Exploring the Magic on Your Desktop

In recent years, Walt Disney World has been represented in all facets of new media. Its online presence is extensive and ever-evolving with the official website working as an informational, commercial and promotional tool. The Disney Channel has always provided a built-in forum for the parks (albeit less than hoped), and over the years has been joined by Disney’s significant presence on The Travel Channel and their own Disney Travel on Demand. The parks are well represented in the home video market with the occasional official releases as well as unofficial fan-created products. Disney is a major presence in podcasting, with fan-produced podcasts giving Disney’s official podcasts a run for their money. Of course, the console game and PC software markets are at the top of new media technology so you’d expect to find Walt Disney World in countless games and software, right? Not quite. 

While Disney has a presence in this market, the theme parks are almost entirely absent from the software and gaming media. That is, except for the Walt Disney World Explorer CD-ROM which arrived in the mid-‘90s. The Explorer had the unfortunate timing of being released during an onslaught of improved computer technology that immediately looked archaic after the start of the millennium. Such was the inherent problem with computer technology which, in the ‘90s, was growing in leaps and bounds between each step. Now, CD- and DVD-ROM technology has reached a nice plateau even as it continues to see amazing graphics and sound progress. (Blu-Ray promises to take these features to the next level.) Unfortunately, the Disney theme parks would not take any steps past that initial technology.

At the time the CD-ROM was released, it was nearly impossible to download videos on the Internet and even streaming them would lead to hiccups from restrictions of dial-up modems. Not long after, the advent of high-speed Internet connections led to an amazing surge in video and sound file trading, first with songs and video clips, and then with high-quality video distribution and full software piracy. 

But in 1996, this relatively new media was still getting its legs and moving away from being a strictly text-based informational tool and moving towards graphic enhancements. Without knowing how much the technology could evolve, everyone was still having fun with the relatively new CD-ROM technology and what features it brought to the PC. Disney’s official web-site had only just launched that year so the company and its fan were only just wrapping their heads around multi-media platforms. I imagine the seeds of the vast Disney communities that flourish on the Web right now, were planted right then and there. For many years prior to this, some brave soldiers lugged video cameras to the theme parks and took what would eventually become cherished video. But it would be a long time before they had a way to share these home videos beyond their living rooms.  

In retrospect, the Explorer is a fascinating time capsule for Walt Disney World in 1996-1998. (The version being review here is the 1998 update.) The program displays an animated map of all of Walt Disney Worldcaricatured and exaggerated to fit the landscape of a computer monitor screen. Tinker Bell is your mouse pointer as you navigate the map to enter the many resorts, lands and attractions for further information on the parks. All to the endless music of "It’s a Small World," which actually gets more tiresome without lyrics. 

Clicking on resorts and certain other points of interest will immediately bring you to a slideshow of that location, with a narrator briefly describing the location before allowing you to select trivia, backstage magic (which often includes videos), or a 360 degree panorama. Much of this is standard information and photos that have long been available to fans, via the slew of fan-run Web sites and third-party guide and trivia books available. But the retro presentation is still kinda fun.  

With the theme parks, you can click on each land which will bring you to a sub-map (with its own appropriately-themed background music). From there, each attraction, show or transportation mode has its own entry, including much of the aforementioned features. The theme parks also include selections for entertainment and eateries. All with the comforting Disney narration that was the norm in that era, shortly before they attempted to get hip.  

There are also tours that will take you to the Most Romantic Attractions, Scariest Attractions and others. But to me the best part of the program is the Timeline feature. Clicking on this will take you to a clean slate map with a monorail slider on the bottom of the screen. As you progress the monorail to each year from 1971 to 1998, narration explains the highlights, new hotel/ attraction openings and landmark ground-breakings with the map filling in appropriately to show the growth. 

This would still be a fun tool to excite younger children about a visit to Walt Disney World, though you may get them psyched to see an attraction that is no longer there. No child should have to see their father cry about the demise of Horizons.

Since this product was released, Disney hasn’t quite ventured into the same territory again. In 2005, the online game Virtual Magic Kingdom debuted and stuck around for three years. The game contained interactive features and minigames based on scenery and attractions from the theme parks. However, it wasn’t designed to be an actual virtual tour of the parks. Last year, Google Earth partnered with Disney to feature its parks via Google’s 3D mapping technology. This is a very interesting advancement of CG technology and could theoretically open the door to providing fans access to a virtual Disney World beyond everything that has come before. 

Why hasn’t Disney ventured into this virtual realm again? It’s likely that company management still doesn’t have a handle on how to determine if recreating the joy of their theme parks via video or 3D graphics would give people reason to avoid coming to the parks to fulfill that desire. Or it could be the simple reality that the market for this type of product is drier than some fans would like to imagine. 

The people who debate and overanalyze these things are the most tech-savvy and devoted of Disney fans, frequenting blogs and forums, and hunting for videos and photos to live out their Disney dreams vicariously. This is still a very small portion of Disney’s target audience. I have friends who are huge Disney fans who get to the parks even more than I do yet don’t pursue ride-through videos or fan-made documentaries. And, with children in tow, would gain no reason to avoid the actual theme park experience because of a virtual substitute. No parent is anxiously awaiting the bright-eyed look of their little daughter seeing Cinderella on her MacBook. 

But it might still behoove Disney to consider something to fill this market niche as 3D technology has been widely available to consumers for quite some time now and there are savvy creators out there who’ve already done non-animated 3D representations of Disney theme park pavilions and attractions. The technology is only getting better and could eventually allow for software development by unofficial Web denizens. Disney has already missed the mark with historical theme park video, allowing for entrepreneurs to hit the Web selling or showcasing their own takes on Disney history or lost attractions. The same could happen with computer technology. 

I, for one, would love to see software that recreated the theme parks in a truly interactive platform a la the Grand Theft Auto games (just without the violence). Disney could have it so that the participant is on a quest and must answer trivia, make decisions and/or complete certain tasks to gain entrance to certain areas. Within areas, you could have trivia, history or documentary footage relating to objects. And for fun, certain endeavors could put a ride at our control. Imagine being on Pirates of the Caribbean but having to control the speed of the boat to avoid Barbosa’s cannon fire or allowing a ride to stop so that the player could interact with ride scenery or acquire pirate booty! 

I’m interested in hearing from any readers who purchased the CD-ROM and/or its second edition back in ’96-’98, and how much of an impact it had on your fandom at the time. 


sarah said...

My aunt had it, and we played it at her house before our trip to Disney in 1998. I remember trying to find hidden Mickeys and being creeped out by how AAs look "naked".