Walt Disney World, Part 1: Leaving the Bubble

My recent trip to Walt Disney World changed my idea of what I want out of a vacation

This summer, my fiancé and I went on a ten-day trip to Walt Disney World for my 50th birthday. Because it was such an arbitrarily momentous occasion, I was selfish and splurged in all the ways I’ve never been able to before: two days in each park, a whole day devoted to just hanging out at the hotel, dinners at some of the fanciest restaurants we could get reservations for, and staying at my two favorite hotels for peak nostalgia value.

I’ve spent most of the last year convinced that with everything terrible happening, it was inevitable that something was going to go wrong and make the trip impossible. But somehow, everything came together: we were both able to get vaccinated, our neighbors graciously offered to take care of the cat, we managed to get time off work, my favorite hotels opened up (at least partially), and Disney ran a discount that made the hotels just ridiculously expensive instead of impossibly expensive.

It ended up being a terrific birthday, and about as nice as it can possibly be to spend ten days in central Florida in late June. As great as it was, though, I could feel my perspective subtly shifting while I was down there. This felt like the last time I’ll take a lengthy trip to Disney World. Not just because I’ll never be able to justify the cost again, but because it doesn’t feel like my type of thing anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not actually committing blasphemy by saying I’ll never go again. I already want to see the new stuff that’s going to be opening for the anniversary and in 2022, and onward. I’d love to be able to stay at — I mean take a space cruise on the Star Wars not-a-hotel when it opens. But this felt like checking “dream Disney World vacation” off of a list, and I don’t feel the need to do it again.

It’s not that I’m getting tired of it, either. I got absurdly spoiled on previous jobs where I’d spend weeks at a time at the parks, and it never got old. (Almost. It turns out that two weeks living on theme park food is my limit). Instead, I think I’m just at the point where I want something different out of a vacation.

I can honestly say I’ve never had any hesitation or regrets about spending almost all my vacation time at Disney parks. Complaints that they’re just for kids, and it’s weird for childless adults to go there, are just absurd, and I never even give them a second thought. Same for complaints that it’s all a corporate money-making machine; I mean, welcome to the 21st century.

The only complaint that’s ever gotten any real traction with me is that it’s all manufactured, a fake substitute for “the real thing.” And that pretty much dissolved as soon as I went to Italy, and I realized that Epcot’s version felt more realistic than actual Venice and parts of Rome. I’m skeptical that the people so dismissive of Disney are actually going on exotic adventure treks, or living like a native in delightful out-of-the-way sections of foreign cities, but even if they are, that’s not me.

I’m not convinced that “travel and live like the locals do” is actually a thing, at least unless you’re lucky enough to have friends who are locals. And even then, I’m not convinced it’s all that great a goal. I live in one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the United States, and the thought of people paying money to recreate my day-to-day experience is profoundly depressing. They’d have a lot more fun doing the predictable, touristy stuff accessible to everyone: going to Fisherman’s Wharf, taking photos of the Golden Gate from the Marin Headlands, riding a cable car, getting a Mission burrito, desperately searching for a public restroom.

I’ve been lucky to do a fair bit of traveling, and I’ve always ended up in the touristy areas anyway, if only because I’m helplessly monolingual. I don’t even like talking to strangers in English; it was stressful enough being in Ireland, and people constantly greeting me with “Are you okay?” as if I looked like something horrible had happened to me. The idea of actually roughing it — either in terms of residence or social interaction — doesn’t sound like a relaxing vacation in the slightest.

So I’ve realized that I’ve spent years thinking about Disney parks — especially Walt Disney World, with its emphasis on all the resorts and stuff to do “inside the bubble” — in the wrong way. I’ve thought of them as taking a real-world travel adventure and making it safer, more compact, and more generically family-friendly. But now, I realize that it’s actually taking a family-friendly vacation and trying to inject a little bit of real-world adventure into it. It really doesn’t matter at all that it’s not an authentic experience; all it needs to do is give you something to look at and do that’s more interesting than just sitting by a hotel pool.

And I can’t speak for anybody else, but now that I’m firmly in my middle age, the idea of sitting by a hotel pool is more attractive than it’s ever been. My travel goals for the future are seeking out the most comfortable hotel pools in the most exotic places.

Next up: my report card for the trip.

Mine Train Through Nature’s Bafflingly Sexist Wonderland

Disneyland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland closed in 1977 (according to Wikipedia), and by the first time I went to the park, its replacement Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had already become a 20-year-old classic. So I never saw the original ride, but knew just enough about it to be able to recognize references to it.

For instance, one of the best Mickey Mouse shorts, Nature’s Wonderland, is full of references to the entire history of the ride, from the Rainbow Caverns to Big Thunder Mountain, and even Disneyland itself. I’ve seen this one several times, and patted myself on the back for catching the references, but I never knew how much was being referenced.

Fortunately, someone on YouTube compiled a full ride-through of the Nature’s Wonderland attraction, combining a recording of the original voiceover with restored film and photos from various sources at the appropriate points. It’s fascinating to see the whole thing put together after years of seeing and hearing about specific scenes and saying, “Yeah, I get it.” Some things I never realized:

  • How long and meandering it was. Everything was a lot more leisurely back in the early days of Disneyland, before concerns about capacity ruled everything.
  • It puts the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s into better context, which has seemed to be this weird outlier among any other theme park ride I’ve seen.
  • I never appreciated just how much Big Thunder Mountain Railroad calls back to Nature’s Wonderland, from Rainbow Ridge and the rainbow caverns, to the dinosaur bones at the end.
  • I never appreciated how bafflingly, unnecessarily sexist the original voice-over was.

It’s almost comical how often the narration veers off into “ahhh, women, am I right, fellas?” for no reason. I’m guessing this was part of the good-natured comedy that was injected to keep the rides at Disneyland from being too dry, as they were in their original incarnations. Regardless, it’s kind of a stark reminder of how much the parks have evolved over the years.

It seems especially relevant now, since Disney has changed the opening of its fireworks shows from the traditional “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” to a more generalized and inclusive one. As usual, people are complaining about political correctness, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the parks have been updated to be more inclusive to guests for decades. And they haven’t lost their classic charm, either.

Complaints from self-proclaimed “traditionalists” depend on the erroneous idea that things have always been a certain way, and it’s modern special interests trying to ruin everything to fit their own special agendas. What they ignore or deny is that the “traditional” versions were a special interest imposing their own special agenda on everyone — it’s not as if everyone in 1960 was delighted to hear needless misogyny (no matter how seemingly gentle) on a theme park ride. It’s a safe bet that a lot of Disneyland visitors found it grating, but not enough to make a big deal out of it or anything.

Remember that the next time you see some chucklewit complaining about encroaching wokeness. Take a step back and realize how changes made for the purposes of inclusivity have been happening forever.

Jungle Cruise, or, The Wonderful World of Corny

The Jungle Cruise movie has already won me over before I’ve even seen it.

To be clear: I’m fully prepared for Jungle Cruise to be more the disappointment of The Haunted Mansion than the thoroughly pleasant surprise of Pirates of the Caribbean. Obviously, I hope it’s as much the goofy spectacle that the trailers promise; we are long overdue for another The Mummy. But I’m not going to be shocked or crushed if it turns out to be empty nonsense.

But as far as I’m concerned, they’ve already won just by virtue of the marketing campaign. The ongoing gag is Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson bickering with each other for attention, most brilliantly illustrated by the teaser posters, with the Rock peeking over Blunt’s shoulder, or her face mostly obscured by a torch.

Two new trailers continue the gag, and they’re a little bit more corny and obvious than the posters, but I mean, this is a movie based on the Jungle Cruise. Corny and obvious should be the go-to. This is still obviously a Disney take on The African Queen, but I was happy to see so many references to the ride in the Rock’s trailer.

I was even happier to see Paul Giamatti chewing up the scenery. One thing Giamatti and Johnson have in common is that they always understand exactly what they’re making. It’s definitely not always good, but when it’s bad, it’s never because they didn’t get the tone right.

This isn’t an easy tone to get right. The combination of corniness, self-awareness, and CGI-heavy spectacle can be completely insufferable — or worse, forgettable — if any of it’s out of balance. But no matter how the movie’s turned out, I’ve already enjoyed the hell out of the version that’s playing out in my imagination, based on the promotional material.

Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Thoughts about the relentlessly delightful ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida

We just got back from a week-and-some-change-long trip to Walt Disney World for a milestone birthday. I’ll probably have more to say about it later after I’ve done more reminiscin’, but there were two immediate standouts: the Skyliner, and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The ride replaced The Great Movie Ride in the Chinese Theater at the center of the park, and it’s notable for being the first ride with the Mickey Mouse characters. (There have been shows and movies, but never a ride).

I just loved it. I’d already spoiled myself by watching ride-throughs on YouTube, but still had a huge grin throughout, both times we got to ride it. It most reminded me of the first time I rode Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, not just because they’re both trackless ride systems, but because they’re both start-to-finish delightful in a way that supersedes individual gags or overall spectacle.

There’s too much it does well for me to pick just one thing, so here’s five:

Continue reading “Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway”

999 Happy Cooks

An idle observation about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it timeless

At this point, I’ve read two books about Disney’s Haunted Mansion; Rolly Crump’s autobiography, which as you’d expect contains a lot of his stories about working on the attraction and the Museum of the Weird; and I’ve gotten to ride the three versions of the attraction in Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo, plus the Phantom Manor in Paris. So I’ve got some opinions.

To give an idea of how much I like this ride: one morning, I got the opportunity to ride the Magic Kingdom’s version over a dozen times back-to-back — I lost count, but I think it was 16 times? — and if I’d been given the option (and had a bathroom break), I would’ve wanted to ride it over a dozen more. It would be going a bit too far to say that you see new details every time you ride, because there’s definitely a point at which you’ve seen everything, but it doesn’t get old because it’s just fun to be surrounded by all of it.

One recurring bit of information that I’ve seen pop up repeatedly is that many of the Imagineers who worked on the ride — Marc Davis in particular — weren’t happy with how it turned out. In The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham describes how the attraction went through years of design with multiple teams of Imagineers assigned, all with different styles and opinions about how the attraction should be focused. Some wanted stronger story, while other wanted “mood.” A persistent argument, never settled even after the ride opened, was whether the attraction should be funny or scary. Baham cites an interview from Haunted Attraction Magazine, in which Davis says there were “too many cooks.”

Marc Davis was a genius, and his work is indisputably one of the main reasons I love Disney parks so much. But I disagree on this one. I think the apparent lack of focus in The Haunted Mansion is exactly why it’s so timeless, and why I never seem to get tired of it.

For evidence: the Phantom Manor in Paris. It’s more cohesive, more consistent, and more polished. The visual design of the house itself — like just about everything in Disneyland Paris — is striking, and it sets a perfect mood as an Old West version of the Bates house. It’s got a story that (if I remember correctly) is made all but explicit, which fits in as a key part of the fully-fleshed-out story of the entire land. It felt to me like a team had the vision of what they wanted from the start, and they worked to make everything fit. And it didn’t do a thing for me.

The key impression I got of the attraction was that it was overwrought. There’s very little of the fun and humor I associate with the “real” Haunted Mansion. The tone does lighten up in the last act of the ride, but by that point, I was just left with an overall feeling that they’d tried harder to make the story work than to make the experience fun.

Even an attraction I love, the Tower of Terror, loses a little something from its focus on story. The build-up can’t be beat: seeing the tower from a distance, passing the sign into the ominous queue, the path through the garden covered in fog from the misters if you’re there on a hot day, haunting 30s jazz music coming quietly from out of nowhere, an abandoned fountain with a long-neglected statue, the cobweb-covered lobby, and then the preshow that has the lightning from the TV escape out into the real world… it’s just exceptional place-building. But then our characters are zapped into the Twilight Zone, and the whole thing is over.

And while I haven’t ridden Rise of the Resistance enough to be sure, my first impression is that its story is part of what’s kept it from being one of my all-time-number-one favorite attractions. It is a phenomenal piece of design and execution, but I was still left with the feeling “Well, that happened.” It felt over, instead of ongoing.

I get the sense that there’s a long-running “debate” within Imagineering — frankly, probably more within the nerds like me who have strong opinions about Imagineering — about what it means to say that Disney’s strength is “story.” My opinion is that “story” is the best word for it, but that’s only because I can’t think of a good word for “something in between just a themed queue, and a narrative with beginning, middle, and end.”

The Haunted Mansion feels endless. Even as you’re leaving, the ghosts are encouraging you to hurry back. It’s a place, not a story, and it feels as if things are happening inside, and will continue happening forever, even when I’m not there to see them. It’s obviously most similar in tone, design, and structure to Pirates of the Caribbean, but unlike that ride, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching scenes from the past, but from a perpetual present.

Except that’s not quite it, either. One of the things that makes Walt Disney World’s version superior — for the record: California has the better exterior, Florida has the better interior, there will be no further questions — is that it has so many paintings still on display. They’re intensely nostalgic, of a very specific time and aesthetic, which is late 60s camp horror. Some have the quality of the best Scooby-Doo concept and background art, some seem straight out of horror comics like Creepy and Eerie, some feel like cover art of a cheap horror paperback.

Combined with other memorable visual touches throughout the mansion — like the chair next to the endless hallway, or the eyes repeated in the wallpaper — they’re such a specific aesthetic that they feel unquestionably designed. It’s foolish to assign sole authorship to anything in something as collaborative as a Disney theme park attraction, much less one with such a long process involving so many people not just in the original version but with all the refurbs, but the details feel distinctly like they were made by someone. Not a committee, or a project leader, but individual artists. Each adding their mark to the house over the years, like a real mansion.

Disney fans like to make it sound as if originality in the parks is doomed because of the company’s preoccupation with IP over original attractions, as if there weren’t at least a dozen counter-examples of outstanding attractions based on an existing property. I think that’s mostly nonsense, but there is the tiniest of valid criticisms at the core of it: making something as long-lasting as a Disney attraction needs to have enough room for it to be indefinitely expansive. Even if you have a ton of talented people working to the best of their ability, all filling the experience with tons of expertly-crafted details, it’s inevitably going to feel a bit small if it’s kept tight, focused, and cohesive, instead of being given room to grow and be at least a little bit weird.

The Ironically-Named Universal Studios

Reconsidering my opinions about theme parks that treat me like I’m too fat to visit them

Two things I’ve seen recently:

  1. A theme park and roller coaster fan posted a photo to Twitter, showing his hand-made calendar of weight-loss goals he wanted to hit. The overriding goal: to lose enough weight to be able to ride the new Velocicoaster at Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
  2. A couple that makes YouTube videos were at a preview day for Universal Studios Hollywood to prepare for its re-opening, and they wanted to go on its new dark ride for The Secret Life of Pets. But when trying the test seat outside the ride entrance, one of them found he couldn’t fit with the ride vehicle and its restraints. He then did something I’ve never seen from a theme park YouTuber: he said, on camera, how it was a drag that Universal didn’t make more of an effort to make the ride accommodating for larger guests. But then — twist! — he found a way to fit in the ride vehicle, so they resumed their previously-scheduled ride-through and talked about how great the ride was and how Universal had even beat Disney at its own game, etc.

Taken together, I’d say that sums up the state of Universal, in the current Wizarding World of Harry Potter era: creative is doing the work, coming up with rides that seem fun, are full of novel ideas, and have been getting exceptional reviews. But then they’re put into theme parks with what seems like no concern given to actual guests, and then for whatever reason, guests are eager to treat it like it’s their own fault, not Universal’s.

For a while, I’ve been feeling like such a theme park snob for having such a low opinion of Universal Studios, based entirely on a couple of disappointing trips I took with my family in summer in the late 90s/early 2000s. It felt disrespectful to the hard work of so many people, especially since the parks had shown an eagerness to be more experimental and innovative than the notoriously risk-averse Disney parks.

So I made a point not to compare it to my memories of Disney, and instead focus on all the cool stuff they were doing — the fantastic Spider-Man ride, the great theming in both Harry Potter lands, the beautiful layout of Volcano Bay, the ingenious design of Cabana Bay as an affordable hotel that was so cool that people would actually prefer to stay there instead of a more expensive one, and the still-phenomenal tram tour at the original Universal Studios Hollywood.

And I kept being disappointed, over and over again. Because again, the creativity and the design weren’t in question. The problem was that they were constantly being kneecapped by baffling decisions apparently made elsewhere. Entire lands made with seemingly no thought as to capacity. Hour-or-longer waits for a brief “ceremony” at Ollivander’s that chooses only one child in the audience, and doesn’t even give them the wand afterwards. Rides for properties that appeal to younger audiences, but have ride systems that keep younger audiences from riding. And overall, the constant feeling of being told by Universal that I’m too fat, too old, or that my time isn’t valuable.

I realized that I wasn’t the one being disrespectful to the work of the creative teams, Universal was.

The Secret Life of Pets ride looks genuinely charming, and appealing to me even though I have zero interest in the license. There are some very clever effects throughout, combining screens and projections and animatronics and special effects. It could’ve been a wonderful family ride, but it has a ride system that might as well be on a roller coaster.

Any time this criticism is raised, you can see people leaping to Universal’s defense, almost as if someone had dared to criticize Elon Musk online. They make it sound as if these are just unavoidable design constraints that every theme park is subject to — even though we all know that there’s a very liability-sensitive 900-pound gorilla just a few miles away from both of Universal’s American resorts. And on the rare occasion that Disney does make something that’s not (ahem) universally accessible, they get reamed about it online.

I’ve spent most of my life somewhere on the spectrum between “husky” and “fat,” but I’ve very rarely been subjected to the kind of criticism that most overweight people have to put up with regularly. It’s always, always presented as your fault. “You could be skinner if you tried.” “You’re responsible for making yourself unhealthy.” “I lost x pounds, so you could, too.” “If you took better care of yourself, people wouldn’t be such assholes to you.”

Along the same lines, Universal advertises these rides and parks to us, while making what seems like zero effort to make them accessible to us. And everyone acts like it’s our fault. Meanwhile, the parks sell pizza fries, butterscotch-flavored cream soda, and milkshakes with whole slices of cake or doughnuts in them. [Edited 6/10/21: Because this can be so easily misinterpreted: I mention unhealthy theme park food not as “fat people just can’t help ourselves from overindulging!” bad-faith nonsense. I actually tend to eat fairly reasonably at theme parks, but I still can’t fit comfortably on a ride where I’m supposed to be the Incredible Hulk. Instead, I meant it to counter the first thing people always, always, always trot out to defend hostility or indifference to fat people: the claim that it’s some kind of tough-love argument that’s in interest of the target’s health. Look at the food for sale at Universal parks and try to tell me again that this company is concerned about guests’ health. I dare you].

To be clear: I absolutely don’t begrudge in the slightest any of the people using a fun-looking rollercoaster as a metric for their own plans to lose weight. On the contrary, that seems like a fun way to do it. What I’m calling out is the idea that we’re obligated to change our bodies to fit the rides, and not that these companies are obligated to change their rides to accommodate as many of us as possible.

I also don’t begrudge any YouTuber who just wants to have fun at the parks (and not piss off Universal with their videos) instead of having to think about any of this bullshit. American society finds ways to make fat people feel bad about themselves multiple times a day, every day, and it’s such a relief to be able to take even a brief vacation from it. Not to mention the anxiety that comes from wondering if you’re going to be publicly kicked off a ride because “you don’t fit” (always worded that way instead of “the ride doesn’t fit you”).

So I’m done giving them a break. Again, by everything I’ve seen, Universal creative is doing some really good work. But I’m kind of done making excuses for theme parks that repeatedly act like they don’t want me there. I’m sure I’ll go on the tram tour at Universal Hollywood again, and I’m looking forward to seeing Super Mario World, and finding out if they’ve made the rides there ridiculously hostile to the overweight.

But I’ll have to leave the Hagrid coaster, and the Velocicoaster, and the slow-moving family ride based on an animated movie about adorable pets, for the average sized. Meanwhile, I’ll be at Disney, where they almost never make me feel old and fat.

“The Fifth Key is Capitalism”

Disney announced a change that affected “The Disney Look,” and the reactions have been everything I expected and lots more that I should’ve expected

This week Disney announced a renewed focus on “inclusion” in its company goals. Along with that came a change to “The Disney Look” that would support a wider range of hair styles, tattoos, traditional head coverings, and jewelry. It also doesn’t impose restrictions based on gender, like make-up, nail polish, and earrings for male cast members.

As you’d expect, there are tons of crotchety responses from people who are horrified on behalf of Walt Disney himself, and whose vacations will be absolutely ruined if the 23-year-old man wearing lederhosen in Anaheim in 99 degree heat wishing you a magical day in Fantasyland also happens to be wearing nail polish.

An awful lot of Disney “fans” simply aren’t happy unless they’re complaining about how much better things used to be. I will never forget being on a message board and reading a thread about a change in smoking areas, and one earnest fan’s post lamenting how upset Walt Disney would be to see people smoking in Disneyland.1When multiple people pointed out to her that Mr Disney was a heavy smoker and in fact died of illnesses related to lung cancer, she replied that that’s all the more reason he’d be anti-smoking in the 21st century.

But most people seem to get it, and recognize that it’s a good thing. The standards were a little hypocritical from the start, introduced by a mustachioed gentlemen in the 1950s trying to keep his carrousel, Monsanto advertisements, and Indian-killing fantasies from being associated with unsavory carnival types. I agree with most of Robert Niles’s take on Theme Park Insider. The “Disney Look” has always been most hospitable to middle-class white people working to make middle-class white people feel safe and comfortable.

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Re: Fwd: Disneyland

Speculation on Disneyland’s proposed expansion plans

Expansion concept art from the Disneyland Forward website.

Last week, Disneyland made an announcement with an accompanying “Disney Forward” website, which I heard described variously as an expansion to the Anaheim theme parks, a third theme park, a west coast Disney Springs, or a second attempt to push through their earlier rejected plans now that the COVID-19 pandemic gave them more leverage with the city of Anaheim.

Looking at the site more closely, it looks to me like it’s just a proposal to re-zone land at the Disneyland Resort to be mixed-use. The stuff I’d read suggested all kinds of grand schemes and/or nefarious ulterior motives, but I should know by now to take everything I read about Disney parks on the internet with a big old salt lick. It’s never as spectacular and magical, or as sinister and profit-driven, as people make it sound.

To be clear, it’s an extremely savvy pitch on Disney’s part, as you’d expect. It’s timed right before the parks re-open, when the city and residents of Anaheim are most aware of how much their economy relies on Disneyland. It’s presented to the public — and using much the same format they use to sell hotel stays and DVC points to guests — instead of as a dry zoning proposal. I’m presuming that’s partly for transparency, to keep it from seeming as if Disney is colluding with the city government, proposing huge projects without any regard for the people affected by them. I’d bet it’s also to get the legions of Disney parks fans excited, to try and change the narrative from “Global entertainment behemoth stomps over small local businesses” to “Opportunistic Harbor Blvd hotel and restaurant chains crush the dreams of children.”

There’s also a repeated idea that sounds, hilariously, like a veiled threat: if this proposal doesn’t go through, Disney’s going to have no choice but to demolish some beloved attractions. “Nice tea cups we got here. It’d be a shame if anything… happened to them.”

But at the same time, everything that they’re saying is obviously true. There is no space left to expand the parks or build new stuff; the Galaxy’s Edge expansion was squeezed in as it was. They have tried to expand using the current hotel/retail/theme park zoning, and the plans fell through on account of pushback from the city. (Technically, their most recent plan was cancelled by Disney judging it not worth the investment when the city refused to give them the tax breaks they wanted. Still tough to choose a “good guy” in that fight, which was why it was savvy of Disney to pitch this one as room for new attractions instead of just room for more profitable hotel space).

Continue reading “Re: Fwd: Disneyland”

The Back Side of the 1960s

Preemptively heading off comments about the upcoming Jungle Cruise refurb

Today, Disney announced their plan to make changes to the Jungle Cruise rides at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, removing culturally insensitive (and imperialist) references to native tribes, guides, and head hunters, and replacing them with a new storyline about the hapless crew of a previous journey.

I wanted to ask all the Disney parks fans to join together and head off any attempts from the internet to turn this into some kind of controversy. To be fair, I haven’t actually seen any complaints about it yet, because I’m largely out of touch with the usual gang of obsessives on Twitter and in forums. So this might not even be necessary. Maybe everybody’s excited about it!

But: when Disneyland painted its theme park fairy tale castle a brighter color, people responded as if the company had gone back in time and physically assaulted their younger selves. Anything involving “cultural sensitivity” — like, hypothetically speaking, changing a key scene in an attraction that showed the lighter, family-friendly side of both fat-shaming and human trafficking — tends to have people grousing about it for years.

And actually, I get it. Song of the South is undeniably a movie infused with racism to its core, but I still felt more than a little melancholy when I heard that Splash Mountain was being re-themed to The Princess and the Frog. The movie, its songs, and the ride conjure up very specific, wonderful memories of my childhood and my mother, and it’ll never not be sad seeing those erased.

I understand intellectually why it’s necessary to change, and I’m in favor of the changes, but there’s still that emotional gut response aversion to it. That temptation to ask, “can’t we just acknowledge that it’s dated, and keep it with asterisks attached?” Or, “Isn’t it ultimately harmless?”

So here’s a very recent — and pretty embarrassing, honestly — example to demonstrate why having dated, inaccurate, or insensitive images repeated constantly, even if they seem “harmless” or “just a gag,” can be harmful. If you’re like me, a middle-class American or Western European who’s never traveled to east Africa, what is the image that come into your head when I mention “Kenya?”

Is it this?

Image of Nairobi from the Enchanting Travels website

I’m embarrassed to admit that I always pictured what I’d always thought was a positive image: a broad, beautiful, savanna with zebras and wildebeests grazing peacefully. I know that much of the country is actually like that. And I know that my only other frame of reference for “Africa” — the fictional city of “Harambe” in Animal Kingdom — is supposed to be a relatively accurate depiction of the smaller towns that are probably more widespread (at least, as of the late 1990s). But my entire idea of the country, if not the entire continent, was so full of these images of safaris and small towns that they’d completely crowded out even the possibility of a cosmopolitan city center with millions of people.

To compare it to something I understand better: it would be as if I thought the entire state of Georgia was like the small towns in the rural southern part of the state, and Atlanta didn’t even exist. I’m not putting any value judgment on small towns vs city centers; the older I get, the more I think cities are overrated. I’m just talking about preconceived notions of an entire place that don’t account for its variety, and don’t update over the years along with the real world.

Just last week, somebody on Twitter posted a picture of the Nairobi skyline — I can’t remember the exact context, but it was in response to some dipshit trying to say that Kenya was backwards — and I think it might’ve been the first I’d ever even seen the city. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been carrying around those over-simplistic ideas of what the country, and really, the rest of the world is like.

So essentially what I’m saying is that I could understand the complaints about the Jungle Cruise changes: the ride is supposed to be silly and light-hearted and never claims to be an accurate representation. Plus, it’s set during some not-quite-specified time period in the early 20th century, so it’s supposed to be dated. (Similar to the “They’re pirates! They’re supposed to be bad guys!” complaint, as if that were the point).

But my response is simply that images are more powerful than we think, especially when they’re presented as if they were harmless, and especially when they’re repeated so often. We can — and in the case of the Jungle Cruise, absolutely should — keep the old aesthetic, but we’re not obliged to keep the old attitudes. From the gags I’ve seen in their “first look” video, it seems like they’ve got the right idea: it’s still silly and fun, but the humor is more inclusive instead of just making fun of people that don’t deserve it.

Men in Black: Alien Attack

Recommending a friend’s podcast appearance talking about a now-classic ride

Belated YouTube and podcast recommendation: I’ve been a fan of the Theme Park Stop channel for a while, where Alicia Stella does videos about theme park news and rumors, mostly focused on Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. She somehow manages to make even speculation about patent applications interesting, and she also does a killer impression of Mickey Mouse from the Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride.

I haven’t had much time for podcasts since I stopped having to commute, so I missed out on a recent episode of their podcast featuring my real-life pal Dave Cobb. He was talking about the Men In Black: Alien Attack attraction at Universal Studios Orlando, a project on which he was the creative director. It’s a great conversation about the planning and development of the ride, with hosts who not only know the ride inside and out, but are big fans of it not only as theme park guests, but people who try to closely follow the business.

Dave is super-generous with his time, enthusiasm, knowledge, credit, and friendship, and he and his husband have been my hosts in LA and for Disneyland gay days more times than I’ll ever be able to pay back. It’s fun hearing him talk about a project he’s proud of, sharing his personal contributions and emphasizing the work of so many different people that went into making it.

It’s also a reminder of how the ride is the highlight of Universal Studios Orlando, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been kind of an a-hole about Universal Orlando, because I immediately forget that I’m an adult and instead revert back to being an insufferably hyper-critical guest (and rabid Disney Parks fan) in my late teens and early 20s.1And in the summer in Orlando, no less, which just added to the feeling of irritation. I only got to ride Men in Black for the first time a few years ago, and it was immediately clear how there’s a level of thoughtfulness that went into that attraction, from start to finish, that you rarely see even now, in the post-Wizarding World of Harry Potter era. As they say at the beginning of the podcast, there’s a reason it’s lasted 20 years in a park that is constantly changing!