Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Explorers Adrift on a Troubled S.E.A.

If you've spent much time in the Disney Parks community, you've certainly heard about the Society of Explorers and Adventurers - or S.E.A. for short. What started as a park-wide storyline in Tokyo DisneySea has now spread to nearly every Disney resort, with references and story elements being folded into restaurants, rides, and even water parks. There's been discussion about whether the swell of the S.E.A. is a good thing or not for the parks, but this discussion has masked a different question that needs to be asked:

Is S.E.A. a good organization? 

          I think the presumed answer, by both fans and Disney itself, is yes. Guests generally take things in the park at face value and if something is cool, it's generally considered "good". So too, S.E.A. has been hyped up by Disney as a marketing tool and generally cool group. Looking at the context of S.E.A. and its attractions across the parks, however, I think there's a fair amount of evidence within S.E.A.'s history to suggest that the organization is more murky than it might first appear. Let's see what we can dig up on this fabled adventure society. 

Like all good non-supervillianous organizations, S.E.A. had its humble origins in a fortress at the base of a volcano. 

          First - its ethos. S.E.A., if you trace its history back, was first founded in Renaissance times, and was based on goals of exploring the world through science. The size of the organization in this time period is unknown, though we do know the group was based in a seaside fortress and counted Magellan and Da Vinci amongst its members. Because there's no other attractions focused around this time period, we don't have a whole lot of other information about this period in S.E.A.'s history, (though to speculate, Tokyo's upcoming Soarin' attraction may add something to the lore). We can't even say for sure whether the later 19th and 20th century organization is actually a continuation of the same S.E.A. seen in Fortress Explorations, or if it's a completely new iteration. Nevertheless, everything we do know about this period in S.E.A.'s history suggests they are fairly ideologically pure. 

          If the two organizations are one and the same, then S.E.A.'s purpose has changed a bit in the intervening centuries, as the explorers seem to have given way to the adventurers. This is the period we are more familiar with - the S.E.A. of the pulp adventure era, of characters like Harrison Hightower III and Lord Henry Mystic. It's also the era in which we begin to see some questionable morality. 

          Pictured here is the totality of S.E.A. membership in 1899. Eight members who look ready for explorations into the unknown. But beyond their penchant for exploration, what do we really know about these people? As it turns out, we know a few of them quite well. 

          Harrison Hightower III (on the end of the group photo and pictured above) is a wealthy real estate tycoon who also happens to be a world famous explorer. He's also a pretentious fellow, believing himself to be above others, and even further above the natives of the far-flung lands he travels to. He also hoards the treasures he collects in secret storage in his hotel, refusing to share them with the public despite having a large space in which to do so. Eventually his ego is his undoing at the hands of a cursed idol. A prominent member of S.E.A.? Certainly! A great human being? Not so much

          The fine fellow is none other than Lord Henry Mystic, here accompanied by mischievous monkey companion Albert. Like Harrison Hightower, he's a ranking member of S.E.A. with a penchant for collecting rare antiquities. Unlike Harry, he's a bit more benevolent, opening up his house for tours of his collection. More evidence of his kindly disposition: his rescue and adoption of Albert the Monkey. For all his kindness, though, Lord Henry is a bit foolish. Often he stumbles close to great discoveries before his monkey Albert actually discovers them. While Henry doesn't totally buy into the supernatural, he is a bit more respectful of it, taking care not to touch dangerous magical artifacts. Still, leaving cursed objects lying around endangers his guests (read: us) with him none the wiser. That's at least a little irresponsible. 

          Finally, we come to the lone lady of the bunch: Mary Oceaneer. Though a sea (S.E.A.?) captain by trade, she's more of an old-fashioned treasure hunter at heart. Not only does she have pet parrots, but she also occasionally hosts "pirate nights" onboard her vessel. Mary possesses an ability to roll with whatever situation befalls her, and she's also the only known member of S.E.A. to use a laboratory on her adventures. Ironically (given her piratical tendencies), if anyone embodies the original S.E.A. ethos in this group, it's Mary Oceaneer. 

          Between these three characters, we see that S.E.A. members can range from egotistical to a fault, to benevolent yet irresponsible, to idealistic and adventurous. Make no mistake - as characters the members of S.E.A. are well fleshed out and interesting, especially so for theme park characters. But what exactly do they tell us about S.E.A. as a whole?

          Looking at the commonalities of this membership, we can derive a few truths. First, the original S.E.A. ethos of scientific exploration has mostly been abandoned in favor of the pursuit of riches. While some members, such as Captain Oceaneer, still give some weight to science, other members have appeared to turn towards myth. In actuality, the members of S.E.A. don't really seem to take even myth seriously. One member has met a fate worse than death, while another has recklessly endangered his guests thanks to blatant disregard of his own discovery. Members are certainly interested in acquiring rare artifacts, but there seems a curious lack of interest in actually understanding them. When you look at their experiences, it makes a certain sort of sense. The members of S.E.A. are rich, they've traveled, and they think they've seen everything. Why should anything be able to touch them?*

          Of course, we know better, though it is doubtful the members would actually listen to us. With such a small membership consisting of some few wealthy elite, S.E.A. is exclusionary. Consider this: though there are a wide variety of S.E.A. attractions throughout Disney parks, none of them place us in the role of S.E.A. members. In most we are simply visitors who have been allowed into spaces we normally would never get to see through some fluke or stroke of luck. While Mary Oceaneer is perhaps the most welcoming and willing to host us in various settings, it is also an interesting subtext that she is the only woman in the group. The others? Much more of an old boys' club. Were the proprietors of Skipper Canteen not so obsessed with stealing a fast buck, we would never have seen the group's secret boardroom tucked away in the back. 

          I think much of this boys' club/secret society vibe is intentional, and is actually used to great effect in shaping atmosphere across the S.E.A. attractions. These are places we aren't meant to be, which adds something to their mystique. It's good themed design, and a great way to flesh out adventure-themed areas by covering tropes the lands originally never touched. But is it good that a society that thinks it knows what's best for the world's antiquities (but clearly doesn't) isn't open to new members (us) or new ideas?

          Later in the S.E.A. storyline, more members are admitted, including Jock Lindsay - Indiana Jones' friend  and pilot, who is overcome when he finds the very touristy "Fountain of Youth". The organization's inclusion of members like him, as well as collaboration with the owners of the dubiously credentialed Jungle Cruise in S.E.A.'s later years have led some on here to suggest S.E.A. declines fairly early in the 20th century, and I'm inclined to agree. However, I believe the decline starts here - in S.E.A.'s "Golden Age" - when ideology is pushed aside for the cultural and fiscal enrichment of various members. By failing to adhere to S.E.A.'s founding principles - of disciple, curiosity, and inclusion - the 1899 Society of Explorers and Adventurers has already begun to falter. 

          I cannot help but wonder if Disney is prescient to the implications of this storyline. I sense they know that S.E.A. as a society is flawed, and I actually think that's great for telling stories. S.E.A.'s existence in a morally grey area allows for much more interesting subtext in attractions, as well as some small degree of historical accuracy, if not to the actual time period then to the pulp era of serial fiction. S.E.A. is an exploration of pulp adventure in virtually every way, and to ignore the themes and conflicts of its source fiction would leave it naught but a hollow tribute . 

          Still, if this narrative holds true, S.E.A. does have one major issue that goes beyond the story: it's exclusion of guests from the society. We may visit S.E.A. buildings and characters, but we are forever locked into an outsider's perspective when it comes to their stories. Of course, if S.E.A. is not quite a purely good organization, perhaps it's better to not let your guests join in, lest you lump them in with S.E.A.'s issues. Still, an outsider's perspective has limits, especially when you're cutting off people from truly becoming an "Explorer/Adventurer" in a park where dreams are supposed to come true. 

          I sense the Imagineers understand this issue, which is why they've already taken steps to address it by creating a new society that is everything S.E.A. is not: the League of Adventurers. Located in Adventure Isle in Shanghai Disneyland, the League is one of the driving forces of the entire land. The League is inclusive - not only featuring a diverse membership from around the world, but also recruiting all guests - both Chinese and international -  as members on the quest to find the source of Roaring Mountain's namesake and explore the Isle. What's more, none of the members are eccentric millionaires. Most are specialized scientists with a healthy smattering of cultural researchers mixed in. Speaking of cultural research, the League's scientists study the Arbori - the tribal people of the land, but never deride or condescend to them, instead choosing to work in collaboration (a sharp contrast to the disdain of Hightower or the clumsiness of Mystic). If S.E.A. represents an age of exploration past, then the League** represents its future. All this despite the two organizations being largely contemporaries of each other. 

          I bring up the League of Adventurers not to disparage S.E.A., but to point out that S.E.A.'s design is both largely intentional and largely recognized. All too often in Disney theme parks the past is idealized to an extreme degree. After all, Disney prides itself on being an escape from the real world. Main Street is devoid of any racial or economic tensions from the time, and Frontierland takes no issue with Manifest Destiny. One could easily chalk this difference in design ethos to a generational gap, but even newer iterations on the formula - Animal Kingdom's Asia and Africa for instance - still view the past and even present with rose-tinted glasses - removal of the poaching references in Kilimanjaro and complete omission of political and social strife in Asia are but a few examples. 

Kali River Rapids has this logging segment, but its promptly forgotten as soon as you get soaked.  

          But the S.E.A. storyline is different. With this through-line, Disney is working on creating a themed past that isn't necessarily rosy or quite as idealized, one where not everything is black and white. This is a narrative that actively portrays certain S.E.A. members as immoral, yet still features them as protagonists. Cultural issues, bigotry and elitism not only exist, but are acknowledged. What's more, by allowing guests to see S.E.A. in different time periods, we're also able to understand that these issues have consequences in the fictional world, just as they do in the real one. This is theming that goes beyond simple facades or a basic ride storyline, and it's very ambitious to say the least. It's not quite a Westworld park storyline that will redefine your whole conception of reality, but its certainly enough to start guests thinking about the problems of the past and how they might affect the world today. And its certainly more thought-provoking than most modern park additions. 

          S.E.A. is intentionally flawed an an organization, yes, but it is generally strong themed design, and as such gets to ask much more interesting questions than theme parks traditionally ask. For that reason, I'm excited to see where the story goes from here, though I'm even more excited for the possibilities this story structure could allow with other, original plot lines. Could we get a more developed storyline in Frontierland? How about some interesting setup for Tomorrowland? Should Disney ever turn back to less-IP driven content, such ideas could become a possibility, and they have a strong model from which to work. 

          Though S.E.A. is clearly an experiment and has had its share of failure, it still possesses some wonderful attributes. The storyline itself instills a belief that wonders exist in world beyond our wildest dreams, that adventure lurks around even the most unlikely of corners. So too, it inspires the potential for stronger, more immersive themed environments that challenge guests. It's ambitious, vast, and deep. But then, what did you expect? It's the S.E.A., and I couldn't think of a better place to embark for grander adventures then we've yet known. 

*In case you may not think this theme is intentional, the motif of hubris within the organization is reinforced with the tale of Big Thunder Mountain's S.E.A. members. Member Jason Chandler writes to member Barnabas T. Bullion, warning him of going too far and risking Big Thunder's wrath. Bullion, a member in the mold of Hightower, fails to listen. 

**Interestingly, the two organizations have not officially interacted as of yet, with Adventure Isle only indirectly referencing S.E.A. thru a brief mention of Tokyo's Indiana Jones Adventure. As for what the future holds, I can't be certain, though I suspect S.E.A. will continue to spread while the League will stay in its small pocket of the Disney universe. 

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