Our Fidgeting Society

March 20, 2008

Um yeah, so it’s been five months since our last message from the future.  This is what happens when life distracts one from one’s pointless rants about theme parks and cartoons, when one ceaselessly seeks out an elusive dwelling to purchase, and when one’s occupation supplants one’s precious spare moments.  Oh, and getting engaged.

Also, video games.

Anyway, back to Disneyland.  An recent article in the LA Times profiled the upcoming, and much needed, addition to Disney’s Californialand.  Midway Mania is designed along the likes of Buzz Lightyear over in the better park, in that you sit in a slow-moving vehicle and shoot things with a laser.  This is a wonderful and popular idea, since lots of people like Disney rides and shooting things, so it’s a match made in Heaven, a chocolate/peanut butter sort of thing.

But then the last time we went on the ride, my Wife of the Future suggested that we not bother with the laser guns and simply enjoy the ride.  I had already been on the ride several times before, but I was amazed at how much I was missing because I was too busy trying to murder Emperor Zurg: tiny in-jokes, artistic touches, nuance and so forth.  The details that Disney is known for, even for a ride that’s pretty simple and minimalist by comparison.  Normally, there’s no time to take it all in since you’re focusing on the light-up targets.  I actually enjoyed the ride more after sitting back and looking at it.

So when Midway Mania is described as a “a ride-through 3-D video game,” I get a little annoyed.  And nervous.  I mean, I have video games at home.  Even ones where I can step in time (it’s the master) to pop music as well as swing a pretend tennis racket.  You know, interactive games (though what kind of video game is not interactive?).  So why would I need to drive ninety miles to play one?  What’s wrong with an old-fashioned ride where Disney does all the work to entertain me, you young whippersnappers?

Maybe it’s not a trend, but when Midway Mania opens, two of the last five rides in the resort will be this interactive type.  That may not seem like a lot, but they don’t add rides all that often!

Disney is putting forth so much effort, time, and money in creating these interactive rides.  Why not?  The line for Buzz Lightyear has been consistently long for three years now, while poor Monsters Inc., a much more immersive and impressive ride, has apparently lost its novelty and so its line dwindles.  Why?  Because Buzz Lightyear is apparently more fun for people because they’re doing something.

And who doesn’t like doing something?  I do something all the time.  But we’ve been becoming more and more a society that cannot stand not doing something.

When Disneyland first opened, there was barely anything to do.  A few slow rides, a few shows, but still, millions of people came and handed out money freely.  It was fun to go and just look at everything, to experience the park.  Again, the novelty doesn’t last, and so more rides were added, bigger, faster, and more visceral.  And the park became even more fun than before.  But that doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.  The audience is less content about simply being an audience.  Moving through a story is not as rewarding as being a part of it.

Now we need joysticks and triggers to be entertained.  We’re like cigarette junkies looking for something to do with our fingers.  We need higher scores.

We at Men of Science support and encourage technology and toys, but every now and then, we should ignore the targets, put down the laser cannons, unplug your damn earbuds, and instead take in the artistry of a fabricated environment.

Now get off my lawn.

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The Hyperreal Museum, as I am told, is a term coined by Umberto Eco for Disneyland, the much loved and much maligned Happiest Place on Earth.  Though I own it, I’ve not yet read the book it comes from, Travels in Hyperreality, so I don’t know whether he meant it as a positive or a negative.  It could go either way: either you enjoy monuments of exaggerated reality, or you don’t.

Disneyland, as a place and a concept, is collection of places that don’t exist and never will.  Fantasyland is obviously just that; Tomorrowland will never come to pass; Frontierland is long gone; Main Street only recently gone; and Adventureland is exoticism manifested as jungle, tropic, and desert mashed together.  The add-on area of Toon Town is blatantly cartoony.  The closest we can get to realism is New Orleans Square, and even that’s a romanticised version of Old Swampy.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of the theory of theming, what elevates Disneyland above other theme parks is this tenuous connection to reality and its ability to exploit historical and fictional motifs.  The park, or rather the people who designed it, specifically went after aesthetics that people wanted but couldn’t have.  Walt said so.  You can read it on that plaque.  He walled off reality so he could create his own and control it, like some anal retentive freak.

So what happens when the nostalgia wears out, when the exhibits get old and worn down, and only the most fanatical bother to care anymore?  The locals become used to the status quo and the tourists don’t know any better. I will swear up and down that this almost happened early this decade.  The management stopped bothering when they decided that not good enough was good enough.  They found that if they didn’t try as hard and didn’t spend as much money, they could make more profit since people came anyway. Paint started peeling, light blubs burnt out, rides started creaking, and more and more of the standards were chipped away.

I mean, look at California Adventure.

But I really mean, look across the country and the bigger sister park: the Magic Kingdom at Disneyworld.  Kevin Yee over at MiceAge had a recent article about this very problem. The “museumification,” as he calls it, is in full effect there. They still have the Carousel of Progress, for god’s sake. Now there’s an artifact of antiquity, a 1964 New York World’s Fair original, a delightful testiment to Futurism.

So how long must a Hyperreal Museum remain static before it becomes a museum to itself? How many times can you ride Pirates of the Caribbean before the appeal comes from the recognition of the ride rather than the pirates? When does it turn from nostalgia into familiarity?

Thankfully, tides change.  And executives move on to mall jobs, where they’re better suited for cookie cutter production. Now, the emphasis seems to be more on innovation than preservation. But there are those who will lament the loss of any exhibit from the Hyperreal Musuem. As a Man of Science, I embrace the future. It’s too bad that the future of Tomorrowland has been hijacked by cartoonery, but that’s a different article.