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Would Disneyland’s Dixieland really have made a difference?

Jim Hill

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Would Disneyland’s Dixieland really have made a difference?

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Orange County Mountie writes in to say:

I have just been loving these stories that you have been doing about Disneyland’s expansion plans from the 1970s and 1980s. All of those rides, shows and attractions that the Imagineers wanted to build back then but never got around to.

In your last article, you talked about how WDI wanted to take advantage of all the development that they’d done for EPCOT Center when it came to creating new attractions for Disneyland. Did you have any other stories about stuff like that? Rides and shows from Future World and World Showcase that almost made it to California.

Dear Orange County Mountie

What’s fun (but – at the same time – kind of maddening) about burrowing through Disneyland’s master plans from this period in the Company’s history is how vague they can often be.

Opening of EPCOT in 1982
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Take – for example – this line item from a February 10, 1982 inter-office communication between the four folks who were then in charge of putting together the latest version of Disneyland’s 10 year plan. Under the heading of “Major Park Additions,” there was this bare-bones suggestion:

Bring one of the EPCOT attractions here

That’s it. Not “Let’s bring Spaceship Earth or The Land boat ride to Anaheim.” Just “Bring one of the EPCOT attractions here.”

Mind you, there were times when they did get specific. Take – for example – the new “Carousel of Progress” show that was proposed for Tomorrowland about this same time. Which was to have been this …

… time machine concept in conjunction with the American Adventure script.

Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin audioanimatronic figures in EPCOT's American Adventure
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

You get the idea, right? The Imagineers were planning on duplicating some of the AA figures that had been created for EPCOT Center’s “American Adventure” show. So that – as Disneyland visitors rode backwards & forwards through time aboard the Carousel of Progress -- they could have then viewed recreations of great moments in American history as they supposedly actually happened.

As for the finale of this proposed attraction … Well, this was to have recreated Space Station X-1 from Disneyland’s original Tomorrowland. In that – as Guests transitioned to the second floor of the Carousel of Progress – they would have then found themselves standing on the deck of this immense space station, looking down at America from 50 miles up. And -- as the Earth turned – the country would go from dawn to dusk and then back again.

“So which historic figure was supposed to have served as the host of this Carousel of Progress / American Adventure time travel hybrid attraction?,” you ask. To be honest, all I can tell is that I’m fairly certain that Mark Twain would not have been featured in this proposed show. You see, the Imagineers already had plans for this particular AA figure on the other side of that theme park.

“What plans?,” you query. Well, you first have to understand that – starting in the early 1980s – WED was seriously looking for ways to drive Disneyland visitors back into the Northeastern corner of that theme park. Given that – by this point in the Park’s history, anyway – the Imagineers had already concluded that Bear Country was an extremely weak draw due to its rather limited theme.

Bear Country in Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved 

Now couple that info with the fact that WED was really struggling to come up with workable ideas for rides, shows and attractions that fit logically & naturally into Bear Country’s story line. Which is why it was then decided that this part of the park needed a far broader theme. Something that would then allow Bear Country to incorporate more characters & stories, thereby putting this "land" more in balance with Adventureland, Fantasyland, etc.

Toward this end, Disneyland execs were (back then, anyway) seriously toying with dropping the Bear Country name for this part of that theme park and then retheming / renaming this land something in …

… the spirit of the deep South, Dixie, Kentucky Home, Mark Twain

Now where this gets interesting is that the Imagineers figured that – if they dropped the Bear Country name and then adopted a Southern theme for this part of the Park … Well, WED would then be able to position this part of Disneyland as the …

New Orleans Square Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

… logical outgrowth from the nearby city and plantation (i.e. New Orleans Square and The Haunted Mansion).

To sell the idea that this rethemed version of Bear Country was now a celebration of all things Southern – Disneyland’s Dixieland, if you will -- the new centerpiece attraction for this part of the Park was to have been a …

… Song of the South log flume attraction using many of the American Sings critters as well as star characters from Mickey Mouse Review.

Now “Splash Mountaindid eventually get built. But as for the rest of the shows that WED wanted to build as part of Disneyland’s Dixieland, those never quite made it off of the drawing board. And these plans included an Audio Animatronic version of Hal Holbrook’s popular one man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!” Which was to have been presented inside of the frontmost theater at Country Bear Playhouse.

Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain tonight
Copyright CBS, Inc. All Rights Reserved 

“And how would that have worked?,” you ask. The plan here was that the Imagineers wanted to retheme the front of Country Bear Playhouse (You know? Where this show’s overflow queue used to be located?) so that this theater would then resemble the sorts of venues that Twain presented his famous lectures in back in the late 1800s / early 1990s.

Now what was particularly clever about this Disneyland expansion plan was that the backmost Country Bear Playhouse theater would have been left untouched. Which meant that – under one roof – you would have had the Park’s brand-new “Mark Twain Tonight” AA attraction as well as Disneyland’s original “Country Bear Jamboree” show.

Mind you, that “Mark Twain Tonight’ show wasn’t the only Twain-inspired addition that the Imagineers had proposed for Disneyland’s new Dixieland section. Among the ideas that also got floated for this proposed redo was a complete retheming of the Hungry Bear Restaurant. Which was to have become Aunt Polly’s, this down-home eatery that was to have offered authentic Southern fare (i.e. fried chicken, black-eyed peas, rhubarb pie et al). Which Disneyland Guests then could have consumed while sitting outside on Aunt Polly’s porch.

Another element of this proposed retheming would have involved shifting the boarding area for the Rafts to Tom Sawyer’s Island from down by the Rivers of America just in front of the entrance to The Haunted Mansion to where Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes currently load. So that all of these new Mark Twain-themed elements could have then been found within 200 feet of one another.

Disneyland's canoes in the Rivers of America
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved 

There was also talk – as part of a $2.8 million overhaul of Disneyland’s Rivers of America – that a new scene would be built right along the water’s edge that would have featured Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. And to increase this area's kid appeal, the Imagineers also toyed with the idea of installing a C Ticket in this part of the Park that was to have been themed around Disney Studio’s 25th animated feature, “The Fox and the Hound.” Where Guests would have climbed aboard miniature versions of Amos Slade’s Model T and then driven through a dark ride that featured Tod, Copper & Vixie in all sorts of forest settings. Which sounds cute, don't you think?

So why didn’t the Imagineers ever get to complete this Southern-style retheming of Bear Country? Why did WED build “Splash Mountain” and then just stop? Well, as always, cost had to be taken into consideration.

This was the constant refrain back in the 1980s: What will give Disneyland the best possible return on its investment? Should the Imagineers take a low budget approach toward the expansion of Starcade, spending just “ … $330,000 on new machines and (the) creation of a mural” to turn this “ … 2,000 square foot unfinished area” on Tomorrowland’s second floor into additional arcade space? Or would it be smarter in the long run to spend $1 million to turn this part of the Park into a West Coast version of “… EPCOT Image Works” ?

In the end, the guys from WED always tended to go with the more affordable alternative. Which is why – rather than reimagine Bear Country as this new land that celebrated the South in general and Mark Twain in particular – the Imagineers opted instead to keep Country Bear Playhouse just as it was, built “Splash Mountain” right next door and then renamed the place Critter Country.

Critter Country sign
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved 

In the end, building that $75 million flume ride only bought the Bears 12 more years. On September 9, 2001, Disneyland’s Country Bear Playhouse closed for good to make room for another bruin that the Imagineers hoped would convince more Guests to come visit the northeastern corner of that theme park.

Sad to say, the West Coast version of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” was never as big a draw as WDI had hoped this dark ride might have been. So now you have to wonder: Would Disneyland’s Dixieland (or whatever it was that the Imagineers would have ultimately called this Mark Twain-themed overhaul of Bear Country) really have made a difference?

Your thoughts?

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  • Thanks for another great article Jim. As for the Mark Twain theme, personally I'd like to see that. However, most kids today probably don't know who Sam Clemmons was. Thus it probabably wouldn't be much of a draw.

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