04 October 2008

I thought it was the perfect story

Storytelling, no matter the context it partakes in, is at its most effective without a gimmick. Classic stories, films, and attractions all bear this out to be true. Gimmicks are great to draw in an audience once or twice, but their staying power begins to falter quickly. The device I see used more often in Walt Disney World than I would like, or have seen in the past, is celebrity.

We live in a world where the news cycle is twenty-four hours a day seven days a week, and no one captures the lion’s share of public interest more than actors, actresses, and musicians. What Patrick Dempsey had for dinner or who Joe Jonas is dating this week are, whether we like it or not, a part of our everyday lives. Yet, when it comes to Walt Disney World, Walt Disney himself said, “Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland… the blessing of size. There’s enough room here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” And that size has been a blessing for Florida as Walt Disney World has never had the real world to encroach upon its fantasies, unlike Disneyland.

Yet, step into the Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, or Disney’s Animal Kingdom and you can add celebrity sightings to your vacation To-Do list. From Ellen DeGeneres, Alex Trebek, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Bill Nye the Science Guy in Ellen’s Energy Adventure you can find your way over to Gary Sinise and Mission: SPACE, or Martin Short promoting celebrities and tourism for Canada in O, Canada. Aerosmith have a Rock ‘n’ RollerCoaster and Wallace Langham, Phylicia Rashad, and Bill Nye again brings science to the masses in Dinosaur, and all of these attractions could tell their stories without having special guests co-star in them. Pre-shows, or even main attractions for that matter, lose their effectiveness when you are more interested in who is on the screen rather than what it is they are saying.

All of this is aside from the fact that placing celebrities, who popularity changes almost as quickly as their hair styles, also date attractions. Bill Nye, while a brilliant way to pull in the Under 10 crowd initially, has lost some of his status, and I would venture a guess that he is not as recognizable to his target crowd these days, Ellen’s hair and clothes are clearly the result of the late 1990s, who can see Phylicia Rashad and not think The Cosby Show, and Martin Short seems out of character, and out of his decade, playing the Dean Martin to his own Jerry Lewis. It isn’t that I have anything against any of these actresses and actors, I love to watch them on television and in films when I am at home, but that is just the point, I am in Walt Disney World and do not wish to be abruptly pulled from the story I am becoming immersed in by an outside force.

Some of these celebrities came in as part of a refurbishment of attractions, and I am not going to argue that these attractions did not need some TLC, but an idea can be modernized without paying tribute to the gimmick. The Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion was upgraded a little over a year ago with effects that stunned old-timers like myself and first time guests alike. The story was enhanced without the addition of Eva Longoria Parker as Constance.

If you suppose this means I am against Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, or R2-D2 in Star Tours, you’d be wrong. Captain Jack Sparrow was brought to life in a brilliant story that took place within the structure of Pirates of the Caribbean, the addition of Captains Jack and Barbosa to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is simply the meshing of the original story with a secondary plot that is in perfect rhythm to the original, over-arching, narrative. As for Rod Serling and R2-D2, these are both themes, or rather established stories, that are being expanded upon. We are truly visiting the Twilight Zone and the moon of Endor, and it would seem like some small detail was just out of view if these celebrities were left on the curb.

Author, speaker, and poet Jim Harrison said that, “The answer is in the entire story, not a piece of it.” If that is true, than distracting an audience with a ‘do you know who that is?’ moment detracts from the most wonderfully crafted story. Walt Disney and his band of storytellers have always strived to find the next way to immerse patrons in their stories. When it comes to Walt Disney World, one sure fire way to involve guests more would be to involve celebrities less.


Princess Fee said...

I had never thought of Eva Longoria Parker as the bride...although Marcia Cross could have been good...lol
But another excellent and interesting post. It's true - when I partake in an attraction with Aerosmith or Rod Sterling, I don't think about the outside world perse... Actually, that's a lie - in the Aerosmith rollercoaster I *always* think 'When I get home, I need to listen to the Greatest Hits Album'. :)

Anonymous said...

Mountain from a molehill.

I don't have a problem with Disney's occasional meshing of pop culture stars with their storylines. In fact, I'm not so ethnocentric as to forget that millions of WDW's yearly visitors have no idea who some of these famous narrators are, and yet they're having a great time and keep coming back...just as I do, too.
In fact, one could just as easily argue the problem is yours, since you're the one who can't seem to stay 'in the moment' and enjoy an attraction's storyline without letting yourself be distracted by the narrator's resume.

Have you stopped going to WDW because of thse star narrators?

I didn't think so. ;-)

Ryan P. Wilson said...

anonymous: The argument could be made that the problem was, in fact, mine. Whether from my inability to focus on the overall story or from my ability to see too much in the details, neither of which, coincidentally, I’ve ever been accused of. However, I must admit this wasn’t a problem I was truly aware of until several conversations I had with other guests brought the distraction to my attention. Apparently, it is not just my problem, it is a problem with some portion of the Walt Disney World guest population. And while it may be a minority, no one knows for sure since there hasn’t been any research done on the issue, it is still an issue that I felt needed to be addressed.

The argument you make that really concerns me is the ethnocentric portion. If a majority of visitors were coming to Walt Disney World from third-world countries, I’d think you were correct. Yet, most of the guests visiting Walt Disney World from overseas are coming from Europe and Asia, both of whom recognize just as many of the celebrity populations as we do. For example, High School Musical 3’s premiere in Paris, which was so overrun with fans, and these celebrities are not even as popular as some of the bigger names in Hollywood. I was definitely thinking of other populations in my equation, and am not so narrow-minded that I only think of people who live in my area, country, or with my mindset.

This could be all my own thoughts, my own opinions, and it definitely won’t stop me from visiting Walt Disney World. However, the article was my opinion, and I treasure my opinion, and my right to share my opinion, just as I value your right to share your opinion.

Anonymous said...

If it wasn't effective, WDW's attendance figures would be declining. They aren't. You can stick with anecdotes of a few people around you in line or you can look at the steadily-improving attendance figures over the past few years. I'd say millions enjoy Ellen and Martin Short, based on the statistical evidence.
And dare I say, if you were unaware of this 'problem' until others brought it to your attention, perhaps it's not much of a problem in the first place.
I've stood in line next to cranky complainers who insist on boring me with their tirades, too. I usually ask why they're here if they dislike it so much, or I invite them to step out of line and head to Universal. That usually quiets them. (Personally, I don't spend hundreds of dollars on vacations to places I don't like.)

And no one's challenging your right to share your opinions, especially on your well-written blog. Lighten up. This simply wasn't one of your usually top-notch posts, in my opinion.