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When it comes to the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, it's
kind of a tradition that good enough isn't really good enough.
Case in point: "Pirates of the Caribbean."
When Walt Disney first envisioned bringing buccaneers into his first theme park
in the late 1950s, he was thinking more of a walk-through attraction. A place
where Disneyland Guests would first descend from street level in New Orleans
Square and then stroll past this elaborately-themed dungeon which was to be
filled with wax tableaux of history's most notorious pirates. Scenes that --
thanks to theatrical lighting & stereo sound effects -- would appear to
come to life each time a new group of tourists walked by.
Concept art for "Rogues Gallery," the walk-thru version of "Pirates of the Caribbean."Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And Walt was fully committed to this early version of
"Pirates." He even went so far as authorize the start of construction
on this attraction. Which is why -- for much of the early 1960s -- there was
this huge cellar hole sitting empty next to Adventureland. Early Disneyana fans
used to climb up into the Swiss Family Treehouse and then peer down at the
enormous pieces of steel which straddled this construction site. Wondering when
work would continue on this Pirates-themed show (which -- at that time -- was
known as "Rogues Gallery").
"And why didn't Disney go forward with that version of
'Pirates of the Caribbean'?," you ask. Because
while his Imagineers were working on rides, shows & attractions for the
1964 - 1965 New York World's Fair, Walt came up with a better idea. He saw how
much people enjoyed floating through "it's a small world" and then looking
out at all of those singing Audio-Animatronic children which were positioned
along this ride's trough. Which is why Disney decided to ditch the walk-thru
version of "Rogues Gallery" and instead send Disneyland
visitors off on a boat ride that would first slide down a waterfall and then
take Guests floating past some singing swashbucklers.
And the same exact thing happened with Disneyland's
Walt had originally wanted small groups of tourists to take part in a walking
tour of this decrepit southern home. Where -- as they were led from room to
room by their all-too-human host -- these people would then encounter special
effects-filled scenes that the Wizards of WED had worked up which celebrated
Concept art for the walk-thru version of The Haunted Mansion.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"And why didn't Walt go ahead with that walk-thru
version of the Haunted Mansion?,"
you query. Because with the development of the Omnimover ride system for
Disneyland's "Adventure Thru Inner Space" attraction, the Imagineers
now had a far more efficient way to move Guests through a detailed show
environment. So even though the exterior of the Haunted
Mansion was already built & standing
in place along the Rivers of America by 1963, Disney's Imagineers still junked
their plans for a walk-thru version of that theme park attraction and opted
instead to go with the Doom Buggy-driven ride that we all know today.
So why did I bring up those two classic theme park
attractions? Because when Tom Staggs -- the Chairman of Walt Disney Parks &
Resorts -- was looking at the work-in-progress version of the Seven Dwarfs Mine
Train (that new family coaster which officially opened to the general public at
WDW's Magic Kingdom
earlier today) a few years back ... Well, Tom liked what he saw. But he also
wondered: Could the Imagineers do a little better with the Audio-Animatronic
Dwarfs that were supposed to be dig-dig-digging in this mine the whole day
I mean, WDI's talented team of sculptors had done a brilliant job of translating
Doc, Happy et al. into full-sized three dimensional figures. Likewise the
Imagineers who were in charge of programming these AA figures had come up with some
stylized life-like movements that Staggs was sure would look charming in the
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train's main show scene. Which showed the Dwarfs at the very
end of their work day just before they began singing "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,
it's home from work we go ... " and then exited that diamond mine.
Concept art for the original version of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train's main show sceneback when this New Fantasyland attraction was supposed to make use of traditionalAudio-Animatronic figures. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
But if Tom had a quibble about this
already-under-construction piece of Walt Disney World's New Fantasyland, it was
with the faces of the Seven Dwarfs. Which -- due to the hard plastic shell that
encases the inner workings of all AA figures (not to mention the soft vinyl skin which is then placed over that
hard plastic shell) -- couldn't quite match all of those
squash-and-stretch-filled facial expressions that Disney artists had dreamed up
when they were originally animating "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
back in the mid-1930s.
So Staggs wondered: Was there a way to make the Audio-Animatronic
versions of the Seven Dwarfs actually look more like these character did back
in that 1937 Walt Disney Pictures release? And as it turned out, there was.
Ever since the late 1990s, WDI has been experimenting with miniature projection
systems which could then be placed inside of the faces of Audio-Animatronic
figures that are used in the Disney theme parks. The Imagineers had previously
used this technology with some success in Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin
and The Haunted Mansion. But recent advances in the miniaturization of
projection systems as well as LED lighting had now made this
projected-from-within-face idea worth revisiting.
The Imagineers fine tune the Sneezy AA figure onsitein the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train's main show scene.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And as soon as the Imagineers showed Staggs some prototypes that they'd been
working on, Tom immediately said "That's it. That's what we should be
doing with the Dwarfs in the Mine Train's big show scene." So even though
New Fantasyland's centerpiece attraction had already been under construction
for a year or more at this point, the Imagineers immediately shifted gears and began
dreaming up ways to install Dwarf AA figures with projected-from-within-faces
in this new family coaster.
And because they wanted the Dwarfs to look just as they did
in Disney's first full-length animated feature ... Well, that's why the
Imagineers reached out to Dave Bossert. Who's a Producer, Creative Director and
Head of Special Projects at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Now Dave is one of the Mouse House's master magicians. If
you watched "Disney Night" last month on ABC's "Dancing with the
Stars" and then marveled at how Drew Carey danced with the Genie from
"Aladdin" ...Well, it's Bossert's Special Projects team that did
that. Likewise when Tom Hanks interacted with an animated Tinker Bell in
"Saving Mr. Banks," it was Bossert's talented group of animators
& special effects artists who conjured up pixie dust that looked perfect
for that particular period in Walt Disney Company history.
Imagineers finish dressing the set around Grumpy's scene in The Seven Dwarfs MineTrain. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
So when it came to designing projected-from-within-faces for
the Dwarf AA figures that would then be featured in the big show scene for New
Fantasyland's family coaster, Dave and his team watched that 1937 film over
& over. Looking for the specific ways that each of the Seven Dwarfs moved
their eyes, eyebrows and mouths.
"A lot of this stuff was counter-intuitive. Take -- for example -- Sleepy.
One of the ways that Disney's animators back in the 1930s indicated that this
dwarf was actually asleep was by periodically having Sleepy open one eye,"
Bossert explained during a recent phone interview. "Which is why we made
sure that the face on the Sleepy AA figure periodically opens one
eye. Just so this character looks & acts just as Sleepy did in the original
Doc acknowledges passengers in their oar cars as they begin climbing up the SevenDwarfs Mine Train's second load hill. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved
"Nearly every piece of animation that you see in Seven Dwarfs
Mine Train -- whether it's the Dwarfs who dance on the ceiling on the spinning
barrel room in this attraction's queue -- is new. However, the silhouette animation of the Dwarfs at the final hill was a lift from the film and was our tip of the hat to the original property," Bossert
stated. "I'm just lucky enough to work with a team that's made up of
Disney' very best artists and animators. And these people are so talented, they
can replicate the precise look & performance of characters that were first
animated nearly 80 years ago."
Which is why -- as WDW Guests have been getting off the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
during this New Fantasyland attraction's soft opening phase -- what have they
been talking about? Not this family coaster's extremely smooth ride or how its
oar cars full of passengers swing out to the side as they zoom along its 2000
foot-long track. No, what's got Central Florida tourists
marveling is how great the Dwarfs look in the Mine Train's big show scene.
Which is why these AA figures are now considered to be the gold standard when
it comes to replicating Disney characters in a dark ride environment.
And that only happened because -- when it comes to Walt Disney Parks
& Resorts -- good enough just ain't good enough.
* This story originally appeared on Jim Hill's blog on HuffingtonPost.com