Disneyland tries to recover its old magic

Political correctness gets toned down a bit for park's 50th anniversary

October 24, 2004|By Kimi Yoshino | Kimi Yoshino,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Hippos beware: The Jungle Cruise skippers are packing heat again.

And to humans: Disneyland engineers are devising a safe way to return the stomach-churning spins to the teacups in the Mad Tea Party ride.

Many fans are cheering what appears to be a turnaround on political correctness, after watching the "Happiest Place on Earth" in recent years not just disarm the skippers and de-spin the teacups, but also strip mock frontier rifles from Tom Sawyer Island and stop buccaneers from chasing frightened maidens in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Disneyland officials describe the changes as a move to recapture some of Walt Disney's original vision by "restoring the magic" to the park as it gears up for its 50th birthday next year.

"I've just been happy as a pig in mud," said Disney watchdog Al Lutz, the founder of mice- age.com. "I think they went too far in one direction and now they're course-correcting. They've gone back to the way they used to do things."

Not quite. Tom Sawyer Island is still gun-free, and the pirates continue to chase the wenches for their food, not their bodies.

But Disney watchers say the park is making improvements, apparently responding to complaints about altered rides and declining ambience.

On Main Street, generic food carts are being redesigned to match the architectural style and paint colors of nearby buildings. In New Orleans Square, where employees have been wearing Victorian styles in subdued grays and browns, new outfits will be jazzier in vibrant greens, purples and golds.

"That's what we're known for - the quality, the detail," Disneyland spokesman Bob Tucker said.

Hundreds of letters and calls from park guests come in each week on topics ranging "from the minutiae all the way to the big stuff," he said.

Changes on rides such as the Jungle Cruise and the Mad Tea Party sent fans marching to Disneyland's City Hall in protest. Some boycotted the attractions.

Disneyland, Tucker said, was listening. Engineers will return the spin to the teacups early next year. The guns came back to the Jungle Cruise this month.

As recently as one day before the Oct. 1 return of the guns, Jungle Cruise skippers said guests were complaining about the notable absence of the Smith & Wessons - even though they'd been taken away in 2001.

"At least once a week, somebody would get off the boat and say, `Hey, what happened to the guns?'" said Sherri Ribble, a second-generation Jungle Cruise skipper.

Since their return, Ribble said, some passengers on the cruise have spontaneously burst out in applause after she fired blanks at the hippopotamuses.

One youngster thanked Ribble for saving her life by fending off the hippos.

The whole experience was so true-to-life for 4-year-old Andrew Hansen, a visitor from Washington state, that he hid behind his mother as he got off the ride.

"It really feels like, for the 50th anniversary, we're bringing the adventure back," said Ribble, who recalls riding the African-themed cruise when she was 8 and "thinking I was a goner for sure."

Her father, Rip Ribble, who was a skipper in the 1960s, said he was happy to see the return to tradition.

"When I was working there, the kids would start holding their ears when you started into hippo territory," he said. "It's a shame that in this day and age because of gang activity and political correctness and animal rights, people took offense to shooting at the hippo. But really, it was all make-believe."

Janet Wasko, a professor of communication studies at the University of Oregon and author of two books on Disney, said the park faces a constant conundrum: Disney needs to stay competitive and cutting-edge, while fans lament that "it's not the same anymore."

"Disney has changed to try to keep up with things, but in the meantime, one of the things that people want is the same thing," she said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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