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The Hall of Presidents Transformed

Update: video of President Obama as he records his lines for the show.

“I [name] do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”

Click to view larger image. Photo courtesy Kevin Yee

When it came time to add one more Audio-Animatronic figure to the famous Hall Of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the Imagineers could have chosen the easy path and just added one more AA figure with a new speech. Instead they spotted a weakness in the attraction with how it duplicated much of the same American history as the much more involved American Adventure attraction at EPCOT Center and then somewhat abruptly switched tracks to a Presidential roll-call.

So they set to work to refocus the attraction on the story of what it means to be an American President. Along the way they’ve changed the attraction’s message, given more time to the Audio-Animatronic Presidential figures, plussed the exterior with a marquee, and spruced up the lobby area as well. As I said in my previous post, the overall change is certainly a good one.

The lobby looks largely the same, but the addition of a new display case that features dresses, and more, from some of America’s First Ladies adds balance to the attraction. They had to ditch a couple Presidential portraits for that. But if they rotate the portraits like they plan to rotate the dresses, all should be good.

Inside the theater very little has changed. The show opens with the familiar ‘We The People’ silhouettes, and the group recitation of the Constitution’s pre-amble, but there is very little visual connection there. It seems like guests are expected to remember the symbology from the previous show?

Once the show gets going and the sonorous voice of Morgan Freeman kicks in as narrator, you know you’re in for a treat. We still get our American history lesson, but now it ties in much closer to the story behind the American Presidency starting with George Washington

Pay attention to the Presidents Disney selected to highlight in the script and you’ll see a trend. All the Presidents were very popular, either as they were elected, or grew in popularity during the course of their term.

The theme of populist politics is the thread that holds the Presidential tapestry together. It’s summed up in the frequently repeated line “One of Us” meaning that the President comes from the people and not at the tip of a sword or via a hereditary line, unlike any other nation on Earth at the time.

This switch to populism is the biggest shift of the attraction. Previously the political message was decidedly neutral. Neither left nor right. Populism is neither left nor right as well, but it can lead to fascism if not kept in check. So I’m personally left feeling just a bit uneasy by it. There is much more to the Presidency than them being potentially ‘one of us’.

The planning for this new attraction began long before the November election results were in. So were Disney’s Imagineers just lucky or are they savvy readers of politics and able to detect the popular groundswell that swept Barack Obama into office? I hope to ask them more about that this Friday.

(Aside: That’s a lot of political talk for The Disney Blog, I know. Please don’t read anything about my personal politics into it. I’m not sure Disney wants you to either, so come see for yourself and make up your own mind.)

There’s a great little bit of staging during the Civil War section. We knew that the Abraham Lincoln figure would give the Gettysburg Address, but I didn’t know that he would appear alone on the stage while doing so. A crafty bit of curtain design hides the other AA figures during this portion of the show and then the audience is returned to the screen portion of the attraction.

It’s a great break from what is basically a slide show, albeit a very well produced slide show, up to that point. The address doesn’t go over the top nor slow the show down. The Lincoln figure’s movements range from grand to intimate, the best AA performance I’ve ever seen, so far. I also want to ask the show producers if this is a little nod to Walt Disney, who was known for his ability to recite the Gettysburg Address in grade school.

From the Civil War we jump from national crisis to national tragedy. Very little time is spent celebrating what makes America strong, but then America’s Presidents are not remembered for the peaceful times, they’re cemented in our memories for how they deal with the difficult times we find ourselves in. It’s nice that Disney did not skip over these patches, but by the time we get to the real stars of the show, the AA figures, we’re definitely ready.

My chief complaint with the attraction is the distance the audience is set from the stage. Short of reconfiguring the raked seating (an expensive proposition) there hasn’t really been a way to resolve that. However, the new show only uses three of the five screens in the auditorium. Could the two end screens be used to show closer view of which ever audio-animatronic is performing? Yes, the flaws of the figures will be more apparent. But so will the technical wizardry of the performance.

Speaking of technical wizardry, I am really impressed with the way the George Washington and Barack Obama figures interact. At that moment it feels like two actors up on the stage. These are two more very impressive Audio-Animatronic figures. President Washington’s words provide a wonderful message that drives home the importance of the role of President. They also ties naturally into the quote I started this article with, the oath of office.

Barack Obama recites the oath and then is announced as President by the narrator. This moment received applause at all three shows I attended. It does feel a little bit like you’re there on the frozen tarmac of the Washington Mall waiting for the inauguration speech. A very nicely captured moment.

I’m a little sad to say that President Obama’s speech is not memorable. But perhaps that’s as it should be. The institution of the Presidency is showcased here, not one individual president. The much anticipated Robobama lives up to all its hype, even with the unfortunately prominent ears. Clearly a new level in audio-animatronic wizardry.

The show then hurries to a patriotic conclusion, and I do mean hurries. With the show running at almost exactly 20 minutes I would have liked to see a bit more care taken with this moment. Another 15-20 seconds to let it all sink in would be appreciated.

While the Hall of Presidents usually gets hardly a glance from the average theme park guest, they really do themselves a dis-service to walk by without experiencing this uniquely American story. Walt Disney’s Imagineers have done a spectacular job updating this attraction and it will continue to be a frequent stop on my families visits. I hope it is for yours as well.

3 thoughts on “The Hall of Presidents Transformed”

  1. Pingback: Video of President Barack Obama recording his Hall of Presidents Speech | The Disney Blog

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