On December 18 of last year, Disneyland opened the latest version of the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show in Main Street. On that day, a little part of hilarious history died. Well that’s exactly not true; it really died back in 2005 when the previous version closed to make way for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary exhibition. But now, the old Lincoln show’s fate is sealed. It is never coming back, and that’s sad, because I will never be able to subject unwitting friends to it ever again. But we shouldn’t be mourning. We should be celebrating the tragically short life of this gloriously melodramatic attraction that gave us so much unintentional comedy.
For those of you who have never bothered to attend this show, or were never even aware of its existence, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was originally conceived for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, opening in Disneyland a year later, and featured the first full human audio-animatronic figure ever created by Disney. The attraction itself was pretty simple: a pre-show film would provide a thematic Civil War introduction narrated by the soothing voice of Paul Frees, and then the curtains would part revealing the Mr. Lincoln robot sitting stately in a chair. Suddenly, with music that couldn’t be more theatrical, the robot—get this—STANDS UP.
I know, right?!
You may think that that doesn’t sound very impressive, but consider that this 1964, when standing technology was in its infancy.
With the crowd drawing showpiece standing out of the way, Lincoln gives an amalgam of a speech in the voice of Royal Dano (of Twin Peaks fame). He goes on for a little while about liberty and independence and all that crap, but no would really cares because they’re too busy picking up their jaws off the floor from the standing up part. Meanwhile, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swells and swells and the sky behind Lincoln forms an abstract stars and stripes. The show ends triumphantly and everyone runs out to go punch a communist.
The show more or less stayed this way for the next few decades, but as time went on and communist punching was overtaken by football as our national sport, attendance dwindled. Old Lincoln became tired and creaky, and fewer people troubled themselves to venture inside the Main Street Opera House when Space Mountain was just a short walk around the corner. So what does Disney do to revive interest in the Great Emancipator? (Well, besides just tearing it down in favor of a cross-promotional thrill ride.) That’s right, they try to jazz it up for the kids in the most awkward and embarrassing way possible.
For four splendidly uncomfortable years from 2001 to 2005, we were treated to New Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln to the Xtreme. A Yakmala of theme park attractions, if the judges deem it fit. For the pre-show, instead of a boring overview of the Civil War, we’re now IN the Civil War. Because abstract empathy is for chumps, and thanks to the Internets, none of us can relate to other humans without near total sensory immersion. And so Disney employees hand you binaural sound headphones when you enter the theater, because when you’re striving for realism, the first ingredient is giant headphones that don’t take you out of the narrative at all. Simply telling you about the trails of serving in the Union army isn’t enough nowadays. No, you have to FEEL it so that you can believe it, and this fancy sound technology makes it possible. Now you too can imagine yourself as a young Union soldier. You can say, Hey I get my haircut too! Say, I also like getting my photograph taken! Not so much about the leg getting blown off thing. No thanks, like Mr. Lincoln, I enjoy standing up.
We are all Private John Cunningham, about to be sent off to the front lines. But before we go, we simply must get our photograph taken for some reason I can’t remember. Probably to heighten the sentimentality when disaster inevitably strikes. So we go to the studio of Mathew Brady, who was the Annie Leibovitz of his day. Thanks to these newfangled headphones, it all seems so real! You can feel the clomping footsteps, the rustling of papers, the buzzing of insects causing everyone to squirm in their seats. And duh, you have to get your hair cut, and so everyone is treated to hair raising snipping sounds and the guy whispering sweet nothings in your ear (“I’m already used to taking orders”). Now that everyone is thoroughly creeped out, we go to meet Lincoln and Frederick Douglas in the White House so that Disney can give a shout out to Abolition. This scene also sets up Lincoln’s later recognition of Cunningham after he is injured in battle at Gettysburg, which is where the show truly becomes New Homoerotic Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Honest Abe leans in really, really close and pleads, “My boy, my dear boy….you must…..live! My boy….”
Kids today, man. They don’t know the pleasure of sitting through a presidential seduction simulator.
Anyway, here comes the Gettysburg Address, but it’s a bit of a letdown after the roller coaster ride of multidirectional sound and goose bumps. Especially when the curtains open and Mr. Lincoln is already standing! What a rip off. Okay fine, he sits at the very end but that’s not nearly as inspiring.
So now we have the new Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which is to say, we have the old Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. It’s the same old show, complete with the narration by one of the official voices of Disney, Paul Frees, and Disney’s official voice of Lincoln, Royal Dano. The show is fundamental Disneyland: nostalgic, optimistic, vaguely patriotic, and while not as sophisticated as, say, all those robotic….things coming out of Japan, it’s pretty good at showcasing audio-animatronic achievements. The new Lincoln robot is the most advanced from Disney yet, with perfectly fluid motion and it can even manipulate his lips to form words. It is both awesome and disturbing. Plus, this Lincoln can stand up again like a proper president.
I was trying to figure out why the headphones are gone from the Great Moments attraction, and I came across this article. That experience for me was amazing, and I tell so many people about it. Sad to see it’s gone.