It's a really interesting time at Walt Disney Imagineering. Plenty of people on edge right now. Which -- given all the rumors that have been flying around Flower Street lately -- is understandable. All this talk about another round of lay-offs coming in October. Right at the start of Disney's new fiscal year.
Still, not all the news that is coming out of Glendale these days is totally bleak. Here and there, there are still little glimmers of hope. Small indications that -- if the planets align properly -- we may soon see some fun new rides and shows at the Disney theme parks.
"What glimmers of hope?" you ask. Okay. How many of you know about Lucky? That walking Audio Animatronic that WDI was field testing in DCA earlier this month?
Well, you may look at that figure and just see a robotic dinosaur. But the Imagineers ... they look at Lucky and see a Trojan horse. A way for Walt Disney Imagineering to sneak a number of projects that have stalled out over the past few years back up on their feet. So to speak.
Take -- for instance -- Beastly Kingdom, Disney's Animal Kingdom's long-delayed new "land." BK has been in a holding pattern ever since DAK initially opened back in April 1998. The idea was that construction of Beastly Kingdom would be held up until WDW's newest theme park needed some new rides and shows to help out with capacity. But -- given that DAK never even came close to meeting its attendance projects -- it looked like BK (with its clever mix of mythological-based attractions) was going to be stuck on the Mouse's back burner for ... well, forever.
But then along came Lucky. And the Imagineers -- sensing all the creative possibilities that were inherent in this amazing walking AA figure -- began to feel pretty lucky themselves.
"So how is Lucky the Dinosaur going to help WDI finally get Beastly Kingdom built?" you query. Patience, Grasshopper. All will be explained shortly.
Now, the suits at Team Disney Burbank got one look at Lucky and said "Cool. A walking dinosaur. Let's drop that walking AA figure into Dinoland U.S.A. as an extra added attraction at DAK." But -- according to the stories that I've been hearing from supposedly in-the-know Imagineers -- the guys at WDI are trying to convince Disney's brass to go another way here.
"What way?" you press. Well, these guys supposedly began talking about how attendance has been steadily eroding for the "Pocahontas and her Forest Friends" show over at Camp MinnieMickey. And that -- given that Dinoland U.S.A. just had two new attractions added to that "land" as part of the "Chester & Hester's Dino-rama!" expansion project -- it would probably be smarter in the long run (at least from the guest flow point of view) to place DAK's new Lucky-based attraction on the other side of the theme park. Balance the new attractions out, so to speak.
"But how would a dinosaur ever fit in over at Camp MinnieMickey?" you stammer. Not to worry. The Imagineers have already allegedly figured this out. They'd just pull down all that faux forest dressing that WDW's Entertainment Office used to decorate the "Pocahontas" stage area ... then turn this part of the outdoor arena into a place where a kindly old wizard might live. A thatched cottage with a small barn attached. You get the idea.
Anyway ... several times a day, the wizard would come out of his cottage. ("Who's the wizard going to be?" you ask. Well, there's been reportedly been some thought given to using the Merlin character from Disney's "Sword in the Stone" as the possible host of this new DAK show. Having a live actor put on the long beard and pointed cap.) The show would supposedly start off with the wizard doing various comical magic tricks (which would -- of course -- key off of practical effects that had been built right into the stage set).
This would go on for five minutes or so. But the real highlight of the show would be when the wizard would ask the audience to help him with some magical incantation. The doors to the barn would dramatically fly open ... and a baby dragon (think Lucky, only colored purple with a ridge of scales running down his back) would come strolling out of the barn.
The wizard would then put the dragon through his paces. Have him do all the same tricks that Lucky had been doing during his daily appearances at DCA. The wizard would then select members of the audience to come on down and interact with the walking Audio Animatronic. The dragon would sign autographs. Pose for pictures, etc. You know the drill.
Then -- after 20 minutes or so of this -- the wizard would announce that it was time for the baby to take his nap. Then this cast member would lead Lucky back into the barn. The doors would close magically behind them ... and DAK guests would exit the arena, having really been wowed by their up-close encounter with a walking, grunting, sneezing really-for-real (well ... really-for-real seeming) baby dragon.
"And how is that this really humble sounding show going to help WDI resurrect Beastly Kingdom?" you grumble. Well, think of the Lucky/wizard show as WDI's way of establishing a magical beachhead in Disney's Animal Kingdom. Getting a toehold on this turf.
By getting the "Lucky the Dragon" show installed at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Imagineers get some medieval fantasy elements into this theme park. With the hope that -- should this new DAK show prove to be a success -- that other sword-and-sorcery stuff can soon follow.
Now let me stress here that this is far from a done deal, folks. This show proposal is something that's still very much in the talking phase at WDI. To my knowledge, this rather intriguing concept has yet to be formally pitched to Imagineering management. Let alone to Eisner and Co. But -- that said -- a number of folks at Walt Disney Imagineering are said to be very excited about this idea.
"Think about it, Jim," my WDI insider enthused. "If we can get the 'Lucky the Dragon' show up out of the ground over in Camp MinnieMickey, maybe the year after it opens we can get a shop that looks like a medieval tournament tent built right next to the arena. Which we can sell image capture of Lucky to Animal Kingdom's guests."
"And -- when that store starts making some money -- we can then justify adding some additional tent-like buildings to the area. Shops that sell medieval-era eats. Turkey legs. Shish-kabobs. You get the idea."
"And -- should Lucky continue to be a draw with WDW visitors over a couple of years and people keep shopping at that medieval-themed store and buying that medieval-themed food -- maybe then we can finally sell Burbank on the idea of building Beastly Kingdom. All this earlier magical/medieval stuff will be our proof of concept. Proving to the suits that a full-blown version of this land could be a real success with the public."
"Sure, this is the slow-but-steady approach, Jim. Which will probably frustrate all the fantasy fans as well as the coaster freaks. The people who want 'Dare the Dragon' to be open yesterday. But -- given that absolutely nothing is going on with Beastly Kingdom right now -- I'll take slow-and-steady any day."
Once again -- I have to stress here, folks -- that this is far from a done deal. One potentially huge roadblock to this "Lucky the Dragon" project ever becoming a reality is the fact that Camp MinnieMickey is pretty much under the control of WDW's Entertainment Office. The folks who oversee all of the performers who appear in "Festival of the Lion King" as well as "Pocahontas and her Forest Friends." Not to mention those cast members who appear in character costume and pose for pictures and sign autographs for the tourists.
So -- given that the "Lucky the Dragon" show would probably fall under the jurisdiction of WDI -- I can't imagine that WDW's Entertainment Department would be all that eager to have the Imagineers take over the "Forest Friends" arena. Lose that piece of turf, so to speak.
But -- on the other hand -- given that the wizard that would appear as the host of the "Lucky the Dragon" show would probably be a performer that WDW's Entertainment staffers would have some control over, maybe this wouldn't actually be as big a stumbling block as I might think.
Whatever ends up happening here (I.E. whether Camp MinnieMickey will have a baby dragon moving in someday soon), JimHillMedia.com will keep you posted on the project.
Another project that we'll definitely be keeping our eyes on is DAK's "Expedition Everest." Which may have to have its previously announced storyline tweaked in the not-so distant future.
What's the problem with this still-under-construction thrill ride? Well, think about it, kids. DCA's "Superstar Limo" was originally supposed to be this "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride"-like attraction. A ride that took guests on a hair-raising trip through Hollywood, while the paparazzi chased your limo. But then Princess Di was killed in that tragic crash. And suddenly riding in a fast-moving limousine, pretending to be a celebrity as you are pursued by rabid reporters, didn't seem like such a fun idea anymore.
Okay. So now we have "Expedition Everest." A thrill ride whose big exciting moment was supposed to have come when the cog railway train that you were riding in suddenly becomes separated from its donkey engine. Which causes that train to start sliding swiftly back down the steep mountainside.
Well, given that Disneyland's Big Thunder tragedy was supposedly caused when one of the coaster's faux engines suddenly became separated from its set of cars, there are some folks at WDI who are now suggesting that it might be bad taste for the Walt Disney Company to go forward with this DAK attraction now. At least with all of the thrill ride's original story points still in place.
What's supposedly being suggested now as a possible fix for this potentially offensive situation is that "Expedition Everest" should lose its train-separating-from-its-engine element. To just have the whole train suddenly lose power just as it reaches the summit. (Maybe slip off its chain; after all, "EE" is an attraction that's supposedly set aboard a cog railway.)
Just as with DAK's "Lucky the Dragon" show idea, this potential story change at "Expedition Everest" is pretty much in the talking phase, people. And -- given that this is WDI that we're talking about here, folks -- let's remember that all stories are subject to change. Quickly. With little or no warning.
That said, I still thought JHM readers might enjoy hearing what's being talked about these days inside of WDI. A place that's full of some very creative, extremely nervous people right now.