World of Motion’s Grand Staircase

In 1982, every Future World pavilion was a like a Kardashian: Simple in mind, and possessing its own bold, unique shape. Every design was a carefully considered echo of its pavilion theme. Shells for the Living Seas. The Wheel for World of Motion. Male Pattern Baldness for Wonders of Life.

Then, around 1994, Innoventions arrived and plunged Epcot into the Dark Ages. Beautiful, iconic shapes were just not hip and edgy enough, and these stunning pieces of architecture were either shuttered (Wonders of Life), demolished (Horizons), or made to wear the millennium equivalent of Aunt Clara’s pink bunny costume from A Christmas Story (Spaceship Earth).

World of Motion was not immune to the changes. Test Track ushered in “Epcot’s first thrill ride!” and with it came drastic changes to the pristine wheel-shaped structure. A high-speed loop encircled the building like a strand of barb wire. An ugly tent monster sprung up over the entrance, where a kinetic bank of FastPass machines and Single-Rider  marquees welcomed guests into a hammering queue area, complete with sadistic Crash Dummy torture, squealing tire sounds, and an automatic seat cushion squasher that simulates the squirming pressure of a million butt cheeks.

Simple and elegant it was not.

Timeless beauty.

In a way, World of Motion was already a dichotomy when it first opened in 1982. While the outside was all gleaming lines, the ride itself was perhaps one of the silliest in all of Epcot. It had jokes about Used Chariot Lots, cyclists falling into mudpits, and wild-eyed sea serpents. It was zanier than anything not starring a singing milk carton. When the pavilion featuring the giggly purple dragon has loftier artistic visions than yours, it’s safe to say your head could be on the chopping block once management decides they really need a thrill ride.

So help me, I loved that ride. Not the least of which is because of the stately beginning. Before you got to those light-up footprints circling over your head. Before you came upon those first sorry cave men, blowing on their reddened feet, you had to climb World of Motion’s grand staircase.

The zen of theme park design.

Remember that scene in Titanic, when Bill Paxton maneuvers a submersible camera over a barnacled staircase of a sunken dining room? (I think it was after the spitting sequence but before the nude scene). Even in the depths of the ocean, the ship’s majesty shone through. World of Motion’s staircase was like that. A gorgeous spindle in the center of a sparse atrium. Omnimovers departed the load zone and rose like a luxurious PanAm airliner into the sky above our heads, making a leisurely turn around a gleaming column before entering into the story of transportation. And then hilarity ensued.

Here’s a picture of World of Motion under construction (lots of thanks to Disney World Secrets on flickr for the use of the photo):

The building is already framed, the roof is going up, and one section of the pie is missing, like the elusive Sports wedge in Trivial Pursuit. That is the entrance atrium. Note the white circular slab. It’s just a footprint, but it will soon hold that pivotal column, upon which will wrap the bannister of a slow-moving dark ride through time and comedy.

Let us go back even further, to a construction picture graciously provided by Imagineering Disney. Universe of Energy and Spaceship Earth are well on their way, but nothing yet exists of World of Motion, except for that same simple white concrete disk. It is a stake driven into the wilderness. Greatness will rise here.

One of the time-honored melancholy pursuits of a parkeologist is seeking out those lost ruins of history. For all the thrills that come with the opening of a new attraction, there is a sadness in the heart as beloved pieces of the past are taken away from us. Who among us has not gazed out on the docks of the old Swan Boats, or tracked the demolition of a Skyway station, or peeked round the walls of an abandoned water park, and not felt a pang of loss?

Before Test Track went down for refurbishment earlier this year, I decided on a whim to see if anything might remain of the grand staircase. I did this on impulse, a day or so before it closed, having never had the thought before. I went in cold. Which was to say, I did not take the time to familiarize myself with any pictures of World of Motion’s glorious past. Surely some architectural feature remained. The column had to provide some sort of structural integrity to the building. Would I find it there, maybe with a few obnoxious load-and-stress tests strapped to the side of it and some mindless robot endlessly hammering a crash dummy in the head?

Alas, it was not to be. The once-sleek atrium of the early 80s has been somewhat enclosed and expanded, with a ceiling full of common air ducts and show-lighting. The floor is bare concrete, with a metal-railing queue twisting through piles of automotive junk and haphazard displays.

Test Track’s version of the Grand Staircase, buried behind frosted glass on the left.

Test Track does have an entrance stairway of its own, when the cars are first entering the ride (where they do the seatbelt check). At first I thought this might be it, but I quickly realized that it was set much too far back to have been part of the Grand Staircase. A quick look at some blue prints, as shown by enfilm, depict the respective World of Motion and Test Track layouts. The staircase in the World of Motion drawing is in the northwest quadrant. In the Test Track drawing, there is nothing there.

World of Motion

Test Track

I wish I had refreshed my memory before going in. How could something so central to the original pavilion — so critical that they laid its foundation first, before even putting up the walls — disappear so completely? One minute there was a tower to the gods. The next minute, only a paved wheelchair-friendly surface and a driving technobeat.

There are many who wait with anticipation for Test Track 2.0 to open this fall. They wait for the next big thing. But I also can’t wait for those walls to come down, and for the doors to be thrown open. I still hold out hope that there is something there, something I missed. A column of bedrock sunk fifty feet into the Floridian soil, or a conspicuous opening in the ceiling, where the staircase once stood. A reminder to the past, even if it’s just a simple grave marker.

Greatness Rose Here.

Haunted Mansion View-Master 3D

It’s hard to believe there have now been three new Batman movies. I still feel like the third Batman movie is the one with Jim Carrey. How could that possibly have been 17 years ago? There are NBA players who are barely older than that.

At least The Dark Knight Rises is not being released in 3-D. This was clearly an artistic choice, not a financial one. Christopher Nolan probably figured the picture was going to be dark and gloomy enough without putting on those horrible glasses. I’m not a fan of this 3-D trend. I’m hoping it dies a swift death, just like those annoying “talkies.” But apparently this is what the public wants. I applaud the studio for their gutsy restraint. Without 3-D, this Batman movie is obviously doomed to miserable failure.

Finally! A return to Batman’s child-friendly roots.

But I still like other kinds of 3-D. Theme park movies for sure, as long as they are not by Universal (I’m pretty sure that Shrek thing was featured in the final death scene of Saw IV). There’s a charm to Muppets, Magic Journeys, Captain EO, Philharmagic. Mainly because they use the 3-D gimmick to its fullest extent, which is something a Hollywood movie like The Avengers can’t do, if it wants to stay true to its storyline. I suppose that’s a good thing. If Imagineers got their hands on it, we’d be hit with Hulk flop sweat every 30 seconds, and Captain America would be slinging his shield at our heads for the sheer shock value of it all. And then someone would burst into song (probably Iron Man).

But there is another kind of totally awesome 3-D: The View-Master. We had these as kids. Presumably, they are still around. You can see larger-than-life View-Master slides in the Toy Story Mania queue, but I really don’t see them in stores anymore. Before Hooter ate the map and Captain EO crash landed in Tomorrowland, kids were living the 3-D Disneyland experience thanks to a little plastic toy available in every K-Mart in town (we didn’t have Wal-Marts back then).

They’re hot collectors items now, because kids today aren’t impressed by a clicky slide show that you hold up to the light. Nintendo makes a 3-D hand-held video game system that doesn’t even require glasses, and the entire Super Mario Bros. series can fit on something smaller than a single View-Master slide.

Disneyland made some awesome sets back then. Here’s one available on Amazon:

Just looking at this image will take 20 years off your age. And then you can go watch that Jim Carrey Batman movie.

Pretty neat, right? Pictures of New Orleans Square, as it appeared in the 1970s. Including an entire slide of Haunted Mansion scenes.

There’s something about Haunted Mansion that just seems to fit with the whole View-Master gimmick. All its best effects are low-tech renderings of three-dimensional ghosts. The Ballroom Pepper’s Ghost trick, the hitchhiker one-way mirrors, the floating candelabra.

When they did the latest round of enhancements to the Magic Kingdom Haunted Mansion, they added some blinking eyes to the hallway of doors, to smooth out the transition from the M.C. Escher staircases. Green, ghostly eyes blinking in the darkness, eventually blending into the wallpaper.

One night, I snapped a picture of those blinking eyes. Yes, I used flash. If you’re one of those moralists who think that I have violated the most sacred theme park rule of them all, I would like to point out that it was during a rainy Mickey’s Christmas Party and I was the only one on the ride. Except for that British couple with the terminally ill child who had saved their entire life for that one trip on the Haunted Mansion. I still don’t know what their problem was.

Anyway, blinking eyes:

 

I obviously didn’t see the results of my illicit flash photo until I was back home, because I’m not one of those jerks who will flip through the illuminated display on my camera while riding a dark ride. I have my iPhone for that. But when I finally got a look at the Haunted Mansion eyes, they reminded me of nothing so much as a black View-Masters mounted on PVC pipe.

Or the stuff of Wall-E’s nightmares.

I thought you might be interested in having this wonderful little effect spoiled for you as well, so I’m happy to share it. I like to think that behind each of those eyes is a nostalgic ghost, looking out at us in glorious View-Master 3-D and wondering if the park will close in time for him to catch the midnight showing of Batman.

 

“Singin’ in the Rain” is Disney’s Favorite Non-Disney Song

Singin’ in the Rain returned to theaters tonight in one of those Fathom events that you sometimes see commercials for at movie theaters. You know these things. Pay inflated prices to watch a simulcast rock concert from Berlin, or gasp in horror as Andrew Lloyd Webber desperately tries to recapture the magic of his younger years. One night only, they usually say. Beautifully restored, or digitally mixed, or performance enhanced. Nevermind that the Blu-Ray hits the streets a couple days later.

Digitally remastered so that Greedo shoots first.

I like Singin’ in the Rain, and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since The Artist was out last winter. It’s on everyone’s Top 10 list. One of the few titles to enjoy a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. My entire family went, leaving me behind. I hope they get stuck next to those jerks that like to sing along in theaters (usually larger, off-key people who tend to dance in their seats and shake the whole row).

It occurs to me, as I sit here at home by myself, not stewing at all about being left out, that Disney theme parks are sort of obsessed with Singin’ in the Rain. Really, is there any song more used in the parks, outside of something written by Alan Menken or the Sherman Brothers? Maybe a few patriotic anthems, America the Beautiful and so forth. It seems like Disney goes out of its way to pay tribute to this little classic from the 1950s, and it’s not even from their own library.

Great Movie Ride hosts will regale you with movie trivia, such as “Gene Kelly looks like he has been snorting coke in that first picture, the one with the three of them singing in raincoats. Seriously, look at it again.”

Take the obvious example. The Great Movie Ride. Singin’ in the Rain makes three separate appearances. The trailer for the movie plays in an endless loop in the queue. Then Gene Kelly gets full-fledged Audio-Animatronic treatment in the ride itself. And then the movie pops up again in the ending montage.

Ninja Throwing Star Umbrellas! Guaranteed to embed into steel lamp posts up to twenty feet away.

Now wander down New York Street, where it won’t take you long to spot a Singin’ in the Rain photo opportunity, in the form of an umbrella and lightpole. This thing used to gush water also, though that effect is hit or miss these days (making the whole idea of standing under an umbrella for a photo op kind of ridiculous).

Flashback to 1989. The Disney MGM Studios premiered with a massive television spectacular. As Michael Eisner prepared to give the dedication speech, dozens of singers and dancers performed in front of a Hat-less Chinese theater. It literally rained that night, but the performers carried on. How appropriate that one of their elaborate dance numbers was none other than Singin’ in the Rain (2:30 mark)

And this is just Hollywood Studios, where we’d expect to find a few tributes to an MGM classic. But how do you explain the song popping up in Frontierland?

Swingin’ in the Rain

For several years, both at Magic Kingdom and at Disneyland, the Country Bear Jamboree ran a version of the show called the Vacation Hoedown. Same cast, completely different soundtrack. And for the big show-stopping finale, when Teddi Berra descends from the ceiling, bedecked in a chic raincoat and a pair of bright galloshes… well, I don’t need to tell you what song she’s going to sing.

Let’s see, Animatronic Gene Kelly, check. Animatronic Saloon Bear, check. What are we missing? Oh yes, Animatronic Barber Shop Quartet Geese.

You’re looking at America Sings, Disneyland’s successor to Carousel of Progress. Specifically, the start of the fourth Act, around the 5:00 mark. Yes, right about the time John Carousel is putting the diabolical touches on his Christmas turkey in our East Coast version of the show, Disneyland guests were experiencing the joy of four part fowl harmony, to the tune of a 1952 Gene Kelly movie.

Those geese are still alive today, in Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, though they seem to have swapped out their theme song. Which reminds me, watching America Sings can be somewhat traumatic, if you only know these characters from Splash Mountain. Whatever that grandma horse monster is that shows up at the 2:55 mark has been known to scar young children for life.

Here’s the strangest Singin’ in the Rain reference I’ve found yet. Shockingly, it comes from Tokyo, where the Japanese are not known for strange things. It’s a parade that is apparently performed only on rainy days at Tokyo Disneyland. Mickey, Goofy, and the gang singing in raincoats on some sort of cobbled together train. Three guesses as to which song opens this little performance. It’s actually kind of charming, even if it’s more than a little bizarre. Has to be better than that Move It Shake It Celebrate It thing at Magic Kingdom.

I’m sure this list isn’t comprehensive. Heck, the Dapper Dans probably break out Singin’ in the Rain every now and again. And I didn’t even mention that Debbie Reynolds, the movie’s female lead, is none other than the mother of Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. And since Princess Leia appears in the new Star Tours… Or maybe I’m just reaching.

It does make me wonder why Disney is so obsessed with this song. Maybe it’s just a bit of serendipity. Recognize this guy?

How about now?

That’s Disney legend Cliff Edwards, voice of Jiminy Cricket. He catapulted to stardom by singing a little unknown song in the movie The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Twenty years later, when MGM and Gene Kelly were looking to base a movie around a whole catalog of unexploited songs from the vault, this is the song they chose to headline their film. And the rest is history.

Photo Credits:
Great Movie Ride photo by Loren Javier
New York Street Photo by d.k.peterson