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
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
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!