Los Disneys is the work of artist Jay Kristopher Huddy
The images you see in this editorial are the property of their respective owners
People who say to get politics out of video games are idiots. Even if we take this talking point at face value (spoiler alert: it’s not “politics” they actually want out of video games), it’s a stance only taken by cowards and the ill-informed. For video games to be seen as a legitimate art form it needs to be free to have thoughts and opinions because art is ALWAYS political to a certain extent, and some of our greatest pieces of creative expression exist to convey a message; not just to look or sound nice. Now there are still arguments to be had about what constitutes hate speech, how much power platform holders should have in controlling the market, and making sure the wrong games don’t get into the wrong hands (i.e. effective rating systems), but we can’t even get THAT far into the discussion if everyone wants to deploy the ban hammer on the mere IDEA of having something to say. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s talk about the game where you blow up Disney World.
Los Disneys of Former Florida! Free, Independent, and Ever Expanding!
I honestly couldn’t tell you how I came across this game all those years ago (I think I might have been on a Controversial Games kick in high school) but it’s managed to stick with me even now. This mod of Bungie’s Marathon casts you as a spy infiltrating Disney World (now the capital of the state of Los Disneys) in order to destroy it before they have a chance to take over the world, and while the graphics and gameplay were somewhat archaic even when I first discovered it, the novelty of the well realized location is what drew me in and kept me playing. On the surface, it’s not all that different from other shock art we’ve seen aimed at Disney (*cough* Air Pirates *cough*), but the narrative is actually quite compelling and the art direction is strong enough that you want to keep pressing forward just to see what you’ll find around the next corner. Needless to say that Disney wasn’t too happy about all this which garnered a few headlines and only increased the game’s exposure at the time.
Now I always saw it as a merciless take down of Disney’s monolithic place in American (and to a certain extent, worldwide) culture, but then why would you take MY word for it when we can get the answers straight form the horse’s mouth!? No, not Horace Horsecollar!! I got in touch with the game’s creator, Jay Kristopher Huddy, and he was nice enough to answer a few questions about his career, the game, and its legacy!
Military Experiment ZSC-08390, also known as Jay
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today! For those who aren’t familiar with you and your work, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a rapper, actor, macker. No wait, that’s an Ice Cube lyric (true story). Me, I’m mostly an entertainment advertising artist. In that respect, I’ve designed art and copy for countless global ad campaigns as well as produced motion media for Nickelodeon, The Economist, and currently CBS Interactive. Independently, I’ve produced a few television pilots that never made it to air (see Dollar Theater and Busted for examples) and, in 1998, a video game you’ve somehow stumbled upon.
So how did this all start? What gave you the idea to make this shocking and inflammatory take down of the Disney Corporation, and what was the process like?
Disney is bigger and better than ever so I don’t know that I took down anything, nor did I intend to. The germ of this idea stemmed from a collection of urban legends and popular conspiracy theories that I cultivated into a fictionalized post-apocalyptic narrative along with my brilliant writing partner, Paul Weiss. We realized we didn’t have the means to make it into a movie but at the time, Bungie made some software available that led me to believe the story could be translated into a rudimentary first-person shooter. The limitations of the Marathon engine were actually an asset as it allowed us to lean more heavily on a rich storyline which I don’t think many people noticed in the shadow of the controversy it courted. Most just saw it as a cynical bloody shoot’em up, but if you really play through the game and achieve its objectives, it reveals all the twists and turns of a classic spy novel. To save you the time of playing it, here is the plot in a nutshell…
Steeped in national debt, the United States agrees to sell the peninsula of Florida to The Walt Disney Company in the largest North American land grab since the Louisiana Purchase. It’s soon declared a sovereign state and renamed Los Disneys, hence the title. (I later learned Paul may have come up with the name “Los Disneys” from part of an old role-playing game called “Car Wars” he played when he was a kid, so not sure if we can take credit.) Your job is to infiltrate the state capital in an attempt to seek and destroy the
cryonically-suspended head of the late Walt Disney who newly-appointed President Michael Eisner plans on re-animating in an attempt to take over the world.
(Spoilers below. Highlight if you wish to read them. If you want to play the game for yourself, you can download it from the website!)
However, doing so initiates a doomsday device which transforms Cinderella’s castle into launch pad for a nuclear device which will trigger similar devices beneath the waters surrounding the former Florida programmed to destroy every major metropolitan center on earth, clearing the way for a “Disney Planet.” While you do finish the game, there is no way of winning it as in the end it turns out (wait for it…) you were working for Disney all along! (Gasp!)
Throughout the game, this plot-twist is frequently telegraphed though numerous clues and Easter eggs. For example, the full map of the first level is eventually revealed to form the shape of a giant mouse head.
(End of spoilers)
Obviously, there are some subversive themes to be drawn from the story about commercialism or globalization, but it was truly meant as a good-natured parody. I could not have done it if I weren’t a true fan of Disney because for the year it took to develop, I really needed to live in that world. And while they may have had concerns about the dismal imagery at the time, I think it’s interesting to see the post-apocalyptic aesthetics of Los Disneys now mirrored in their own projects, like Epic Mickey.
So would you say that the game was an accurate representation of your feelings towards the company at the time or was it more about making fun of these anti-Disney urban legends and conspiracy theories? Have your views on the company changed since developing the game, either positively or negatively?
People are always expecting me to talk trash, but fact is I’ve been a Disney-fanatic from birth. My dad would load up the car in Western New York and drive our family to the parks in Orlando at least once a year. These are some of the fondest, most vivid memories of my childhood and so perhaps it’s little surprise that those memories so frequently become the paint and canvas for my creative expression.
The Los Disneys website, which is still active, has some very inflammatory material about the company including Exposé books from Carl Hiaasen and David Koenig as well as videos about the Walt Disney frozen head conspiracy, the SNL sketch Disney’s Vault, and clips of the Mickey Mouse knockoff from the Hamas-affiliated children’s show Tomorrow’s Pioneers (on the website, the clip is referred to as Osama Bin Mickey). Do you see the game as a legitimate way of introducing people to anti-Disney schools of thought, or was the intent of the game to be a good natured ribbing at such a ubiquitous staple of American culture?
I think it’s important to think differently about established institutions, to think outside the press kit. Despite enjoying a comfortable career in advertising, I believe perception ultimately defines a brand, despite a brand’s best efforts to define perception. The “Main Street Cinema” section is intended as a video library of reference for much of the material that inspired the fictionalized content for Los Disneys. Some examples are well-established while others have evolved more recently out of obscure, sometimes nefarious niches, but all are meant to exhibit diverse cultural and sub-cultural interpretations of a worldwide phenomenon. Everyone in the world shares a universal awareness of Disney, it’s something we all have in common, but see differently based on the context of our locality, geographic and otherwise.
When this game first came out, it caused a fair bit of controversy and garnered a few headlines. The oldest article I can find about it is an Entertainment Weekly piece from 1999 (you can still see it on their website here) that mentions a lawsuit Disney was trying to file. It even quotes a Disney spokeswoman as saying “For several weeks we talked but were unable to come to a mutually agreeable decision”. Can you tell us a bit about that and how the situation was resolved?
Leander Kahney actually did an earlier article for Wired called Sleeping Beauty Vs. The World, but I do remember Noah Robischon’s piece in Entertainment Weekly. In my more naïve post-graduate years I often headlined my cover letter to game design jobs with his quote, “Next video game CEO or senate sub-committee witness? You decide.” Despite all the ink I was getting, this strategy of exploiting the controversy proved wildly unsuccessful in getting a day job in the game industry— or anywhere else— but I’m also not yet a senate sub-committee witness, so I guess I broke even.
When they said “we talked,” that means “they talked,” that is, internally. I was never contacted by Disney. In fact, I would often joke that news articles were our form of communication; they’d read what I had to say about them and I’d read what they had to say about me, but direct contact was never made. I’m sure this is because I never acquired, nor sought to acquire, any financial gain from Los Disneys. I was also careful to state clearly on the site that this was a parody and neither I, nor the game, had any affiliation whatsoever with the Walt Disney Company. It’s basic first amendment stuff. Los Disneys was a purely artistic, non-commercial endeavor.
You created a second game a few years later called Blood of Bin Laden which was also a Marathon mod and focused on the War on Terror. How did this game come about, and what was your motivation for making it?
Blood of Bin Laden was my guttural reaction to 9-11. I was deeply shaken by this tragedy, and like most New Yorkers, Americans and indeed citizens of the world, I felt I needed to do, well, something. This was my something.
Looking back on it now, do you feel that Blood of Bin Laden was an appropriate or even necessary response in the wake of 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror? Do you look back on the game with any sort of chagrin considering how much things have changed since then?
Like Los Disneys, BOBL is more than just an outrageous shoot’em up. The levels were based on articles ripped from the headlines, and offered the player challenges like rescuing Heather Mercer and identifying the difference between air-dropped food rations and cluster bomb shells (which was a real concern during the initial invasion as they were visually indistinguishable in color and design).
The game takes you from the airport at Kabul to the mean streets of Kandahar, to the mountains of Tora Bora, all following a script dictated by, at the time, current events. That said, I did include a secret add-on level where the player could shoot a hundred defenseless Osama Bin Ladens, and while to some that may seem inhumane, you will not find me quick to apologize. It’s Osama fucking Bin Laden.
Getting back to Los Disneys, we’re coming up on twenty years since the game’s initial release on Mac and ten years since the Windows/Linux release. What kind of legacy do you feel the game has built up in that time, and are satisfied with how it all turned out?
God, that makes me feel old. What was the question?
There was a movie in 2013 called Escape from Tomorrow that was shot entirely within Disney World and Disneyland without Disney knowing about it, and it is similarly antagonistic towards the company as your game is. Have you seen the movie and have people brought it to your attention due to the similarities?
Know it. Saw it. Loved it. It’s an outstanding example of subversive art. I put it right up there with Banksy’s Dismaland. For a brief time, I had a personal Twitter account I seldom used and Escape from Tomorrow’s director Randy Moore was one of my eight, count them, eight followers. Respect.
Your most recent project is something called Disney’s Ride Archive which is a sort of proof of concept video about a way for Disney to preserve the legacy of their original theme park rides and attractions; many of which are no longer available as the park has changed over time. How did this project come about?
Firstly, Matt, let me address a tweet in which you wrote about the concept art, saying, “Wait a god damn minute. That’s a missile. He’s fucking with us.” In fact, the image you’re referring to is the “TWA Moonliner” an original attraction at Disneyland. However, I removed the TWA logo considering 1.) the company no longer exists and 2.) the crash of TWA Flight 800 which contributed to the company’s collapse, I thought it in poor taste to associate TWA with a downed aircraft. (Evidently, I’m finally striving to avoid controversy in my old age.)
That’s right! When doing my research for this interview I found the Ride Archie video and thought the idea was REALLY cool, but I honestly couldn’t tell how sincere it was. I’m a huge fan of early Tim & Eric stuff (mostly Tom Goes to the Mayor) and the style of the video reminded me a lot of that which set off my cynicism alarm. Also, I thought the Moonliner was reference to Los Disneys which prominently featured Disney branded missiles! You’re interview with Dizney Coast to Coast however cleared a lot of that up for me. Have you gotten any cynical reactions from people thinking this is a goof, or has the reception been overwhelmingly sincere and positive?
I’m cautiously both surprised and humbled by the seemingly genuine and universal outpouring of love I’ve seen for this project– particularly coming from the birthplace of cynicism’s renaissance, namely social media and the internet at large.
The way The Ride Archive has united the enthusiasm of so many radically different people is especially unique given the current climate of partisanship and social division. I suppose it’s a sign both ends of the current ideological spectrum long to go back in time, albeit for completely different reasons. In the immortal words of The Eagles, “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.”
It certainly seems to have sparked an interest in many people, so let’s get back to how Disney’s Ride Archive came about and your vision of it.
The idea for the Ride Archive started when I was very young. Going to the parks was such a powerful experience that leaving them filled me with a profound emptiness. So much so that when I was ten years old, I started building a scale model of Epcot based on postcards, maps and souvenir photo books I got at the parks, as well as some great behind-the-scenes coffee table books I took out from our local library. I laid out the grounds with a roll of model train grass and Woodland Scenics shrubbery, spray-painted a soccer ball silver and made it my Spaceship Earth, built a Communicore East out of cardboard (with interiors) and got pretty far with some bendy straws and tinfoil on my favorite ride, Horizons.
Years later, in 1997, our family went on our last trip to the parks together. Not knowing when I’d ever have the means to visit again (and suddenly blessed with accessibility to consumer video equipment) I filled a backpack with VHS tapes, strapped on an old RCA camcorder the size of a microwave oven and I taped everything I saw from an objective first-person perspective. Like a Disney Parks version of Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera,” I tried to exclude myself and my family from the narrative completely, to create a POV re-creation that could be enjoyed by any viewer as though he or she were experiencing it themselves. I even taped the experience of waiting in lines (though I did viewers the courtesy of editing it down in post). That footage still exists today on three six-hour VHS tapes, with labels carefully handwritten in marker, “Virtual Tours Incorporated.”
Some years later, I visited Epcot as an adult with my girlfriend, Flora. It was her first time and I was super-excited to show her Horizons, probably my favorite ride ever. I knew the layouts of the Orlando parks well. Heck, I could hit every ride blindfolded, so I didn’t even bother to pick up a map. But soon I found myself dragging Flora back and forth between Universe of Energy and Test Track (which at least still resembled World of Motion), trying to find even the slightest recognizable trace of the original Horizons. It was nowhere to be seen and this floored me. Was it all a dream? Did I just imagine it? Since then, I’ve connected with countless others around the world who also lament over the loss of these childhood memories while the advent of YouTube has given us grainy glimpses of proof that they did in fact exist.
Many people wish they could relive their childhood. The problem is each person’s childhood is extremely specific– with a few universally-shared exceptions. The books we’ve read, the music we’ve listened to, the movies we’ve seen, and indeed, the theme park rides we’ve ridden.
The dark ride is mechanical performance art. We preserve art in so many forms, whether it’s paintings, literature, sculpture, music, or architecture. All of these are singularly embodied in a theme park ride and yet no one seems concerned with preserving that unifying cultural experience.
The Ride Archive is, it seems to me, an obvious necessity. Inevitably, Disney will do this, whether it’s tomorrow, or next year or fifty years from now. I just want to be around to see it which is why I’ve created a petition at RideArchive.com to encourage them to get started. The sooner Disney starts preserving rides and attractions, the more accurately representations of these lost experiences can be captured for future generations.
Simply put, it’s a good idea. It’s well-intended, well-conceived, and well-executed. It benefits Disney’s shareholders, it benefits their consumers, and if done right, it benefits the preservation of a positive American cultural institution. It’s win-win-win.
You mentioned in a recent interview with Dizney Coast to Coast that some people within Disney did in fact reach out to you about this idea. Was there any mention about Los Disneys or do you feel that anyone you were interacting with were aware of the game?
All I know is, I certainly never mentioned it.
I’ve gotta ask. Any chance for a Los Disneys sequel?
By me? Not a chance. I’ve got stuff to do. But if any renegade game designers out there want to pick up the mantle, please call it “Disney Planet” and at some point feature a giant fire-breathing Mechazilla-style mouse called “Mechy-Mouse.” That’s all I ask.
If people wanted to know more about you and your work, where should they start?
If you want to make the Ride Archive happen, take literally two minutes and sign the petition at RideArchive.com. As for the rest of it, Google’s always a good start. (Seriously, check it out. Google’s got everything.)
Once again, I’d like to thank Jay for giving such thoughtful and interesting answers to these questions, and you can also find his very impressive portfolio of work here! Also, someone better get on that sequel idea! I want to fight robots on Disney Planet!!