Disney Imagineering has always had the talent for creating amazing rides to fit their stories. Every time they hit a snag in finding a way to make their stories come to life they persevere until they come up with a solution and those solutions are usually amazing. In the past few years there have been some fantastic new experiences in the Disney Parks. We have seen the expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. Shanghai Disneyland was opened. Radiator Springs was created.
But alongside of those rides we have also been given a set of ride overlays that are disappointing, and in some cases were a downright waste of Disney ingenuity. So what is an overlay and why am I, and so many others, so against them?
Overlay vs. Update or an overhaul.
There are many ways an existing ride can be changed. Sometimes, when a ride is built it doesn’t work the way the Imagineers intended it to. Sometimes there can be a technological glitch that didn’t show up until the ride opened. Sometimes they will add in a safety feature that no one realized was needed until much later. Sometimes the story of the ride itself can be edited like what was done to the Alice in Wonderland ride in the early days of Disneyland.
Initially Walt Disney and the Imagineers didn’t put the main characters into some of the rides. They wanted the guests to be the main character. You weren’t going down the rabbit hole with Alice; you were Alice. Unfortunately the guests didn’t understand the intention and after months of being asked: “So where’s Alice” the powers that be realized that they needed to make a change to make the ride work for the general public. But even with the slight tweaks to storyline the ride itself stays the same during an update.
There are times when one ride will replace another, older ride. In the older days of Disneyland and Walt Disney World there was a pretty strict one ride in, one ride out rule that was put in place to keep the operating costs (and ticket costs) down. When they needed to make room for Whinnie the Pooh the Country Bears got booted from Disneyland and Mr. Toad was bounced from Walt Disney World. In the instances where the new ride needs to take up the space of the old one Disney will dismantle the older ride and install a completely new track system, new props, new walls etc. Now they do try to use the existing structure to the best effect, designing the new ride in ways that flow with the walls and building structures of the old ride. But everything else goes. And if a wall has to go for a scene to fit, then that wall is gone.
An overlay is neither of these things. When a ride is given an overlay the old ride system is kept largely intact and a new story is written to fit the ride system rather than altering the system to fit the story. This is where the problems start. As I mentioned, Disney has always been brilliant at coming up with new ways to tell their stories. But forcing a story to fit a ride track or ride experience rather than tailoring the experience to the story shows a remarkable lack of respect for everything that makes Disney Disney. And it does not work, as these 5 examples show. In a few of these cases the old ride that was being replaced, truly needed to be replace. In other examples the changes wasn’t necessary but still done. In all instances the final result fell far short of expectations. I’ll start with the ones that are at least decent and head down the lines to the ones that fail in nearly every aspect from the new ‘story’ to the ride mechanics themselves. There its one ride that isn’t on this list: Hyperspace Mountain. Which might not make sense to all of you because isn’t it an original? Yes, but Disney has proven that they can theme and re-theme Space Mountain quickly and completely which gives me hope that when Star Wars Land opens Space Mountain will be back as it was. Not that Hyperspace Mountain isn’t great in its own right.
5. Tarzan’s Treehouse
Tarzan’s Treehouse was what I would call a lateral move. It didn’t add anything to the old ride experience (The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse). If you’re going to take something out that was a Disneyland original then you need to put in something so spectacular that you can justify the change. Instead they just redressed the set.
4. ‘Soarin’ over the World’
The reason this overlay is not successful is twofold. First of all it fails in execution. I’m not sure what happened, but when the new scenes were being filmed the Imagineers failed to recreate the camera effects used in the original ride. This means that the new film doesn’t match the projection screen and is bent and distorted around the edges so that the only good view is the one right in the middle. When the ride was created the goal was to get as many people to be able to experience the same ride at the same time. Imagineers spent months creating a ride system that ensured that there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. It is truly a shame that this new version of the ride has lost that quality. I hope they fix it soon.
The real reason that it is on the list is the over application of the new version. Putting ‘Soarin’ over the World’ into Epcot made perfect sense. I loved the old version, but it never really fit the park and the new version matches up with the World Showcase, Illuminations and everything that makes Epcot, Epcot. By putting it into Future World they were tightening up the theme of the whole park. So it was a shame when in the same move they damaged the theme of DCA by replacing ‘Soarin’ over California’. It was a poor decision on their part.
3. Frozen Ever After
I liked that Disney wasn’t going to make us wait 20 years for a Frozen ride like we had to for the Little Mermaid. But the ride they made is as disappointing in reality as I feared it would be when I heard where and how it was going to be built. Rather than build a new ride experience to tell the story Disney decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking out the badly outdated Maelstrom and putting Frozen into Norway. I did a whole article on why this wasn’t a good idea over a year ago (you can read that here). The short version is that while Arendale was based on Norway it is in fact a fairy tale land and should not be the ultimate representation of Norway as a whole. Epcot wasn’t supposed to be a canvas for Disney’s fairy tales, it was supposed to be a way to allow people to travel to different cultures of the world without having to leave the US. Putting Frozen into Epcot damages the theme and intent of the park.
That said I was still hoping for something fantastic. But instead of telling me the story of Frozen, or even telling me what happened after, they tied together a random string of songs and story clips with no coherent timeline that I can see. It’s cute, and the animatronics are nice, but a really fantastic Disney ride needs more than a catchy tune and great tech. It needs a story and I’m not sure what story this ride is trying to tell me.
I’m worried that the ride will only maintain its popularity for a year or two before becoming a permanent walk on ride. Which is a shame really because now they won’t give Frozen the awesome ride it deserves and Norway won’t get the awesome ride it deserves, in stead both stories are stuck with a pretty mediocre ride experience.
2. Journey into Imagination with Figment
When Epcot was opened recognizable Disney characters were thin on the ground (unless you looked really really carefully). Instead you had a rather interesting pair of characters based out of the Imagination pavilion. Dreamfinder and Figment were in place to teach you just what was possible when you used your imagination.
After a time the ride was taken out to make room for newer experiences, but fans were so upset by this change that Figment was brought back. But he was missing the Dreamfinder and his central message. The result is a ride that falls far short of the original. The new message is that if you use your imagination you can change your perceptions of things that exist in the world. That is a true statement, but Imagination is so much more than changing your view of the world. Without that larger message the current Journey feels like placating pat on the head rather than giving fans what they wanted back.
That said, there is a rumor that Dreamfinder and Figment might be finding their way into Tomorrowland soon. Though I’m not sure if moving them away from Epcot is the best idea either, but we’ll wait and see on that one!
1. Stitch’s Great Escape
This is quite possibly the worst ride on any Disney Property. And it best exemplifies everything that is wrong with ride overlays.
This dud of a ride started out as the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter in Tomorrowland. That was part of an attempt to make the parks more ‘teen’ friendly. White the ride was going to be based off of the Alien franchise; Imagineers instead went with an original story created by George Lucas for the parks. It was reworked repeatedly to make the ride so intense that guests were warned not to bring children under 12 onto the ride.
You were invited to be a part of a new teleportation experiment created by an alien company. But something goes wrong and an alien was sent in the midst of the guests instead. The creature breaks out and starts terrorizing guests who are in complete darkness at this point. Sensory cues are used, including touch and sounds and a maintenance guy who gets eaten during the show while guests are stuck in their restraints.
In 2003 the ride was closed down. There were two reasons. The first was that the ride was so terrifying that many people didn’t think it fit into Tomorrowland. The second was that Disney thought that Stitch needed a ride in the parks. So Disney decided to kill two birds with one stone. But instead of changing the ride mechanics to create a ride that would fit in with the story of Lilo and Stitch the Imagineers decided to keep the basics of the ride exactly the same and alter the story of Lilo and Stitch to fit it.
They replaced the terror with comic mischief but by making Stitch the villain they created a result that was still too terrifying for young guests. More than one child has left the ride in absolute hysterics and while Disney has never been above offering a scare or two, they usually balanced them in ways that left guests with a happy feeling at the end. This was not the case for Stitch. Older guest find it alternately terrifying and annoying and the general consensus is hatred for the ride.
Disney has always managed to reuse their technology when they can. The creatures from America Sings are now entertaining guests in Splash Mountain and audio animatronics can be stripped down and turned into someone entirely new. But trying to salvage a whole ride system, intact, by bending a story to fit into it leaves guests frustrated with the new experience and missing the older one. I understand having to save money when you can, and I am all for recycling machinery and innovations but the story still has to be the most important element of any new ride. If the story doesn’t fit, then the ride should not be done. Overlays really started in the Eisner decade, and remember that Eisner had this to say about the goals of the parks: from a 1981 internal memo at Disney: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” – Michael Eisner, Disney CEO (1984-2005).
And now I like to leave you with an Original Walt Disney quote, because I always want to bring things back to the Man who started it all. (Sorry Mickey).