Thursday, July 21, 2011

Odd Disney World: President Jonathan T. President?

It must have been crowded in that room
when this portrait was done, huh?
As Katy Perry might say if she cared to discuss her connection to audio animatronic Presidential figures, I've had a very hot and cold relationship with the Hall of Presidents attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

First, a smidge of history on the attraction. Walt had originally planned to have the show, then known as "One Nation Under God", at Disneyland on the unbuilt Liberty Street in the unbuilt Edison Square section of the park that was to be adjacent to Main Street U.S.A. They realized that the scope of what he wanted to do was beyond what they could do with the new audio animatronic technology and instead created the successful Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln attraction.

When Walt Disney World was built, a new land was created for the Magic Kingdom in Florida called Liberty Square. Imagineers figured that locals wouldn't be interested in visiting New Orleans Square when the real thing was a few highways west. The new land was the perfect place to finally realize Walt's vision, housing audio animatronic figures of all of the Presidents within a show.

I figure it's pretty much a given that before you hit about eighteen years old, the last thing in the world you want to do while at a Disney park is to sit in a dark theater for a robotic history lesson. You avoid that mess like the plague. Dude, come on! Splash Mountain is mere feet away! The Haunted Mansion is right across Liberty Square! You have to wait forever to get in if the visit isn't well timed and the show feels deadly long to a youngun. That's certainly how it felt to me.

Um. Mr. Lincoln? Can you put your clothes
back on? I'm terrified. Please and thanks.
As I grew, I took issue with the attraction for a much different reason. From 2001-2008, George W. Bush had taken up residence in the Hall. Now, this is no fault of Disney's. And they did a fine job of representing him without making an overly political statement in either direction. But my skin crawled. It was very hard to watch a man who I did not have a terribly high opinion of most things I stand for talk about liberty and justice when I was a second class citizen in my own country. Plus, Maya Angelou was no longer the narrator. Apparently, the caged bird sings because she's trying to tell you she wants to get the heck away from GWB. Not that I can blame her.

Towards the end of W.'s run I saw the show one last time. The lobby was packed with Confederate flag wearing good ole boys and we all know that those are not my favorite people in the world. I wasn't always as zen about dealing them then as I have subsequently become. During the show, before I knew what had hit me, I just started crying. Hearing the eloquent and heartening words of Abraham Lincoln juxtaposed against the deeds of the man who stood beside him was a bit too much to take. Mama was sitting one one side of me with Dad, my sister Kelly on the other and I remember thinking that even if my government didn't love and accept me, my family did and I should count myself as lucky.

Ah. Much better. Thank you, sir.
The first time that I saw the new incarnation with Barack Obama, I felt a lot of relief. The GWB years were a dark cloud that shrouded most of my twenties in a feeling of hopelessness. I had become much more politically aware as a result of the 2008 election. Since this isn't a political blog, suffice it to say that  there are things I love about Obama and other things not so much. I think he's done an admirable job under less than optimal circumstances.

As far as the Hall is concerned, I can now relax and enjoy the experience (now narrated by Morgan Freeman, which is fully rad) without wanting to scratch my skin off, though I'm sure Michele Bachmann would disagree. Such is the state of our union and the fact that we can sit in the same room, watch the same presentation and be guaranteed our right to feel and express two completely different sentiments is a huge part of what makes it great. I warn you, however, that if I ever find myself in the same Hall of Presidents show as Michele Bachmann, I'm not sure that I could stop myself from pouncing on her like a panther and screaming "Marriage pledge, my rump! You evil hag!" So please hold me back. I don't want to get thrown out of the park.

The show building was designed to resemble
Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
In a way, it feels odd to have something so highly political in the center of what is the ultimate escape from the real world. No matter how even-handed Disney is in their treatment of the subject of politics, it is going to stir up deep and personal stuff for someone on some side of the fence about something. We're talking everything from the current red state/blue state divide, to slavery, to religion, to war. We're talking capital I Issues.

I walk into the Magic Kingdom to leave those kinds of things behind, and yet I think I am drawn to the Hall of Presidents because it is, at the core, showing America at its best. What our country is capable of when you get past the pettiness and the puffery. It reminds me that we are the country that created an incredible man like Abraham Lincoln, whose still powerful words in the show never fail to get me all misty-eyed. It reminds me to stay hopeful because we have a capacity for greatness yet to be fulfilled.

We just got real deep there, huh? Well, I actually brought up the Hall of Presidents because I have stumbled on one of the greatest pieces of absurdist Disney humor I have ever seen. It's a slow burner. Be patient. Listen carefully. I started off confused, started to get it, started to chuckle and, by the end, I was laughing till I snorted. When I watched it a second time, I laughed even harder. Boys and girls, I present to you The Hall of Inaccurate Presidents! Do not use it to study for Friday's social studies test, please.

I died! President Jimmy Goose! President Unknown! President Sweeney Patch! This video is absolutely priceless. It tickled me so much, I knew I had to share it with you.

While we're out it, I came across this video, which looks like it was taped off of America's Funniest Home Videos, showing what happens when the audio animatronics don't get the break that they are guaranteed by their union.

Sorry, y'all. He was done. They work those poor robots like dogs and Abe just couldn't take it any more. And scene. I've also heard tell from Imagineers that there have been times when the fingers were not working correctly on Lincoln and resulted in a rather rude Abey Baby.

What is your take on the Hall of Presidents? Does it bore you or make you proud? Or is it just a good excuse to spend an extended period of time out of the Florida heat and in a darkened, air-conditioned theater? And, most importantly, did you vote for President Roy Wizard?

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