Playing the Walt Cardby David Koenig, contributing writer
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.
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.