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From “Just Around the Riverbend,” here comes a brand-new Why For column

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.

From “Just Around the Riverbend,” here comes a brand-new Why For column

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Pavement Chaser starts things off with a rather succinct query. Which reads:

Disney's Pocahontas poster
Copyright 1995 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Was there ever a Pocahontas ride in development?

Pavement Chaser

Dear Pavement Chaser –

Whenever Walt Disney Animation Studios has a new project in development, you can pretty much count on the guys from WDI making a special trip over the Roy E. Disney building. Where they then kick the tires (so to speak) on each & every animated feature. See if this still-in-production movie has theme park potential.

And in the case of “Pocahontas” … Well, yes, the Imagineers did take a long, hard look at this Mike Gabriel / Eric Goldberg film. Only to ultimately be stymied by the artistic ambitions of this particular production.

Long story short: The feeling in-house at WDI was that “Pocahontas” was just too serious for its own good. That – due to their stylization & overly-noble natures – the Native Americans who served as the central characters in this 1995 Walt Disney Pictures release didn’t provideall that much inspiration when it came to creating light-hearted, fun new rides or attractions for the Parks.

The Indian Village from the Jungle Cruise ride
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which isn’t to say that the Imagineers didn’t try and find a permanent home for Pocahontas & her pals inside the stateside parks. Among the many ideas that were floated back in the mid-1990s involved a retheming of that Friendly Indian Village that you see whenever you cruise along the Rivers of America at Disneyland Park and/or WDW’s Magic Kingdom.

What the Imagineers wanted to do here was renovate this portion of Frontierland so that the Friendly Indian Village would then more closely resembled the one that audiences saw in “Pocahontas.” So the teepees that havebeen on display here were to have been replaced by yehakins (i.e. those rounded structures made of bark & saplings that the Powahatan Indians of Coastal Plain Virginia typically lived in back in the 1600s).

And as for the formerly anonymous members of the Pinewood tribe (so named because – as the story goes – the Native American figures that originally lined the shores of Disneyland's Rivers of America back in the 1950s were actually made of pine), they were to have been replaced by full-sized statues of Pocahontas' Dad, Chief Powhatan; her would-be suitor, the fierce warrior Kocoum; as well as Pocahontas' childhood friend, Nakoma. These characters from the animated feature were to have been prominently positioned within the Friendly Indian Village.

As for Pocahontas and John Smith … WDI had a couple of ideas as to how these star-crossed lovers could effectively be displayed along the Rivers of America. One suggestion involved a tableau that would have been staged downstream from the Friendly Indian Village which would have shown Pocahontas – with Meeko & Flit by her side – introducing John Smith to Grandmother Willow. Another possible staging idea had statues of this ill-fated couple being placed on opposite sides of the River. So that Pocahontas & John Smithcould (in theory, anyway) see each another but -- reflecting the bittersweet ending of the film -- forever be destined to be apart.

Pocahontas with John Smith, raccoon Meeko and dog Percy in Disney's "Pocahontas"
Copyright 1995 Disney. All Rights Reserved

“So if all this development work was done by the Imagineers, then why wasn’t the Friendly Indian Village ever rethemed around the characters & settings of ‘Pocahontas’ ?,” you ask. Well, at least when it came to Disneyland Park, the continuing popularity of “Fantasmic!” played a deciding role in Parks & Resorts opting not to install this proposed enhancement in Anaheim.

“And why was that?,” you query. Because during the busier times of year, all boat traffic on Disneyland’s Rivers of America has to shut down in the late afternoon so the Cast can then get Tom Sawyer’s Island set for that night’s performances of “Fantasmic!” Which means that … Well, it just didn’t make sense (from a cost effectiveness / Operational point of view) to do a multi-million dollar renovation of this remote corner of Frontierland. When -- due to the limited capacity of the Mark Twain riverboat, the Columbia sailing ship as well as the Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes (Not to mention the Rivers of America's newly restricted operating hours) -- only a handful of Guests would ever get the chance to see this new "Pocahontas" -themed tableau during daylight hours.

This – in the end – was one of the main reasons that the Imagineers decided to cede “Pocahontas” over to Disneyland Entertainment. Who – as you’ll recall – managed to put together a very entertaining stage show, “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” which was built around the characters, settings and songs from that 1995 Walt Disney Pictures release. Which – thanks to the huge capacity of the Fantasyland Theatre – was able to entertain thousands of theme park Guests on a daily basis over the 27 month-long run of this show.

Now if you’re grumbling about this being a particular stupid reason for Disneyland executives to have not allowed this “Pocahontas” – themed renovation of the Friendly Indian Village to have gone forward, know this: DLR management actually used this very same argument (i.e. Due to the fact that we have shut down all boat traffic on the Rivers of America in the late afternoon so that we can then get Ton Sawyer's Island set for that night’s performances of “Fantasmic!,” it just doesn’t make sense – from a business point of view – to spend a large amount of money on enhancements & improvements that only a handful of Guests will ever get to experience during daylight hours) as an excuse to kill Bruce Gordon’s proposed retheming of the entire Rivers of America. Which would have involved replacing decades-old scenes like the Burning Settler’s Cabin & Smuggler’s Cove with brand-new tableaus that paid tribute to heroes from American folklore like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed and John Henry.

A scene from Disney's short John Henry
Copyright 2000 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But – again – this has been the unending struggle at Disney. With the Imagineers on one side, proposing all sorts of great ideas for new rides, shows & attractions for the Parks. While on the other side sit the execs who actually manage these theme parks. Who first have to come with the cash necessary to build and/or install these enhancements & improvements. And then find the funds to properly staff & maintain these brand-new rides, shows and attractions on an ongoing basis.

Trust me, folks. It's a never-ending battle. With "What makes good business sense for Walt Disney (the Company)" constantly butting heads with "What would  improve the Guest's experience at the Parks." Which is how neat sounding enhancements like this proposed “Pocahontas” –themed renovation of the Friendly Indian Village sometimes don't make it off the drawing board due to Operational issues.Or simply because the numbers don’t add up the right way. But such is life in Disney’s World.

Next up, Sotiris from Cyprus writes in to say:

Hi Jim,

I'm concerned regarding the fate of Disney's "The Snow Queen." Some anonymous posters at the TAG blog reported that "The Snow Queen" which was to be Disney's next hand-drawn animated movie after the Winnie the Pooh feature, has been officially canceled (again). Also, that there are currently no other 2D projects in development. Do you have any insider's info on this?



Disney's Snow Queen logo
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Dear Sotiris –

Yeah, the word coming out of Burbank (this week, anyway) is that “The Snow Queen” has been tabled. At least temporarily.

Though – to be fair – this particular Hans Christian Andersen story has been in and out of development at Walt Disney Animation Studios for decades now. As far back as the late 1930s (when Walt Disney first began talking with Samuel Goldwyn about an ambitious collaboration. Which would have been this bio pic of Denmark’s favorite son which Goldwyn would have handled the live action aspectsof. Whereas Disney Studios was to have provided all of this movie’s animated fairy tale vignettes), veteran artists and storymen have been struggling to get a handle on this frosty female.

More recently, during the Michael Eisner era at the Company, Walt Disney Animation Studios took yet another run at “The Snow Queen.” Seeing if it might be possible to turn this Danish favorite into a full-length animated feature.

James B. Stewart – as he was working on his terrific book, “DisneyWar” (Simon & Schuster, February 2005) -- actually sat in on a June 2003 creative meeting where Eisner, then-WDAS head David Stainton and then-VP of Creative Development Pam Coats reviewed the animated projects that Disney Animation then had in its production pipeline. With “The Snow Queen” being the film that most excited Michael (at that time, anyway).

Disney War Book Cover
Copyright 2005 Simon & Schuster. All Rights Reserved

Here’s an excerpt from that portion of “DisneyWar”:

The discussion turned to Christmas 2007. Eisner had just read a script for “Rapunzel.” “Someone told me that a woman with long hair is old fashioned,“ Eisner said.

“That’s why this has to be a Legally Blonde-type comedy,” replied Mary Jane Ruggels, another creative vice president.

Sleeping Beauty was 1938,” Eisner says. “The ending was forced. Like Treasure Planet – it just ended. It wasn’t funny or clever. Are you sure you can save this? Is Ice Queen better?”

“You mean Snow Queen?” Ruggels says.

“I love the Taming of the Shrew idea,” Eisner says. “Take Martha Stewart. She’s tough, smart – a worthy adversary. If she were a doormat of a woman, no one would be after her. Marlo Thomas used to call me about marketing ‘That Girl.’ She said, ‘If I were a man, I’d be president of thenetwork.’ “

Drawing of the Snow Queen
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Eisner expresses some reservations about the team assigned to Snow Queen, then adds, “John Lasseter. If we can make a new deal with Pixar …”

Stainton jumps in. “You mean when we make a new deal with Pixar.”

“I said to John, you can have Snow Queen. He loved it. John said, ‘I want to do a princess movie.’ “

Eisner asked for the Snow Queen synopsis.

“The Snow Queen is a terrible bitch,” Ruggels says. “When her suitors try to melt her heart, the Snow Queen freezes them.”

“Each of them should be a phony, but different,” Eisner says of the suitors.

“Then along comes a regular guy,” Ruggels continues.

“This is perfect!,” Eisner exclaims. “I’m afraid to hear more.”

“The regular guy goes up there, he’s not that great, but he’s a good person. He starts to unfreeze her … she melts.”

“It’s great,” Eisner says. “Finally. We’ve had twenty meetings on this.”

“We’ll have a treatment in two weeks,” Ruggels promises.

“Can we have this for 2006?,” Eisner asks.

“No way,” (Pam) Coats says.

Disney's star composer Alan Menken alongside a drawing of Disney's Snow Queen
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Of course, the irony here is … WDAS’ 2003 take on “Snow Queen” – which Eisner seemed so enthusiastic about -- eventually went off track as well. This project then wandered from Walt Disney Animation Studios over to Disney Parks & Resorts. Where – in March of 2006 – it was announced that Disney Creative Entertainment would be producing “The Snow Queen” as a musical for the stage. More importantly, that this project (which was to have featured music byAlan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater as well as a book by John Weidman) would have its world premiere in the Summer of 2007 at Tokyo DisneySea as a lavish production for the Broadway Music theatre.

But then … As I understand it, someone at the Studios saw the stage version of “The Snow Queen” as it was being workshopped, liked what they saw and then suggested that – in the long run – it might make better business sense (at least from a licensing point of view) if this project followed the “Beauty and the Beast” route. As in: Start off life as a full-length animated feature, and then get translated to the stage.

So back to WDAS “The Snow Queen” went. Supposedly to be the third in a trio of brand-new Disney fairy tales. Where (it was hoped) “The Frog Princess,” “Rapunzel Unbraided” and “The Snow Queen” would then duplicate the success that WDAS’s last trio of fairy tales (i.e. 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” 1991’s “Beauty & the Beast” and 1992’s “Aladdin”) had had.

But now on the heels of “The Princess and the Frog” not exactly setting the world box office on fire, Walt Disney Animation Studios seems to be having second thoughts about getting back into the animated fairy tale business. Don’t believe me? Then why is it – on Wednesday of this week – that Mouse House managers just registered a bunch of new non-fairy tale-sounding titles for “Rapunzel” ? Among them …


And then -- just today -- The Walt Disney Company registered three additional "Rapunzel" -seque domain names:


Disney's Rapunzel has her prince all wrapped up in her golden hair
Copyright 2010 Disney. All Rights Reserved

And as for “The Snow Queen” … Even though Chris Buck (i.e. the co-director of Disney’s “Tarzan” and Sony Animation’s “Surf's Up”) had been placed in charge of this project late last year … The unfortunate combination of continuing story problems as well as the Studio second-guessing its commitment to producing another trio of animated fairy tales resulted in “The Snow Queen” being put on ice. Again.

But the upside is … There’s a lot of people at WDAS who still believe in this project. And if the right talent comes along and eventually figures out how to solve all of “The Snow Queen” ‘s story problems, this animated feature will get made. Some day.

I mean, let’s remember that Disney artists had been trying to turn “Beauty & the Beast” into a feature-length cartoon for over 40 years. And it wasn’t ‘til Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale mapped out a workable dramatic arc for this fairy tale's second act  (i.e. when the Beast & Belle are stuck together in that castle) that this decades-in-development project finally became a viable motion picture.

So, alright. For right now, anyway, it’s okay for animation fans (not to mention the talented artists & storymen who were already hard at work on this proposed Holiday 2012 release for Walt Disney Pictures) to be sad that “The Snow Queen” has been placed on hold. Again.

Test background for Disney's Snow Queen
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

But if a project like “Joe Jump” (which – this time last year – was deader-than-dead at WDAS) can be brought back to life and then put into active development, anything’s possible. So let’s wait to see what happens on the heels of “Rapunzel” (Or “The Thief and the Tower,” “Tangled” or whatever it is that Walt Disney Pictures winds up calling its Holiday 2011 release). Ifthat film hits, and then the just-officially-announced-yesterday “Enchanted II” scores at the box office in late 2011 / early 2012 … WDAS may suddenly find itself back in the fairy tale business.

And if that happens, don’t be surprised if “The Snow Queen” suddenly comes out of the deep freeze.

And – finally – Joe N. of LA writes to say:

I thought that DisneyQuest was closing for good a couple of years ago. But it’s still around. What happened?

Concept art of Disney guests walking into DisneyQuest
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Dear Joe –

You know, when I was down at Orlando last December covering the NFFC-Disneyana Fan Club’s Disney World Holiday Extravaganza, I had lunch with a longtime Downtown Disney manager. Who – when I brought up the whole “Wasn’t DisneyQuest supposed to close two or three years ago?” issue – just roared with laughter.

“Ah, the good old days,” this WDW vet giggled. “When DisneyQuest and its aging assortment of interactive games were our biggest concern around here. Nowadays -- what with Pleasure Island being a ghost town and the Virgin Megastore standing there vacant – that indoor theme park is the least of our worries.”

So long story short, Joe: DisneyQuest dodged a bullet a while back. And while there may have once been a plan to turn this West Side structure into a full-sized ESPN Zone for Disney World … Those days are long gone now.

Concept art of Disney guests playing video games inside DisneyQuest
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

“So what happens next?,” you ask. “Will any of that $1.5 billion that The Walt Disney Company has reportedly set aside for the development of next generation guest experiences be used to upgrade DisneyQuest? Because the last new game that went into this place – ‘Pirates of theCaribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold’ – dates back to December of 2000.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, folks. But The Walt Disney Company has already spent everything that it’s going to spend on DisneyQuest. Though WDW will continue to maintain & properly staff this indoor interactive theme park, Disney Parks & Resorts has absolutely no plans to do any significant reinvesting in this property.

“These days, it’s all about what the Company can get out of DisneyQuest,” my DTD manager friend explained. “And you’d be surprised how many families still head there on a cold, wet, rainy day. We do a good enough business on those days to warrant keeping the place open indefinitely at this point.”

The exterior of DisneyQuest
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, at some point off in the future, this WDW vet did see the Resort revisiting the idea of doing something different with the DisneyQuest building. But as he so eloquently put it over our lunch back in December : “… There are so many other things in and around Downtown Disney that need our immediate attention. So why waste time & energy on something that -- while it isn’t exactly hip anymore -- still makes money for the Company?”

So there you have it, Joe. DisneyQuest will continue to limp along until the rest of DTD gets fixed. Which could be quite a while from now.

And speaking of fixed … Here’s hoping that Comcast gets its act together in the coming week so that I’m then able to deliver next Friday’s Why For on time.

And remember, folks – if you’d like me to answer your Disney-related questions – please send them along to [email protected].

Have a great weekend, okay?

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  • That's a good excuse for Disneyland, but that reasoning does not carry over to the Magic Kingdom's Rivers of America.  Granted, the spiel on the railroad comments about Pocahontas and lifts a few bars from 'Colors of the Wind' as you near the tepee village, but no changes were made to the village itself.  Except for the jarring realization that you leave the western themed Frontierland Station gazing into the Spash Mountain (Song of the South) queue before seeing a plains Indian encampment listing to a song about an east coast story and then heading to Toontown Fair (?!?), I guess they could do anything they want.  Me, I just like to ride the rails, feel the wheels click over the track joints and listen to the chugging of the engine.

  • I think they should still make the changes now even though Pocahontas is an "older" movie now. It make total sense. With the renovations the ROA is going through now they should make the change.

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