Thursday, August 10, 2006

The rides they are a changin’
Disneyland trip report by Sombrero Grande

Instead of opting to construct some new, mega-huge attraction for the park’s year-and-a-half-long 50th Anniversary celebration, Disneyland has instead been quietly (and, in some cases, not-so-quietly) sprucing up and updating several of its classic attractions to make them feel like new. Though the show’s content is identical to what it was before, The Enchanted Tiki Room looks and sounds better than ever thanks to a significant renovation. Other attractions have received far more noticeable (and marketable) updating.

Just so you know, the rest of this trip report is going to contain some spoilers, so if you’re planning on heading to Disneyland soon and want to be caught off-guard by changes to Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise and Haunted Mansion, I’d suggest you stop reading after the next paragraph.

But before I get to all the spoiler talk, I have to tell you about the by-far creepiest ride I’ve ever had on the Haunted Mansion. This past weekend I got to Disneyland right at the park’s opening. Normally, I head straight to Splash Mountain when I first get into the park (since that tends to become the longest line in the park later on in the day), but on Sunday morning, Splash wasn’t yet up-and-running as of park opening. Guests were all funneling into Pirates of the Caribbean to get a peek at the new changes made to that ride, so everything west of Pirates was completely devoid of tourists. It was just me and a few Cast Members. So I walked up to the Haunted Mansion, through its gates and up to the front of the house, where a Cast Member greeted me with the question, “just one?” I was hitting the park solo that day, so I said, “yep, just me.” He then led me into the stretching room, closed the door, and I got to have the entire mansion to myself! I was the only rider in the stretching room as it descended into the mansion. It was just me walking alone down the hallway with the changing portraits and always-facing-you busts. There was no one else in any of the Doombuggy vehicles beside me as I rode through the mansion. It was extremely creepy but definitely one of the five coolest things I’ve been able to do as a guest in Disneyland. I have to admit I felt a lot like Cartman in the episode of South Park when he bought his own theme park and everything there was running just for him.

Okay, so on with the changes. First up, let’s head over to Tomorrowland for a ride on the new Space Mountain. Space Mountain’s “return” was big news last year as it helped kick off the 50th Anniversary celebration. From the moment guests enter the building, the changes are highly evident. The whole interior has been rethemed as “Space Station 77” as an homage to the year the ride first opened. Long gone are all the beat-you-over-the-head FedEx sponsorship nods as the attraction achieves more of an honest-to-goodness adventurous space flight theme now. A new on-board soundtrack, noticeably composed by Michael Giacchino in that it sounds as if it were plucked from his score for The Incredibles, replaces the previous Dick Dale campy surf guitar track (it’s hard to decide which soundtrack I like better, but the Giacchino is definitely more suited to the new “adventure” vibe in the ride). The portion of the queue that used to look in on the ride has been sealed off, both to make the interior of the ride darker and more believably space-like as well as to give the queue a more imposing, claustrophobic feel. There’s plenty of new, dramatic lighting in the load/unload room, and a new “window” out into space does a much more convincing job of giving the appearance of drifting in space than the old effects. The “launch tube” lift hill has gotten a drastic special effects make-over, replacing the dated-yet-fun ‘70s effects with flashy, new, “gee whiz” technology. But the coolest change comes at the very end of the ride, when special effects simulate your vehicle reentering the atmosphere of the planet. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s pretty dang neat and WILL catch you off guard.

Next, over at the Jungle Cruise the changes aren’t too drastic, though there is one new scene that’s definitely worth talking about. Where once was the rather unimpressive “rapids” part of the ride is now a fun and startling “piranha attack” scene. I was expecting it and it still managed to startle me!

While some of the attraction updates have been widely publicized (such as Pirates and Space Mountain), others (like the Jungle Cruise and Haunted Mansion) have really snuck in under the radar. If it weren’t for voracious Disney rumor hounds on the Internet, they probably would have been met with complete surprise upon their revealing. Over the past few months, the Haunted Mansion has seen a complete overhaul of its attic scene gradually falling into place, complete with an entirely new bride figure and overarching story for the mansion itself. According to the way events unfold in the new attic scene, the mansion apparently belonged to a woman named Constance, who married a new husband every year, beheaded each one and inherited each’s fortune. This new storyline runs directly in opposition to the long-accepted, assumed storyline that was adapted into the feature film version of the ride: that the bride died first and the groom was so distraught that he hung himself. His skeletal corpse is allegedly the body seen hanging in the stretching room right after the Ghost Host narrator suggests “my way out,” inferring that the ride’s narrator is said groom giving foolish mortals a tour of his mansion. None of this was ever set in stone as the ride officially has no true backstory and was mainly intended to be a set of individual scenes that steadily increase in their level of perceivable paranormal activity.

As riders enter the Mansion’s attic, they spy several portraits of a pretty, young woman with a different male counterpart in each. Each portrait sits with a stash of loot, which was apparently the inheritance gained from each marriage. As riders move through the attic, the portraits change and all the men’s heads disappear. At the exit of the attic, the new bride stands. Now a full-body projection, she glows ominously and speaks menacingly lines such as, “’til death do us part.” As she concludes each phrase, her hands rise to her chest and a glistening axe materializes in her grip.

While these new additions to the Mansion are very cool and very well executed, I can’t help but be frustrated by the brevity of the scene. I know the Imagineers had a small space to work in (the Doombuggies are only in the attic for about 30 seconds), but there’s just so much detail that goes unnoticed and would take dozens upon dozens of rides through to see. In the two trips I took on the Haunted Mansion last Sunday, I barely had the time to look at each of the main portraits as my Doombuggy seemingly sped through the room. It would take a study of high quality photos like these to really appreciate all the new details that have been added. The “display” that coincides with each portrait features some article that gives the name of Constance’s husband and the year in which they were married, yet riders won’t get the opportunity to see these important parts of the story in the short span of time the vehicles allow. One display (Frank’s) features two porcelain figures, a man and a woman, and the male figure has fallen and its head has broken off. That’s a really great detail, but good luck ever spotting it on the ride. Another great detail almost everyone will miss is that in the final portrait (George’s), Constance is holding a red rose in exactly the same manner as the old woman in one of the stretching room’s paintings. Which painting? It’s the one of the woman who is revealed to be sitting atop a tombstone that reads, “Rest in Peace Dear, Beloved GEORGE.” So the new bride, Constance, is supposed to be the woman in that painting, pictured long after poor George met his sudden, brutal end.

Another small beef I have with the new attic scene is that, at least when I rode it, the timing was off. With each portrait I saw the head initially missing then appear as I passed. The timing of the cars to the bride wasn’t quite as off as it was with the changing portraits, but in between saying her lines the actress playing the bride (I did mention it’s a projected effect like that of Madame Leota, right?) seems to step out of character and look off to one side as if waiting for some unseen director to give her a cue to say the next line. It’s odd to have such a cool effect interrupted by an awkward moment that almost ruins the creepy atmosphere, especially since it’s obvious that the ride vehicles won’t always be passing by at the exact right moment the designers intended.

Okay, now it’s time for the big one. The one you’ve been waiting for--or maybe just skipped down this far in the article to get to first. Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean has long been considered one of the greatest--if not THE greatest--theme park attractions ever created. And now I can safely say it’s never looked or sounded better. Improved dramatic lighting and improved sound systems throughout really make a noticeable difference. I never before could remember being able to pinpoint exactly which pirate was talking without ever looking at their faces. Beyond those subtler changes there are the highly publicized additions of elements from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that everyone seems to, rightfully, being going gaga over.

While at first the idea that Disney has added characters from its hit films to the ride that initially inspired said films sounds like little more than a shameless promotional stunt, from what I heard it was actually born of complaints from newcomers to the attraction. You see, it’s easy for grown-ups to forget that there’s a whole generation of kids that have had their first exposure to “Pirates of the Caribbean” being the movie and not the ride, and so when they got to experience the ride, something was missing. Where was Jack Sparrow and all those distinct pirate characters from the movie? Now, they don’t have to wonder any more.

Things seem just as they have been for decades on the ride until the boats enter the skeleton caverns. There, a few more comical skeletal remains have been added: two pirates locked in a stalemate in a chess game and a pirate parrot complete with nightcap. In the treasure cavern the loot has been rearranged and actual props from the films, such as the chest of Aztec gold from Curse of the Black Pearl, have been sprinkled into the trove. But it’s around the next corner that things really start to look different. The previously long stretch of dark cave now has a new resident: the ghostly apparition of Davy Jones from Dead Man’s Chest. Guests appear to be headed straight into a waterfall when suddenly Jones materializes in the middle of it and beckons them to continue on only if they want to find out that “dead men do tell tales.” This is an amazing effect and it serves almost as a supernatural kind of curtain to be pulled back for what lies ahead.

Guests’ boats emerge from the dark caverns into the same ship vs. fort battle they always have, only now it’s been dramatically enhanced. Music from the score of Curse of the Black Pearl blares as the cannons fire powerful gusts of air just above riders’ heads. Explosions in the water, which where previously mild splashes accompanied by the quick flash of an underwater light, are now large eruptions that tower over riders and demand attention. The captain of the pirate ship barking orders to blast the fort is now Captain Barbossa. Riders will instantly recognize his voice, but the animatronic’s face unfortunately doesn’t bear much of a resemblance Geoffrey Rush.

Turning the corner into the sacked town, riders will spot the familiar “dunking the mayor” scene, only now the mayor is being interrogated as to the whereabouts of Jack Sparrow. The first of three Sparrow animatronics turns up just a few yards away, hiding off to one side of the action and listening in intently. The animation of the figure is remarkable (when one pirate fires his gun at the “don’t be chicken” lady in the window, Sparrow recoils quickly in case the bullet was intended for him) and it’s a dead-on likeness of Johnny Depp. Sparrow shows up again popping out of a barrel later on where he spies a drunken pirate (formally the one searching for a “bewitchin’ maiden” and then a “fine pork loin” in the P.C. ‘90s redo) talking too loudly about the treasure map and key he’s discovered. The dialogue here is far from subtle when the drunken pirate remarks that Sparrow sure would like to get his hands on that key and treasure map, but subtlety is a blessing that a theme park attraction can’t really afford. When one is trying to tell a story to people in a passing vehicle, one must be rather blunt and as obvious as possible to ensure riders will “get it.” This is something the folks working on the recent Haunted Mansion changes could stand to learn from.

Apparently Jack finds a way to purloin the treasure map and key from the clueless pirate as riders find him one last time at the end of the ride, sitting happily in the town’s treasure trove adjacent to the ride’s final lift hill. Here he actually gets to talk (with Johnny Depp’s voice) and the scene serves as a sort of finale to the ride. The ride is then concluded with some parting words from Davy Jones, letting riders know that next time they sail, they’ll sail with Jones.

These new additions to Pirates of the Caribbean are so delicately woven into the existing scenes it’s remarkable, almost as if they were designed to be in there all along. Disney got a lot of heat from the press and Disney fans for the much maligned ‘90s changes that were made to the ride, particularly the ones that transformed what was essentially a “lust” scene of pirates chasing women into a “gluttony” scene of pirates chasing food instead. Personally, while I was upset that the new gluttony scene ruined one of the ride’s best gags (the pirates all chasing women around in circles with the punchline being the “stout” woman chasing a very frightened pirate) I really didn’t mind the other changes so much. This new update replaced my favorite touch in the previous incarnation of Pirates, which was the two pirates struggling to get their overflowing bag of loot up the ride’s final lift. As riders passed them and continued up the lift, scenes of skeletons that had stabbed each other over the loot, never having made it all the way up, were displayed as the phrase “dead men tell no tales” echoed as both a nice bookend to the skeletons at the beginning and as a “crime doesn’t pay” sort of moral. I miss this end (particularly because of a great inside joke that’s now gone; stashed in the overwhelming sack of loot was the painting of Blackbeard that was a key prop in the old Disney movie Blackbeard’s Ghost) but the new ending doesn’t disappoint in comparison.

All in all, I think that’s the real lesson to be learned here: that Disney shouldn’t replace or change something in their parks unless they’ve got something as good or better to replace it with. Closing down rides like the Submarine Voyage in 1998 without a replacement planned, or gutting a beloved animatronic-rich show like the Country Bear Jamboree to replace it with a small-scale Winnie the Pooh dark ride, or dumping an old favorite of mine, the PeopleMover, to build the theme-less Rocket Rods thrill ride that never got the budget to survive more than a couple years...that just shouldn’t happen. Fortunately, it looks as though the new management in charge of Disneyland finally “gets it.” Walt Disney once said that “Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world,” and changes like those I just described in Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are exactly the kind of positive, freshening upgrades that I know he was referring to.


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