Disney theme parks soon to get a whole lot of Marvel
By TODD MARTENS | Los Angeles Times | Published: March 15, 2017
“Kaboom!” That’s the word used by Joe Rohde, the Disney executive overseeing the transformation of the California Adventure ride formerly known as the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!
He says it repeatedly -- once mixing in the word “kablam!” -- occasionally with his arms outstretched to convey his excitement. His ornate, beady earrings, which hang below his jaw, rattle each time.
Fans of Disney theme parks and superheroes, brace yourselves. The Marvel universe is coming, and the impact will not be small.
But with Marvel, the Happiest Place on Earth could experience a change in tone.
“There is a way in which Guardians of the Galaxy is almost an intrusion,” said Rohde at a small media walk-through of the in-construction attraction in January. “It’s coming out of nowhere -- kaboom! -- into this space.”
“The idea that it would come out of nowhere -- kaboom! -- like a square peg in a round hole,” added Rohde, “is like the Guardians.”
When he announced at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con the arrival of Guardians, Rohde hinted that it was just the start of a grander Marvel presence at the Disneyland Resort.
Already open at Hong Kong Disneyland is Iron Man Experience, a simulator ride in the vein of Star Tours: The Adventure Continues, with two additional Marvel experiences in the works for the Asian park.
Disney Cruise Line’s Marvel Day at Sea launches from New York later this year. And, on May 27 Anaheim’s California Adventure will kick off a summerlong celebration of the launch of the thrill ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! with character meet-and-greets, a dance party and an opportunity for young ones to train with members of the Avengers.
In Anaheim, Guardians will reside in Hollywood Land, potentially clashing with the old-school Tinseltown feel of the area. The tower will be remade to look futuristic, with exposed wiring and pipes that are almost reminiscent of the innards of computer circuitry. “Lots of gold, lots of shiny, lots of metal,” said Rohde.
For some in Disney Imagineering -- the company’s highly secretive arm devoted to theme park experiences and of which Rohde is a senior executive -- integrating non-Disney worlds into Mickey’s home is a problem already solved.
The original iteration of Star Tours, which launched in 1987 at Disneyland, was arguably the first square peg to arrive at Disneyland since its opening in 1955; it injected non-Disney themed mythology into the Disney-themed park.
But the worlds of George Lucas -- “Star Wars” and later the “Indiana Jones” franchise -- are a little corny, with cartoonlike violence and goofy jokes. They’re fantasies too, albeit of the sci-fi-inspired and nostalgia varieties, and Disney theme parks are well-versed in both.
Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, and, in 2015, unveiled full-fledged “Star Wars”-inspired lands for its parks in Anaheim and in Florida at its fan event D23 Expo. Marvel Entertainment was acquired three years earlier, and while there are plenty of rumors about a large-scale Marvel-based land coming to California Adventure, fans are still awaiting such a reveal.
While multiple Marvel attractions do exist at Universal’s Orlando, Fla., theme park via a deal that predates Disney’s acquisition of the brand, it could be argued that Marvel is a different sort of entity.
The first major laugh in the 2014 film “Guardians of the Galaxy,” for instance, comes when Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord absentmindedly forgets a woman he spent the night with is still in his spacecraft. It’s a little more adult than, say, a Jungle Cruise pun.
Of course, Guardians is replacing what was the most-grown-up ride at the Disneyland Resort, one based on a vintage TV show with a facade that was designed to look scarred and burnt out. “The Twilight Zone,” for instance, wasn’t exactly Saturday matinee cartoon fare.
That doesn’t mean Imagineers aren’t thinking carefully about how the worlds of Marvel and Disney will mesh in a theme park setting.
“There is a lot of irreverence in the story,” Rohde said of the Guardians attraction, which will boast a prison-break-inspired narrative in which guests are enlisted to help free the Guardians. “It is distinctly an expansion of our style within this park, both in vocabulary and in presentation. I think it’s really nicely consistent with the mood and the tone and the feeling of what the Guardians are.”
He added: “You make a choice and you do it.”
The challenge: Make the irreverent superheroes feel of a piece with castles, fairy tales, singing ghosts and talking cars.
Ted Robledo, the Imagineer who was the creative lead of Iron Man Experience in Hong Kong, grappled with such issues. At that park, the Iron Man attraction sits in Tomorrowland, a part of Disney parks initially dreamed up by Walt Disney.
“How do you represent (Iron Man) in a park that has a castle at the center of it and typically focuses on stories and characters from our animated classics to original (attractions) like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion?” he said. “How do you bring in a superhero into a setting like that and make it believable, make it feel acceptable, if you will?
“I think what we keyed into early on, and it became our save, really, was the fact that what makes the Marvel universe and its heroes very unique is the fact they live in our world. They don’t live in fictional cities. They don’t live in an alternate version of the United States.”
Thus, the technological showcase that is the Stark Expo and the accompanying ride are set directly in Hong Kong’s take on Tomorrowland.
There is no illusion that guests are being transported to a fictional place. Iron Man’s Tony Stark has set up shop in Hong Kong Disneyland.
“Walt Disney had partners in the industry -- RCA, Monsanto, McDonnell Douglas -- to help support these great, now past, attractions,” Robledo said. “So if Tony Stark came up with a flying tour vehicle and wanted to showcase some new technology, it’s not too far-fetched to believe that he’d choose Hong Kong and choose Hong Kong Disneyland.”
Robledo said early concepts set the ride in New York, but something felt off.
It was John Lasseter, known best as the architect behind Pixar but also a creative adviser to Imagineering, who suggested a change in thinking.
“He posed the question to us,” Robledo said. “He said, ‘Guys, it’s in Hong Kong. Why not Hong Kong? Why are we going somewhere else?’
“Why not?” said Robledo. “We were so caught up in the lore and the story (of Iron Man) that we forget these characters travel around the world ... It expanded our thinking.”
Some definite changes in tone were made to bring Iron Man more in line with the humor of Disney parks. A video guests watch before boarding the ride simulators, for instance, is based more on physical humor than the sarcasm associated with Iron Man’s Stark.
“People may not have a strong affinity for the Marvel superhero narratives or those characters, but they may have a strong affinity for their experiences at the parks. We’re mindful of that,” he said.
Rohde said he never assumes that a guest “knows a thing. You should be able to tell this story without using the name of a single character, a single brand, a single anything, and it still makes sense.”
In Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! a man by the name of Taneleer Tivan has captured our superheroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and is displaying them in a museumlike setting. One of them, Rocket Racoon, has escaped, and is calling upon guests to help free his pals.
In Rohde’s words: “Arrogant rich guy collector, and really, really funny irreverent, slightly antihero characters. I like them. I don’t like him. We’re going to help them get out.”
And we’re going to do it to the tune of classic rock ‘n’ roll. While Rohde didn’t reveal the songs for the attraction, it’s no doubt a long way off from the Sherman Brothers, or even the early ‘50s rock heard in nearby Cars Land.
Will it all feel in tune with the old-Hollywood feel of the part of the park it’s in, where just a few steps away is a Broadway-worthy show based on “Frozen”?
Or maybe that’s precisely why so many of us are drawn to superheroes to begin with: We want them to be right here alongside us.
“That whole kablam effect is quintessentially Marvel,” said Joe Quesada, chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment.
“Marvel uses the real world as a canvas ... Here we are in the real world, and -- boom -- this thing disrupts us. But it is living right here with us. If you go to New York City, you can certainly imagine Spider-Man swinging between those buildings. Now you come here to the park, and you’re not imagining it. It’s here.”