Revisionism

Note: This Disney article first appeared on October 25, 2006 at LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.

Back in the early ‘90s, I lived and worked as a software engineer in Huntsville, Alabama, and I recall a lot of fanfare about rededicating a local school. I’m making up names here, but let’s say the school had been called “Horace G. Reynolds Elementary”, and it was about to become “Neil A. Armstrong Primary School.” (The space program is big in Huntsville.) The rationale for the change? Kids didn’t know who Horace G. Reynolds was. Upon first hearing this I nearly choked. Wasn’t that the point of dedicating the school to Horace Reynolds in the first place?

Al Lutz’s October 3 MiceAge column reports a rumor that is either controversial or not, depending on your tolerance for riding that little motorized raft over to Tom Sawyer Island. The island will be re-themed to Pirates of the Caribbean–or so says the rumor–and the reasoning is simple enough: kids today like Jack Sparrow better than Huck Finn. As Al Lutz notes while discussing recent updates to the island…

The response [to the updates] from some of the older parents was of bemused interest, but the 7 to 12 year old crowd whom the entertainment was aimed at couldn’t figure out who the guys were dressed in the funny clothes and why they kept talking about whitewashing a fence. While [it] was a noble attempt on Disneyland’s part to try and bring Tom Sawyer to life for 21st century audiences, it was obvious these were characters no one under the age of thirty knew much about. Ask a ten year old today who Huck Finn is and you’ll get a blank stare, but ask him about Jack Sparrow and you’ll get a high five.

(Before I go on, let me say this: if you live in the U.S. and your twelve-year-old kids don’t know who Huck Finn is, they’re not educated properly. And if you’re between the ages of twenty and thirty and are confused by the whitewashing reference, you have more important things to be doing than spending the day at Disneyland.)

Back to my argument. I don’t mean to be a stick-in-the-mud, but there are a couple of problems with the sentiment that Huck Finn isn’t relevant to audiences in the 21st Century. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876. The book was exactly as irrelevant to me in 1976 as it is to kids today in 2006. When I was ten, I would have rather run into Speed Racer on the island than Huck Finn. That doesn’t mean Disney should have replaced Harper’s Mill with a Mach Five simulator ride. The fact is that Tom Sawyer Island educated me about those books and made me want to learn about them. (Good for me, because they’re something everyone needs to know about.) Relevance to the audience isn’t–in fact, can’t be–the number one consideration when designing Disneyland. You might as well make the argument that all of those old buildings on Main Street are meaningless to kids under ten and should be replaced with MySpace kiosks.

Disneyland isn’t a museum, nor is it an educational institution. But I think you have to accept the argument that the park needs to teach and introduce its guests to new concepts and stories in at least a tiny way. If Disneyland is just a place to re-experience all of those DVDs you have sitting on your bookshelf, is that really interesting? Doesn’t Disneyland have its own story to tell?

Of course, that’s the big question: -does- Disneyland have its own story to tell? As I discussed in a previous column, I don’t know that it does anymore. The story used to be the story of America, filtered through Walt Disney’s sensibilities. In its absence–and the absence of any suitable replacement–it’s hard to tell whether Jack Sparrow deserves to boot Tom Sawyer out of the park or not.

Since Disneyland now seems to be fairly weak in the “guiding principles” department, how then do you decide to change the park? You’re reduced to using other criteria. Here’s mine. Let me seemingly contradict myself and state that even though I would prefer it not happen–I love Tom Sawyer Island–I can accept Jack Sparrow taking the place over. I can accept that launching more Jack Sparrow-related product at the park will create a big marketing splash. What I don’t accept is the idea of “relevance” as the rationale for the change. It can’t be, else Disneyland inevitably turns into an elaborate outdoor shopping mall. I do, however, accept “plussing” (Walt Disney’s term for “improving”) as a reason to change Disneyland, and if I can be convinced that putting pirates on the island will make it a better, more fun place–and it seems a plausible enough argument–then I think Disneyland’s owners may have an opportunity to do themselves proud.

Disney has made these kinds of changes in the past with both positive and negative results. I could have been content with Disney morphing the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse into Tarzan’s Treehouse, but in the process they got rid of what made the treehouse so great. For one, they removed the plumbing system, with its water wheel and lift mechanism that delivered running water to every room. Second, they somehow lost the organ. (Don’t try to convince me that the gramophone is a suitable replacement.) And though you gained a cute baby elephant splashing at the attraction’s exit, you lost out on the attraction’s most appealing attribute, the feeling that it was a place where you could actually live. Empty cabanas with notes left from the Robinsons made it seem like if you just hung out for a few more hours, they’d invite you to spend the night. The static cartoon figures now in place transform the treehouse from what seemed like a home into a museum.

But sometimes these updates work. Though I have fond memories of Disney World’s Mr. Toad ride, it’s hard to argue persuasively that it was a better attraction than its more sophisticated–and lengthier–replacement, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Nostalgia makes me wish I could ride Mr. Toad again, but if I’m being truthful that’s pretty much all it is: nostalgia.

And in terms of updates that work, you can’t look at a more relevant example than the one set by Disneyland Paris, where Tom Sawyer Island has already been replaced by a similar, pirate-themed island. Adventure Isle is exciting to explore, beautiful…everything you could possibly want. Even though it lost the Tom Sawyer mythology that for me has always been an inherent part of Disneyland, what it’s been replaced with, it has to be said, is pretty darn cool.

I remain hopeful. Jack Sparrow Island–or whatever it’s called–could be a lot of fun. (It’ll look a little odd with a paddlewheel steamboat running around it, but incongruities aren’t new to Disneyland.) Note to the Imagineers: please, don’t make the mistake that those educators did back in Huntsville, and re-christen the place just so it’ll be easier for the audience to understand. Use the re-theme as an opportunity to make the place so much better that no one misses what it once was. Walt Disney said that Disneyland would never be completed. I don’t think that was a dictate to keep the park “relevant” to the guests. I think what he meant was that every day, Disneyland the place should work to become more like Disneyland, the ideal. By getting rid of Tom Sawyer Island, make sure that it’s a step towards making Disneyland more like “Disneyland” than it has ever been.

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