Do original concepts have any future in Disney's theme parks?
When Disney announced that it would retheme Splash Mountain to The Princess and the Frog, that got some fans thinking about the future of other Disney theme park attractions. Putting aside, for a moment, issues of exploitation and social justice, there remains the question of Disney's business strategy with its theme parks.
For years, it's been clear that Disney sees itself as a lifestyle brand. Former CEO Bob Iger made clear that the company is looking for franchises - IP that can work in all the company's businesses: in theaters, in stores, and in theme parks. Splash Mountain failed as a theme because Disney could not leverage it on screen as its source material, Song of the South, was too socially toxic due to its association with minstrelsy. But what about other attractions that don't have movie or TV tie-ins? Is there any space for original concepts anymore in Disney's theme parks?
Disney would love to have each of its original theme park concepts become multimedia franchises, following the model of Pirates of the Caribbean. The next attraction to get its shot will be Jungle Cruise — one of the more troubling Disney theme park attractions for racial imagery, alongside Splash Mountain and Peter Pan. If the new Emily Blunt/Dwayne Johnson movie hits at the box office (whenever it gets the chance), look for those Jungle Cruise rides to get a post-movie makeover. But if the movie flops, I wouldn't be surprised to see Jungle Cruise get rethemed to another Disney property... or maybe even eliminated.
In my Orange County Register column this week, I write about the issue of original IP attractions at Disney, in light of the Splash Mountain decision. [Here's another link, in case the first does not work for you.] I suggest that Disney has an original IP concept in its parks that would be perfect for this moment in history — and that Disney ought to seize this opportunity to lean into it.
If you've read much of what I've had to say over the years, you probably could guess that I'm writing again about my favorite original theme park IP — the Society of Explorers and Adventurers.
As I mention in the column, the idea of leaning into a franchise that's seems rooted in Western colonialism might appear absurd at this moment. But Disney's Imagineers have crafted a wonderful tension in the SEA story — one that mirrors the social conflict happening in America right now.
There's a concept in physics called the "observer effect," which suggests that the mere act of observing something inevitably changes it. That's played out countless times in natural history and anthropology — and that conflict drives many of the SEA attractions, most notably Tokyo DisneySea's Tower of Terror. What happens when one community encounters another? Can both endure and thrive? Or will one inevitably try to subjugate the other?
The double whammy of the coronavirus and the George Floyd murder has re-exposed several of America's long-standing social conflicts. Face masks and Black Lives Matter have become projective Rorschach tests for many Americans — symbols that bring forward a lot of the anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration that many of us have kept hidden away over the years.
But unlike the inkblots of a Rorschach test, these symbols are not without meaning. They matter. And they matter so much for some that they have become the issues over which people now are arguing. That's not an accident, of course. If you want to divide a society, get people arguing about symbols, and they'll never come to a consensus about the real issues challenging them.
Recasting a story in fiction allows an artist to pull an audience past that Rorschach test - to move beyond those emotionally-charged symbols and identities to discover the story underneath. I taught my children about race relations by reading them Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches and Other Stories." Take "Black" and "White" off the table and talk about "Star Bellies" instead, and now people might listen for a bit.
Disney could do the same with so many issues through its SEA franchise. Race, class, culture - it's all there. Disney has built a storytelling platform that could engage a new generation to think about issues that might otherwise be drowned within America's symbol-driven culture wars.
Theme parks can be art, as well as entertainment. They can deliver profound moments that shape our lives. They need not be momentary distractions from more important things. They can be those important things.
Disney has an amazing opportunity here — thanks to the work of some of its artists at WDI. Yes, countless families are staying home as the virus rages through communities across the country. Parks are laying off employees, cutting capital spending and delaying new projects. But we never will stop needing to hear stories. And Disney has some great ones to tell.
Here's hoping that Disney chooses not to step away from original storytelling in its parks at this moment. It's time to hear more from the SEA.Tweet
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