Playing the Walt Card

by David Koenig, staff writer
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Whenever something changes at Disneyland—usually something that's been the same for a long time and has become neglected—the public makes noise. Fans get upset. They leave angry complaints at City Hall, send nasty emails, and—most vocally—take to social media and fan-site message boards.

Look beneath the surface and their motives typically boil down to this: the fans feel that something pure and dear to them from their childhood is being heartlessly destroyed to make room for something overly commercial (whether it's bastardizing "it's a small world" by adding Disney characters or bulldozing a beloved parking lot in favor of an MBA-designed amusement park).

Their gnashing of teeth, however, is quickly countered by the Proponents of Progress, who argue just as vociferously that Disneyland's very survival depends on it remaining fresh, new, exciting, and relevant. It may take two posts, it may take 20, but sooner rather than later someone's going to play the Walt Card.

As the "Progressives" are quick to point out, Walt spoke famously that one of his favorite things about Disneyland was its ability to constantly change. He was a tinkerer. He never intended it to stay the same. So, use of the Walt Card is rather ingenious and often shuts down debate, because most of us who whine when a creaky old chestnut is put out of its misery are "Traditionalists." Our idea of forward-thinking is Tomorrowland 1967 and, consequently, we hold no higher authority than Walt.

I've personally had the Walt Card played on me by the likes of Tony Baxter, David Mumford, Bruce Gordon, and—just in the last week—author Jeff Kurtii and celebrated raconteur DisneylandFanGuy.

And, to be sure, they make a valid point. Walt embraced change and, while sentimental, he never thought twice about replacing anything if he could make it better.

That said, the Walt Card should not end the debate; it should be just the beginning. First of all, to honestly, effectively play the Walt Card, any addition should be better than what it replaces. We can argue in good faith over whether Star Tours is better than Adventure through Inner Space, or if Star Tours 2.0 is better than Star Tours 1.0. That argument becomes more difficult to make if you're arguing whether a submarine ride or a PeopleMover is better than an empty lagoon or an abandoned track.

Second, if you want to play the Walt Card, any change shouldn't be obnoxiously commercial. As much as Walt was fond of change, he detested overt commercialism in his park. Progressives can cite that Walt's original Tomorrowland was an unsightly collection of corporate exhibits... but they should also remember that Walt hated them and replaced them as quickly as he could with attractions that were more entertaining, better themed, and less overtly commercial.

He saw sponsorships as a necessary evil and constantly pushed to prevent them from overshadowing his theming and stories. Walt spoke extensively about letting customers leave with a little money in their pocket. Three months in, Disneyland revised its entire ticketing structure to keep guests from having to pull out their wallets every few minutes. And Walt's core business philosophy was building faithful, lifelong customers by providing top quality entertainment and not gouging them for every cent at every opportunity.

Third, Disney and its defenders shouldn't criticize fans for being nostalgic toward Disneyland's past—it's the primary product they sell. The hottest selling merchandise? Retro park stuff. The longest line ever for an attraction? Not Indiana Jones. Seven-plus hours, the day they reopened the subs. The two most highly visited years? Not years they introduced something new, but rather ones in which they marketed something old—2005, when they played on the park's first 50 years, and 1996, when they pretended to kill the Main Street Electrical Parade. Disney wants to monetize your past park memories and have you appreciate its historical elements—until they've got something new to sell you.

Finally, remember that today's Progressive is tomorrow's Traditionalist. When I was 8 or 18, Disneyland could have replaced the Market House with a video arcade and it wouldn't have fazed me. But as you get older, you start noticing the little things. You begin appreciating the power of details and theming. You realize it's important to strike a balance between old and new, lush and lucrative. Then, without realizing it, as you rack up decade after decade of special memories inside Disneyland, you start growing attached to the place.

I am firmly convinced that Disneyland's incredible lasting popularity can be attributed to its artful ability to balance what was with what can be. It would be far less successsful if nothing had changed over the last 20 years—just as it would suffer if everything changed.

Comments

  1. By Jeff Kober

    David,

    Well articulated. I agree to all your points. And I would add that new experiences like Carsland shows that new concepts (with all its merchandising) are welcome when the experience is well done. People will embrace new shows and attractions, when they are created with great attention to detail. I think they also see makeovers as being largely valid when they are done well--such as the Nighmare Before Chrismas with the Haunted Mansion.

    I think where it gets sticky is a new attraction must really be way ahead of an older attraction that has sentimental value to be embraced. I think if the Winnie the Pooh attraction had been at the level of Tokyo Disney's attraction, you would have seen people embrace Pooh over the Country Bears.

    In short, the Walt card people should be playing is not that things should keep being new, but that things should keep getting better. And I think that's Walt's stronger legacy.

  2. By olegc

    Like

  3. By goalieump413

    Nice article. Yes, just because something is thought of as "old" isn't a good enough reason to change it. Make "it" better, and people will more likely approve.

  4. By danyoung

    I can see the merit in both sides of the Walt argument. But where people run off the rails is when they take a general announcement and predict doom and gloom. The recent announcement of Starbucks coming to DL's Market House is a terrific example of this. Right from the beginning some folks online were freaking out over the loss of their beloved Market House, with absolutely no solid information about what was being taken away and what was still to remain. Further announcements indicated that the general theme of the place will not in any way be diminished. I've never understood why people can't just wait and see what something is going to be like, and THEN praise or criticize it.

  5. By club33az

    You know, I've seen the Walt Card being used on both sides of the argument. "Walt wouldn't want that changed/leveled/replaced/etc. because he was all about (A, B and C - fill in your reason here)." And, conversely, the "Walt never wanted Disneyland to be a museum" argument David speaks of here.

    I think the others posting here are absolutely right. I don't think it's so much what's leaving or changing or being replaced. It's what they are changing to. As was said, as long as it's changing to something of interest, relevancy and quality, most people will accept it. But DL fanatics are like bulldogs. We can smell shoddy work a mile away. In addition, if you are getting rid of something, MAKE SURE you are replacing it with something. Don't just let it sit there empty for years on end (staring at you, Peoplemover track).

    Having said all of that, I'd really love to hear what John Hench's opinion would be of DCA now (he famously stated, when asked what he thought of DCA when it opened, "I liked it better as a parking lot). Hopefully, it would be a much better assessment now.

  6. By David Koenig

    Dan, the reason, of course, is that if you hold your tongue until the change is complete, it's too late. If the public would have reserved judgment until after the cement was dry, Lincoln would be in storage, the Muppets would have appeared on Main Street, and there would be nothing left about Tom Sawyer on Tom Sawyer Island.

  7. By danyoung

    While I can understand all of that, what I'm talking about is unwarranted panic as soon as the slightest change is announced, with no clear understanding of what Disney is really going to do. It's one thing to say "I sure hope they don't mess with X, Y and Z". It's quite another to freak out and scream that "they're taking away X, Y and Z" before any real information is released.

  8. By oregontraveler

    The Starbucks remodel is a good example of something new coming in. And we have an official comment via the Disney blog that the theming will be retained ie: keeping the stove, checkerboard & party phones. But what about the elimination of Swing Dancing at PFF. A broken promise, (for now, I hope) Since it appears the benches are not nailed down to the floor. I'm glad the Rainbow Ridge facades are coming back at Big Thunder. But not so happy about the new sleds for Matterhorn.

    Thanks for the column David. The last sentence is key though. As much as I try to embrace any new changes at DL, I'm hopeful that some of Walt's touches will never go away.

  9. By olegc

    Quote Originally Posted by David Koenig View Post
    Dan, the reason, of course, is that if you hold your tongue until the change is complete, it's too late. If the public would have reserved judgment until after the cement was dry, Lincoln would be in storage, the Muppets would have appeared on Main Street, and there would be nothing left about Tom Sawyer on Tom Sawyer Island.
    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    While I can understand all of that, what I'm talking about is unwarranted panic as soon as the slightest change is announced, with no clear understanding of what Disney is really going to do. It's one thing to say "I sure hope they don't mess with X, Y and Z". It's quite another to freak out and scream that "they're taking away X, Y and Z" before any real information is released.

    its interesting when you put both above together. David is right - without some sort of voice from the public early, loud, and often then things may be too late to be fixed (can you imagine if we had insight into what Pooh was going to be?). Without that insight - or leaked info - we get stuck with changes that are not good. So much time, effort, and material is used for some items that you can't go back or easily swap things out. They either stagnate or wait for another idea to come along that maybe will garner interest and be both popular and profitable.

    and dan is right - to a point. I think Disney can't have it both ways. It can't have loyal fans who are willing to return time and again (sometimes multiple times in a year - or in a WEEK!) without getting hit with rabid comments concerning changes. As was stated by another poster - most of the watchful fans are smart enough to "smell a rat" when something does not seem worth while. Its the details that we notice, as David said. Yes - changes to Market House created a fervor - but the comments added only a few hours later had more details. Why did we have to wait? was it going to be a surprise? They should have put that detail into the story block, not in the comments. Its not like a teaser to come later. If nothing is said and they know the details then why not release them - especially for something that's been around a long time. I would guess any location, attraction, or item that is even moderately popular and had no changes for a very long time would receive skepticism should a change be announced - without much detail.

    just my opinion - but flying off the rail happens when you generate such a fan base like Disneyland has.

  10. By Disneylandfanguy

    Mr. Koenig,
    I do not want you to get the wrong impression about me;

    The most important thing when making changes at Disneyland, is that we must never lose parts of the past. After all, Walt loved looking to the future, but he also loved nostalgia. That is why I love it when imagineers make a tribute to the past, (Like the CPG crest in Fantasy Faire)

    Do not take me as a simpleton. I am well aware that not every change is a good one. But Mr Koenig, you cannot deny that you always act overly-dramatic and sharp-tongued (at least in your writing) whenever Disneyland wants to make the slightest change. You act like all change is evil.

    Sometimes change can be good. It gives attractions a breath of fresh air, and keeps them relevant for current generations.

    Let's look at Fantasy Faire logically;

    Guests (especially children) LOVE meeting Disney characters, young girls love the princesses, they are real to them, and this new Fantasy Faire solved TWO issues;

    --Making a classy, highly detailed place where guests can reliably find the princesses (similar to how Mickey's house is where guests can reliably find Mickey, you have written about this "finding Mickey" concept in your "Mouse Under Glass" book.)

    And

    --Finally freeing up the Fantasyland Theatre for a show again, and removing the original half-hearted, pieced-together Fantasy Faire from the Fantasyland theatre.

    Now, if swing dancing does come back to the venue, I think that would be great. (Because honestly, as nice as the Fantasy Faire is during the day, at night the area is really dead, and could use the energy.)

    Having said that, even if swing dancing doesn't return to the venue, is that really such a horrible thing? After all, swing dancing is currently offered in Downtown Disney. Is that not a compromise?

    The fact of the matter is, the imagineers are not evil. It's not like they wake up every morning thinking "Hmmm...How can I upset the fans today?"

    As I understand it, most imagineers respect Walt Disney's legacy and are quite aware that there are some parts of the past that should never be lost. The imagineers are Disney fans too. The imagineenrs are NOT idiots. Very often, they do know what they are doing.

    As I said, there does need to be a balance when making changes at Disneyland, we must never lose some elements of the past.
    (I happen to like the "enhanced" versions of Pirates, Small World, and Haunted Mansion. In those cases, the imagineers used a "light touch" and anything new in those attractions BLENDS in with what is already there, and the attractions got a breath of fresh air.)

    Sometimes people "play the Walt card" in a bad way, and say; "Walt would not like this!" I hate that. Because in reality, it is usually just that individual who doesn't like the change and is just using Walt as an excuse. That is shameful.

    To give a brief example,
    The Haunted Mansion opened years after Walt passed away, years before the final concept was realized. So for all we know, Walt could have hated the way the final mansion plan turned out. We will never know for sure. But that doesn't matter, because Haunted Mansion it still considered a great attraction. You do not need Walt's "ok" to enjoy something.


    (By the way, as half-hearted as the original DCA was. It's ok now. The park has been improved tremendously and is finally a hit with the public)

  11. By Disneylandfanguy

    ...One more thing (because I can no longer edit my previous post)

    facts are facts,

    The bottom line is, Walt Disney wanted the park to change and evolve. Walt is NOT around anymore to give his approval, but as long as the imagineers find the right balance, creating new experiences and refreshing attractions while at the same time, honoring the past, that is all we can hope for because they are keeping his vision for the park alive.

    Mr. Koeing, with all due respect, you simply come across as a constant pessimist, a person who does want the park to change at all, and that is simply the wrong attitude if you want to honor Walt's vision.
    I choose to be cautiously optimistic, and you simply do not come across as an optimist.

  12. By oregontraveler

    Quote Originally Posted by Disneylandfanguy View Post

    Now, if swing dancing does come back to the venue, I think that would be great. (Because honestly, as nice as the Fantasy Faire is during the day, at night the area is really dead, and could use the energy.)

    Having said that, even if swing dancing doesn't return to the venue, is that really such a horrible thing? After all, swing dancing is currently offered in Downtown Disney. Is that not a compromise?

    The fact of the matter is, the imagineers are not evil. It's not like they wake up every morning thinking "Hmmm...How can I upset the fans today?"

    As I understand it, most imagineers respect Walt Disney's legacy and are quite aware that there are some parts of the past that should never be lost. The imagineers are Disney fans too. The imagineenrs are NOT idiots. Very often, they do know what they are doing.

    #1. Moving the Swing Dancing to DtD is not the same experience, so I wouldn't call it a compromise. While I have yet to check out the new area, and I hear they are making some improvements with sound & lighting. I have heard from the dance regulars about the new area. Mainly, you have new dancers who don't know about floor ettiquette, folks coming out of bars and being disrespectful, and sadly, I have heard of alleged thefts. While some may enjoy the bandstand and not having to pay to get into the parks. It is also attracting a different, and rowdier crowd.

    #2 The Imagineers have done a terrific job in telling a story. However, when the folks in Marketing/Sales came in and ruined the window displays on Buena Vista Street. Its another example of crass commercialism that many people are griping about.

  13. By mkelm44

    Most of my experience is at the World, not the Land, but I too see both sides of the argument. While those of us on this page are fairly loyal to Disney if not always the management thereof, it is necessary to remember that relatively we make up a small, if vocal, percentage of the total visitors to the park. Most families I know plan on going to Disney once "for the experience" and if it's a good experience, may decide to come back in a few years once the kids get older. It's actually that visit, not the first one that is make-or-break to me. If the parks are essentially the same as they were the first visit, the chances of a third visit and a lifelong Disney fan being formed are slim. If there are some changes- some new rides/shows/parades to go with the old standards, it helps attract people to come back again and again.

    I think that while the parks should retain the same basic structure with some of the classic rides and avoid overcommercialization, I think that much of the park can be changed, altered, and swapped in and out to keep the experience from becoming stagnant. I think the bigger thing for the parks to avoid is really bad ideas (Cinderella's castle as a birthday cake? The Stich Escape version of Alien Encounter) more than it is to make sure that nothing ever changes. Do Disney Characters have to be in Small World? No- the ride was certainly popular without them and the characters probably do serve as a distraction for riders. However, the message of the ride- the similarities of all peoples and world peace- is left in tact.

    In a perfect universe, the Disney Parks would never have to get rid of anything but rather continually expand so that we just get more and more and more rides/shows/parades/experiences. However, in the real world, they are somewhat confined and the reality is that things do have to change.

  14. By gointowdw

    Ah, the "Walt Card"-- the easiest way to complain about what Disney management has either changed or failed to change. Surely those who play the card possess the inate ability to channel the thoughts, beliefs, and ideals of a man who died over 40 years ago.

    Those who disagree with a decision by Disney management are free to do so, but doing so in the name of Walt Disney is disingenuous. Make a case for why you don't like something- a cogent argument can certainly get the attention of management.

    Personally, I also chuckle at those who cite too much "commercialism" at the Disney Resorts. Yes, the parks were designed to for family entertainment, but these are not national parks. Disney is a for-profit company, with a fiduciary responsibilty to its shareholders. Decisions will always keep that in mind- if such decisions significantly detract from the customer experience, adjustments will be made.

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