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.

Friday Night’s All Right for Wii Snorkeling

This week’s link post features music for imaginary games and real etymologies

For the past few years, Gabriel Gundacker has been producing soundtracks for Wii Sports games that don’t exist. These exist somewhere in the space of 21st century creativity that I’m not even sure how to explain: they’re not parodies, because there’s nothing that calls itself out or hints at its being a joke. It’s just a bunch of compositions that would fit perfectly — eerily perfectly — into the music of a 15-year-old game, and are as catchy as much of the rest of the music for the Wii.

(Gundacker is also responsible for my favorite Vine ever made).

Drew Mackie’s blog The Singing Wolf is full of interesting, short-form posts about the etymology of words, how they contrast with what you’d assume is the etymology, and personal observations about each one. This is exactly the kind of blogging I’d like to see more of as we all abandon Twitter, Facebook, etc, and return to the Open Web.

Mackie is also co-host of a podcast called Gayest Episode Ever, about “the one-off, LGBT-themed episodes that classic sitcoms would do back in the day, when it was rare to see queer characters represented on broadcast television.”

Swingin’ Yetis, as in, to Swing

Free armchair imagineering available here

I don’t actually know how many people outside of Disney parks-obsessives care about the Yeti inside Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom.

I mean, I know plenty of people like to call it the “Disco Yeti” or make “Did you know…?” videos about it, and pester people working in Imagineering, and make novelty T-shirts, but I don’t if it’s actually enough of an issue in real-people terms, or enough for Disney to be genuinely interested in fixing (apart from vague promises at fan conferences).

Considering how much Disney loves projection effects these days, and how their B mode for the effect is flashing lights at it, I’m wondering why they haven’t invested in a permanent projection plus wind effect for the stationary Yeti.

The car moves so quickly through that scene, and the strobe lights alone are enough to suggest movement, and they’re already using a projector earlier in the ride for the scene in which the Yeti breaks the track. Even if it would be impossible to reproduce the original’s swipe-at-the-train movement, a super-brief animated projection could make the Yeti seem more alive and, for example, animate the eyes and hand to suggest it was about to attack. I’d especially love to see some environmental animation to suggest its status as a mountain deity, like the mural you pass under during the main lift hill.1Lift hill mural image from easyWDW.com. Maybe it could be similar to the Mara effects in the Indiana Jones adventure, suggesting that the Yeti is about to go super-Saiyan or something.

I still love the coaster, and even though it’s not as cool riding it today as when the Yeti actually moved, it’s still a fine ride. But since it’s pretty clear we’re not getting an overhaul of the ride big enough to fix the animatronic, it seems weird that they wouldn’t use the technology that they’ve been perfecting everywhere else in the parks.

Friday Night’s All Right For Swooning

I’m repeating myself by saying that Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series continues to be excellent.

I realize I keep mentioning and linking to Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series, but that’s because each one is somehow more interesting to me than the last.

Plundered Hearts is a game I’ve known about for over 30 years, since I knew the titles of all the Infocom games, even though I’ve never been able to finish one. At the time, this one wouldn’t even have been on my radar as something I’d want to play, since it was an interactive romance novel, instead of a story about spaceships or wizards.

Reading Reed’s account of its author, Amy Briggs, going into the creative process, and the game’s reception to audiences in 1987, is fascinating. It shows how much we’ve matured over the years — seeing the reaction from both “eww, girl stuff!” computer game reviewers as well as “eww, too much girl stuff!” from contemporary feminists seems so alien right now that it’s almost quaint.

But it also shows how much we’ve developed tunnel vision. I think back in the 80s, an interactive romance novel might’ve felt dismissible simply because it still felt like there was so much potential for interactive entertainment. When it seems like the medium can do anything, having it do something as familiar and as seemingly low-brow would seem unambitious. Now, the idea of a commercial video game release that’s both a clear work of an author and an unapologetic celebration of genre fiction would be a huge novelty.

We’re better suited to individual creators making story-driven fiction like this than at any point in history, but it’s also unlikely to get any traction because there’s not much money in it. Well-written, unconventional games that aren’t entirely action- or puzzle-based are still seen as academic experiments or hobby projects. The only game in recent memory that has that feeling of “literary fiction” is Firewatch, which felt more like an adult contemporary short story floating on the surface of a first-person action adventure game.

  • Reed’s article on Uncle Roger by Judy Malloy was even more fascinating, because it’s a game and a developer I had never heard of. It sounds even more like adult contemporary short stories, but presented in hypertext format. Again, it shows how much the game industry has overlooked and undervalued the work of women, and how much innovation and sense of raw potential there used to be in the game space, before we got stuck with so many over-familiar genres and formats. Reading about Malloy’s innovation made me feel simultaneously inspired and like a huge, unimaginative, fraud.
  • I haven’t yet read Jimmy Maher’s post about Plundered Hearts on The Digital Antiquarian, but I’m looking forward to it, as it sounds it’s a little closer in time to interviews with Briggs, and it’s more in the tone of looking at the game as a creative work as opposed to its place in video game history.
  • This blog post from 2012, lamenting the loss of “Miss April-December” from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, was circulating again now that her portrait has been restored to the ride’s loading area.
  • Matt Sephton has a blog post explaining how to Turn an iPad Pro Into the Ultimate Classic Macintosh. I’ve always had bad luck with emulators, but Sephton’s links an explanation made it so easy that even I was able to get it working. (You do need to be able to run Xcode and make builds for an iOS/iPadOS device). Reading about video game history has made me severely nostalgic for my old Mac Plus, so I really appreciate his pointing me towards the instructions and an outlet for running HyperCard and the like again.

Closure

Thoughts about the beautiful serenity of not giving a damn

I read something on Twitter the other morning that made enough of an impression on me that I felt compelled to break my read-only rule1Just temporarily, Twitter is still garbage and comment on how false it was. It was from game developer Rami Ismail:

A reminder that being a terrible person that “loves crunch”, “yells at people”, and “says things they don’t mean” will eventually end your industry career, even if you manage to grow your tiny studio from just a few people all the way up to AAA size. Being a team player matters.

To be clear, I’m not trying to call out Ismail or anything. It’s an idea that I would’ve agreed with to some degree at several points over my career. And that is why I want to stress that it’s not true, but more importantly, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not true.

So let me stress first: it’s demonstrably false. I’ve worked for or with quite a few terrible people over the past 25+ years, and most of them have just kept failing upwards. Unless by “eventually end your industry career,” he meant, “you’ll at worst retire comfortably,” then I’ve never seen any evidence of the kind of cosmic justice that he’s describing.

I spent quite a bit of time in my 30s and early 40s holding out expectation for resolutions that were never going to come. First hoping for reconciliation, then vindication, then even schadenfreude, so I’d feel that there’d been some kind of justice. It almost never actually happens, and on the rare occasion it does, it almost never actually makes anything better.

So when I say that terrible people almost never face any real consequences for treating people badly, it’s not just empty cynicism or bitterness. Just the opposite, in fact: I’m saying stop wasting any time thinking about what may happen to other people some day, and just live your damn life.

Continue reading “Closure”
  • 1
    Just temporarily, Twitter is still garbage

Friday’s All Right for Doing It, Rockapella

This week’s links are a retrospective for a charming educational series, city planning primers, and more about why GM sucks so bad.

I was too old to be the target audience of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, but that didn’t stop me from watching pretty often. It was such a charming concept executed so well that I wished it had existed just a few years earlier. (Except then, it wouldn’t have been such a product of the 1990s, which is probably an inseparable part of the charm). This retrospective/history of the show does a pretty good job of reminding you why it was so appealing, even to those of us in college at the time.

I’ve also spent the week re-discovering the City Beautiful channel, where Dave Amos makes well-produced videos about different topics in city planning and city development. I first found the channel on account of its videos about the original plan for EPCOT and a comparison of Disney World’s transit system to “real world” transit systems in similarly-sized cities. I think The Algorithm brought it back to my attention because I’ve gotten into the “City Planner Plays” channel, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a city planner doing play-through videos of Cities: Skylines.

And in case I was getting too optimistic about our potential for intelligently planning to solve the issues facing cities, Climate Town came long with another video describing how General Motors’s outsized influence on city planning helped destroy the entire model for healthy cities in the United States, to guarantee that we’re overwhelmingly dependent on cars.

The one encouraging thing is that it’s another reminder of how many of our problems in city design, pollution, income inequality, and racial inequity, have been orchestrated, instead of being inevitable or just developing organically. If we’re reminded that people are responsible for all this, then we can commit to being people that fix it.

Friday Afternoon’s All Right for Simulating

A random assortment of links including fascinating simulations of path-traveling algorithms.

I pretty much always think Sebastian Lague’s “Coding Adventure” videos are fascinating, and this one about ant and slime simulations doesn’t disappoint. His videos aren’t tutorials or how-tos, really, but more a diary of his train of thought and a high-level description of his algorithm while exploring a particular topic. It helps that he’s adept at making videos that make each topic compelling.

As a result, I’m almost always inspired to action after watching one of the videos. I want to learn about compute shaders, and procedurally-created meshes in Unity, and techniques to make interesting visualizations! But then I usually end up just sitting back and watching more theme park videos.

Also discovered this week:

  • This weird video from the Primer channel about running simulations to determine whether there’s a genetic advantage to altruism.
  • I love just about every single thing from this ad for the Magnavox Odyssey game console from 1972. Music, typography, even the dad gleefully firing a rifle at innocent animals the television under shroud of darkness.
  • Here’s a longer promotional film for the Odyssey that does a better job of dispelling any potential nostalgia. (I’m intrigued by the Haunted House game, though). I’m hoping that no millennials watch these videos and go away thinking that we were all impressed with screwing a VHF channel-switch box to the antenna connections on our TVs. Even at the time, we all appreciated that that was janky as hell.
  • Another fascinating video from the “A Critical Hit!” channel: Wild Gunman ’74, the first FMV game, from Nintendo.

Friday Afternoon’s All Right for Turning to Page 42

Nostalgia not just for childhood literature but to things I’ve already linked to.

I’ve already linked to Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games project in a previous post, but I feel like I misrepresented it somewhat. For instance, the scope is broader than I mentioned: it doesn’t just include the Infocom-style computer text adventure games, but “a history of digital games without graphics.”

That includes stuff I hadn’t realized, like the fact that The Oregon Trail started as a text-only game written in BASIC, released the year I was born! And it also includes a story of the creation of The Cave of Time, the first Choose Your Own Adventure book. That’s full of interesting details I hadn’t known before, such as the fact that the CYOA games and contemporary computer games were developed in parallel, instead of one idea influencing the other. Also, that the format predated The Cave of Time and the disappointingly litigious CYOA brand.

The series is turning out to be more interesting than I’d first expected it to be, and I’ve gone from “I’ll have to check that out sometime” to “Am I actually going to have to subscribe to something on substack?” after reading just a couple of entries.

It also reminds me of why I first wanted to get into computer programming. I was about 10 or 11 years old, I was at my friend Jason’s house, and his family had recently gotten a Commodore VIC-20, the first “home computer” I’d ever seen. I was just amazed that you could type something and it would show up on a TV screen. They started to show me how it played games as well, and while I can’t remember what game they chose, I do remember that it started by asking you to type in player names. His sister typed in “ASSWIPE (JASON)”, which resulted in 10 or 15 minutes of the computer happily calling him an asswipe. I thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen.

The spark of inspiration took hold of me that day, and I vowed to commit my life to exploring the profound potential of interactive entertainment.

Monday Afternoon’s All Right for Suckin’ on Chili Dogs

Catching up on internetting

Just because I missed last Friday’s link post doesn’t mean I can’t try and catch up on Monday!

Tom McGovern’s reinterpretation of “Jack and Diane” is how the song was meant to be heard.

I like that Hasbro’s making high-concept, detailed toys for Ghostbusters fans, but it seems like an odd choice to recast Peter Venkman with the national disgrace Ted Cruz.

Not that anyone asked, but the reason I was looking at the Hasbro site was because they’ve announced a new toy figure based on the old Star Wars comic character Jaxxon the space rabbit. Nerds tend to take their fandoms way too seriously, and it’s good to remember every once in a while how much of it is inherently silly.

Last month, there was a retrospective of the Zork adventure game, by Aaron Reed as part of his 50 Years of Text Games series. As somebody who’s always loved the history, packaging, and stories surrounding these games — but has never much enjoyed playing the games themselves — I’m looking forward to reading the whole series.

EV Pondering

I’m still comparison-shopping EVs, and I’ve got some questions.

I’ve been “researching” (read: watching YouTube videos about) electric vehicles for several weeks now, and a lot of the same ideas keep recurring: tips to speed up fast-charging time, maximizing battery life, maximizing range, etc. But never having owned an EV or spent a long time looking into them, there are a few things I can’t figure out.

I’ve had an entirely too charitable impression of car reviewers
One thing I’ve learned from watching lots of car reviews is that car reviewers mostly suck. There are obvious exceptions, but as someone who’s never been particularly interested in cars, I’ve always just assumed that reviewers are well familiar with all the myriad details about cars that are lost on me. But I’ve been surprised by how many reviews get the basic details wrong, ignore aspects of the car that are obviously specific to a review situation, or go on about aspects of the car that are irrelevant to drivers that aren’t reviewers. Is it all Top Gear‘s fault?

What’s the deal with the front trunk?
Speaking of terrible reviews: what the hell is this garbage review of the ID.4? The reviewer was biased against the car from the start, but that’s okay because I was biased against the review for being from a Gawker site. (Yes, I know that Gawker Media doesn’t exist anymore, but the taint is inescapable). What’s odd to me, though, is that this isn’t the only review I’ve seen to waste so much time talking about the lack of a front trunk.

It’s an absurd complaint. The closest I’ve seen to a reasonable explanation is that it’s convenient to keep the charging cable in there, but I’m not buying it. Is this supposed to be a real complaint?

How do Elon Musk’s fanboys justify a proprietary super charger network?
I’ve been in the SF Bay Area enough to see a depressing number of men go glassy-eyed and speak in reverent tones about how Musk’s visionary work is going to save our fragile planet. I’ve been so eager to get into a situation of no longer talking to them, that I never got to ask them the obvious question: how do they justify making the super charger network proprietary and exclusive to Tesla owners? Obviously, the ubiquity of the network is a selling point for the cars, but wouldn’t it be best for everyone to encourage more EV purchases in the US, while at the same time charging non-Tesla drivers for the convenience?

Are crossover SUVs really as popular as people keep saying?
The thing I found most surprising when I started comparing cars: there are almost no affordable options for 200+ mile range in a sedan, coupe, or hatchback. As far as I can tell, there’s just the Chevy Bolt or the Tesla Model 3. I understand that bigger batteries give better range, but I’m stunned that more manufacturers haven’t gone the ID.3 route, and that Volkswagen hasn’t made the ID.3 available in the US. The explanation was “Americans want SUVs.” I can’t tell if that’s a real thing or just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Friday Night’s All Right for Binge-Watching

I haven’t been watching Tiny Secret Whispers on the streaming services, but I almost feel like I don’t need to after seeing Seth Meyers’s fantastic recaps on Late Night. His check-ins with Delgado, Packer, and the twins is my favorite recurring segment on the show.

I also saw a couple of trailers this week that look pretty interesting and/or genre-bending:

  • Kevin Can Fuck Himself starring Annie Murphy in what seems to be a combination sitcom/black comedy about revenge murder. Is it a series? A TV movie? No idea, but it looks interesting and is on AMC.
  • Made for Love will be on HBO Max and star Cristin Milioti, who has been in a ton of really cool stuff, but whom I will always think of as Your Mother. Highlights of this trailer are of course Ray Romano reciting “Crazy in Love” but especially “I thought those were metaphors!”

Friday Afternoon’s All Right For Fanboying

Link post to some of my obsessions of the moment

I’ve been highly anticipating the finale of WandaVision all week, so my thoughts have been dominated by being smitten with the show and its stars.

Not WandaVision related, somehow: