Whither Figment?

The way I hear it, the day after the original Kodak ride closed in 1998 there was a guy wandering around the pavilion asking guests to sign his petition to ‘Bring Back Dreamfinder & Figment!’

Now it’s 14 years later and the campaign hasn’t slowed one bit. Grown men are still getting up at the annual Disney stockholder meetings to demand the return of the Imagination ride and characters, in spite of Walt Disney’s admonition: After film distributors pleaded with Disney for a sequel to ‘The Three Little Pigs’ the two sequels bombed, leaving Walt to observe, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.”

As we’ve seen, Dreamfinder & Figment will never really go away as long as there are pin collectors and Vinylmation left in the world. And in the years since I’ve retired from Disney I’m grateful to be remembered for my involvement in the creation of the strolling characters. I still miss the time I spent working with Figment and playing with the children and families we met.

BUT please, everybody, let’s remember the lesson of King Midas and be careful what we wish for.

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The original ‘Journey Into Imagination’ was inspired by EPCOT Center’s mission statement, the wishes of its corporate sponsor and the genius of Tony Baxter & company. It defined and demonstrated the creative process… it credited the guests’ imaginations… and it introduced two vivid, complex and exciting new characters who carried that message out of the attraction and brought it home to visitors in a new and novel manner.

Then it was removed. To this day, I don’t know why and I don’t expect I ever will. Marty Sklar told us at EPCOT Center’s 25th anniversary that it was Kodak that did it; that’s all he’d say. I’ve heard the turntable was screwing itself into the ground. That was the reason given back in ’84 when the ride closed for a few days for technical reasons, so that at least has some resonance. And I heard rumors that someone in management didn’t care for Dreamfinder… but as I say, we’ll never know.

The ‘Journey Into Your Imagination’ was a disaster. I like to think that at some point there was a coherent story there and that budget concerns caused that to be pared away to what we wound up getting – a collection of disparate, desperate effects with no recognizable theme or story. No wonder the public raised a stink – the JIYI got more negative response than anything in Disney Imagineering history.

Out of that angry mob rose the ‘Fans of Figment’, who led the campaign to bring the dragon back. Armed with a potent nostalgia for what once was and a certainty that they knew best they wished and pleaded and whined for ‘more pigs’.

Seeking a quick fix, the company dusted off the Figment figures from the late, lamented ‘Journey’ and saddled some poor fellow with the task of writing a story that could tie them in with what was already up and running.

The thing that made Figment such a winner in the old ride was the respect and affection we felt for him, a reflection of the paternal feelings expressed by Dreamfinder. We identified with Figment… his journey was ours and we felt pride in what he – and we – could dream and manifest in our lives. This was the true message of the original ride:

Imagination is something that belongs to all of us.” – Dreamfinder

But in the third version, things are different. The ‘Journey Into Your Imagination with Figment’ begins in front of a wall of computers that measures our creativity and promises to stimulate our imagination.

Thus reassured we are introduced to Dr. Nigel Channing. Where Dreamfinder was delighted to demonstrate how Imagination works, Nigel is proud to show off his Institute. And where Dreamfinder lovingly crafted Figment from the sparks of inspiration, Nigel tells Figment to go away, he’s a pest. So Figment proceeds to prove him right throughout the remainder of the ride, acting out the role of ‘pest’ that Dr. Channing saddled him with.

Why? Because casting the little fellow as a pest is easy to write. Because the lazy writer thinks that casting the sidekick as an annoyance is ‘cute’ (see the post, ‘Writing Great Themed Shows 3: Make Me Laugh’). Remember how fond we all were of C3PO after seeing ‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope’? And how annoying he seemed in ‘Empire Strikes Back’? And all it took to change our minds was Leia and Han treating him like a nuisance in the second film.

So Figment keeps disrupting the tour and annoying the good Doctor, who, frankly, was annoying enough without the bad attitude. Figment sprays us with skunk scent and shows us a toilet.

At the finish we’re back in front of the bank of computers. There’s a quiet moment here, while we roll into position. On a recent ride-through I was accompanied by some very bright children and in this peaceful moment I asked them, “Well, kids, what did we learn today?”

And in splendidly loud and enthusiastic unison, they shouted, “Nothing!”

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I’m scared to think what begging for Disney to ‘Bring Back Dreamfinder’ might get us, because I’ve seen what the whining of Figment’s Friends got us the last time. Sure, there is much that Dreamfinder could do today, but I’d be afraid to trust him to anyone who doesn’t understand what made him work in the first place.

Instead of bringing back Dreamfinder, let’s pray they bring back what he stood for. Let us hope for a return of the message, “Imagination is something that belongs to all of us,” even if it means crafting new guides who will respect and care for us the way Tony Baxter and Kodak did thirty years ago.

I have faith that somewhere in the depths of Glendale Imagineering there is a locked room with plans for the new Journey. And I’m content to wait until the budget’s right and the room’s unlocked and new sparks fly!

About Ron Schneider

Creative Consultant, Lecturer, Freelance Writer, Director & Show Doctor, Actor and Voice-Over. Lifelong student of themed interactive entertainment.
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4 Responses to Whither Figment?

  1. Carrie says:

    One thing that seems to bug me is the focus on “Cheap, Quick, Canned Entertainment” almost as if some of the Disney Rides and Attractions have forgotten their own beautiful legacy in the face of budget cuts and bad ideas. There is a standard here, Disney gave it to us. The expectation and even the demand for a better show, somehow (I blame the Eisner Years) this has gotten completely lost under the carpet and thus forgotten. Yet so many of us stand out, crying practically for them to stand up and “Do It Right” again. To give us the glory we all had upon first spying the joyous marvels laid out for us like a banquet.
    Yet there is no response. I can’t fathom why, when anyone can see doing something right the first time is far more worth it in the long run then fixing and re-fixing a single thing. Sometimes I wish those in corporate had to answer to a gallery of common folks once per year, just normal people who do spend their hard earned money, someone with the much needed mallet of common sense to simply say “You know that’s stupid, right? Even my kid wouldn’t laugh at that”.

    Imagination now is a tragedy and many of us, who where those very children in the 80’s who learned the lessons of Figment and the Dreamfinder are mad. Very mad. Give me 30 minutes and I could probably rustle of a lynch mob of people, type of angry (and yes, I really could probably get a mob in regards to this topic). We watch our beloved childhood attractions being decimated under “cost” or “cuts” and cry a bit each time a piece is eaten away. We know what “Done Right” looks like, they showed it to us as children and we want it back.

  2. GrumpyFan says:

    Good point Ron! We should be very careful what we ask for. Especially in this time where there seems to be only a few truly inspired individuals at the company who understand and appreciate good story-telling and entertainment. With a character like Figment, I would think someone could do some wonderful imaginative things. Maybe someday. And, can we please retire EO once and for all! I think the hype has passed and its time to move on to something new. I’m not sure how you or others feel, but the best fit for this at the moment, might be something using those wonderfully imaginative characters created by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, Phineas and Ferb. Although, I hear the Kim Possible adventure is likely to be replaced by these characters.

    I might agree with you on JIYI raising a stink of negative response more than anything in Disney Imagineering history, that is until now. The mess that has just happened with Epcot Innoventions’ newest creation, Habit Heroes, which closed over the weekend after a flurry of bad press and criticism. I’m curious what/who is to blame on this one, and what they’re doing to re-design it. I’m sure the new version will likely be vetted against quite a few different groups, which could mean we wind up with something completely inane.

  3. mikiestar says:

    Ron, outstanding post! How true, how sad! Which raises the BIG question: Why do they keep hiring non-talents to make the creative decisions, and ignore the creative talents who most understand themed entertainment?

    • Thanks for liking the article, Mike. But as I hoped to make clear there are many, many other considerations — budgets, legalities, management, sponsorships — that influence the final product. For every frustrated guest who finds fault with a show element there are several responsible artists who had to suffer through the never-ending process of corporate-inspired compromise. It’s a miracle that they get it right 50% of the time!

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