Oftentimes, Walt Disney World attractions are an exercise in contradictions. They’re heartfelt, but funny. They can be thrilling, while also being comforting. They can seem timeless and strangely dated.
And, of course, they can feel cliche — but totally impactful nonetheless.
Disney often tries to tug on our heart strings or manipulate us emotionally with its rides and shows. But what’s strangest of all is just how effective that kind of storytelling can be. You might think that some of these moments Disney has crafted would be so cheesy, they couldn’t possibly affect you in any real way. They’re just far too corny and cliche, you might think. In fact, you’d be wrong.
Here are four times Disney created something that, on paper, seems like it would be uncomfortably saccharine or schmaltzy. In reality, they somehow created impossible Disney magic.
“We invite you, if you dare...”
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is one of the Walt Disney Company’s greatest creations. For many, it’s the pinnacle of what Walt Disney Imagineering can really achieve — telling a beautiful story with intricate theming and an amazing sense of time and place. One of the reasons it is so beloved is the fact that the queue and pre-show — which make up a large portion of the attraction experience — are really a vital part of the ride itself.
There is no greater example than that of the pre-show, which is something that Disney had the audacity to try — despite the fact that it would be nearly impossible to pull off.
One of the most iconic parts of the original Twilight Zone television series was creator Rod Serling’s brilliant introductions to each episode. His way with words was completely unique, and his speaking cadence was unmistakable. And yet, long after he’d passed away, Disney decided to try and put together a Twilight Zone-style introduction for their new Tower of Terror ride ... featuring Serling himself.
The finished product — a stitched together assemblage of a handful of audio sources — is unmistakably a forgery, and yet it is so masterfully done that there is no one who particularly cares that it’s fake. It might as well be real — it fits so perfectly.
In others’ hands, using a TV icon’s found footage to splice together an homage to his work would be unspeakably cringe-inducing. But Disney, somehow, made it seem cool.
The entirety of The American Adventure
Patriotism is a complicated concept. It can even be difficult for adults to unpack in a nuanced political debate. It’s even more complicated to try and convey that concept in a theme park attraction, particularly to an exhausted audience of vacationers.
And yet, Disney decided to try. The resulting triumph — The American Adventure — is so at odds with the popular conception of a theme park that it’s silly to try to explain it to an outsider. It’s a half-hour show that attempts to tell the story of America, filtered through the prism of a thesis about how the country has always been committed to progress.
Taking a half-hour out of your vacation to watch a sanded-down and simplified version of American history might seem to be, at first, entirely bizarre. And yet, the show works far better than it has any right to. The attraction’s animatronic cast is believable and engaging. The original music is moving and powerful. The message — that what makes America unique isn’t anything that it has done, but that it is always trying to do more — is surprisingly nuanced.
Essentially, Disney made something honoring America, and managed to do it without crossing a line into dismissively cheesy or uncomfortably overserious. It’s a tough line to walk, but Disney managed to do it. The show is a perfect reflection of the patriotism of Walt Disney -- and while, to paraphrase Captain America, its a bit old fashioned, sometimes a bit of old fashioned is just what you need.
Riding a Banshee
Image: ThemeParkTourist, Flickr
Admittedly, I’m not a big Avatar fan.
The movie didn’t really appeal to me, nor did the concept of a massive themed land designed to compliment that film’s universe. As time went on, and as Disney sunk more time and resources into what I assumed would be a flop, I got more and more opposed to the idea of Avatar on its own. Ultimately, I was hardly going into it with an open mind when I finally had the chance to ride Avatar: Flight of Passage. I basically had a sign around my neck that said in bold letters, “Impress me.”
What followed was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had on a theme park attraction. But what’s most surprising isn’t that Avatar became a good ride — rather, it’s how exactly Disney decided to make it into one.
The idea to have guests ride atop Banshees, and to create ride vehicles that simulate both the motion and breathing of those creatures, was nothing short of genius. But it’s an idea that is so audacious that it seems silly at first. The breathing and flexing of the Banshees as you ride them seems, to the uninitiated, like something of a gimmick. It is anything but.
In reality, the feeling of riding a living Banshee is something that is almost impossible to put into words. It feels real, but it also isn’t — and it heightens the vivid verisimilitude of Pandora as you experience it. It might seem like a dumb idea to make the ride vehicles feel like living things ... until you experience it yourself, and it becomes clear just how genius Disney can be.
“Some imagination, huh?”
The Mickey Mouse of Walt Disney’s early cartoons was a mischievous prankster, always out to pull one over on someone without worrying about being particularly nice. Even in his most high profile film role, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he can’t help but disobey Yensid’s instructions and flood the cold wizard’s chambers.
But over the years, Mickey’s image and personality have softened quite a lot. As he’s become the corporate mascot of The Walt Disney Company, the unique personality that Mickey had fell somewhat by the wayside.
And so, if you took that pleasant, non-threatening corporate mascot and made him the main character of a stage show, it might seem like such a show would be destined for failure. Most of all, if the show finished with said mascot complimenting his own creative capacity, you might think it’d be hard not to laugh.
Yet, the finale of Fantasmic features such a moment, with Mickey Mouse alone on stage celebrating his victory over the assembled villains. After conducting an orchestra of fireworks, Mickey appears at the front of the stage and says confidently, “Some imagination, huh?” Without the preceding half hour of context, that might seem like a boastful bit of corporate self-congratulations. But coming at the end of the masterful creation that is Fantasmic, the audience can’t help but agree with the big cheese. Fantasmic always ends with the roar of the crowd — not because Mickey says his final line, but because he’s correct when he says it.