Thursday, March 20, 2014

Story Structure in Theme Parks and the Mystery of the Self-Illuminated Ears

On March 14th I visited the new Disneyland Resort in Anaheim for the first time since it ceased to be Disneyland and earned its second gate and the "resort" label. For only the second time in my life I was hosted by the Walt Disney Company which surprised me but which was certainly very courteous, not to mention unexpected, of them.

To put this in context, I used to go to Disneyland at least once a year when I lived in Southern California after college depending on the timing of visitors from out of state who often wanted to go there.  I used to give an informal tour of Disneyland called "Transcendental Style in Theme Parks" or how theme parks have become a spiritual experience for our volk, who hold hands around the magic castle as the fireworks go off and the luminous Tinkerbell miraculously appears. Then I moved to New York, the economy collapsed, and a decade went past before I could visit again.

But now I have returned to that happiest place and wish to review for you something amazing that I learned at the new World of Color show at the California Adventure Park. During this show I witnessed the unexpected transformation of a key Disney, and hence American, symbol: the mouse ears. Yes, the mouse ears have changed, wildly and radically, as I will describe.

Even the most dull among us must recognize that Disney represents an aspect of our culture, our time and our "civilization", such as it is. To ignore "Disneyland" is elitism of the most egregious sort for it ignores one of the fundamental phenomena that makes America what it is in the eyes of the world. For better or worse, the Disney company, in all its contradictions and complications, is embedded in our consciousness. Were the Disney parks ever to decline then I think it would signal the decline of American civilization as a whole.

Sure it is easy to dismiss people walking around in Mickey Mouse ear hats, but that is to shallowly ignore the semiotics of identifying with, and indeed emulating, the most famously endearing rodent in all our history. Mice are certainly cute as long as they are in their place and not rummaging around the kitchen while you are trying to sleep and these are not just any mouse ears we wear, these are symbolically Mickey's ears, the ears of our charming ubermouse.

Those ears, those very mouse ears, have been technically updated by Imagineering R&D in a way that is oddly symbolic of our technological present and future, as we discuss below.

The World of Color is the latest in a long tradition of climactic end-of-day shows that have appeared at Disneyland. The first of these was almost certainly the classic fireworks show around the Fantasyland Castle, a choreographed and carefully designed show over the iconic castle which concluded with the miracle of the arrival of Tinkerbell, who will only appear if you believe in her, the divine made flesh as the sky explodes in a crescendo of fire and light. 

This type of end-of-day show has an important place in the structure of a day's visit to the Park, I believe.  And I speculate that the people at Imagineering are very conscious about this when they design not just an attraction, but the park as a whole, and the nature of the experience that a visitor will have at the park.   This end-of-day show is the climax of the visit: an event that visitors make special provisions to be able to see, often with their family, before they slowly and regretfully leave the park, either to drive home in the classic Southern California version or to make their way back to their hotel in the resort version.  In story structure terms,  this show is the climax, the obligatory scene, the required event, after which the slow departure from the park would be the slightly sad denouement: the regret that it ever has to end.  I suspect that the importance of this type of event to the day's experience gives it a priority in park planning and budgeting.   And since things must not stay still or they become embalmed, the show must be recreated in new forms but still serving that same purpose in the structure of the day.

From fireworks, this type of show evolved in many ways at the various gates which are the larger Disneyland entity. Two other examples would be the Electric Parade with its synchronized and abstract design and characters or the IllumiNations show at Epcot which combines fireworks, fountains and music. Both of these two later shows were immense and impressive. World of Color continues that tradition in a pure water, color, projection and music show.

A vast and wonderful Triumph of the Mouse 

To set the stage, the World of Color happens in the lagoon in front of the Ferris Wheel / Rollercoaster at California Adventure. At a later date I will review some of the architectural issues of the new park, and at that time I will be rather puzzled. But the rollercoaster and the ferris wheel are the exceptions: they have a grandeur and presence that architect and Minister of Armaments Albert Speer would have approved of. The great big beaming face of Mickey within the wheel that encompasses our fate shines down on the World of Color and grants His approval. 

The World of Color has many impressive show elements more or less combined into a larger show. Certainly the most striking are the fountains which can shoot a stream of water 200 feet into the air, is illuminated at the base by LEDs, is illuminated in the air by projectors and lasers, and whose direction of spray is controllable on an individual fountain basis. And how many fountains are there? The press release says 1200 and that might be true: if one does a back of the envelope calculation of 50 per row and 20 rows, the numbers add right up.  So its believable. The water is all recycled of course as it falls back into the pond and is reused, but that trivializes the accomplishment of pumping that much water simultaneously at that velocity at once and over a 30 minute show. I would love to know the numbers.

There is a vast infrastructure that we do not see to support such an extravagant expression of water at pressure.

For those who are surprised that the colors can be so vivid or that one could project onto a wall of mist very recognizable images, remember that in a laminar flow fountain we have removed most of the turbulence so the spray and the droplets are for the most part symmetric and reflective. The surface tension of water provides the projection screen, a moving and transforming one, and that works very well.

A lot of effort was put into creating interesting abstractions with color and water as synchronized with audio, and when it was abstract I felt it was always rewarding. But this is Disney after all, and there have been criticisms that the new park was not tied in with Disney characters enough, so the World of Color created a pastiche of elements from many Disney films and used them as projections on the water. I felt this was overdone and that their purpose would be equally served with a few carefully chosen properties. But I admit that I am not in the important demographic here, and perhaps the audience wants to see their favorite characters, or other considerations.  I could remedy the situation in my case by defocusing  my eyes if I cared to and, voila, abstraction returns.

Do these colorful self-illuminated ears contain a secret menace?

But now to the discussion of new technologies at the park and the shocking revelation of networked and distributed mind control of enslaved mouse ears.

Yes you read correctly.

As I was waiting for the World of Color to begin I noticed that many in the audience wore a new type of mouse ears, these had a more robust skull cap and large, well-lit colored ears that would change color and blink happily and at random. Each pair of ears would do its own thing and while they were amusing, I wondered if it might not interfere with the show. The ears were bright, the lights were about to go down, those ears would be a distraction I thought.

I should not have worried.

As the show began I noticed that the ears seemed to turn themselves off all by themselves. Of course I am not looking at the ears I am looking at the show over the water. But as the show continued I realized that something quite odd was happening with the ears. Interspersed through the audience there were several hundred pairs of ears that from time to time would all blink together as if in synchrony with the music.  

And then I realized the truth. These innocent looking hats must have a radio controller in each one, such that they could be slaved to a signal and then controlled from a central source. The individual mouse ears had become unwitting slaves of a master show controller and now mindlessly served the greater good by dedicating their photons to the centrally directed World of Color.

My sources tell me that this project was the brainchild of a mysterious Imagineer and CTO by the name of Scott Watson.  Surely this could not be the same Scott Watson I knew from the early 1990s? He seemed like such a nice guy.   [Note: Mr. Watson has not replied as of yet to my emails.  I suppose he is just too busy hanging out with his real friends].

People are foolishly concerned about the NSA when perhaps they should worry about things closer to home.  What are the privacy and first amendment issues of these new mouse ears?   Are our positions being sent without our knowledge to some mouse server in a vault?  Is this project part of a larger collaborative effort to develop mind control technology with the CIA?   Is Burning Man somehow involved?  These and many other questions flashed through my mind all at once but I have none of the answers.

But this is certainly a topic that needs to be discussed in a public forum and ultimately our loyal public servants need to determine whether or not there should be regulation to protect the freedom and privacy of mouse ears everywhere.  As with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in public skies, this technology has policy implications.  

Oh brave new world to have such mouse ears in it.

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