Written by Robert Niles
Published: July 22, 2004 at 8:28 PM
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.