Even at my age, whenever September rolls around, I find myself with an odd, nagging feeling in the back of my mind. There’s something looming, something just around the corner. And I know what it is. It’s… Back to School. For students, spontaneous trips to the Magic Kingdom have to wait for next summer. And thirty years ago, the park reflected that in shorter hours and less entertainment offerings. Fireworks ended on Labor Day, signaling a change in seasons for Disneyland devotees.
Thirty years ago I was already out of school, and so visiting Disneyland was not an issue. But for those who could not easily get away, there was a “virtual” way to spend a few hours in the happiest place on earth, without even leaving the comfort of one’s own room. In June, 1990, CAPCOM USA released “your ticket to breath-taking Adventures in the Magic Kingdom!” I do not know how many kids were playing this during the summer months. But by the fall it was likely a lot of them were eagerly loading the chunky plastic cassette into their state-of-the-art Nintendo Entertainment Systems.
I would like to report that visiting the virtual version of the Magic Kingdom was just like the real thing. Or sort of like the real thing. Or even remotely like the real thing. But the real reality is… it wasn’t. The castle on the cover was Walt Disney World’s Cinderella’s Castle, but the castle on the start screen was definitely not.
After marveling at the intricately detailed rendering of the virtual castle, you next entered your character name on a simple registration screen. Fun note: you could choose any (and I do mean ANY) name you wanted. And Mickey would cheerfully address you (in printed text) by that name for the rest of the game.
Finally, you were introduced to Disney stars Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Goofy. In extremely limited animation and text they explain that they are facing a dilemma— it is almost time to start the big parade, but the castle gate is locked! It seems that Goofy has misplaced all SIX of the keys that are required to open it, and your task is to go on five different attractions to find the keys, and to “ask around” for the sixth one. Return them to Mickey and everyone will be able to enjoy the parade.
Finally, you got to enter the Magic Kingdom. The layout is definitely based on Disneyland, but the execution is somewhat lacking. You start out (logically) in Town Square…
Head north on Main Street USA, mindful of the alluring shops on each side. Like the ice cream cone shop. And the clock shop. And the… candy cane shop? And… the… medical flag shop?
Finally, you arrive at the center of the park, graced by a stately castle, but not entrances to the cardinal realms of Disneyland.
We will experience the five attractions of Adventures in the Magic Kingdom starting on the west side with Pirates of the Caribbean, and proceeding clockwise. No annoying lines in this virtual kingdom, simply guide your character into the black void at the entrance and Mickey will be waiting inside with instructions.
The Pirates of the Caribbean game involves rescuing townspeople (all maidens as it turns out) and lighting a signal fire once they are safe.
The first thing you notice when sailing in your boat to the village is that the background music is unlike anything you have heard in any Disney theme park. Were extra royalties not paid? Furthermore, you have to get out of your boat and jump around the levels of the burning village, drop down into the treasure chamber, and avoid pirates rolling barrels and blasting cannons.
The single biggest satisfaction to lighting the signal fire and sailing away is leaving behind the fairly short “Caribbean” flavored background music, as well as savoring the awarding of the first key. Any expectations of a ceremony or even an animated moment is dashed, however, by the appearance of a picture of a bearded townsperson (what, not a diminutive maiden?), who tells you (rather than shows you) of his gratitude.
Traveling north through the frighteningly accurate depiction of the Magic Kingdom’s westside (and yes, I’m being sarcastic), we next encounter the Haunted Mansion. The little gray Pez lined up on the front lawn, as well as the leering banshee depicted over the front entrance identifies the triple-gabled house on the river.
Mickey, or at least a picture of Mickey, is again on hand to explain the objective here: get through the Mansion and its graveyard, and defeat the ghost in the final room. Or something like that.
It is nighttime as you make your way through the graveyard outside the mansion, always accompanied by a flying ghost in a red nightshirt. Once inside, the house offers a series of rooms that are vaguely analogous to the ones seen in the attraction (corridor, ballroom, Great Hall, room full of singing busts…). For some mysterious reason, these rooms are accessed by nimbly leaping onto floating chairs, which carry you not through the house, but up to higher and higher floors. Adding to the disorientation is another completely original background score, this one on an even shorter loop.
Once you’ve escaped this harrowing ordeal, you meet up with Goofy, who awards you with the second key. That leaves just four more to acquire.
Words truly fail in attempting describe the third of the five “attractions” in Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Big Thunder Mountain is the northernmost on the board, and is easily the most carelessly adapted attraction-to-game. The basic premise is that you are hurtled from the top of the screen to the bottom in a mine car, traveling over a network of interconnected tracks. Along the way boulders appear, tracks end, and even if you manage to get to the end of the ride, you have to be in the correct station. It is, simply, an exercise in memorization. It is also an exercise in madness, as this game’s original theme is perhaps the shortest, simply playing faster and faster as you get to the end.
Continuing over to the east side of the park, one encounters the Autopia. For some baffling reason, this thrilling racing game is located in a building, with another familiar black, oblong entrance. Once inside, Mickey (now back in his familiar red pants and yellow shoes) informs you that the key has been stolen by Panhandle Pete, and he’s challenged you to a race for its ultimate possession.
There is no real effort to identify the cars or drivers, and no sense that “Panhandle Pete” is in any of them. The challenge is to avoid going off the road, driving into water, or. crashing into another car. There are a few twists (ramps allow you to jump over other drivers), but for the most part it’s a pretty straightforward racing game. From 1990.
Of interest to pedantic Disney historians, however, is the character who briefly appears to hand over “da’ key.” Identified by Mickey at the entrance as “Panhandle Pete,” the image appears to be none other than Peg-Leg Pete, complete with mashed fedora and chin stubble (but no peg leg). Pete, of course, tangled with Mickey in his first cartoon release, Steamboat Willie. But Pete actually debuted in 1925, in the Alice Comedies, and even menaced Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Pete is, simply, the oldest continuing character in the Disney stock company. He can still be found lurking about in reruns of House of Mouse (as the club’s grumpy landlord), in the new Mickey shorts (“Get a Horse”) and in modern video games.
The fifth (and final) attraction to be conquered is Space Mountain. After seeking out the big black entrance doors to the other attractions, this one is a bit harder to find. It is located in the southeast corner of the park, and is accessed by aiming your avatar at the diagonal lines extending from the entrance.
Once inside Mickey (inexplicably NOT dressed as a spaceman) reveals that the key you are seeking is on Star “F.” Just… Star “F.” But Mickey also offers to navigate as you fly past Stars “A” through “E.” He does this by indicating which direction to steer to avoid approaching spaceships, or when to fire to destroy meteorites.
The game play seems somewhat simplistic (when instructed, push the button in the direction indicated), but it also seems oddly familiar. Isn’t this pretty much the experience guests are treated to in Mission Space and Smuggler’s Run? Who knew pushing buttons would prove to be such a durable entertainment for Disney theme park guests.
Once you have successfully navigated to Planet “F” Mickey (inexplicable dressed AS a spaceman) presents you with your silver key. Only one more to go!
You may recall that one key is available by “asking around” for it. This requires two skills: navigating the virtual Magic Kingdom, and answering Disney trivia questions. Yes, the “asking” that is done is directed at you!
Unlike the unvirtual Magic Kingdom, this place is strangely underpopulated. In fact, while wandering about you will encounter only one other guest. You will find this lonely individual quietly standing at the end of Main Street. After a bit of back and forth about the missing key they finally offer to give it to you if… you will answer a random question about Disney history. It’s multiple choice, and a correct answer gains you… no key. Just instructions about where the key might be. As in “I think someone over by the castle may have the key.”
And you’re off.
Each of the various individuals that are hanging about in the virtual Magic Kingdom start out friendly enough, but then the excuses begin. “Only a real friend of Mickey would know the answer to this question…” It reaches the point where they are simply taunting you. The key is by Space Mountain! The key is yours if you answer this question! The key was carried off by a dog (really)!
Eventually, the sad little residents of the virtual Magic Kingdom take pity on you and hand over the sixth and final key. Please note that you may collect them in any order you prefer. But you do need to collect all six and take them back to Mickey. Remember? He needs the keys to open the castle so the big parade can begin.
Sure enough, as soon as Mickey sees those keys (did I mention that we never actually see the keys?), he offers his profound thanks and immediately shows you the castle gates.
The marching band joins Mickey, and he sets off (presumably) to open the gates and start the parade. The first time I finished this game, I settled in for my reward. After helplessly watching my Big Thunder mine car crash over and over again, I felt I really deserved whatever entertaining spectacle the best minds at Disney and CAPCOM USA (c. 1990) could devise. With heart pounding, I watched the gates swing open. The screen faded to black. And…
I probably should have written SPOILER ALERT at the beginning of this blog. Just in case there is anyone who plans to rush right out and dig up an NES system and a working cartridge of Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Disney and CAPCOM won’t tell you, but I will. SPOILER ALERT: NO PARADE.
There, now I feel better.