramatic first impression than the Magic Kingdom, with Cinderella’s Castle soaring over a collection of awaiting delights, rising over the horizon of the lagoon.

First-time visitors should arrive in the parking lot at least one hour before the park’s posted opening, two in busy holiday periods, to ensure a place at the top of Main Street U.S.A. for the rope drop, opening the park’s attractions for the day. Today, with the extended family in tow, we arrived late in the morning, hoping only to see the park’s newest attraction, Mickey’s PhilharMagic, along with a few older favorites.

The best thing I can say about Mickey’s PhilharMagic is that the show’s a better use of the former Mickey Mouse Revue theater than allowing it to stand empty. For a more spirited analysis of the show, I turn over the next several paragraphs to the Official TPI Wife and former Disney World cast member, Laurie Niles:

“Ugh! It’s just derivative. Why couldn’t they come up with a new story? Instead they said, ‘Hey, our competition did Shrek in 3-D, so let’s do our characters in 3-D.’ There’s no vision, no idea.

“Walt wanted to immerse people in an experience, like on Tom Sawyer Island. Think about that attraction for a minute… Rafts? What a ridiculous idea! An impossible plan! You have to teach people to drive the things, they’re not on a track. You have to custom-build the vehicles. And rafts are a horribly inefficient way to transport people across a river where you could build a bridge.

“But it’s awesome. The rafts make the whole fantasy work. Do any of these people at Disney know how to fantasize anymore? To create an environment? To tell a story?

“Disney’s not trying, they’re just recycling stuff. They did a good job of what they did on Mickey’s PhilharMagic, with the production and all that – it’s just that what they did was retarded.”

And some TPI readers thought Kevin Baxter was tough.

Laurie articulates a frustration that’s grown among passionate Disney fans over the past decade. With each year’s passing since Walt’s death, the influence of the individuals he personally trained in the Disney Way has diminished. And after the creative revival nurtured by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in the 1980s, Eisner’s continued leadership of the company has seen more creative voices leave the Walt Disney Company than arrive.

Mickey’s PhilarMagic illustrates how derivation has replaced inspiration in too many departments of the Walt Disney Company. This 4-D movie follows Donald Duck as he bumbles his way through computer-animated numbers from several Disney musicals, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” The songs and gags entertain the vast majority of those who see it. But so would popping those original videos into the DVD player. And without the $50-plus per-person daily ticket price. At least Universal spun us a new tale in its Shrek 4-D.

The show feels like it was planned in a 20-minute committee meeting, not a burst of a filmmaker’s imagination. And companies can’t keep cranking out entertainment that way if they want to thrill audiences at premium prices. Nostalgia will buy a company initial easy profits, but with each subsequent derivation, the mind’s fondness for the original grows more faded – like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.

When I drove the Tom Sawyer Island rafts, several fellow cast members took pride in the low number of “degrees of separation” between them and Walt. In 1987, I was trained by a lead who told me that he was trained by a lead who had opened Walt Disney World. Who, in turn, had been trained by an original Disneyland cast member hired personally by Walt. Giving me three degrees of separation from Walter Elias Disney himself. I was awed, not only by the perceived status, but by the resulting responsibility to maintaining Walt’s legacy.

No trainer can pass along 100 percent of all he knows to a new trainee. That’s the primary reason why high staff turnover kills high quality in any business. It’s also why a creative entertainment company can’t keep churning out hits indefinitely without hiring new creative entertainers. Someone must bring new knowledge, new creativity, new spark, into an entertainment business. All the committee meetings and audience research studies in the world cannot replace that.

I’m glad Disney found a new musical home for many of the characters I feel in love with when I was a kid, and later, a cast member. Now Disney needs more vibrant new characters, stories and environments for my children to fall in love with. But they are finding them from Pixar, Dreamworks, Nickelodeon and PBS. Rarely from Disney.

Well, they did find one place they loved in the Magic Kingdom on this visit. My kids thought Tom Sawyer Island was great.

Score another one for Walt.

  • Read the rest of the articles from Robert Niles' Summer 2004 Theme Park Tour

  • Readers' Opinions

    From John Franklin on July 22, 2004 at 9:53 PM
    Well, Robert, now you know why Disney is call now days a Mickey Mouse company. It's because Mickey could not get anything right. I mean, when are we going to see another spectacular attraction by the likes of Splash Mountain or DL's Space Mountain or Pirates , etc. Probably never. At least not at DL or WDW or Paris Disneyland (which everyone is saying is the most beautiful of all the Disney's Magic Kingdoms).
    However, maybe we can hope that Tokyo Disneyland will
    do a buy out of Disney in the States and outdo Walt Disney himself. I understand that Disney's Seas is the most successful theme park of the last 10 years (for Disney at least).
    From on July 23, 2004 at 9:40 AM
    I live in Orlando, and hate Disney.
    From Joe Lane on July 23, 2004 at 10:25 AM
    Florida native?

    My father was born and raised in Florida. He's never been too fond of the parks himself. Dad's a big Florida history buff, but when the tourism industry started to boom and population started growing, he's been rather irritated by at all ever since.

    Some folks just outright don't like Disney. Others have grown to dislike it, thanks to the downward spiral the company has been in since the early '90s.

    From Mathias D. on July 23, 2004 at 12:18 PM
    Oddly enough, Mickey's Philharmagic is now the highest rated attraction at Walt Disney World, with 94% of the audience rating it "excellent".
    From Ben Mills on July 23, 2004 at 2:26 PM
    "My kids thought Tom Sawyer Island was great."

    And, of course, your influence wouldn't have anything to do with that, Robert?

    ;-)

    From A E on July 23, 2004 at 2:31 PM
    So, from your review, I take it you wouldn't have liked Mickey's Philharmagic no matter what - just because of the fact that it was a 3-D film? Why did you even bother going in? Or are you hoping SaveDisney will pick up some more of your most negative comments and you'll get press over there again?
    From Ben Mills on July 23, 2004 at 3:19 PM
    Ooh...them's fighting talk.
    From Jayson Myers on July 23, 2004 at 5:10 PM
    AE,

    (I'm assuming you've seen the show). I think what he is saying (correct me if I'm wrong), but zero though went into the show. When compared to Shrek 4-D, you can tell there is not any story to Mickey's Show. Shrek is a bridge between the two movies, Mickey's does not give us anything so "epic". It is a collection of movies. It was just disappointing b/c most of us expect Disney to be the best, not a copy.

    From Michael Patalano on July 23, 2004 at 7:53 PM
    Mickey's Philharmagic is a great attraction. I'd pick that anyday over an island where you walk all day in small caves or a dumb tree that you do nothing in. Philharmagic perfectly blends great 3D animation (especially Lumierre), great inhouse effects (that's one fast moving arch), and a touching ending. This combined with some of the best characters in Disney history (at least to those who were born in the last 20-30 years). I say that next time you go on a ride for a report like this, take the outside world out of your mind (ie Eisner, Shrek, etc) and enjoy the attraction for what it is.
    From Joe Lane on July 23, 2004 at 9:38 PM
    Mickey's PhilharMagic is good clean wholesome fun, bringing tried and true characters, formulas and songs to the table...

    ... but when it comes to being fresh and unique, it falls rather short of the mark.

    Disney was known for a long time for being an innovator in attraction design and storyline, but we've been seeing that slowly fade away. There's no longer anything original, cause original doesn't guarentee the quick buck.

    For example? Alien Encounter. Gone, only to be replaced by Stitch, a character so popular, his movie spawned a poorly animated sequal and TV series. As original as Stitch was when he premiered, it is now nearly impossible to see Stitch and not think Disney. It's part of the brand loyalty, the recognition, the almighty dollar.

    And as for TPI getting recognized on SaveDisney, it's a damn honor, but speaking for myself, I don't criticize Disney because I want to be recognized by SaveDisney, I criticize Disney because I KNOW they can do better, but they're not even trying anymore, and that sickens me.

    From Mathias D. on July 24, 2004 at 2:10 AM
    Well, I kinda disagree here. MPM is great because it gives the audience what it wants: to be part of some of their beloved Disney films. To be part of the action, to see and experience them in a new amazing way, bringing them to life as never before.

    I truly prefer seeing a collection of Disney films in 3D with a twist (ie Donald in them) than a new story that wouldn't connect with the audience. I don't care to see a movie that fills the gap between Peter Pan and Peter Pan 2, or between TLk and Simba's Pride! Shrek 4D connects the 2 films, fine. But I can add, by being cynical, that it is purely a marketing formula, trying to lure guests into the theater for Shrek 2.

    I think the attractions are different:

    Shrek 2 brings the guests a new film that is complete in itself, a kind of T2:3D movie. They say it connects Shrek 1 and 2 but that doesn't really matter as you can understand the 2 films without seeing Shrek 4D.

    MPM has a different purpose: let the guests travel INTO their favorite Disney films, be the guests of Disney to relive some favorite memories in a unique way. It is more a tribute, and that makes it more "appealing" to me than S4D.

    From Kevin Baxter on July 24, 2004 at 9:39 PM
    I have a different view of the whole thing. Shrek 4-D is actually like a short Shrek 1 1/2. I don't think it is as much a bridge as just a continuation of the story. For it to work, they were going to have to have a stand-alone story, so the honeymoon made perfect sense. I don't think it was being used to get people into Shrek 2 considering how much smaller a theme park audience is compared to television or movie audiences, where commercials and trailers for the film would reach far more potential customers.

    I also don't see PhilharMagic as being a part of the movies. Maybe if it was a videogame. I see other characters on a set they don't belong, and it just screams desecration. Which, to me, is basically the Disney creed now. No classic is so sacred that its memory can't be damaged in the name of money.

    From Mister Wonder on July 26, 2004 at 8:52 AM
    Shrek 4-D is basically i little prelude into Shrek 2. This is also why they decided release to ride film on dvd, but only if you buy Shrek 1.
    From Joe Lane on July 26, 2004 at 10:04 AM
    Actually, Kev has a point. Shrek 4D is a continuation of Shrek 1, but there is little if no connection to Shrek 2. The movies mentions none of the events from the 4D attractions: no Thelonias, no mention of fighting the ghost of Farquaad, and no really super huge honeymoon hotel (the opening of Shrek 2 actually shows Shrek and Fiona in a small gingerbread cottage for their honeymoon). There's also no allusions to Shrek 2 through Shrek 4D. Despite featuring the same main and supporting characters from the original film, Shrek 4D and Shrek 2 have very little in common.
    From Kevin Baxter on July 27, 2004 at 1:57 AM
    Excellent points, Joe. Especially about the honeymoon hotel. I hadn't noticed that. It makes me wonder how many people worked on both Shrek 4-D and Shrek 2. Are there credits on the DVD?
    From Chad Shelby on July 28, 2004 at 1:25 PM
    I was in the magic kingdom about a month ago and saw philharmagic twice. The first time I enjoyed it alot, it brought a tear to my eye, because a majority of the movies they picked were from when i was 7 or 8, im 19 now.

    We saw it a second time because my sister wanted to see it, which actually really suprised me because shes one of those teenaged goth princesses always dressed in black. So the second time i spent alot of the production turned around watching everyone around me and what they were doing, and that also brought a tear to my eye. The kids were enjoying it so much, and so were the parents, everyone looked so happy. And isn't that what its all about in the end?