Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Have You Been to the Disney Hall of Presidents Lately?

Walt Disney World's "Hall of Presidents" is one of the longest-running attractions in the Magic Kingdom. First opened in 1971, the Hall of Presidents is a multi-media attraction that honors all those (so far) men who have served as President of the United States. Since the early 1990s, though, the Hall of Presidents has undergone some significant changes. In the opinion of this blogger, not all those changes have been good.

My family and I just got back from vacationing at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. We of course enjoyed ourselves, though it rained much of our time there. (That was kind of a bummer). Still, does anyone actually have a bad time at Disney World? :-)

Though this was my fifth trip to Disney World, it was the first time I saw the redesigned Hall of Presidents. My first time to Disney World was in the late 1970s. I was a first grader and was absolutely blown away by the whole experience. Then, in the late 1980s, my parents took me back while I was in high school. I was older and able to take it in much more. And I had an absolute blast.

Yet the Hall of Presidents stood out as one of the most inspirational and moving experiences I had ever witnessed. Even as a first grader, I remember enjoying it. As an eleventh grader, though, I absolutely loved it and soaked it up. That and Epcot's "American Adventure." This was at a time, when I saw myself going into politics, so it made it all the more exciting.

My wife and I took our first trip together to Disney World (my third trip overall) sometime in 1993, and I once again soaked up the Hall of Presidents. Then, that same year (sometime after our visit) Disney changed the attraction. It would be the first of several.

In 1993, Columbia University professor Eric Foner helped revise the attraction to make it less iconic. His changes, supported by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, moved the Hall of Presidents away from Walt Disney's original vision. The most noticeable change was perhaps the diminished focus on Abraham Lincoln, Disney's hero.

The Hall of Presidents has gone through several more updates and changes since 1993, including a speech from the current President (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama have all spoken - depending on who was President at the time). George Washington now speaks, which is, in some respects, a welcome change. Yet, all these changes have made the Hall of Presidents less than what it once was.

Let me give you an example. In the classic version, the finale had George Washington seated in the center of all the Presidents. He stood during the roll call, surveyed all the Presidents as if he were the leading statesman. When the narrator had finished the roll call, Washington nodded to a seated Abraham Lincoln and then took his seat (as if he, Washington, were the presiding officer, yielding the floor). Lincoln then stood and gave a very moving and patriotic speech, adapted from his famous Young Men Lyceum's address, in which he said "If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher." It was a great send-off, reminding Americans of their sacred duty to carry on the torch. That's all gone now.

Sure, Washington speaks. But, frankly, having him speak almost makes him less statesmanlike.

No longer is Lincoln's wise and patriotic statesmanship the final send-off. Instead, we're given a generic, feel-good, rah-rah speech from the current President. That's all well and good, but it just isn't the same. Clinton, Bush, and Obama are not Lincoln.

Since 1993, the changes to the Hall of Presidents have frankly diminished it. Gone is that feeling of "wonder" evoked in the original version. Now, it comes off more or less as a multi-media patchwork, trying to cut a balance between highlights from a history book on the one hand and political correctness on the other. This isn't to suggest that the Hall of Presidents has drifted into Howard Zinn territory. (Thankfully, it's still pro-American). Nor is it to say that it's a bad experience. I still like it, but not as much as I once did.

The new Hall of Presidents is like what New Coke is to the Classic Coke. The new Hall of Presidents simply doesn't reflect Walt Disney's classic, patriotic vision like it once did. And I don't think that's a good thing.

If anyone at Disney is reading this, consider this a vote to bring back the classic version.

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