How Commercialization is Killing the Classic Disney Theme Park Experience

In 1955 Walt Disney threw open the doors to the Happiest Place on Earth. Created solely from Walt’s mind and his personal Imagineers, Disneyland was an original and groundbreaking concept. In time, Disneyland and its attractions set the standard all theme parks are known for today.

But something happened a few years ago: movie licenses and shareholders started driving creative decisions for Disney Parks and those decisions are making Disney parks look less like Walt’s Kingdom and more like Universal Studios. And commercialization started killing the classic Disney theme park experience.   

Creating a Disney Attraction

At an employee Imagineering Day where current employees and invited guests get to mingle with Disney Legends and past Imagineers, Richard Sherman holds court over a room of about 300 people. Mr. Sherman is seated at a piano — he’s the guy that helped write some of Disney’s most enduring theme songs, including ones heard on attractions like “it’s a small world” and Winnie the Pooh — and he’s telling a story about the creation of Disneyland.

Mr. Sherman tells the audience how one day Walt Disney invited him and his brother to meet Walt in a soundstage at the Disney Studios in Burbank. Walt had something he wanted to show them. At about 2 p.m. the following day, Robert and Richard Sherman walked over to the soundstage.


Richard Sherman (seated at piano) and his brother Robert, with Walt Disney

As they peeked inside the large, cavernous hulk of a building, they saw a little grass shack in the back corner of the great expanse. The shack was a small building. Standing in front of it, was Walt Disney.

“Come on over boys!” Walt smiled and waved the brothers over.

Richard and his brother shuffled over to Walt who invited them into the small space. Once inside, they all sat down on a bench. Above them, plants, flowers and native carvings. Walt cued a stagehand (most likely an early Imagineer) to start the show.

“My brother and I were fascinated.” Mr. Sherman recalls, “The lights dimmed and this thing erupted! The flowers moved. Birds came down. It was a whole production right in front of us – but without music! We sat there and watched this thing for about five minutes.”

Consider the time, for the late 1950s, early 1960s this experience had to be mind-blowing — a live talking bird show.

When it was over, the lights came up. Walt, like a child, excitedly turned toward the Sherman Brothers, “So, what did you think?!?”               

Mr. Sherman recalls it wasn’t really a show so much as a demonstration of the technology: Disney’s first animatronic characters. Nonetheless, “We didn’t know what to think.” he said, “We told him, ‘It was great Walt, but what was it?’”

With a smile, Mr. Disney shot back, “That’s what I brought you boys here for! You’re going to write a song that tells people what this is!”

Walt Disney inside the original Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Walt Disney inside the original Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Originally, this “show” was to be the centerpiece of a new restaurant at Disneyland. The fountain? A coffee station. But an Imagineer pointed out that guests might not want to eat under a room full of squirming birds, so they re-worked the experience into an attraction. The Sherman brothers wrote the song that became the narrative of it: The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room.

That’s right, The Enchanted Tiki Room was part Imagineering and part Sherman Brothers magic. No fancy comic book license or famous characters, just an original creative take on the popular Tiki culture of the day.

The Enchanted Tiki Room still holds up as well today as it did when it first astonished guests at Disneyland on June 23, 1963. It’s a historical and pop culture landmark — and thankfully, Disney Parks still lets us enjoy this “golden age” attraction, and more importantly, the charms and imaginations of that lost era.

The Modern Classics

When Michael Eisner joined the Walt Disney Company as CEO he encouraged Imagineers to look back to Walt’s original attractions — like Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Enchanted Tiki Room — to build unique, immersive future ride experiences.   

If Walt’s era was the Golden Age, Eisner’s era was the Silver. Eisner’s era brought a significant influx of new Disney attractions, parks and resorts. It was a great time, not only for the company but for Disney Park fans too, who saw the introduction of a whole new slew of attractions.

One of those new, only at a Disney theme park attractions, helped the newly minted Disney/MGM Studios make a much-needed impact. The Hollywood Tower Hotel (or Tower of Terror as it has come to be known) opened on July 22nd, 1994.

Intocable El Gato Radio

Inspired by Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone television series (in concept only), it featured no major license or well-known characters. What it did feature, like The Enchanted Tiki Room, was classic Disney storytelling and Disney Imagineering at its best.

As the most technologically advanced theme park attractions of the day, the Tower of Terror was, in a word, mind-blowing. How else do you describe a ride that transports you to the fifth dimension via an elevator, that actually leaves the elevator shaft.    

And it was with great joy when Disney announced they would bring the attraction to Disney’s California Adventure a few years after DCA opened. Like it had at Disney/MGM Studios, The Hollywood Tower (of Terror) was renamed the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and became a mainstay at DCA, with Passholders and regular park goers making it one of their favorite stops. Over the years, as screams from its tower announced its ominous presence, the attraction entered a historical landmark status within the Disney parks and mythos.

Licensing a Theme Park

In Anaheim, California, the Walt Disney Company has a problem. Disney is running out of land. Or, more accurately, it’s running out of prime in-park real estate. That’s why Disney announced at San Diego Comic Con in July 2016 it would be evicting The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to bring Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy to DCA.

Disney plans to replace The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror with Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, the new attraction will open this month. Disney says the attraction “Will anchor a broader universe of Super Heroes that will grow over time at Disney California Adventure park.”

Mission: BREAKOUT will showcase a galaxy of rouge’s in a space-punk museum setting - and feature a unique ride for every guest.

Mission: BREAKOUT will showcase a galaxy of rouge’s in a space-punk museum setting – and feature a unique ride for every guest.

Since Disney bought Marvel in 2009, they’ve struggled to find ways to introduce the Marvel franchise into the parks. A rumored stand-alone Marvel land was supposedly nixed because of concerns that any third gate in Anaheim that was not a Star Wars themed park would rankle both hordes of fans and ROI-focused stockholders. Plus (and probably more realistic), corporate and park execs wanted to drive more attendance to their existing parks. 

So instead of stand-alone parks (which both the Star Wars and Marvel licenses would easily support), park goers get much smaller lands and licensed attractions that make-over, reboot (or whatever millennia term you prefer), classic Disney attractions like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.   

Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Marvel and Star Wars, but I also grew up on Disney Parks. I love the Avengers, Darth Vader and the other properties Disney has bought as much as the next fanboy, but I also love the Carousel of Progress and The Enchanted Tiki Room.

What Imagineers are proposing for Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! sounds amazing (and harkens back to the original wax museum Walt Disney planned around the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction). Mission: BREAKOUT will showcase a galaxy of rogues in a space-punk museum setting and feature a unique ride experience for every guest.

Guests will help the Guardians of the Galaxy escape captivity from Disney’s California Adventure.

Guests will help the Guardians of the Galaxy escape captivity from Disney’s California Adventure.

There’s no doubt Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! will be mind-blowing. But honestly, I’d prefer original Disney Imagineered experiences when I go to a Disney park. If I wanted to ride rides that were created by movie directors, I’d take the family to Universal Studios.

Speaking of Universal, the tipping point probably came with Harry Potter. Harry proved to be not only a great magician but also a licensing wunderkind. (Ask Universal how well The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has driven attendance since it opened in 2010.)

When attendance to the Enchanted Tiki Room dried up at Magic Kingdom in Florida, the solution was simple: licensing. In that case, bringing in Iago from Disney’s blockbuster Aladdin to replace Jose and host the show. Sigh. 

From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense: Freshen up an attractions with new Disney characters and stories… From a fan’s perspective, not so much. 

The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management) thumbed its nose at the original Enchanted Tiki Room. The re-theming felt forced and overtly cheesy. But crowds picked up.

The trend continued. Disneyland’s classic Submarine Voyage was re-themed with Finding Nemo. Jack Sparrow was taken aboard the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions and to find a place for Marvel characters at the Disneyland Resort, The Tower of Terror is losing its lease.    

Tearing Down a Museum to Put Up a Shopping Mall

When the Tower of Terror came to MGM and DCA, it represented a new day for those parks, and again, a new era for Disney. An era, that like the Submarine Voyage and Adventure to Innerspace, are now seemingly forgotten.  

The Carousel of Progress debuted at the World’s Fair in 1964. As the narrator of the Disney theme park attraction can be heard saying, “It was Walt’s idea, from beginning to end.” Taking in a Carousel of Progress show at the Magic Kingdom is a step back in time. (Carousel of Progress Quiz: What Disney attraction holds the record for most stage shows?)

The attraction could re-booted, re-made and updated. With Apple or Google sponsoring the attraction, an animatronic Steve Jobs or Larry Page might serve as host. The show timeline would start in the 60s (featuring such modern marvels as color TV) and fast-forward to today’s latest tech, like AirPods and augmented virtual reality web browsing.   

Before the attraction is refurbished, remember The Carousel of Progress was the last attraction that Walt personally oversaw. Like other classic attractions, including the Tower of Terror, it’s the best attraction in the park: A time machine. Because it returns us to a Disney Park era that is almost long lost.

Fans of these classic Disney theme park attractions want their kids to experience and appreciate The Carousel of Progress in the same way a collector would want to experience and appreciate a vintage Porsche: in its original state.

(So far, Disney has managed to keep a classic version of the Carousel of Progress in the fold of the Disney Parks and thankfully, relatively untouched.)

Sadly, the truth is Cars Land draws much more of a crowd than Autopia and it is much cheaper and quicker to remake a pre-existing attraction or themed area than create a new one from scratch.

We all love the Disney theme park experience, there’s no denying that. However, when it works, like the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions, a movie franchise extension can elevate an older attraction to a whole new level.

We don’t go to a Disney theme park to watch 3D movies, we go for interactive experiences. It’s noted that Star Wars land does promise to address the complaint head on, and most Disneyland purists don’t have a problem with losing Big Thunder Ranch for it.

But when that galaxy far, far away finally opens, remember as important as it to bring amazing attractions and new lands to the parks, it’s also important that we pay respect to the classics, the uniqueness, originality, heritage and histories of them too. They after all are the things that make Disney theme parks so special.

Vince Matthews
Vince Matthews is a marketing and business development consultant to technology, digital media and entertainment companies in Silicon Valley. Previously, Vince worked in Disney’s Parks and Resorts Online group and Disney Online Studios for 5 years, helping create content for and market Disney’s online virtual worlds, like Virtual Magic Kingdom and Pirates Of the Caribbean Online. Aside from his wife and son, he also madly loves his collection of Amazing Spider-Man comic books, a third of which, are older than him.