Why Everyone Should Believe In Epcot

As you are no doubt aware, friends, 2014 has been something of a tumultuous year for fans of Disney theme parks. Please bear with me as I briefly summarize two cases where the wounds are still fresh.

In Anaheim, an expansion of Club 33 made significant and controversial changes to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. We saw the original entrance door fall into disuse and the original lobby stripped bare and converted into a merchandise storage room. We saw the French lift (custom-built by WED after Walt saw an antique one during a trip to Paris) get taken out of service and converted into a depressing table-for-one. We saw the original logo replaced with a (largely unpopular) new logo. We saw the trophy room get demolished to make way for a larger kitchen. We saw the beloved Court of Angels courtyard get closed off to the paying public, walled off behind “stained glass” gates to serve 33 members only. We saw significant changes to the exteriors in New Orleans Square, too, from noticeably off-centered, clumsy and out-of-scale windows to Art Nouveau flourishes that make no thematic or historical sense.

In the understandable effort to double capacity (and increase profits) with Club 33 members, unfortunately the new space is now largely unrecognizable, wiped clean of its history, charm and personal touches by Walt Disney. All these changes combined, not to mention the loss of the Disney Gallery space above Pirates a few years ago for a posh and largely unused Dream Suite, it’s a very tough pill to swallow for this Disney fan. It’s a sad situation when profit and capacity come at the expense of what made the club special in the first place. I fear this is a sign of more history-cleansing to come.

Then, over in Orlando, fans exploded when Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs confirmed rumors that Maelstrom, the quirky 80s-era boat ride in the Norway pavilion at Epcot, would soon close to make way for a Frozen attraction (an announcement delivered in a rather smug and ballsy way, I might add, with Staggs citing a tired Walt quote “Disneyland will never be completed” in an apparent effort to justify the decision and silence dissent). The hashtag #savemaelstrom has been shared on social media thousands of times.

Fan reactions vary wildly, of course, but the most often recurring comment I’ve seen is that we as fans are not against a Frozen attraction – quite the contrary actually – but rather we fail to understand why Frozen must replace Maelstrom, or, indeed, why Frozen belongs in Epcot at all. Although its buildings are sparkling clean and almost fantasy-like in their perfection, World Showcase displays the cultures of real people and real countries of the world. Surely Frozen’s fictitious Arendelle setting would work far better thematically in the fantasy-friendly Magic Kingdom, or the Walt Disney World park that desperately needs more movie-based headliner attractions, Disney’s Hollywood Studios?

I would even argue that Maelstrom, a fairly short boat ride, isn’t big enough and won’t do the Frozen movie franchise justice. Not to mention its small-ish hourly capacity will create nightmarish lines when it opens sometime in early 2016 (apparently after the initial Frozen frenzy, already ebbing, will have died down).

With the full understanding that petitions, letters, emails, phone calls, hashtags, etc. are useless and Disney does what Disney wants, your opinions bedamnned, I began to wonder if people are losing faith in Epcot. Indeed, I have yet to read a satisfying argument why Frozen should replace Maelstrom. It’s become very clear (and maddening) that Disney is unwilling to expand Epcot, despite having several large expansion pads at the ready. In fact, the Norway pavilion itself, which opened over 25 years ago, is the most recent expansion to World Showcase, if you can believe that, and Maelstrom is one of only TWO rides in that very large half of Epcot.

Brand advocates (who insist again and again that every decision Disney makes is the right decision) insist that replacing Maelstrom with Frozen is a great decision because 1) Frozen is popular/profitable (goes without saying, duh) and, somewhat in self-defeat, 2) Epcot as a concept is dead anyway. A point I strongly disagree with. This is Disney, after all, the company that set the golden standard for themed design and set a high bar for what a theme park can and should be.

The question remained, however: Does anyone still believe in EPCOT? I decided to put it to the test on Twitter with a hashtag #BelieveInEpcot. Here are my first two tweets, posted Friday evening, September 19:

What followed greatly surpassed my expectations as the tweets started flooding in, each with a thoughtful take on how EPCOT has created meaning to people over the last 32-ish years. Please take the time to scroll down and read some of them, as together they form a truly remarkable and powerful statement.

Thank you so, so much to everyone who participated. It’s clear that many, many people still beleve in EPCOT.

Do you believe in EPCOT? I want to hear what you have to say! Leave a comment in the space below, or tweet a message with the hashtag #BelieveInEpcot.

And thanks for reading! 🙂 -Matt @DLthings


Review: “It’s Kind of a Cute Story” is a Must-Read for Disney Fans

It’s kind of a wonderful book.

In fact, it’s probably the best Disney book I’ve ever read.

What makes “It’s Kind of a Cute Story” so great isn’t just because it’s about a legendary Imagineer whose work includes some of the most beloved Disneyland attractions ever built – The Haunted Mansion, ‘it’s a small world,’ The Enchanted Tiki Room. It’s because it’s told by Rolly Crump himself – he’s hilarious, oddball, and filled to the brim with cute little stories. It’s as if Rolly is sitting across from you in a comfy chair with a glass of wine, recounting everything from the posters he made advertising marijuana (yep) to his peculiar fascination with mobiles to the mischievous pranks Disney animators played on each other. I literally laughed out loud several times while reading this book.

Did you know that Rolly designed the fanciful Tower of the Four Winds? Did you know he hated it and didn’t want it to come back to Disneyland after the New York World’s Fair? Instead it was cut up and thrown into the ocean (!). Rolly is forthright with his opinions and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. And I love that.

For me, the book is most interesting when it reveals some of the creative differences between artists and the push-and-shove of egos within WED, Walt’s small team of designers for Disneyland. For example, Roger Broggie apparently didn’t like Rolly and Yale Gracey very much and he refused to help them build effects for the Haunted Mansion. When Rolly designed some portraits for the “stretch room” of the Haunted Mansion, Marc Davis came to look at them and said they were no good and that he would redo them. And there was quite a rift between Rolly and Dick Irvine – they didn’t see eye to eye on anything! It’s fascinating to see the passion these artists had and the lengths they went to defend their designs and ideas.

The book explores Rolly’s incredibly colorful life – growing up, becoming a Disney animator, and working on many memorable theme park projects, including: the delightfully kooky Museum of the Weird, the Tomorrowland redesign of 1967 (including the Tomorrowland Terrace stage and the wonderful flower beds at the entrance to the land), his time as Supervising Art Director of Disneyland (where he saw to everything from the chain links in the queues, to trees which are still in the park today, to the lighting in many park areas including ‘small world’ and Tomorrowland, to theming the popcorn carts and trash cans to their respective lands), some dark rides for Walt Disney World (including the greatly missed Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), ideas for EPCOT (including a master plan with a very different World Showcase and design for the Wonders of Life and The Land pavilion – which John Hench pretty much all hated), Knott’s Bear-y Tales, and more.

There are lesser-known projects here too. I had no idea that Rolly designed what basically amounts to an alternate version of the Enchanted Tiki Room for the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, complete with animatronic birds. Nor did I know he helped design an Omnimover-type ride that took riders to the bottom of the ocean for a project called Ocean Center.

The book is filled with great photos and examples of Rolly’s work in color and black & white. Unfortunately in my copy there is a small glitch with the image of ‘small world’ on page 81. But other than that, the book is a joy to look at as well as to read.

What I most enjoyed from this book is Rolly’s working relationship with Walt and how things got done. There was no guest research or test marketing. If Walt thought something was a good idea, he just went ahead and did it. “Well, build the goddamn thing then!” he says to Rolly, regarding the ‘small world’ facade.

There’s also some really great little nuggets of wisdom from Rolly about working and life in general. One of them is: believe in the people that work for you and turn them loose, because you’ll end up with a much better product. Another: accept life as it’s handed to you and just enjoy it, and have a sense of humor.

One more thing – I was amused to learn that one of Walt’s favorite sayings was “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” for anything that irritated him. (Just wait ’till you read the cute little story about the Christmas present Rolly made for Walt involving the the word “Shit” – his favorite cuss word.) There are a million other little stories and they’re all so fun.

Do yourself a favor, fellow readers – GET THIS BOOK. I highly recommend it to Disney fans or anyone who appreciates the art and design that goes into theme parks. Many thanks to Jeff Heimbuch for all his hard work putting the book together – it was well worth it!

You can purchase a paperback copy of “It’s Kind of a Cute Story” on Amazon for $20.70 (17% off! Eligible for free shipping!) or the Kindle Edition for $4.99. If you’re in the SoCal area, there are a few chances coming in a few weeks to meet Rolly Crump and get your copy signed. Visit the official book site for details.

(Note: My review is unbiased; I purchased this book myself and I have no personal or working connection with the authors or publishers.)