The Fall of the Sorcerer’s Hat

In the year 1505 — barely a decade after the discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus — the two greatest artists of all time were commissioned to decorate opposite walls in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence, Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci and his rival Michelangelo both began studies on their respective frescos and worked diligently to sketch out two glorious battle scenes on the walls of the great hall. This would be the only time these two masters ever worked together, at least until the invention of ninja turtles.

Michelangelo left Florence long before the completion of his masterpiece. But Leonardo persisted, erecting scaffolding and canvasing the walls with scenes of great turmoil — clashing horses, shouting warriors, historical figures. Ultimately, the Battle of Anghiari was abandoned, but not before it became one of the most respected unfinished works in art history. Renderings of the da Vinci original can be found hanging in the Louvre in France to this day.

About sixty years later, the Grand Duke decided that he needed to expand the hall in order to hold court, and he commissioned a painter/architect named Giorgio Vasari for the work. Michelangelo’s work had already been destroyed by a jealous artist several decades before, but Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari was still in place when Vasari began.

Vasari was a talent, but he was no da Vinci. Yet if you were to go to Florence today and set foot in the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, it is Vasari’s work — not da Vinci’s — that you will see adorning the walls. Vasari expanded the walls and painted his own frescos. The da Vinci painting disappeared, and for centuries the Battle of Anghiari has been known as the “Lost Leonardo.”

Stop it, Photoshop. I'm being serious.

Stop it, Photoshop. I’m being serious.

Yesterday, the news came down that the Sorcerer’s Hat at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will be dismantled in January of 2015. The Studios has been open for a quarter of a century, and for more than half that time, the Hat has stood at the end of Hollywood Boulevard. This “temporary” structure outlived original attractions SuperStar Television, Monster Sound Show, The Magic of Disney Animation, and the Backlot Tour. It’s been around longer than the park’s most popular attraction (Toy Story Mania), and even predates the park’s current name.

An entire generation of Disney fans have never seen the park without that hat.

I’m barely old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin wall. I have foggy memories of people dancing in the streets, ripping sections away. The celebration on social media yesterday seemed a lot like that. Finally the hat would be gone. But there was one segment of the fan population that seemed a little saddened by all this.

Generation Z.

Their only family photos contain the hat. They have never owned a Disney Parks t-shirt that did not represent the Studios with a triangle of blue headgear. Every time they’ve walked through the gate, Mickey’s gloved hand was waiting at the end of the street, pointed to the sky, beckoning them onwards.

“I loved the hat.” “The park needs an icon.” “What will they replace it with?”

These are a sampling of the cries heard yesterday. I am not here to berate you or tell you you’re wrong for your love of the hat. It’s all you’ve ever known. The hat is your hometown.  You grew up there. You get resentful if other people don’t like it, and you take it personally when people point out its flaws. And you especially don’t want to hear from old timers telling you how much better things were back in the day. Stop living in the past, you might say. And you might have a point.

In 2007 — a mere six years after a garish, giant pin trading station was plunked down in the middle of Disney MGM Studios’ main Hub — an Italian art expert named Maurizio Seracini discovered a hidden message painted on an obscure flag held by an obscure soldier in one of Giorgio Vasari’s frescos in the Hall of the Five Hundred. The message was located a full twelve meters off the ground. In tiny gold script, it contained two simple words:

Cerca Trova.

Translation: He who seeks shall find.

Vasari was an art historian — perhaps the first in history. He held Leonardo da Vinci in the highest esteem, and the Battle of Anghiari was praised even in Vasari’s own writings. The Hall of the Five Hundred was not the first time Vasari had been hired to demolish famous artwork. His renovation of a Dominican church had forced him to paint over a fresco known as the Holy Trinity by early Renaissance master Masaccio. But Vasari — without the permission of his employer — did not destroy the artwork. Instead, he had it plastered over, leaving a small pocket of air for the painting to survive behind the new fresco. And so it did, until it was rediscovered almost 400 years later during renovations of the chapel in 1860.

Seracini knew at once what Cerca Trova meant. Armed with the latest high tech gadgetry and the permission of the Italian government, he went to work. He bored holes into the Vasari fresco in the Hall of the Five Hundred and discovered old paint underneath. The black pigment was analyzed and found to be a very similar composition to that of da Vinci’s most famous work — the most valuable work of art on the entire planet — the Mona Lisa.

Preserved behind Vasari’s fresco. The Lost Leonardo. Waiting to be revealed again.

So to those of you who mourn the removal of the hat, do not fear. You will soon see for yourself. What you have observed up till this moment is but a shadow. You have been held prisoner in Plato’s cave. Darkness is all you have ever known. But in January, the chains come off, and you will crawl towards the light. And the brilliance of it will hurt.

But in the end, you will see and you will not wish to return to that darkness. Life under the sun is far better.

Leonardo da Vinci Sorcerer's Hat

34 thoughts on “The Fall of the Sorcerer’s Hat

  1. SOMEHOW, I was late to the party in hearing this most glorious of news. I think I have only been to HS once or twice without the Hat, though I don’t remember it that clearly. I have been 5 times or more with the Hat, I am under 30 years old, and couldn’t be happier that it is coming down. I, like others, don’t have a problem with the hat as much as I do the placement. I would be perfectly fine with them moving it outside the park entrance where it can still serve as “icon.”

    As for Fantasia, Fantasmic is a great tie-in to the film (and tons of others). The Fantasia scene in the GMR, however, is not that great.

    • I would have been fine if they had built it in Animation Courtyard — which is already sort of bland and actually has a giant hat of its own! But I don’t think they’ll move it. As someone else stated, they’ll take a hatchet to that thing.

  2. So, when the Berlin Wall came down, there was pomp and circumstance, and people tearing actually pieces down with their bare hands and axes. There was parades, and dancing in the streets.

    Do you think it would be too much to ask of Disney for there to be the same thing when the hat comes down? Can we take it down ourselves?

  3. Great read! I have nothing witty to say here. I just wanted to let you know I’ve loved reading your stories for years.
    Thanks.

  4. Although I’ve always hated the placement of the hat, it would be nice if they could find it a home somewhere else where it’s not in the way. It’ll probably end up on the scrap heap, but it would have made a nice addition to Downtown Disney. Maybe as the main bus terminal, or even a store.

    • While the hat might not be so objectionable in a different location, I can’t see them moving it anywhere. It’s 100 feet tall. They can’t really pick it up with a crane like Pooh’s Tree and drop it somewhere else.

  5. I am so happy to hear they’re tearing that ugly thing down, seeing as how they built it in 2001 it must have been right after the last time I went to the park as a kid, so returning as an adult in 2012 it was a depressing sight

    in fact it almost sounds too good to be true and I worry they’re just going to put something else in it’s place, here’s hoping they’re smarter than that

    • I don’t think we’ll see anything “replace” the hat, but it may be that the Chinese theater won’t last long either. They’re certainly clearing out large swaths of acreage. Maybe a Death Star at the end of the street?

      • oh no, I hope they don’t do anything to the theater, I love The Great Movie Ride

        • The theater may or may not stay, but I think the Great Movie Ride’s days are numbered.

  6. Thanks Shane, I had seen rumors of this change on the web and was checking in here to see what you guys knew about it. I am almost 40 years old so the hat is like a pimple that just won’t go away to me. They can move it to a remote corner of the park and put The Wand over it for all I care.

    I was only recently made aware that there used to be a gigantic hidden Mickey in the center of Disney Studios, easily seen in this old map: http://www.yesterland.com/images-studios/mgmmap.gif I think they should leave that big space open; hopefully they will not give in to temptation and ram something else in there. The Theater is breathtaking on its own.

    Here’s a link to an interesting essay I found recently on The Great Movie Ride. I have to agree that it could use a little updating, though I still have fond feelings for it. My biggest gripe is that the tour guides are forced to say that horror movies are their favorite. Why horror? http://www.abomibot.com/wordpress/2012/01/10/can-the-great-movie-ride-be-saved/

    • GMR is undoubtedly dated and needs an overhaul. But I too think it is at the soul of what Disney MGM Studios used to represent, and I think it could be fixed with very little effort. A few show replacements and a much better script would do wonders.

      Now will they do that? I don’t know. A lot of rumors suggest GMR is the next attraction on the chopping block. I’m okay with it being replaced, as long as the replacement is at the same calibre as GMR was in its heyday.

  7. I’m part of the “tear that eyesore down” group, but I believe it has its place and could be used better in the future. My main objections were its blocking of the Chinese Theater, its lack of functionality, and its misplacement in the middle of Old Hollywood. If they were to move this to a new area, perhaps where the Backlot Tour once stood, that better fits the theming, it could still serve as a proper park icon.

    I like the idea that kids are being exposed to things like Fantasia this many years after the fact. So many of Disney’s recent park moves have been trying to capitalize on whatever their most recent movie is, it was nice to see them paying homage to a movie almost 75 years old.

    I can’t imagine that they would remove an icon without having an idea of what will replace it. The sorcerer’s hat with Mickey ears is one of the more popular hats, from what I’ve seen, and I can’t imagine they wouldn’t want to capitalize on that more. My only cringe thought is that they turn DHS into Star Wars Land and make their new icon a stormtrooper helmet with Mickey ears…

    I hope they are able to bring back something similar to the hat, as long as it’s done right rather than shoehorned in. In the near term, it will be nice to see the Chinese Theater once again.

    • The theater IS the icon… the hat was and is nothing more than a marketing move… this is what people who have never experienced a hat free park may not understand.

      Now I think you make a good point… it is THRILLING to her of the removal of the hat… but that news could soon be followed by the removal of the theater as well… or the replacement of the hat with something as bad (there can be nothing worse).

      The studios park is clearly going through major changes… we are about to see that park transformed in one way or another… I just hope that they understand the beauty of the original design that so carefully thought out the design of the opening act of the park and the beauty of that theater sitting (liek the castle) at the end of the street.

      Shane and I were talking the other day and he made a good point… Star Wars premiered at that Grahmans (or was it Mann’s at the time) but at any rate it premiered at the Chinese Theater…. hmmmm, makes you think.

      • I could easily see the Chinese Theater being reskinned as if it were the Star Wars premiere, and GMR being replaced with “The Great Star Wars Movie Ride.” Personally, I think that would be awesome to behold (Star Wars in every show scene). That sounds way better than X-Wing spinner rides or a speeder bike simulator. But time will tell.

        • I like this idea but I want details. Maybe stick some battle droid heads on the Busby Berkley dancers? Replace a levitating Mary Poppins with an X-wing levitating out of a swamp? This could be a cheap refurb if done properly.

          • HA HA… Anakin and Padme having a serious discussion in the “Casablanca” scene. Luke and Leah swinging across the gap in the “Tarzan” scene. Boba Fett staring silently at guests instead of Clint Eastwood.

          • Melanie, the Luke and Leia swing would HAVE to be there. A perfect thing to drift past. Heck, practically the entire death star. Kenobi shutting down the tractor beam, the garbage compactor, the lightsaber duel. It would be so cool to drift through the Death Star at a snail’s pace. Just call the vehicles an Armored Troop Transport or something.

          • The armchair Imagineer in me thinks this could be incredible. Conventional wisdom says that Star Wars should be thrill rides, but I’m contrarian. I think the absolute best would be a slow-moving ride in the environment, through those iconic scenes. I want to be able to take a lingering look at a Sarlaac or ride through that glowing orange carbon freezing chamber. I don’t want to be rushed. In a Star Wars land, there’s room for both thrill rides and slower dark rides.

    • Fantasia is not lacking in exposure though. Sorcerer Mickey is everywhere, and one could argue that the Big Giant Hat is the least effective mechanism for exposing kids to that great film.

      Also, I encourage you not to worry about what is replacing it. The point I was trying to make was that they aren’t just ripping out an eyesore, they are replacing it with a gorgeous view of a Chinese Theater!

  8. I could very closely be considered part of “Generation Z.” My family started visiting WDW in 1997, and while I barely remember parts of those trips, walking into my favorite park in 2001 during the 100 Years of Magic and seeing a giant hat at the end of the street was a jarring memory that still stays with me, 13 years later. While I totally understand why some people are upset about the removal of the hat–it is a convenient meeting place–Papa Doc makes a good point in saying that the replica of Grauman’s Theatre is ” is much closer to the high caliber Walt Disney tradition.” I have visited the original Grauman’s Theatre in Los Angeles, and the replica is damn close. Disney pulled off an architectural miracle with that, and it deserves to be known as the center of the park. The Great Movie Ride delivers the message of movie magic the DHS is centered around, and should be given the recognition it deserves.

  9. I never really minded the hat. I’m not “generation Z”, I clearly remember the fall of “the wall”.. but I was a west coast kid and did not get a chance to experience WDW until our first trip in 2001. It is an icon… and one of the major landmarks of the park, along with the tower. It’s a major photo op.. the place my family tends to meet if we split up for some reason.. and it’s just kind of cool to look at. Pretty much takes the place of the castle/ball/tree feature in the other parks. It will be weird and empty without it.

    • Waymire-
      You are exactly who this post was aimed at.

      You simply don’t know… You can’t be blamed for that, you have done nothing wrong, your opinions and memories are all valid…

      But you don’t know.

  10. Plato’s Cave, eh? Good metaphor, along with the hidden DaVinci. Finally, after battling his way through the darkness of the cave, the man is overwhelmed by all the beauty of true reality–trees, grass, mountains, etc. The unobstructed view of Disney’s replica of Graumann’s Chinese Theater, while it is not the “real thing” in Los Angeles, is much closer to the high caliber Walt Disney tradition than just a big blue hat that offers little in the way of architectural excellence. As Plato says, when the enlightened man leads the prisoners long-held in the cave into the sunlight, he knows that they will fight, and yet it will be worth it all, when they can see the light!

    • I must have been paying attention all those years ago when my dad taught me that!

  11. Articles like this, and a vain never to be fulfilled dream of opening the mystery animal kingdom door are why I wake up in the morning

    • It’s actually the middle of the night, so your internal clock must be off.

      As to the door at Animal Kingdom… Rivers of Light construction looks to be inching dangerously close to it. I wonder if some poor construction worker will accidentally break the seal, letting loose the demons that have been locked inside?

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