Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Little History

The Disney Company got started with short films and animation. Many of you may know the history of this corporation better than I do, but it is still worth mentioning that Walt Disney was a pioneer in the movie business. No one thought he could make a full length animated film, but he went against opinion, spending his own (and his brother Roy's) money to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

His boldness and confidence paid off and the studio was rewarded for their perseverance. Over the years, Walt Disney pushed the envelope, embracing media before it was popular to do so. He devoted his studio to making animated features, then embraced television when others didn't quite know what to make of it. He didn't worry about "what" to make of it; he worried about doing the "shaping" of the medium himself.

Likewise with Disney theme parks. No one had ever done what Walt Disney and his company did with this form of entertainment. In fact, his representatives were told by amusement park owners and operators at a meeting in Chicago, point blank, that there was no way his ideas about amusement parks would ever work. He should go back to what he knew, making movies and tv shows. As was usually the case, Walt ignored the conventional wisdom and followed his instincts. You see, what Walt had, and what no one else really saw up until then, was content.

Walt saw the synergistic possibilities between the various media, and to him, the theme park was just another media available for him to display his content. A lot has been written about "telling a story in three dimensions", and perhaps Walt even said exactly this at some point. Whether he meant to or not, he hit upon another way of experiencing the things we (and he) loved.

They're still doing it today. What came first, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie or the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride? For some, today, it might be hard to tell (which in and of itself is a mark of the genious of this company and this man), but the theme park attraction was there long before the movie. Walt wanted to tell a story of adventure on the high seas, with funny, exciting pirates, in a way that hadn't been told before, and that was by letting his guests experience "a pirate's life" up close through the use of animatronics and movie sets. Same with The Haunted Mansion. Long before it was a mediocre (at best) movie starring Eddie Murphy, it was a theme park attraction. It may be the reverse of their earlier methods, but it displays the same sort of synergism - giving the audience another way to experience the story.

At first, people delighted in experiencing those classic early Disney tales through the magic of audio-animatronics as they rode through a series of set pieces. But it wasn't all about movies. Walt was never one to repeat himself ad nauseum. His theme park soon had its very own Jungle Cruise a mountain that guests could ride a bobsled through called The Matterhorn (after the mountain it was modeled on), a ride where kids and parents could be the drivers of their own cars (Autopia), and the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. And it kept growing and growing. A train ride encircled the park (from the very beginning), shows and exhibits popped up (and sometimes popped back down), and a fairy tale castle was its centerpiece. The world had never seen anything quite like Disneyland.

The impetus for expansion to Florida and the mega-resort we now know as Walt Disney World was not to build more theme parks. It was to build a working community - a real place where real people would work and live under a new, almost experimental system that Walt was working out with prominent city planners and futurists of the day. EPCOT came to be built in the 1980's, but it was never the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that Walt wanted to build - that died when Walt died, too early.

Would it have worked? We will never know - and honestly, perhaps we're better off not knowing. What if it had been a colossal failure? Walt pretty much succeeded, or got his way, in everything he did. But there's always that first time, and maybe he was finally headed for a fall, dabbling in things that were really beyond his expertise, no matter how much he read and educated himself on the pertinent subjects.

And what we did get, instead, is in many ways preferable. We got four theme parks, a couple of water parks, a dozen or so first class resort hotels, ancillary facilities like miniature golf courses, real golf courses, boating, car racing, sports, and who can forget Downtown Disney? Because the company went in this direction, we also got a couple theme parks in Europe, two more in Japan, another in Hong Kong, a second gate in Anaheim, a new one opening soon in Singapore and Disney Vacation Club resorts in Hilton Head, Vero Beach, and now Hawaii. That's not bad, is it?


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