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Why For? : The Tom, *** and Jules-y edition

Jim Hill

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Why For? : The Tom, *** and Jules-y edition

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First up, James Tai from North Hollywood, CA. writes in to ask:

First off, I am a life-long Disney park fan and just discovered your brilliant website -- love these articles, especially the ones about attractions that never made it, like Western River Expedition. Incredible stuff.

Aside from whatever sadness I may feel because of these attractions never being built, I'm fascinated at the way that WDI recycles their "abandoned" ideas. Reading your Twilight Zone ToT story - the part about the DLP's Discovery Mountain, indoor lagoon, Nemo's Nautilus, volcano - I immediately thought of how this did come to fruition at Tokyo Disney Sea, almost exactly as described.

Question though: can you explain the Disney/WDI fascination/connection with Jules Verne, (20,000 leagues, journey to the center...), and "Discovery"-theming? Do you already have an article about this? I know Discovery Bay was an old DL idea, and it's stuck around, and a lot of the parks now have areas (mostly in Tomorrowland) that have "Discoveryland" type theming (with the copper coloring, and the way the rocket jets were redone at DL's Tomorrowland entrance, etc.) Was it all based off a fondness for Verne that Disney held, ie the 20,000 Leagues movie?

Do tell. Or rather, Disney + Jules Verne - why for?

Dear James --

You've pretty much hit the nail on the head already. It's that movie version of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" that Walt had made back in 1954 that has -- over the past 50 years -- caused all of these Verne-ish elements to pop up in Disney theme parks around the globe.

You see, you have to understand that -- back when that Richard Fleischer film first came out -- a lot of the guys who are currently in senior management at WDI were just kids. And -- in several cases -- seeing " 20K" up there on the big screen was their very first movie-going experience. So when the Nautilus (as it was so elegantly designed by Imagineering pioneer Harper Goff) rose from the depths, that image really burned into their brains. And many of these future Imagineers were never quite the same.

Take -- for example -- the late Tom Scherman. By all accounts, Tom was a brilliant model maker who was much beloved at WDI for his attention to detail. But Scherman was also one of these guys who allegedly caught the "20K" fever when the film was first released back in December of 1954. And -- as soon he caught a glimpse of the rivet-covered submarine that was half crocodile and half shark -- Tom had to have one of his own.

And -- for the next 40 years -- that's just what Scherman did. He started out by making models of the Nautilus. Initially these models were small and somewhat crude. But -- over time -- they grew in size and detail.

And -- as these models grew -- so did Tom's obsession with "20 Leagues." He'd return -- time and again -- the "20K" walk-through exhibit in Disneyland's Tomorrowland area. Where he'd carefully study the film's sets and props. (It was this exhibit that eventually inspired Scherman to decorate the interior of his apartment as if it were a cabin on the Nautilus. Which -- if I'm remembering this story correctly -- didn't exactly thrill Scherman's landlady.)

Anyway ... Tom eventually lands a job at WED. And it was there -- surrounded by other artists and designers who had also caught "20K" fever at a young age -- that his love of all things Nautilus came into full flower. Here, Scherman was able to work on projects like Discovery Bay. An expansion area for the Anaheim theme park that was to have featured a full-sized version of Nemo's sub as its centerpiece.

But -- when that project failed to make it off of Disneyland's drawing boards -- Tom just couldn't let go. He knew that there had to be other Nautilus fans out there. People who'd be thrilled to get the chance to actually climb aboard a full-scale version of Nemo's sub.

So Scherman did everything he could think of to revive Disney executives' interest in the Discovery Bay project. Even going so far as to shoot (on his own dime, mind you) a 5-minute long teaser/pilot for a TV series that would be based on this proposed Disneyland expansion area. "The Discovery Bay Chronicles" (obviously) never made it on the air. But even that didn't stop Scherman.

Tom kept plugging away, working with like-minded folks at WED like Tony Baxter and Tim Delaney. Imagineers who also loved Disney's "20,000 Leagues" film. Who also longed to make real fantastic places like Nemo's secret sub base in Vulcania.

It would take another 15 years (And a Euro-centric project like Disneyland Paris. A theme park where it suddenly made sense that the Imagineers wanted to create an entire land that was dedicated to the writing of Jules Verne) for Scherman to achieve his dream. To actually stand on the deck of a full-sized version of Nemo's sub. Which was built as part of DLP's "Les Mystères du Nautilus" walk-through exhibit.

Recognizing what an important moment this was for Tom, Tim & Tony had a special certificate made up. Which listed Scherman as the commodore of the Nautilus.

Tom died just a year or so later. Of cancer, so I here. Which is a really tough way to go.

But -- even so -- I can't help but feel a little happy for Scherman. For the man actually achieved his dream. As unlikely as it might sound, Tom eventually got to stand on the deck of a full-sized version of the Nautilus. His "20K" obsession (and how it slowly spread to other Imagineers) eventually resulted in all us Disney getting some pretty kick-ass rides, shows and attractions. Like that entire "Mysterious Island" area at Tokyo DisneySea.

So never under-estimate the power of a Disney film, folks. Who knows. Somewhere out there right now, there's probably some future Imagineer who's repeatedly watching the DVD of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." Who's determined to learn everything he can about the treasure cave at Isla de Muerta. So that someday -- when he's working at WDI -- he can make that place real.

Speaking of "Pirates of the Caribbean," a lot of JHM readers have been writing in with additional questions about yesterday's "Skeleton Crew" story. Here's what Deputy Dawg had to say:

Jim --

Loved the story today about the new nighttime version of Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride. I'd dearly love to see this thing make it off the drawing board. But it seems to me that the Imagineers would have to overcome an awful lot of obstacles in order to make this proposed redo a reality.

But even so, it was nice to hear that they'd been thinking about doing this. Thanks for sharing this story with us.

"... Would have to overcome an awful lot of obstacles in order to make this ... a reality." That's putting it mildly, Deputy Dawg.

So -- in the spirit of fairness -- let me list some of the reasons why it's not all that likely that Disneyland will ever add that alternate flume to their "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride.

1) Why fix what ain't broke? As it stands right now, over 45% of all guests who go to Disneyland eventually take a trip on "Pirates" as part of their visit. Clearly this 38-year old attraction doesn't need help to attraction the attention of DL visitors. So why waste money here on something that already works, when Tomorrowland is in such desperate need of new rides, shows and attractions?

2) Limited hours of operations. Think about it, folks. The whole story hook behind this new version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" is that the skeletons only get to take over the attraction after the sun sets. But what about those times during the winter months when Disneyland is only open 'til 8 or 9 o'clock at night? Or -- worse yet -- those weeks during the summer when the sun doesn't set 'til 8-8:30 p.m.? Then think about the tens of thousands of DL guests who are going to want to be able to ride the new version of "Pirates." Are you really going to be able to accomodate all of those people, getting them all safely through the attraction with only the few operational hours you have left on the clock?

3) This attraction can't be cloned. Only Disneyland -- because its POTC building is so huge -- can actually accomodate a second flume track. Given that this is the new Walt Disney Company (Which now only likes spending ride development money on proposed attractions that it can possibly copy and then send to other Disney theme parks around the globe), do you seriously expect the Mouse to spend this much coin on a ride that can't be cloned?

4) What if the "Pirates" sequels all under-perform? I know, I know. Given how entertaining the first "Pirates" film was, this doesn't seem all that likely. But let's remember that expectations were also high for both of the "Matrix" sequels. And while "The Matrix Reloaded" made $281 million during its initial domestic release in May of 2003, "The Matrix Revolutions" made less than half that amount ($139 million) less than six months later.

So -- given that there's no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood -- if either "Pirates II" or "Pirates III" under-performs at the box office, you can bet that no one within the Walt Disney Company would ever want to build a theme park attraction that celebrates these films.

A quick call-back to our earlier "Why For" question: This was actually why Discovery Bay wasn't built at Disneyland. You see, back in the early 1970s, Disney execs were initially all gung-ho about the idea of building an all-new land at the Anaheim theme park that celebrated Jules Verne. Why for? Because they had this Verne-esque film in the works, "The Island at the Top of the World." And they were so confident about that project's future success that they insisted that the Imagineers include an "Island" - themed E Ticket as part of that proposed Disneyland expansion area.

But then "The Island at the Top of the World" under-performed during its initial theatrical release in December of 1974. Once those box office results came in, executives grew very cool to the idea of building any attractions that might remind the public of  that Walt Disney Productions failure.

And what was true of Walt Disney Productions execs in 1974 is still true of the suits that run the Walt Disney Company of today. They love to loudly celebrate their victories and quietly bury their mistakes.

I mean, why else do you think that the Imagineers never got to build that truly cool "*** Tracy Crimestoppers" attraction for Disney-MGM? That was because the studio's "*** Tracy" movie had to struggle through the entire summer of 1990 before it finally achieved blockbuster status (I.E. Earning over $100 million).

Copyright 1989. The Walt Disney Company

Mind you, Disney's "*** Tracy" eventually did earn $103 million. But -- when you factor in the cost of making & then promoting this Warren Beatty vanity project -- this high budget motion picture remained in the red for a good number of years after its initial domestic release. Only after factoring in its foreign ticket sales, what the film earned via pay television as well as its video rentals revenue did "*** Tracy" finally eek out a small profit.

The same rules keep applying, folks. And don't think that just because the Disneyana fan community is suddenly singing the praises of this second "Pirates" flume that's been proposed for Disneyland that this will actually help this proposed attraction get built. The execs who run the Walt Disney Company ... They make decisions about stuff for the parks that are driven by factors that you & I would never consider.

Take -- for example -- this rough concept sketch.

Copyright 1989. The Walt Disney Company

Does the shape of this show building look familiar? It should. It's Epcot's old "Horizons" pavilion. Only -- if you'll look closely at this concept drawing -- you'll see that this old ride-through system for this Future World attraction has been ripped out in favor of a new hands-on sort of attraction.

Oh, sure. If you look to the very front of the old "Horizons" show building, you'll see that the Imagineers were considering building a moving-theater-seats attraction as part of this pavilion's new line-up of rides & shows. But -- beyond that -- this radically reworked Future World pavilion was to have become mostly a walk-through experience. One were WDW guests could actively participated in the fun, rather than passively observe the celebration.

"And just what would this new version of "Horizons" have celebrated?," you ask. The wonders of technology.

Copyright 1989. The Walt Disney Company

I know, I know. That sounds like yet another version of "Innoventions." Which it is. But this one would have at least kept all of these exhibits under one roof and strived to give them some sort of unifying theme. It would have undoubtedly been easier on the eyes & the ears than what we have today. Which (to be blunt) is a Disneyified version of the Consumer Electronics Show.

But Disney executives opted not to try & save the old "Horizons" building. Why for? I'm told that it was mostly for tax purposes. That -- were the Walt Disney Company to just tear this Future World pavilion down -- that the corporation would then get a huge tax break which was based on the Mouse's accountants being able to write off the cost of demolishing that show building.

And as for "Mission: Space" and why that show building wound up the way it is ... Well, that's because that was as much of the Future as Compaq was willing to pay for.

Okay. That's enough about the future for now. Let's talk about the past for a bit. This past Monday, to be exact. When we announced this week's JHM trivia contest. As you may recall, the question went went a little something like this:

QUESTION: Andrea Martin & Harvey Fierstein both have ties to Disney animation. Can you name the movie and/or the TV show that these two Tony Award winners have done voice work for?

BONUS QUESTION: What were the characters' names?

The correct answers to this week's trivia contest are:

Harvey Fierstein was the voice of Yao in "Mulan," while Andrea Martin did the voice of both Mrs. Stoppable in "Kim Possible: A Sitch in Time" and Lunch Lady Harriet in "Recess: School's Out."

And -- out of the 106 JHM readers who correctly answered this week's questions -- the three randomly selected winners are:

  • Jeff Kozlowski
  • Denise Riley
  • Charlie Zimmerman

Though it should be noted that Jeff Kozlowski deserves extra credit for remembering that Harvey Fierstein was also doing the voice of Hucua for "Kingdom of the Sun" before that Disney Feature Animation production was suddenly shut down and significantly reworked, eventually to become Disney's December 2000 release, "The Emperor's New Groove."

So Jeff, Denise and Charlie ... If you can please send me your mailing information, I'd be happy to put your prizes (I.E. One pound of "Just Plain Joe" whole bean coffee as well as a limited edition t-sshirt) ASAP.

Well, it's been a big week here at JHM. And -- frankly -- I'm exhausted. So you folks go and enjoy your three day weekend.

Speaking of which ... If you live in the Central Florida area and/or are going to be visiting the Walt Disney World Resort over the next few days & are looking for something fun to this coming weekend ... Well, then you might want to consider checking out the two events that the N.F.F.C. (I.E. The National Fantasy Fan Club, THE Club for Disneyana Enthusiasts) will be holding at the Radisson Parkway in Kissimmee.

The fun actually begins on Saturday night as Alex Mahr and Brian Blackmore of the Disney Design Group give a special presentation. There'll also be pin trading & room hopping going on. So this will be a great chance to score some cool Disney collectibles.

Then on Sunday morning, the Radisson's convention space will play host to the N.F.F.C.'s Show and Sale. Where you're sure to find tons on fun items up for sale. Not to mention meeting some very nice people who are also into collecting Mouse-related stuff.

If you'd like to learn more about this event, I suggest you follow this link. And  -- while I'm suggesting things -- Chuck Oberlietner has some intriguing articles up over at his website, o-meon.com, . Including an overview of this week's MacWorld where Chuck gets to chat (albeit briefly) with Robin Williams. So if you're looking for some interesting reading this weekend, you might want to head over there.

Me? I wish that I had time to go to the N.F.F.C. Show & Sale and/or read Chuck's stuff. But I gotta get back to work on Monday's column. Which take a special look at how Martin Luther King's legacy became intertwined with that of the Walt Disney Company.  

See you then okay?


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