Building Snowmen: Anna, Elsa, and Why the ‘Frozen’ Phenomenon Belongs at Epcot®

Author’s note: This post brings forward a prominent current topic in the Disney community. It can be viewed as one perspective of many viewpoints, not as a definitive, end-all-be-all statement. Read it as an encouragement, not something intended to twist any mouse ears.


There is a film in Disney’s library of classics that surged to popularity. During production, the studio thought it had a hit on its hands, but it was not prepared for how the public would embrace this film. Immediately upon its release, the movie fueled an overwhelming craze that Disney had trouble keeping up with (in a good way).

Merchandise could barely be placed on shelves before all items sold out. Disney On Ice at once put a stage version of the film in its pipeline. Theme park supplements were introduced as quickly as possible: first as temporary entertainment meant to pacify the massive demand, and then as a permanent attraction which replaced a beloved ride that had a special, historic bond to Walt Disney World®.

While you probably have Frozen on your brain as the film I speak of, the movie in question is actually something different: Toy Story.

Buzz Lightyear and WoodyYes, the film about child playthings that is today a beloved benchmark of Disney history and computer animation itself walked a path very similar to that of Frozen. Woody and Buzz toy sales were through the roof. (My parents had to ship mine in directly from Orlando because there wasn’t one store in town that had them in stock.) In an effort to give Toy Story presence in the parks, a parade debuted to celebrate the film at Disney’s Hollywood Studios®. Eventually putting the characters on a long-term radar, Imagineers planned to open Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin® at Magic Kingdom® Park in 1998, three years after Toy Story premiered in theaters. The attraction replaced Delta Dreamflight, which itself was an alteration of If You Had Wings, a long-adored voyage and a Walt Disney World® staple since 1972. Eventually, Toy Story would find its place among the Disney pantheon of classic tales, becoming part of the fabric of who Disney is and going on to be utilized in other ways, both on film and in the parks.

To make a long (toy) story short, when Toy Story exploded upon popular culture in a way not even its makers anticipated, all arms of The Walt Disney Company had to group together a gameplan quickly, and this involved both short-term and long-term efforts, some of which rocked the boat of existing infrastructure and meant saying goodbye to remnants of the past.

Frozen PosterThat’s all to say that what is happening now with Frozen has all happened before. Elsa dresses disappearing unbelievably fast. Quickly produced, temporary entertainment at Disney’s Hollywood Studios®. And, yes, the just-announced future closing of Maelstrom at Epcot® to make way for a permanent Frozen attraction.

You’ve no doubt witnessed some very strong opinions concerning this news. Its controversy is nothing short of explosive, yet the pages of Disney history dictate these same motions have happened in the past and concluded amiably. If this story has been told before, then, why does it feel like so much of a bigger deal than any Imagineering addition in recent history?

For one, in a world before the advent of social media, opinion was a concept not easy to share or accessible to view. Today, however, anyone can tell the world what he or she thinks about any topic at all, instantly. This makes communication more exposed and, seemingly, more abundant. It appears that there are more opinions present when really they are just more visible. Second, there is no denying that pretty much everyone has a firm stance on their preference: to Frozen or not to Frozen.

Granted, this is Disney’s first mega-hit in years. They’ve had successes, but this is the huge phenomenon this generation will remember. After a reign of getting itself back on its feet, Walt Disney Animation Studios proved with Frozen that it was capable of creating a story not just reminiscent of earlier favorites, but worthy of being included alongside those as equals. It is a quality product that the public is in love with. Rarely do those two elements come together, and when they do, a business is ignorant to not maximize its involvement with said product.

And this product deserves permanent placement.

The location of that placement is primarily what has ignited a flurry of Elsa-strength conversation. Bringing Frozen to Epcot®  in a permanent capacity logistically makes sense. Norway inspired the Imagineers’ creation of the pavilion, Norway inspired the filmmakers’ creation of the movie, so just merge the two concepts and you’ve got yourself a perfect spot to welcome this fantastic story. The kick, though, is the essence of World Showcase being dedicated to providing guests an educational, cultural journey through hands-on experience and sensory activities. Would a Frozen attraction, however excellent, be able to do that? This is the important question many are firm in immediately refuting.

NorwayDisney cannot be completely blind to this concern, though. It knows its audience, and it cares for its fans in ways truly no other company even thinks about. Perhaps this integration over the past few years of familiar characters into Epcot®  pavilions (first with Nemo joining The Living Seas, next with the Three Caballeros in Mexico, and now with Norway) can be paralleled to the transformation of Disney’s Hollywood Studios® over the years. That park opened in 1989 as a living, breathing production facility that offered guests the chance to get a sneak peek behind how movies were made. That’s not the case at all today. Now, the park functions as a celebration of Hollywood’s most endearing qualities, from production and stunts to animation and icons. It still bears the same core that was prominent when it opened; it’s the way that core is carried forth that’s different. While specific experiences have come and gone, Disney identified a trend that wasn’t working anymore and plussed the park’s menu gradually over time to remain relevant and give guests that Hollywood experience that will one day become this generation’s vintage memories.

That is, more or less, the case with Epcot® . It is not that the park is no longer dedicated to making families excited about learning; it’s that the capacity of how the experiences are being learned naturally changes as time passes, and to not keep up pace will eventually lead to a park that is not sustainable in the long run. It’s not that Maelstrom is not an adequate vehicle to represent Norway; it’s that, in all honesty, Frozen will be a beacon for more guests than ever before to want to make Norway a priority destination in their day at Epcot®. Regardless of the content of the Frozen attraction itself (which is impossible to discern at this point), it will be at the very least an inviting entryway to fully experience the surrounding Norway pavilion’s delights, and at the very most a full integration of Norwegian culture blended with Frozen‘s landmark characters.

Several years ago, if an Imagineer asked my input on what should be the next E-Ticket for Disney’s Animal Kingdom®  Theme Park, would a land themed to Avatar immediately come to mind? Probably not. Am I a little confused as to how that project will gel with the rest of DAK? Somewhat. However, I must trust that the same people who have developed my favorite destinations on all of planet Earth know what they’re doing. After all, what else can I do? I need to believe that the decision-makers can see a big-picture plan that I simply can not comprehend, not being on the other side of the creative fence.

Festival of Fantasy FrozenAnd, I think that’s the appropriate stance to take with Frozen coming to Norway, as well. Yes, it’s emotional whenever a new attraction takes the space of a former classic that was beloved for generations. I have wonderful memories tied to Maelstrom, and not being able to revisit that place and those memories does leave me sad. Sure, it’s a little unsettling to think of Epcot®  taking a stride in a new era for World Showcase, but that’s only because the familiar is comfortable and the unknown is, well, unknown. However, any reservation that I have in repressing the incoming in an effort to hold close to the outgoing is, essentially, useless.

Woody and Buzz are just fine today. They’re doing well for themselves. I have a feeling that, if the communicative climate of 1995 was what it is in 2014, they’d be under a lot of glare. However, nearly twenty years later, they’re doing well for themselves. Despite their initial gargantuan spotlight and the trajectory they took in steering Tomorrowland® in a different direction, Woody and Buzz  are now an established, accepted part of what makes Walt Disney World® special. I have a feeling Anna and Elsa will be, too.

 

(Images © Disney.)

Blake studies Electronic Media and Film at Appalachian State University. He enjoys making his family of six watch the parade in Frontierland and then sprint to Main Street in time to see it again. You can find him on Twitter @olddirtyblake or at BlakeOnline.com.

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