realms of enchantment

Once upon a time, Disneyland actually had very little to do with Disney films. Sure, there was Fantasyland, populated by Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Mr. Toad, but it also had the Matterhorn bobsleds, which don’t appear in any Disney movie, live action or animation, that I can recall. Neither does Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise, or It’s a Small World. These rides existed not in the fantasies already wonderfully fabricated on the animated screens, but rather in their own magical worlds that could be expanded within each individual child’s inner world, whether that be his/her image of the Amazon, the Alps, outer space, etcetera. These rides, “attractions” technically, were a fertile, dare I say neutral, environment where the child’s imagination could help complete the world each ride, and by extension “land”, was trying to represent.

For example, take the Submarine Voyage. Opened in 1959 as part of a huge Tomorrowland expansion that included the bumper boats (now closed) and monorail, it was ostensibly inspired by Disney’s live action adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea released just 5 years prior. Yet, in reality the ride had virtually nothing to do with the film except for the fact that both had a submarine in it. In fact, much of the latter half of the ride, during which you traveled “underneath the polar ice caps” (oohs and aahs ensue), was actually inspired by the exploration of a real nuclear sub, coincidentally named the USS Nautilus.

If you were able to ride the sub as an adult, it was pretty cheesey: barely animatronic mermaids, creaky clams with bubbles, a shark and giant squid swiveling back and forth to show they’re fighting, and all narrated by a pre-recorded captain who not only sounded way different than the dude who told you stay seated through the entire ride, but also sounded suspiciously similarĀ  to a nicer, albeit saltier, version of the Haunted Mansion voice… who also, come to think of it, sounds like a couple of guys in Pirates of the Caribbean, but I digress. So like I said, it was kind of underwhelming, balmy, and interminable as an adult. But, if you remember your experience riding it as a kid, this submarine was something beyond magical. It took you to the craziest places, and you believed it because you’d never seen anything like it with your own little eyes. The line was always a mile long for these fuckers and, unlike Space Mountain, it was crowded with super tiny kids salivating at the chance to plunge deep under the sea, even though all it took was a quick glance upwards to spy the silvery roof of the lagoon.

The point is that the fantasy wasn’t entirely created by what you saw in front of you. It was created in the space between your eyes and the robot fish. Your mind was free to expand upon this nautical world where you could explore what you wanted to explore, have adventures you wanted to have, and make new friends of your own design. You created the story of why the mermaid was singing, or why the whale and squid were fighting. The world in front of you was yours and yours alone, since each person surely had a slightly different experience. Sure, it was all “imagineered” by the Disney technicians, but they created spaces that acted more as jumping off points from which your mind could wander. Pirates of the Caribbean made you want to be a pirate. The Haunted Mansion made you want to be a ghost. The Jungle Cruise made you want to be on a safari…

But now, the submarine ride is different. It’s no longer a generic submarine voyage. It’s now Finding Nemo’s Submarine Voyage, in which you ride on the sub and watch as computer-animated projections of the various Finding Nemo characters flitter and fly through coral nooks and crannies in dazzling technological fashion as they search for that adorable clown fish child with whom the ride shares its namesake. It’s dazzling to look at. Truly stupendous. Well produced, even whimsical. And I love the world of the film, so by extension I loved the world of the ride. Yet, for me, something about it still felt… claustrophobic. And it wasn’t just the tight quarters (in fact, I was between an open seat and a pretty girl). Rather, I longed for the days when I could personally create the world through which we were traveling. But now I was being told why Nemo was missing, how we would get him back, and where we were going. I was forced to travel through Nemo’s world, which was indeed colorful, but not my own. It was like the imagination had already been done for me. For all of us.

The Submarine Voyage is not the only ride that has changed to incorporate pre-established characters. The Pirates of the Caribbean now sports several animatronic Jack Sparrows, Barbosas, and even has an impressive animated projection of Davy Jones on a thin spray of mist. Even the story of the ride, as told through the voice acting, has been adapted to suit the new characters: now you travel through the burning port o’ call in search of that wily Cap’n Jack, straying from the original narrative of, y’know, burning a village, stealing its treasure, and making off with their womenfolk. All very generic, pirate-y things to do. But now, why we’re in search of Cap’n Jack, I’m not totally sure, though I think it still has something to do with a cursed treasure.

Granted, while this follows suit a little more than the subs being used for Finding Nemo – at least there is a direct correlation here between the initial design of the ride and the film characters it now houses, however roundabout it may be – I still felt the loss of wonder I used to feel, even as an adult, traveling through a pirate’s world, not Jack Sparrow’s world. Honestly, with the addition of the “Finding Sparrow” storyline, side events like the Buy-A-Bride seemed almost superfluous, off the spine of the ride’s brand-spankin’-new narrative. They’ve done something similar with the area that was formerly Tom Sawyer’s island; now it’s “Pirate’s Lair”. Of course, this isn’t much of a change since the area already incorporated aspects of a pre-existing world (Injun’ Joe’s cave, etc.), and admittedly all that I know about it is hearsay since I personally haven’t stepped foot on the island since the changes, but everything I know about its current state tells me that it’s still a constant expansion of the Disney brand upon otherwise neutral or relatively neutral spaces. Hell, even the Jungle Cruise is starting to reference Dr. Indiana Jones throughout, as if to suggest we’re traveling through his jungle and not our own.

Ever since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with which Uncle Walt literally and consciously invented the family film “genre”, the Disney company has been trying to insinuate itself both into the family unit and, more fundamentally, a child’s imagination. However, when Uncle Walt was alive, and not cryogenically frozen, it was always done more with a kid glove (pun intended) – it was more about, “a playground, brought to you by Disney”. Now, it’s “a Disney playground, brought to you by Disney”. Now, there’s Disney wallpaper, Disney furniture, Disney house paint, for the love of John – so you can perfectly and absolutely create a domicile where you wake each morning, play each afternoon, and dream each night in the image and ideology prefabricated by the wizards at Disney. Considering this, perhaps I’m pissing in the wind when I lament the continual branding of open, imaginative space within the walls of, of all places, Disneyland. Especially when that branding comes in such enjoyable, awe-inspiring, even ground-breaking forms. But I suppose in the end that’s what makes me the most suspicious of them all.

Published in: on July 8, 2008 at 12:18 am  Comments (3)  
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