Tuesday, September 19, 2017

YouTube Tuesday #11: Inside Disneyland Paris

Was Euro Disney the most significant Disney Parks historical development post-1971?

It very well could be. When looking at the history of Disney Attractions following the creation of the Vacation Kingdom, could one find any other momentous occasion that meant so much to the future of the theme park industry?

We all know the story of what happened. An original budget of $1 billion quickly ballooned into $4 billion. Disney had placed the resort right next to Paris, which is practically ground zero for Europe’s entire transportation network, and expected (or so some of their consultants said) to get as many as 30 million visitors by the time the second Disney MGM-Studios park would be built next door.

The exact reasons why the resort failed initially are far too complex for this piece. But the resulting fallout would be almost the equivalent of an asteroid impact within theme park circles.

Disney had always been the bellwether for the theme park industry since Disneyland opened in 1955. At its best, Disney has the financial and creative resources necessary to move the ball downfield in the themed entertainment industry. It’s no accident that the theme park industry seems to stagnate at the same time that Disney’s fortitude diminishes.

Look at the creative boom that happened within the parks industry during Disney’s golden years of the 1960s and 1970s (with the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida). To be fair, the Disneyland imitators of Freedomland and Pleasure Island and Magic Mountain (the one in Colorado, NOT the one in California) all went bust in the 1950s. But they all learned a very important lesson: don’t try to be Disneyland. Only Disney can be Disneyland.

After the failure of these initial parks came the big breakthrough: Angus Wynne’s Six Flags concept. Here was a pleasant family park concept (or at least it was back then) that did not provide themed areas per se, but did provide clean, well-kept, wholesome entertainment for the whole family. And at a fraction of the cost of a Disneyland presentation.

And so the race was on. Practically every major amusement park concept we know of today follows this model, and came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s. The Six Flags concept. The Marriott parks in Illinois and California. The Kings parks. Carowinds. Busch Gardens. SeaWorld. Magic Mountain (the California one). Astroworld. Marineland. Worlds of Fun. And the old parks all learned these lessons and made themselves better. Cedar Point. Knotts. Kennywood. Hershey. Holiday World. And all of this booming success was predicated on Disney’s popularity and innovation. It’s true.

Let’s even put aside the fact that Six Flags and their ilk were built trying to catch the Disney conceptual wave that amusement parks could be fun, clean, friendly places again. In the 1950s, Walt had a small company called Arrow Dynamics manufacture and build the ride mechanisms for his attractions, from the Fantasyland dark rides to the Mad Tea Party and many others. Arrow had become quite adept at manufacturing these (very new) mechanical ride concepts, to the point where they were the ones Walt called on when he wanted to create a new kind of roller coaster to dive in and around his new Matterhorn mountain. And so, Arrow created the first tubular steel roller coaster.

As many of you know, the steel roller coaster is now the rock that amusement parks build their churches on. One would be hard-pressed to find an amusement park of any stripe without one today. And after Arrow success with the Matterhorn (and later Space Mountain), they proliferated the steel coaster concept across the amusement park landscape. First it was the form of the family-friendly mine train coaster concept, which the Six Flags of the world were happy to utilize in their family park concept. But later, Arrow would revolutionize the industry again by creating the Corkscrew for Knotts Berry Farm, the first steel coaster with inversions, in 1975 (the same year as Space Mountain opened). Amusement parks again rode the dual waves of the steel coaster boom and the popularity of the new Walt Disney World Resort.

A similar boom happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While one could certainly argue that the soon to be booming economy would have much to do with the “coaster wars” and innovation wheelhouse that would commence, it’s also of note that this came at a time when Disney began a second golden age of innovation for its theme parks. As Disney began to build bigger and better parks and attractions, other parks felt emboldened to loosen the purse strings as well.

Look at all of the 3-D movies that spread into the theme park world after the success of Magic Journeys and Captain EO. Or the umpteen billion simulators after Star Tours. Universal Studios and MGM Grand opened new studio-themed parks after Disney opened theirs. The world of water parks was changed forever with the opening of Typhoon Lagoon, as was the world of themed hotels after the Swan & Dolphin and Grand Floridian made their debuts (it should be noted, 3 years and 1 year, respectively, before The Mirage opened in Las Vegas and began that revival). The expansions of Disneyland and Walt Disney World led to new expansions at Club Med, Las Vegas, Branson Missouri, and Universal Orlando.

Then Euro Disney happened. And everything began to…slowly…stagnate again. Budgets began to be cut, little by little, every subsequent year for Disney, until by 2001/2002 they would hit the literal bottom-basement of Disney’s California Adventure, Dino-Rama, and Disney Studios Paris. And it seemed that, every year, other parks also began to give up. It was like a themed entertainment ice age. After a $1 billion-plus expansion at Universal Orlando (which should be pointed out was approved in 1993), the jolly merry-go-round of Universal ownership decided to hang it up for about a decade. Las Vegas slowly demolished its themed rides. All the amusement parks seemed to ditch the simulators and dark rides and went right back to steel coasters (though some very creative ones). Amusement park owners seemed more interested on installing Fastpass systems and meal deals.

There’s a controversial new theory (work with me here) in archeology that suggests that a 1,200 year “instant ice age” in humanity’s past was caused by a comet impact. Our climate history shows that, after thousands of years of gradual warming, the earth was plunged very suddenly back into the teeth of the ice age approximately 12,800 years ago. This began a period of intense cold called the Younger Dryas that lasted for 1,200 years. This weather event literally happened out of nowhere. New evidence suggests that a piece of an enormous comet (or even several pieces) smashed into the earth and kicked up so much dust and loess that the sun was blocked for years and caused a reverse greenhouse effect, basically plunging humanity back into the ice age after it had almost escaped. This comet is sometimes called the “Clovis Comet” because it seems to have been the cause of the extinction of the proto-Native American people called the Clovis culture.

Hot take: Euro Disney is the Clovis Comet of the current ice age in the theme park industry.

And it always seemed like it. Even in this featured show, Inside Disneyland Paris, there seems to be an air of awakening from a very long winter. Because realistically, Disneyland Paris was in a deep, biting winter for years and years.

One thing that always fascinated me about Inside Disneyland Paris was that it was the first Disney-specific special to ever air on a Discovery Channel, TLC, or Travel Channel-style show. This always made me wonder. Though Disney attractions would be featured in specials like Funhouse, only through Buena Vista video and the Disney Channel could one find Disney-specific documentaries, such as with the Walt Disney World: Inside Out specials. Amusement parks like Cedar Point and Magic Mountain were featured multiple times. Universal was featured all the damn time (to our great consternation). But Disney never entered the fray. Until this show.

We were all giddy about this show, because it was the first Disney effort on the Travel Channel. We awaited with great anticipation. And it makes total sense now, looking back, that Disneyland Paris would be featured first. We can expect that Disney didn’t allow Travel Channel to make these kinds of documentaries for a variety of reasons, be it the hesitation of letting a third party into Disney’s backstage areas or the idea that Disney “doesn’t need” someone else’s help to advertise its own products. But Disneyland Paris needed all the help it could get.

And so we see Disney’s freshman effort at letting the Travel Channel world into the backstage magic. And the final product is good, but not spectacular. We see a lot of what we expect from park specials: the peak inside the food warehouse, the construction of HISTA, the landscaping, etc. Some better highlights include the challenge of swiveling Indy’s mine cars backward, the behind the scenes at parade rehearsals, and the insiders look at the Space Mountain launch area. Lowlights include every shot of Jay Rasulo.

My personal favorite highlights are the extensive interviews with Tom K. Morris about the conception of Fantasyland and the magnificent Sleeping Beauty Castle, as well as the sequence at the end that reveals the behind the scenes of the Cheyenne’s wild west dinner show (complete with real buffalo!)

So enjoy Disney’s first Travel Channel effort. We promise there will be many, many more to come ;)


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