Disney & Dinosaurs

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Dinosaurs.

They are the object of almost every child’s fascination for at least a small window of their childhood. My own 5 year old has at least a dozen books, a few containers of toys, and is an avid watcher of many dino-related cartoons.

Some hold on to them and still find wonder in their size and diversity. Others appreciate them with a nostalgic fondness reserved for the things of their youth. Everyone, though has some memory or connection to dinosaurs. Whether it is one of the plethora of toy lines or cartoons that have existed, or the movies, both good and bad that Hollywood has put forth. Dinosaurs never really fall out of popularity, and I think Walt Disney realized that early on and so sought to find a place for them in his entertainment empire.

The Disney Company’s relationship with dinosaurs has been a longstanding one, but more of an on again, off again type affair, and frankly one that has spiraled downward since its beginnings nearly 73 years ago.

Fantasia – 1940

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Critically acclaimed, but widely forgotten by all but the staunchest Disney history fans for everything but the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, Fantasia is the earliest foray into the prehistoric world for the Disney Company. The Rite of Spring is a segment that begins halfway through the film and is designed as an origins of life story, but is remembered for the giant lizards that dominate the screen time.

Many of the dinosaurs portrayed in Fantasia are inaccurate, but that is hardly Disney’s fault as they were simply basing their creatures on the understandings and knowledge of dinosaurs in 1940. Needless to say, much has been uncovered about dinosaurs in the last 70 years, but for what they had to work with, the animators crafted a fantastic and exciting image of the creatures that, while not quite scientifically correct holds up as an entertaining portrayal of early life on planet Earth.

There is a very interesting blog post written by Brian Switek on Smithsonian.com with some expert analysis of Fantasia’s dinosaurs mixed with some nostalgic wonder at the effect The Rite of Spring segement had on the author.

“There was plenty that Fantasia got wrong, but the film also got some things right by breaking from the scientific image of dinosaurs as crocodiles writ large. Maybe that’s part of why I kept seeing the film clip for so long during the dinosaur revival of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Read more of Switek’s thoughts here.

This first appearance of prehistoric life is a promising beginning for Disney and their relationship with dinosaurs, but the public doesn’t see any evidence of the beasts for nearly 16 years. And when they do see it, it is just that, evidence. Fossils.

The Rainbow Caverns Mine Train 1956 /The Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland 1960

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This is a small blip on the radar of dinosaurs and Disney, but in the interest of being thorough, this earns a spot, if for no other reason than it was part of what is probably the most desired attraction by those who never had an opportunity to ride it. The precursor to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the spiritual sister attraction to the Jungle Cruise had a small allusion to dinosaurs in the form of a skeleton buried in the rock that guests could view just after the passed the famous geyser scene. This was far from fantastic as one rider remembers:

“After the geysers, there was a small area of dinosaur bones which was kind of boring.” – Bob Weaver via daveland.com

The Dallas McKennon narration, however mentioned the large lizards in typical  Disney fashion:

“Ya know, I hear tell a long time ago Dinosaurs roamed this area. ‘Course all ya find now is cactus, snakes and coyotes… And sometimes the sun-bleached bones of an ancient animal.”

1964 World’s Fair – Ford’s Magic Skyway

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As all good Disney history fans know, the 1964 World’s Fair was a turning point for the Disney Company. Being held in New York gave Walt the opportunity to see how his ideas would go over with an east coast crowd, and helped spread his particular brand of innovation to the rest of the world.

Of the 4 attractions that the company created for the fair, Ford’s Magic Skyway turned out to be the most popular, in fact becoming the second most popular attraction at the fair overall. Ford promotional materials from the time even claim that “on the first day, the pavilion registered visitors from every state in the country, and every country in the world.” While this is likely hyperbole, this was unquestionably one of the busiest and most iconic pavilions from that World’s Fair.

The attraction would pave the way for the omnimover technology that has become a staple of Disney dark ride technology and embodied the same spirit of discovery and progress that early Epcot Center was built upon nearly 20 years later. This was also the attraction that housed Disney’s third attempt at dinosaurs, and arguably their best.

“Although fairs are supposed to feature the newest things, we went back over 100 million years for these models.” -Walt Disney, Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair

The theme of the pavilion was man’s progress through the ages, and so the journey took guests through a segment that featured life-sized animatronic dinosaurs showcases the dawn of time, narrated by Walt Disney himself. Some excellent footage of Walt interacting with and explaining the animatronics can be seen in the featurette, Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair.

The dinosaur segment boasted multiple animatronic creatures including brontosaurs, triceratops, teradactyls, and others. The most memorable scene, of course, seems to be ripped straight from the screen of the aforementioned Fantasia. Here a stegosaurus tries to protect itself from a mighty Tyranosaurus Rex. We now know that these two dinosaurs did not even exist at the same time on the planet, but for thrills and excitement, there was nothing better than this vignette. The video below is a promotional video produced by the Ford Motor Company and gives a detailed look at the pavilion.

(At about 2 minutes in, the pavilion appears, the dinosaurs can be found around 5:20)

Anyone visiting Epcot today can still see the DNA of this attraction in many of the current pavilions. Even extinct attractions, namely World of Motion, owed much of their design and appeal to the designers and artists who crafted Ford’s Magic Skyway.

Primeval World at Disneyland – 1966, Tokyo 1983

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After its time at the 1964 World’s Fair, the dinosaur segment of the Magic Skyway was transported to Disneyland where it made its debut as a short diorama on the Disneyland Railroad line that even today surprises guests who don’t know about it. Renamed Primeval World it occupies a piece of track after the Grand Canyon between Tomorrowland Station and Main Street Station. Still a favorite of many Disney history fans, the presence of dinosaurs here might seem a bit out of place, but allows riders to take part in a classic attraction that paved the way for what is Disneyland and WDW today.

It was even popular enough for a duplication at Tokyo Disneyland when it opened in 1983.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – 1979, 1980, 1987, 1992

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This dinosaur is a direct descendant of the sun-bleached bones that were found on The Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. In Disneyland, they were reworked to form the finish of the new thrill ride that opened in 1979, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Now, instead of passing by the skeleton, guests were treated to a trip through the rib cage of a long gone T-Rex.

Despite never having a Rainbow Caverns or Mine Train, the other three versions of the attraction around the world kept this element as part of the show. At the Magic Kingdom, the bones are visible from the queue and as guests meander through the endless switchbacks they are treated to the sight of train after train rumbling under those outstretched ribs. It is a simple, but enjoyable part of the finale of the attraction that guests really do remember long after they climb out of their train car.

Universe of Energy 1982

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The ties to the Magic Skyway are unmistakeable. While this attraction is about traveling through time to find the origin of energy, they both have the same feel and aesthetic qualities. The large, slow-moving animatronics, slightly creepy in the way they loom over the ride vehicle. The lighting, dark and ominous. This is the spiritual successor to Magic Skyway. While the other 3 attractions from the 1964 World’s Fair essentially maintained their form when the were placed in Disney parks, the Skyway was lost forever except for the dinosaurs on Disneyland’s railroad. This attraction seems to capture the essence of that portion of the skyway and recreate it with only a slightly different message.

When asking about this attraction, most people remember it for two reasons: Ellen DeGeneres and the dinosaurs. Truthfully, besides the ride vehicle technology for the ride geeks, the dinosaurs are the show. Huge and fantastic, they are at home in the massive pavilion, towering over the thousands of guests that pass by each day.

The science may still be slightly off with the creatures, but the show is not, and after all, Walt Disney was a world-class showman. This pavilion really immerses guests in the time depicted.

Gertie the Dinosaur DHS 1989

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An ode to Winsor McKay’s 1914 animated short film, Gertie stands tall in Echo Lake at Disney Hollywood Studios, an icon that most people don’t know. This is California Crazy architecture at its best and fits in so perfectly with this area of the studios. Referencing both the original animated short, the architectural styles of the depicted time period, and famous Los Angeles tourist stop, the La Brea Tar Pits, this is the heart of Echo Lake that could seem so out of place, but simply works, for all the aforementioned reasons.

Unfortunately, if rumors are true, this beloved treat stand will become extinct, just as its real-life counterparts did so many millions of years ago.

Dinosaurs 1991-1994

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A groundbreaking series that aired on ABC, Dinosaurs is memorable for its controversial story lines and the newest animatronics built by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop that were fully three-dimensional. The series had long been in development by Henson, but only came to fruition after his death, and most believe due to the success of The Simpsons. The crude humor and edgy content were in line with that extremely popular show,  but the life wasn’t nearly as long. This style of dinosaurs and television didn’t really fit the Disney brand, but was relatively successful for the company.

Screen shot 2013-09-08 at 9.31.16 PMThe work with the animatronics likely influenced later work in that field, and considering the Walt Disney Company had a close working relationship with Henson’s company at the time and later acquired the Muppets, all of that research and development was available to Imagineers.

Toy Story 1995, 1999, 2010

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While not strictly Disney when it was first released, Pixar’s Toy Story franchise has offered up the endearingly neurotic Rex and more recently a new triceratops friend in Trixie. These are the humorous aspect of dinosaurs done right. They are toys, of course, which helps, but they don’t feel cheap or cheesy with their dinosaur jokes. They are really only included here for the sake of being thorough.

Dinosaur 2000

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This film has an interesting history. Originally conceived in the late 1980’s by Paul Verhoeven, the man behind RoboCop and Starship Troopers, the idea was put on the backburner while Disney experienced its second golden age of animated films. When the idea came back around, the technology was now in place to make the film that the company wanted to make. The first computer generated animated feature from Disney Feature Animation, not Pixar. Surprisingly, the film was both a financial and critical success. Critics loved the combination of live settings and computer generated dinosaurs, but derided the decision to make the creatures talk.

Many liberties were taken scientifically with the animals in the film, but most overlooked these in light of the stunning visuals and score which was highly touted. The story left much to be desired and shares so much in common with The Land Before Time, that the similarities are difficult to get past, but even Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, and online critics still average the film to around 60% positive reviews.

In many minds, though, this film is not remembered as a success. Truthfully, that is likely because of what is commonly associated with it at Walt Disney World.

Dinoland, USA 1998

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Wasted potential. This is probably the most apt description for this land found in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. One of the original “lands” of the 1998 opening park, Dinoland USA had some exciting concept art that had Disney and dino fans alike salivating for the possibilities, but since its conception has always suffered from a strange directional path that has left most fans scratching their heads and asking, “Why?”

countdown 1 For some unknown and inexplicable reason, Imagineers thought the best direction for the park lay in the creation of Din-O-Rama, which eventually serves as nothing more than a horrible eyesore to a park that otherwise embraces the seamless integration and coexistence of nature and man. What actually became a reality after the park’s budget was cut and diverted to other projects is largely considered disappointing by most Disney Parks fans.countdown 3

There are many out there who defend the choices made by Imagineers regarding the theme of the area as immersive and a fantastic bit of storytelling. The story goes something like this: The Dino Institute opens to do research and take time-traveling trips in search of dinosaurs. Hester and Chester, local entrepreneurs, decide to take advantage by putting together a roadside attraction o capitalize on tourists coming to visit the institute. The result is a tacky carnival-like area mixed with semi-serious dinosaur theming and a dig site playground for the little ones.

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The tackiness is spot on. The argument for the theme being highly detailed and that it is supposed to be tacky is true and cannot be debated. It is, in fact supposed to look the way it does. The Imagineers succeeded in creating a garish environment that is appropriately plastic and cheap-looking, just as they intended.

That doesn’t mean those intentions were good. Contrast this area of the park with the fully immersive Africa and Asia environments that Imagineers have crafted and Dinoland reveals itself to be even worse.

ak dinos 5There are moments in Dinoland that are nice. The boneyard has its charms and there are parts of Dinosaur (originally, Countdown to Extinction), that are serious enough to satisfy the dinosaur fans who visit the park. The story of the land is certainly detailed and immersive. The presence of three distinct groups (scientists, interns, and tourists) and their sometimes overlapping existence is consistent and carried through with commitment. Again, commitment to a bad idea does not turn it into a good one.

Unfortunately, the majority of the land is unsuccessful and unsatisfying. It now also contains an out of place stage show, Finding Nemo: The Musical, and is one of the most hideous visual debacles ever to grace a Disney Park, especially when the original attractions that were planned for this area are considered.

ExcavatorThe Excavator would be chief among these, a thrilling roller-coaster type ride that would have zipped guests around a dig site, from above ground to underground and back again. Missed opportunities and wasted space characterize what exists now.

Lucky the Dinosaur 2005-?

LuckyLucky is one of the company’s more intriguing entries into dinosaurs, albeit, one of the more difficult to actually see and experience. First appearing in 2005 at Disney California Adventure, this audio-animatronic was ground-breaking in that it was the first free-roving figure ever created by Imagineering. It’s flower cart conceals its controls and source of power.

Lucky finally made its way to Florida to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which is really where it belonged in the first place in the interest of theme and immersion. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the cutting edge device was then moved to Hong Kong Disneyland after only 3 months in Florida. As of 2009, Lucky’s whereabouts are generally unknown and it is unclear what the figure’s future is.

This is one of the more confusing and frustrating developments in Audio Animatronic technology as it is seemingly inaccessible to guests. Short lived and misused.

Meet the Robinsons 2007

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While neither a critical or financial success, Meet the Robinsons is a sweet tale that most people enjoy more upon subsequent watches then they did on the first viewing. Does it hold up to the illustrious history of Disney animated features? No. Is it on par with Pixar? Not really even close. Of the more recent computer animated features from the studio, with the exception of Tangled, this film has the most surprisingly heartfelt and truly humorous moments. The best of these occur near the climax of the film when the villain has brought a T-Rex from the past to do his evil bidding. The joke about his tiny arms kills every time. Perhaps an underrated film, with an overly complex set of characters, but the dinosaur shines in this one, albeit very briefly.

The Good Dinosaur 2014?

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So far, this is one of the most confusing projects relating to Disney and dinosaurs. This is Pixar’s newest project that was supposed to be released in 2014, but has recently been pushed back to 2015 after the director left (was removed?) from the project. Currently, it has no director, and is a bit of an enigma. There was a lot of hype about this film, but that hype seems to have now been tempered by the confusing recent announcements.

A long and diverse relationship between Disney and dinosaurs has been marked by fantastic results and massive disappointments. The perfect pairing of the two has not yet been achieved. So much potential on both sides, but the results haven’t quite succeeded entirely. Hope exists however, as long as dinosaurs continue to be relevant with kids, which means hope will always exist because interest in dinosaurs will never go extinct. Pun absolutely intended.

Part 2: What Should They do with Dinosaurs? (coming soon)

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