Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – Day 49 of 61

I took the castmember entrance to the Magic Kingdom, clipping my name tag to my Disney Operations polo shirt, ignoring the glares of my fellow castmembers in the utilidors.

I used the handheld to page Dan. “Hey there,” he said, brightly. I could tell instantly that I was being humored.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Oh, up in the Square. By the Liberty Tree.”

In front of the Hall of Presidents. I worked the handheld, pinged some Whuffie manually. Debra was spiked so high it seemed she’d never come down, as were Tim and her whole crew in aggregate. They were drawing from guests by the millions, and from castmembers and from people who’d read the popular accounts of their struggle against the forces of petty jealousy and sabotage — i.e., me.

I felt light-headed. I hurried along to costuming and changed into the heavy green Mansion costume, then ran up the stairs to the Square.

I found Dan sipping a coffee and sitting on a bench under the giant, lantern-hung Liberty Tree. He had a second cup waiting for me, and patted the bench next to him. I sat with him and sipped, waiting for him to spill whatever bit of rotten news he had for me this morning — I could feel it hovering like storm clouds.

He wouldn’t talk though, not until we finished the coffee. Then he stood and strolled over to the Mansion. It wasn’t rope-drop yet, and there weren’t any guests in the Park, which was all for the better, given what was coming next.

“Have you taken a look at Debra’s Whuffie lately?” he asked, finally, as we stood by the pet cemetery, considering the empty scaffolding.

I started to pull out the handheld but he put a hand on my arm. “Don’t bother,” he said, morosely. “Suffice it to say, Debra’s gang is number one with a bullet. Ever since word got out about what happened to the Hall, they’ve been stacking it deep. They can do just about anything, Jules, and get away with it.”

My stomach tightened and I found myself grinding my molars. “So, what is it they’ve done, Dan?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

Dan didn’t have to respond, because at that moment, Tim emerged from the Mansion, wearing a light cotton work-smock. He had a thoughtful expression, and when he saw us, he beamed his elfin grin and came over.

“Hey guys!” he said.

“Hi, Tim,” Dan said. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

“Pretty exciting stuff, huh?” he said.

“I haven’t told him yet,” Dan said, with forced lightness. “Why don’t you run it down?”

“Well, it’s pretty radical, I have to admit. We’ve learned some stuff from the Hall that we wanted to apply, and at the same time, we wanted to capture some of the historical character of the ghost story.”

I opened my mouth to object, but Dan put a hand on my forearm. “Really?” he asked innocently. “How do you plan on doing that?”

“Well, we’re keeping the telepresence robots — that’s a honey of an idea, Julius — but we’re giving each one an uplink so that it can flash-bake. We’ve got some high-Whuffie horror writers pulling together a series of narratives about the lives of each ghost: how they met their tragic ends, what they’ve done since, you know.

“The way we’ve storyboarded it, the guests stream through the ride pretty much the way they do now, walking through the preshow and then getting into the ride-vehicles, the Doom Buggies. But here’s the big change: we slow it all down. We trade off throughput for intensity, make it more of a premium product.

“So you’re a guest. From the queue to the unload zone, you’re being chased by these ghosts, these telepresence robots, and they’re really scary — I’ve got Suneep’s concept artists going back to the drawing board, hitting basic research on stuff that’ll just scare the guests silly. When a ghost catches you, lays its hands on you — wham! Flash-bake! You get its whole grisly story in three seconds, across your frontal lobe. By the time you’ve left, you’ve had ten or more ghost-contacts, and the next time you come back, it’s all new ghosts with all new stories. The way that the Hall’s drawing ’em, we’re bound to be a hit.” He put his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, clearly proud of himself.

When Epcot Center first opened, long, long ago, there’d been an ugly decade or so in ride design. Imagineering found a winning formula for Spaceship Earth, the flagship ride in the big golf ball, and, in their drive to establish thematic continuity, they’d turned the formula into a cookie-cutter, stamping out half a dozen clones for each of the “themed” areas in the Future Showcase. It went like this: first, we were cavemen, then there was ancient Greece, then Rome burned (cue sulfur-odor FX), then there was the Great Depression, and, finally, we reached the modern age. Who knows what the future holds? We do! We’ll all have videophones and be living on the ocean floor. Once was cute — compelling and inspirational, even — but six times was embarrassing. Like everyone, once Imagineering got themselves a good hammer, everything started to resemble a nail. Even now, the Epcot ad-hocs were repeating the sins of their forebears, closing every ride with a scene of Bitchun utopia.

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