Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Disney Daze

I’m newly back from three wonderful family-filled days at Disneyland, where movie fantasies come to life. The Disney empire (which recently seems to have gobbled up everything in sight, including the late Twentieth Century Fox) was of course founded on movie magic. Young Walt Disney, a cartoonist from the Midwest, found Hollywood success through his creation of a peppy character he called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When he decided to go out on his own, he discovered that he did not own the rights to Oswald. So, with a few tweaks around the ears and tail, Oswald was converted into a plucky mouse. The original Mickey Mouse—small but dauntless—became an inspiration during World War II, and an international symbol of American  grit and chutzpah.

If Disney had stuck with Oswald, today’s millions of theme-park visitors might have been walking around wearing variations on rabbit ears. Instead, the two round circles on top of the head of the cartoon mouse have been re-imagined by the brand-conscious Disney folks as every possible sort of headgear. While at the park, I saw hundreds of people (adults as well as children) sporting head-bands and hats that married the Mickey look with references to Disney films. There was, for instance, the Ariel look (with a nod to The Little Mermaid, the ears are re-imagined as fan shells). And, in celebration of Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise, I spotted an Artoo Detoo mouse-ears look. There are even special ears for newlywed couples, featuring a veil for the bride and a tuxedo-design for the groom. The one kind of Disney headgear I didn’t spot was one that was an essential part of my childhood: the once-ubiquitous Davy Crockett coonskin cap.

Davy Crockett, an actual historic tale-teller who was re-imagined by Disney writers as a red-blooded western hero, was a popular feature on an early TV show that began broadcasting in 1954. Originally a black-and-white anthology series called Disneyland, it had evolved by 1961 into Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. By any name, it was designed to create enthusiasm for the Anaheim theme park, which opened to the public in 1955 (and yes, I made my first visit soon thereafter). In the early days, when attractions (though colorful) were pretty tame, you wanted to end up in Fantasyland, where the rides reflected the plots of a whole raft of Disney animated cartoons: Snow White, Peter Pan, Dumbo. Back then, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” was about as exciting as things got. It was not long, though, before Disney imagineers became more ambitious in their designs. Today’s Disneyland features an Indiana Jones adventure that is genuinely scary, and of course there’s now an entire brand-new land reflecting the iconography (and the scares) of the Star Wars universe. Over at the resort’s second theme park, Disney California Adventure, Pixar’s Cars gets a whole cleverly-conceived section of its own. But my heart still belongs to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, which combines some roller-coaster elements with an eerie visit to a town where some funny-creepy pirates hold sway. “Pirates” is the rare top Disney attraction that wasn’t based on a popular movie. But it proved so popular that a film franchise evolved out of the ride. Naturally, the ride itself was then tweaked to make room for an animatronic figure who looks a whole lot like Captain Jack Sparrow, as played by Hollywood’s Johnny Depp

A century ago, people didn’t need theme parks: there were plenty of physical scares in real life. But now we all seem to thrive on make-believe danger. Roller-coasters, anyone?

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