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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.

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Arson W. wrote to ask:

I saw a concept painting of "Chinatown" for Disneyland. I've never heard of this "Lost Land" before. Did some of this get re-themed into New Orleans Square somewhere in the planning stages? Am I missing out on common knowledge of a bad idea, or was there some kind of nationality foul play afoot? Or something else? I just gotta know: What's the deal with Chinatown?

By the way, I saw this on this page.

Ah yes, Chinatown. One of a half dozen ideas that the Imagineers have developed - over the past 50 years - for construction on that great piece of backstage property at Disneyland.

Which piece of property am I talking about? That roughly pie-shaped piece of land that lies between Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland. These days, this is strictly a back-of-the-house area. A place where the parade floats can get parked between their daily (or nightly) runs. Or where Disneyland employees can go to grab a quick bite to eat at the aptly named cast member cafeteria, the "Inn Between."

But it just killed the Imagineers to think that this great piece of centrally located property was just laying there, undeveloped. So - starting 'way back in 1955 - they kept throwing ideas at Walt. Hoping that he might finally greenlight one of these concepts for construction.

WED's first idea was to use this space to create an "International Street" area for Disneyland. A place where guests could wander through a network of colorful but quaint boulevards, each of them themed to look like they were from another land. An early precursor to Epcot's World Showcase, "International Street" would have been filled with highly detailed recreations of shops and restaurants from Denmark, Germany, Spain, Japan, France, and Switzerland. Live musical entertainment was to have been presented every hour at the very center of this new "land," which was designed to look like an authentic Italian village square.

Walt liked this idea enough to have a sign put up in Main Street U.S.A.'s hub area (near the proposed entrance to Disneyland's next "land") which read "Site of International Street - Grand Opening 1956." To give park visitors some idea what they had in store, the Imagineers set up a series of "peep holes" - which would allow Disneyland visitors to get a look at a 3D photograph of the "International Street" model.

But - in spite of the very promising sign over this "Site of Future Sights" - construction never actually got underway on Disneyland's "International Street." The only thing that Disney ever seemed do was - every 12 months or so - was change the lettering on the sign. So first it read "Grand opening 1957," then "Grand Opening 1958."

By the time 1958 actually rolled around, that sign had undergo a really radical transformation. For - instead of touting the imminent arrival of International Street, now this Disneyland Construction Company announced that this backstage area was soon-to-be the future home of "Liberty Street - Grand Opening 1959."

Why did the internationally themed area get cut in favor of a patriotic themed addition to Disneyland? Think about it, kids. Guests would be exiting Main Street U.S.A. in order to enter this new part of the park. It just made better sense (story-wise, that is) to have this colonial America themed area serve as an extension of Disneyland's turn-of-the-century entrance area.

Mind you, this wasn't the only Americana themed area that Walt and his Imagineers were thinking of adding onto Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. area. Midway up the avenue, off of Market Street's dead end, they had hoped to build "Edison Square." A cul-de-sac themed to look like New York City and/or Chicago of 1910. The time when gaslight was giving way to the next modern wonder, electricity.

What's interesting about these two proposed additions to the Anaheim theme park that - had everything gone according to plan - these two expansion areas were both to have opened in 1959. They would have also presented early versions of two soon-to-be favorite Disney theme park shows. Liberty Square would have had its "One Nation Under God" show (Which was eventually resurrected at the centerpiece attraction of the Liberty Square area at WDW's Magic Kingdom under the name "The Hall of Presidents"), while Edison Square was to have had its "Harnessing the Lightning" attraction (Which - in a somewhat mutated form - eventually emerged as one of the hit attractions at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, "General Electric's Carousel of Progress.")

So why weren't either of these proposed additions to Disneyland ever built? Because both of the attractions that served as the anchors for Liberty Square and Edison Square relied heavily on audio animatronics. Which was still in its infancy in the late 1950s.

Both "One Nation Under God" and "Harnessing the Lightning" would require dozens of authentic looking human-type AA figures to be built and maintained in order to pull off their shows. But the Imagineers had yet to build a single "electrical-mechanical" figure that could truly pass for human.

Which is why both of these projects eventually got tabled in the early 1960s. The Imagineers were ambitious enough to want to try and do shows like "Hall of Presidents" and "Carousel of Progress" back then. But the technology necessary to build & program dozens of authentic looking human-type AA figures just hadn't been developed. Yet.

With an eye toward developing that technology, the Imagineers proposed doing a smaller, less ambitious attraction. Something that would only feature a few audio animatronics. That would sort of serve as a field test for the more ambitious rides & shows that Walt and his Imagineers already had in their planning pipeline.

This is where Disneyland's Chinatown comes in, Arson. This picturesque block of oriental themed shops (which was to have been built right off of Market Street, right where Edison Square was originally supposed to have been built) was to have had a centerpiece restaurant ... whose name escapes me at the moment. But the establishment was supposed to have been sponsored by Chung King (The company that made a name for itself in the early 1960s for selling canned Chinese food).

Anywho ... this authentic looking eatery was to have featured Chinese cuisine as well as live and not-so-live entertainment. The after-dinner show would have been kicked off when the head of the decorative dragon (which looped throughout the restaurant) would suddenly come to life and start in with Wally-Boag-written gags like:

DRAGON: (Belching fire, then) "Does anyone mind if I smoke?"


DRAGON: (After prolonged burp) "Oooh. I think someone I ate disagreed with me. Of course, that's probably why I ate him in the first place. For disagreeing with me. (Another burp) Excuse me."

Then the AA dragon would introduce the show's live entertainment, a trio of lady singers known as the "Nightingirls." Toward the tale end of their performance, audio animatronic birds were to have been lowered from the ceiling and provided back-up for the trio's closing number.

But the real highlight of the show was to have been a performance by Confucius, Disney's first full-fledged audio animatronic figure. This robot (which is also identified as Grandfather Chun in some drafts of the show's script) was supposed to appear as if he was providing wise counsel for live questions that the audience was asking.

Of course, all of the questions that the Confucius figure would be answering would be on pre-recorded track. But - since these questions would be coming from speakers that were hidden all over the restaurant - it would sound like guests from all parts of the dining room were firing questions at the legendary wiseman.

Of course, one of the reasons that the Imagineers loved the idea of building an AA show around Confucius is that - due to the age of this mystic ancient - it would just make sense to the audience that this robotic figure would move slowly and/or remain seated for the bulk of the show. Just like a very old man would.

Plus Confucius' elegant long silk robes would go a long way toward masking all the mechanisms necessary to run a complicated figure like this. So - all in all - the Chinese Restaurant dinner show seemed like an inspired choice for Disney's first full fledged audio animatronic show.

So why didn't Walt and his Imagineers finally go forward with Disneyland's Chinatown? To be honest, they could never come up with a head that they liked for the figure. Imagineers who worked for Walt Disney Productions back in the days when the Confucious AA was being built still talk about how disconcerting it was to walk into the room where they were developing the restaurant figures and see this disembodied Chinese head on top of a box, just chattering away.

Still - the AA birds that were built for the Chinese restaurant were considered a success. So - even though the Confucius dinner show project was tabled in the early 1960s - those robotic birds soon became the stars of a show of their very own, Disneyland's "Enchanted Tiki Room." (And that talking dragon head? Well, he served as the inspiration for all those talking tikis that line the walls of this Adventureland Theater.)

"But, Jim," I hear you asking, "If the Walt Disney Company perfected the use of audio animatronics in the mid-to-late 1960s, then why wasn't Edison Square or Liberty Street or even Chinatown ever added to Disneyland?"

That's an excellent question. And - to be honest - I don't know why none of these expansion plans for the area behind Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland were ever revived. Perhaps Disneyland management way back then just felt that this area was too valuable (given all the behind-the-scene activity that goes on back here) now to be developed. Which is perhaps why all future talk of expanding Disneyland out into this particular piece of the property dried up in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Mind you, a few of the ideas that were proposed for this part of the park still survived. Edison Square's signature attraction - that "Harnessing the Lightening" show - eventually was built at Disneyland. Only it was housed in Tomorrowland's theater-go-round building.

And - as late as 1978 - there was still talk of adding a "Liberty Street" (Now called "Liberty Square") to Disneyland. But that idea petered out once the Imagineers saw how low attendance was for the WDW version of this same attraction.

And as for International Street ... would you believe that - as late as 1982 - the Imagineers were still trying to get an international section added to Disneyland? The last version (which was to have built out beyond the berm behind "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion") was known as "World Holiday Land." This area - which was to have featured sections themed around London, Paris, Bavaria and Scandinavia - featured a Circlevision 360 film, a Scandinavian folklore ride, a Medieval England-themed attraction as well as an indoor Bavarian-themed attraction that would have allowed Disneyland to simulate the experience of skiing through the Alps. Along with the usual assortment of stores and restaurants, of course.

Mind you, the Imagineers never actually gave up on the idea of building new rides and attractions to be placed on that land out behind Main Street U.S.A. As recently as 1990, WDI was pushing to turn this part of primo property into Hollywoodland. Which was to have been a miniature version of Disney-MGM Studios theme park right here in Anaheim.

What would this have been like? Well, picture the backside of Space Mountain to be redressed as the Hollywood hills (With the famous "Hollwyood" sign towering over this side of the park). Back here, guests would have been to enter the Chinese Theater for a trip on "The Great Movie Ride." (Interesting tidbit on this proposed attraction: The Disneyland train was actually supposed to roll through "The Great Movie Ride." It would be seen - of course - in the Western Section of the attraction, rolling past an authentic looking frontier train station. Of course, only the Disneyland guests who were riding on the train would be able to see the scene on the backside of the depot. Where an AA version of Gary Cooper from "High Noon" would anxiously wait for that train full of gun fighters to roll into town ...)

Also penciled in for construction as part of Disneyland's "Hollywoodland" was that now-closed Disney-MGM favorite, "Superstar Television." There were also plans to incorporate several rides that the Imagineers had originally designed for WDW's "Sunset Boulevard" expansion area into the Anaheim theme park. Among these was "*** Tracy Crimestoppers" as well as "Baby Herman's Runaway Buggy Ride."

Of course, how the Imagineers were going to cram all these new rides and shows into that tiny piece of property out behind Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland remains a mystery. Even to me. (Hey, I don't make up these stories, Arson. I just report 'em).

And finally - moving on to our next story - Heather B. asks:

I have a question about the Platinum Collection. I remember hearing rumors back in early 2001 that the DVD of Aladdin would come out in 2003, and that The Lion King would come out in 2004. However, in about January or February of 2002 it was announced that Lion King would come out in 2003, and Aladdin wasn't mentioned at all. In fact, there was no word about Aladdin at all until this summer.

So, why'd Aladdin get moved back? Was Al the victim of post 9/11 paranoia? Was TLK moved up to coincide with the release of TLK 1 1/2? Or was the original rumor about the release dates false?

Also, now that the dates of the releases of all the Platinum titles have been announced, do you think there will be any more changes?

Heather, it's not 9/11 that made Disney swap "Aladdin"'s Platinum Collection release date with "The Lion King." But - rather - economics.

You see, "The Lion King" is Walt Disney Company's highest grossing feature length animated film (to date). Taking in well over a billion dollars worldwide. Whereas "Aladdin" ... well, that 1992 film's no slouch at the box office either. If you factor in all the revenues that "Aladdin"'s two direct-to-video sequels have made, that film franchise has pulled in something along the lines of $700 million (to date).

So why does "The Lion King"'s prior box office performance factor into why it's getting released on DVD in 2003 - rather than "Aladdin"? Well, you have to understand that Disney's quite anxious to market all of its feature length animated films through the newer medias. Not just DVDs, mind you. But also large formats like IMAX too.

And the strategy that Disney originally had in place for promoting its Platinum Collection releases actually went something like this: During the Christmas / New Years release window, whichever film that the Walt Disney Company intended to put out as the corporation's major DVD release ten months later (AKA the Platinum Collection) would begin being shown in IMAX theaters worldwide. In an effort to generate some renewed excitement among consumers for that title. To whet their appetite, if you will.

At least, that was the plan as of January 1, 2002. When Disney released the Special Edition of "Beauty and the Beast" to IMAX theaters. Unfortunately, that film did fairly tepid business when shown in large format. Just $8 million during its first three weeks of release. Which wouldn't even come close to covering the costs of cleaning up the film as well as animating its much hyped new sequence, the "Human Again" production number. And let's not forget about the tens of millions of dollars that Disney poured into promoting the IMAX release of this movie.

After viewing these meager box office returns, the concern at Disney corporate headquarters was that - if the IMAX release of "Beauty and the Beast: The Special Edition" didn't do all that well, the under-performance of the large format version of the movie might taint consumers' perception of the product. Making them less likely to buy the forthcoming DVD of the film.

Which is why the higher ups at Disney thought that "Maybe we need to rethink hyping our upcoming DVD release to showing these films in the IMAX format first. Maybe this large screen stuff isn't necessarily the best way to re-introduce consumers to the films that we'll soon be making available for sale via our 'Platinum Collection.' Maybe there's another way that we can get people excited about our older films."

Which is not to say that Disney is getting ready to bail on its long term deal with the IMAX folks. Far from it, kids. I mean, the Mouse has already begun producing short large format films expressly to be shown in IMAX theaters. These include "Ultimate X" as well as the forthcoming "Young Black Stallion" movie. And - later this month, for the first time ever - a brand new feature length Disney animated film will be released simultaneously in the standard 35 MM format as well as IMAX. So you can chose to see "Treasure Planet" on the big screen or the REALLY BIG screen.

But as for Disney continue to tease consumers (prime the pump, if you will) by first showing the company's next "Platinum Collection" release in IMAX theaters ... Well, Heather, Disney felt that - following "B & B"'s lackluster large format performance - that a test was in order.

"Let's take our strongest film," studio heads supposedly said, "The one that people keep asking us to re-release on home video and DVD and put that one out in IMAX theaters. If the box office response to that film is significantly stronger than the one we got from "Beast"'s re-release, then let's stick with IMAX for a while ... If not, then let's stop using this format to try and re-introduce, re-excite audiences to our older films and just go with simultaneous releases of our newer features at the multiplexes as well as IMAX."

Why abandon the IMAX re-releases for Disney's older films? Because, to be honest, it cost a lot of money to reformat these 10-years old (and older) pictures for large screen theaters. Not to mention all the time and the money that has to be poured into cleaning up these films. Redrawing and/or replacing awkward pieces of animation which - when shown on a 10 story tall screen - look just awful.

Mind you, clean up work has already been completed on the IMAX version of "Aladdin." And I'm told that Disney's animators are still hard at work on all the repairs that need to be made to "The Little Mermaid" before that 1989 film can look beautiful on large format screens.

But that doesn't guarantee that either of these two films will ever be shown in the IMAX format. A lot depends on how the large format version of "The Lion King" does this holiday season. So - if you want to see Ariel and/or the Genie on the really big screen - make sure you drag all of your friends and family to see "The Lion King" in IMAX.

Otherwise, these two films will probably bypass large format and head straight for the small screen.

Then, MrTheFrog wrote to ask:

I'm in California (for the first time in 10 years), and today I went to Disneyland and rode Roger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin. I noticed that the license plates on all the cabs read "Lenny" instead of "Benny". Is there a story behind this? Does Benny have a long lost brother, like the now infamous King Larry? Or is this part of the whole Spielberg/Amblin/Roger fiasco?

Sad to say, but Lenny the Cab only exists because of the Walt Disney Company and Amblin' Productions' continuing brawling over the characters featured in "Who Framed Rober Rabbit?"

Before Disney can do ANYTHING with the "Roger Rabbit" characters - be it using Roger and friends in a cartoon, a coloring book, a TV commercial or a theme park attraction - they have to clear how the character is to be used with Spielberg's people. Which can take months.

As they were working on the "Roger Rabbit's Car - Toon Spin" ride for Mickey's Toontown, the Imagineers just got tired of dealing with all this nonsense. Of having to talk to WDI's lawyers (which would then have to talk to Spielberg's people) everytime that they wanted to change something in that ride.

So finally - in order to simplify their lives - these guys from WDI decided that, while they'd love to have Benny the Cab be the ride vehicle that took Disneyland guests on their trip through Toontown, it didn't really have to be Benny. It could - in fact - be Benny's brother, Lenny ... without having any real impact on park visitors' enjoyment of the ride.

And - of course - their higher ups at the Walt Disney Company just loved this solution because they could then copyright the name "Lenny the Cab," making that character the sole property of the Walt Disney Company. And there was nothing that Spielberg's people could do about this.

I know, I know. That's not a particularly happy story. But - as you well know, MrTheFrog - not every Hollywood-related story ends happily.

And - speaking of stories not ending ... Okay. I give. I've been reading all of the notes that you folks have been posting on the JimHillMedia.com discussion boards about how I never finish what I start. Which - if you'll just look at my epic length "Western River Expedition" story - you'll see that this isn't ALWAYS true.

That said, I can understand your frustration. So how's about this: I'll be tallying votes for the next seven days. The unfinished series that get the most votes will be the one I finish first. The runner-up will be the one I complete second, and so on. That work for you folks? Hope so.

That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, okay?


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