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Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Sub Scam

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So how did you folks spend the Columbus Day weekend? Me? I spent 10 hours in front of the tube on Sunday watching the USA Network's "Monk-a-thon," 6 hours yesterday watching the Kim Possible "Villain-a-thon" on the Disney Channel. Which is why my butt is now sofa-shaped.

Why did I do this? Research, people. Someday soon I'll using all that info that I gained from those hours & hours of sitting on the couch this past weekend for the definitive 12 part series on - er - um - how watching too much television can rot your brain.

You see, if my brains were still sort of intact, I might have been able to cobble together a halfway decent excuse there and/or at least come up with a somewhat intelligent introduction to today's story - which details some of the more memorable ways that the folks at Walt Disney World have faked out resort guests (as well as senior Disney Company officials) over the past few years.

And - no - I'm not talking about how Disney's merchandising department regularly churns out 5000 copies of a particular collector pin and then insists that this is actually a "limited edition." I'm talking about lies that - well - aren't greedy or malicious, but are really rather entertaining.

Like what? Well, take - for instance - that first summer when Disney-MGM Studio theme park was open. How many of you who took the tram tour back then (May - August 1989) recall seeing a camera crew that was shooting a music video on that New York side street? You know. The one with all those authentic looking NYC-style front stoops.

Wasn't it fun to get a brief glimpse of a real music video being shot? Particularly when the cameraman suddenly turned his camera toward the tram? Did all of you then do just what your on-board tour guide told you to do, which was wave wildly toward the camera. Wasn't it great to think "Gee, maybe some of that footage will actually be used in that video. Maybe I'll end up on MTV!"

Okay. It's been over 13 years now. So I guess that it's okay that the truth finally comes out. Which is: There was no music video being shot on Disney-MGM's New York street over that summer. (I mean, think about it, folks. What sort of video production crew takes 16 weeks to shoot exteriors?) That colorful bunch of technicians was just some Disney cast members who had been hired to portray a professional camera crew. They'd automatically swing into "action" every time a new tram full of tourists would come rolling into view.

Of course, if you folks had been paying particularly close attention as your tram rolled on by, you might have noticed that something wasn't quite kosher about that crew. Like what, for instance? Well ... how about the network that this music video was supposedly being shot for: FBC. "FBC" stands for "Fake Broadcasting Company."

Why would Disney dare to pull a stunt like this? Well, mostly because nothing else was being shot on the lot at the time. You see, back in those days, the No. 1 complaint that guests used to make about Disney-MGM was: "You people said that we'd be able to see real movies and TV programs being filmed as we toured your park. We didn't see a single show being shot that day. What a gyp!"

Well, Disney HAD hoped to lure some real movies and TV programs down to Florida to come shoot on its MGM soundstages. But - back then - very few Hollywood-based production companies were willing to schlep all their stuff all the way out to Orlando just to shoot a few shows. (Even today this problem continues to plague that theme park. Which is why WDI eventually threw in the towel in early 2001. That's when the Imagineers decided to close down two of MGM s soundstages and turned them into the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Play It!" theater.)

Anywho ... in order to cut back on all those guest complaints, Disney put together this fake film crew. Just so they'd be able to tell those folks who'd drop by Guest Relations to gripe about the lack of production at the theme park: "Oh, didn't you hear about the music video that's being shot on New York street? It's a closed set, mind you. No guest access allowed. But I'm betting that - were you to take the backstage tram tour - you could still probably catch a glimpse of the camera crew at work as you roll on by."

Okay. So - as far as lies go - this is a fairly large one. But let's remember that this is the same company that daily dresses 17-year-old girls up in rodent costumes, then sends them out into their theme parks to pretend to be the REAL Mickey Mouse. So putting together a fake film crew out on New York street just to put one over on the tourists isn't really that much of a stretch for the folks down at Disney World.

If it's any consolation, Disney World management has been doing this same sort of thing to senior company officials whenever they come to Central Florida to tour the resort. For over 30 years now, they've been doing things like staging fake events (with dozens of cast members dressed in their street clothes standing in for the paying customers) just so the guys who had flown in from Burbank would think that everything was A-OK in Orlando. Dick Nunis (the former Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions) was infamous for sending WDW paint crews in to touch up backstage areas just minutes before Card Walker (Former Walt Disney Productions CEO) would come through on a walk-thru.

But - if I had to pick the most extreme example of WDW staffers deliberately faking out the folks back in Burbank - I'd have to say that it was "20,000 Leagues Ovitz the Sea." Or - as this incident is better known in WDW inner circles - "The time we slipped Mike Ovitz a Mickey."

Okay. In order to properly appreciate this story, you have to understand that, while WDW visitors may have loved the Magic Kingdom's "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas" ride, the park's operations staff absolutely HATED that attraction. Why? Because the subs were a maintenance nightmare. Each year, the ops crew would have to pour tens of thousands of dollars (and devote hundreds of hours of back-breaking labor) into the upkeep on that attraction. They'd spend weeks scraping scum out of the bottom of the lagoon, repainting the coral, repairing the fish, etc. And they had just grown tired of dealing with this annual headache.

So - when Disney's CEO Michael Eisner put out the word out in the summer of 1994 that the theme parks really had to start toeing the line, cost-wise - WDW ops staff finally saw their chance. By shutting down this single Fantasyland attraction, they could automatically save the company beaucoup bucks (as well as shine in Team Disney Burbank's eyes for moving so quickly to honor Eisner's wishes), not to mention putting an end to their enormous annual maintenance headache forever.

What these WDW ops guys hadn't counted on was that the public would get so upset when they found out that "20K" had quickly and quietly been closed back in September 1994. Within weeks of the attraction's closure, calls and letters began pouring in to company headquarters in Burbank - insisting that Disney immediately re-open this Fantasyland favorite.

Of course, the news of this uproar didn't sit well with WDW ops staff. Here they had finally found a way to close "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and they intended to keep this Fantasyland ride closed. No matter they had to do.

So they were ready in early 1995 - when then-president of the Walt Disney Company Michael Ovitz came through the Walt Disney World resort on a corporate familiarization trip. Of course, while Ovitz was touring the Magic Kingdom, he brought up all the guests' complaints about "20K" being closed. In response to this, the ops staff insisted that they had only shut down this Fantasyland attraction because the ride was in such awful shape. Not to mention being unsafe.

Ovitz then said "Well, I'd still like to personally take a look at the attraction. Judge for myself whether or not the ride can be repaired and then re-opened." The WDW ops staff said "Well - okay, Mr. Ovitz. But we'll have to do this early tomorrow morning before the other guests enter the Magic Kingdom."

Which is why the following morning at 7 a.m. Mike Ovitz found himself standing in the queue at "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as a sub that was loudly belching smoke came rumbling up to the dock. The Disney Company President then climbed down the stairs and found a quarter inch of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. When Mike pointed this out, the WDW ops staff said "Well, you have to understand that a lot of our subs are over 20 years old, Mr. Ovitz. So many of them have developed small pinhole leaks over time."

The sub then lurched away from the dock and took Ovitz & the ops crew on a somewhat jerky trip around the "20K" ride track, with the attraction's soundtrack barely audible through the ship's crackling loudspeakers. As you might imagine, once the boat pulled up to the dock, Michael quickly climbed out of the mildewed interior. He then turned to WDW's ops staff and told them that they had made the right decision. That - given the shape that "20K" was currently in - the safest and smartest thing to do with this Fantasyland attraction was keep it closed. Permanently.

Now I don't have to tell you smart people that WDW's ops staff had sandbagged Ovitz. That they had deliberately picked out the "20K" sub that was in the worst possible mechanical shape for him to ride in. That they recruited a ride operator that they could trust to give Michael the roughest ride imaginable. That they had even thrown a few buckets of water down into the bottom of the boat to simulate a pinhole leak. All in an effort to leave Ovitz with the impression that WDW's subs were beyond salvaging.

So - if you were one of the poor souls who got sucked in by that fake video shoot at Disney-MGM back in the summer of 1989 - don't feel too bad. After all, at least you weren't on the receiving end of one of Dick Nunis' infamous paint jobs. Or torpedoed like Mike Ovitz was with that "20,000 Leagues" sub scam.

Okay. Enough with the scam talk. I promise that you'll get a really-for-real story (with an actual intelligent introduction) up on the site tomorrow.

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