You Can Leave Your Hat Off

I began writing this as a caption to a photo I had posted before on Instagram, of a hat-free view of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (of course, then known as Disney-MGM Studios). My thoughts got away from me, and I had soon reached “caption limit” on Instagram, so I copied and pasted what I’d been writing into my “Notes” on my phone. I had never before written a blog post on my phone, save for very short updates about new purses being released while I may have been away from my laptop. But I was lost in the moment, and just kept typing. What follows is that post.

Vintage Disney-MGM StudiosI hope we have this uncluttered view again with the removal of the hat. Part of what drew me in to the wonders of Walt Disney World as a child were the incredibly themed environments found at each park. In my, and many others’ opinions, part of the disappointments in park-related decisions made by Disney executives almost always stem from this suspension of theming. Throw a couple of birds from unrelated movies into a classic, original WDW attraction like the Enchanted Tiki Room, and Disney purists will be unhappy. Destroy the basic essence of a movie-studio-related theme park and over time, it becomes a shell of a park; a mishmash of random attractions and unrelated shows which are either outdated or have nothing to do with “The Hollywood that never was and always will be.”

One major part of that mishmash was a giant Sorcerer’s hat, which while, yes, related to an animated film from Walt Disney, had no business being at the end of Hollywood Boulevard, a walkway brimming with Hollywood history, homages, and iconic architecture. The hat was not an icon, it was a pin store in the shape of a hat, and a temporary one at that, created for the “100 Years of Magic” celebration, when special light-up pins were sold which interacted with park elements. As with many things in Disney parks these days, it became easier to leave this store up. It no doubt made loads of money in both merchandise and photo pass sales. It also conveniently solved that pesky issue of the main “weenie” in this park being a non-Disney entity (Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). But as we Disney purists know, lack of Disney branding does not equal some sort of disconnect between the guest and where they are spending their hard-earned vacation dollars. By the same token, throwing up an over-sized bit of Disney-themed “magic” in the form of a hat, does not equal Disney quality and dedication to a properly themed environment.

In this author’s experience and humble opinion, throwing sparkles and pixie dust on any and everything does not make Disney Magic™. Disney magic is found in the people, the experiences of feeling as if you are flying over London in a pirate ship, sailing down the Amazon River with a jovial guide, setting out on a “two-week Safari” in Africa, journeying to the very port of imagination, or to 11 different countries without needing a passport. Or, stepping right into Hollywood past, present, or somewhere in between. For a little girl from Massachusetts, Hollywood and California seemed like a foreign country, a place so out of reach, who knew if I’d ever get there. But I could at the Studios. I learned so much about making movies and animation and special effects and stunts. Much like I learned about communication and agriculture and transportation and future technologies at EPCOT. When it first opened, Disney-MGM Studios became my second favorite park. Magic Kingdom was a distant third for me, because it was never about thrills or rides for me, it was about experiences and the Disney experience was unparalleled in EPCOT and MGM. I know I’m not alone in my thoughts. However, I also know there are many, many folks who go to Walt Disney World for completely different reasons. They go for princesses and fairytales and escaping a reality that can’t compete with pixie dust. Obviously, I am a fan of Disney; it has ruled a large portion of my life for many years. But I looked at my early experiences not as an escape from reality, but as a way to make a better reality. And that reality, to me, was “doing something right or not at all.” Going above and beyond regular expectations. Transporting you to a place where you believed you belonged.

That’s why the hat bothered me and so many others. The hat took you out of the carefully themed environment that created this new reality, and became nothing more than a giant inflatable waving arm creature on the side of the road. Much like the giant Mickey hand, wand, and “2000” attached to Spaceship Earth, these temporary side-show attractions play to the lowest common denominator of theme park goer, and dumb down the experience to nothing more than a “LOOK! SALE!” sign. Never mind that a wonderful, well-designed attraction awaits inside Spaceship Earth or the Great Movie Ride, we aren’t trusting you to discover this and be delighted on your own. We are putting this hand and this hat here to say, “at least you’ll take a photo and hopefully buy a pin here!” And while none of us can safely say what Walt would’ve wanted, and haven’t been able to for some time, what Walt was known for and insisted upon, from day one, was quality. Walt himself said, “Quality will out.” as well as “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” I love that quote, because it certainly worked on me. I learned so much, that it became a very part of my being.

So why all this fuss over “just a hat” or “just an outdated boat ride in Norway”? Because these two very contrasting situations illustrate what Disney history fans are constantly hoping for and striving to see played out in park updates, new attractions, even merchandise. And while adding a Frozen attraction to Norway may be a perfect example of how to destroy a themed environment and entertain without educating, the smaller victory of removing the hat is a step toward acknowledging that it did not belong in a themed environment. Am I appeased enough by this decision to think nothing will replace this space? That Disney’s Hollywood Studios, with its closure of the Backlot Tour and Jack Sparrow experience is going to create an all-new “Hollywood that never was”? No. I am no longer that naive or even hopeful. The closures of attractions like Horizons, World of Motion, the original Journey into Imagination, the original Backlot Tour with special effects walking tour, and now Maelstrom, have slowly chipped away at the belief that those running Disney have the same ideals they once did. As dramatic and silly as it may sound to the casual fan, or person who goes to Disney for a completely different experience, these closures have broken little pieces of my heart.

You can throw out the “Disney is a business” line till the cows come home, but Disney is not filing for Chapter 11 any time soon. Disney has become such a name in quality and service because of the PAST, not the present. The kids who grew up going to Disneyland and Walt Disney World fell in love with a very specific set of business ideals and level of quality – from the person designing the rides to the person sweeping up spilled popcorn. The next generation fell in love with Disney movies and tv shows and yes, the theme parks too, but at a completely different level of expectation. Disney magic wasn’t found just within the details of Adventureland and Fantasyland, but in princess breakfasts and makeovers and pirate parties and dance parties and in “themed areas” which consist of fake snow stapled to cardboard cutouts and plastic backdrops. And they think it’s great and keep coming back for more. And as long as we as guests keep accepting that as a great Disney experience, there will be more of less and less of more.

 
To continue in this train of thought, those who check in here regularly, may have noticed I haven’t posted in well over a month, and wondered why my first post after that break is now a critique of the Walt Disney Company. Well, a lot has happened in that month; I traveled up and down the coast of California, got engaged, and also during that time, many other bits of news and changes have happened within the Walt Disney Company, all of which have led me to re-evaluate, yet again, why and what I write here at my site. As you may recall, I had a sort of mid-blog-crisis-and-subsequent-manifesto piece called The State of Zannaland, back in February. And since that time, I’ve written only  two other pieces which were really from the heart and expressed why I began writing about Disney to begin with. I struggled quite a bit in the last couple of months, which, I know, probably sounds very silly to the casual reader. There are so many blogs and sites out there with information on Walt Disney World, or Disneyland, or Disney in general. Merchandise updates, the latest news or promotion Disney was releasing…and I didn’t want to be just another site parroting back info directly from Disney, or blindly supporting every decision the company made. At the same time, I know many of my readers found me back in the days of my Moms Panel application process, or followed my previous updates, and were wondering why I either wasn’t posting, or was now challenging the choices and decisions Disney was making. I didn’t want to alienate any readers, or cause people to be upset by what I was now writing. But the real-life things I experienced recently put a lot of Disney-blog things into perspective. At the end of the day, I must be proud of what I release here.

I avoided posting about Maelstrom closing here and only shared a few of my thoughts on twitter, but that closure was truly a slap in the face to a child of EPCOT such as myself. It was in a sense, what tipped the scales to get me from trying to still support Disney’s decisions and find the good and trust in their choices, to realizing that the Walt Disney World I grew up loving and evangelizing about, was not, in fact, the same company I was blogging about. That is not to say that there aren’t many, many talented, passionate folks who work for Disney and still hold those ideals and do their absolute best with what they are given to work with. But the decisions coming from the top no longer show a concern for long-term guest entertainment through learning, and gaining life-long return guests and fans. The short-sighted decisions for FrozenFrozenFrozenNowNowNow, are disappointing and disheartening to say the least. The removal of this hat, gives a small glimmer of hope that perhaps there is still a beating heart within this Frozen body, if you’ll pardon the bad analogy. (I think I’ve heard enough people telling me to “let it go” in the past month to warrant one bad Frozen analogy.)

As stated in my previous post, I did not get into blogging to make money, or have internet fame, or make a business out of what I write. I never wanted to be sponsored to write about what other people wanted me to, and I definitely never wanted to be part of 1,000 people writing the same thing. I’ve been writing here for over 5 years, and attended many, many blogging conferences in that time. I learned a lot about how to monetize, how to appeal to brands, how to pitch yourself to get products or create relationships that would improve your blog and get you more readers in the process. But I always, always, felt lost in that process. I never wanted to review products, or like I said above, share the same things 100’s or 1000’s of blogs were sharing. And yet, even after my State of Zannaland post, I was afraid to completely pull out of that world. What I realized while traveling last month, was that I wasn’t afraid any more. Part of our trip took us to the Walt Disney Family Museum, part of it to some of the highest elevations in Yosemite National Park, and part of it to Walt Disney’s old haunts and historical places from when he was first starting his animation studio and later Disneyland. I know it doesn’t sound like those three things have a common thread, but what they gave me was an overwhelming sense of perspective, and a re-igniting of the ideals that made me start this blog to begin with.

Thanks to Yesterland.com for this photo. See how this view makes sense?

Thanks to Yesterland.com for this photo. See how this view makes sense?

All of the people I respect the most in this blogging-about-Disney world are those who post their true thoughts, don’t censor, don’t sugar coat, and tell things like it is, for better or for worse. I want to be one of those people, I want to respect my own writing and want to be respected for my thoughts and honesty. There is a lot of talk online about positivity; always being positive and surrounding yourself with positive people and avoiding the negative, to the point of removing negative people from your life. I think a lot of the actual meaning behind this ideal is lost among Disney fans. There is a *huge* difference between being positive, and wearing both rose-colored glasses and blinders in your life. Being positive in your own personal life, to overcome challenges you face, obstacles you encounter and achieving your goals, is great. It’s wonderful. A must-do. None of us would get anywhere if we were crippled by self-doubt and negativity. Much of my own life has been plagued by self-doubt, and it took me until I was almost 40 to realize that I was worth more, and take steps to achieve my own happiness. However, being negative about a multi-billion dollar company and its decisions, is not, in any way, shape or form, the same thing.

Turning a blind eye to a corporate decision, from a corporation you have dedicated your blog to, or consider yourself a major fan of, is just plain silly, and serves no one in the end. To use a simple analogy, it’s like the old tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. If you have enough people telling you how great and wonderful you look, for fear of upsetting their Emperor, you continue to believe the illusion, until one voice shares the truth, and you realize you are standing naked in a crowd, looking like a fool. Do you think Walt Disney never objected to any suggestion or refused to listen to any critique? No. You can be a positive person and keep negativity out of your life, and still object to decisions and choices that a person or company you love make. There is a huge difference between saying “I don’t agree with that, so it’s dumb and so are you.” and saying, “I don’t agree with that, and here’s why.” and taking that opinion into account as a valid one, based on the reason and if done in an intelligent, respectful way. Being blind to any opinion different from yours helps no one out in the end, it’s not how we grow as people, as friends, and even as corporations. So I will no longer be the voice afraid to speak, the blog afraid to post, the friend afraid to have a different opinion. And today, that opinion is that it is a wise and wonderful choice to remove the sorcerer’s hat from Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you are sad that it is going, you are of course entitled to that opinion, but ask yourself if it truly fit in to what Disney theme parks are all about.





About Suzannah Otis

Boston girl living and blogging in Walt Disney World's backyard. Wife, Mom of 3, coffee addict, lover of travel and adventure.