So Long, Honest Abe

It’s no fun saying it, but it’s time to get rid of Mr. Lincoln—or at least radically re-think what Disney’s trying to accomplish with its history lessons.

Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln is one of those oddball attractions that couldn’t be at home anywhere else but in a Disney park. Like It’s A Small World or The Enchanted Tiki Room, it’s a part of the quintessential Disney experience. Mr. Lincoln was produced for the Illinois Pavilion of the 1964 New York World’s Fair; after the fair, the show found a permanent home at Disneyland where it ran nearly unchanged for thirty-five years. It’s probably the most ambitious undertaking at Disneyland—or any Disney park, for that matter—attempting to wed theme park technology to a history lesson in the hopes of creating a new kind of “educational theater.” Longtime Disney fans—including me—admire Mr. Lincoln for its technology almost as much as they do for its nostalgia. I get the impression, however, that more casual Disney park visitors more often than not shake their heads as they leave the auditorium, wondering why they were listening to a robot give a speech when they could have been picking up a Splash Mountain FastPass.

On top of this questionable popularity, the attraction has bothered me the past few times I’ve seen it, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to figure out why. Disney’s own literature, Disney biographies, and news articles have for decades lauded the Lincoln figure as being astoundingly life-like. When I was little, I was suitably impressed seeing its companion figures in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. In the back of my mind, however, was a dirty secret that I tried to keep suppressed: I was never even slightly convinced that the plastic people I was seeing on stage were real. Yes, they were an unbelievable technical achievement. But real?

Disney PR pumps out all sorts of stories to enhance its own image: the unfailing brilliance of its founder; movies that become “classics” before they’ve even been released to theaters; but Lincoln is an unclothed emperor presiding over all of the Disney tall tales. I hardly mean it as an insult when I say that Mr. Lincoln doesn’t seem real. That so many brilliant people could work as hard as they did to produce it only proves to me the impossibility of their task. As such, Mr. Lincoln is a fascinating failure.

A lot of fans blame the show’s recent overhaul for its problems, and yes, the renovation was a step backwards. I’m guessing those in charge of the revamp felt they were making the presentation more authentic by going with a single, unabridged speech rather than the mish-mash of Lincoln speeches that he formerly presented. More authentic? Probably. More insightful? Definitely not: as powerful as the Gettysburg Address is, it’s hardly the most thought-provoking of Lincoln’s speeches. And the “new” voice of Lincoln (as with all of the new voices in the revamped Hall of Presidents) sounds all wrong. It might be because I grew up with the older voices and I’m used to them, but I don’t think so. These new voices sound like accomplished voice-over actors: when Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address, it sounds just like the narration in an Archer Daniels Midland TV ad, a sonorous voice possessing just enough grit to satisfy Madison Avenue’s idea of “character.” The founding fathers weren’t actors; they probably didn’t sound like them. They probably sounded like real people, and the new voices categorically don’t.

Despite these problems, however, putting the blame on the renovation is missing the point. Great Moments thinks it’s a tribute, but it’s hardly the most effective tribute to Lincoln that one could imagine. (Is this how Lincoln himself would choose to be remembered?) The attraction could be justified if seeing the Audio-Animatronic figure on stage somehow made you feel closer to the man; made you understand something about him that had been missing from books, television documentaries, or his famous Monument in Washington, D.C. But it doesn’t. Park visitors stare at the figure and scrutinize its fidelity to human behavior. The impression isn’t at all that you’re watching Abraham Lincoln give a speech, but that you’re watching a technology demonstration. Further enhancing this feeling are the new binaural, “you-are-there” sound effects added in the renovation. The effect is so convincing that when the show started I almost thought it was going to overcome its gimmick-ness. But after ten minutes of a simulated hair clipping and flies buzzing around my head, that feeling had left, and I was again thinking: what am I supposed to be here for?

Worse than not being an effective tribute to Lincoln, the Lincoln figure isn’t even an especially effective demonstration of Audio-Animatronics. A good animatronic figure should make you forget that what you’re seeing isn’t real. Lincoln never overcomes this. No doubt it’s the most sophisticated figure Disney has produced, and that unbelievable effort went into its creation. But it just plain doesn’t look like a real person up there. It’s a case of Disney aiming high and coming up short.

(So what’s the best use of Audio-Animatronics? No, it’s not Pirates of the Caribbean: even though there is some great technology there, animatronics aren’t the most important part of the show. Pirates is about atmosphere, not about realistic human figures, and the attraction could be pulled off almost as well by having figures with extremely simple movement that wouldn’t quite qualify as “animatronics.” Instead, I think the most effective use of the technology is in Country Bear Jamboree. Here is a show that couldn’t exist without convincing creatures, and even though they don’t look like “real” bears, it doesn’t matter: they’re “cartoon” bears, and as such, they look perfect.)

If we must have Mr. Lincoln, the show could be improved by removing the pretense that it’s a tribute to Lincoln, and instead make it a tribute to the vision of Walt Disney and the technology his WED team created. Use it to illustrate how Audio-Animatronics work. The technology—and the ambition—to create such a figure are inspiring, not the tribute to Lincoln. The Lincoln figure is a failed experiment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating and not worthy of a showcase.

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is not a great history lesson. It is, however, great Disneyland history. Repackaging the attraction as such would sell its strengths better. Whether Disneyland should be turning itself into its own museum is another question entirely, but let’s assume for the moment that it should. How about turning the Lincoln theater into a Disneyland Archives? Along with Mr. Lincoln, it’d be great to see those old Carousel of Progress figures, the bears from the Country Bear Playhouse, some animals from Nature’s Wonderland, Mr. Johnson from Mission to Mars, and even an old PeopleMover vehicle. With a place to put these memories, the inevitable disappearance of old Disney favorites could be a little easier for us die-hards to accept.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.
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