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Will Johnny Depp’s version of the Mad Hatter soon be making appearances at Disney’s theme parks?

Will Johnny Depp’s version of the Mad Hatter soon be making appearances at Disney’s theme parks?

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First up, Mark K. writes to ask about WDW’s Night Kingdom / Jungle Trek project:

There was considerable talk several years back about a potential 5th park opening but I have heard no mention of it recently. Did the recession and the decision to remake fantasy land doom this project?

Dear Mark K. –

There are a number of reasons that Disney Parks & Resorts has tabled (for now, anyway) any talk of building a 5th theme park in Central Florida and is concentrating instead of expanding WDW’s existing parks.

Chief among these is … Well, you have to understand that Disney’s Night Kingdom / Jungle Trek was supposed to be WDW’s answer to SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove. In that it was always meant to be a niche park (meaning that only 2000 Guests were going to be allowed in each day) with a high gate fee (Projected admission prices ran from $250 - $300 per person).

Seaworld's Discovery Cove
Copyright SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. All Rights Reserved

After the economy tanked in the Fall of 2008 … Well, it obviously made no sense for The Walt Disney Company to spend $520 million on the construction of a project that was meant to lure higher end customers to WDW. Especially at a time when that market segment – in direct response to what had just happened on Wall Street – was seriously cutting back on its discretionary travel.

So rather than pursue new customers, Walt Disney World opted to better service the customers that it already had. Create compelling new reasons for Guests who had already been to this Resort and had extremely fond memories of the place to return.

That’s kind of the driving idea behind the expansion of Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. That the Mouse’s marketing department will then be able to create this series of commercials that will talk about how “ … you’ve never been to a Disney theme park like this before. Where you can literally walk into exact replicas of places that you’ve only seen in Disney’s animated features and then have one-on-one interactions with your favorite Disney characters.”

Disney Parks & Resorts feels that a transformed Fantasyland (That’s the language that they’re using in-house, by the way. WDW’s Fantasyland isn’t being expanded. It’s being transformed) coupled with a new 3D version of Star Tours will give Mickey’s marketing department plenty to work with when it comes to creating compelling new print ads & TV commercials that will (hopefully) lure people to plan return trips to Orlando in 2012 and beyond.

A model of the Dumbo ride in the Fantasyland Forest expansion
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And let’s not forget about Disney’s Art of Animation Resort with its 1,120 suites. Which Parks & Resorts hopes will compel larger family units to make return trips to Disney World.

And speaking of returning … It’s possible (particularly if the economy rebounds and Guest spending really picks up) that The Walt Disney Company will eventually circle back around to the idea of building a niche park in Florida. But – as of right now – that project remains in the deep freeze.

Next up, Jeff S. is looking for a status report on “Song of the South.” He writes:

Jim,

You've hinted off and on for years that a Song of the South DVD or Blu-Ray release was on the way.  What is the latest status of this rumor?

Jeff S.

Dear Jeff S.

As of right now, there are no plans to make a DVD or Blu-Ray version of “Song of the South” available for purchase in the United States or Canada. And it’s Bob Iger himself who’s putting on the brakes here.

The original poster for Disney's Song of the South
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Long story short: Bob has viewed this movie twice over the past five years. And each time, Iger’s come away from those private screenings with the belief that whatever money the Company would make off of selling this 1946 release in the U.S. just wouldn’t be worth it in the long run. Given that Disney’s reputation with the African-American community would take such a serious hit should this movie be available for purchase at WalMart, Target, Toys R Us et al that it’s probably better if the Company just leave this title locked away in the vaunted Disney vault.

That said, there are those in Burbank who have allegedly been actively campaigning to make “Song of the South” available through the Company's still-pending Keychest program. Which -- as you may recall -- is this Disney-devised system which would allow consumers to have access to movies & TV shows across multiple digital platforms and devices that the Company hopes to launch soon.

The thinking here is that by only making “Song of the South” available through Keychest  … Well, that’s a pretty strong incentive for animation fans & the Disney faithful to embrace this program.

What’s more, given the stricter-than-strict access control that Mickey would theoretically have through Keychest … Well, Disney could then make it so that the only way  you’d ever be able to see “Song of the South” is by first sitting through a 20 – 30 minute-long documentary that puts this motion picture in historical perspective. Where, whether you want to hear about this aspect of the film's production or not, you'd be reminded of America's cultural & racial climate during the mid-1940s. With the idea here being that the viewer comes away with the concept that Walt Disney Studios doesn’t make these sorts of movies anymore. That there’s a far more enlightened management team in place at the Mouse House these days.

Brer rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer bear from Disney's animated Song of the South
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

That sort of historical & cultural reference (more importantly, that sort of restrictive access) would certainly go a long way toward addressing Bob Iger's concerns about "Song of th South." So will this actually happen? Given that Disney still needs to sort out its concerns about Keychest's encryption issues (Not to mention the number of homes in the U.S. that still don't have access to the Internet or Broadband. I’m told that Mouse House execs would like to see a far higher percentage of the population wired into the Web before they then will feel comfortable about actually turning the key on Keychest) ... Well, it could be a while yet before you're then able to view a perfectly legal copy of Disney’s “Song of the South” (not that illegal dub of the Japanese DVD which is currently available on YouTube) on your laptop or iPhone.

Finally, Jack S. writes to say:

So Alice in Wonderland  (has) obviously made a huge sum of money over (the past three months). But what's next for this Tim Burton film? It's not like Disney to just not do anything to something that's this big. although,  I doubt they would ever make a sequel, and they already have a lot of Walt Disney's Alice in the parks.

Dear Jack S.

It’s interesting that you bring this up now. For – on Wednesday of this week – Andy Mooney (i.e. the Chairman of Disney Consumer Products) as part of that virtual press briefing he gave to hype DCP’s participation in next week’s Licensing International Expo did talk a bit about Disney’s future plans for its Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

Alice, the White Queen and the MAd Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Given that Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas” (since it was initially released to theaters back in October of 1993) has become an evergreen (i.e. a property that the Company can now count to move a certain amount of merchandise, sell a predictable number of DVDs & movie tickets each Fall, etc.) … Well, Disney’s now hoping that it can turn Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” into an evergreen as well.

“And how might they do that?,” you ask. Well, given that Easter (in the U.S., anyway) is a holiday that’s already strongly associated with fashion, hats and rabbits, there are those at Disney who’d like to try and position Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” as a property that reappears every Spring.

The tentative thinking (at least according to the Company insiders that I’ve spoken with earlier this week) is that Disney will start this effort slowly. Test the waters, if you will, by putting “Alice” back in theaters for an extremely limited run (or – more likely – as a special midnight show) in the late winter / early spring of 2011. This brief return to theaters (which would mostly likely be only in big urban centers & college towns) would then be supported by a smallish selection of new Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” –themed merchandise.

Should next year’s test prove to be successful, Disney would then try and build on that success. Slowly expand the reach of Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland”  in 2012 and beyond.

The Red Queen as portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Now as for a sequel … To be honest, even though this Walt Disney Pictures release has already earned over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, what I’ve been hearing from folks at the Studio isn’t so much that execs there would like Tim to direct an “Alice in Wonderland” sequel. But – rather – that they’d like him to get started ASAP on that “Maleficent” movie. Which Mouse House management believes has big box office potential as well.

Mind you, there’s also been a big push lately for Disney to put another “Alice” – like project into production. The current front runner is “The Great and Powerful.” Which is a prequel of sorts to “The Wizard of Oz.” In that it’s an origin story for the Wizard and shows how this Kansas humbug wound up as the Big Cheese in the Emerald City.

As of this week, Disney’s trying to persuade Timur Bekmambetov to come direct “The Great and Powerful.” Which – given that Robert Downey Jr. is said to be interested in playing the Wizard – could wind up being one of Disney’s big releases for 2012. Which already looks to be a pretty competitive year for the Mouse, what with all of the high profile sequels (i.e. “Batman 3,” “Men in Black 3,” “Star Trek 2”) that the other studios will be sending out into theaters then.

Getting back to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” now … Given how hugely popular this Walt Disney Pictures release has been, would it surprise you to hear that people have actually been dropping by Guest Relations at the theme parks, asking if there’s somewhere where they can go within the Park to meet with the Johnny Depp version of the Mad Hatter?

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Which I know – at first glance, anyway – may seem a weird request. But then again, let’s remember that there’s a face character version of Depp’s other Disney persona (i.e. Captain Jack Sparrow) meeting & greeting with the public at WDW’s Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. So it just stands to reason that – if Johnny’s Jack Sparrow is available for autographs & pictures – shouldn’t Johnny’s Mad Hatter be available too?

So there are now reportedly conversations underway about what should be done to address this Guest request. What makes this particularly difficult is that … Well, Disney’s animated version of “Alice in Wonderland” from 1951 already has a strong presence in the Parks. More importantly, the walk-around face character version of the Mad Hatter from that film is quite popular with Guests.

So what’s the best way to handle this situation? From what I’ve been hearing, at least when it comes to Florida, the current thinking is that the version of the Mad Hatter that’s associated with Disney’s 1951 animated version will continue to appear at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot (at the U.K. pavilion) and Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (at 1900 Park Fare) while a Johnny Depp version of the Mad Hatter could possibly start making appearances at Disney’s Hollywood Studios sometime in the not-so-distant future.

Mind you, nothing’s written in stone here. Plans could (and most likely will) change. More to the point, I have absolutely no idea how they’d handle the 1951 animated version of the Mad Hatter versus Tim Burton’s version of the Mad Hatter situation at the Disneyland Resort. Perhaps they could make the animated version a Disneyland Park exclusive while the Johnny Depp version would only make appearances at the Disney California Adventure Park.

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

If I hear anything, I’ll let you folks know. In the meantime, if you’d like to have one of your own Disney-related questions answered as part of a future Why For column, please send them along to whyfor@jimhillmedia.com.

That’s it for this week. Look for lots of great content here on JHM next week as I travel out to Las Vegas to cover the 2010 Licensing International Expo and then continue on to Anaheim to attend the world premiere of Disney’s World of Color.

Oh -- and if you live out in the LA area and would like to help out an extremely worthy cause, don't forget the Animation Guild's reception and silent auction for Pres-Aid. which is being held tonight at 1105 N. North Hollywood Way in Burbank from 6 - 10 p.m. If you drop by there, you'll not only get to see some amazing animation art, you'll also learn about how you can become a bone marrow donor and/or donate blood & platelets directly for Pres Romanillos. Who's this really great guy who could use our love, support and cash right about now.

Speaking of which: If you can't be there in person tonight, you can still help out Pres-Aid by donating directly to the Talbert Family Foundation. You can learn more about that charitable fund by clicking here.

That's it for now, folks. Have a great weekend, okay?

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  • Great article--thanks so much for letting us know the possibilities for more Alice at WDW!

  • Love the Why For column, Jim. Thanks for another good one!

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