On Monday August 15, Walt Disney World’s Enchanted Tiki room re-opened, restored to the care of its original management. Traditionalists cheered; folks who had grown up with the new management complained that their childhood had been lost; the Disney blog highlighted the attraction; and a lot of Disney fans scratched their heads.
So what’s the deal with a show featuring a bunch of simple robot birds? The animatronic Stitch over in Tomorrowland could kick their feathered butts and nobody likes him. What gives?
There’s a lot of significance to the re-opening of the Tiki Room – if nothing else, the attraction’s pedigree as the East coast version of the first audio animatronics show ever garners a bit of respect. But even more important than the show’s history is the quiet dialogue that the newly old Tiki Room is hosting between guests and the Walt Disney parks administration. What dialogue? Well, tune your ears past the din of the tiki gods and listen in.
When the Tiki Room put under its “new management” in 1998, the reasons for the change were clear. Crowds were declining; the Tiki Room was no longer doing its job in diversifying Adventureland’s traffic flow. Disney management decided the reason behind the loss of interest was the pacing of the show and its “outdated” soundtrack. Respecting the attraction’s history, Disney decided to update rather than remove it, using their established method of “tying in” the theme park attractions with popular or imminent Disney pictures offerings. The renovation was successful, and the more advanced Zazu and Iago animatronics provided a clearer plot and familiar focal points for new audiences.
But by 2010, Tiki Room crowds were thinning again. Whether or not Disney planned to do anything about the waning interest in the attraction is unknown, but when a fire broke out in Jan 2011, severely damaging the Iago animatronic, plans to “do something” with the Tiki Room were fast tracked. Fans on the internet clamored for a return to the original attraction, and 7 months later…their wishes were granted.
The reopening of the attraction was acknowledged on the internet, although no ceremony or announcement was made in the parks. And three days after its debut, wait times were reported between 60 and 90 minutes.
Disney CEO Bob Iger...and friend
So what’s going on?
In a recent interview with the Harvard Business review, Disney Company CEO Bob Iger talked at some length about the company’s struggle to balance its past and its future. He referenced a long inner divide between “what I’ll call ‘modernists’ and ‘traditionalists’…I like to talk about it in terms of heritage and innovation.” That struggle isn’t an easy one. Disney has a rich heritage…but part of that heritage is a penchant for innovation, started by Walt himself.
Outside the Disney company, that tension has found avid expression in the online Disney community, with heated discussions about evolution of rides, shows, and forgotten bit of Disney park history. No longer can Disney announce the elimination of a ride less than a week before its closing (as was done with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride). The people who are passionate about the Disney parks have a voice…and Disney is well aware of the power of social media in preserving and promoting their brand.
So by restoring the Tiki Room to a “plussed” version of the original show, with the addition of some updated technological elements, current Disney administration has said that they are willing to listen to their fans. Bob Iger’s comments about respecting tradition are more than mere propaganda. In the right context – a damaged attraction that was failing to draw crowds and still contained most of the original show elements – current Disney administration is willing to recognize the value of a classic.
And, in response, fans and guests are telling Disney that the right decision was made. A positive outpouring in the internet community and longer lines at the park attraction sends a message. By returning to a more classic version of the show, Disney has restored interest. In this case, what Disney historian Jim Korkis would call moving away from story and back toward theme, seems to have worked.
Why is that exchange important? Well, for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost because it shows that there is indeed a dynamic between the Disney company and its fans. The newly restored Tiki Room is more than a moldering piece of Disney history; it is an affirmation of a classic attraction, and it is a testament to the rising interactivity, not only of Disney attractions, but of the Disney company itself.
If Walt Disney World’s Tiki Room continues to draw respectable crowds, it will affirm the viability of balancing the past and present. Walt Disney was an innovator, always looking for the next big thing, but he had a deep, nostalgic love for the past as well. Somehow the Disney parks need to find that same balance, respecting the rides and attractions that truly resonated with audiences and connected with Disney ideals while constantly moving forward and embracing a technological future. The tiki room is one step in that direction.
What do you think? Do you think Disney needs to balance heritage and innovation, or do you think one side hurts the other? Has Disney learned to pay attention to the online community or is that a pipe dream?