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Discoveryland U.S.A. -- Part 2

Discoveryland U.S.A. -- Part 2

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Okay. We've already talked in detail about WDI's extra cool plans for turning WDW's tired old Tomorrowland into a dazzling Discoveryland. So why didn't this charming Magic Kingdom revamp ever make it off the drawing board?

Two words. Euro Disney.

Ask any senior Disney Company official about how the resort outside of Paris is doing these days and you'll hear nothing but good things. They'll go on and on about how the Disneyland Paris theme park now draws more tourists visits annually than the Eiffel Tower (Which - according to the Mouse's math - now makes the DLP resort the most popular tourist attraction in all of France).

But 9 years ago this month, Disney was singing a very different tune. Why? Because Euro Disney wasn't even coming close to meeting its financial projections. Oh sure, the theme park was doing great. But - Oy! - those hotels ...

When the Euro Disney resort opened in April 1992, the Mouse had six different hotels on property (The Euro Disneyland Hotel, the Newport Bay, the Sequoia Lodge, the Hotel Cheyenne, the Hotel New York and the Hotel Santa Fe). With a total of 5700 rooms to fill."

But during the resort's first year of operation, folks who came out to see Euro Disneyland really didn't seem to want to stay in Mickey's hotels. They preferred to drive (or take the train) out from Paris for the day, check out the theme park, and then - at closing time - just scurry back into the city.

This meant (particularly during the Fall of 1992) that there were times when the Euro Disney resort had fewer than 20% on its on property rooms occupied. Which - of course - had a disastrous impact on the project's financial projections.

Now - when pressed nowadays about Euro Disney's disappointing start - senior Disney officials will insist that it was actually the 1990-1991 recession as well as the lingering effects of the Gulf War that got the resort off on the wrong foot.

Not the Imagineers. Were you to ask a WDI vet (As I did. Just this morning) why the Euro Disney Resort got in financial trouble so fast, here's the sort of reply you can expect: "The answer's simple, Jim. We built too many f***ing hotels."

"I mean, think about it. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, we had less than 2000 rooms on property. (JRH note: To be exact, The Contemporary Hotel had 1050 rooms; the Polynesian 600 rooms and the Golf Resort 150 rooms. For a total of 1800 on property hotel rooms). And - since the resort was almost 20 miles outside of downtown Orlando and all those other hotels along 192 hadn't sprung up yet - people really had no choice but to stay in our hotels."

"And then there's Disneyland Paris. Where they built twice as many on property hotel rooms as Walt Disney World had on its opening day. Then - to add to the stupidity - they open a high speed rail station right outside the theme park. Which made all the more easier for guests to get away at the end of the day. And then they seriously wondered why no one was staying in their hotels."

To hear this WDI vet tell it, the real key to Euro Disney's initial financial problems was the greed of the executives running the Disney Development Company (AKA DDC). [JRH note: For those of you who don't know, DDC was the unit within the Mouse House that - from 1984 to 1996, anyway - designed and built all of Disney's on property hotels. FYI: Disney Development no longer exists. It was folded in with WDI in the Spring of 1996 to form one somewhat cohesive business unit.]

"Those greedy p****s didn't want another Harbor Boulevard or I-Drive (JRH note: By this, the unidentified Imagineer seems to be referring to the large number of cheap hotels & motels that quickly leaped up around the outermost edges of Disney property in Anaheim and Lake Buena Vista) on their hands. With all that money going off property into somebody else's pocket. Money that rightfully belonged to Mickey."

"So they built these...huge hotels and opened them all at once for Euro Disney. Never mind that the resort is just 30 kilometers outside of Paris - a place that already has hundreds of the world's best hotel rooms in it. Never mind that the RER made it ridiculously easy for tourists already staying in Paris to get out to Euro Disneyland. These guys seriously expected all 5000 on property hotel room to be full on opening day and stay that way 'til the end of time. You see what I'm saying, Jim? These guys were thinking with their wallets, not their brains. They were absolutely morons."

According to confidential reports prepared for senior Disney officials in the Fall of 1992, had the Euro Disney resort actually opened with just on property two hotels - instead of six - the project would have probably begun turning a profit by mid-1994. (JRH Note: This might explain why - in an effort to contain cost - the Walt Disney Company ordered that Euro Disney's largest hotel, the 1098 room Newport Bay Club, be closed for business during the winter of 1992.) But with those four additional hotels and all their empty rooms dragging the resort down, Euro Disney sank deeper and deeper into debt ...

So where does WDW's Discoveryland factor into all this? Well, faced with an overly ambitious project that was suddenly hemorrhaging red ink, Disney CEO Michael Eisner proclaimed "No new ambitious projects." From here on in, anything that Disney built - be it theme parks or hotels - would have to be modest in scale with a moderate price tag.

Well, you can well imagine how this news went over at WDI. Here these guys had just finished work on the most beautiful Magic Kingdom that Imagineering had ever built. And the Imagineers were itching to take all those lessons that they'd learned while working on Euro Disneyland and apply them on the company's stateside theme parks. Then here comes Eisner's announcement: "No more ambitious projects for the parks."

This news devastated the "Tomorrowland 2055" team. Given the Walt Disney Company's new financial constraints, there was just no way that this proposed $100 million redo of Disneyland's Tomorrowland was ever going to get off the ground now. So that project floundered for years, as the Imagineers struggled to find a way to work within WDI's newly restrictive financial parameters. The end result was the New New Tomorrowland - which officially opened to the public at the Anaheim theme park in May 1998. Which (and I'm being really polite here) remains a work-in-progress.

Whereas Walt Disney World's plans for a new Tomorrowland ... Well, faced with a rapidly shrinking budget, the Imagineers in Florida treated this Magic Kingdom redo as if it were a triage situation. As in: The most critical of patients get immediate attention, while those who are really not in such bad shape are allowed to wait a while 'til they're finally taken care of ...

The first order of business was deciding which concepts stayed and which went. And probably the very first thing to get pitched was ... the Astronomers Club. Why? Because it was a restaurant. To be specific, it was a proposed replacement for a restaurant that was already doing pretty good business. Its only flaw was that it was a bit of an eyesore. The Imagineers eventually decided that they could live with an ugly fast food place if it ultimately left them with more money to build rides.

Because that - ultimately - was the real top priority to the Imagineers in Florida: Making sure that this revamped version of WDW's Tomorrowland had a few new rides. A couple of new shows to freshen up this side of the Magic Kingdom.

Keeping "From Time to Time" as part of the plan was really a no brainer. I mean, this retrofit of the old Circlevision 360 theater was relatively economical. After all, the film for the show - having already been created by Theme Park Productions for Disneyland Paris' "Visionarium" show - was already in the can. So all WDI needed to do was build two new AA figures, redecorate the pre-show area and - POOF! - WDW's version of "From Time to Time" was good to go.

Whereas "Alien Encounter" ... The Imagineers knew - from the get go - that the installation of this new sensory thriller was going to be hideously expensive. But there was also the very strong possibility that "AE" could become a new franchise attraction for the other Disney theme parks. The sort of show that - once it had finally been debugged - could easily be dropped into any of the other Magic Kingdoms around the world. So - in spite of "Alien Encounter"'s extremely high price tag, the Imagineers still opted to leave it in the mix for WDW's New Tomorrowland.

Speaking of which ... You may have noticed that - in the middle of this part of the article - I stopped calling the revamped version of WDW's Tomorrowland as "Discoveryland" and just began referring to this redone section of Florida's Magic Kingdom as "New Tomorrowland." And there's a reason for that. Figuring that they'd be able to save a few thousand dollars on signage for this area, the Imagineers opted to ditch "Discoveryland" and just stick with the old moniker.

In dropping the "Discoveryland" name, that also meant that WDI was free to abandon Discoveryland's elaborate color scheme. All that burnished copper and green sea foam. What the Imagineers opted to do instead was something that would be much easier & less expensive to build. Which was to overlay show elements & new facades on top of the pre-existing Tomorrowland structures that gave the area a Buck Rogers-ish feel. The far off future circa 1930.

The end result ... Well, it ain't half bad. I - for one - find WDW's New Tomorrowland to be very witty. I love the little details (The robotic newsboy. The pneumatic tube that supposedly zooms your package across the galaxy. The malfunctioning electric palm tree. All the neon. And - best of all - Sonny Eclipse!) that really help put you in that Buck Roger-ish environment. "The Future That Never Was."

Best of all, this low budget take on Tomorrow has proven to be quite flexible. In 1998, when the Imagineers were thinking about building an attraction around "Toy Story"'s Buzz Lightyear, they didn't have to wonder: "Will this new ride fit easily within the theming and the storyline that we've already laid down for WDW's Tomorrowland?" They just knew that the Buck Roger-ish environment and Buzz Lightyear would go hand in hand.

But - when all was said and done - when Florida's Imagineers opted to go with "New Tomorrowland" rather than "Discoveryland," there were still a few casualties. We've already mentioned the Astronomers Club. But the "Flying Saucer" ride got cut too.

Given what it would have cost to gut WDW's "Carousel of Progress" and install a revised version of that Disneyland favorite, WDI opted to go with a cheaper fix: Which was to bring in noted humorist Jean Shepherd to redo the attraction's narration and revamp the look of the theater-go-round's final scene. Presto Chango! The tired old "Carousel of Progress" was now "Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress" - a somewhat less tired take on the old show which was now (allegedly) serves a tribute to the company's founder.

Well, Disney World vets have noticed that - over the last year or so - the hours of operation for WDW's "Carousel of Progress" have progressively grown shorter and shorter. So what's going on? Well, the Mouse has been testing the public's resolve. To see if Disneyana fans would really pitch a fit if this relic from the 1964 New York Worlds Fair were to suddenly close for good.

And the reason for that is ... Do you remember the "Flying Saucers"? Well, keep in mind that - come 2005 - Disneyland's 50th anniversary is coming up. And the Walt Disney Company wants to celebrate this monumentous event on a global scale. So they'll be staging tributes to the world's first theme park at all of their other theme parks around the world that year.

And what better way would there be for Walt Disney World to pay tribute to its predecessor than by recreating one of Disneyland's classic attractions?

Yep. Remember, you heard it here first. Provided that the budget can finally be approved, look for the "Carousel of Progress" to stop spinning sometime in late 2003 / early 2004 (No exact close date has been selected yet). Then look for the "Flying Saucers" to land at Lake Buena Vista just in time for help kick off Disneyland's year-long 50th anniversary celebration - which starts in January 2005.

Which I think will be a pretty neat addition to the line-up of attractions at WDW's New Tomorrowland (Though I have to admit that I will miss this version of the "Carousel of Progress" with all of its sly tributes to Jean Shephard's films & stories. Don't believe me? The next time you take in this attraction, check out the son's room in the 1940s sequence. Lying on the bed is a Red Ryder BB gun [With a compass in the stock, no less!]. Just like in Shepherd's much beloved holiday film, "A Christmas Story"). But - still - I can't help but wonder what this part of the Magic Kingdom would have ended up looking like if the Imagineers had actually gone forward with "Discoveryland."

Which is why - whenever I visit this theme park - I invariably find myself in the Plaza Pavilion. As I grab a table down by the water and start munching on my pizza, I can't help but think: "Now what would this restaurant have really looked like it had had a giant telescope sticking out in the middle of it?"

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