Troweling Theme Parks: Monoliths Of Memory at Disney’s EPCOT Centre

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The “Leave a Legacy” monoliths nicely framing the bottom of the Spaceship Earth attraction and icon of the park (Photo Credit: Werner Weiss 2007)

The dawning of the year 2000 was a big deal for everyone, but perhaps most especially for Walt Disney World. To mark the new millennium, the resort set up a series of new events and attractions as part of their “Millennium Celebration”; this included a new parade called the “Tapestry of Nations”, a new evening fireworks show called “IlluminiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth”, and a new interactive pavilion called “Millennium Village”. The overall theme of this celebration was “celebrating the future hand in hand”, emphasizing and celebrating global cooperation into the future (Soares 1999).

It’s no surprise that EPCOT, otherwise known as the “Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow”, was chosen as the home for these festivities. Originally conceived as an actual living community by Walt Disney in the late 1950’s, EPCOT would eventually become a theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida after Disney’s death (Patches 2015). Although not exactly what Disney had originally pitched to investors in the early 1960’s, EPCOT would be a theme park focused on discovery, “edu-tainment”, and eventually, on celebrating international relations and cultures with the addition of a “World Showcase” that highlights 11 different countries. Perhaps it was explained best by  Al Weiss, then president of Walt Disney World, who said: “Walt Disney once referred to EPCOT as a ‘living blueprint of the future’ and it is in that spirit that we welcome to the world to celebrate the millennium at this, our discovery park” (Soares 1999).

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A closer look at the individual monoliths, covered in etchings of guests (Photo Credit: Allen Huffman 2006)

Another addition to the theme park for the new millennium was called “Leave a Legacy”. Although at heart a means of generating a profit from the empty space at the front of the “FutureWorld” park entrance, these slabs of granite also allowed diehard theme park fans to leave their mark – or, more specifically, their faces – at EPCOT forever. By paying between $35-38 per space, up to two people could have their faces etched into these monoliths during the “Millennium Celebration”. This installation is guaranteed to be standing for at least twenty years, although there has been no plans to remove the monoliths once this period is up. Fans ultimately appear to be divided about the “Leave a Legacy” installation – although many believe it to be an eyesore and not enough spaces were bought to fill up the entire allotted space in the installation, many still appreciate the ability to have their legacies memorialised, with over 550,000 people etched into the monoliths  (Weiss 2012).

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Megaliths located in Laman Megalit, or Megalithic Park, in Putrajaya, Malaysia (Photo Credit: Drew Parsons 2017)

Archaeologically, we can see that these monoliths must draw some inspiration from prehistoric megaliths. Megaliths are defined as usually prehistoric stone monuments, sometimes used as tombs, that range from simplistic to more elaborate set-ups (monoliths, on the other hand, are specifically a singular block of stone or material, but mostly refer to more historic and modern installations due to the use of cement or some other kind of binding ingredient). Megaliths can be found around the world, with some of the more famous ones located in Europe (for example, Stonehenge). Interpretations of megaliths are hot topics of debate among archaeologists, and often have become the breeding grounds for pseudoarchaeological theories (Renfrew 1983).

Some archaeologists have theorised that the key to understanding these megalithic structures is memory (Holtorf 1996, Cummings 2003).  Cummings (2003) in particular has argued that the focus on megaliths should be less on their construction and more of how the experience of running into similar structures across Britain may be tied into an idea of spatial memory and how these megaliths ties these spaces together.

So while the “Leave a Legacy” monoliths may have been, at heart, a money grabbing venture to top off the celebration of a new millennium (this is, after all, the place where you can’t leave an attraction without going through a gift shop!), they also are a testament to this sort of sentiment that is seemingly timeless – of leaving behind something that inspires memories that are tied to a specific place, of having some sort of established legacy to be found by others thousands of years later. Perhaps we can even say these monoliths are proof that, when it comes to monuments, our prehistoric ancestors had the right idea!

References

Cummings, V. (2003) Building from Memory: Remembering the Past at Neolithic Monuments in Western Britain. Archaeologies of Rememberance: Death and Memory in Past Societies. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 25-29.

Holtorf, C.J. (1996) Towards a Chronology of Megaliths: Understanding Monumental Time and Cultural Memory. Journal of European Archaeology. pp. 119-152.

Patches, M. (2015) Inside Walt Disney’s Ambitious, Failed Plan to Build the City of Tomorrow. Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/news/a35104/walt-disney-epcot-history-city-of-tomorrow/

Renfrew, C. (1983) The Social Archaeology of Megalithic Monuments. Scientific American. 249 (5). pp. 152-163.

Soares, S. (1999) The 15-Month Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration: A Celebration Just Too Big for One Night. WDW Entertainment. http://wdwent.com/EPCOT.htm

Weiss, W. (2012) Leave a Legacy. Yesterdayland. https://www.yesterland.com/legacy.html

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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

Troweling Theme Parks: Archaeology as Narrative in the World of Avatar

As someone who has spent a very large portion of her lifetime in various theme parks, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve started to write about them through an archaeological lens! Troweling Theme Parks will be an occasional writing series where I’ll look at how many immersive theme park experiences use a sort of archaeological-type of narrative to get stories across…and of course talk about the Indiana Jones rides later on. Our first foray into this series will look at the World of Avatar, located at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL.

Remains of the original expedition to Pandora from the first Avatar film. (Photo Credit: Ricky Brigante, Inside The Magic)

In the spring of 2017, Walt Disney World officially opened up the newest addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL. It was called “Pandora: the World of Avatar” and was based on the James Cameron film of the same name from 2009.

The conceit of this additional “land” is that it takes place a generation after the conflict between the exploitative human Resources Development Administration (RDA) and the native Na’vi of Pandora. With peace between humans and Na’vi, a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions now leads research and ecotourism trips throughout Pandora, leading to the creation of the outpost that guests can now visit at Animal Kingdom (Martens 2017, Taylor 2017).

This backstory is not explicitly stated, however – instead, environmental clues are designed into the decoration of Pandora to suggest the revitalisation of the area after the invasive mining excavations. In some respects, this is a sort of archaeology to this narrative, allowing for guests to peel back the layers of time to interpret for themselves why they may stumble upon old, rusted signs that say “RDA Scientists Only”, or why the rusting husks of military equipment, overgrown with plants, can be found among the lush, alien landscape.

Na’vi rock art from the Flight of Passage queue. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

Probably the best example of this can be found in the queue for the land’s most popular (and innovative) attraction, Flight of Passage. This simulation attraction has guests using the Avatar technology used in the film in order to ride a species of flying alien known as “Banshees” to tour Pandora. Further backstory, however, is explained through the queue for the attraction – guests first enter through a series of winding caves that showcase traditional rock painting and other artwork from the Na’vi (perhaps from their prehistoric ancestors?). The queue then transitions into the rusty metal corridors of a now-abandoned base, where the destructive RDA group from the film first occupied Pandora. These corridors are separated by the lush, bioluminescent greenery, which has slowly overtaken the human-made base over time. As the queue gets closer to the newly repurposed part of the RDA base that hosts the Avatar technology, murals of Banshees and their Na’vi riders have been painted over the originally bare walls, perhaps reflecting a more respectful perspective of the Na’vi and their cultural from their human colleagues at Alpha Centauri.

The rusty old RDA base transitioning into the overgrowth of bioluminescent flora. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This immersive type of storytelling isn’t new to theme park development. Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers arguably first pioneered the idea of “environmental narrative” with the original opening of Disneyland in 1955, where the story is told through environmental clues that are purposely designed into the setting of the theme park (Mitrasinovic 2016). It has since spread to other big-name theme parks – for example, see Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a land based on J.K. Rowling’s wizard franchise.

Murals painted over the original RDA buildings, placing the present emphasis more on the Na’vi and the native species of Pandora, rather than exploitation of Pandora’s resources. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This sort of “archaeology” in narrative storytelling, through environmental clues that allow for guests to further interpret the story on their own, is not only a subtle way to further expand on the sort of messages that are encouraged in both the original film and the overall theme park – the importance of conservation, the evil of exploitation of nature, etc. – but also reflects the sort of cultural conflict that can only be illustrated through material remains. The traditional art of the Na’vi, permanently showcased on the natural formations of cave walls, which in turn gives way to the invasive RDA expedition that replaces the natural with the artificial, to the “present-day” repatriation of the RDA’s land and equipment to not only the Na’vi and their human allies, but also to the natural environment of Pandora itself.

Of course, there is something to say about the anthropological discourse surrounding ecotourism in the real world and problematic aspects of the practice, especially with regards to Indigenous communities…but perhaps that’s a blog post for another day.

References

Anonymous. (2017) Pandora – the World of Avatar. Walt Disney World Resort. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/en_GB/destinations/animal-kingdom/pandora-world-of-avatar/

Martens, T. (2017) A Visit to Disney’s Pandora – What We Learned. Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-disney-pandora-avatar-20170502-htmlstory.html

Mitrasinovic, M. (2016) Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Routledge.

Taylor, D. (2017) The Inside Story of Why Disney Spent Half a Billion Dollars on an Avatar Theme Park. Vulture. http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/disney-world-pandora-avatar-theme-park.html