Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Character of the Castle

From an interview in old Walt Disney World handbook, former Imagineer John Hench related these words about how Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom reflects the "Disney Magic", and more how that magic permeates the entire park. Just read:

“Well, this theme show idea really works at both the conscious and the subconscious levels in the guest’s mind. There are a number of things that happen to them which they may very well remember…a ride…a personal contact with an employee…a lunch…a particular show…or any one of dozens of others. But equally important, if not more so, is the sum total of all the thousands of little details of which the guests are never quite fully aware…details working at the subliminal level.

Take Cinderella Castle, for instance. Most people walk up to this point and take a picture. In fact, more pictures are probably taken right here of that castle than anything else perhaps in the world. But if you walked up and asked a guest WHY he likes the castle…WHY is it worth photographing?… He could never tell you. He’d probably stammer out something like ‘Because it’s just beautiful’. And yet, when he gets back home and shows his pictures, the feeling will never be the same that he experiences simply standing here.

The fact is, as we stand here right now, there are literally hundreds of stimuli etching an impression…and an experience in our minds through every one of our senses. Probably the most conscious and obvious stimulus is visual…we are looking at that castle and we think it is beautiful. Yet consider the factors that are playing on our sense of vision….the colors…the lighting, the shapes and designs. There is a static nature about the castle structure itself that makes you think its been standing there for centuries. And yet there is motion…the motion of those flags, and the trees around us made by the wind. The movement of people, vehicles and boats, water, balloons, horses, and the white clouds passing by overhead.

Look up at the top of the castle. At the base of the highest tower are a series of tremendously detailed gargoyles which you can barely see from the ground. And yet they are also part of our ‘magic formula’. They are part of a thousand little tiny details we are looking at right now but don’t consciously perceive. Individually they are nothing. Collectively, they add up to a visual experience that the guest can’t find anywhere else.

Now consider what is happening at this moment to our sense of hearing. As we stand here, we are hearing something that the best stereo or quad system in the world can’t duplicate. We are hearing an ever-changing background: music, the sounds of waterfalls, horses’ hooves, bells, a marching band, popcorn popping, and even the familiar crowd murmur that we usually sort of consciously tune out.

Think about the sense of touch…inanimate objects like this rockwork…animate objects like that horse pulling that trolley car. Or those Fantasyland characters in the castle’s forecourt. Those things are not projected film---they are real. If you close your eyes, you can reach out and touch them…feel them.

Those flowers aren’t plastic…you can smell them. That popcorn…you can go over and taste it.

Think about it carefully. As we stand here and look at that castle, every one of our senses are coming into play. This is total involvement. You can never capture this moment and take it home with you in a camera or tape recorder. You can only take this experience home in your mind. Now, multiply this moment by an entire day…by a week…by a thousand other different experiences…and you start to get some idea of the Disney theme show.

Of course, there are some limits to how far you can go in a theme experience. We don’t want to add smoke to the fire effects in the Pirates of the Caribbean…that would be a negative stimulus. In our jungle we keep the real insects to a minimum. In Frontierland, we could be more authentic by making dirt streets, eliminating air conditioning in the buildings and replacing restrooms with outhouses. How many medieval castles ever had piped-in music or drinking fountains with chilled water? Frankly, if we created a totally perfect, authentic themed experience where we had complete realism, it would probably be ghastly for contemporary people living here in the 1970s.

What we create is a ‘Disney Realism’, sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. In fact we even go beyond realism in some cases to make a better show. Don’t forget, people are coming here to be entertained…it is a show, you know. We create a world they can escape to…to enjoy for a few brief moments…a world that is the way they would like to think it would be.

The Jungle Cruise is a good example of what I’m talking about. It began in 1955 as an adaptation from our ‘True Life Adventure’ films. We created an attraction where all the things that you might see on a jungle river journey actually do happen. The truth of the matter is, you could probably spend two years on a real journey like that before you’d see everything.

Later, in selected Jungle Cruise scenes, we further enhanced the entertainment value by adding a touch of fantasy here and there. Take the elephant bathing pool, for example. Our guests know that real elephants wouldn’t lurk under the water and then rise up to squirt the boat. And they know a real herd of elephants wouldn’t be quite so happy with a strange boat in their midst. Real elephants would have either retreated defensively into the jungle or smashed the boat to pieces. But again, we’ve programmed Utopian realism, added a touch of fun and fantasy and the guest love it.

Interestingly, for all its success, the Disney theme show is quite a fragile thing. It just takes one contradiction…one out of place stimulus to negate a particular moment’s experience. Take that street car conductor’s costume away and put him in double knit slacks and a golf shirt….replace that old Gay Nineties melody with a rock number…replace the themed merchandise with digital clock radios and electric hair dryers…tack up a felt-tip drawn paper sign that says ‘Keep Out’…place a touch of astro turf here…add a surly employee there…it really doesn’t take much to upset it all.

What’s our success formula? Well, it’s attention to infinite detail…the little things, the minor picky points that other companies just don’t want to take the time, the money, the effort, to do right. As far as our Disney organization is concerned…it’s the only way we’ve ever done it…it’s been our success formula in the past and it will be applied to our future projects as well. We’ll probably still be explaining this to outsiders at the end of our next two decades in this business.”
This magic is an idea that slowly slips away from the caretakers of the parks - the true meaning of that cliched word "synergy"...where all parts work together to create an experience that is greater than what meets the eye.

Now, see, if I were in charge....

Thanks to Jim Hill Media for resurfacing this nugget. Read the whole story and more there.

No comments:

Post a Comment