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MousePlanet Mailbag for July 17, 2003

We receive considerable feedback regarding our site. In today's mailbag, we highlight an extensive e-mail exchange between staff writer Mark Goldhaber and MousePlanet reader Stanton W. regarding Mark's two-part series on the theming of Disney parks (part 1 | part 2).

Stanton writes:

Mark,

Great article, however, I'm a bit curious: How can Disney be an expert and a failure at the same time? Either they create transition, or they don't... and is abrupt transition wrong?

Is transition really necessary? If an abrupt transition is acceptable between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland or Main Street and Tomorrowland, why would it not be acceptable between Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square. How about the abrupt transition between countries in Epcot? Is Disney a master of transition, or are they just lucky that Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square lend itself well to smooth change?

I felt that visually, Islands of Adventure was a wonderful park (and definitely giving Disney some tough competition). Is Islands of Adventure wrong to simply have a gateway and bridge into another immersive theme? Does abrupt change actually help you know that you are in different land?

At Disneyland, Adventureland is composed of four main shops, each having a completely different theme facade: tropical South Seas, Caribbean outpost, adobe, Middle Eastern, African... and yet no transition between them.

Hi Stanton,

I had originally formulated a lengthy answer addressing each of your points, but it was a bit overwrought and heavy-handed, so instead here's my summary from it.

You have many valid points and some of them are merely a matter of opinion. Everybody's got a different one, which they are entitled to. To my mind, however, Disney's Imagineers are the best in the theming business as long as they are able to work to their potential, and not overly hindered by budgets or assignment parameters (and IoA, as I understand it, was largely designed by former Imagineers — which helps explain why it's the best-themed of all the non-Disney parks out there.) If you really want to see the nearly-article-length, point-by-point response, let me know. I'm afraid that it doesn't come across as pleasant as I'd hoped.

Thanks for writing!

Mark

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your response. If it's one thing folks at MousePlanet have, it's passion for Disney! And as long as you've already created a lengthy answer to my theming transition question, I'd love to get the feedback from a passionate person.

As for the "pleasant" response you may or may not have, no worries on my end. Just remember I wasn't attacking you personally. If I was quickly reading with "Disney-eyed glasses" it would have been wonderful "Disney light" reading; however, reading a bit deeper (and searching for further clarification of the intent of your article), it seems to contradict itself a bit.

Perhaps that's the best place to start. Were you commenting on Disney's ability to "theme" or "transition theme"? After all, I agree that IOA's "Imagineered" lands look great... but there is absolutely no theme transition other than another bridge.

Stanton

Hi again, Stanton,

I didn't take it as an attack on me. However, being a passionate Disney fan, I usually defend my positions with the same passion, though I try to keep a balanced view whenever possible. Here, for what it's worth, is the original runaway response that I wrote (though, I suppose, it's pretty short compared to my trip reports).

You bring up a number of interesting points, and yes, some of the answers do come down to personal opinion (…but since I'm the one writing the column, I get to put my opinion in there). Let's take them one at a time.

How can Disney be an expert and a failure at the same time?

Well, I'm not talking absolute failure. You can be a failure compared to your potential and previous work, or you can be a failure compared to everyone else out there. Also, expertise doesn't guarantee execution. Disney's Imagineers can have wonderful plans, but if their budget gets cut and that eliminates the details that would make something work, or if they are presented with an assignment that guarantees that they will not succeed to their prior levels, there's not much that they can do. Also, if they don't work to their previous levels, that doesn't mean that they're doing worse than the competition.

Is transition really necessary, and why is some abrupt transition OK and not others?

Well, let's look at some of the examples that you've listed. The transition between Main Street and Tomorrowland: the main connection from Main Street to Tomorrowland is via the hub, which I consider neutral space. It's an open space that allows you to choose your next adventure, and all themes are separate from it. The secondary connection is via the Plaza Pavilion restaurant, which is a little futuristic next to Main Street, but there is that small “neutral zone” after you pass the restaurant that gives a little breathing space and a feel of being out of all themes for a bit. Not completely smooth, but about as good as you can expect for such disparate lands.

Fantasyland and Tomorrowland: OK, this is one that I don't really like, either. Everything is a little too close, and the Speedway alongside the Mad Tea Party and the walkway to Toontown Fair feel disruptive to me.

I had originally thought that I remembered that there was more room between the lands and that when they expanded Cosmic Ray's later on, it shrunk the gap, but I've since discovered earlier maps proving that, at least as far back at 1979, that theory is wrong. I don't know why this was done, and much work was done to minimize the disruption, but it's not one of the happiest junctions in the most happy place. In fact, of the big circle of the hub, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and back to the hub, this is the one weak link.

The countries in Epcot's World Showcase? Well, there's only so much that you can do here. And, if you notice, there's quite a bit of green space between each pavilion, giving a small transitional space so that the change isn't too jarring. The green space is also themed, representing native flora (or the closest approximation that will survive in Florida) of each country. Also, the theme of a global village allows the “establishing shots” of multiple pavilions visible around the lagoon to be part of the theme of the “land.”

Yes, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Liberty Square are better suited for the transitions, but the other transitions are still quite well made, considering the changes between the lands. For example, how about Liberty Square to Fantasyland? When you go under that bridge, it isn't very jarring at all. The architecture changes moderately, but not enough to be noticeable, and it's not until you turn the corner that the fantasy elements of the new land become apparent — the colors, the music, and the fanciful ride marquees.

Regarding Islands of Adventure, I must confess that I have not yet been to this park, although it is on my “future to-do” list. My information is solely based upon hearsay and reports from others both on MousePlanet and other sites. There are a few issues here.

At a number of attractions at IoA (such as Dueling Dragons, Hulk, and Dr. Doom's Fear Fall), the elaborate theming stops as soon as you board the ride, at which point it becomes a standard (if extremely well-done) thrill ride.

However, IoA has also been called the best-themed park next to Disney parks. One of the reasons why is that many of the people developing the attractions at IoA are former Disney Imagineers who either left on their own or were let go by Disney during the many rounds of cutbacks. They, obviously, brought not only their various talents (which they wouldn't have been originally hired at Disney without), but also their Disney training.

Also, some may make the argument, they even brought their work. Many have remarked that Dueling Dragons appears to be very similar to the concept for the Dragon's Tower attraction originally planned for Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Thus, the reason why IoA is so well-themed and very competitive with Disney parks is that it was themed by the same people who worked on Disney parks. I'd also feel comfortable making the statement that the general overall theming at IoA is probably better Disney's California Adventure at this point. And DCA will continue to have issues, as the Tower of Terror will be visually disruptive in various locations in the park. And wait until the sound of those screams comes floating across A Bug's Land. That'll be interesting.

To sum up (and I'd better do that, since this response is almost as long as the original column already), you have many valid points and some of them are merely a matter of opinion.

Everybody's got a different one, which they are certainly entitled to, and there is not necessarily one correct answer. To my mind, however, Disney's Imagineers are the best in the theming business as long as they are able to work to their potential.

Thanks for writing!

Mark

Stanton responded:

Mark,

Thanks for you feedback. I kind of consider myself a Disney enthusiast as well and after reading MousePlanet articles for like the last few years, this is the first time I actually responded. I appreciate your time to respond.

After reading your response, I'd say I'd agree with you probably 98 percent. Your points are well taken, but… neutral spaces? Green grassy buffers? World Showcase as a single land? Well, I suppose those are valid descriptions, one could accept. I think my initial response to your article was that it seemed very "rah-rah" Disney — the masters of transitions — when we both agree there are some failed areas (which you did mention in the article).

I think we also agree that budget cuts affect product. I think we can both agree that with unlimited budgets Disney can do wonderful things as they have with Indiana Jones Adventure (in Disneyland in California), and Tokyo DisneySea and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

My issue is that if Disney continues to produce sub-par products (due to budget cuts or not) should they continue to be considered the “masters” at what they do, regardless of what they've done in the past? Universal's upcoming Mummy roller coaster sounds like it is going to knock Disneyland's Space Mountain right off its 1970s foundation... revamped queue line or not! We'll wait and see what budget restraints allow in 2005.

My point with IOA is that with wonderful Disney-Imagineered theming, they abruptly change theme by just crossing a bridge — no transition at all — which seems to suit the park fine without any guest complaints, which was kind of contrary to your article.

Thanks again Mark for your responses and feedback. I'll look forward to reading… and debating your articles in the future!

Stanton

PS: I haven't seen anything from Al Lutz on MousePlanet in a while. Is he still around? Was there a fall out?

Hi Stanton,

I suppose that, taking into account the restrictions that Imagineering has been operating under, one could say that Disney does not enjoy quite as much of a lead as they have in the past. However, while the lead is smaller, I still believe that they do have the lead. In addition, since I frequent Walt Disney World and not Disneyland, which I assume is your home park, I see a bit more quality coming down the line than you.

In the next few months, we've got both Mickey's PhilharMagic and Mission: Space opening, and in 2005/2006, we're looking forward to Expedition Everest, which is supposed to blow the doors off of the Mummy coaster with tremendous theming and a thrilling ride.

I guess you missed it, but Al left MousePlanet back in December. It was before I came on board, so I don't know a lot of the details, but I understand that it was a mutual decision.

While he has taken his commentary to his own site, I can assure you that we will still give you plenty of Disney information, every weekday. One of the benefits of being a large site with many contributors is that, if some people leave, there will be others to pick up the slack to make sure that we can continue to provide the coverage that our readers want.

While I don't think that my next few columns lend themselves to much debate (I'm working on a series about the windows on WDW's Main Street U.S.A.), feel free to write and to suggest any column ideas that you might have. I'm always looking for things that might interest people!

Mark

To send your comments, you can contact Mark here.

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