Monday, November 28, 2016

Marc Davis and Pirate Gold

I've spent a lot of time on this blog praising Marc Davis. I've lauded his character design and taste in designing an attraction which few enjoy, Country Bear Jamboree. I've tried to bring attention to the sensitivity of tone in his 1971 Jungle Cruise. I've praised the original conception of the Haunted Mansion Attic scene - the one that didn't work - as brilliant. So let's step back for a moment and take a look at one time Marc designed something that didn't really work.

Besides discussing the Haunted Mansion and rambling about music, maybe one of the key elements of this blog has been Pirates of the Caribbean. I've made the case for the excellence of this experience at Disneyland, and mounted an elaborate defense of the maligned Florida version of the attraction. I've even tried to make the case that Marc Davis truncated the Florida Pirates with some care - care not evident because Western River Expedition was never built.

In some ways this post is an outgrowth of "The Case For The Florida Pirates", an essay now over a half decade old. Rather than force everyone back to read some old writing overstuffed with adjectives, I'm going to cover some of that old ground here and begin by looking at the unique narrative of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Florida.

The Florida Pirates: Narrative Structure

If you've read any of the official books on Pirates of the Caribbean, any official WDI-sourced literature, any of the blogs descending from these official sources, or even actually been trained at the attraction at Walt Disney World, you will have been told that Pirates of the Caribbean is a time travel story. Guests load boats in the present day, discover some dead pirates, drop down a waterfall, and travel back in time to see them sacking a town.

That is the official story. It's also, unfortunately, almost 100% bullshit.

Mind you, this actually is correct - at Disneyland, and also Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. Paris probably gets the prize for being the most coherent of the lot - guests pass through a fort destroyed in a Pirate raid, blackened with gunpowder and stewn with skeletons. Once on the ride proper, the boats travel back in time and we see the raid which destroyed the fort - pirates scale the walls, fight soldiers, and blast open an aqueduct. Shortly, we discover that the chaos extends to the town nestled at the base of the fort, until the reverie ends as the boats float into a gunpowder store room that explodes. Winding through the caves at the foundations of the fort, we discover the skeletons of the doomed survivors, who spent the rest of their lives guarding their treasure. At one point we can see where the destroyed fortress queue and the caverns below connect.

It's a very impressive experience, but by straightening out the chronology some of the power of the ride is dampened. Disneyland's original masterpiece makes almost no sense taken on a scene by scene level, but has an amazing associative power that goes beyond logic. As the boats wend their way through the twisted swamp into the darkness, then through the caverns filled with bones, we sense rather than are told that the layers of reality are being stripped away. By the time the full scale Pirate raid appears, despite having been foreshadowed from literally the moment the facade of the attraction is seen, we are throughly in its thrall.

But the thing about the nearly perfect structure of the Disneyland version is that it was accidental. One could also say that it's a mess. If you've ever had a personal project that came out amazingly well but not in any way that you intended it to, then you know what the design team of Pirates of the Caribbean was dealing with here. The natural inclination is to assume that it turned out well because your ideas preserved despite the rest of the project being a total disaster. If you were given the opportunity to do it over again, you would double down on your ideas and try to eliminate the things that gave you trouble, wouldn't you?

Early version that still ends with a fire!

That's what Marc Davis was doing in Florida. Here he was, given the opportunity to go back to the well and remove all of the extra stuff that was added to Pirates of the Caribbean because the scope of the project kept changing. No longer would the ride begin in New Orleans and wind its way to a Caribbean colony: we begin in the Caribbean town the pirates are going to attack. In one stroke that obliterates the location jumping and the time travel.

So why do we get into the boats and where do we go? By moving up the start of the pirate raid so it begins while patrons are waiting in line, we motivate the boats as escape vessels and add a sense of menace and urgency to the start of the ride. In Disneyland I guess we assume that we're loading onto boats to go on a tour of the Louisiana bayous or something, and make a few wrong turns before being sent back in time. The new plan means that the facade and queue can be devoted to setting up the idea that "the pirates are coming" rather than springing it on audiences halfway through the ride.

Why are the pirates coming? Well, we've already got all of the X Atencio dialogue establishing that they're after the treasure, because what else do Pirates do? At Disneyland they never find that treasure - a casualty of the fact that Marc Davis was pretty much just drawing random stuff under Walt's direction and then X Atencio would show up and try to make sense of it. So we add a new scene at the end where the Pirates have found the treasure. There. The entire thing is streamlined. We are in a caribbean village, the pirates attack, they spread chaos while looking for the treasure, they find the treasure and the ride ends.

Okay, so what about those skeletons at the start of the ride?


If you go back and read "The Case For the Florida Pirates", I pretty much just throw my hands up the air at this point. "It's a problem!" I shout. I've got something new to say about that, and we'll get back to it in a minute.

The Destroyed Fort

All of this narrative information, to have any effect whatever, needs to be set up properly in the queue. The facade and queue for Pirates in Florida really is a masterpiece, albeit one that's almost impossible to perceive now. WDI has done so much futzing with the start of the ride to bring it into line with the time travel story set up at Disneyland that they've destroyed what made it great to begin with, which has a negative effect on our comprehension of the attraction further down the line

It began with tiny things, but tiny things were always placed there by WED for good reason. Originally, the cannons along the roof of the facade would fire. You could hear this through a lot of Adventureland, and it was like a beaconing hand: "Come on in here! Don't you want to find out what's here?". But more importantly, it was a setup so we understood that this was a fort under attack.

Once inside the fort, a short entrance tunnel played a menacing version of the "Yo Ho" theme, but then the music went silent. It needed to, because then we heard the soldiers preparing for the pirate attack. A captain of the guard could be heard ordering the preparations for firing on the pirate ship, and occasionally blasts of cannon fire could be heard. This, combined with the occasional refrain of "Yo-Ho" echoing through the halls, was absolutely essential narrative information that also created the eerie impression that the pirates could be around any corner.

From there, the queues diverged through different areas of the fort, coming back together at Pirate's Cove, a secret rear escape route. Through openings in the cave walls, a distant pirate ship can be seen in the harbor. After a trip through the unexplored caves in the hills behind the fort, boats splash down in the bay, and the pirate ship has begun its attack.

Starting in the late 90s the cannons on the facade were heard less and less often as they went long stretches without being repaired. They were fixed in 2005 shortly before the attraction closed for its big movie overlay refurbishment, but when the show returned in July 2006 the rooftop cannons were silent. They had been muted at the request of Entertainment because they were considered invasive for the "Pirate Tutorial" show happening outside; as of 2016 they are only activated for an effect in one of the Adventureland interactive games.

Also in 2006, the entire queue was refurbished. The dialogue establishing that the pirates are attacking was not removed, but it was drowned out by new music played through the entire queue rather than just the entry area. Worse, instead of the menacing atmospheric music installed by WED in 1973, the music was now the mellow, atmospheric "Overture" played in Disneyland's entrance area. Given the eerie, darkened surroundings, the peaceful flute and rhythmic drums are, and remain, entirely incorrect.

In 2012, as part of the disastrous MyMagic+ program at Walt Disney World, the Pirates queue was again refurbished. This time Fastpass was added to the attraction, requiring a new merge point be created. Worse, the Fastpass side of the queue was cut through a wall near the entrance, removing one of the queue's finest features: the walk up the entrance ramp, then the slow slope down towards the dungeons. Thanks to an original design which did not take into account the very real modern need for wheelchair accessibility, the side of the queue intended by WED to be seen by most guests - the right-side dungeon side with the "chess" and "cave" show scenes - can now only be enjoyed by those with Fastpass.

This is just gone now.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that absolutely everybody understood the setup of the pirate attack in the same easy, clear way that everybody understands the trapped safari at Jungle Cruise: it's a more complex idea. but by removing, bit by bit, the indications that we are entering a Spanish fortress under attack, WDI has, either intentionally or not, made it possible to read the FL ride as a time travel story. And after all why would it not be a time travel story, with every other version being the same way? After all, two other versions of the ride begin with a trip past pirate skeletons and ghosts, setting up the time travel to come. What's the deal with the skeletons at the start?

But given that all of the circa 1973 evidence points us towards an unbroken series of logical events with no timeslip, really WDI should have considered what the significance of the eerie ship out to sea in the distance. Or the pirates heard digging in the cave by the loading area. Or maybe not, since these are two of Marc's finest touches in this ride, and losing them to force the ride to conform to their interpretation of it would be tragic.

Those Darn Skeletons

So really you've got two competing intereptations of the Florida Pirates, both of which appear to fail to explain specific and unavoidable design features of the ride: there's the WDI "timeslip" version, and there's my version, which I believe reflects what WED intended back in 1973.

WDI's version fails to account for the narrative setup in the queue and for the pirate ship seen in the "moonlight bay" tableau. My version has no good explanation for the pirate skeletons seen at the start.

Well, hold on.

Let's go back for a moment here and look again at the final ride. Ultimately, none of the "did you knows" and "fun facts" in the world matter beyond what can be gleaned by simply and purely just looking at the ride. And my mind returns again and again to that cave seen in the queue. Marc Davis put that cave there for a reason - it's the first concrete, unambiguous sign that pirates are indeed afoot - there they are, just out of sight in that cave! We hear the scraping of shovels and their drunken singing and laughing. We know from cultural association that they're digging for treasure.

Then we drop down into town and - at least before Captain Jack Sparrow became the main thing on everyone's mind - we hear, time and again, the pirates are out looking for treasure:

"Speak up ye bilge rat! Where be the treasure?"
"Do not tell him, Carlos! Don't be chicken!"

And then at the end of the ride, we see the fortress' treasure hold and that the pirates have discovered it. We're expected to take this as a clear indication of a narrative resolution. The idea of "looking for treasure" occurs before we get on the ride, during the ride, and as a resolution to the ride, uniquely in this version. It's the primary structuring feature of the Florida attraction.

So what is Dead Man's Cove about? We see the skeletons of pirates and hear the repeated warning "dead men tell no tales". In Disneyland, "dead men tell no tales" doubles as a warning: "the answers you're looking for aren't here". In Florida, it simply and only refers to the actual Dead Man's Cove scene, because the other scenes from the haunted caverns - the inn, the bedroom, the treasure horde - don't appear. In Florida, it's as much of an explanation as it is a warning: these pirates were killed to protect the location of the treasure buried here.

The scene is open to enough interpretation that other, competing speculation has advanced ideas that, say, this is a later band of pirates who killed each other over the gold buried here. I'm confident in my interpretation that the pirates were killed to silence them not only because the idea can be found in Treasure Island, the key source for the ride, but because X Atencio actually wrote narration intended for the caverns sequence that made this clear:
"Hear ye a dead man's tale, what dastardly deed! Brave sea men, these. Helped bury the gold, they did - then silenced forever. Cursed be that black hearted villain! But, stay - I told their tale a'fore, now I be telling it again!"

So this is definitely the burying place for treasure - a lost burying place, because the captain of the ship killed the men who buried it. And if we take the next scene - the skeleton steering a shipwreck - as an indication that the captain then went down with his ship, then the location of the treasure is well and truly lost, and we can now slot this tableau into the story the Florida attraction is telling. Remember, we hear pirates digging in a cave for gold, then board our boats and discover a burial location of gold -- in a cave.

This lost gold is why the pirates attack the island. Presumably, the lost gold was buried there generations before, back when it was mostly uninhabited. In years since, the Spanish crown has turned the area where the gold was buried into a sea-port, and ironically built fortifications right on top of the lost pirate gold.

This is why the pirates fire on the fort, dig in the caverns around it, and raid the town - they assume it was uncovered during the construction. Little do they know that the Spanish didn't find the gold, either - it's still guarded by ghosts and skeletons deep below the fortifications.

Marc was a keen observer of what worked and what didn't in theme parks. The notion of taxidermy animals "waking up" to start a show - an idea repeated for Club 33 and presumably coming direct from Walt Disney - was used again for the start of Country Bear Jamboree. After seeing how effective those unplanned subterranean caverns were at Pirates, Marc would have filed that away in his mind for later use. Marc repeated caverns in his designs for Western River Expedition, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer Island, and Enchanted Snow Palace, and said this to The E-Ticket in 1999:

"You know, you don't really know what's up ahead when you go down into the mysterious area beneath New Orleans Square where all the skeletons are. That mystery area works very well, with the the wind and the dampness, and then the voices."

Marc once said Claude Coats' work was "very commendable", so this recollection by him of the grotto counts as lavish praise. So it makes sense that he would have wanted to retain that element for the Florida show despite having intentionally removed the time travel concept. Going back to the core idea for Dead Man's Cove and building the motivation for the attraction around that tableau was a clever idea.

....which isn't the same as saying that the idea actually worked. There's plenty of Marc designed gags that didn't come off as well as, say, the stretch room portraits. For every few brilliant, snappy, instantly comprehensible visual ideas like the Ballroom duelists in the Haunted Mansion, there's something like the Mummy in the graveyard. I'm not sure I'm any closer to understanding what the deal with the Mummy talking the old guy is than when I was eight. Marc was uncommonly brilliant, but he wasn't perfect.


But it's not as if the experiment with the Florida Pirates was a total wash. Marc took the time to expand and alter Claude Coats' layout of the town sequence so that it's better paced and longer. At Disneyland, the boats approach the well scene from a slightly odd side angle, then turn and end up right in the Auction. In Magic Kingdom, the boats approach and ride alongside the well scene, then ride past some new Marc-designed architecture between the Well and the Auction that adds a bit more build and release to the experience.

At Disneyland, the haunted grotto sequences are brilliant, but they aren't really scary - mysterious, strange, but not scary. For Florida, Marc pushed the ceiling of the cavern down on riders and darkened everything, reserving Claude's beautiful waterfalls for a short scenic stretch at the start. The result - with the narrower caverns, darkness, and loud voices - was truly unnerving. When given the opportunity to rework Pirates a third time for Tokyo Disneyland, Marc brought back the bayou and the extended caves, but kept the low ceiling, the darkness, and the menacing tone. He also replicated the Magic Kingdom town sequences and the unload area - no trip back up the waterfall. Comparing Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland's Pirate attractions reveals much of Marc's thinking about some of his most iconic creations.

Tokyo's Pirates: a darn good compromise

Perhaps in the future some team of Imagineers will attempt to embrace Marc's ideas in the 1973 Pirates instead of work against them. Concieving of the attraction as being a compromised gloss of what was done at Disneyland is not just a disservice to Marc Davis, but it leads to poorly executed additions that do little to harmonize with what the attraction does well. There's no time travel. It's a linear adventure with an en media res opening, a strong motivating image, and an elaborate second act. It may not be as good as Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.... but almost nothing is, and certainly not anything built in the past twenty years by any theme park operator.

Florida Pirates is a good ride, but it needs special consideration - and it hasn't really gotten any since 1973, when it was built. It's time to fix it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Lost and Found From the Golf Resort

Let's hop on over to the Golf Resort this week for some historical oddities. I had been looking for a reason to put these online, and a recent episode of the Retro Disney World Podcast focusing on the Golf Resort - making heavy use of my research - seemed to create a good opportunity.

On this site I've focused a lot on things like the Golf Resort and Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village - odd experiments from the first few years that are markedly different from the sort of kiddie-oriented
fare that would begin to dominate the Eisner years. The Golf Resort is one of the strongest hints at the sort of laid back, for-adults vacation Disney was trying to create.

I've never spoken to anybody who stayed at the Golf Resort - or later, the Disney Inn - who didn't consider it one of the best things they ever accidentally "discovered" at Walt Disney World. It was fairly common for the overbooked monorail hotels to move guests across the street to its manicured greens, and many found they preferred the quiet, intimate atmosphere preferable to the hustle and bustle of the main hotels.

And that's one reason I've continued to put effort into keeping its memory alive - I have no interest whatever in golf, but the Golf Resort would be the kind of place that would attract me. Ironically for being considered an overlooked, remote option, it's nearer to the most desirable part of Disney property than most of their hotels are today. Had Eisner not sold it outright to the US Military in one of Disney World's periodic economic downturns, that property would today host a truly elaborate, profitable Disney hotel.

For all these reasons, plus general weirdness, the Golf Resorts holds a place in my heart. And when, as every so often happens, something Golf Resort related pops up online, I try to secure it. Which is how I bring you today two truly obscure little finds from the olden days of Walt Disney World.

The Golf Studio

One of the oddest sidebars to the Golf Resort story is the fact that Disney offered a genuine golf class at a rate of about $30 for two hours - or $35 if students wished for a few rounds of golf after the class. That's between $75 and $90 today, making this one of the most expensive and unique items in a Walt Disney World vacation of the era - and one of the most experimental.

It's hard to convey just how much effort Disney put into their golf courses in the 70s. The "golfing triumvirate" of Card Walker, Dick Nunis and Donn Tatum ensured that their resort would house three lavishly praised championship courses - making Disney World catnip for the sorts of folks who, like them, read golfing magazines. Disney even installed a 6 hole junior course that used synthetic turf - Wee Links, today called Oak Trail.

The Golf Studio was broken into two sections: instruction and video analysis. After an hour with a instructor in a conference room, students were videotaped practicing their swings. The swing would then be analyzed frame by frame back in the Pro Shop.

At the conclusion of the class, students were given a cassette tape to bring home with them - side A featuring general golf tips from Phil Ritson, a South African golf instructor brought in by Disney to design the program. The second side was an audio recording of the video breakdown session. They came in heavy black plastic cases that looked like this:

You want to hear what's on that tape, don't you? I will not disappoint. Direct from the late 1970s, here's a few minutes of Phil Ritson pontificating about golf swings, then a look into what you would have experienced back at the Pro Shop, featuring Paul Rabito and somebody named "Eddie".

I'm not going to tell you it's especially fascinating listening, but it's remarkable that we can hear it at all.

Classic Golf Experiences: The Walt Disney World Magnolia

If golf instruction is your bag, then have I got a treat for you. If golf instruction is not your bag, then I've still got a treat for you. Every so often something pops up online and you just have to roll the dice and take a chance that it'll be interesting. I took a chance on an unpromising little VHS from 1988 entitled "The Player's Guide to the Walt Disney World Resort Magnolia Course". It turned out to be one of the dorkiest Disney things I've ever seen. And I've seen The Boatniks.

Hosted by golf commentator Gary McCord, it's obvious that Dick Nunis - or somebody, but probably Dick Nunis - rolled out the red carpet for this small-time production. And, possibly inspired and a little goofy on the Disney vibes, the crew turned out a truly bizarre little film. It features ghostly dwarfs, invading chipmunks, "outtakes", an interview with Joe Lee, and more.

It's also, generally speaking, a very good record and overview of a part of Walt Disney World everyone knows is there, but not everybody has seen. I enjoy the aesthetics of golf courses but have no interest in the game, and this video allows me to enjoy a well-designed course without sweating in the Florida heat. There's a lot of conceptual overlap between theme parks and golf courses, both being totally artificial environments created for just one purpose. It's easier to appreciate Joe Lee's course design with McCord's goofily amiable commentary and occasional Disney character appearances.

And in case you think none of this is up your alley, there's a typically goofy Disney World montage at the start, and later on, a look at the model for Wonders of Life. Give it a spin, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Thanks to Michael Crawford for transferring both of these magnetic tape treasures to digital. And if you want even more Golf Resort, check out my historical overview at Return to the Golf Resort, or the entire Passport to Dreams Walt Disney World History portal.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Nine Essential Disney Theme Park Books

You know what everyone loves? Disney books. There's entire websites dedicated to them. It's not an uncommon activity on social media to post photos of your growing library. Every year, new and desirable Disney books are released - independently, and also through official channels.

But - you know what a lot of people are getting rid of? Books. Whether you want to blame the e-reader revolution or larger cultural changes, many people are divesting themselves of large collections of things.

On top of that, changes in online commerce have led to the creation of huge, vertically integrated book resellers on sites like Amazon who take in massive collections of used books and make their money back on shipping and volume. Today, you can buy practically any older book you can think of online for less than the price of a good lunch.

So it's a great time for collectors like me, because it means that books are available online from huge companies for basically nothing. No more waiting for something to list on eBay, no more hoping you land the winning bid, no more waiting for the seller to ship it - the way I got most of my Disney library ten years ago.

But I've been buying Disney books online for long enough now that it's easy for me to forget that not everyone knows what these things are. And, judging by social media, it seems as if somebody discovers one of these great old Disney books every few months that they never knew existed. Perhaps this humble blog can fill in a gap, raising awareness of these great books as well as providing some background on what they are and what to expect - and how not to be ripped off!

So I put together a list of what I consider to be (roughly) nine essential, affordable vintage theme park books. These aren't books that were published with informational purposes in mind - they were sold as keepsakes, and their pleasures are largely aesthetic ones. Please keep in mind that I'm limiting my discussion here to widely available books - Disneyland: The Nickel Tour is amazing, and badly in need of a reprint, but also costs $400. The books I feature here won't break the bank.

But, you know, you should get these while they're affordable. They're also books that have been out of print for decades, so there is a finite number of them floating around. I've got a lot of Disney books, and I've looked through many more - these are ten that always bring me pleasure, no matter how often I pop them open.

The Story of Walt Disney World

Also known as the "Big D" book - because the front cover looks like a big black "D" with the center a cut-out window showing the castle. The interior of the book is a class act - a behind the scenes look at the construction of the Vacation Kingdom, presented with the most charming late-60s promotional writing and typefaces possible. Some of the photos in this book are commonly seen, but just as many are still likely to be new to you was they were in 1971.

So here's the thing to know about the D Book. This book was in print through the entirety of the 1970s - it was sold alongside the "Pictorial Souvenirs" as the main keepsake book available in the Vacation Kingdom through at least 1980. As a result, the book is very common. It's far easier to come across than the original Pictorial Souvenir, and far easier to obtain than any of the GAF guides or ticket books. It's the most easily accessible piece of early Walt Disney World to purchase, because it was in print for so long.

The interior of the book hardly changed that whole time - at some point in the mid-70s, a few of the photos inside were changed, and the resort map on page 14 was changed from the Paul Hartley original map (the one that hung in hotel rooms) to an updated, and less interesting, "fun map" showing the Golf Resort and various tourists cavorting around the property. The text of the book is the same, but the photos chosen for the early 70s edition are a bit more idiosyncratic - fewer shots of sailboats on the Seven Seas Lagoon.

One thing that never changed was the banner reading "Commemorative Edition" on the front, which has led hundreds of eBay sellers who think they've got a real find on their hands and to ask absurd prices for this thing. Every single one of these things says "Commemorative Edition". Very few of them are from 1971. Every one of them has a printing run listed on the inside front cover. I've seen dates ranging from 1972 to 1979.

Even if I feel that the print quality and the photo selection make the pre-1976 version slightly more desirable, this is a terrific book, and well worth something in the neighborhood of $15. Beware of scalpers, but well worth the effort.

Walt Disney World: The First Decade

Printed in 1980 ostensibly as a counterpart to Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, if I had to choose a single object to put into somebody's hands which explains what the company was hoping to do in Florida and how sophisticated the place was for its first few decades, it would be this handsome book. Nearly forty years on, I'm still not sure there's been a better Walt Disney World book.

Printed on thick, glossy paper, with durable binding and filled with uniformly beautiful, evocative photographs, Disney intended this book to last, and it has. Much of the spine of the book later became the basis for the hardback souvenir guides in the back half of the 80s, but the text is denser and more serious in The First Decade.

It stops not only to discuss the attractions, but their design and how they fit into the park itself. It devotes four pages to a smart discussion and beautiful photos of the Magic Kingdom's hub. Following the park tour, the book touts the backstage operations, communications and waste disposal systems, and other innovations. It bothers to print photos of the Utilidors, and makes a better case for their importance than most enthusiastic fans can. It's probably the best Walt Disney world book ever printed, and perfectly preserves the spirit of that distant, early decade in amber.

This book is widely available, and hasn't seen the jumps in price that others on this list have in the past ten years. It's so well printed that any copy you buy will probably have held up very well. Although it's not tough to find copies below $20, I can't see anybody who loves theme parks, public spaces, urban planning or just plain beautiful books being unhappy with this book after paying as much as $30. It's an essential volume.

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Disneyland

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Walt Disney World

Oh, Birnbaum. I grew up as an Unofficial Guide loyalist, partially because by the 90s the Birnbaum guides had become generic and corporate in their text and message. But if you can get your hands on one of the early Birnbaum guides - red for Walt Disney World or blue for Disneyland - you will find one of the best books ever written about these places. These books are so good that Steven Fjellman interrupts himself in Vinyl Leaves to gush about them.

You know you're in for something special when you open up these early guides and the first page reprints a memo from Dick Nunis approving of Steve's efforts. Things get stranger when, in his introduction, Steve describes his wife jumping up and down and screaming at the prospect of "riding all the rides". Throughout, these early guides have real character as Birnbaum guides you through the parks with wit, a little bit of sarcasm, and an obvious love for a stiff drink.

The amount and variety of information Birnbaum has gathered up from all corners of the company and presented in this guide is staggering. While later day Birnbaum guides present some tidbits of information ensconced in some fairly bland discussion of each ride, Birnbaum's admiration for Disney fairly leaps off these pages. He doesn't just give you an overview of each area of the park, he goes into the architecture, landscape, and atmosphere of each in detail. He doesn't just summarize what's available at each restaurant, he tries to create a sense of its design and offers some smart remarks about how stand-out dishes actually taste.

Some caveats. Birnbaum's 1983 guide, which advertises EPCOT Center on its cover (above), was completed in a rush to get the book to print and so the information on EPCOT is brief and incomplete. EPCOT Center fans will want to pick up his 1984 guide for a much better overview of that park. Also, around the time The Disney-MGM Studios was getting ready to open, the text was already starting to become compressed to fit in the new offerings. While the late-80s guides are still enjoyable, it's those red and blue covered guides that are truly remarkable.

You can see why Dick Nunis approved. These things were written to be ephemeral little books, used for one trip and then discarded, but they're so well done they've survived as both souvenirs and historical records. Not bad for a travel book.

It's always been kind of tough to find old editions of these books exactly for the reasons I described, but if you see a red or blue cover Birnbaum, grab it!

Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow

Here it is, probably in the running with The Nickel Tour for the greatest theme park book ever published. This was written by Richard Beard, who worked directly for Disney and to be sure, this is definitely a promotional publication. Disney did their best to disguise this - publishing the book through Harry Abrams in New York - but that is what it is.

But what a book, and what a park.

Even die-hard EPCOT experts will be staggered by what's inside this book. Huge, colorful photographs accompanied by an intelligent text, this book makes the best possible case for what Disney hoped EPCOT Center could be. The print quality is excellent, and there's even fold-out pages for large format art and photos. The book traces the design and construction of the park - there's no real attempt to make excuses for the failure of Walt's future city to materialize. But this is an unusually compelling text, has excellent and abundant photos, and is a quality publication - Disney was making the case for why and how they built EPCOT through this book.

It speaks for a park that no longer exists. For kids to whom EPCOT was love at first sight, looking through this book can be emotional. It's much more like going to EPCOT than going to Epcot is. And there it can sit on your shelf forever.

This is the book that is seemingly re-discovered on social media every few months, and combined with a perhaps bland title, word has clearly not gotten out that this book is essential. Prices were high for a few years around the 25th Anniversary of Epcot, but have seemingly come down. So here's what you need to know when you go shopping:

First, there are three editions of the book, and they are all distinct. The first edition is simply called "Walt Disney's EPCOT", and pre-dates the opening of the park. The second is called "Walt Disney's EPCOT Center", and was published after the park opened. Both of these editions are large-format hardbound books - measuring 9.5 inches wide and 12 inches tall. They're both 240 pages long and have basically the same text and layout. The 1981 version consists entirely of models and artwork, while the 1982 version has replaced some of these with photos of the finished park.

The third edition is designated below its ISBN on the interior front page as "Special Edition", but it's easy to distinguish from the first two on sight. It's a smaller, thinner book, with a simple board hardcover front instead of the full dust jacket the 1981 and 1982 editions have. It's just 8.75 inches across and 11 inches tall, and has about 125 pages. The front cover includes the EPCOT Center "flower" emblem, and uses the actual park logo (right). This is a slimmed down version of the 1982 edition, and was published to be sold inside the park as a souvenir.

Some people, of course, will want to have all three. I suggest picking up the slim "Special Edition" first, which is the most common and a darn great book on its own, no excuses needed. From there, I think the 1982 version of the big book has a slight advantage for its mix of photos and art. It's not too tough to find the larger versions as library cast-offs.

However you find them, these books are wonderful and there's simply no good reason for ownership of them to be as confined to EPCOT super fans as it is. Seek them out, and the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years

Yeah, I know. So far this list has been very East Coast-centric, but what can be done when you've got heavyweight hitters like Walt Disney World: The First Decade all lined up? The early 80s were just a darn good time for theme park books.

One of these excellent books was Disneyland: The First Quarter Century. That book is something of an outgrowth of a souvenir publication available at Disneyland through the late 60s and early 70s, usually simply called Walt Disney's Disneyland. Written by Marty Sklar and published in a hardbound edition, it was an early attempt to give a historical overview of the park. Disneyland: The First Quarter Century revised that book, re-organized the text, added better photographs and a few bells and whistles, like card stock section dividers. I think The First Quarter Century is a terrific book, but I'm going to direct you to its updated version from five years later as being slightly better.

To begin with, it includes New Fantasyland, which is for this author a crucial component of Disneyland's appeal. The card stock section dividers have become plain decorative pages, which is not a deal breaker. And the rest of the text is absolutely intact and unchanged.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years is really more of a photo book of memories, especially when compared to its superb counterpart Walt Disney World: The First Decade. It includes historical photos of Disneyland laid out chronologically, with special attention given to celebrity and world leader visits. The last section is devoted simply to beautiful photos of the park from another time. In many ways, these books set the template for the kind of Disneyland book that still gets published today.

Disney did update the book one last time in 1990, now called Disneyland: The First Thirty-Five Years. I find this version to be by far the least compelling of the three, with few changes besides an even more compressed text and a few new photos. Additionally, the 1990 edition is often significantly more expensive than the 1980 or 1985 versions. So much of all 3 of these books are identical that you really only need one, and to me The First Thirty Years is the best compromise.

A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney's Disneyland

I knew I had to include at least one of these books, which were a staple of the theme parks until around 1990. But which one? The late-70s Walt Disney World version, with the globe cover, came close to iconic, but I knew this list would lean too heavily towards Walt Disney World publications. Of the rest, I liked this mid-80s Disneyland book the best, in futuristic silver!

There isn't much that these books need to do besides contain lots of photos and be beautiful, but this particular edition has a dense, elaborate interior which is especially pleasing, with classy calligraphy lettering and some truly unusual photos.

On top of that, this book represents Disneyland at a specific moment in time worth remembering. Back when Bear Country was still Bear Country, before Captain EO and Star Wars invaded Tomorrowland and America Sings was still spinning, and Cascade Peak was still standing. It was a park on the razor edge between eras - with promotional pages in the back trumpeting EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland - before the real changes began.

Disneyland: Inside Story

You know those websites that cover the history of Disneyland? They all originate with this book.

Now, if the Richard Beard EPCOT book is somewhat under-rated, then this book is somewhat over-rated. This is a book which is so influential that practically its entire spine has been disseminated online in the form of trivia posts, "do you know?" articles, tweets and other digital noise. This is not a book you're going to want to because it contains amazing information; there are more compelling books about the creation of Disneyland which have been built on the back of this one. This is a book that's worth owning because it's a beautifully created object.

Just like with EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, Disney produced Inside Story as a prestige product, intended to glorify their park. Once again published by Abrams in an oversize glossy edition, this is a park book which just plain looks beautiful. It's easy to imagine an entire generation of Disneyland kids pouring over it repeatedly (the way I was doing with my edition of the Imagineering book ten years later) before logging onto Usenet to talk Disneyland history. It's arguable that Disneyland: Inside Story, with its embrace of the parenthetical and adulation of Walt Disney, is the foundation of the online community.

Taking a step back, it's easy to see how Randy Bright combined aspects of Marty Sklar's Walt Disney's Disneyland book with aspects of Disneyland: The First Quarter Century to build a better mousetrap. Many of the stories from Sklar's book crop up again here, the same ones you've heard over and over again about cars parked in Frontierland and color blind tractor drivers. What Bright did was he added interviews with the designers who built the place and an extra layer of journalistic integrity. Most Disneyland books report briefly on the doubt and challenges related to creating the park in the 50s, but Bright takes the time to bring them to life in a way which makes them into genuine concerns instead of the quickly disproven complaints of negative nellies.

But it's also worth remembering that Bright was writing this book at an opportune moment in history. In 1987, Walt Disney had been dead a mere twenty years. Indeed, the sections of his book break down into Design, Construction, Very Early Disneyland, Pre-1966 Disneyland, and Post-Disney Disneyland. He even stops to describe the corporate takeover attempts of the early 80s with surprising candor.

The importance of this book means it's often sold for vastly inflated prices by those who primarily sell to Disney fans, but thankfully thrift stores, second hand book retailers, and used library copies are becoming more common. Unless price is no object, there's no reason to pay $60 for this book. It may take some hunting around, but I can't imagine than any theme park fan wouldn't find the effort worthwhile.

Walt Disney World (Souvenir Hardcover)

Here we go. This is the book that began my fascination with Walt Disney World. It's also still the most handsome souvenir book I've ever seen. These are truly obsession-worthy books.

I'm speaking, of course, of the hardcover souvenir books produced at Walt Disney World between 1987 and 1992. They don't really have a title, but their covers are instantly recognizable: embossed art around a central photograph of Cinderella Castle; pages and pages of remarkably classy photographs of the park; big Walt Disney painting in the front pages.

There's a couple of them. The forest green version was the original, published in 1987. The second edition has a cream cover and has been updated to include the Disney-MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Pleasure Island and the Grand Floridian. After that came the "20 Magical Years" edition, with a cover in blue and silver embossed art.

Here's the good news: all of these books are practically identical in layout and content. The book was expanded over time without sacrificing content. The deep basis for the book is Walt Disney World: The First Decade, of which this is something of an updated, slimmed down version. It's definitely more of a mass market souvenir than The First Decade, with less text and more pictures. But what pictures!

As an extension of the exemplary First Decade, these books really generate a feeling of what Walt Disney World was like before the booming 90s added too many things that were too poorly thought out. Visitors must have thought so too, because there's a lot if these out there, for relatively little money. As far as pictorial souvenirs go, this is amongst the most evocative to lose yourself in, and well worth the minor investment.

Since the World Began

If three of the previous books help to tell the story of Disneyland in all of its variance, then Jeff Kurtti's Since the World Began tries to do the same for Walt Disney World, and more or less it's still the best attempt at delivering the full package.

Walt Disney World is so contradictory and complex that in reality each of the parks could fill its own massive book, and such a collection of books would likely still gloss on the resort infrastructure, the dozens of hotels, Lake Buena Vista, Bonnet Creek, the golf courses, the water parks, and all of the rest of it. As a one-stop shop, Kurtti's book is limited in terms of what it can include, but in terms of giving a complete overview, it's still.... still the best effort available.

There are parts of the book where simply the same old facts and trivia about the parks are repeated, which is where the links between this book and, say, the souvenir hardcover are most apparent - I'm sure Disney provided the same packets and lists of information I looked through as a Cast Member. Since the World Began is not a research project, it's a very well done souvenir book.

Although published in 1996, the book is basically still pretty up to date. It includes sections on Animal Kingdom, the sports complex, and Coronado Springs, and since then (setting aside the expansion of DVC) the changes have not been as extensive as they were in the first 25 years of the resort. Since the World Began could be easily updated for, say, the resort's 50th and be fairly similar.

Somebody still needs to write the Walt Disney World history book extravaganza. I've done my best to fill in gaps in the early years, and much of the rest is a matter of public record. Since the World Began is not the telephone directory-size history book that Walt Disney World probably demands, but it's a really superb overview.

This book is also unique amongst souvenir books in that it's more text than images, by a huge margin.  Not even Disneyland: Inside Story seems so committedly... verbal. The book could probably benefit from a slightly more expansive layout and larger photos, and a slightly more in depth text, but this is the one and only place to start for anyone who wants to start learning about Walt Disney World, for two decades and counting.


Love the Disney World of old? Drop by our Walt Disney World History portal to see all of this site's history articles gathered in one easy to access place.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fun House: A Dark Ride Documentary

There aren't really too many really terrific theme park documentaries out there - at least ones written and produced with an eye towards objectivity and education. There's always been making-of television specials and the kind of "documentaries" Disney regularly commissions from the History and Travel Channels, but these are as much promotional tools as anything else. But a well-researched theme park documentary that has a point of view and a variety of subjects across a broad spectrum of the industry?

Well, I know of one. It was a large influence on my way of thinking about theme parks, and we're going to take a look at it today.

In the 1990s growing up out in the country, I did not have access to a lot of information about theme parks. I had grown up with our regional amusement center, Riverside Park - now known as Six Flags New England - every few years may be able to make a trip down to Disney. There was no such thing as streaming video, and a dial-up connection to a 56k modem was still years away for me. Amazon did not yet exist, never mind of the sort of information resource I've worked to make this site into. I wanted to learn more about theme parks, but my options were very limited.

Thankfully I was at the time a VHS hoarder and was able to capture this Discovery Channel documentary in 1997. When I watched it some time later, it really took my head off and changed the way I thought about my occasional trips to the orlando mega parks. Suddenly, the two worlds of amusement parks I had known - the regional parks like Lake Compounce and the Orlando extravaganzas - were contextualized as being two different expressions of a shared heritage. It was a revelation. The show was called "Fun House", and there seemingly is very little information available about it.

One could argue with certain points that the documentary makes. Its' two examples of cutting edge attractions are Indiana Jones Adventure and Terminator 2: 3D, and most theme park fans would not lump T2 in with all of the dark rides. At the end, it takes a dive into the world of IMAX films. Yet it's very easy to imagine an updated version of this documentary then moving on to discuss Universal's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Disney's Soarin' as examples of rides which build on the boom in themed projection technology from the 90s. The current champion for most cutting edge attraction operating is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which frankly isn't all that different than Spider-Man.

And on the other hand, this hour long show preserves a number of things which are now lost. The Old Mill and Le Cachot at Kenywood are gone, and Bushkill Park's historic Haunted Pretzel was destroyed in the Pennsylvania flooding in 2005. The lights-on tour of the Haunted Pretzel is a high point of this documentary, and worth watching to see exactly what the Pretzel Amusement Company was building in the late 1920s.

Oh, and thankfully the me of 1997 had enough foresight to include all of the commercials. Hop on board the Fun House and let's learn something!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Day at the Columbia Harbour House

When you think about it, visitors to theme parks really never stop moving. We walk from place to place in order to board attractions that whirl us through scenery. Trams, monorails, boats  and buses whisk us where we want to go. Even the theme park parade is whisked past us, efficiently entertaining tens of thousands at once without having to stop. One of the few places this restless forward motion finally ceases is the food court.

Most theme park guests probably spend longer staring at the walls of a food court than they do riding that multi-million dollar roller coaster or zipping through that highly profitable gift shop. And if you have an audience that's going to need to stop and stare for a while at something you built, then you have a choice. You can either present them with something that's totally perfunctory like the Captain America Diner at Islands of Adventure, or you can drop them off in something like Disneyland's Plaza Inn.

Disneyland seems to have created the idea of the fully themed food court. Much of what Disneyland opened with in 1955 could today best be described as a "snack stand", with the noteworthy exception of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship in Fantasyland. But, starting with the plans for New Orleans Square and New Tomorrowland, Disneyland food courts would become increasingly elaborate, a progression which climaxed with Magic Kingdom's 1971 slate of indoor food courts. As has been shown on this site before, I have a special interest in the Adventureland Veranda, but really it's hard to top the Columbia Harbour House.

Indeed, among a certain subset of the historically oriented, the Harbour House is almost one of the secret handshakes. It's the dark retreat from the Florida sun where sea shanties echo through mahogany chambers. What makes the Harbour House so special?

Based on atmospheric sketches by Dorothea Redmond, The Harbour House didn't open until Summer 1972, alongside most of the rest of the facilities in Liberty Square - Olde World Antiques, the Perfume shop, the Heritage House, etc. On early Magic Kingdom guide maps, it's called the Nantucket Harbour House, but by the time it opened, it's location had switched to "Columbia Harbour". Why?

To be clear, there is no such place as Columbia Harbour. I'm fairly certain that it was named in anticipation of the arrival of a new vessel to ply the Rivers of America - a copy of the Columbia at Disneyland.

Years back, Mike Lee identified a three-masted sailing vessel on a 1969 model of the Magic Kingdom, just above Thunder Mesa. What's most interesting about this is that everything on the north side of Liberty Square is designed to suggest a seaside atmosphere - the sailing ship weathervane, widow's walks, and turning beacon atop the Riverboat Landing, the harbour House itself, the Cape Cod-style shingles around the Yankee Trader, and then the seaside horror mansion of the long-dead captain nearby. The rock wall that bounds the river along Liberty Square is referred to in old park manuals as the "Sea Wall".

The Columbia had been canceled and replaced by a second riverboat in 1973, due to the two major concerns facing park operations in this first years - shade and capacity. A Columbia vessel, with an exposed single deck holding around 300 persons, didn't make sense compared to a three-deck Riverboat holding 450 persons. It's a shame, because the Columbia would have complemented Liberty Square and made sense of a lot of the theming on the north side of the land.

That secret history is just one of the fascinations of the Harbour House. Did you know that all of the rooms inside are named? I've had the diagram posted on this site for about eight years, but it's always worth re-posting:

Did you know there used to be a separate serving area upstairs at the Harbour House? It's true. There's still a kitchen back there, and food items and whisked between floors for service downstairs. By the 90s, the upstairs counter was dispensing entirely deserts and soup, and by the mid-90s, the menu has shrunk to only offering clam chowder in those huge bread bowls you can still get at Disneyland. By the late 90s it was walled up, although you can still see the spot where it was - with the telltale tile floor - at the top of the main stairs.

In the years since moving to Central Florida, Harbour House has become my personal respite, favorite food court, and a place I take time to rest in every time I'm at Magic Kingdom. And so after nearly decades of faithful service and reliable atmosphere, I decided it was time to give the Columbia Harbour House her due as one of those things that makes The Magic Kingdom what it is.

Step through those familiar cream double doors and let's spend A Day at the Columbia Harbour House.


I've posted a few of these elaborate edited videos before, and I try to regularly update my YouTube account with new theme park "viewpoints", static views of the park from a fixed perspective. It occurred to me that I've never made clear exactly why I continue this project, or how the "viewpoints" fit into the larger notion of the more elaborate edited sequences.

I got the basic idea from Mike Lee, who spent part of the early 90s plopping down his camcorder in various places around Walt Disney World and just letting it roll. So part of it, yes, is documentation. but there's something else here too.

When you work at Walt Disney World, it re-orients your way of thinking about the place. Visitors rush about constantly; Cast Members stand in one spot, day in and day out. After a while, if you're willing to look to see it, a secret, alternate Walt Disney World opens up to you: one where shifting light, weather, and crowds become as beautiful and memorable as the place they're in. Eventually, you learn to take pleasure more in the way the afternoon summer light bounces off the river onto the riverboat as much as you do the river itself.

This is why Mike Lee's vintage viewpoint videos struck me as worthy of emulation; they seemed to capture what it's really actually like to be there. My "Theme Park Viewpoints" are as much an effort to explain why I like these parks as they are an effort to document. That's why they go on, and on, and on; they're designed to encourage you to start admiring the way light plays off a structure, or the way the crowd ebbs and flows through a space, or the cyclical rhythm inherent to all theme parks.

This video, A Day at the Columbia Harbour House, is so far my fullest attempt to express this aspect of theme parks. I went back, again and again, at all times of day, to record life in the Harbour House for a five month span. I knew if I kept showing up and being willing to stop and look, I could just maybe be there to film that elusive magic the parks sometimes have when the light is just right. Out of about two hours of raw footage, I pulled out this 17 minute meditation of one of Magic Kingdom's holy places.

Stop, look, and listen inside theme parks, as often as possible, for as long as it takes. The secret life of the park is there for you if you're willing to see it.