Museum of the Weird

Reading Rolly Crump’s book convinced me I’ve been wrong about Disney’s tension between originality and familiarity.

I just finished reading It’s Kind of a Cute Story, a memoir from Rolly Crump about his career as an Imagineer and afterwards. Even though I’ve been trying to follow the history of the Disney parks and their creators for years, there were quite a few things I hadn’t known before. One was that Crump was straight-up jacked. More significantly, though, I learned about an aspect of working for Walt Disney the man that’s gotten lost among the decades and the huge volume of work generated by Disney the company: Disney the company has gotten a reputation for safe, predictable, homogeneity; but Walt Disney himself was often a champion of the original and the weird.

In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to somebody with even a cursory knowledge of Walt Disney’s career. But all my experience with the parks, cartoons, and TV series happened after his death. And according to every account of the company’s history that I’ve seen, including a mention in Rolly Crump’s book and an episode of The Imagineering Story, the period after Walt’s death was filled with timidity and aversion to any risk. Ironically, by making “What Would Walt Do?” the question that drove every decision, they ended up doing the opposite of what Walt would probably have done.

Still, that shaped my perception of Walt Disney as a conservative above all else. It cemented the idea that everything had to be on model, everything had to fit into an easily recognizable “Disney Look,” and it all had to be accessible and easily digestible: the most cynical interpretation would be that he hired some of the finest artists in the world to create art for the lowest common denominator.

And what’s remarkable is how I kept that simplistic and condescending impression despite tons of evidence to the contrary. It’s weird that he had a friendship and collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s weird to make an animated film that’s nothing but artistic (and sometimes abstract) interpretations of orchestral pieces. It’s weird to build a successor to a hugely successful theme park and decide to focus not on the theme park, but on an elaborate planned city. Long stretches of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are just weird. There are plenty of other examples, but I somehow ignored them and continued to think of Walt Disney as the genius at safe, family entertainment who occasionally had an aberrant weird idea.

So it was interesting to read Rolly Crump’s book and see him give Walt so much credit for some of his own best and most memorable work with Disney. Crump is one of the rare Imagineers who’s managed to have his own style and influence stand out as recognizable, since it’s only recently that the company has begun giving more credit to individual artists and engineers. Pretty much everything he had a hand in designing is part of my favorite Disney attractions — the clock outside Disneyland’s it’s a small world, the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Land pavilion at Epcot. According to Crump’s own account, he was encouraged by Walt and chosen to bring his unique style to projects, despite not being the studio’s most traditionally skilled artist.

It seems so odd compared to the popular (and likely over-simplified) perception of how creative businesses work today. The stereotype is of the artist with a unique vision who somehow manages to make something new despite the people in charge, never because of them. To use an example from Disney animation: I’d always thought of Sleeping Beauty as a case of Eyvind Earle’s wonderful art and design work being constrained to fit into yet another princess movie, with mostly traditional Disney character design, right down to the prince who’s all but indistinguishable from the ones in Cinderella and Snow White.

But after hearing Rolly Crump’s description of how Walt Disney would think about projects, I think I may have had it completely reversed. Walt wanted to make use of the outstanding artwork of Eyvind Earle (and Marc Davis, and a ton of other legendary artists), and he recognized that a commercial, family-oriented production was the best way to make that financially possible. I’m so used to hearing about the tension between art and commerce as the broadest, most simplistic dichotomy — it’s even baked into the Disney “mythology” that insists that Walt was the creative one while Roy was the money guy. But that makes it sound as if Walt was perpetually in “Blue Sky mode,” which I suspect does a disservice to the actual extent of his genius. Walt wasn’t interested in taking weird and original stuff and sanitizing it, sanding off all the rough edges to make it something safe and homogenous; he recognized that safe, homogenous, and predictable sold really, really well to a global audience. Making Sleeping Beauty meant that the entire world would get to see Earle’s beautiful work. Building a corporate-sponsored pavilion at the World’s Fair meant that millions of people would get to see Rolly Crump’s kinetic sculpture.

I realize that that’s probably just as over-simplified take as the opposite, and that there was likely as much commerce as art involved in every decision. But as a lifelong Disney fan who’s still well aware that “the Disney version” almost always has a negative connotation, I like reminding myself that originality and weirdness are an essential part of the company’s creative history, and not just one-off exceptions. And I like seeing more of that looser, freer originality making it out to the public. There’s more experimentation with art styles and character designs — the current Mickey Mouse shorts are brilliant, and I love that their place has been cemented in Disney history with a dark ride in that style. The new look of Duck Tales, weird and off-model concept art from the Toy Story movies, the varied and experimental art and animation styles in the shorts (and even occasionally the features, like Wreck-it Ralph), are all signs that creativity, originality, and weirdness can be profitable.

Everything is Counterfactual

Changes to Splash Mountain reveal how a Disney-loving southern boy came to have false memories of his childhood

Yesterday, Disney announced that they were going to re-theme the Splash Mountain ride to The Princess and the Frog instead of Song of the South. Nobody can honestly claim that the announcement is all that surprising, but to hear it in 2020 still makes me profoundly sad.

To be clear: it’s undeniably a positive move in the long run. The Princess and the Frog is an excellent movie that pays homage to the entire history of Disney animation. It’s better representation for a ton of children who haven’t seen enough characters like them. It’s better business for Disney to have marketing tie-ins with a property they can actually continue selling. If I were any other adult Disney fan, I’d only have two complaints: First, that the movie, and the character of Tiana in particular, could be better served by a new dedicated attraction instead of a re-skin of an existing one. (But it sounds like this is set after the movie, which is a good sign that it’ll be more a continuation of the characters, like Mission Breakout, and less a pleasant-but-decade-too-late retelling of the story, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid). My second complaint is that I don’t really like any of the songs from the movie. Even the strongest, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is nowhere near the memorable classics that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and “How Do You Do?” are.

But this post isn’t me writing as an adult Disney fan. This is me writing as a guy who grew up in Georgia in the early 1970s, and who has a ton of early-childhood memories associated with the animated sections of Song of the South. Those characters are my earliest memories of Disney movies. (Along with the Chip and Dale or Humphrey Bear shorts that were shown at Fort Wilderness). The beginning of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” with Uncle Remus walking through a field that turns into a cartoon, birds flying all around him, Mr Bluebird landing on his shoulder, was the quintessential Disney image for my childhood. (At least until The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon came along). And those memories are all tangled together with my “sense memories” of the Tales from the Okefenokee ride at Six Flags over Georgia — I don’t actually remember specifics except for a scary dark drop, and a character warning “Don’t go into the swamp!”

Because it reminds me so much of my early childhood, it can’t not remind me of my mother. When I was young and she was mock-scolding me or my brother, she’d imitate Brer Bear saying “I’m gonna knock your head clean off!” When I was a little older, she taught me about Joel Chandler Harris and The Wren’s Nest, since she was so interested in the history of Georgia and Atlanta in particular. It always comes across as condescending to say that “things were simpler then,” but I can honestly say that in the 80s, I never got any sense of “appropriation.” It just felt like an attempt to preserve the folklore of my home state.

So for years, riding Splash Mountain has brought back very special and very specific memories. It felt as if they’d already found a way to save just the good parts and present it divorced from anything negative. The thought of having to get rid of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit and the singing possums feels like having to destroy part of my childhood.

Good riddance to Song of the South, though. We shouldn’t entertain the idea that it’s ever been a good movie. No doubt the message boards are already full of people making the predictably tired complaints — “it’s political correctness gone mad!” ad nauseam. But the movie on the whole is not a cherished classic, and it’s definitely not a new phenomenon to recognize that. Even in the 40s, people recognized it was, to put it mildly, “problematic.”

But I do have to wonder how many people have strong opinions of it despite never having seen it, or based on faulty memories of it. Even my own memories of it were selective. It’s been unavailable for so long that the first time I saw it as an adult was around 2000, and even then only as a bootleg recorded from a Japanese laser disc. It was almost nothing like I remembered it. For one thing, I’d forgotten almost all of the live action parts, which actually make up the majority of the movie. And I must’ve forgotten how much I disliked the main character, because I felt an instant, almost irrational hatred of him and his little velvet suit and with its lace collar and his tendency to cry about absolutely everything. Even as a somewhat delicate and precious white boy myself, I must’ve been able to recognize him as the personification of white male fragility.

I’ve seen people describe Song of the South as “shockingly” racist, but I’d disagree — I reserve that for stuff like the crows in Dumbo, or the maid in Tom & Jerry cartoons, or all the cringingly awful moments in Warner Bros and Disney shorts where a character converts to blackface after an explosion. Song of the South’s “tar baby” would qualify, which is why it was replaced in the Splash Mountain ride with Brer Rabbit getting caught in honey from a bee’s nest. (I’d personally never heard that used as a slur, so I imagine it was already outdated by the 1970s). And Brer Fox’s voice work could be interpreted as a racist caricature in the 21st century, but unlike some of the most egregious examples in the history of animation, it sounds to me more like a genuine attempt to capture a dialect.

But if it were just individual cases of insensitivity, or dated references, or tone-deaf attempts at “humor,” those could’ve been explained a way with a disclaimer, and the movie could’ve been kept in the library. The problem with Song of the South is that it’s not so blatantly, overtly racist. Instead, it’s inherently, inescapably rooted in white supremacy. It presents a fantasy version of the Reconstruction in which slavery seems to have been nothing more than a bureaucratic oversight — and now that it’s been fixed, everybody has gone back to their pre-war roles in which black people and white people all happily work together, all for the benefit of white people. That can’t be dismissed away as a relic of the past, since it’s a lie we’re still being sold, almost eighty years later. We’re still saddled with this idea that we should close our eyes and wish for a “post-racial” society, and that’s all that’s required to make everybody free and equal. “I don’t see race.” “All lives matter.”

The other big lie of Song of the South is that the fantasy world it presents is the essence of “The South.” It’s all white plantation houses with all white people in elaborate suits and dresses lounging around complaining about the heat, while poor but honest, magical black people use their gifts of storytelling to make white people feel better. Americans have had centuries to come up with an image to represent the south, and over and over and over again, they’ve chosen one rooted in segregation and treason. For my entire life, I’ve seen people trying to present tortured justifications for the Confederate flag or Confederate memorials as if they were symbols of our “heritage” instead of symbols of racism. Of course it’s bullshit, but I can’t put the blame entirely on them — for generations, they’ve been told that this shallow, segregated fantasy was their entire identity.

I’m part of a generation of southern white men who were born over a century after the Civil War, but we’ve still spent our entire lives being saddled with a white-washed, propagandized version of it as our only “legacy.” Lately I’ve been seeing odious videos on YouTube from New Yorker-turned-country-boy-impressionist John Schneider, talking about filming The Dukes of Hazzard (in my hometown!) while just asking some casual questions to give you something to think about, like was the show really all that racist? Did people intend it to be racist in the late 1970s to make a shamefully faux-populist TV show about a car with the Confederate Flag painted on the top and named after a Confederate general? And while he’s at it, what is all this “division” getting us, anyway? Aren’t things just fine without a bunch of rabble-rousers stirring them up? I’d bet that Schneider’s main incentive these days is to help pay off his alimony, but the sentiment is the same today as it was in 2000, as it was in the 1970s, as it was in the 1950s, as it was in the 1930s, as it was in the 1900s, as it was in the 1880s — to keep the right kind of white people in power, by convincing other white people that racism and rebellion are the bedrock of their culture. We can mock the people getting upset at seeing Confederate statues torn down, and many of them are stubborn fools if not outright racists. But they’ve also spent their entire lives being lied to, told that the only connection they have to a larger history is one failed insurrection.

And even though southerners have been practicing racism for so long that they’ve gotten to be experts at it, it’s by no means a purely southern phenomenon, even though it’s the one that’s sold as an essential part of their identity. I’ve said before that I grew up trying to get rid of my accent and any affiliation with being a “redneck,” and then as an adult moved to Marin County, the most segregated place I’d seen in my entire lifetime. In fact, I’d say that the newly-energized civil rights movement of the past 5-10 years has been the result of America spending a century and a half telling themselves that their problems with racism were all safely sequestered in one corner of the country. After all, Song of the South wasn’t intended to play just in the southeast, and The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t only a hit in Georgia. Tell people that systemic racism is a uniquely southern thing, and they can “not my problem” it out of existence, convincing themselves that all the incidents they see across the country are weird one-off aberrations, instead of signs of a deeper problem.

The Princess and the Frog is, obviously, another fantasy presenting a “South” that never actually existed. But it’s the kind of fantasy that I’d rather see being perpetuated for another century or two. It’s got actual magical black people, and it has wealthy whites and working-class blacks living together in harmony, and it’s likely taken all kinds of liberties with actual religions with its mishmash of generalized Disney-esque magic and voodoo. But much like the real New Orleans, there’s more a sense of a mixture of races, cultures, and religions, instead of a fixed and segregated social structure. One of the most subtly clever things about the movie is that it takes a very European fairy tale and “appropriates” it for Disney’s first African-American princess story. It’s a synthesis of all its disparate influences, which builds on its past, instead of being beholden to it.

So it’s ultimately a positive move, especially since as an attraction re-design, it’s being creatively led by black women. If we want to believe that we are getting better painfully slowly, instead of just repeating the same cycles over and over again, that’s a sign of progress. Kids being able to see themselves represented in movies and being inspired to make more stories to share with an even wider audience. No doubt there are plenty of cynical dismissals of it as nothing more than “optics” or public relations, but that’s missing the point entirely — when the issue is so closely tied to our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and what we’re all capable of, then showing audiences the right images is crucial. When the problem is representation and visibility, “optics” are important.

In any other year, I’d probably be better able to be excited about it and look forward to the changes. But this is 2020, a year filled with death and loss. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of loss. So many happy memories of my childhood, my formative Disney experiences, my mother’s love of history. Even a vague sense of southern identity that wasn’t completely ruined by the Confederacy. But ultimately, none of that is real — I shouldn’t overstate my love of Song of the South, since I never really liked the bulk of the movie and only actually remembered the “good parts.” There were plenty of Disney movies I liked better, and the source material was already a white man’s interpretation of African American folklore for white audiences. My mother’s interest in history was more about Native Americans, the founding of Savannah, and the histories of Atlanta and my hometown than some simplistic Gone With the Wind-inspired fantasy version. And my pleasant associations with the south aren’t the kind that can be co-opted and ruined by white supremacists: good food, cicadas, hot and humid summers with amazing clouds, people being polite to each other. In every case, the reality is so much more interesting than the over-simplified version.

Splash Mountain exposes the limitations of “The Disney Version,” trying to the best parts of something out of its original context and presenting a sanitized, family-friendly interpretation of it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that — I don’t need The Little Mermaid to learn her lesson, and having been to the real Venice just made me better appreciate the one in Epcot. But whenever you remove the context and try to keep just the good parts, there’s always the risk that you’re left with something hollow. Like a ride from the 1980s based on a movie from the 1940s based on the works of a writer in the 1880s re-interpreting stories from the early 1800s. The core of the original stories, and especially the people telling them, was completely lost. The Princess and the Frog is a much more solid foundation for people to be building memories on.

Disney Blasphemy Featuring IPCOT

Second-guessing some truths that Disney fans hold to be self-evident.

This month I’m encouraging people to donate to and/or get involved with Black Girls CODE, an organization in the Bay Area working to encourage girls of color to become innovators and leaders in STEM fields.

I have to admit I can’t spend very much time on Disney parks-related forums or — even worse — Twitter, because I just don’t have the patience for it. I get all kinds of anxiety when I see adults screaming at each other over which is the most magical novelty popcorn bucket, or starting discussion threads to ask whether the parks are an insultingly hollow shadow of what they used to be, or if they’re just a disgraceful insult to everything that Walt stood for.

And it’s a shame, too, because I have irrationally strong opinions about the parks. If it sounds like I’m mocking the kind of person who goes online to scream about the evils of FastPass, I’m not, because I am that kind of person — we just differ in magnitude. They all seem to be operating at around 15, whereas I’m usually around 11 or 12.

But there are some things that all Disney fans, no matter how obsessive, can agree on… or can we?! There are some ideas that I’ve seen for years treated as just common knowledge among fans, but I disagree with, because I am a rebel and an iconoclast.

Horizons was just okay.

Yeah, I’m coming out guns blazing. Horizons is widely considered to be the best of original EPCOT Center, a masterpiece of “old-school” Imagineering, and the soul of Epcot’s Future World. I definitely don’t think it’s bad, but I’ve never understood the reverence for this attraction over, say, Journey Into Imagination or World of Motion, both of which blew my mind as a teenager.

As someone who went to EPCOT Center quite a few times in the early years, my main memory of Horizons was that it was never open. There seemed to be a ton of preview buzz around it, and it had the coolest park icon and a neat-looking building, so I was pretty excited. The “space” ending film is iconic, and I seem to remember seeing it before I was actually able to go on the ride, so I was already hyped for a senses-shattering simulator experience that probably wasn’t even possible in 1983. But I feel like at least a few years passed before I was finally at the park when it was open and not down for refurbishment.

I have to think that part of the reason I was underwhelmed by the attraction is because it always felt like a survey course in “Intro to Epcot Center Future World 101,” instead of a deep dive. I felt like I’d already seen everything from the ride, in one form or another, in Carousel of Progress, If You Had Wings, World of Motion, Listen to the Land, The Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, and Journey Into Imagination. It was like trying to get excited about the greatest hits album when you’re already at the concert.

The Adventurer’s Club was only really fun for people who love improv.

The Adventurer’s Club was another one of those things that I got hyped about for years before actually seeing it. My family weren’t enthusiastic about bars or nightclubs, so it wasn’t even really an option for me until I went back to Disney World as an adult, by myself. By that point, I believe I’d already heard rumors that it would be closing within a few years, so I went two nights in a row to make sure I got the full effect.

In terms of decoration and theming, it was outstanding, of course. You could try to describe it as “kind of like Trader Sam’s, if it were extended across multiple floors and multiple rooms and actually had enough seating,” which sounds perfect. And the idea of characters walking through the space, interacting with guests; and a drunken, possibly insane old adventurer puppet acting as host of the evening and leading everyone in a toast; and a room full of masks that talk to you and tell stories — it’s all wonderful in theory. But in practice, I’ve got to say that it was corny AF.

It’s here that I should talk about something that’s been a problem for me for as long as I’ve been going to Disney parks, which is literally my entire life. And that’s Improv People. I know many, many great people who love improv and find real joy in watching and/or performing it, and it genuinely makes me happy to see them enjoy it. But in general, people who love improv just cannot understand that not everyone enjoys improv. For some of us, it’s like torture.

When I’m in the audience and a joke bombs, it almost causes me physical pain. I can’t stand those moments of dead time and the look of manic desperation in a performer’s face when they’re trying to come up with the next thing to say. Even when it’s going well, I have the feeling of being trapped in a car going 150 miles an hour and knowing that it could crash and burn at any moment. If I could try to describe what watching, listening to, or ::shudder:: performing improv feels like to me: imagine you’re standing naked on a stage, with your arms tied behind your back, and a spotlight is shining directly on you. Right behind you, someone is standing with his mouth just a couple of inches away from your neck, and you can feel his hot, damp breath on the skin on the back of your neck and behind your ear, as he exhales, “hh-h-h-he-heh-heh-help me.”

People who work in themed entertainment and “immersive theater” tend to be unable to accept that not everyone loves improv as much as they do, so I tend to be put in situations where I’m dragged screaming out of my comfort zone. The Star Wars hotel has me torn between my lifelong love of Star Wars and my intense anxiety at the thought of being trapped in a two-day-long non-stop immersive theater performance. With the Adventurer’s Club, a can’t-fail theme and setting that might as well have been designed specifically for me, still weren’t quite enough to compensate for being surrounded by people who at any moment could assault me with family-friendly “yes, and…”s.

Also, the drinks weren’t any good.

The Grand Fiesta Tour is a criminally underrated delight.

When the Mexico pavilion opened at Epcot, there was a boat ride called El Rio del Tiempo. It used a lot of the same tricks of other modestly-budgeted rides of the time, and it was perfectly pleasant even if you weren’t quite sure whether the market vendor scene was really racist but suspected that it probably was.

With the Grand Fiesta Tour overhaul, it was improved ten thousand times. It added characters and music from The Three Caballeros, which is a no-brainer, and updated all the gags to feature Donald Duck instead of real human Mexican actors and dancers. Somehow, that makes it both more contemporary and also timeless.

I haven’t actually ever heard complaints about replacing the original — which is surprising, since every time they replace an original ride, they get complaints, even with a ride that no one actually liked unironically, like Maelstrom. But there’s rarely a wait for it, and people for the most part call it “cute” instead of acknowledging that it’s a must-see at Epcot.

I would rather ride a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster than an hour-long advertisement for fossil fuels.

When Disney at the D23 Expo last year announced that there was going to be a massive overhaul of Epcot’s Future World, my reaction was that I was surprised I wasn’t more upset about it. I’m as eager to throw a tantrum about Disney ruining my childhood as the next guy, but in this case the changes for Future World were at least 10 years overdue.

The big complaints I’ve seen are people calling it “IPCot,” for basing everything on Disney-owned intellectual property, instead of basing everything on original characters and concepts.

I want to be more sympathetic here, because most of my favorite Disney attractions are originals — Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, most of the original Future World. When Epcot first opened, Imagineering was pretty adamant about distinguishing it from the Magic Kingdom, which meant no attractions based on Disney movies and none of the familiar characters in the park. You eventually got Figment from Journey Into Imagination as your cartoon mascot, and you had to be satisfied with that.

Except guests weren’t really satisfied with that, and Epcot developed a reputation for being boring “edutainment” instead of a fun theme park. Even as someone who loved the original Epcot, I think fans (and some Imagineers) can be a little too precious about the “purity” of the experience; I don’t think it’s particularly shallow or dumbing things down if someone on their vacation would rather ride roller coasters than pay to hear corporations talking about the wonders of industrial agriculture or our not-at-all-worrisome dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, I’ve softened on this one a little bit. At first, I assumed that people complaining about trading corporate sponsorships for Moana and Guardians of the Galaxy themed attractions were just being unrealistically nostalgic. But I did see a friend explain his take: as a lover of World’s Fairs, he appreciated that Epcot uniquely had the feeling of a permanent World’s Fair. Part of that is the optimism of corporations working in the public interest; the presentations weren’t just crass advertisements, but sincere excitement over the things that could be made possible. I do like that idea, and I have to concede that these changes will leave Epcot feeling less like a unique place, and more like, say, California Adventure. Not so much of an overarching theme anymore, except “Disney also owns all of these properties, too.”

But I’m not completely sold on it. As a teenage insomniac who never missed Late Night, I idolized David Letterman. And I took his anti-corporate stick-it-to-The-Man schtick to heart (even though in retrospect, it’s almost offensively phony and insincere). So I think that the rotating screen display of the original Universe of Energy pre-show was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and the dinosaur section was such a fantastic homage to/extension of classic Disney and the Disneyland railroad, and the Ellen’s Energy Adventure version is still one of the cleverest and most charming ways of presenting educational material that I’ve ever seen. But it’s still an Exxon ad. Even with the best of intentions, Disney presenting pavilions dedicated to promoting Nestle, Kraft, General Electric, or Exxon in 2020 would just come across as really tone deaf.

Also, I think the Mission Breakout overhaul of the Tower of Terror in California Adventure is phenomenal. The original ride at Hollywood Studios is one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done, so I’ll be complaining if they ever mess with that one. But the California redo is better in every possible way (except for the outside of the building, which is still weird). It’s relentlessly fun, a perfect use of the ride tech — since it was never really a “free fall” ride, this has it hover up and down at each scene — and feels like it should’ve been this way all along. Plus the details around the queue are fantastic, and the character shows with Peter Quill and Gamorra leading dance-offs outside the ride are fantastic. So Disney knows how to make Guardians of the Galaxy attractions, and a show-heavy spinning coaster can’t not be fun.

Besides, the lines are going to be so long after the parks open back up and the ride opens, it’ll be a few years before any of us get a chance to ride it anyway.

Epcot embracing its theme parkness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would like to see Journey Into Imagination redone in the spirit of the original. But Disney’s had a pretty strong run of movies for several years now, with more hits than misses. If it became a Zootopia pavilion or something, it’d be disappointing but still far from the worst thing to happen to that attraction.

Galaxy’s Edge is the right way to do Star Wars in a theme park

This isn’t that controversial, really, since people liked Galaxy’s Edge, and Rise of the Resistance seems to be universally loved. (Early noise about Galaxy’s Edge being a “failure” seems to be a combination of clickbait wanting Disney to fail, and judging it in comparison to unrealistically high expectations). There are two pretty consistent criticisms I’ve heard:

First, that there aren’t enough droids and aliens wandering around. I agree with that. It’s all done so well that it’s actually jarring to be reminded of what’s missing. It’s noticeable that the droids and ships are trapped behind fences. It seems like there need to be aliens in the cantina. Especially considering how the land is practically “defined” not by its rides but by the walk-around interactions, it seems like an especially good investment here than it would be elsewhere.

The second criticism I hear often is that they should’ve set the land during the time period of the original trilogy, and on a familiar planet like Tatooine. I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, if I were just being consistent, I’d say that Imagineering shouldn’t be so precious with its “world-building;” just like people in Epcot and Animal Kingdom wanted to see Mickey Mouse, people in Star Wars Land want to buy T-shirts that say “Star Wars” on them. But I honestly believe that this is one of the rare cases where the “normal people won’t notice it” level of detail is actually noticeable in the end product.

Star Wars hasn’t been a sustained hit over 50 years; it’s been a cycle of six or seven years of intense popularity followed by long stretches of not many people caring. The fandom is all over the place — the animated series, video games, comics, novels all have their own super-fans. Any attempt to recreate a fan-favorite location is automatically going to miss the mark for a ton of people, and it’s inevitably going to feel like trying to hit a moving target.

Creating a new location, and having it reference the existing ones, give it a much longer life and just make the universe feel like it has more potential. I can remember being a Star Wars-obsessed teenager watching Return of the Jedi the first time in 1983, and when the opening crawl said that they were going back to Tatooine and to the Death Star, it felt like such a cop-out. A galaxy that seemed infinitely expansive with limitless potential for stories now seemed comically tiny and unimaginative.

For me, “Batuu” has just the right amount of familiar details, while still feeling like it’s a new place where new stories can happen. It doesn’t need to look like Mos Espa, it just needs to look like Star Wars. That has a ton more potential, because it establishes that Star Wars isn’t any one particular existing “thing;” it’s more a style. I may not be able to define exactly what makes something “Star Wars,” but I know it when I see it.

ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was irredeemably awful.

It was mean-spirited, humorless, and like so much of the 1990s, it was a desperate attempt to be “edgy” and “extreme.” It was completely tone deaf for the Magic Kingdom, and the attempt to “soften” it from being too scary just made it an attraction that was too scary and had a crappy, nasty opening that fried a cute animatronic for laughs. (Muppetvision 3D showed the right way to do that gag, several times over). It’s well known that it was originally intended to be an Alien-themed attraction, but it completely ignored that Alien had an actual hero in the form of Ripley. So it ended up just nihilistic and pointless.

Those were dark days, when Disney was trying to play to the lowest common denominator, making fun of the simplest and most obvious criticisms of Disney to make it seem like they were in on the joke. It seems like those days are gone, but I guess as the theme park industry stays competitive, there’s always the risk of falling back into bad habits. I hope Disney keeps thinking of sincerity, happiness, and a childish belief in “magic” as assets of the brand, instead of a liability.

Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

A New Hope, or, We Would Like to See the Baby

Ending a week of Star Wars obsession by acknowledging that everything is going to be fine.

If there is one through-line to this week’s of posts, it’d be “Man, that guy sure does like to ramble on about Star Wars, doesn’t he?” But the second idea is that Star Wars has gotten huge, even by its own standards.

There’s just more Star Wars than there ever has been before, across the movies, toys, comics, books, TV series, and now theme parks. That means that it’s gotten way too big for any narrow definition for what it is or what feels “right” in an adaptation. People bring their own nostalgia and associations to it, have different ideas of what fits in with the tone, and have different ideas of what they want from it.

On the one hand, it means that it’s ridiculous for anyone to appoint themselves gatekeepers. I’m reluctant to put too much thought into the “anti-SJW” nonsense that surrounded The Last Jedi and the like, because I suspect much of it was manufactured controversy that just handed a microphone to a bunch of embittered, miserable people that’d be better off ignored. But it’s also a good reminder for all of us to be less possessive of it.

I was listening to the ForceCenter podcast talk about their hopes for the new movie, and their discussion put the whole thing into a good perspective: the growth of the franchise, especially with the potential for Disney+ series, doesn’t “dilute” the story, but expands it.

No part of it, even the main-line movies, has to be the definitive take on Star Wars, and if we don’t like one part, there’s a dozen more takes that we might like. I’m due to see The Rise of Skywalker tonight, and I’ve been bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the (initial, at least) disappointment of The Last Jedi. But no matter what I end up thinking of it, I love The Mandalorian.

Every episode of that series has landed for me, not in spite of the simplicity of its storytelling but because of it. To me, it feels definitively, quintessentially, Star Wars, even though it’s slightly different in tone and scope from anything that’s come before. If somebody doesn’t like it, they don’t have to just wallow in their (horribly misguided) misery, but can find something else. There’s going to be at least one more TV series, and who knows how many movies.

The model of having a trilogy of mainline movies with “A Star Wars story” one-offs doesn’t seem to have worked like they wanted, so they’re not bound to that model. They’re not necessarily bound to the Marvel Cinematic Universe model, either. It seems like the only two overriding requirements are: 1) Does the Lucasfilm story group approve of it? and 2) Can Disney make money off of it?

They’ve already shown a commitment to letting creators bring their own voice to the material, which in my mind is still the key to the MCU’s success, more than any release schedule of solo movies + Avengers blockbusters. As long as it lets Jon Favreau bring his take on the material (like the MCU did with Iron Man, now that I think of it), I’m all in.

I still hope I enjoy The Rise of Skywalker, of course, but I don’t have to. For the first time in 40 years, I can go to a Star Wars movie reassured that even if I don’t like it, I can see a great TV show next week and ride a great theme park ride next month.

I’m trying to choose which cheesy reference to end on, and I decided on: Star Wars has become more powerful than I could possibly have imagined.

One Thing I Already Love About Rise of the Resistance

I have opinions about a ride I haven’t even been on yet.

To keep my Star Wars streak alive, I’m going to write about a new attraction in Galaxy’s Edge that I haven’t even been to yet. The Rise of the Resistance ride/attraction opened in Walt Disney World at the beginning of December, and it’s scheduled to open in Disneyland in mid-January 2020.

I’ve been seeing and hearing about this ride for years, getting the slow drip of information that Disney’s been releasing to keep everybody hyped for a time when their friends would arrive to find the new land fully operational. But I pledged to keep my knowledge to a high-level overview, so I’d have an idea of the overall beats but would remain unspoiled for all the details.

That pledge lasted for about 30 seconds once I learned that ride-through videos were available on YouTube. The first video made my soul ache. All I could do was lay my head on my desk and moan that I wouldn’t be able to ride it right now. At this point, I admit I might have overdone it. I caught myself at the end of a ride-through video, mouthing along with the characters’ final dialogue, like I do in the Haunted Mansion. (Silently, because I’m not a monster).

I’ve no doubt that seeing it in person will have an impact that videos can’t fully convey, but it’d still be good to keep myself from getting over-familiar. This post does have spoilers for Rise of the Resistance, so please don’t read it if you want to remain completely surprised.

From what I’ve seen, Rise of the Resistance is kind of “Imagineering’s Greatest Hits.” It looks as if they’ve taken some of the best gags, effects, storytelling techniques, and ride vehicle systems from all of their most successful attractions, then compiled them all to tell a new-sequel Star Wars story. My favorite thing I’ve seen is an example of that.

In the Tower of Terror ride — both the Walt Disney World original and the version that was in California Adventure — they do a masterful job of building anticipation for when the drop is about to happen. The original is still my favorite (and still one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done), because it has that extended sequence of moving out into darkness, then seeing the star field converge into a point that becomes opening elevator doors.

But both versions have a gag where you see a window at the end of a corridor, and then the window shatters and drops. No matter how many times you ride, it gets a gut reaction, as you’re positive that the drop is going to happen right then.

At the end of Rise of the Resistance, your vehicle moves into an escape pod, and you can see other escape pods suspended beneath the Star Destroyer. Across the way, one of the claws holding the pods opens, and you see the pod suddenly drop away from the ship and fall towards the planet. And then, you’re left hanging for a few seconds, waiting for the drop that is about to come….

I love it because it proves that Imagineering didn’t just make a great ride with Tower of Terror, but that they understood exactly why it stood out from being just another drop ride. I think Disney is prone to overstate the role of “story” in their attractions in public-facing material, but the Tower of Terror rides are proof of how much of what defines a great Disney ride comes down not to ride technology but to techniques of storytelling. Place-setting, sound effects, music, pacing, and anticipation.

Seeing all the ride technology working in conjunction in Rise of the Resistance has my super-hyped for it as a theme park ride. Seeing one of my favorite moments in Tower of Terror echoed in the new attraction has me hyped for it as a new Disney experience. I’ve heard several people call the ride “next level” or describe it as the start of a new age of Disney attractions. I’m glad to see that it wasn’t just a case of adopting a new ride system (all our rides are variations on Soarin’ Over California now!), but that it’s a synthesis of all the things they’ve been excelling at for decades.

But Not For Me

Thoughts on living in a world where both The Force Awakens and Rogue One exist, and each has huge fans.

I might as well make this week all Star Wars, all the time, since it’s impossible to navigate the internet without seeing someone’s opinion of the new movie or the new TV show blasted in my face. A headline from Forbes in my RSS feed reads “The Rise of Skywalker Is The Worst Star Wars Movie Ever,” and it delights me to see Comic Book Guy getting work again. Plus thinking about spaceships and Force powers is more fun than thinking about any of the other stressors that adults are supposed to think about.

It’s an odd time to be an obsessive Star Wars fan. It’s not a case of being surprised by how big it’s gotten — anyone who was alive between 1977 and 1983 has seen first-hand how it got preposterously huge almost immediately — but in the ways that it’s gotten so big. It’s not just that it’s a huge cultural phenomenon that appeals to millions of people, but that it has to appeal to millions of people who don’t all want the same things from it.

The feeling is similar to that of seeing the long list of Kickstarter backers rolling in the credits of the Netflix Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot: the realization that this thing I’d always felt a personal connection with wasn’t actually targeted specifically at me.

Which sounds like the typical problem of a white middle-aged American man having to grapple with the idea that for the first time in his life, he has to come into contact with things that aren’t made specifically for him. And no doubt that’s a big part of it for me. But there’s a less selfish aspect to it, that’s tied into how I think about art and entertainment in general.

I’ve always thought that the main overriding goal of analyzing a piece of art was to evaluate its success based not just on what I want to get out of it, but based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do. I don’t believe it’s possible to get a truly objective review of anything, but I do think that we should at least be able to distinguish between things that work or don’t work for us, and things that succeed or fail at doing what they wanted to accomplish.

I always think back to a review of The Empire Strikes Back that I read in Starlog magazine, not long after the movie was released. Starlog was a niche magazine aimed directly at a particular kind of genre nerd, and the reviewer prefaced his article by saying that he knew that Star Wars was already a phenomenon, the movie was widely beloved, and he was offering his opinions to an audience that didn’t want to hear criticism of it. Even back then, before the internet and arguments about “SJWs” and who shot first, everybody understood that Star Wars attracted a passionate and not-always-socially-well-adjusted fandom.

But this review was formative for me as a nine- or ten-year-old, because it was the first time I’d seen a review of anything that I didn’t immediately classify as either dismissible trash, or an expression of joy and hype from someone who loved this stuff as much as I do. Honestly, it’s probably the first time it even occurred to me that you could examine Star Wars critically.

The key thing that stuck out to me was that the reviewer brought up points that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the movie six times in theaters, but were still valid criticisms. The space slug couldn’t exist because there was nothing in an asteroid field for it to eat, and the Millennium Falcon would take years to travel from one star system to another if it had a broken hyperdrive. Both are true, but they ultimately don’t matter, because the movies aren’t science fiction and don’t try to be.

But the reviewer also says that Yoda shouldn’t have pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, because the entire purpose of the training wasn’t to teach Luke that the Force was powerful, but that he could be powerful. That’s a criticism that has always stuck with me, because it’s not based on sci-fi but on story. It’s evident that this was a moment that was intended for spectacle but doesn’t make sense in terms of character development.

Reading that review, and recognizing the distinction between science fiction and story, shaped how I think about every piece of art or entertainment worth thinking about. It’s also why I reject the typical line — Star Wars is for children, and we should put aside childish things — that’s been used as either a blanket defense or a lazy dismissal all the way back to 1977. It’s no doubt intended as a blistering take-down of adults like me, accusing us of refusing to engage with material that’s intellectually or artistically challenging, but in reality, it’s not just snobbish but stupid. It shows a refusal or inability to engage with a piece of art according to its own mission statement, instead of the viewer’s own biases. Which is something I’ve been able to do since I was 9. Suck on that, New Yorker.

That all was thrown into disarray when I saw The Force Awakens and then Rogue One. With The Force Awakens, I realized that it’s completely impossible for me to see it objectively. I’ve heard the criticisms of it, and I have several criticisms of my own, but they’re all but completely irrelevant. It’s not just that I disagree with the opinion that it’s just a retread of the original trilogy; I don’t care about that opinion at all. My enjoyment of that movie still bypasses any rational thought and goes directly to the portion of my brain that loves Star Wars.

Rogue One is the opposite. I still have criticisms of that movie that I think are objectively valid in terms of cinema and storytelling, but in the end my main complaint is that I just don’t think it’s what Star Wars is “about.”

At the same time, there are thousands of people who think Rogue One is exactly what Star Wars is about, and it’s everything they could want from a Star Wars movie. For me to point out all the ways I think it’s off tone is as irrelevant to them as it would be to point out to me that having a bunch of costumed adults standing around a screen talking about a “thermal oscillator” is clumsy and silly exposition.

So it’s distinctly odd cognitive dissonance to see a film that slavishly — and near-perfectly! — re-creates the exact look of the original Star Wars, right down to the sideburns, and still have to acknowledge that it just wasn’t made for me.

I’ve already written about going to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, seeing myself surrounded by so many other middle-aged bearded nerds, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that at last I’m among My People. But there’s also the realization that many of the people there have an intensely personal connection to Star Wars (and Disneyland, for that matter) like I do, but are expecting to get something entirely different from what I’d recognize as being definitively Star Wars.

As someone who considers art and art interpretation as being fundamentally about communication, it’s kind of unsettling and isolating. I’ve long been able to recognize that even if something doesn’t appeal to me, I can at least engage with it based on what it’s trying to do. But what if I don’t understand what it’s trying to do?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that even if The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a disappointment, we’ll still have The Mandalorian.

Frozen II: More and Less of the Same

Frozen II has all the baggage you’d expect from the sequel to a runaway Disney fairytale blockbuster, but insists on having its characters grow and change.

This review has minor spoilers for Frozen II.

I admit I didn’t expect much from Frozen II. I figured that in the worst case, it’d be another direct-to-DVD sequel, bloated to feature length. But even in the best case, I figured that it’d never be quite able to escape that feeling of desperately trying to recapture the one-in-a-lifetime combination of timing and talent that made the original such an unexpectedly charming breakout hit.

But after seeing — and enjoying the hell out of — Frozen II, I realized that not only did it do all of the “next right things” that an inspired sequel should do, it made me retroactively respect the original even more than I already did.

I’d always thought of Frozen as a happy accident: a not-particularly ambitious Disney fairytale that happened to get the right cast, and make one inspired decision to tell a story about a different kind of true love, that made it stand out beyond all the elements that Disney animation just gets right “by default.” But that’s absurdly dismissive of how many decisions must have gone into the movie. Kristen Bell deliberately wanted to introduce a Disney princess who was clumsy and goofy, who’d appeal to girls like she was growing up. And hearing early versions of songs and seeing deleted scenes from earlier versions of the movie make it clear that the movie’s charm wasn’t effortless but instead the result of many iterations.

That’s something that’s clear after only one viewing of Frozen II. You can immediately see that they refused to rely on just what would be expected from a sequel, and instead make a story that’s explicitly about transformation and maturity. Elsa’s character is more open and more impetuous, Anna’s character is less clumsy and more confident, and even Olaf spends a lot of the movie talking about what it means to grow up.

You can kind of even see it in the song that Disney is pushing as the successor to the movie’s big show-stopping musical number. “Let it Go” is an absurdly catchy Broadway-style song designed to show off Idina Menzel’s talents but also make something that a Main Street full of people can sing along with during the Disneyland fireworks. “Into the Unknown” isn’t anywhere near as catchy (I don’t think any of the songs in Frozen II are, really), but it feels a little more sophisticated. It’s got a range that only Menzel and the guy from Panic! at the Disco can hit.

To be clear, the movie does check off all the requirements of a blockbuster sequel. The characters are smashed together for the sake of having them together again, they make frequent callbacks to the first movie and in particular the runaway popularity of “Let it Go,” and they even have an entire scene where Olaf recounts the first movie. If they’d just done that throughout, it would’ve been insufferable. But I noticed three masterful aspects of Frozen II that I believe show the insistence on maturity and change:

Lighting
Even a layman like myself can see that the movie got a rendering upgrade. The characters look mostly the same as far as I can tell, although their hair and clothing is more complex and sophisticated. (Fortunately, there are fewer of those uncannily appealing characters from the first movie, so that unsettling realization of “Wait, am I actually attracted to an animated character?!” is limited to Kristoff). But the more dramatic changes are to the environments.

Water, rocks, leaves, and trees are all beautiful and more painterly, a purposeful change from a movie that was previously covered in snow. But the more advanced lighting is what I noticed. It seemed similar to the jump from lighting in Monsters, Inc to Monsters University: I’d read that Pixar’s big tech advance for that movie was more sophisticated natural lighting, which was crucial to the story that took place over a school year, allowing you to tell instantly what time of year it was based solely on the quality of light and shadow. The jump from Frozen to Frozen II feels like the transition from winter to autumn — again, thematically appropriate as the story goes from a season of cold to a season of change.

Facial Expressions
This was the first detail that jumped out to me. The characters’ facial animation in Frozen II is outstanding, and it’s key to the thing that makes Frozen unique. Much of the movie’s charm comes from having fairytale characters delivering naturalistic, contemporary dialogue. If you don’t nail the tone of that perfectly — and, frankly, if you don’t have actors like Kristen Bell and Josh Gad bringing their personality to the part — then it comes across as insultingly cheesy, the way 9 out of 10 animated movie trailers have a character mugging the camera and saying “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt!”

But the first movie still seemed to me to apply traditional animation techniques to 3D characters. Their faces are still transitioning between fairly broad keyframes. In Frozen II, the style seemed like a combination of performance capture and keyframe animation. I don’t know what the actual process was, but the effect was as if they’d taken motion capture data from the actors and turned each frame into a professionally animated keyframe. Some scenes seemed to have dozens of subtle shifts in expression. The actors more or less vanish, and it’s as if the Frozen characters are actually delivering their lines.

“Lost in the Woods”
This has to be my favorite scene in the movie. I love that they just went for it. They REO Speedwagoned the hell out of this scene, all the while knowing that a significant chunk of the audience was born after 2010.

And most likely, a significant chunk of the team who made the scene was born after 1990. That’s a trend in pop culture that I really like to see; it feels like people are getting better at being able to make fun of things without being completely dismissive of them. Every aspect of “Lost in the Woods” is simultaneously mocking the power ballad and earnestly loving it. That works for Frozen II because of its careful balance in tone — balanced at the tipping point between mockery and melodrama.

Overall, the movie tries — and mostly succeeds — to carry on all of the charm and and goofiness of the original while also refusing to just make an uninspired victory lap that just repeats the first movie. I can’t go so far as to say that this is a story that demanded to be told, but if they had to make a follow-up to such a blockbuster hit — and why wouldn’t they? — I have to respect the integrity that went into this one. It insists on doing something new, it forgoes the over-simple villain of the first movie in favor of more sophisticated obstacles, it downplays the conventional fairytale story in favor of one that’s about respecting people instead of seeing them as “other,” and it emphasizes that change isn’t just inevitable, but positive.

I’ve got a good feeling about this

Gay nerds in love in space!

On October 4, 2019, I got engaged to my boyfriend at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland. As recently as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought any part of that sentence was possible.

When I say I didn’t think it was possible, I’m not just talking about the obvious fact that for most of our relationship, California has been under a bigoted ban against marriage equality, initiated by a bunch of homophobic Mormons and opportunistic Republicans. At this point in my life, I’ve finally learned not to let other people’s bigotry get in the way of my own happiness, so the less time spent thinking about those a-holes, the better.

Instead, I mean every aspect of it seemed like something I’d never get to see. Which is probably best illustrated if I back up a step to explain how the whole idea started.

Disneyland’s a popular place to get engaged, so I’d always had it in the back of my mind as a maybe-some-day possibility. When they announced a Star Wars land where you could actually go inside a full-size Millennium Falcon, that seemed even better. I’d been wanting to get married and fly off on the Falcon ever since I was nine years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back and its very confusing romantic scenes between Han Solo and that other person.

We went to Disneyland twice in June, at the end of the month for my birthday, and earlier in the month to take advantage of a reservation against the insane crowds that never seemed to materialize (yet). While there, I was trying to get a feel for the logistics of popping the question, and I wasn’t having much success. They move people too quickly through the queue for Smuggler’s Run, which is good for wait times but bad for once-in-a-lifetime romantic gestures. And Plan B, surprising J with a ring while we were posing for a photo in front of the Falcon, lacked any sense of privacy.

Worse than that, though, was that it seemed very selfish of me. I’m the one who’s had a lifelong obsession with Disney parks. J’s a fan, but not as into them as I am (because I’m not sure it’s even possible to be as into them as I am). And I’m the one who was such a Star Wars nerd growing up that it’s the entire reason I moved to California. Naturally I’m predisposed to fall in love with the idea of a Star Wars land in a Disney park, but for a proposal, it’d be better to pick a location that’s special to the both of us.

During that second trip at the end of June, it started to become a place that was special to the both of us. We had a great time. (Especially surprising since we didn’t get a great first impression earlier in the month). And as we were headed back into Galaxy’s Edge for a third time, I thanked J for indulging me with so much time in Star Wars land over our vacation, and he replied with something remarkable: “I’m not ‘indulging’ you. I like Star Wars at least as much as you do.”

And then he added “I even like the prequels.” Which is troubling, granted, but I know that mixed marriages can work. What was even more startling was realizing how astoundingly dense I’d been. Not just realizing that I’d been living with another Star Wars fan. I’d spent so many years — decades! — feeling like I had to apologize for or make excuses for the things I loved, that it had gone past being self-deprecating and had turned into something I do reflexively, like a verbal tic.

In my defense, even working at LucasArts, I felt like I’d get made fun of whenever I outed myself as a Star Wars nerd. So even though Disney had spent billions of dollars to build a place catered specifically to Gen Xers like me who’d tear up at the sight of a full-size Millennium Falcon, I was locked into thinking of Star Wars as my own weird little nerdy obsession. And that mindset, once it takes hold, is pervasive. If it were just about a bunch of movies or theme parks, it’d be trivial. But for me, the constant feeling of being weird and other had taken over completely. It affected how I think of everything, both insignificant and significant.

One of the things that was hard to get used to when J & I started dating was that so much of my sense of humor was based on being sarcastic, and tearing things and people down. I had to get used to the idea of just trying to be kind instead of always trying to be clever. After nine years being more supportive and unapologetically enthusiastic about the things that make us happy, I can’t say I miss the days when I felt like I always had to have a snappy comeback or defensive explanation at the ready. I finally realized that we were a couple of big gay adult nerds in the middle of a playground built for fans of movies about space wizards, and I was with someone who shared my enthusiasm for big gay nerdy stuff without any need for qualification or judgment, and it seemed like the perfect place to get engaged to the perfect person to get engaged to.

The next step was to start the next phase of our relationship based on an elaborate lie. Neither one of us wear rings, and I had no idea about ring sizes or how to measure them. So I just took a wild guess about size and ordered a plain ridiculously cheap ring off of Amazon. (This will factor in later). I figured that since the ring wasn’t going to impress, I’d have to work harder on the presentation.

Since J really enjoyed the datapad games in Galaxy’s Edge, I thought of a scavenger hunt that would lead to the ring. I contacted my friend and former boss (and guardian angel who’s been directly or indirectly responsible for the highlights of my career), who works with Imagineering, and asked if there were any way I could get mocked screens into J’s datapad app. Since that isn’t possible for obvious reasons, he came up with a better suggestion: 3D print something that looked like a Star Wars artifact to hold the ring, “discover” it at Dok-Ondar’s antiquities shop, and then give it to J.

That’s the point where the scope of the project exploded. I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, but it did end up taking the better part of a month. I knew that I wanted it to look vaguely Star Wars-y, and I wanted it to light up when opened. I started by trying out variations on the Jedi Holocron, but I couldn’t find a model that opened in a way that I liked. (And I wanted to avoid the possibility of its getting confused with the ones on sale in the store). Then I looked at various puzzle boxes on Thingiverse, but they all required narrow tolerances and complex shapes that I’d need a CAD tool to be able to modify, and I wanted something more personalized. So I ended up scrapping the puzzle box idea and just making a simpler box in Blender that just twists open.

I wasn’t looking forward to having to wire up and solder a bunch of LEDs and sensors, so fortunately I didn’t have to. Adafruit makes a neat board called the Circuit Playground, and it comes with LEDs and several sensors attached. After a good bit more experimentation, I settled on a design with the main board at the base, soldered to a smaller LED board (called the NeoPixel Jewel, if you’re curious) just underneath the ring holder.

The board in the base responds to motion, pulsing a slow purple (one of J’s favorite colors) when it’s left alone. When you pick it up, it starts to pulse in a rainbow pattern, both because it’s pretty and appropriate for a proposal during gay days, and because Adafruit makes rainbow LEDs super easy to code. Capacitive touch sensors are wired to the ring holder, so when you touch the ring, both LED boards light up with a brighter, constant rainbow pattern. It all ended up being a lot simpler than I’d originally intended, but it soon became apparent that what I’d originally intended was way more complicated that necessary.

After I’d printed and assembled the box, I was fortunate yet again to have a co-worker with a lot of experience designing and painting 3D prints. He introduced me to the dry-brushing technique. Considering that I’d never painted anything like this before, including miniatures, I’m pretty happy with how much it ended up looking like aged bronze. The hardest part of the whole process was having to do it at work, to keep it a secret. Actually, keeping it a secret from J was the hardest part overall, since every time I made a new development or learned something new, he was the first person I wanted to tell about it.

Once the thing was built, I just had to figure out the logistics. My friend put me in contact with someone who works at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and she was absurdly, preposterously helpful. She helped come up with a version of the proposal that would fit in with the park’s overall storyline and how to incorporate the cast and the character of Dok-Ondar himself.

Finally, to explain to J why we had to be at a certain place at a certain time, I made up the story that we were helping to playtest an early prototype of a new interactive game in Galaxy’s Edge. I said that because it was such an early prototype, I’d been sent a bunch of static screens that would later take place of the Datapad app.

For the past few years, we’ve been going to Disneyland to spend the Gay Days weekend along with a bunch of friends. I asked a friend to be my accomplice, taking the box from me and sneaking it into Dok-Ondar’s ahead of us, and then the plan could start.

The first screen was presented as a message from an explorer who’d spent almost nine years (how long J and I had been dating up to that point) looking for a rare artifact (named after the place where we had our first date). He’d traced it to Batuu and said it would probably be in the hands of someone who dealt in rare antiquities. That obviously led to Dok-Ondar and the next screen. (As long as I’m describing everything, I should probably admit that I was super nervous, so I rushed through the “game” part instead of letting J do it at his own pace).

The next screen told us to go to Dok-Ondar’s and look for an artifact with a certain symbol on it. (Nerd sidenote: I put in a pattern of two-rings all around the jewelry box and again on top, assuming I’d say it was supposed to represent the twin suns of Batuu. I was reminded at the last minute that the fiction says Batuu has three suns, so I had to change the text to say the twin moons. I may have bought an engagement ring that didn’t fit at all, but at least I got the number of suns on a made-up planet right).

As we headed to Dok-Ondar’s, my heart sank into my stomach when I saw a line of guests waiting outside. I’d been worried that the store would be too crowded to pull this off — we wouldn’t find the box, or it’d be taken by another guest by accident, or it’d just be too loud and chaotic and ruin the whole thing. But right as we came up, I got a text message from my accomplice saying we should talk to the cast member at the door. I told them our names and that we were looking for an artifact, and they let us in. The cast had actually started a queue outside the store so we’d have the place mostly to ourselves for the proposal!

Once inside, we both set off to look for the box. While J was searching the shelves, I went to the counter and pointed at a glowing box behind it. “I found it,” I called out, totally cheating. J came over and we checked the next screen.

It said that Dok-Ondar probably had no idea how valuable the box was, so we could get it for a steal. I held the jewelry box up to Dok-Ondar and asked him to appraise it. He spoke a few words in Ithorian (!) and the Cast Members translated it for me: “It’s only valuable if you give it to J.”

So I gave it to J. He opened the box, and it began to pulse with a rainbow light. Then my choice of a less-expensive, nondescript “placeholder” ring came back to haunt me: it wasn’t clear that it was an engagement ring. It looked just like a Star Wars-y machine part or something. It didn’t help that I’d set J up for a puzzle hunt. It also didn’t help that I didn’t get down on one knee or anything, which is something I’d resolved not to do a long time ago, since I feel like it’s an outdated part of the ritual that sets up a weird power dynamic when you’re supposed to be entering into an equal partnership. Whatever the case, the thing I’d planned to be the big reveal wasn’t quite.

J was still figuring out what to do with the ring, so he put it on his index finger. I pointed to his ring finger and said, “It works better if you wear it on that finger.” He said, “But that’s where married people wear a ring.” I said, “So will you marry me?” He said yes, and the cast members cheered.

Afterwards, some super-nice operations cast members took us to the Smuggler’s Run ride and gave us the VIP treatment by letting us use the FastPass queue. Then they took our picture in front of the Falcon, and escorted us into Oga’s Cantina for a celebratory drink. (My friend and accomplice bought us a round, but Disney let us in without a reservation). It was all a big wonderful blur, and we ended up spending most of the rest of that day in Galaxy’s Edge, too. Everything from that weekend after the proposal is now jumbled together in my memory, but I know I built a droid and named it R3-X4 in honor of the date. And that night we watched the fireworks going off over Dok-Ondar’s shop as if in celebration.

In all, it turned out even better than I’d hoped, and even better than I imagined “get engaged at Disneyland” would go after years of having it as a vague some-day possibility. I’ll always be grateful to the friends that helped make it happen, and to all the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland who went out of their way to make the engagement of a couple of strangers into something unforgettable.

Won’t Someone Think of the Phoenicians?!

Or, “If We Can Dream It, Then We Can Complain About It.” I am a middle-aged man who has strong opinions about Epcot.

Now that the D23 Expo is over, we’ve all got some more info about how Disney plans to restructure Epcot, and out of all the news, the single thing that surprises me the most is how angry I’m not.

I’ll be the first person to concede that I tend to be a Disney apologist, but I’m also super-possessive of everything about the parks, and I’ll complain loudly to anyone who’ll listen when I don’t like a change. But yesterday I found out that one of my favorite places on Earth since I was a teenager is going to be effectively destroyed, and my reaction was, “Cool. Let’s see what they come up with to replace it.”

I got the D23 news not from the Disney blogs or YouTube channels like usual, but from watching the Instagram feed of theme park reporter Carlye Wisel. I think she’s great — funny, honest, opinionated, and clearly passionate about theme parks, while still able to acknowledge it’s kind of a weird, niche specialty, but insisting that that doesn’t make it any less valid — and anyone interested in theme parks should be following her and reading her articles. While I found myself disagreeing with her take on the changes, specifically the changes coming to Spaceship Earth, I had the unsettling realization that a generational shift had happened.

Wisel talks about the current version of Spaceship Earth — narrated by Judi Dench and ending with cutout versions of your future and thanking the Phoenicians for the alphabet — as if it’s the definitive one. Whereas I, a sophisticate, recognize that the One True Version of the ride is the one hosted by Jeremy Irons.

Or really, the One True Version is the version of the ride that’s in my head. Which is, like the model of Disneyland at the end of the Walt Disney Family Museum, a fantastic version that never actually existed, but is an amalgamation of decades’ worth of changes and embellishments. It’s mostly narrated by Judi Dench; has a brightly-lit version of the scene where cavemen hunted the mammoth; the classic animation of the chariot on an infinite loop leaving Rome; the black woman computer programmer from the current version; the kids speaking to each other from opposite sides of the world in realtime-translated English and Japanese on the descent; and most of all, the space shuttle and astronaut floating over the projection of Earth at the top, this time narrated by Walter Cronkite and set to a majestic soundtrack that makes me tear up every time I see it.

I absolutely sympathize with anyone who’s upset that something they love from Epcot is going to be changed or destroyed. At several times over the past 30 years, I’ve been that person. In fact, whenever I’ve visited the park over the past several years, I’ve realized that almost everything I love about Epcot is wrapped up in nostalgia. For the World of Motion, and the Dreamfinder and Figment, and the rainbow tunnel, and the Communicore, and the roller-coaster-building touchscreens, and the hydrolators, and the Tapestry of Nations parade, and visiting with my family, and my early teen years. It’s mostly about stuff that doesn’t exist anymore.

So the current incarnation of Spaceship Earth has long felt like a stopgap to me, a retrofit of a retrofit. A ride that was initially sponsored by a communications company to have a specific message, but has been retooled and repurposed so often that it now has to act as a stand-in for everything that Future World used to be.

But everything in Future World now feels like a stand-in for what it used to be. As much as I love it, the park has been long overdue for an overhaul. When we visited in February, I watched the Reflections of Earth show twice, and I cried like I was at a funeral, mourning the death not just of a fireworks show, but of the feeling of optimism and globalism that the show — and the entire park at the turn of the millennium — celebrated. If Epcot in 1982 was the manifestation of an idea, then Spaceship Earth on one end and Illuminations on the other were the last surviving vestiges of that idea.

And that is part of why the plans for the new version of Epcot are encouraging to me. Disney is finally letting the other shoe drop, after letting it hang over everyone’s head for over a decade. They’re finally acknowledging that the version of the park that existed in the early 1980s, and even the version that existed in 2000, is gone. And I like that, not just because it feels like ripping off the Band-Aid once and for all, but because if it’s successful, Epcot will be able to “mean something” once again.

Early Epcot undeniably had a voice and a message, but it’d be revisionist history to claim that the voice and the message always worked. And Disney fans are experts at revisionist history. How else do you explain how Maelstrom instantly went from being one of the parks’ most ignored if not outright reviled rides, to being one of the most beloved, the moment it was announced that it was going to be replaced by a Frozen ride?

Within five years after Epcot opened, Disney had already found itself having to chip away at the “pure” Epcot experience. It had gotten a reputation for being boring, because some people thought it went too hard on the “edutainment” angle. Some guests didn’t want to go on 30-minute-long rides when on vacation, especially not ones that had didactic messages about technology or corporate sponsorships. All of the attractions hit the same one note of a middle-of-the-road Carousel of Progress-type experience; there was little for small children to do, and there were no thrill rides. And almost everyone, not just Michael Eisner, wanted to see more of the characters.

The new proposed changes are obviously and undeniably an attempt to retrofit the entire theme park to drag a concept from 1982 into 2020, while trying to make it seem it’s been that way the whole time. But Disney’s been updating the park practically since it opened, and sometimes it’s worked. Sometimes WDI has had a very practical goal to fulfill — like maintaining a General Motors sponsorship and making a family-friendly thrill ride that’s still educational — and they pull it off so brilliantly that I can’t even be mad that it replaced my previous favorite attraction at Epcot.

But then other times, they make “Journey Into YOUR Imagination.” If Spaceship Earth is the icon of Epcot, then the Imagination pavilion is its heart. Or more accurately, the haunted painting it keeps in the attic. I purposely avoid finding out too much about the internal goings-on of Disney or the rumors around project development, preferring to let the parks just speak for themselves. But at least from my perspective as an outsider and frequent guest, it seems that throughout the history of the park, if you wanted to see the overall state of Epcot, you could just look at the state of the Imagination pavilion.

When it opened, it was a bridge between the Magic Kingdom/Disneyland and Epcot. One one side, it was the attraction most like a traditional dark ride, with a cute cartoon character, a song from the Sherman Brothers, and a queue reminiscent of “it’s a small world.” On the other side, it was part of the “voice” of Epcot, based on an abstract concept, intended to be as informative as it was entertaining, using original characters with no ties to an existing property, encompassed by a corporate sponsorship that defined the pavilion’s overall “message,” and being part of an hour-long experience instead of just the 12-minute-long ride.

And over the next decade or so, it aged like the rest of the park: eventually becoming a dark ride representation of 1982 Epcot whose original “message” had gotten diluted. Either from the loss or change of a sponsor, or updating part of the pavilion without touching the ride, or bringing in elements that were no longer unique to Epcot.

Finally, Disney essentially sacrificed Figment to the spirit of the 1990s. The company was trying to counter the popular conception that Disney was childish and dated, and they hadn’t yet learned how to spin that into a positive by calling it “classic” and “timeless.” They chose to get rid of everything that made the pavilion unique to Epcot, instead going for a cartoonishly simple-minded attempt at “corporate synergy” by tying it into the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise. And they did it all under a ridiculously constrained budget.

(Which is the one aspect of Disney I still just don’t understand at all. Every parks project in the US is hit by budget constraints that bafflingly persist no matter whether the company is doing gangbusters or is in a financial downturn. Even though they’ve seen in the Tokyo parks that putting money into the parks pays off with massive attendance. I don’t get it).

That was received so poorly that they tried to course-correct to the current version, which is a representation of the state of how Epcot’s been more or less limping along in the new millennium. It’s pretty much summed up in the new name “Journey Into Imagination With Figment.” They’re eager to try and appease fans by adding back the stuff they think fans love: the dragon mascot and a catchy song. It’s more or less well-intentioned, but it’s soulless. It’s a patch fix that tries to fix the surface problems, but ignores the core problem, which is that the pavilion no longer has a message or a voice. It’s now just a dated ride and a children’s play area.

The changes to Epcot as presented at D23 — even though they don’t mention Imagination at all, which is a little troubling — make me optimistic that they’ve finally recognized the problems from the last two refurbs. They’re not just acknowledging but embracing the history of the park (because they can sell merchandise to nostalgic fans like me, for a win-win!), so they’re unlikely to just throw everything out for the sake of a movie tie-in. But they’re not hamstrung by the history of the park or beholden to preserving it exactly, since the legacy of the park isn’t just its characters or songs, but its ideas.

So the names they’ve proposed — World Nature, World Discovery, and World Celebration to retroactively fit in with the existing World Showcase — are clunky, but people don’t use the Disney-branded themed names for things in practice, anyway. The role they serve is to pitch an idea: it’s no longer a somewhat-awkward mashup of an 80s Tomorrowland plus a permanent World’s Fair, but it’s a single cohesive whole. And what I think is the most ingenious part: they took what could’ve been a crass and soulless attempt to “Disney-fy” an obstinately high-minded theme park, and instead made it work by going back to the original acronym and presenting it as a true “Community of Tomorrow.” The sections aren’t called “lands” but “neighborhoods.” The attractions aren’t trying to educate (which people on vacation tend to resist) or to accurately predict the future (which has been proven multiple times to be futile in a theme park setting), but are meant to celebrate human achievement and shared experiences, which is traditionally one of Disney’s core strengths.

I’m also optimistic because I’ve seen this approach work before. I already mentioned Test Track — they kept almost none of the surface details of the original World of Motion, but they kept the overall theme, and significantly, its tone. The refurb had an updated sense of humor that worked perfectly (and which, unfortunately, was entirely drained out of the current version).

Disney has also gotten better at putting IP into the parks while keeping it feeling intentional and natural, instead of awkwardly shoved into otherwise original experiences. The Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout ride is absurdly fun and an improvement on the DCA version of Tower of Terror (which was itself an attempt to copy an “original” idea but do it on the cheap) in every conceivable way. And Cars land and Pandora take two licenses that I really don’t care about at all, and manage to make fun and interesting experiences out of them even for non-fans.

This article about the changes to Epcot and the other parks, written by Todd Martens in the LA Times, talks about fans’ concerns that stuff original and unique to the parks is being shoved out in favor of experiences based on other properties and copied in multiple parks throughout the world. It’s a tension that’s been going on for a while — even (especially?) I have been guilty of lamenting that original stuff like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain, is falling out of favor. But I think the most telling quote in that article is from a guest who’s worried about Figment and “The Three Caballeros,” which the article acknowledges was already a case of Disney adding an existing property to an original ride concept. I love the Grand Fiesta Tour (the name of the new version of the ride), I think it’s another improvement over the original in every way, and it’s a perfect example of how they’re able to add existing properties to the parks and make it feel seamless and natural. I’d hate to see the company abandon original concepts completely, but I also think it’s a mistake for us to be too precious about the evils of IP. It’s been part of the parks since Walt called it Sleeping Beauty Castle, Imagineering is doing a better and better job of incorporating it and making it feel natural, and it’s been a tension for so long that there are likely dozens of people working in the company now who grew up wanting to see it done right.

And finally, I’ve already seen a similar transition take place not just within a single ride, but across an entire park. Animal Kingdom started out as a too-hot half-day park, where there was little to do apart from a 30-minute long traumatic Safari ride and be endlessly harangued about the evils of poaching while you were just trying to enjoy your vacation. Now, it’s one of my favorite parks in the world. It started out with a voice, a commitment to original and unique experiences, a rejection of IP as much as possible, and an insistence on “purity” of the experience, for lack of a better word. And I don’t feel that any of its integrity was sacrificed as over the years, its voice was softened and made less strident, and it was allowed to relax.

So yeah, I think I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Epcot. I appreciate that they’re spending a year pandering to — I mean pleasing the fans who grew up with the park, re-releasing attraction posters and park icons and a “limited time” fireworks show that promises to use all the old songs. (And which means I have to book another trip to Florida within the next year). But even more than that, I appreciate that they seem to be committing to a genuine “re-imagining” of the park, forgoing quick fixes in favor of making everything fit into a cohesive theme. And I have to say it’s a relief to be once again optimistic about a place that was always supposed to be about optimism.

Just don’t mess with the mural outside Spaceship Earth, please.

The mural at the entrance to Spaceship Earth, which could totally be about the history of storytelling and not just the history of communication, so hands off.