Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tomorrowland Direction?

An excellent post can be found at Passport To Dreams titled "Futures With No Future, and it, and the resulting discussion, were, to me, quite interesting. The basic premise seems to be that Tomorrowland has lost most semblances of being about our future. Instead, it's been replaced with a "camp" version of the future, circa 1994.

In the interesting discussion that followed, someone suggested that because the future is "political", the public company known as Disney would have trouble endorsing a specific direction for that future. Whereas 30 or 40 years we perhaps looked to space for our future, now our future is consumed with worries about health care, about retirement, about security, and any number of other things. It's sort of turned inward.

We no longer have a national agenda for the "future", as we did many years ago, when Moonbases and space stations and Mars missions were on the docket. And we weren't just looking at robotic exploration of those things; we were looking at human involvement in those endeavors. Maybe we need one. Maybe we need one desperately!

Is Tomorrowland the right place for rendering such a vision? Is EPCOT's Future World? Well, why not? Millions of Americans go there to enjoy, be entertained, and just maybe be educated and inspired.

Maybe a better question would be: Does the Disney Corporation care enough about this? (Probable answer: Doubtful, except as it relates to increasing profits and share value.) But that's their problem, not ours.

In 1979, Isaac Asimov published a book called Extraterrestrial Civilizations. Some may remember Dr. Asimov as a science fiction author, the man who invented the Foundation universe, the man who invented the Three Laws of Robotics. Some may also remember him as probably the preeminent explainer of difficult scientific concepts. He wrote dozens of books with this as his goal. This book is one of those. (You can check it out here on Amazon if you would like to.)

In this book, Dr. Asimov suggests as a possible path toward exploration of our Galaxy the creation of space settlements, as detailed by American physicist Gerard K. O'Neill. Asimov suggests that hese settlements could be huge - perhaps holding as many as 10 million people. Moreover, Asimov suggests that these settlements could be set free from their tethers to Earth and become self sustaining worlds which he compared to the Phoenicians, the Vikings and the Polynesians - explorers in a much vaster sea than any previously explored. (Asimov postulates the development of hydrogen fusion reactors at some point in the future.)

Would this be an interesting concept to build a Tomorrowland around? You step into a floating colony that is meandering around a Galaxy that is just full of adventure and surprises. Virtually anything futuristic or alien would fit, and the theme would be positive enough, and far enough in the future, to be depoliticized (is that a word?) and fit with the Disney image. What if each attraction were a different floating colony in a different part of the Galaxy, or Universe? One could be near a black hole, one could encounter alien life, one could stumble into an interstellar war, etc, etc. The only boundaries would be the Imagineers' imagination as to what's possible.

I think something like this would be better for Tomorrowland than for EPCOT Future World just because it's quite a ways in the future no matter what - but it's a possible and plausible future. And who knows if a child will be inspired to be a space engineer and begin working on something like this? Or if the president of the future remembers this experience fondly and decides to listen to the futurists in his own time?

I don't know if anyone's reading, but I'd be interested in hearing what others think of this idea.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jungle Book Viewing

I "forced" my kids to watch Disney's The Jungle Book with me on Sunday, and of course, once they got into it (took them about 5 minutes) they were entranced.

I know from reading about Walt Disney that the making of this movie cost him one of his excellent story artists, Bill Peet, who resigned after Walt disapproved of his initial treatment of the story. Peet, following the Kipling book, had storyboarded a film that was not at all what Disney wanted to make. Walt told him, "That's the problem. I don't want to make Kipling's Jungle Book, I want to make Disney's Jungle Book." Walt felt that the only song in the movie that would work in his version was "The Bare Necessities", and that it needed to be funnier, as the original work was sort of depressing. (I've not read the Kipling version.)

Walt gave the project to Wolfgang Reitherman, and asked the Sherman Brothers to write the score. He asked the principle artists if they had read the book, and when they said no, he told them to keep it that way. He told them the story he wanted to make and apparently contributed extensively throughout the making of the film.

One interesting tidbit I remember reading was that Disney had actually come to an agreement with the Beatles' agent, Brian Epstein, to have the Fab Four do some songs in the movie. But John Lennon nixed it forcefully, stating that "There's no way The Beatles are gonna sing for Mickey blankety-blank Mouse!" I'd guess that all that is left of that idea are the four vultures who appear near the end of the movie. One of them sounds a lot like Ringo, to me.

This was also, apparently, the last film that Walt directly worked on. It was released on October 18. 1967, a few months after Walt's death.

I knew my boys would love this once they got into it. They're big into Star Wars and video gaming right now, but they're as much a sucker for a good story (and that's what you usually get from a Disney film) as their dad is. I still haven't been able to get them to commit to watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, though I suspect that I will one of these days, and when I do, I suspect they'll be enthralled by those tales too.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Museum of Science and Industry Chicago New Exhibit

Perhaps I should wait until I've seen this to write about it, but a new permanent exhibit has opened at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, titled Fast Forward ... Inventing the Future. It looks to be a very interesting exhibit, and I'm looking forward to getting up there and seeing it.

It apparently features exhibits including one on a single occupant electric automobile that has a range of about 30 miles, and can reach speeds of up to 75 mph, a "food replicator" which would take coded information about food and "create" it in a processor, technology that could be useful for sustaining astronauts on long spaceflights, and vertical farming, where crops would be raised indoors and on elevated floors of a high rise farm. There are several other interesting exhibits, also.

I've read some discussion about whether EPCOT's mission should be to educate or to entertain, and while I've always voted "both", it's a fair question as to whether places like the Museum of Science and Industry and other science learning centers around the country do education so much better that it doesn't make sense to create a tourist destination with this as it's main goal.

Whatever the answer to this question, places like this can provide inspiration for the future.

There is also a Fast Forward podcast avaliable at the Museum of Science and Industry's website.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Next trip

We're planning a trip to Disney World for January. It will be 7 days, and we'll be staying in a 2 bedroom villa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Grandma and Grandpa are coming with us. We have our annual passes (we were there in June) so aside from food and a rental car, we're all paid up!

But as I think about our vacation, I wonder how much this economy is going to affect our future travel plans. I was checking air fares to Arizona in April (for the spring break week) and they're - well, shall we say pricey? I haven't checked the round trip fares to Orlando, but I won't be surprised if they're high. And if it affects me, how is it going to affect other Disney faithful?

Still, we're looking forward to a good time. On the dining schedule are meals at Le Cellier, the Yak and Yeti, and Ohana, to name a few. On the entertainment schedule is, well, all four parks! I'm looking forward to being there when it isn't as busy as the last 4 times we've gone. I'm looking forward to our accomodations, where they tell us we might wake up and see a giraffe from our balcony. I'm looking forward to the food, and to visiting some attractions that we have skipped previously (like most of the films in World Showcase).

Then, I'll be looking forward to my next Disney pilgrimage. Whenever that might be.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tomorrowland and Inspiration

"A lot of young people think the future is closed to them, that everything
has been done. This is not so. There are still plenty of avenues to
be explored."
Walt Disney

I found this quote to be interesting, since Walt obviously said it many years ago. The book (How To Be Like Walt) that lists it does not give a date for it, but let's assume it is in the 1950's or the 1960's. But it could be said of today's youth also.

Americans are falling behind in the sciences, and the number of our children going into hard sciences and pursuing graduate level education in those fields is dwindling. Why is this? Are these fields of study inherently uninteresting? Is there a perception that there is not enough money in careers in scientific fields? Not enough security? Do we as parents not promote their interests in such fields enough?

Walt was as interested in the future as he was in the past, and it shows in his parks. Tomorrowland was, more than any other part of Disneyland, Walt's toy. Oh, he loved other parts equally - he was a nostalgist as well as being a futurist - but Tomorrowland, like the future, was a malleable thing to him, or so it seems to me. Sadly, he didn't live long enough to continue his tinkering with Tomorrowland - of course, later in his life he was consumed with a "real" Tomorrowland, his plans for EPCOT.

In 1955, the three episodes of Walt's "Man In Space" were shown, featuring on-screen appearances by rocket scientists Wernher von Braun and Heinz Haber, along with director Ward Kimball and Walt himself. The third episode, "Mars and Beyond", was shown on December 4, 1957, just a couple of months before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the U.S. plunged into the "space race". This series was very influential. Eisenhower even requested copies of the Disney episodes to show to his staff, and it inspired countless young people to become space scientists, and played a big part in getting the nation behind the space program.

Do our young people need inspiration at this point in history? I believe they do, and I wish that Disney was one of the vehicles for this inspiration. Do they want to do what Walt did forty years ago? I am not at all sure they do. It might not be profitable.

That's okay. 'Profitable' is a good thing. It's what all businesses aspire to. It's just that Walt realized that doing positive things could be profitable, too, and he was far- sighted enough to see that the results of doing something like "Man in Space" could be measured in more than just dollars and cents.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Science Fiction Pessimism and Tomorrowland

A while back I was doing some internet searches when I happened upon a blog called Re-Imagineering, which is mostly a series of short essays about the problems with Disney as it exists today and what could be done to solve some of them. One of the discussions (about Epcot) was talking about exhibits people would like to see, and what sorts of things they might try to freshen it up, make it less corporate in feel. It was also talking about Tomorrowland and its original optimism about our future.

But that discussion shifted to some comments about the science fiction, especially in film, of today. It seems that most of today's SF is dystopian, and that most of the film projects outside of stuff like STAR TREK and STAR WARS (not really SF in any classic sense) are very dark visions of the future. They named Blade Runner, Minority Report, AI, and The Matrix. (I'd say that Vanilla Sky, Dark City, and I, Robot are also fairly dystopian, along with stuff like Final Fantasy, Waterworld, all of the Terminators, The Postman, Battlefield Earth, and maybe even The Day After Tomorrow (though the last is not far in the future at all).)

As I think about the SF I've read recently, first, there isn't a whole lot of it. ALTERED CARBON was a good book but pretty dark, as was the later book in the series I read, titled THIRTEEN. Dan Simmons' HYPERION series and his latest pair, ILIUM and OLYMPOS, are not exactly happy fantasies of the future. MANIFOLD: TIME and MANIFOLD: SPACE by Stephen Baxter are a little brighter; suggesting that human ingenuity will win out over politics. Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy about the near future and environmental catastrophe (which starts with 40 SIGNS OF RAIN) takes the readers to a optimistic outlook at the end, but with a rough path to get there.

As I think about it, my question is, is there a story in a utopian future? Is it a story I want to read about? Novels are about resolving problems. In some ways it seems to me that any story is essentially a mystery. If there is a mystery, there is a problem to be discovered and sorted through. If there are no problems to resolve, if everything is hunky dory, it might make for a nice pretty painting but is there any story? I don't know. I was thinking about something like Asimov's Empire series, and while there is a lot of optimism there with the direction of humanity, when the story takes place, things are not so good. Heinlein's juveniles are more adventure story set in a fairly positively imagined future, but some of his adult works are a lot darker.

I see where they're coming from with respect to Tomorrowland, they don't want pessimism at Disney World, nor does it have a place. But I don't see a story in a future where everyone is happy as clams. Those Morlocks in HG Wells' novel weren't all that happy, and the surface beings couldn't have been thrilled with the status quo either. But THE TIME MACHINE wouldn't make for a very good Disney ride.

Monday, October 13, 2008

How Walt Looked At Things

I am currently rereading Pat Williams' (with Jim Denny) book titled How To Be Like Walt, and something I read in the chapter titled "The Plus Factor" struck me as I was reading other blogs and articles over the last couple of weeks. In the section subtitled "Walt and the Capitalist Bosses", Williams tells a story about Roy Disney pestering Walt to attend a stockholder meeting. Walt always refused to go, but Roy kept after him and finally Walt relented.

At the meeting, Walt took the podium and opened a letter from a man in Florida who owned a few shares of Disney stock. He read the letter to the assembled stockholders, which ended with this sentiment: "I don't care if I ever get any dividends. You just keep up the good work and keep making good pictures."

Walt then added "I wish this company had more shareholders like that one. He understands what Disney is all about." (Roy apparently never asked Walt to attend another stockholder meeting.)

That sums up Walts attitude about his business. It was about doing things right. When he and his employees did things right, they got a very good return on the investment, even if it didn't add up in advance to the beancounters, including Roy. The difference is that Roy understood and trusted Walt, and believed in him.

A huge problem with not only Disney today, but with many large corporations, is not only that there is no Walt running things, there is no Roy to figure out how to accomplish the things that made Disney special.

Does it make Disney special that they still make quality films? I believe it does. Does it make Disney special that they run the most unique theme parks in the world? I believe it does. Does it make Disney special that they run a timeshare business that is, at the moment, hugely profitable? I do NOT think it does. I like the idea of running a profitable DVC operation; I just wish that it could be a supporting part of the resort business instead of the main thrust.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

First Post

Welcome to Disney Fan Ramblings, another in a (perhaps) overcrowded selection of blogs about any and all things Disney. This being my first post, I thought I'd write about developing a love for Disney.

It was 1975 when I first visited a Disney theme park. Our high school band was invited to march in the mid-day parade at the Magic Kingdom, and being a 15 year old member of the drum section, I thought I was far too cool to pay much attention to the park itself. My friends and I were totally absorbed with chasing girls from another high school band from New York. Consequently, I don’t remember much about the experience, besides repeated rides on Space Mountain, which was pretty recently opened at the time, and was one of the coolest rollercoasters in the world as far as I was concerned.

Admittedly, my experience with amusement parks at that point in my life was fairly limited. We had been to Six Flags over St. Louis at least once as a family, and I had also gone to that park as part of my grade school band. As a younger child, we regularly went to a park in Addison, Illinois, called Adventureland. Other parks in our area included Santa’s Village (recently closed) and Kiddieland (still open). These parks were dwarfed by Marriot’s Great America, however, which was themed around areas of the United States, like "Hometown Square", "County Fairgrounds", Yukon Territory", and "Orleans Place". As the guests entered Great America, they were treated to the view of a huge double-decker carousel, which is the same view they get today as they enter the park. And the familiar Warner Brothers characters like Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, and Daffy Duck populated the park.

In the Midwest, specifically the northern part of Illinois, the climate is not conducive to running an outdoor amusement park year around, so someone came up with the idea of building an enclosed park near Bolingbrook, Illinois. It was called Old Chicago, and was in the center of a huge building with an enclosed mall all around it. It had a small indoor log ride, a couple of rollercoasters, one called the Chicago Loop, with corkscrew inversions, and many smaller rides. But it failed in the long run, closing its doors in 1981 after being open for only 6 years. It seemed like a good idea but was probably not exciting enough to compete with the bigger coaster park Great America in the good weather months, and not a big enough shopping mall to bring in money and business.

Even with the limited experience, however, I was too young and too distracted to note the Disney theme park as something special. I was not too young to be able to appreciate some other Disney products, however, like their family films and the weekly television show I grew up with. Watching Uncle Walt introducing each weekly episode was a highlight of my week on Sunday night. It inspired me. It made me want to write stories like those I saw on there. It brought out my creative side. It educated me.

And my favorite movies were Disney fare - mostly animated features like ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIONS and LADY AND THE TRAMP, though there were live action movies that grabbed me, like THE PARENT TRAP and THE LOVE BUG. I loved the music from the animated features. Songs like CRUELLA DE VIL and HE’S A TRAMP were my songs of choice in the 1960's and early 1970's, before I discovered rock music and abandoned Disney to a younger generation.

Finally, with kids of our own now, we have rediscovered the magic of Disney. The films of old are still wonderful and enthralling for my children and me. The music appears on CDs and I’d often rather hear an old classic tune from a great movie than something more current. And the new films, by Disney Studios and by Pixar both have provided fabulous new additions to the DVD library. But mostly we are enthralled by the theme parks. They provide the escape from the pressures of everyday life that I find I need. They provide the entertainment and relaxation that make our vacations special. And more and more they provide a sort of inspiration for me; to strive to do things than I have been doing better, to be more creative, to try to inspire my own children.

Inspired by my experiences at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort, I’ve dreamed of trying to develop a theme park of my own. It’s only a thought experiment, I know, but it’s fun to dream about. (And who knows? Maybe something will come of it someday!) In the course of thinking about such a development, I have read several books and frequented several websites about related subjects. I’ve studied a little about ‘imagineering’, the Disney term for their park and ride designers and builders. I have looked at the Disney company, the behemoth that it has become in the 21st century. And I have studied the men responsible for the company’s beginnings and its growth over the years - Walt and Roy Disney, two brothers who were as different as two people could be, but who knew that they could trust each other implicitly.

I have all but concluded that it would be next to impossible to do what they did. It is a different time and a different climate, both in business and socially. But the relationship between Walt and Roy is the most important part in the equation, and how can anyone duplicate that? More than trust went into it. Brotherly love and familial bonds made it special and probably beyond repeating by design. I doubt that Walt and Roy really understood how their relationship contributed to the success of the Disney corporation until they were already successful beyond their dreams, and maybe not fully even then.

I will try not to be so wordy in future posts. Thanks for looking in here.