The first phrase that Imagineers use to excuse themselves from the closure or the reimagining of a Disney attraction sounds ridiculous: ‘Parks are not museums’. After using his phrases, the Imagineers mention how Walt always wanted to change the parks, because they will never be completed. Even though these excuses talk about the evolution of theme parks, it doesn’t answer if attractions could be considered art, and thus be preserved.
Parks are not museums, but they do involve artistry that should be respected.
Many of the earlier ride vehicles from Disneyland came as off-the-shelf pieces, later dressed as pirate ships, flying elephants, and turn-of-the-century cars. Imagineers, taken from the animation and live action departments of the studio, were trying to tell the story of the movies in a compressed time limit (as Tony Baxter would say, a book report of the movie). As any storyteller, Imagineers express the same stories in different ways. The design and layout that Harper Goff gave to the early vegetation of Disneyland has his imprint. The tone and mood created by the designs of Ken Anderson and Claude Coats in the dark rides on Fantasyland stays even in improved, reimagined versions of the ride. Frank Thomas will always be part of the railroads at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Every single artist has defined the style and layout of the theme parks, making a personal statement in this place.
As technology advances, Imagineers had more opportunities to express themselves in a similar way that improvements in sound, storyboarding, color, and multi plane cameras helped animators express better in their films. This allowed for artist to create immersive environments such as Pirates Of The Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. These attractions exist to tell a broad story instead of the attraction itself. In this way, the story transcended the medium.
In this sense, art became part of the attractions.
Art expresses a story, an idea, a concept. It expresses something without any particular function, making it a piece to understand our world and humanity. Can attractions fit within this definition? Or are attractions a functional product, delivering only entertainment for the guests in a theme park?
Some dark rides do have the function of entertainment, but sometimes they don’t. Even Pirates Of The Caribbean didn’t have a real function other than an idea Walt Disney had about a wax museum. Other attractions, like those developed for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, have a function, in this case a marketing purpose. Does this mean It’s A Small World couldn’t be a piece of art? It has an idea, a concept, that transcends its initial function. This is one of the most artistic attractions, with the imprint of Mary Blair in and out. So the definition of art without function dilutes for attractions that could have had an initial function but its overall message transcends it.
Marc Davis was a true believer in attractions as an art form, using Audio-Animatronics for the next step of three dimensional animation and storytelling. It was such an important belief in his career that he took nearly 5 years of active development in Western River Expedition, which would become Marc Davis’ greatest achievement.
Marc David did most of the staging and visual gags for Pirates Of The Caribbean, contributing also to The Haunted Mansion. These attractions have his staple comedy and humor, just like a good piece of art represents the artist. Western River Expedition could have easily been title Marc Davis’ Western River Expedition because of how much involvement he had in the project.
For a person who started working at WED because Walt asked him, Marc had an artist’s ambition. Walt wanted more humor for Jungle Cruise, so he asked Marc to reimagine some scenes and develop new ones. From this short task, Marc came up with some of the most iconic moments from The Jungle Cruise. After that, he would collaborate for other projects like It’s A Small World and The Enchanted Tiki Room. Even though Marc Davis would later talk about attractions as an art form that could helped him express, he started working in Imagineering because Walt begged him. Does that undermine the artistry of Marc Davis in these projects? No. It could still be considered art, even when Marc started with a clear task.
Maybe if we consider what Walt Disney thought about attractions, we can better define if they could be considered art. Even though he understood all the artistry involved in his project, trying to live up to the high brow audience since Fantasia, he ended up thinking about himself as a showman, an entertainer. When the early stages of The Jungle Book had many ideas of a film with a darker tone, Walt despised it and said that the movie should be a party in the jungle. Even with earlier films like Bambi, Fantasia or Dumbo, he was very conscious to keep the attention of the audience and make it entertaining. Walt, other that delivering a certain message or pushing and agenda with his projects, wanted people to be entertained with his films.
Disneyland was constructed because Walt wanted a place where kids and grownups could have fun together. He didn’t opened Disneyland to be a museum or an art gallery. Walt just wanted people to have fun. Even though he just wanted to make fun, you can’t undermine the thoughts of the hundreds of artists that worked on the project and thought of Disneyland and its attractions as a piece of art.
There’s a balance between creator and creation to define the artistry of attractions. Because its final product is intended to be entertaining, it could only be considered that. But during the process of creation for that piece of entertainment, there’s a lot of artistry into it that is a piece of art in itself. Attractions have that blend of art, technology, and entertainment.
Themed attractions could be a piece of art, while the off the shelf rides are not. There is an effort to achieve a well themed attraction. Pirates Of The Caribbean redefined the dark ride genre and the log flumes that appeared in other regional parks. At the same time, it is still difficult to say which attractions can’t be considered art. Even though many attractions in the Chester and Hester’s area from Dinoland U.S.A. of Animal Kingdom are off the shelf, they do deliver a theme, but there’s no doubt that Dinosaur could be considered art.
The difference between attractions and rides could be the answer to this problem. A ride is a lower experience, defined by the momentary feelings and emotions. An attraction however gifts a long lasting memory, the kinds of memories that we hear over and over when someone visits a theme park.
Parks aren’t museums after all, which is why old attractions don’t belong in a park because it is a business after all. And the decision to replace an attractions happens because of key performance indicators, not the value of art. The moment an attraction doesn’t deliver the kind of excitement that is entertaining to guests, then it is replaced with another attraction that could bring the necessary excitement for guest flow and customer satisfaction.
Maybe we can cherish long forgotten attractions in other ways than keeping them in the same park. Theme parks are a business, pondering the idea if attractions can be considered art. If films are made as a product, why are they still considered an art form? The question repeats itself.
But this time, let’s say that attractions could be an art form after all.