Presidential pardons

You almost have to feel sorry for the Mouse.

After all, with this week's presidential inauguration, the Walt Disney Co. already is getting questions about the Magic Kingdom's "Hall of Presidents." Reporters want answers to two simple queries:

1) When is the Dubya robot going to go into the show?

2) Will the Bush-bot follow the lead of the Clinton robot and make some sort of speech?

The answer to the first question is easy: a vague-but-definitive, "Soon. Very soon." But that second one ... jeez. There's just no politically expedient or polite way to say, "When hell freezes over."

The problem is that in 1993, the Mouse started a new tradition in the Hall. Pushed aside was the talky Abe Lincoln, whose stirring words reinforced patriotism with no risk that they'd be undermined by partisanship; after all, he'd been dead since 1865. In Abe's place, Disney decided to let the current president make a few brief remarks. The attraction now ends with Bill Clinton delivering a short speech doctored for Disney by lyricist Tim Rice.

It was always assumed that Disney would extend this role to the next resident of the White House. But there's no getting around the fact that George W. Bush is not a gifted orator. Were the Imagineers to build an authentic audio-animatronic Mr. Subliminable, the Bush-bot would regularly have to put his metallic foot in his robotic mouth.

Disney obviously doesn't want to give the impression it plays favorites. That's why the company made big contributions to both political parties during the election.

So what's the graceful way through this political minefield? Right now, no one in upper management is quite sure. But listen carefully, and you can hear the Imagineers grumbling: We wouldn't be dealing with this crap if Eisner had just toughed out the opposition and built Disney's America.

Strange but true. The controversial plan to build a history theme park outside of Washington, D.C., would have meant no more Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. According to a scenario that Imagineers crafted in 1994, the Hall would have been closed and all of its figures shipped to the new site. There, the robotic re-creations of our chief executives would have been used in a new attraction, "Presidents Square."

Instead of throwing the complete set of presidents back up on stage, this new show would have broken up that set and given each his own little alcove. Using interactive touch panels, guests then would have been able to bring each president to life individually to learn more about the era in which they served.

Instead, the 30-year-old Orlando attraction -- given an extensive and expensive overhaul in 1993 -- still remains as is: deadly dull. Even robots in other shows rag on it. In the closing moments of the "Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management" attraction, the Iago figure yawns and says, "I'm tired. I think I'll go over to the Hall of Presidents and take a nap."

There have been rumors about a massive redo. Under one scenario, the floor of the 700-seat auditorium would be retrofitted with motion-based seats. Guests would be issued 3-D glasses and whisked off on a multimedia trip through American history, tentatively titled "Discover America." The 42 commanders-in-chief still would play a part, but sparingly. For example, following images depicting the Revolutionary War, George Washington would speak. Following images of the Civil War, Lincoln would speak. Following images of World War II ... you get the idea.

If Disney were to go forward with this redo -- and it's a big "if," given the cost -- the spot where the new president spoke would be brief. Very brief. Thirty seconds, tops. George W. certainly could tough his way through that bit of dialogue without tripping over his tongue.

But in recent weeks, a different revamp scenario has emerged. Paul Pressler, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, is said to be personally supervising a redo of Disney's first robotic-president show, Disneyland's "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." Under the plan, this Anaheim attraction would close this month for a complete overhaul. When it reopens, Abe will be giving what many consider his greatest speech, the Gettysburg Address.

It's not too hard to believe that Disney World's Hall would get its Lincoln reprogrammed likewise. It's infinitely cheaper, and would give the Disney Co. a good reason to keep George W. quiet.

Whatever happens, you can bet that Walt Disney World operations people aren't going to be happy. Over the past 30 years, these guys have grown tired of keeping the Hall in good running order. They're weary of all the jokes cast members try to pull using the show's figures, such as tying Nixon's hands behind his back as if he's in handcuffs, or of someone slipping a sheath of condoms into Clinton's breast pocket.

And now, of course, they'll have to keep a close eye on that George W. robot, just so some wag doesn't stuff a Florida ballot in its pocket or place a button on its lapel that reads "Dyslexics Untie."

As for the Imagineers ... well, they're really depressed that Al Gore didn't win. Given his notoriously cold, machinelike demeanor, those folks were rather looking forward to the artistic challenges of trying to make Al look like a warm human being.


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