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Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 1

Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 1

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On Saturday May 20th, 1,400 Disneyland fans will gather in New Orleans Square to take part in the special ticketed "Celebrating the Pirates of the Caribbean" event. These folks will have paid $85 apiece for the privilege of paying tribute to what many call the greatest theme park ride ever created.

As part of the evening's festivities, these guests can attend a panel discussion featuring many of the folks who helped create this legendary attraction. These Imagineers are sure to reveal many never- before- told tales about the creation of the original "Pirates" (which - even though it's 33 years old - still regularly tops guest satisfaction surveys as the most popular ride in all of Disneyland).

While the stories these old timers will tell about "Pirates" are sure to be intriguing, it is a shame that the folks at Disneyland's Special Events office won't allow these veteran Imagineers to take questions from the audience. Imagine what sort of queries these guys would get from such a hardcore group of Disneyana fans.

Questions like: "Why is that you guys never made a ride that topped 'Pirates'?"

If master Imagineer (and chief concept design of "Pirates") Marc Davis were still alive, I know how he'd answer that question.

"We *DID* design a ride that topped 'Pirates.' But those $@%$&?#! in Burbank never let us build the thing."

What would Marc have been talking about?

"Western River Expedition."

Just that name is enough to drive Disneyana fans of a certain age off the deep end. First they'll tell you about the model they saw 'way back in the '70s while touring the post-show area of "The Walt Disney Story" at WDW's Magic Kingdom. Then they'll gibber about the amazing production paintings they saw for this proposed attraction and how they dreamed of someday getting the chance to ride the thing.

Normally, Disney doesn't like the public to see concept art from "Western River Expedition" (WRE). Afterwards, these folks tend to ask questions that the current Mouse management team just finds difficult to answer. Questions like "How come something that looks this good never made it off the drawing board?"

But - last month - as part of the "Tribute to Marc Davis" that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, the Imagineering Research Center did display some of Davis's marvelous concept paintings for this proposed attraction. And - as people stood around in the Grand Lobby, marveling what may well be Marc's best work - that same old question was heard again.

How come something that looks this good never made it off the drawing board?

It's a long sad story, folks. Full of artists working at the top of their form, only to be undercut by guys who only cared about the bottom line.

Sound familiar?

Well, this time, we're not talking about the Walt Disney Company in the year 2000. This story starts 'way back in the Spring of 1967 ... Six months after Walt Disney had died ... Just weeks after Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" had first opened to the public.

It should have been a time for celebrating. After all, the last attraction that Walt Disney had personally supervised was proving to a huge hit with the public. Record crowds were daily pouring through the gates at Disneyland, eager to set sail on "Pirates of the Caribbean."

But - back at WED - the Imagineers were worried about other pirates. Corporate raiders, to be exact. Huge companies like General Electric, Gulf & Western and Litton Industries, who were supposedly circling the company like hungry sharks. Eager to make a deal should Roy decide to put Walt Disney Productions up for sale.

That may seem like a pretty laughable scenario now. But - back in the Spring of 1967 - this sort of talk was rampant at Walt Disney Productions. For it was well known that Roy had been actively trying to retire when Walt suddenly passed away in December 1966. The scuttlebutt around Burbank was that the elder Disney was still thinking of packing it in and selling the whole company off to the highest bidder.

Again, given what we know now in the year 2000, it's hard to imagine that Roy would ever think of selling off Walt Disney Productions. But - in 1967 - the elder Disney *DID* seriously consider an offer from Westinghouse to acquire the company. Word of the proposed deal somehow got out to Disney Productions employees ... and panic quickly swept throughout the company.

Since folks feared for their very jobs, they were eager - desperate even - for some indication from Roy that Walt Disney Productions was not in fact up for sale. But the elder Disney - who was typically a very private person - became almost a recluse while he mourned for his brother. For weeks, he'd stay away from the studio - preferring the seclusion of his Toluca Lake home. Since no one knew for sure what Roy's future plans for the company might be, wild rumors regularly began racing through the company.

Of all the divisions of Walt Disney Productions, WED probably had it the worst in this situation. For work on Imagineering's next big project - Disney World - had virtually ground to a halt following in the wake of Walt's death. No one at WED knew for certain when - or if - work would ever get underway again on the Florida project.

Since many of the Imagineers' jobs depended on Disney World going forward, lots of folks at WED spent hours on the phone that spring. They'd call their friends back in Burbank several times a day, eager for any new information about Roy and the Westinghouse deal.

Every hour, it seemed like there was a different story coming out of Disney corporate headquarters. Scary scenarios like "Westinghouse only wants to run the studio and Disneyland. If the deal does go through, the Florida project's dead as a doornail." Or "I hear Roy's sick now too. He'll never live long enough to complete Disney World." Or - worst of all - "Well, of course Roy doesn't want to go forward with the Florida project. The one guy who actually knew how to build the thing is dead!"

It was a scary, scary time to be an Imagineer. Which makes Marc Davis's behavior in the Spring of 1967 all the more admirable. Other folks at WED filled their days with fear and gossip.

Marc just worked.

Rather than give into the terror that was paralyzing so many other Imagineers, Davis just came in every day, sat at his desk and drew. He worked up scenes for Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion." And - when Marc temporarily ran out of ideas for the "Mansion" project - he switched over to making character sketches for the Bear band show Walt had hoped to build for the Mineral King, CA. ski area project.

And - after he ran through all of his ideas for these projects - Marc toyed with ways he could improve Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Why look for ways to improve an attraction that was already a huge hit with the public? Marc wasn't entirely happy with the way "Pirates" had turned out. Why for? Well, that Anaheim favorite ended up looking the way today because Disney's "Pirates" ride was originally supposed to be a walk-through attraction.

Strange but true, folks. Then known as "The Rogues Gallery," this walk- through attraction was supposed to have been the centerpiece of Disneyland's newest "land," New Orleans Square. Intriguingly, this pirate themed show - as originally designed - would have been presented below ground, in a huge basement-like area below the streets and shops of New Orleans Square.

Guests would have entered "Rogues Gallery" by walking down a steep set of stairs. Once they were below ground, a Disneyland hostess would have lead the tour group past various gruesome set pieces while spieling a humorous narration for the show.

Using a live tour guide to lead guests through a Disney theme park attraction might sound a little strange today. But - in 1961-62 - WED had yet to develop a continuously moving ride system like the omni-mover. So the walking tour approach seemed to the only way the Imagineers could move large numbers of people through atmospheric, story-driven attractions like "The Rogues Gallery." (A similar walking tour scenario had already been mapped out that other soon-to-be-opened Disneyland attraction, "The Haunted Mansion.")

The Imagineers were confident that the walking tour approach would work with their "Rogues Gallery" show. Walt wasn't so sure. He worried that ñ what with Disneyland's ever increasing attendance ñ there was no way a walk- through version of "Rogues Gallery" could be able to handle the huge number of visitors who would daily try to experience Disney's new pirate show. So Walt ordered construction stopped on New Orleans Square while he and his Imagineers figured out a way to solve "Rogues Gallery" 's capacity problem.

Now please keep in mind that Disney had already poured $3 million dollars into New Orleans Square when he called a halt to construction in late 1961. All work at the site stopped. That foundation hole stood empty - its structural steel rusting - for the next three years.

But Walt had faith that his Imagineers would eventually find a way to fix "Rogues Gallery" 's capacity problem. And - a year or so later - they actually did.

What ended up saving Walt's pirates was a ride system that WED had originally designed for a much kinder, gentler attraction: "it's a small world." This revolutionary system - which quickly and quietly moved hundreds of guests an hour through a show building by using flat bottomed boats that were gently pushed along a ride track via a clever system of water jets and conveyor belts - had worked out great at the 1964 New York World's Fair. It seemed the perfect solution to Disneyland's pirate show problems.

This new ride system solved "Rogues Gallery"'s capacity concerns as well as neatly fit into the waterfront theming of Disneyland's latest "land." The only downside of using this water- based system was that there was no way the attraction would now fit into New Orleans Square's basement area it had originally been designed for.

So Marc and the Imagineers had to map out a whole new floor plan for Disneyland's Pirate attraction. They eventually decided to build "Rogues Gallery" show building (which - by now - had been renamed "Pirates of the Caribbean") outside the berm. This meant that the basement area under New Orleans Square was now just transitional space - though which boatloads of guests would have to be moved from the show's first floor entrance area down to the attraction's watery track (and - once their ride was through - back up to the unload area).

What made this doubly difficult was that - since most of the money for "Pirates" had already been budgeted for the AA figures to be featured in the scenes presented in the main show building - there was virtually no money left to theme the basement area under New Orleans Square. So Marc and his Imagineers had to come up with an affordable way to redress this space.

Eventually, Marc came up with the idea of turning the New Orleans Square basement area into an eerie set of pirate caves - where the bleached bones of some rascally rogues would be found scattered among mounds of ill-gotten treasure. Walt loved this concept because 1) it set the stage beautifully for the attraction that followed and 2) it was a smart, affordable way to retheme the basement area.

But - even though guests and his Imagineers repeatedly praised Marc for his design work for "Pirates of the Caribbean's" haunted cavern sequences - Davis was never entirely happy with the way WED had handled the basement area under New Orleans Square. He thought it was all too obvious that Disney was just vamping in that section of the attraction, killing time 'til the real ride got underway.

Marc vowed that - if he ever got the chance to do another ride like "Pirates" again - he'd finally do it right then. This time, there'd be no last minute changes in ride systems or attraction layout. Right from the start, the show building would be large enough to contain the entire attraction. There'd be no more busting through the berm just to have enough room to tell the story correctly.

Marc was eager to take another chance to create at a show the size and scale of Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean." He had learned a lot about what did and did not work with AA figures while staging the scenes for this New Orleans Square attraction. Given how well the more ambitious figures in the ride had been received (Disneyland guests just raved about the lifelike movements of the auctioneer in the "Win a Wench" sequence), Davis wanted to push the envelope of audio animatronics even further. He wanted to see what the wizards of WED could really do if they set their minds to it.

Then - in August of 1967 - Davis got his chance. Roy finally came out of his period of mourning and let the rank and file at Walt Disney Productions know that he was *NOT* selling the firm to Westinghouse or any other corporate suitors. In fact, the elder Disney seemed fiercely determined to keep intact the company that he and his brother had worked for decades to build up.

More importantly, Roy announced that Walt Disney Productions would be going forward with his brother's ambitious plans for the company's Florida land holdings. But - from this point forward - the project would no longer be called Disney World. In tribute to his deceased partner, the Florida project would now be called Walt Disney World.

This news thrilled the folks at WED. Particularly when Roy asked the Imagineers to come up with concepts for rides for the Florida park that would top anything Disney currently had in Anaheim.

That was exactly what Marc wanted to hear. For he had an idea for a great new attraction ...

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  • Wouldn't it be cool if the possible Frontierland expansion at Disneyland included this in some form?

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