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.


Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

I'm really enjoying your posts! Thanks for all the details, I've wondered the same things about these promotions: "I won a Cadillac, now I'll go to Disneyland more?" Now if I won the '86 Firebird I might come back....

210Frwy said...

The biggest prize I ever got at Disneyland was when, as a kid, I was able to ride in the engine of the Train Through Natures Wonderland and ring the train bell as it pulled back into Rainbow Ridge. Apparently this was not something that was often done. It was a spontaneous act by the engineer who just thought a geeky, skinny little kid might get a kick out of it. A simple act that has been impressed on my memory my whole life. The fact that it wasn’t something that was advertised made it even more special. If it had been advertised there would have been 100 kids and their bummed out parents waiting in line for hours just so their kid could get a ride.

Funny thing is, this isn’t the only “magic moment” I’ve experienced at Disneyland. Other unexpected fun things have happened to me, some of them very simple (like strolling musicians stopping at my table at the Blue Bayou for a few minutes to sing a chorus or two). I don’t expect those things to happen but sometimes they do and to me, it’s one of the things that sets Disneyland apart from any other “amusement park”.