In the Hyperreal Museum, some exhibits are better than others.

Disney has long been known as the pioneer and perfecter of fake environments and manufactured adventure.  Why would you want to risk your life and delicate sensibilities floating down the Amazon, or the African Veldt just slightly downstream, when you could pay slightly less money to do roughly the same in Southern California.  The fiberglass alligators are harmless, though the jokes can be detrimental to your health.

Coming from film and animation, Walt always wanted to have the attractions tell some sort of story and so the importance of “story” has been eternally ground into the Imagineers’ heads.  The easiest way to achieve this is to just base a ride on one of Disney’s animated features (and have a nice tie-in promotion while you’re at it; it’s called synergy!).  Why bother creating a new concept when Peter Pan’s already right there.  Simple, and cheaper too.  So it’s weird to find a significant ride in a Disney theme park that has not been based on a pre-existing intellectual properly.  Over in the DisneySea park in Japan, they spent what looks like A LOT of money doing just that with a ride called Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage.  And it’s a strange one.


The Premise:  Our hero and his adorable tiger cub friend, Chandu, sail from their exotic land of….uh… Arabia to…, other exotic lands for some reason.  Look, the ride is in Japanese and only vaguely follows the original stories.  The roc is there, the whale shows up, there’s a roomful of ape-men, and so on.  Basically, Sindbad and Chandu have some adventures and hijinks, and return with bunches of riches.  This wealth seems to make him a hero to everybody, so maybe he’s spreading it around a little.  The ride lasts about ten minutes, and like its genetically similar ancestor, It’s a Small World, a single grandiose and insidiously catchy song is played for the duration, over and over and over….

This is, however, not the ride as it was originally built.

The First Premise:  Kind of the same BUT DARK.  No catchy theme song, no adorable tiger cub sidekick, and Sindbad has a goatee—apparently Disney forgot that facial hair means evil.  Instead of light adventure, the ride was gloomy and unnerving (the ape-men room in particular, but maybe I just have a fear of screaming monkeys trying to kill me and eat my face).  But oddly, all of the robot characters looked like typical Disney cartoons: diminutive charactictures with large, exaggerated eyes.  An analogous example would be replacing the realistic looking pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean with the Seven Dwarves.  Suffice it to say, the ride didn’t work.  The incongruity between the cartoony animatronics and the morose story didn’t prove popular, so a few years ago Disney reworked the ride to be….well, more Disney.  The result can be described as the best Disney ride that Disney ever disneyed.

The Awesomeness:  Sindbad has all the elements of what makes up a quintessential Disney attraction, amplified by a shitload of yen.  The total extent of the animatronics in this ride is astounding.  People like to say that the robots in our Haunted Mansion or Pirates are spectacular feats of engineering.  And they were, several decades ago.  A single belly dancer in Sindbad has more movement and personality than any American ghost or buccaneer.  And that’s not counting the hundred or so other robots that look even better, the several Sindbads, the mermaids, the bandits, all the ape-men.  But then the boat turns a corner and suddenly there’s a twenty foot tall giant who’s singing and playing music.  Nothing on this scale would ever be built in an American Disney park; it’s just too expensive.  Plus, the ape-men room smells like bananas!


And as a cherry on this big Disney sundae, they hired Alan Menken to write the catchy theme song, “Compass of Your Heart,” to give the ride that certain Disney-movie-from-the-mid-90s, Aladdinesque quality.  Now the mise-en-scène is complete.  Now the ride totally seems like it was based on the best Disney movie never made. 

Whether all this makes you want to jump on a plane to Tokyo or jump off a cliff to end the pain depends on how well you can stomach things Disney.  Either way, the sheer amount of money and effort that went into this ride, without any synergistic franchise, is impressive.  There is no Sindbad Blu-Ray/DVD combo to promote, but there is some merchandise available in the gift shop as you exit.

Video of the old version can be found here, and of the new ride here. Good luck getting that tune out of your head.

About Tim

Tim Bennett works for a publisher of science and technology, amongst other things.
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