Troweling Theme Parks: The Many Layers of Recycling in Archaeology

If I were an archaeologist in the future excavating the Disney theme parks and attempting to contextualise periods of time  (and let’s be honest, I wish I was!), I’d argue that you could create a series of periods based on attraction typologies; that is to say, you could create a system of “ages” based on the kind of attraction that was created at the time. From the early “Dark Ride Ages” to the more recent “Simulation Age”, it might be easy to use technological advances to date the theme park ruins. But what if they reused some parts of a 1960’s dark ride for a 2010’s simulation ride? How do we deal with sort of “recycling”?

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(Photo Credit: Own the Magic)

When an attraction at one of the Disney theme parks is closed and dismantled, any of the unusable pieces get scrapped. As for the remaining material, there are two options: either it gets sent to the “Boneyard”, or it gets recycled. The Disney Boneyard is basically an empty lot where attraction parts go to rust into obscurity…in some cases, however, these parts can find their way to auction bids for dedicated Disney fans (Josh 2013). Attraction recycling, on the other hand, can be seen in a number of ways: pieces can be re-fitted for other attractions, used for decoration, or even placed as small Easter eggs for eagle-eyed guests.

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“The Swamp Boys” in their original roles in America Sings (left) and in their current spot in Splash Mountain (right) (Photo Credit: Yesterland, Werner Weiss & Allen Huffman)

As a big business corporation at heart, it shouldn’t be surprising that Disney often ends up recycling defunct attraction pieces – after all, why waste a good animatronic? There are many examples of this throughout the theme parks, but one of the most easy-to-spot is arguably the Splash Mountain animatronics. Many of the singing animals found in this attraction have actually been recycled from the defunct America Sings, an attraction from the 1970’s starring a large cast of animatronic animals performing in a musical revue of classic American standards (Weiss 2016). Given the southern setting of America Sings, the recycled animatronics barely needed much changing to fit into Splash Mountain‘s cast of animals.

A CDA employee from Monsters Inc. – Mike and Sully to the Rescue! (left) and its original incarnation as Drew Carey in Superstar Limo (right). See the resemblance? (Photo Credit: Davelandweb.com)

A less blatant example of recycling animatronics can be found at Disney’s California Adventure theme park. When the park first opened in 2001, one of the opening day attractions was heavily maligned Superstar Limo – a dark ride through Hollywood, with a plethora of celebrity cameos along the way. The attraction garnered so much negative attention that it was closed after less than a year of operation, eventually reopening in 2005 as Monsters Inc. – Mike and Sully to the Rescue! (Weiss 2016, Perjurer 2018). However, most – if not all – of the animatronics from Superstar Limo were repurposed for the new Monsters Inc. attraction. And although these animatronics were given new cosmetic makeovers to fit into the new dark ride, they are still pretty recognisable as their old characters. For example, compare the above photos of a Drew Carey animatronic before and after recycling – different look, but the pose and movement is still exactly the same! Its hard to blame Disney, however – why change a whole animatronic’s programming? It sounds like a fair amount of work…but hey, I’m not an Imagineer.

What fascinates me most about recycling in theme park attractions is the layers of experience that reuse ultimately creates, specifically for those who have encountered these show elements in their original incarnations. How strange it must be to recognise an animatronic that was once a singing goose and is now repurposed as a Star Wars droid! Even without recognising the reused piece in question, it is often easy to notice when a slightly outdated model is retrofitted into a modern day attraction.

So, what does this have to do with archaeology? Well, the recycling of artefacts in the archaeological record is more common than you’d think – and older than you’d think as well.

Up until the 20th century, the most common form of recycling was in simple repair – a broken tool could be mended with additional material and reused again and again until broken again, then the cycle would continue: break – mend – reuse. However, for the particular case of recycling material from the archaeological record (rather than material that has yet been deposited into the record), Michael Schiffer (2010) has use the term “reclaimation process” to describe how material is removed from the archaeological context and brought back into the “living” context.

Reclaimation is often found with crafting – for example, Late Bronze Age sites in Kition, Cyprus, have evidence of bronze material that was recycled from grave goods from nearby tombs (Karageorghis and Kassianidou 1999). Lithics found in many sites have also shown some form of reclaimation, often through being flaked again by later inhabitants and creating a phenomenon known as a “double patina”, which makes the act of reclaimation more observable to archaeologists.

By the start of the 20th century, industrialisation allowed for the over production of objects, making it easier to simply buy a new object to replace a broken one, rather than mend it. This caused a shift to “downcycling” – breaking broken or discarded objects into raw materials to create completely new items (Amick 2015).

Today, downcycling is still one of the main processes of recycling, although recent movements towards environmental friendliness and DIY culture have led to a bit of a return to learning how to mend and reuse objects by hand. Given the technological advances in recycling material – as well as the relative speed by which recycling can happen – it makes me wonder how future archaeologists may be able to distinguish recycled goods in the archaeological record.

References

Amick, D.S. (2015) The Recycling of Material Culture Today and During the Paleolithic. Quarternary International 361. pp. 4 – 20

Josh. (2013) Where Do Rides Go When They Die? Disneyland Report. http://disneylandreport.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/where-do-rides-go-when-they-die.html

Karageorghis, V. and Kassianidou, V. (1999) Metalworking and Recycling in Late Bronze Age Cyprus – the Evidence from Kition. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18(2).

Perjurer, K. (2018) Defunctland: The History of Disney’s Worst Attraction Ever, Superstar Limo. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2L-bZiqckM

Schiffer, M. (2010) Behavioural Archaeology: Principles and Practice. Equinox.

Weiss, W. (2016) America Sings. Yesterland. http://www.yesterland.com/amersings.html

Weiss, W. (2016) Superstar Limo. Yesterland. http://www.yesterland.com/superstarlimo.html

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