I run headlong into this particular painful truth every so often, and it always causes me a little bit of heartache. It's not that steam doesn't matter, that no one knows the difference anymore and doesn't care anyway -- that doesn't get to me. What gets me down is the way overt evidence supports that idea. More than once I told a Silverwood guest that our Porter locomotive was built in 1915 and lovingly restored in our own shops, and the guest blinked uncomprehendingly and said, "Oh . . . you mean that's a real train?"
Snappy remarks were tempting ("No, it's virtual reality") but didn't blunt the impact of such discouraging words. It's especially discouraging to those of us who run these old engines, Disney or otherwise, and have invested blood, sweat and tears into mastering the 170-year-old tradition of engine-running, only to be told that all that effort and energy didn't matter, that we might just as well be running an oversized parking tram. Management, ever eager to be both pound- and penny-wise, seizes on this quick and easy way to significantly cut their maintenance costs. And to assuage our heartache, we nurse our rationalizations, as a depressed man nourishes his whiskey. Sure, they're not "real" steam trains anymore, we tell ourselves, but aren't theme parks (Disney parks especially) all about fantasy?
What would Walt think? Geez, c'mon, he's been dead for nearly 40 years, what does it matter? And even if he were alive, well, he developed the steam trains at a time when steam still plied mainline rails, he was influenced by a nostalgia for a time that's now well outside living memory, and even his judgment wasn't always perfectly sound. Just look at Retlaw 1, so beautiful and yet so impractical.
But what Walt, the greatest showman, always knew is that just having a train isn't enough. Sure, it's better than having no train, and it's good to have all the thrill rides and the coasters and the tie-ins to blockbuster movies, but that's not enough. It's not enough to set you above competition that's only going to keep getting better, it's not enough to make sure your park will still be around fifty years from now, it's not enough to make your fantasy timeless.
It's a lesson he learned from his animation: it's not enough to have the characters move around, you have to do things that the average audience member will never, ever notice. Walt and his Nine Old Men of animation developed techniques that influenced everyone from Japanimation to Pixar. For instance, have you ever noticed that animated characters tend to be double-jointed? Yes, even the "anatomically correct" ones. It's called "breaking the joint" and chances are no one ever noticed it. You'd probably only see it if you watched the movie frame-by-frame, and even then it would likely fit into the scene so well you'd skim right by it. Of course it would look gruesome if live-action characters were breaking their joints all the time, but this isn't live-action, and the final effect is that the character seems more limber, more supple, seems more lifelike and alive than real life.
Disney and his animators were the ones who invented this whole bag of tricks. It took vast amounts of time and money, much more than just plunking down one drawing for each frame of film and calling it good. Frank Thomas would spend the whole working day on a single drawing if that's what it took to get it exactly right, and both Walt and Roy approved.
Would any audience member be able to point this out? Would anyone in the theater say after a test screening, "I loved they way they kept breaking those joints"? Of course not. They just knew it was good animation. Warner Bros. was good, too. So was Fleischer Bros. and Hanna-Barbara. So what the heck difference did it all make?
Because all those super-lively characters, all that joint-breaking and other techniques I don't have space to describe here, added up to one thing: a powerful sense that Disney animation wasn't just good. It was better than good. It was Disney. There was no way to describe something that good except to say it was Disney. And audiences said as much with their wallets.
When Walt built Disneyland, it was all done according to that tradition. Sure, carny rides with some movie tie-ins would have been good, but it wouldn't have been Disney. Diesel-powered trains and a diesel-powered sternwheeler would have been good, but it wouldn't have been Disney. Rainbow Caverns, Frontierland, Main Street USA, Cinderella's Castle . . . they couldn't just be good, they had to be Disney.
The Great America trains, the C.P. Huntingtons, the Wildlife Express . . . they're good trains, but our trains, the "Roy O." and the "Walter," the "Holliday" and the "Gurley" . . . they're Disney trains. They're gen-u-ine steam-powered trains, and they chuff and whistle and command devotion and make sights and sounds most park guests have never seen in their lives before. And it matters. It's part of what people mean when they say "We're going to Disneyland!" with an enthusiasm reserved for no other place on Earth.
The Hong Kong trains . . . I'm sure they look lovely. And I'm sure they're good.
But they're not Disney.