Before this month, the last time I was at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World was when I was in college.
The movie Aladdin had just come out. The Magic Carpet ride based on the movie had not yet been built. There was no Toy Story. There was no Monsters Inc. No Lilo and Stitch. And no rides based on them.
It was interesting revisiting the Magic Kingdom as an adult, and having a different perspective. It made me more aware of the magic of what Walt Disney had created, and the ways in which that vision is preserved and the ways in which it is abandoned.
The original version of Walt Disney World was a shrine to the power of story, and to optimism.
Many of the rides were less about the ride experience than about a story experience. Peter Pan, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Others weren’t even rides, like the Tom Sawyer Island and Swiss Family Robinson Tree House. They simply gave you the opportunity to experience for yourself the world of the story. Other rides, like the Carousel of Progress and It’s a Small World, really weren’t rides so much as testaments to Walt Disney’s overwhelming optimism. And then there was the stuff, like the Hall of Presidents, that was just purely educational.
In an era when so much children’s entertainment discourages the use of imagination, Disney’s Magic Kingdom actually featured attractions that encouraged it. (An idea that is echoed by the Epcot ride dedicated to the theme of imagination.) The original Magic Kingdom also presumed a certain degree of literacy. Sure, Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues had both been adapted into Disney movies, but Disney didn’t make its Tom Sawyer movie until 1995. When the Island was created, Disney was assuming visitors would be familiar with the book.
Today, you go to Tomorrowland, and ride through the world of Toy Story shooting bad guys. No imagination, no narrative, no optimism. Much of the original Walt Disney DNA is still very obvious in the park, but you can also tell where it’s starting to slip away in favor of a more “contemporary” approach.
Walt Disney entertained, but he didn’t pander. He believed that people are good and imaginative and smart and literate and heading toward better things. Thank you, Walt, for being so eager to believe the best of us.