Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Defending DinoLand USA

It’s a case of Imagineering doing their job too well.

DinoLand USA, and more specifically, Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama, is frequently cited by fans as one of their least favorite concepts at Walt Disney World. The gang at the WDW Today podcast were all pretty much in agreement on a recent show when they ranked it as one of the resort’s worst.

The most common complaint about the area seems to center on Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama. Citing the overused and easily abused mantra “Walt would never have done that,” folks tend to be appalled by the low-brow tourist trap theme, and inclusion of carnival games and more traditional amusement park-type rides. It also suffers from the “everything needs to be an E Ticket” mindset of many hardcore fans.

Incredibly enough, it is one of the resort’s best examples of a totally immersed experience. But sadly, if you are under the age of thirty, and not a student of mid-20th century popular culture, you’ll be likely unable to appreciate what a great story the Imagineers are telling in this corner of Animal Kingdom.

DinoLand USA distinctly pays homage to the roadside America culture, most closely identified with the now legendary Route 66, the mother road that stretched from Chicago to southern California that was at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, prior to the arrival of the Interstate Highway system. Kitschy tourist attractions were popular along Route 66, and it many counterpart roads across the country. And a large number of these roadside establishments featured a then, and even still now, popular theme--dinosaurs. There are still concrete remnants of these prehistoric parks scattered throughout North America.

When you enter DinoLand USA, pay careful attention. You are not just in DinoLand; you’re in Diggs County.

The story of Diggs County is told mainly through a series of signs and billboards, that while often large and distinct, are just enough in the background that they typically go unnoticed by most guests.

Fictional Highway US 498 cuts through the area, which is the home of the Dino Institute. The Institute, a veritable hotbed of scientific research, draws visitors from around the world, thanks to the proprietary technology of their famous Time Rovers.

Nearby, savvy entrepreneurs Chester and Hester opened a souvenir shop to take advantage of the influx of dino-tourists. Success begat success, and they soon expanded their operation to include Dino-Rama, an amusement area literally set up on their store’s parking lot. Their signature ride, the Primeval Whirl, even pokes fun at the Dino Institute’s time-traveling scientists.

I love the whole concept of Diggs County. But then, I’m a big fan of roadside America pop culture. I think it is clever and fun that they are in fact satirizing the very dynamic that Walt was trying to distance himself from with his creation of Disneyland. And with the fact that much of roadside America has disappeared from the landscape, DinoLand becomes a very fun and retro-esque look back in time.

Many just hate the whole thing. I mean really, really hate it. Trolling some of the popular Disney forums, you’ll find words like abomination, travesty, and shameful frequently used when discussing the area. It’s sad because often the ire is directed at the Imagineers responsible for the design. Let’s face it, love it or hate it, DinoLand is authentic. And the details throughout are amazing. Take a close look around both the interior and exterior of the store. Then check out the signs along Highway 498. It was thoroughly researched and exceptionally well executed. You can dislike the theme and debate its placement in Animal Kingdom, but there is no denying that the Imagineers succeeded in recreating a slice of Americana that many still enjoy and find endearing.

And really, when all is said and done, it is the theme that really puts the nay sayers off. Primeval Whirl dressed up differently might not have been met with the contempt it is now often greeted with. This assumption that traditional amusement-type rides are anathema to a Disney park is somewhat ludicrous. Again the mantra “Walt would never have done that!” Well, he kinda did. Fantasyland is in fact full of traditional amusement park-style attractions. WED Enterprises did not invent the merry-go-round, the dark ride, and the various spinniners, they merely dressed them up in Disney clothing.

There seems to be this notion that once you embrace the Disney theme parks, you are no longer permitted to enjoy any other amusement park venues. It’s an elitist attitude that ends up fueling the anti-Dino-Rama sentiment. Just because Walt wanted to do something different back in 1955, it doesn’t invalidate all the enjoyment provided by traditional parks prior to the arrival of Disneyland, and the entertainment they continue to provide today. And it shouldn’t undermine the company’s desire to celebrate some of that good old fashioned kitsch.


Anonymous said...

Awesome post! I get a little tired of sites like re-imagineering being so negative of the Imagineers (I know you didn't use them as an example, but I am). I think many attractions are looked at from only one perspective and not considered from different viewpoints. Take Pooh's Honeypots and Stitches Great Escape. Kids loves these rides but most Disney fan sites tend to be negative towards them.

reddpalmetto said...

I agree with Josh. Awesome post. Hopefully your insight and great examples will open the eyes of some of those nay-sayers.

John said...

You're right that most of us who have issues with Dino-land have issues with the Kitchsy theme chosen for the 'parking lot' attractions (and particularly the off the shelf nature of Primevil Whirl and the carnival games). It's not that the story is bad, Roadside America is a perfectly valid choice for a theme park to use, just not a 'Disney' themepark where an emmersive, escapist environment is key to maintaining the illusion. The distinct draw back to what we see everyday (pathetic rundown roadside attractions, arcade games designed to take your money, etc) only reminds the guest of the outside world. That takes them out of the story, so it doesn't matter how good your story is, the guest is no longer involved in it. With a little more budget, WDI could have continued the natural museum-esque feel of the rest of Dino-land with the same two attractions and even a child friendly dark ride that don't offend the eyes and remind guests of the 'real world' when they're escaping it.

(This, btw, is the exact same argument I have against California Adventure... the theme is the thing.)


Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks for the feedback John; I appreciate your interest in the blog.

The outside world is present in much of the Disney parks, especially EPCOT, MGM and Animal Kingdom. What Disney does is idealizes these outside world elements. I just see DinoLand as a bright, idealized version of those rundown roadside attractions you mention. Much in the way they have idealized the EPCOT countries, Hollywood, and Main Street USA.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

When one hears critical discussion about a particular place like Dino-rama, it may sound like Imagineer bashing, or irrational thinking -- but that doesn't make the observation any less relevant. An individual's response to the built environment is a very personal one, and one that is made in a split-second as events unfold. It's a non-rational response that needs to be understood when one is designing any type of place -- may it be a theme park, public place, or building. It's important to listen to those responses and try to figure out what is going on.

In this case, one was walked through a beautifully landscaped park, enjoyed the "Oasis", viewed the amazing Tree of Life, perhaps even just been on the heavily immersive Dinosaur attraction, and then comes to a tacky roadside carnival. Even if it is meant to be an "idealized" and friendly carnival, there are just too many negative connotations that such a place elicits for those to be overcome by clever design. You say it yourself that this is the very dynamic that Walt Disney himself tried to distance himself from. In that case alone, why try to include it in a Disney park?? Why introduce satire into a park that is intended to promote mankind's harmony with nature??

I share your appreciation of roadside pop culture. I love stopping at the dinosaurs on the way to Palm Springs. I've thoroughly enjoyed more traditional amusement parks like Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Kennywood, and the old Elitch's Gardens. But in this case I can't help but feel that Dino-rama was a misguided effort of the Imagineers' talents. It feels like a "cheap" means to get more attractions into the park and perhaps that is the real issue the Imagineers were satirizing.

Sam said...

This dino-land you can experience other places. I have personally been to 3 other places that offer the same experience as dino-land...this is the reg. world. The same old amusement park lot.
When I go to Disney parks and pay Disney prices I want a Disney experience, not something I can get in the "real world" at another amusement park!

Anonymous said...

How about writing articles defending the other often-criticised WDW attractions like The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under Management and Stitch's Great Escape?

Those have all been hot topics in the Disney online fan community for a long time and deserve to be addressed by someone like you who doesn't allow emotion to totally overtake their common sense.

Anonymous said...

How ironic that John feels free (and is free) to chime in with his usual I-hate-Disney negativity that passes for criticism while unashamedly plugging his often-nasty blog...yet a mere 3 comments by me politely disagreeing with his usually-hegative take on items (such as C&H's) got me immediately banned from his site. He wrote to me suggesting I start my own blog, "Call it The
Happy Disney Bouncing Fun Blog or something," were his exact words.
What a tool.