Live Active Cultures 

I've never been public in my patriotism. In high school, during my rebel-without-a-clue phase, I silently protested having to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and I declined to slap a flag decal on my car post-Sept. 11. But something about Disney has always been able to tap into my nascent nationalism. I get teary during the "Golden Dream" finale of Epcot's American Adventure, and I dig the cheesy stars-and-stripes sparkle of the retro Electrical Water Pageant.

Still, I've remained immune to the charms of the most America-rific of Walt Disney World attractions: the Hall of Presidents. The show, an opening-day attraction of the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square, was a direct outgrowth of the 1964 Worlds Fair's "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln"; it evolved out of an abandoned expansion for California's Disneyland. Despite noble intentions and meticulous attention to detail, the show's blend of education and inspiration hadn't aged well. Hall of Presidents long ago earned a reputation as a good place to take a nap (as Aladdin's Iago quips in the Enchanted Tiki Room's only funny joke); refurbishments in 1993 and 2001, featuring speeches from Presidents Clinton and Bush, did little to stem the snoring.

Now Disney has taken the eight months since last year's presidential election to give the hall its biggest facelift in nearly 40 years. Last weekend I attended a sneak preview of the attraction, which is projected to reopen for the Fourth of July holiday. The upgrades begin in the refreshingly air-conditioned lobby, adorned with new memorabilia including Nancy Reagan's dress, Ronnie's belt buckle and an original Teddy bear. Once ushered inside the theater, you'll notice few differences beyond refreshed upholstery and expanded wheelchair seating.

The presentation begins with a nod to the original edition; a chorus line of silhouetted colonial citizens recites the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. But instead of a flickering film, you're watching a high-end, hi-def projector. That theme is repeated over the next 22 minutes, as elements of the old show are repurposed and refurbished to state-of-the-art standards, with largely successful results. The new narration by "award-winning actor Morgan Freeman" (as the attendants eagerly announce) is stirring and sonorous, as expected; the visuals recycle many of the classic historical paintings with dynamic pans and zooms worthy of a History Channel special. The content now focuses less on a parade of historical facts (say sayonara to the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Whiskey Rebellion) and more on the personalities of the presidents: Andrew Jackson's charming illiteracy, Teddy Roosevelt's counterfeit cowboying. This is more than a simple dumbing-down in response to today's abysmal educational standards; there's a deliberate romanticization of the proletariat and an anti-elitist emphasis on the chief executives as "just one of the people" that indicates a conscious pseudo-populist philosophical slant.

About halfway through the show we get to the real attraction: the audio-animatronics. First the curtain rises to reveal a robotic Lincoln, who recites the Gettysburg Address (now voiced by Warren Burton, lifted from the last version of Disneyland's "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln," instead of originator Royal Dano). Shortly after, the full cohort of past presidents is revealed for the roll call, which was the centerpiece of the former show. This portion has been noticeably tightened, with the figures reconfigured in more contemporaneous groupings, and less whispering and fidgeting in the background. After G.W.B. is announced, George Washington stands and speaks for the first time (voiced by David Morse of HBO's John Adams miniseries and St. Elsewhere), delivering a few lines on the importance of the oath of office.

Finally, the spotlight falls on Robama — or the Obamabot, if you prefer — a high-tech likeness of our newly inaugurated president. He recites the oath (correctly this time, without an animatronic Chief Justice Roberts there to sabotage him), and then delivers some apolitical platitudes on the "enduring American dream." To be honest, I didn't really listen to what he was saying; I was too mesmerized by the bleeding-edge robot's eerie ability to form vowels with his lips. If you thought the Johnny Depp figures added to Pirates of the Caribbean were spookily similar to the real deal, Barack's lovingly sculpted ears will blow you away.

The Hall of Presidents is no longer merely a site for a snooze (the booming surround-sound during the Fort Sumter sequence ensures that), and I exited the attraction feeling full of hope and change; not necessarily for our nation (we're pretty much doomed to decline) but for the future of the Magic Kingdom. After decades of stagnation, the park has seen a flurry of refurbs recently, climaxing in the renovation of Space Mountain (set to reopen late this year with a badly needed rebuilt track and new effects). Rumors are swirling of a major renovation of Fantasyland, including a Little Mermaid E-ticket attraction.

Dare Floridian Disney fans dream that Orlando's flagship park might one day rival its superior siblings in Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris? Yes we can!


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