Home » 5 Ways Disney Has “Dumbed Down” Over the Years

    5 Ways Disney Has “Dumbed Down” Over the Years

    Spaceship Earth

    Nothing is certain but change at the Disney parks, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When the replacements are less inspiring than the originals, however, then it is time to wonder whether Disney is really plotting the right course. Early Disney attractions put a lot of faith in visitors’ ability to think, process, and come to their own conclusions. Over the past 20 years, however, there seems to be a persistent march towards dumbing down the parks. While I have no insider information on the real reason for this, it seems to point to management’s lack of faith in its current customers’ intellectual abilities.

    Editor’s Note: Lisa’s opinions in no way reflect those of Theme Park Tourist or its staff. 

    1. Less challenging material

    Spaceship Earth

    Do you remember the Jeremy Irons version of the Spaceship Earth script? What about the Walter Cronkite incarnation or, for long-time fans, the original Vic Perrin spiel? Examining this single attraction paints a dramatic picture of Disney’s gradual decline in intellectual expectations.

    Over at intercot.com, you can read all of the previous scripts side by side. Each narrator, including the current Judy Dench, put his or her own unique stamp on the spiel, and each script is entertaining in its own right. Nothing makes a particular version “better” than another. Yet the scripts themselves show a decided tendency toward simplification of language and over-explaining concepts. What was once gently implied, such as the Phoenician alphabet’s contributions to our modern alphabet or the importance of the Jewish and Islamic libraries after the fall of Rome, is now pounded into our heads with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.

    Other attractions have also fallen victim to this need to over-explain, such as the latest recorded incarnation of Living With the Land (previously Listen to the Land). At one time, a live Cast Member gave a customizable spiel that taught guests all about current and future agriculture. Now, a recorded monotonous voice gives the essential facts in the most simplistic possible way.

    2. Overinsertion of characters

    At one time, characters were a carefully managed and distributed part of the Disney parks experience. They starred in attractions based on their own movies, participated in meet-and-greets, and appeared at specific character meals. The Disney characters were not part of Epcot at all, because their cartoon worlds didn’t mesh with the real world that the park represented. Dreamfinder and his purple dragon pal Figment served as Epcot’s character icons, because they had a well-developed back story via their ride, the original Journey Into Imagination.

    For whatever reason, Disney management decided somewhere along the line that if some character appearances were good, more were better. And all semblances of story and thematic cohesiveness went out the window under the assumption that it didn’t matter if an experience was intellectually logical or sensible, as long as it starred characters.

    Perhaps the earliest victim was Epcot. Apparently, the Eisner administration could not abide the thought of missing out on all those merchandising opportunities—er, guest photo ops. So Dreamfinder and Figment got a stay of execution thanks to the popularity of their ride, but Mickey in a spacesuit became the new face of Epcot. Of course, for reasons still unfathomable to anyone outside Disney management, Dreamfinder was eventually killed off and Journey Into Imagination turned into the abomination that it remains today.

    Somewhat later victims were King Stefan’s Banquet Hall and Akershus. Once a refined table-service meal that let guests imagine what it would be like to own such a grand and glorious castle, King Stefan’s became an incredibly popular but much less inspiring character dining experience starring Cinderella. Akershus, once an authentic and reasonably priced Norwegian restaurant, became a princess dining experience. How ironic, really, given that all of Norway is now in the process of converting to a fictional kingdom from a flash in the pan movie—er, Arendelle from Frozen.

    Over-characterization is running rampant. The Seas With Nemo and Friends, the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros…in each case, something educational that encouraged guests to think was replaced with a form of passive entertainment.

    3. Spoon-fed storylines

    Peter Pan's Flight used to star the guest as Peter

    Do you know what the original versions of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Peter Pan’s Flight all had in common? A lack of appearances by the main character! In each case, the guest took that starring role, experiencing the attraction through the character’s eyes. The Haunted Mansion expands on this basic theme, taking you on a tour through a ghost-inhabited manor home while leaving it up to your imagination to decide exactly who you are and why you are there.

    Today’s attractions take guests through a spoon-fed sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and end. And Disney goes out of its way to make sure you understand exactly what your role in the story is. On Mission: Space, you are there to undergo astronaut training for the first manned mission to Mars. At Test Track, you are going through an automobile proving ground—now in fashion Tron colors! On Soarin’, you have been inexplicably transported to California, where you will go hang gliding.

    4. Lack of exploratory attractions

    The Swiss Family Treehouse still sparks the imagination

    Two of the best early-Disney attractions are open-ended and exploratory in design: the Swiss Family Treehouse and Tom Sawyer’s Island. In both cases, the story is told through a combination of an extremely well-designed space and a collection of signs. Due to its treehouse nature, Swiss Family is somewhat more inherently restrictive, but you are free to move around at your own pace and revisit particular areas as often as you like.

    At Tom Sawyer’s Island, free play is the name of the game. Barrel bridges, forts, checkers sets, spooky caves…the possibilities just go on and on. Nothing built at Walt Disney World in the past 40 years even approaches the level of creative exploration afforded by Tom Sawyer’s Island…with the possible exception of the original Image Works, once located upstairs in the Imagination pavilion.

    5. Thrills at the expense of content

    With Universal Orlando’s high-tech thrills located just down the road, Disney could hardly afford to ignore the thrill ride market. Yet Disney’s carefully guarded family-friendly image keeps them from building anything too extreme. Instead, the past number of years have brought us a lineup that doesn’t quite hit the right notes in terms of either thrills or content.

    The most glaring examples of this are Soarin’ and the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Soarin’ is a terrific ride—but what exactly does hang gliding over California have to do with learning about the Earth and how to care for it? The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train seems like an attempt to squish together three very disparate concepts—a roller coaster, a dark ride, and a kiddie ride. The result is a coaster with a 38 inch height requirement that precludes small kids, a lack of the inversions or high speeds needed to draw coaster enthusiasts, and a collection of animatronics  from the old Snow White ride that are partially obscured to hide their age. What was the point of shutting down Snow White’s Scary Adventures again?

    What do you think? Has Disney dumbed down over the years? Would you like to see a return to a higher level of engagement with visitors’ imaginations, or do you see passive entertainment as the wave of the future? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.