Disney’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is a site where visitors are able to interact with Abraham Lincoln’s memory in a uniquely dynamic way. Rather than viewing sites related to his past, such as his birthplace and the place where he grew up, or even sites honoring his memory, such as the Lincoln Memorial, all of which distance the viewer from his actual physical existence, the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln site provides a moving, talking, likeness of Lincoln.
As an actual site of memory, Disney’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is a fifteen-minute show featured in Disneyland where visitors can go to view an animatronic likeness of Lincoln speaking about his history and reciting lines from the more famous parts of his speeches . Originally developed for the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the show was designed to promote Disney’s technological knowledge and engineering skill. It was then moved back to Disneyland and opened as a show there on July 18, 1965 . The original show featured a short film about Illinois and then a five-minute address by Lincoln’s figure, which was a “combination of several of his speeches.” Blaine Gibson, a sculptor, used Lincoln’s life mask as a template .
The site is most definitely a processual one; it has been continually developed and remastered throughout the years. Walt Disney’s passionate interest in both mechanical figures and Lincoln’s political history spurred him to “push the technology of the developing robots toward greater realism,” and the show has been a constant work in progress due to Disney’s dedication to presenting the best entertainment possible . In 1973, the show was replaced by a tribute to Walt Disney, who had died in 1966. The new show, The Walt Disney Story, “received a great deal of public criticism by those who were upset by the removal of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” to such an extent that the show then closed and reopened as The Walt Disney Story Featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. This show was further updated in 1984 with “enhanced movements and facial expressions” and updated skin, costume, and props. In 2001, the show’s focus shifted away from Lincoln and towards the Civil War. Lincoln’s performance was no longer a combination of his speeches but an excerpt from the Gettysburg address. This lasted until 2004, when the attraction closed again to make room for a display honoring Disney’s 50th anniversary. It then reopened in 2009 in its current version, The Disneyland Story presenting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln . This new, updated version features a fully electric head, with “an expanded range of facial movement,” and the ability to “purse his lips…smile, grimace, and use his eyebrows to enhance his emotions.” The show features a short autobiographical film about Lincoln and Lincoln’s speech, which is the original recording from 1965, but with sharper sound . This lack of a change in Lincoln’s voice has caused some criticism in recent years. Consulted historians claim that Lincoln’s voice could be described as a “high tenor” and that he spoke with a rural Indiana accent . The voice used in the show, however, is very different from this description. This makes the site an active distortion of Lincoln’s memory. The average Disney-goer probably would not know that they were hearing an inaccurate version of Lincoln’s voice, and would walk away from the show with a misconception.
This influence that Disney can have over the way that people remember history brings another question to mind. Is it official or vernacular? Disneyland is an official institution; on some level the memory sites that it creates could be considered official memory. Disney’s 1995 film Pocahontas, for example, despite being extremely untrue to the original Pocahontas story, has had a huge sway over how many Americans remember the story. If questioned, it is probable that more people would recount Disney’s version of the story rather than the real one. However, this is all happening in a vernacular context. In most cases, the movie is being viewed in the privacy of one’s own home, and the movie, as a site of memory, is being experienced on a personal level. This nebulous balance between official and vernacular memory is what makes the show such an interesting site of Lincoln memory.
Another fascinating dichotomy in the site is the interaction between commercialization and historical commemoration. It is difficult to reconcile a landmark such as Disneyland, which is associated with frivolity and commercialism, with the creation and promotion of a show that is meant to seriously memorialize a historical figure. There is no question that the development of the Lincoln animatronic show was primarily motivated by a desire to create advanced technology and eventually serve as an attraction for the Disney franchise. However, it is known that Disney had an enormous respect for Lincoln and his achievements, so although commercialized, the site is still one that honors Lincoln . Unfortunately, there is the reality that, no matter the intent behind the site, it serves fairly poorly as an actual honor of Lincoln’s memory. Disneyland is an outrageously expensive place, which straightaway filters the demographics of people who are able to visit. For those who do have the means, after shelling out a lot of money to get inside, most people decide to go straight for the food and rides rather than the historical attractions, especially when they can go to sites such as the Lincoln memorial for free. As for the people who do attend the show, many are parents attempting to instill at least a small bit of education into their Disneyland vacation. Given the fact that their children are often being coerced into viewing the show, it results in a slightly resentful audience who are perhaps not as engaged as Disney would have wanted.
On a larger scale, there is also an issue with the way that the public perceives the show. Many people view animatronics as an outdated, slightly unnerving technology. However, the most recent version of the Lincoln figure “represents several major milestones for Audio-Animatronics figures.” Unfortunately, many still consider the technology to be unsettling, with the increased realism only adding to their discomfort. This aversion to the form of presentation might be a distracting factor in a viewer’s experience of the show. Rather than focusing on the information being presented and coming away from the show with a newfound knowledge of Lincoln, a viewer might focus on the strangeness of the entire experience.
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