Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Slow Death of Disneyland's Abraham Lincoln

Every American school child should know the story by age 10 or so, or at least they should. Abraham Lincoln, viewed by most as America's greatest President, was tragically assassinated in Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. April 1865, while watching a play from his private box. The assassin was an actor named John Wilkes Boothe, a Southern sympathizer who maddeningly put a gun to Lincoln's head and pulled the trigger to both avenge, and perhaps resurrect the South's defeat and surrender in the Civil War at the hand of Lincoln's Northern armies. Lincoln died in a boarding house room across the street from the theater a few hours after being shot, never regaining consciousness. Boothe was killed while on the run by soldiers several days later with many of those who participated in Boothe's assassination plot subsequently hanged. 

Lincoln was America's first President to be assassinated in office. Over the years, his story left an impression on countless people including Walt Disney. Walt Disney admired Lincoln greatly, so much so that when Walt was asked to develop attractions for the New York World's Fair in 1964, he created the first animatronic Lincoln to deliver inspiring words to the throngs of people who came to see it. When the fair ended it's run, Lincoln was taken to Disneyland and set up in the Opera House to continue to deliver words everyone should hear but few take the time bother.

Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln has been playing at the Opera House since July 1965. It's one of those attractions that as a young boy, I remember seeing with my parents in the lovely little theater. Lincoln hasn't exactly played continuously since it was installed. Like most Disneyland attractions, it has been updated and refurbished over the years. Back in 2005, Lincoln was removed for almost 2 years as a special film commemorating Disneyland's 50th Anniversary was shown in the theater instead. But Lincoln did return thanks to Tony Baxter and those at Disney who want to preserve the legacy of Walt Disney and the Disneyland he created and not the corporate decision makers that run the place today.

But the hand writing has been on the wall. The last time Mrs. DisneylandTraveler and I saw Lincoln in the Opera House we were in an audience of about 30 people. The theater holds 400 people. That's sadly typical. I've used this analogy before in this blog - Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln is the attraction people run by on their way to get to Indiana Jones or Space Mountain (only to find out those rides will have probably broken down by the time they get there). Crowds in Disneyland can swell to about 50,000 people on many days, the number who take the time see Lincoln is a fraction of that.

So Al Lutz reported this week that beginning in late August, Disney will use the theater at least part of the time to show Annual Passholders special screenings of classic Disney films. The question is why would you want to go to Disneyland to spend an hour and a half watching a movie that most Annual Passholders probably already have in their home video collections? That's my question anyway, at least one of my questions. Of course the answer lies in the fact that most Disneyland Annual Passholders are local and many are within a short distance who find little effort in driving over to the park for a few hours. For them, the opportunity to see a classic Disney movie inside the classic Disney Opera House is something special. Of course for Disney, the theater will once again fill and hopefully those movie viewers will take the time to maybe have a nice (expensive) dinner before or after the showing.

Right now Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln is a labor of love of a few people trying to preserve the legacy of Walt Disney and the park he created. While the incredible animatronic Lincoln is a technical wonder (with a cost in excess of a million dollars), Disney doesn't make a dime off the attraction. No one pays park admission to specifically see Lincoln. There isn't a gift shop attached to the attraction that sells Lincoln dolls or even stove pipe hats. It sadly plays to small groups of people who probably go in more as a curiosity than anything else. 

Oh, but if Disney announced the permanent removal of the attraction, the complaint line would be long and vocal as many would look at is as the continuing erosion of the park that Walt built into the money sucking corporate revenue stream of a theme park that they see it as now. So the answer is somewhere in the middle I suppose. I really don't have a problem with the classic Disney film screenings. Not a bad idea at all - to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and then walk over and get on the ride itself. From what I have read, the theater has a movie screen that electronically drops from a place in the ceiling then can quickly be retracted without affecting the Lincoln attraction behind it at all. I wouldn't even mind removing Lincoln for longer periods of time like they did for the 50th Anniversary but always, always, Lincoln must be able to return to delivering inspiring words to new groups of park visitors from time to time. Lincoln was tragically assassinated. Let's not hope his namesake attraction in Disneyland isn't.

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