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Why For do the Imagineers keep adding new characters to Disney's classic theme park attractions?

Why For do the Imagineers keep adding new characters to Disney's classic theme park attractions?

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Earlier this week, Perry T. sent me the following e-mail :

Jim,

Are you as sick as I am about how the Imagineers keep forcing characters into older attractions at the Disney theme parks? Just in the past six months, we've had that new "Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor" show replace the Magic Kingdom's old "Timekeeper" Circlevision attraction as well as the "Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros" replace "El Rio del Tiempo" at Epcot's Mexico pavilion. Meanwhile out in California, Tom Sawyer Island has been invaded by pirates and the Tomorrowland Subs are now searching for Nemo.


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Whatever happened to the good old days when WED used to build attractions that didn't feature well-known Disney characters? Where we could splash down into a village where pirates that didn't look like Johnny Depp were raping & pillaging? Or the Haunted Mansion didn't feature Tim Burton characters every holiday season?

What's wrong with keeping things just the way they are? Was it really necessary to toss the Swiss Family out of their treehouse just so "Tarzan" fans would then have a place to go see the apeman whenever they visit Disneyland?

Can't something be done to stop the Imagineers from making all of these changes to Disney's classic attractions? Adding new rides and shows to the parks is fine. But why can't the company also preserve what it already has? If they had done so eight years ago, we'd now be able to enjoy a version of "Journey into Imagination" that featured both Figment AND Dreamfinder.


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Do you think that it would be worth it to start a petition that asks the Walt Disney Company to start preserving its own theme park heritage? Or at least gets the Imagineers to cut back on the number of Pixar attractions that they're addng to the parks? I don't know about you, but I think that they've already built enough "Finding Nemo" based rides and shows.

Could you please answer my questions as part of your next "Why For" column?

Thank You, 

Perry T. 

Dear Perry T. ,


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Where to start ... Jeese ...

First of all, I think that you can just forget about a petition like that. For the days when a show like the "Carousel of Progress" (Which was built around this anonymous set of characters with no obvious ties to any pre-existing Disney films or brands) would be built for the parks are long gone. Nowadays, Mouse House management insists that every new ride & show that Walt Disney Imagineering develops for the parks must feature some sort of character tie-in.

And this includes already proven, well-known franchise attractions like "it's a small world." Which -- when it opens at Hong Kong Disneyland early next year -- in addition to the usual assortment of singing & dancing dolls, this Fantasyland classic will also feature stylized versions of 30 well-known Disney characters.

Don't believe me ? Then check out the shot of the model of the Hong Kong Disneyland version of "it's a small world" that I've posted below.


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This scale model depicts the French portion of this Fantasyland favorite. And if you'll look closely at the awning that's directly above that line of six dancers toward the center of the model, you'll spy Marie from "The Aristocats" ...


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... And then -- to the far right, at the foot of that blue-&-white castle -- you can also see Cinderella dancing with her prince.


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Which -- I know -- seems kind of bizarre. But these days, it's actually a hard-and-fast rule at Walt Disney Imagineering that all new rides, shows and attractions that are proposed for the parks must feature an obvious tie-in to a previously existing set of characters from a popular Disney movie &/or TV show. The last attraction to be excempt from this character tie-ins rule? "Expedition Everest : Legend of the Forbidden Mountain" at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Which (I know) makes a lot of you truly hardcore Disney fans crazy. The very idea that an attraction like "ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter" was ruined because the Imagineers were under pressure to add more characters like Stitch to the mix at WDW's Magic Kingdom.

But the fact of the matter is "Lilo & Stitch" was WDAS's last notable success. And when the regular paying customers shell out $60+ to come visit a Disney theme park, they do expect to see the company's most popular characters wandering the grounds. Which is why a decision was made to find an attraction in the parks that could be rethemed/rebuilt around Stitch. And given that "Alien Encounter" had never really become that break-out hit that Magic Kingdom management had hoped it would be, it was the logical choice for a makeover.


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When you take that approach (I.E. That the Imagineers aren't out to destroy classic Disney theme park attractions with all of these rethemings. But -- rather -- they're trying to make the parks' older assets seem that much appealing to a younger crowd) ... Then it's easier to understand how Perry T.'s second concern (I.E. The perceived over-use of Pixar-related characters & storylines inside the parks these days) actually happened.

Let me be blunt here, folks.  Until "Shrek 2" came along -- "Finding Nemo" was the highest grossing animated film of all time ... Which is why it only made sense for the Imagineers to try & capitalize on the enormous success of this Andrew Stanton movie. And in the case of the new The Seas with Nemo & Friends ride-thru that was added to Epcot's The Living Seas back in October of 2006, that retheming was wildly successful. Attendance levels for that Future World pavilion shoot through the roof once word got out that the stars of "Finding Nemo" had set up shop there. 

The question now is ... How much of a good thing is too much of a good thing? When you consider that -- just in the past few years -- "Turtle Talk with Crush" has opened at both Epcot & DCA, followed by "The Seas with Nemo & Friends" ride-through, "Finding Nemo -- The Musical" at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" at Disneyland as well as "Crush's Coaster" at Walt Disney Studios ... That's an awful lot of "Finding Nemo" -related material to be going into the parks in a relatively short period of time.


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Mind you, given this week's reports of 4-hour-long lines for Disneyland's "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" and 2-hour-long lines for WDS's "Crush's Coaster," the paying public is clearly interested in the characters from this Andrew Stanton film. Which is why discussions are now moving forward about possibly converting DCA's "Mulholland Madness" into a stateside version of WDS's wildly popular new coaster as well as replacing that theme park's "Aladdin -- A Musical Spectacular" with DAK's "Finding Nemo -- The Musical." So the "Nemo" -ization of the Disney parks may not be over yet, folks.

And then there's the "Toy Story Mania" attractions that will be opening at Disney-MGM & DCA next year, plus the "Toy Story Live" musical that's supposed to open at Disneyland & the "Monsters, Inc" -themed interactive ride that goes on line at Tokyo Disneyland in 2009. Not to mention the "Carland" ride that will start rolling through California Adventure in 2010. And that "Incredibles" -inspired "E" Ticket that may be going into WDW's Magic Kingdom in the next few years. On top of that is the"Woody's Round-Up" redo that's being considered for Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch area ...


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When you look at a list like that, is it any wonder that there are already Disney theme park fans who have begun saying things like "No Mo Nemo" or "Nix to Pixar" ? That they feel that things have reached a saturation point? Which is why these folks would like to see an attraction that prominently features a non-Pixar character be greenlit.

Well, that ain't happening anytime soon. In an effort to recover that $7.4 billion that the Walt Disney Company paid for Pixar Animation Studios last year, even more Pixar-related projects are headed into WDI's development pipeline. Earlier this month, I learned that Tony Baxter himself is allegedly already looking for ways to bring "Ratatouille" into the parks ...

You just have to wonder how long it's going to be before the average Disney theme park guest (Not the overly-sensitive annual passholders who already carp about everything & anything) start OD-ing on all of these rides, shows and attractions that are built around Pixar's assortment of CG characters.

And when you consider that there are already some very powerful people in the Team Disney Burbank building who are losing their enthusiasm for all things Pixar, who have begun complaining that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull are trying to turn the company's corporate headquarters into Emeryville South, you just have to wonder if ...

Oops. That's Monday's story. Come back then and I'll tell you all about how there's already trouble in Pixar-dise ...

Your thoughts?

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  • "where to start" is right.  

    This certainly has become a heated topic.  I'm definitely more on the "preserve the classics" side of the argument but I must admit that if a certain attraction has been consistently losing attendance then, yeah, maybe it's time for a revamp.  That revamp, though, doesn't necessarily need to be some movie tie-in.   Take Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland.  While people do go there, yes, and I know many have emotional ties to it the little island hadn't seen much business as of late save for Mickey and some dancing monkeys.  Putting pirates there makes total sense to me.  Heck, even I want to check it out.  But to turn the original PotC ride into the Itchy, Scratchy and Poochie show ("and when Jack Sparrow isn't on screen all the characters should be asking 'hey, where's Sparrow?'")  is just downright an act of desecration in my opinion.  I mean, the ride's been around since the 60's and nobody dispite how far away from the park they'd come (save for one lady who should be punched in her "highly offended" gut) has ever complained.  The ride went on to spawn 3 (IMO) really good movies and, from what I saw up until the revamp, was still garnishing really long ol' lines.  The movie was to pay homage to the ride, not vice versa. At the very least, they could've revamped like Paris' or even the Magic Kingdom's seeing as how that version was an afterthought anyways (and it showed).   Is Expedition Everest doing horribly because there's no movie tie-in? Maybe we should remove the yeti and replace it with a giant Ratatouille who is trying to serve the guests some escargot or some calamari with a lemon sauce and red wine.

    Which brings me to point number 2 which is the whole Pixaration going on at the parks.  Unfortunately for the core Disney staffers, Pixar has been the only ones putting out memorable characters for like the last 5 - 7 years.  I don't even think I remember the names of ANY characters from Home on the Range or Brother Bear.  Disney's gonna have to step it up if they want more showing at the parks. Not that going back and revisiting classics is a bad thing.  I mean, heck, the Alice in Wonderland ride didn't come around till the 80's.  But, I understand children are fickle these days with their Shreks and Happy Feet.  Who cares about "old" stuff, right?

  • They're going to replace the Aladdin musical with the Nemo one? Boo! Nix Pixar is right. I'm getting so sick of them oversaturating the theme parks.

  • Jim, can you talk more about all the new rides you mentioned, like the Incredibles ride?

  • "Perry T" writes in with a gripe about the ongoing creep of charcaters into classic rides.  Panchito and Donald, Jack Skellington, Cap'n Jack.  Jim all but ignores this, pivoting on the fact that IASW in HK--a new ride based on a DL classic--will have all sorts of Disney characters and then goes into a Pixar diatribe.   Only two of the Nemo attractions Jim mentions are in any ways "classic." The others are essentially new work.

    I do not have Perry's concerns about the appearance of charcaters in classi attractions.  Disneyland was always a very diverse experience, from the earliest days.  Though the connections to "reality" are (arguably) more tenuous these days, the appearance of Muppets and Droids and Johnny Depp residents has served to activate the park experience in new ways.  These characters bring energy and a new identity to the attractions they are featured in.

    But if everything becomes Pixar or "new Disney" characters, that diversity, the broad spread of concepts that anchor Disney's lands, will diminish the breadth of the Disney experience.   It will make the experience feel smaller.  The magic of Disneyland was always that it at once feels bigger and (paradoxicaly) more quaint than it actually is.

    You also have to wonder if a complete onslaught of "new Disney" properties throughout the Disney parks will, over time, isolate the older attractions, leaving them the an anachronistic veneer.   It's funny, Big Thunder feels so old school anymore.   If the ratio of no Disney/Pixar character-attractions (like Big Thunder) to attractions with these characters falls out of some imaginary balance, will those classics feel irrelevant?

  • "who have begun complaining about how John Lasseter & Ed Catmull are trying to turn the company's corporate headquarters into Emeryville South, you just have to wonder if ..."

    That's been a huge complaint of mine from the beginning.  Disney has so many more properties than Pixar does.  I enjoy Pixar's movies, but it's not called "Pixar World" or "Pixar Land".  If Disney-MGM Studios really will be named Disney-Pixar Studios, then I'm happy that Toy Story Mania is going into MGM...maybe they could find room for other Pixar attractions at that park and leave the rest to be mostly Disney.  

    All John Lasseter cares about is Pixar.  I am glad that "Ratatouille" is a Disney film, so, in that respect, I'm glad that Disney owns Pixar.  Disney SHOULD NOT HAVE put Lasseter & Catmull in charge of Disney- as I've said before, for 20-something years, Pixar has been all they've cared about- they can't just automatically care as much about Disney as they do about Pixar.  

  • I honestly don't see the problem with the whole Pixar-isation thing. Pixar are Disney characters so of course they're going to appear in the parks. Disney is a business and it stands to reason that they would produce rides based on the most successful films. If Disney films had been more successful in recent years we would see more rides based on their movies, but alas that isn't the case.

    I go to Disneyland to see Disney. As long as I don't see some fat scottish ogre wlaking around, then I'm happy.

  • blackcauldron85 addresses my own concerns perfectly. I totally agree with you. Disney will always be second best to John & Ed, and because of that they are in no position to be in charge of Disney Animation. Pixar, okay; Disney, no way.

  • Look, the problem here is that Disney has not created one single new memorable character in close to 20 years now. Since the golden re-birth of animation under "the little midget." Pixar, on the other hand, has inarguably given us the MOST memorable new animated characters over that same time span.

    What's a theme park to do?

    Personally, I think they're leaning TOO heavily on Pixar. They have quite a few VERY popular characters sitting on the shelf unexploited to a large degree. Yes, they smack you in the face with princesses every where you go, but honestly? Princess rides and attractions are neigh absent from the theme parks.

    I personally have no problem (well ... maybe a little problem) with them adding characters to existing attractions or building new rides with character tie-ins. Would I like to see more of a balance? Yes. But some of the rides and attractions they've made over weren't exactly classics in the first place. My bigger beef is really that the re-dos suck. Had they been done well, then I'd be thrilled.

    But really ... Stitch, JIYI, etc. ... they're God-awful.

  • Seems to me that the new characters might be a side note to the crowd when it comes to attendance at these new attractions. The beloved subs in Disneyland were shut down for a decade, so is it any wonder they are a big attraction when they are re-opened? If they had a new version of the ride without any Pixar characters, I think the crowds would still be huge. And the Nemo ride at The Seas in Epcot is a new ride, too. Did it have to have Nemo and Friends®? Only to continue the theming started with Crush, but beyond that, no. It was a new ride and it was better than the absence of a ride that had previously been there. If a new attraction opens, and it is any good at all, people are going to want to ride it regardless of who stars in it. I would be interested to see how the surveys for these new rides are set up, particularly to look for questions like "Was your primary reason for riding this attraction: A) to see my favorite Pixar characters, B) because it is a new ride, C) a little of both A and B." I like Finding Nemo the movie, sure, but I do not go to the parks to see the characters from the movie. The parks did pretty well for a long time with characters built out of the imagineers' fertile imaginations, and not with characters with box-office clout in the rides. Rides like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates, Jungle Cruise, it's a small world, Space Mountain, and so on... Certainly, they've been right there with rides like The Mickey Mouse Review, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Peter Pan, Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland, but it looks like the mix is getting skewed just to satisfy some beancounters' reports... didn't we get enough of that sort of irresponsible justification in the 90s, or is Disney just trying to get the most out of their purchase of Pixar?.

  • Hm, if they keep this up, then they won't have anything "Theme park-" brand left. People didn't ONLY go to Disney parks to see their favorite characters in ride form (though that's a huge part of it). Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World and their ilk aren't movie related (or, in the case of Pirates, "weren't"); it's the rides themselves that made them so popular and memorable. Yeah, I'd talk about riding the teacups or the Dumbo elephants, but I'd also talk about attractions like the Tiki Room, something that's only at the theme parks. I mean, It's great to see character tie-ins, but going to a theme park of nothing but gives you the feeling of "I could have seen this at home," even though you clearly can't ride little boats at home. There must be some sort of business terminology for this...

  • While I don't agree with those that think that Lasseter only cares about PIXAR (I think his initiating the return of 2-D shorts, his work on The Princess & The Frog and his calling for the ousting of Morrill show a DEEP repect for old Disney tradition and quality control) I DO agree with those who would like to keep some semblence of classic Disney and/ or non-tie in attractions intact. I have no problem with the Nemo upgrades to the Seas (any way that you can give kids a recognizable gateway into LEARNING is a good thing in my opinion) or to the submarine voyage (though I find it odd that one of the main issues that led to its closing wasn't just outdatedness... but a capacity issue- one that seems to have been forgotten in the upgrade). I also have no problem with the POTC upgrades. There are millions and millions of people now (kids and adults alike) whose main association with the name Pirates of the Caribbean IS Jack Sparrow. Plus the POTC movies and their merchandise have retroactively covered the entire costs of the original design and build of the whole Animal Kingdom park. I understand the feelings of the purists, but those two factors are just impossible for Disney to ignore. Also, the changes are so minor to the overasll scheme of the ride... I just don't buy the rampant criticism.

    (and for the record, I would personally LOVE to see an Incredibles E-Ticket attraction, but that is because I'm a huge fan)

    Now with that in mind, I WOULD like to see a return no more autonomous attractions. I'm not sure what, how or where... but the autonomous attractions are, to me, what gave the Disney parks a real mystique to those folks who had never been to the parks. A mystique that was probably as good or greater an allure than the familiar stories and characters.

  • I suspect what's really nagging in the back of people's minds isn't solely the perceived "loss" of older attractions, as it is the feeling that the new stuff is inferior across the board.  It seems unlikely that a lot of the movies being represented are going to have the timeless quality that so many of the older rides have - PotC and Finding Nemo were great movies, but when the sole value of the addition of these characters is in recognition (Hey! There's Bruce!  Hey!  There's Johnny Depp!), it just doesn't feel terribly long lasting or high quality.  If the popularity of the movie fades, then the ride fades with it.  It's sort of the direct-to-video theme park attraction syndrome.

    The few novel attraction being put out don't give much hope either - Expedition Everest is bland and colorless.  Oh well.  I can only hope that making timeless attractions both makes business sense and makes business sense in an obvious enough way to be done, because otherwise, I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of darkened, empty attractions full of once-popular movie characters.

  • There is that fine line mentioned in among several posts that if an attraction needs plusing then do it but not to overdoit it - and since WDC is tending to be very fomulaic then it's applied across the board - and that's bad. However, we here on these chat boards have such a passion for Disney and it's history that we're not the audience that should be the measure of whether this is good or bad - are we?  We are one voice - but the other is the obviously large crowds coming to these attractions.

    If something gets people in the door at Futureworld in Epcot because it's Nemo'ed - and then they visit other attractions - has not this new attraction with the character done it's job?  Sparrow on Pirates. Yes - they really did not need it - but the volume of people riding it now (even after two years of new stuff) is a lot higher than before. There is nothing stopping the WDC and WDI from the model since the numbers show they were right.

    I do have one MAJOR complaint. I wish that Jim and other online bloggers/writers would STOP using the annual passholder crutch. We get it - there are many overzealous fans - but there's passion on this board too and I don't see Jim claiming that the foamers include all of us online. There is a very vocal minority of AP holders that seems to be taken as the symbol for all of us - and frankly I'd wish writers would be more ascertive in their analysis of the fan demographic.

  • The thing is that many of these attractions (POTC, Stitch, The Seas... even Submarine Voyage etc...) can be re-themed in the future if the popularity of their theming fades. These are movies/ characters whose popularity isn't going to fade though, at least I don't think so. These are characters as enduring as Snow White or Cinderella. This is the same argument being thrown at the new Harry Potter island at IOA. "This is too late, the series is almost over... blah blah blah". It's an argument that I don't buy when you look at the popularity. There is a point when a property's draw just can't be looked at as a fad anymore... and has to be seen as a classic. I think too many of us, as adults, fail to see that the "new-fangled thingamajigs" of the present are going to our children's classics when they are our age.

    OK, I'm rambling.

  • Everyone has seemed to capture my thoughts here already, but I can't let this hot topic go by without a comment. Walt Disney and his creations hold a very strong sense of nostalgia for many, the classic elements are entertainment comfort food!. That is one reason why it is so hard for many of us to accept the changes that have been made. But, businesses need to change and adapt to their strengths and to the consumer's interests. I am not bent out of shape for adding noted characters to "It's a Small World" but, as good as the Jack Sparrow movies are I was irked that a successful, classic ride (PofC) was tweaked the way it was.

    A large portion of the parks, IMO, should always have that classic Disney feel. Why couldn't they regulate a portion of property to a "PixarNation, a themed area similar to ToonTown. I have to agree that Lasseter/Catmull are going to promote their baby (Pixar) a lot harder than the classic overall Disney theme. Roy Disney needs to speak up again and before the name of the company changes! OK, maybe, it isn't that bad a situation. It is hard to accept the changes when the original concept and leadership is so fondly loved.

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