Disneyland’s Popularity Versus Originality Debate

This summer (and as I write this) Disneyland Paris runs a summer festival themed around the mightily popular Disney animated film: Frozen. The Frozen Summer Fun season includes a Sing-along show, Princess cavalcades, a new Frozen scene for Disney Dreams! and a Frozen overlay for the otherwise derelict Cottonwood Creek Ranch area. I think this Frozen season is a brilliant idea, though mainly because I’m just happy to see the Chaparral Theatre and Cottonwood Creek Ranch in use and too see the back of that Brave scene in Dreams!. Honestly, though, I’m not really into Frozen or characters or Disney franchises particularly, so for me this season also highlights a balancing act which Disney Parks inherently face: do they rely on popular Disney franchises, or create their own unique ones?

This is an age old question which many people have answers to – now I’m going to throw my hat into the ring. I recently watched an interview where Tony Baxter (Imagineer extraordinaire, if you didn’t know that, GOOGLE HIM NOW THANK YOU) completely rejected that this balancing act ever existed; saying that Disneyland Intellectual Properties and those of Disney films were the same thing. He has a point, Pirates of the Caribbean spawned a film franchise while much of Disneyland Paris’ classic Fantasyland is based on classic Disney films without any feeling that the attractions are just jumping on someone else’s bandwagon. However – and I can’t believe I’m going to argue against this God – he’s just plain wrong. Simply look at Buzz Lightyear in Discoveryland, it looks and feels out of place in amongst the retrofuturistic atmosphere of the land. It feels as if that giant statue of Buzz has just been added to the roof of the show building to add a little more family orientation to that part of the park. Attractions like Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast are fun, I don’t suggest otherwise at all, but as any Disney fan will tell you, such attractions simply are not the same as Disneyland originals like It’s A Small World, Haunted Mansion or even modern greats like Test Track. I can’t really explain why because they all tell their own stories and invite you into different worlds, but somehow as fans we are conscious on some level that some ‘worlds’ simply feel borrowed.

If I’m being cynical – and any listener of our rambling podcasts will know I certainly possess the trait – then I’ll say that the insertion of Disney film franchises to parks is a tactical decision purely to help market the parks. I opened this article by referencing Frozen Summer Fun, and this logic fits perfectly to that. Disneyland Paris doesn’t really have anything new to show off this year, but if they put in Anna and Elsa then they can jump on the bandwagon of Frozen’s near unprecedented popularity and encourage people to visit the resort who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered. It’s much easier to market the resort if a certain “Let It Go” is playing in the background of the advert, rather than just those old 90s shots of some awestruck children bewitched by Le Chateau du Belle au bois Dormant. Of course, better marketing means more guests, which brings more revenue, which allows more reinvestment into the parks. That’s the strong argument in favour of Disneyland parks using other Disney franchises, and it’s true, except that it makes one fatal assumption: that original stories can’t be equally as crowd pulling.

Allow me to take you back to 1969, because in that year the Americans did something incredible. Aside from the whole moon landing thing. The Haunted Mansion attraction opened at Disneyland – and fans had been waiting EIGHT YEARS for it to do so after Disneyland had first advertised it in 1961. It was an entirely original attraction (the Eddie Murphy film was of course based on it) and yet it immediately helped to set blisteringly high new attendance records at the already popular Disneyland. In fact I seem to note a certain Space Mountain: De la Terre a la Lune having similar effects (although would you class it as a Disneyland original being that it borrows Jules Verne’s story and setting??)! These are two prime examples of how attractions which have worlds unique to Disney parks can be incredibly popular. But I’m a historian, I like my evidence, so I’ll keep going. In 2006 I had the absolutely pleasure of being in Walt Disney World when Expedition Everest had its grand opening. It’s an extraordinary rollercoaster on a mammoth scale, and it’s not based on any borrowed franchises. But let me tell you that the queues it was drawing were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. I never rode the attraction during Animal Kingdom’s normal opening hours because the FastPasses ran out within 15 minutes of the park opening and queues where often above four hours long. I’m pretty sure I remember a temporary sign reading eight hours at one point. Even during Extra Magic Hours (at this, the least popular of the four themeparks in the resort), the shortest we waited was about 40 minutes, and we thought that was mightily good going. Anyway, back to the point, attractions don’t need to be based on existing franchises to be fantastically popular!

I should note here that I don’t believe that being based on an existing franchise necessarily degrades an attraction in any way. Two of my favourite attractions at Disneyland Paris are The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Star Tours – both heavily tied into outside ‘worlds’. But I fell in love with Star Tours before I’d ever seen a Star Wars film and have adored the Tower of Terror for years though I’ve only recently seen any episodes of the Twilight Zone. (Has anyone really watched those? It’s a bit niche…) These attractions are strong in their own right – indeed Tower of Terror was almost fully designed before it was paired with the Twilight Zone (the Floridian Studios park needed the attraction and any attraction in the Studios park needed a franchise tie-in) – but they are also made stronger by the things which they can borrow. Imagine Star Tours without the droids or Terror of Terror without the mysterious notes of the Twilight Zone’s title music. And yet I still feel somewhere, somehow, that these attractions could never join the leagues of It’s a Small World or Space Mountain, even though they’re seemingly just as staple to a Disney park these days. Star Tours is often referred to as a ‘spin-off’ of Star Wars, and it always will be. It just isn’t Disneyland pedigree.

Is it lazy design to borrow ideas? I don’t think so. Last year I led a team putting on a stage production of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was of course Wilde’s world but we adapted it and staged it in our own unique way. We felt fully that it was ours and that borrowed characters and settings were merely part of the bigger puzzle. The same is true for franchise tie-in attractions like Ratatouille. If aspects from other franchises are so strong and fit so well with an attraction, it would seem a shame not to use them. On saying that though, these elements have been designed for other mediums so one must be wary of their application. Indeed with Tower of Terror it is only the score of the Twilight Zone which actually makes an appearance in the elevator itself; all other references are confined to a traditional video in the pre-show.

I usually keep my debates to my History or Philosophy essays, but today I want to bring it to you. I believe that original Disneyland attractions which are designed from the ground up to be Disney themepark attractions have an innate nature which can simply be a league above any attraction which is designed with borrowed features. That’s not to say that other attractions are not of outstanding quality, though. It simply seems to me that the true original Disneyland classics, the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, are untouchable; in a league of their own.

But what do you think, my dear reader? Give us your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter (@MagicalDLP or @SIMCITYWEST for the author of this article).

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  • greg young
    June 25, 2015 at 2:50 am

    I think it is more to do with the thought and quality of the attraction, why a ride like tot works so much better than buzz, I don’t necessarily think it being a unique or franchise based matters too much, I think the problem is a lot of the more recent franchise based rides have been cheap overlays, where it feels like the characters are there for no other reason than to have the characters there such as the seas with nemo or adding jack sparrow to potc

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