January 31, 2009

Gifts that keep on taking

My fellow Disneyland blogger Vintage Disneyland Tickets had an interesting group of 1985 artifacts up recently, so I thought that I’d throw in this Cast Member information card from the Magic Kingdom’s big 3-0.

It’s interesting, too, to think about how Disneyland has changed in the way it’s promoted since the earlier days. I wasn’t around for the twentieth anniversary, but I wouldn’t guess it was much like the thirtieth’s gift-giving frenzy. In between was Disneyland’s beautiful silver celebration, which, in my mind, still represents the tip of the Matterhorn of excellence. By the time 1985 arrived, a new management team ruled, and what I would call a “Park as promotional item” strategy began its reign.

Under that approach, Disneyland itself seemed no longer reason enough to visit. The slow year following the inaccurate predictions for mammoth attendance spurred by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was the entry point for a kind spell of bells and whistles that infiltrated the berm. It couldn’t be broken by something as simple as true love’s first kiss, and it’s effect was to remove confidence in the Park’s ability to be its own magical self.

Instead, guests were cajoled into coming to a Park that hiked its prices and reduced the sizes of its portions to make up the previous year’s disappointing attendance. Prizes, pins, and plush, plus the promise of flashy new GM cars, were supposed to dazzle guests into a kind of shock-and-awe-induced happiness. If 1980 was a family reunion, 1985 was a trinket-laden trade show.

It seems as though nothing Disneyland does anymore is free of artifice and gimmickry. Has the Park just changed with the trends? If it has, why? It’s not the latest trend; it’s yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.

The thirtieth year got the ball rolling away from timelessness toward the transience of short-term gains. This year, it’s essentially “buy one, get one free.” What will you celebrate? How about a Magic Kingdom that acted like it believed in magic more than marketing?

The glitter in Disneyland comes from the things you win even if you’re not a lucky ticket holder or there to celebrate anything more than everyday. Like strolling through a shining Park before the crowds press in. Watching the sparkle come back to the eyes of someone whose car vapor-locked on the Santa Ana freeway on the way to Anaheim. Enjoying the magic hour when the twinkling lights begin to appear around the Central Plaza. You can’t put a price on the feelings that come with those things. Maybe that’s why Walt said he didn’t go into Disneyland with the idea of making money first in his mind. If that’s rose-colored pining for the past, well, the only thing new is the history you don’t know.

I wonder how the Cadillac Sedan De Ville that the “1 in 3,000,000th“-guest drove home is doing today. Did he or she load up the family and come back to the Park over the years?

If the car was won on the guest’s first visit, then the only Disneyland he or she knew was the one that passed out prizes. If the Caddy came to someone who’d loved the Magic Kingdom since way back when it gave guests value rather than gimmicks, however, I wonder whether the feelings that came with the new car were worth its cost. It’s hard to quantify the marketing power of grace and the diminishing return of glamour.

For my money, though, when Disneyland began favoring the latter, it gave away something truly extraordinary.

January 20, 2009

Return to tomorrow

It might have been the most popular land in the Magic Kingdom.

Space Mountain was its big draw, of course, but that was hardly the limit of Tomorrowland’s new frontier. Whether you were cruising beneath the polar ice cap, exploring the vast reaches of inner space, or time traveling through America’s musical heritage, you could count on finding something unique when you turned right as you reached the end of Main Street.

There was a special kind of feeling in yesterday’s Tomorrowland. Distinct from the “world’s fair” atmosphere exuded by the “golden ears” version and nothing at all like the misguided offering of today, the 60s-80s Tomorrowland radiated a wonderful sort of accessible modernism. Futuristic but not enough to be intimidating, it offered an optimistic silver and blue welcome that floated out of PeopleMover vehicles as upbeat jazz and moved across the Anaheim sky carried by Rocket Jets, Skyway buckets, and sleek Monorails.

Tomorrowland never failed to represent the best of Disneyland. As the only land not tied to a specific temporal identity, it was somehow more connected with guests than all the others. I think maybe that was the reason for it’s popularity. Its futurism actually presented guests with the opportunity to transform the present into something better.

As guests passed by Mary Blair’s charming murals, they entered a ”Small World” for grown-ups, one filled not only with promises of a better tomorrow, but with possibilities of a better today. If you rode the PeopleMover when it existed, thinking about that fifteen-minute trip might give you a good sense of what I mean. It forced you to slow down, to appreciate the present moment. In that way, it gave you the means to make the future better than it might otherwise have been.

Other parts of Disneyland still do that. The Mark Twain and the Disneyland Railroad, for example, offer similar grand circle tours. But so much of the old Tomorrowland did it, from CircleVision to America Sings to the Space Stage. It really felt like a land of hope and promise.

That was then and this is now, of course.

But isn’t this most historic Inauguration Day an ideal time for a return to tomorrow?

January 9, 2009

Dopey New Year!

Like just about everything else in Disneyland, the Disneyana shop on Main Street used to be something different. In my opinion, it’s gotten more reminiscent of the Shops at Caesar's Palace than the shops of turn-of-the-century America. Back in the good old days of 1982, it was a gracious little cubbyhole with a few display cases, an animation cell or two, and some very old Mickey Mouse toys. The shop was more a museum than a merchandise outlet, and it sure was nice to spend time in there.

I was doing just that one afternoon, watching the long-time Disneyana Hostess and fabulously talented Stacia Martin epitomize the legendary Disney courtesy. She spent as much time with the guest who wandered in from the Emporium and hoped to pay for a ceramic figurine without having to go find another cash register as she did with the high roller adding some big-ticket item to a collection. She made each guest feel like Walt himself. As one example, she used to ask guests if whatever they were purchasing was a gift. If it was, Stacia would press a piece of cellophane tape over the price sticker and, with a quick pull, magically lift the top layer, so the recipient wouldn’t know how much the gift had cost. That's why it takes people to make the dream a reality.

Stacia was, and still is, legendary, but the real Legend in the shop that day was animator, director, and imagineer Bill Justice. Stacia introduced us, and we had a wonderful time talking about his experiences in the Hyperion days. (Remember Disneyland’s silly reindeer? Those were Bill’s. Kevin Kidney has a great salute to them over at his fun blog.)

Bill pulled this Bambi letterhead out from somewhere and made this quick sketch of Dopey. Outside, guests strolled up and down Main Street, having a great time, but oblivious to the amazing treat they were passing. There were no crowds in the small shop. Just Stacia and Bill, Dopey and me. I'll take that magic over any marketing. It’s a “collectable” worth keeping forever.

Thanks again, Bill. And special, limited-edition best wishes for an authentic Dopey new year to all.