Near Misses

We have made our way through nine of the top ten Disney Theme Park Controversies (T.T.D.T.P.C.) but before we reveal number one let’s take a look at some of the other contenders that just missed the list.

To catch up with the rest of the list click HERE

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The original ticket to the coolest place ever.

• The gradual bust consistent loss of the original EPCOT Center.

We have already discussed the Figment debacle as well as the very sad fate of Horizons but what about the park as a whole, especially Future World? EPCOT Center suffers from many of the same problems as the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland; when you try and predict the future you will not only fail but also become dated very quickly. In some ways it is surprising that Disney took on the challenges of Future World give that by the late 70’s they already knew how impossible it was to keep Tomorrowland fresh. For the first 8 years or so Future World was an amazing place filled with legitimately forward thinking ideas and some actual science. Over the years things inevitably did age and in an effort to move the park to long term sustainable ground much of the futuristic elements were slowly removed.

The Energy Pavilion got a comedic makeover.

The World of Motion became a thrill ride.

The Living Seas pavilion was filled with cartoon characters.

The Wonders of Life pavilion went away completely (though to be fair this was a late-comer than never truly fit the original vibe of EPCOT Center to begin with).

Communicore became leased out advertising space and so on…

What we saw was a complete distortion of the original intent of EPCOT Center; even the name was changed to simply Epcot… no longer was this the center of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow… now it was just a meaningless made up word.

So why did it not make our list? It has taken place over many years and is still going on today… even World Showcase is now being affected (Mexico and soon Norway). It’s too broad and slow of a process to be considered one controversy… though I do feel it is sad and as a whole one of the worst things ever to happen to the parks.

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Seriously pretty

• Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage

20K as it was known was perhaps the most beautiful attraction Disney ever created. It was housed in a magnificent lagoon fed by waterfalls and filled with a fleet of incredible Jules Verne inspired (and Harper Goff designed) submarines. For a child it held real magic. As a young kid I recall visiting the parks and thinking it was so cool that in one day we could fly to Disney, then be on a monorail and a boat before we even enter the park! Once inside the Magic Kingdom we could go below the sea and a fantastic adventure… it blew my mind, it was magic, anything could happen. But 20K took up a huge piece of valuable land, it was a very low capacity ride, it was extremely expensive to operate and maintain and it had the added hindrance of not being easily accessible for disabled visitors.

Many fans were very sad when it was abruptly closed in 1994 under the guise of refurbishment (the permanent closure was made official in 1996). For well over a decade the lagoon sat unused and that made its closure even worse; it had not removed to build something new, it was removed simply to save money.

It did not make the list because there were other attraction closures that made even bigger waves… but 20K will always be a personal favorite of mine (and the first attraction I worked on way back when).

As an aside a similar fate awaited the Submarine Voyage at Disneyland. In 1998 and for the same reasons as 20K the attraction as suddenly closed. This time however the management was toying with alt’s original park and many Imagineers took personal offense at this. Quickly Walt Disney Imagineering erected a sign in the lagoon announcing the imminent construction of an attraction based on the Disney animated film Atlantis” The Lost Empire. This was a rogue action not approved by park management and with no real solid truth behind it; it was in essence a protest by the Imagineers. Atlantis tanked at the box office and the sign was quickly removed. The lagoon sat empty for 7 years but after a regime change a glimmer of light appeared. In 2007 a new version of the attraction themed after Finding Nemo opened. It lacks much of the charm of the original but the subs remain alive at Disneyland (for the moment at least) and the Imagineers can chalk this one up as a win.

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Seriously ugly

• Dinorama at Animal Kingdom

When Animal Kingdom opened there were two undeniable facts:

1) It was an incredible park with and incredible theme.

2) It was VERY short on attractions and most people barely spent half a day there before they felt that they had “seen everything” (On the other hand I spent days on end exploring the place).

They needed more attractions, especially those aimed at kids. The chief designer Joe Rohde will tell you that they also needed some kinetic movement for the park, that trees and shrubs were not enough to keep people moving throughout the lands. However the truth is simply that Dinorama provided a quick “fix” for early complaints. Much like we later saw with DCA by adding off the shelf carnival rides Disney could up the attraction count very cheaply.

Today Dinorama is an eyesore for the park. It contains two kiddy rides and some midway games. It also prevented the building of the much larger and more elaborate dinosaur excavation themed roller coaster originally planed for the Dinoland area.

Ultimately other controversies overshadow this one so it missed the top ten… I’d still love to see it go the way of the T-Rex though.

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Tickets, Apps, Reservations and rubber bands… sounds like fun

• Fast Pass confusion

The introduction of Fast Pass caused all sorts of confusion and complaints amongst guests. While fans quickly adapted to and exploited the system it took years and years to educate the average guest. In fact a decade later many first time visitors were still clueless and did not understand how to use it.

Enter Fast Pass+… an even more confusing and involved system that now requires making reservations for rides before even leaving on your trip, wearing a RFID chip embedded wrist bands and carrying a smarty phone to access a Disney mobile app. Disney claims they did this to make vacations simpler. I think they did it because it makes spending money easier. Guests now do not even need to reach for their wallets… just a wave of the magic band and you have charged dinner, or a snack or that t-shirt you kind of like to your credit card. I am sure studies have shown that this ease of purchasing raises total bills by a significant percentage. The billion dollars they spent building the system will come back in spades… if they can get people adjusted to using it.

It did not make the list because we really don’t know what will happen yet and though it has caused a great deal of confusion it has not caused that much controversy.

Wilson

Chief Wilson Matua will keep you safe… and don’t forget to recycle!

• Message of conservation at Animal Kingdom

When the park first opened Disney was intent on letting guests know that this was not a zoo and more so they were taking active efforts to educate visitors about conservation. This was evident in many ways from donations to wildlife foundations to not using plastic straws in the park. Perhaps the biggest and most controversial implementation of this idea was the original storyline of Kilimanjaro Safari.

The very first story-line not only had guests chasing down poachers but actually riding by the hulking corpse of “Big Red” the matriarch of the reservation’s herd of elephants. Before the park opened Disney decided that actually seeing a dead bloodied elephant was too graphic and so the corpse was removed. However the message of poaching and conservation remained. Many guests complained about this either not understanding or agreeing with its message. After more than a decade the conservation message was toned down and now instead of a poachers camp we see more animals and the ride ends without having any direct conservation story at all.

While this is interesting and an example of a dilution of the park’s original messages it just was not a big enough issue to make the top 10.

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The future is kind of rusty

• Disneyland’s New Tomorrowland circa 1998

As mentioned earlier Tomorrowland has always been an issue for Disney. Keeping it new feeling is a very difficult proposition. In the mid-nineties Disney was reeling from the financial failure of Euro Disney (see both DCA and Disney’s America entries on our list). Tomorrowland at Disneyland had not seen significant changes since 1968 and this had to addressed, yet management did not want to spend money on the parks… so the budget for the New Tomorrowland was slashed.

Disney tried to avoid the issue of an aging future in much the same way they did at Disneyland Paris… by making it more about the past and how the future was envisioned years ago. Space Mountain and much of the land was painted a muted copper / aged bronze look… fans hated it. Little of substance was improved within Tomorrowland; Honey I Shrunk the Audience replaced Caption Eo, the Autopia received updated cars, and Circle-Vision was closed. The general public’s take was that it was uglier and more confusing than ever before… but the biggest failure was the one new large-scale attraction being introduced.

Rocket Rods was intended to be the centerpiece of the new land. It took over the WedWay People Mover tracks and was meant as a high-speed thrill ride above Tomorrowland. Budget restraints prevented the tracks from being modified and the results were a technical nightmare. The Rocket Rods rarely worked and when they did the ride was a short, herky-jerky mess. It was closed for good in 2000 making it one of the shortest-lived attractions in Disney’s history.

Alas it missed the list because most of it has been restored or changed at this point and there is very little left of the botched 1998 redo. This is another example of how short-sided budgetary decisions cost Disney much more in the long run.

tikiroom

Why?

• The Tiki Room Under New Management

We have seen it several times on the list: when they mess with classic attractions people get mad.

In this case Disney took one of the most classic attractions ever (The Enchanted Tiki Room) and removed all the songs and characters people knew and loved. They replaced them with movie tie-ins and along the way insulted the original show.

Eventually a small fire closed the attraction and rather than spending money to re-create a show no one liked Disney relented and brought back the original show (although an edited version).

It missed the list narrowly as the concept was already covered with several other entries.

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pointless

• It’ a Small World now starring your favorite Disney character!

When Hong Kong Disneyland opened it was yet again a park severely impacted by the financial troubles of Euro Disney (how could one park affect so much for so ling!). It was given a small budget and that budget did not allow many attractions to be built. Rather than taking the DCA approach of filling the park with cheap rides they simply did not build many at all. Predictably fans were not pleased and crowds failed to come. Disney once again found themselves in the position of needing to quickly add new attractions. In this case the classic It’s a Small World was chosen to be added to Fantasyland.

This was a fine idea but in an effort to introduce the Chinese to the Disney characters, many of which they had never been exposed to, Disney added several of their animated stars to sing alongside the Small World dolls.

This was generally not seen as too great of an issue… it was happening thousands of miles away, it was a new version of the ride and specifically being used to introduce Disney to a new audience… but when that same plan came to Disneyland it was not accepted with open arms.

Fans argued that adding the characters specifically flew in the face of what the ride was about. It was meant to be a celebration of children from the world over singing in unity. The characters drew attention away from the overall message and made it into a sort of “Where’s Waldo” of Disney attractions as guests hunted for the new character additions. It introduced a pure fantasy element that the original never had. While Small World was fantastical and fanciful it still was about the real people of real cultures… suddenly we had mermaids and talking fish sharing space with the boys and girls of the world.

Many fans were vocal about not liking the changes but those complaints were ignored and the characters are still in Disneyland though they have not made their way to Walt Disney World as of yet.

It was a big one but it missed the list simply because the top 10 were even bigger.

magic_original

If you look closely you may spot a puddle of my tears

Magic Shop(s):

Shane will make fin of me for this but the Magic Shops (yes there were two) at the Magic Kingdom were to me what the Swiss Tree house is to Shane. They represented a special place that I visited every trip.

I am including it here for strictly personal reasons… I am sure virtually no one else even noticed that they were removed… but it is symbolic of a monumental shift in how the parks were being run.

Prior to this (sometime in the mid 90’s) Disney allowed little shops or quiet spaces to exist in the parks. They were not churning out high dollar per square foot totals but they enhanced the over all experience. In the case of the House of Magic (which also sold masks and jokes) kids could pick up a gag and play a prank on their parents or pretend to be a monster for the day. It was another element of escapism and I have many fond memories of times spent in the shops and the results of the purchases made there. I fooled my dad into eating a super hot version of salt-water taffy on one trip. On another I learned a card trick that wowed my family (legitimately) to the point that they had me showing waiters at the various restaurants. There was always something special about the stores. They were not selling Disney shirts; they were in essence selling memories. These memories perfectly mesh with the feeling of fantasy that the park itself has.

I view the closure of the magic stores as a sign of the shift in tone for the parks. They became a little less about providing great memories and a little more about squeezing every dollar out of the parks that they could… and that to me is the biggest controversy of them all.

To see the number one most controversial move click HERE!

 

20 thoughts on “Near Misses

  1. Great post, Ted.

    I don’t find myself often bemoaning changes at the parks, but a few of these really do stand out to me…

    Your point about the Magic Shop, and the homogenization of the park experience, especially stands out to me. Another commenter mentioned The Court of Angels, and that’s a great example. Sid Cahuenga’s in Hollywood Studios is another. These little out-of-the-way spots, that may not bring in hordes of guests, create an authentic texture to the experience that visitors to Six Flags will never get.

    The thing that has always enchanted me about Disney World and Disneyland is that they are places of imagination, and along with that, Disney always seemed to see the value in any place in the parks that could spark that imagination, so if the Magic Shops ignited the imagination for 2 kids a day, that was enough justification to keep it running. The saddest part for me is that the experiences seem to be becoming less individualized or ‘Your way” and more “Their way”.

    • That’s right Dan (or is it Mike?)…

      I can’t “blame” Disney on one hand because at this point it is a giagantic company and the people runnig the parks have superiors and stock holders to answer to… they also come from typical merchandise backgrounds where maximizing square footage is key. So that is what they are doing. They look at the Magic Store for example and it is just wasted space to them. There are folks at DIsney who totally get it, who understand that the Magic Store is as much of an attraction as Space Mountain is. That the Magic Store creates memories and enriches the experience… that that ultimately creates long time fans and that creates more visits and more generatiosn of fans and so on. But the management does not get that… they don’t get long term maybes… they get bottom line quarterly reports.

      Remember years back (maybe before your time in the parks?) they filled in one side of Center Street on Main Street. It used to be an open courtyard and now it is another extension of the shops selling the exact same crap they all do.

      They hurt the charm and atmosphere of Main Street but they crank through another $20 grand of merch every day… that adds up.

      • The homogenization of the stores is a very tricky thing. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the guest is no longer rewarded for browsing in the various merchandise locations, because practically every single item is the same as everywhere else — and a lot of it is extremely low quality. The toys sold at WDW are far inferior to counterparts at Walmart or Toys R Us. It gets the special “Disney Parks” brand on it, but is otherwise garbage. Seriously, checkout a Buzz Lightyear from World of Disney vs. a Buzz from any major retailer. You will will notice the quality difference right away.

        But on the other hand, Disney does need to justify itself to its shareholders (particularly, the top 20% of shareholders who own 80% of the stock). How do you look at a money man and say “Our research indicates that we could increase profits by 30% if we stock this store with similar merchandise to other stores, but we want to provide a unique experience for our guest”?

        One thing is tangible, the other is not easily measured. Maybe if all this homogenization caused an attendance erosion over time, the fans could be vindicated, but the opposite has occurred.

        I think the secret is in having a corporate leader with a true mission for the park experience, who can weigh decisions against what maximizes profit AND fits the vision. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Universal’s Potter lands have done this brilliantly. High-quality, unique merchandise that sells by the crateload. Disney just need someone who can do the hard work of finding the right solution. Not a solution that balances between the two, but one that satisfies both requirements.

  2. In this curmudgeon’s opinion, ALL FastPasses were an unnecessary complication. Before they came around, if the line for a headliners was too long, we went and rode smaller rides and came back later. It worked like a charm, and standby waits didn’t get artificially inflated by the need to let groups of FP holders go ahead.

    • Now this is me being cynical again though I try not to be but it is easy to see that the true motivation of FP was to get people out of lines into stores and restaurants.

      In other words they created a system that does have a sort of benefit to guests if they understand it and properly use it… but it has a HUGE adavantage for the company. A guest standing in line is not spending money on hot dogs and t-shirts… Disney found a way to create a better consumer while also offering a benefit to them.

  3. I feel like the closing of the 20K ride should have made the list, that’s the Disney blunder that angers me the most

    • I hear you Griff. I LOVED 20k, I worked on it and it was always a favorite ride. I much prefer 20K to the Fantasyland stuff they have now for that matter.

      Think of the lsit (including the near misses) as somewhat interchangable. It is virtually impossible to cover it all in 10 spots so I tried to choose ones that represent many things. So The removal of Mr. Toad could have been the removal of 20K instead. While 20K was a much bigger attraction for whatever reasons it seems like Mr. Toad had much more of a vocal outpouring than 20K did when they were closed.

      • My husband remembers 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea being his favorite ride when he visited Disney World when he was about six years old. After riding for the first time, he asked to get in line to go on again. His dad agreed, and my husband said, “I hope we get the same captain again, he was great!” (Referring to the recorded Captain Nemo voiceover.) I love that story.

  4. I’d be surprised if this made the number 1 spot, especially due to how recent it is, but the devastation of New Orleans Square – one of the greatest themed environments ever built – for the sake of a misguided Club 33 expansion definitely ranks up there. It’s been painful watching all of this unfurl, from the closure of the Court of Angels to the giant, off-centered picture frame window on a naked facade. Not to mention the decimation of history inside the Club itself (the French lift Walt commissioned his Imagineers to recreate has been repurposed as a pathetic table for one booth).

    • Good points… It is not #1 but I missed this… I don’t think it would have made the top 10 but it is a very recent example of how Disney oftens throws away it’s past in the name of “progress”.

      Lets me honest… Club 33 memberships are worth a fortune and so they see a way to increase the numbers but in the process they are losing most of what made it special to begin with.

  5. In my humble opinion, Magic Bands have made things a good bit easier. No finding room card, no looking for park tickets, and best of all, no running all over the park with my whole family’s key cards having to get us all paper fast passes while they stroll leisurely and take in all the details parkeology likes to write about! I don’t deny that I’m sure people spend more with them, but I know guest satisfaction is high as far as they are concerned. However, for AP holders that are in the park frequently and not doing a typical week long trip once or twice a year, not staying in hotels or doing a dining plan, the benefit is going to be less.

    • There may be legit advantages for those who properly use the system. Many will just be confused. Regardless I think the true motivation for creating the system us up for debate.

  6. I’m right there with you on the closing of the little independent shops. They fill a big chunk of my childhood memories and really gave the park the feel of an actual city, not just an amusement park. Now it’s just one Disney gift shop after another, most selling exactly the same things.
    Not too unhappy about the addition of the Disney characters to Small World.. my kids liked it quite a bit, especially when they were little. In their minds Stitch does live in Hawaii, and the “Where’s Waldo” esque feel is added fun.
    Big fan of fast pass.. fast pass + has nothing to do with ease of transaction (we already had that, you can use your key to the world to buy basically anything).. it’s a “big brother” tracking system plain and simple. They might as well shoot us with a tracking chip at the gates and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that was the original proposal before the lawyers shut it down.
    Most of these fall under the “they could have fixed it/done better but didn’t bother” umbrella.. which is the underlying controversy that links them all.

    • Well FastPass Plus (ar the overall Magic Band system really) has a LOT to do with making it eaiser to purchas things… trust me on that. But you are 100% correct that it is also about tracking your every move and using that knowledge to sell you even more.

      Bottom line is that it is about selling and money… not about making things in any way easier.

      And I cannot argue that kids liek Small World with or without characters but when you go messing with really classic rides people don’t take kindly to that! I kind of see both sides but it is hard for me to think that a kid would like the current version and not have liked the original. Adding the characters just shifts the meaning enough as to get under a lot of fan’s skins.

  7. Another controversy that will likely miss the top ten (as there’s only one spot left) is the homogenizing of the theme parks.

    It used to be that characters were only found in Fantasyland. Now, they’re everywhere. Woody the Cowboy shows up in Frontierland. Captain Jack and Hook show up in Adventureland. Mickey and Minnie are in Main Street USA. And Chip and Dale are freakin’ EVERYWHERE man! I don’t know how much Disney is paying for those chipmunk costumes but it’s not enough! The company that provides character costumes must have some sort of frequency punch card or discount ot coupon or something (“Free Chip n’ Dale Costume with Each Order of $50 or More!”)

    Anyway, I digress.

    I preferred it when Frontierland stood on it’s own and wasn’t “that country themed section of Fantasyland”. The same can be said for each land… and, really, each park (I’m looking at you, Epcot).

    • I hear you Parker… this is yet another reason why Tokyo Disney is so awesome… it is like going back in time. There the characters just sort fo walk around the front of the park… no queues for kids to line up for hours to meet them and more or less contained to the WOrld Bazarre (Main Street) zone.

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