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The Business of Nostalgia


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By Chad Emerson

In recent years, Disney’s theme parks have begun to tap into that nostalgia more overtly than ever.  Leading this charge was the company’s merchandising arm which introduced a wide variety of retro merchandise tied into their parks’ past.  These t-shirts, ballcaps, coffee mugs, and other reminders of yesteryear play into the nostalgia that many guests recall from early visits to places like Epcot, the Monorail, and of course the Magic Kingdom.

Beyond being big sellers (something that Disney merchandising officials have assured us is the case), the retro movement ties generations together by recreating common images and experiences.

This summer, Disney has ramped up their nostalgia play by bringing back two classic attractions.  The first occurred in June when the company re-introduced the Main Street Electrical Parade at the Magic Kingdom.  Though outfitted with new lights and audio, much of the parade remains similar to the original Disney World version that debuted in 1977 (and ran until 1991 with a brief return engagement from 1999 to 2001).  The excitement in the blogosphere leading up to this summer’s parade return only provided further evidence of the power of nostalgia when it comes to theme park attractions.

Which leads us to Disney World’s latest trip down memory lane, the re-introduction of the 4-D Captain EO film at Epcot (as well as at three other Disney parks across the globe).  Being the original home to Captain EO, the return to Epcot is tinged with nostalgia.   This became especially clear during a recent media preview where Disney replayed the original pre-show film and unveiled the original Captain EO signage (which, according to Epcot VP Dan Cockerell was by chance rediscovered backstage at Disney World while the EO team was looking for the specs to recreate the very same sign).

While some enhancements were made to the Captain EO theater, the film itself is essentially the same as the first version with, of course, the Original EO, Michael Jackson, showing off the now-retro dance moves that made him the King of Pop over 20 years ago.

While a theme park certainly shouldn’t try to live by nostalgia alone, as a 38 year old covering Disney this summer, it was a somewhat wistful experience to relive the same parade and show that I had last seen with parents and grandparents.  The long and short is that, especially in these uncertain times, the fun memories of yesteryear make for a great reprieve from all things negative, unclear, and concerning.  

This summer at Disney, they’ve taken this nostalgia strategy to the next level. Taking this lead, other parks around the globe might also consider what memories they have tucked away in their closets and warehouses just waiting for their guests to “re-remember” the way it used to be.

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