All right, the fish is out of the bag. After six years, Disneyland management is finally nibbling at Imagineering's latest proposal for the long-abandoned Submarine Lagoon: rusting off the fleet to view a CGI Finding Nemo adventure projected into the water.
Me, I'm ecstatic. Now, I was never much of a Submarine Voyager; I found the boats uncomfortable, claustrophobic, the air stale if not stench-filled. And don't even ask about the outdated show itself. I just loved having a submarine ride there. It was a small part of the tapestry that made Disneyland like no place else. It's why I love seeing a busy Rivers of America. It's there when I want to enjoy it, but in the mean time it's taken people off the congested walkways and thrust them onto center stage of the Show.
Why I'm thrilled at the real possibility of seeing the subs again goes beyond having somethinganythingin that lagoon. Sure, it's sad, looking at that beautiful, glistening waterway and remembering that there used to be all sorts of activity there. All of Disneyland seemed a lot bigger back then.
Granted, one reason why Disneyland felt larger when I was a kid was because it wasat least proportionally compared to me. I also didn't know the park as well and didn't visit as often. I had no idea how many more miles the park might have stretched beyond the Indian Village.
In addition, those were the days when every year or two Disneyland would add a major attraction that raised the bar, heightening the level of experience that could be enjoyed at a theme park. These were rides you couldn't see at the local carnivalor even other theme parks, for that matter. There were no other roller coasters like Space Mountain, no other movies as interactive as Captain E-O, and no ride experiences as immersive as Star Tours.
Each new E-ticket made the place seem bigger. Square footage-wise, it may not have been. In the early years, Walt had the open land and the need to increase capacity, so he would add multiple attractions every year without removing any. By the 1970s, as the park began getting built out and attractions began showing their age, Disneyland would expand not by adding, but by upgrading. The challenge came in preserving the essence of what was being replaced, to mitigate guests' sense of loss. After all, if visitors got something new, but kept wishing for what used to be, the net result was break even at best.
Big Thunder Mountain did a good job of holding over the look, if not the tempo, of the Mine Train. The New Fantasyland maintained the content and spirit of its archaic ancestor, while improving upon it in every aspect.
Imagineer Tony Baxter, who oversaw the Fantasyland remodel, once opined to me, What you try to do is understand what was special about the attraction. Sometimes there's not much, like the Motor Boats, other than a place where you go to make out or to be away from your parents. But you try to capture that in what you replace it with, and make sure the new attraction has all that.
In converting the Swiss Family Treehouse to Tarzan's Treehouse, he and his team carried over the sense of home and familynot to mention the memorable Swisskapolka.
In replacing Monsanto's Adventure thru Inner Space with Star Tours, they preserved that promise of transporting passengers to an unreachable destination.
Star Tours is an adventure through outer space that takes people somewhere they dreamed they'd never get to go, Baxter explained. Monsanto did that in a psychedelic way that was perfect for my generation, growing up in the '60s. There were the '70s kids and '80s kids who wanted to go to the galaxy far, far away. The films had the most extraordinary visual effects, and the only thing missing from sitting in that chair at Edwards [Cinema] was you didn't experience it. You just sat there watching Luke and Han and Leia, while you're sitting there eating your popcorn. So when Rex says, 'I've always wanted to do this,' and the Star Speeder goes down into the trench, and you feel it, every kid who ever sat in that Edwards seat was going [thumbs up].
When you ignore what came before, you descale Disneyland. The first serious example of this was probably the openingand premature closingof America Sings. Here you had the Carousel of Progress, which heavily evoked the family. The show was built around parents sharing with their children what life was like when they grew up. It was dreaming about the future, and showing that no matter how much life (and electrical devices) change, the family continues. It was replaced by America Sings, a cute show but one that completely disregarded the emotion of its predecessor. They took out a flavor of Disneyland.
Ironically, America Sings reinforced a pre-existing flavor of Disneyland that itself is now on the Endangered List. A strong sense of Americana and patriotism used to be a hallmark of Disneyland. Remember America the Beautiful? America on Parade? The red, white and blue fireworks shows?
Disneyland was unabashedly proud to be American. The finale of the Main Street Electrical Parade was a block-long U.S. flag. Even the once-inspirational Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln has been reduced to a quasi-comedy with distracting sound effects and a meandering, all-but-meaningless monologue. There's nothing left in Disneyland that gives us the sense that we should be fortunate and proud to live in this country.
Worse than adding America Sings was prematurely subtracting it, with the promise of something new right around the corner. It would take Disneyland 10 years to turn that corner.
Its closure also ushered in the 1990s and the age of New Math at Disneyland. This is when Official Park Spokesfolks would publicly attribute the latest admission price increase to the added cost of building and operating some new attraction, show or paradebut fail to mention that at the same time an equal or greater number of attractions, shows or parades were discontinued. We got Mickey's Toontown, but lost the Motor Boats and (temporarily at first) Fantasyland Autopia. We got Indiana Jones, but lost the Skyway and (temporarily at first) the keelboats. We got Innoventions, Honey I Shrunk the Audience and (temporarily) Rocket Rods, but lost Captain E-O, Mission to Mars, CircleVision, PeopleMover, the Submarine Voyage and the promise of a real attraction in the Carousel theater.
As Baxter used to be able to brag about Disneyland:
I would say, where can you ride Dumbo, go underwater, and hear the 16th president of the United States, all within an hour and a half? That's really important, because that's stretching the limits of what Disneyland is. To sheer, unbridled and unsophisticated fun and fantasy for a child, a weird mystery going underneath the North Pole in a submarine to the lost continent of Atlantis, and hearing very profound things said by the president of the United States. That makes Disneyland bigger. The more homogenized the attractions get, the less differentiating characteristics there are between Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm and [nearby malls] the Block and MainPlace. And you start saying, 'Gee, well it's kind of fund to go down to Fashion Island on a Sunday afternoon. It's pretty, they've got fountains, it's pleasant, not crowded, it's free to park.' See, we're always looking for what can make Disneyland extraordinary. You can ride Dumbo, go underwater and see the president talk. The more you sculpt it down, the more dangerous it is in terms of it being regular and common.
Unique attractions give Disneyland depth and texture; derivative offerings (e.g., see most of California Adventure) are easily forgotten, like the Flavor of the Month.
Reviving the Submarine Voyage will reinstate a long-absent Classic Flavor of Disneyland. Then, to really reinvigorate the disabled kinetics of Tomorrowland, we've got to do something about those People Mover tracks
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.