Fast forward

You'd think a multimedia extravaganza featuring the voices of Oscar-winning funnyman Robin Williams and TV favorite Rhea Perlman would run forever at Disney World. Well, forever isn't as long as it used to be.

Less than seven years after "The Timekeeper" debuted in the Magic Kingdom's revamped Tomorrowland, word came out of California last week that the Mouse is considering pulling the plug on the Circle-Vision show.

In spite of its primo location (it's the very first Tomorrowland attraction that guests encounter as they walk in from the park's hub), "The Timekeeper" has struggled to capture, then hold, an audience. This theater -- designed to service nearly 2,000 guests each hour -- has averaged one-fifth of that traffic. Worse, of those few souls "Timekeeper" does manage to corral, a good portion walk out before the end of the show.

Those who Disney's survey staff caught on their way to the more high-tech thrills of "Space Mountain" and "Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin" said they found "The Timekeeper" entertaining but just too long.

And how long is it? An otherwise relaxing 18 minutes.

It's every Imagineer's nightmare: The ever-shortening American attention span. In an age of 15-second-long TV commercials, the high-speed DSL line and Disney's own FastPass program, theme-park guests are no longer willing to invest more than a few -- a very few -- minutes of their precious vacation time to learn if a show pays off or not. They want to be entertained NOW.

That's why Walt Disney Imagineering has been a show-shortening spree these past few years. Witness the five minutes of running time Imagineers cut out of the Magic Kingdom's "Enchanted Tiki Room" when they installed the "Under New Management" show in 1998. Or the four minutes -- plus 300 feet of ride track -- Imagineering lopped out of Epcot's "Journey into Imagination" ride during its fumbled 1999 redo.

What choice do they have? Disney's guests have made it very clear they've lost their taste for longer attractions and shows. These days, they prefer their thrills to come in smaller, more exciting bursts.

Sure, Disney/MGM's "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster" -- a lightly rethemed, off-the-shelf thrill ride -- cost much less to build than its custom-made, special-effects laden neighbor, "The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror." But given the number of guests who happily get back in line for yet another chance to pull a 360 on the coaster's tracks, the money the Mouse didn't spend to build it doesn't really factor into the equation. It wows with a quick, high-speed rush. And if the guests are happy, Disney management is happy. End of discussion.

Of course, Mouse House management now doesn't seem all that eager to approve construction of any elaborate new rides or shows. Particularly when lower-cost, slightly rethemed rides bought from outside vendors can be just as popular as the more expensive ones the Imagineers churn out.

That's what appears to be behind Disney's decision to downsize expansion plans for Animal Kingdom. The Imagineers at one point had hoped to shore up attendance at Disney World's newest park by building a new land whose signature attraction would have been "Dragon's Tower" -- an elaborate project featuring the world's largest audio-animatronic figure as well as an inverted roller coaster.

Ah, but the price of this addition -- then known as "Beastly Kingdom" -- would have been beastly all by itself. Which is why the Mouse opted instead to go with two other lightly rethemed, off-the-shelf rides purchased at considerable savings. The Mouse insists cost wasn't the determining factor. Rather, it was the public's desire for more quick thrills.

Yet based on reaction to Disney's new California Adventure park, they may want to rethink the short-and-intense-only policy. The California park is loaded with such economical but briskly entertaining rides and shows. Yet what's the No. 1 complaint about the place? There's not enough to do. Where are elaborate attractions like "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "The Haunted Mansion"?

Could it be the public knows something the Disney Co.'s current management does not? That a successful theme park isn't just a collection of carny rides but a mix of short and intense with long and painstakingly detailed?

This might account for some apparent back-peddling at Disney's California Adventure. Earlier this month, height-test balloons were spotted in the air over that park's Hollywood Studio Backlot area. Why? Because Imagineers were trying to figure out how high a West Coast version of "Tower of Terror" could be built before it visually intruded into neighboring Disneyland.

Look for the California version of this Orlando favorite to be thrown together rather quickly. And guests can expect a much less elaborate queue as well as fewer special effects as they make their way through the newest Hollywood Tower Hotel.

Why? Well, Mouse House management still insists its guests want faster and more intense. If they can cut a few corners and get guests to the top of the tower to experience the heart-stopping drop more quickly, it's going to be better for everyone. Or so says the Mouse.

After all, the faster the guests get their thrill, the sooner Mickey gets a return on his investment.


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