When I was a kid there was a part of me that wanted to go to work for Disney. It isn't an insane dream, but for some reason it seemed more unrealistic to me than wanting to move out to L.A. and make it in the television industry. In truth, Disney is a fiercely loyal company. If you start working for them, and you work hard and prove you're a valuable asset to the team, you can move up very quickly. And they truly take care of their own; every executive these days self-identifies as a Disney nerd, having grown up greatly immersed in the earlier works and holding onto memories made from sweet and seemingly innocent storytelling. Unlike me, they didn't grow cynical when they realized the real world wasn't full of destined happy endings. Instead they pushed through the sometimes brutal realities and chose to keep creating hopeful escapism for new technology and new generations.
This past weekend was only the second D23 Expo, celebrating all of these visionaries, as well as their stars and shows. Once again I headed down to cover it, and once again it only took the first hour of walking the show floor to fall back into old patterns and imagine myself picking up my life as I know it and starting a career with Disney. Doing what, I have no idea. I didn't go to art school; I can't draw worth sh*t; but then again writing is writing, storytelling is storytelling, and producing is producing. I could figure out the specifics later.
For me personally the highlight of the weekend was certainly sitting in on a behind-the-scenes session with the three imagineers who designed and brought to life the new Little Mermaid ride at DCA-- Larry Nikolai, Lisa Girolami, and Chris Crump. In doing so my desire to watch that movie again skyrocketed, but so did my mind race with ideas for designing rides of my own, based on other favorite cartoons (or shows in general). It wasn't the first time I got such an in-depth look at what will inevitably become my new favorite ride because of my extra knowledge, but it was one that held a lot of extra special meaning since Ariel was always my favorite Disney princess. Nikolai, Girolami, and Crump took D23 members and Disney fans from the conceptualization stage-- when animatronics were mere blue line sketches-- through the sculpting and painting stages and into installation and lighting design. They explained bits of trivia (like why they had to flip Prince Eric's statue so that his left leg is the one propped up, unlike in the movie) and gave us lots of small details (like the 20 thingamabobs in Ariel's grotto-- ones that are plucked directly from that scene in the movie) to look out for the next time we're on the ride. But they also talked a lot about the process of cutting down an hour and a half film to a four minute ride, keeping the story intact and focusing most on the musical numbers. These guys are truly geniuses, and I am in awe of what they can do!
Years ago, it was one thing to work with wood and steel and robotics in order to make characters turn their heads, blink, and wave. But today the process is much more intricate than that. Rides, just like films, use a mixture of techniques and technologies in order to make their characters come alive in the most realistic way. Yes, some pieces are still hooked up to motors the "old-fashioned" way, but now instead of creating mechanical eyelids, like on Sebastian, who would look like he was having a seizure with the eyeballs rolling back as the eyelids raised, Imagineers are able to use computer technology to project the eyes onto the character, or from within. These days they tend to go with within so they can move the character at a moment's notice and not have to move an entire set-up. And Girolami shared that is exactly what she did: in testing out Sebastian, she carried him around the office, having him greet her staff, his little eyes blinking all on their own thanks to the technology his body housed.
Utilizing a specific space can be tricky. DCA had a specific area for this ride, and the Imagineers were asked to make it work. Since they had a traditional "dark ride" set up, and they admitted that you never want to try to do daylight in a ride like this one because it takes away the magic and allows you to see every mechanical bolt and track line, that meant tweaking a few well-known story points to fit their needs. Their ideas were grand but often had to be scaled back to accommodate their reality. For instance, an early design of the ride had a point where Ursula's tentacle would spring out and slap the sea shell in which you are riding, spinning you around. That wasn't exactly possible at this stage in the game, so it was turned into a much more moderate (though still creepy) menacing statue of the villainess. Additionally, the end of the film, which every little girl (and okay, maybe a few little boys) remember as their dream wedding, was drawn during the day, on a boat. That wouldn't fly for the ride, for the reasons already mentioned. So ultimately, [spoiler alert!] these guys changed the end of the film.
Okay, it's not as bad as it sounds. Eric and Ariel still get married. They just do so on land and at night. And with fireworks because let's face it, who doesn't love fireworks? It was a way for the Imagineers to stay true to the heart of the film but still work out their own creativity by designing an entirely new set piece. Diehard fans won't be able to ignore the differences, but even the film's directors took a look at the end of the ride, then at each other, and exclaimed that it was the ending they "should" have made.
Just like the movie itself, The Little Mermaid ride took almost four years to complete. So it is no surprise that the storytellers and designers and producers there were so immersed in the tale that they were able to see the best of it-- and even some beauty that did not yet exist. Walt Disney always said that his theme parks would never be done. And that was not meant to be a threat of constant construction but instead an idea of hope that the parks, resorts, and attractions themselves were alive and ever-changing to fit the evolving world in which they live so they would always be the best. Stories are not truly over just because the book gets closed; when the characters are rich enough, they live on-- in our imaginations, in their own little worlds, and thanks to the talented Imagineers, in Disney all over the world.
Imagination and creativity just begets more imagination and creativity, an even though there are certainly moments I can't help but lament the loss of some of my own, all I need is a quick hit of Disney (it really is like magical fairy dust!), and I feel like I, too, can tell stories that will shape children and change the world.