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Disney looks to avoid the mistakes that it made with "The Little Mermaid" as it expands its "Frozen" empire

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Disney looks to avoid the mistakes that it made with "The Little Mermaid" as it expands its "Frozen" empire

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25 years ago when "The Little Mermaid" first arrived in theaters, The Walt Disney Company really wasn't ready to capitalize on how successful that hand-drawn animated feature would become.

And I mean REALLY not ready. If you dropped by your local Disney Store during the 1989 holiday season looking to purchase some "Little Mermaid" -themed merchandise, you'd have learned that what little had been ordered in advance had long since been sold out. Most likely, the only item that would have been left in stock was an Ariel doll with long blonde hair.

"Why blonde hair instead of Ariel's usual ginger locks?," you ask. Because Tyco (i.e., the toy company that produced this misbegotten piece of "Mermaid" merch) had research in hand which stated that little girls didn't like to play with red-haired dolls.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
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The Mouse did learn for its initial "Mermaid" -related mistakes. Which is why by  May 18, 1990 (i.e., when the home video version of this Academy Award-winning film first went on sale), Mickey had more than 40 additional licensees lined up. As a direct result, sales of "Little Mermaid" -themed merchandise accounted for nearly a third of total sales at the Disney Stores in the months that followed this animated feature's release on VHS.

Now you'd think that the rest of The Walt Disney Company would have learned from the Disney Stores' 1989 misstep and then gotten serious about the "Little Mermaid" business. But even though Ariel eventually became one of Disney's most popular characters, becoming a huge driver for the Company's $3-billion-a-year Disney Princess franchise, it still took Walt Disney Parks & Resorts 12 years before it finally built its very first Ariel-inspired "land" (i.e., Mermaid Lagoon. Which opened at Tokyo DisneySea back in September 2001). And it would then be another decade before the first stateside ride (i.e., "The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure." Which debuted at Disney California Adventure Park back in June of 2011) starring Flounder & friends would open.

So when it came time to cash in on another film based on another Hans Christian Andersen tale, Disney was determined not to make the same mistakes that it had made with Ariel when it came to Anna & Elsa. Which is why -- as it looks for new ways to extend the reach of the Company's hugely popular "Frozen" franchise -- the Mouse is NOT moving at a glacial pace.

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Take -- for example -- the "Frozen" -themed attraction that Disney Parks & Resorts announced this past Friday. To make sure that theme parks fans will be able to journey " ... to Arendelle and immerse them in many of their favorite moments and music from the film" as quickly as possible, the Imagineers have decided to close Walt Disney World's "Maelstrom" attraction on October 5th. And as soon as the last Guest gets off of this boat ride (which is the centerpiece attraction of World Showcase's Norway pavilion), construction workers will then begin gutting this Epcot show building.

Mind you, WDI plans on leaving "Maelstrom" boat-and-trough ride system in place. Which is what will then allow Walt Disney World to get its "Frozen" -inspired attraction (which will make use of dimensional sets, animatronic figures and film footage to recreate memorable scenes & characters from that Chris Buck / Jennifer Lee film) open by late 2015 / early 2016. And by swapping this ride's entrance & exit and then removing some of "Maelstrom" 's post-show elements, the Imagineers even plan on lengthening the trough that these boats travel in. Which will then allow them to fold in a few more show scenes featuring Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf.

But again, it'll be at least 15 months before WDW's new "Frozen" ride will welcome its first Guests. So to tide Anna & Elsa fans over 'til this Epcot attraction can open, Disney's Hollywood Studios has decided to keep its super-popular "For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration" show up & running at least through New Years.

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And then starting in late November, the Snow Queen will be filling Cinderella's shoes as the new host of the Magic Kingdom's "Castle Dream Lights" show. Only now instead of the Fairy Godmother waving her wand and illuminating Cinderella Castle with over 200,000 holiday lights, it'll be Elsa using her icy magic to turn that theme park icon into a winter wonder.

And it's not just the Disney theme parks who'll be working hard for the next year or so to keep "Frozen" front-of-mind. Starting on September 28th, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" will begin a multi-episode arc that plans on putting Anna, Elsa & Kristoff front & center in that nighttime fantasy adventure.

In fact, "Once Upon A Time" 's fourth season premiere -- "A Tale of Two Sisters" -- actually picks up right where "Frozen," the animated feature, left off. In Arendelle of the past where Anna is getting ready to marry Kristoff, Elsa's sister discovers that their parents (who -- as you may recall from the opening moments of this Academy Award-winning animated feature -- died when their ship was swamped by a huge wave during a storm at sea) were headed to some mysterious destination in a quest that may have held the secret to containing Elsa's out-of-control ice powers. And against Elsa's wishes, Anna now wants to finish their parents' fateful journey to find out what they exactly were looking for. Meanwhile, in modern day Storybrooke, a scared and confused Elsa creates a powerful snow monster for protection.

Kristoff (Scott Michael Foster) and Elsa (Georgina Haig) visit with Sven in the stables.
Photo by Katie Yu. Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
All rights reserved.

Just so you know: The creators of "Once Upon a Time" -- Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz -- personally wrote the teleplay for "A Tale of Two Sisters." And given the care & thought that Kitsis & Horowitz put into casting the actors who will be playing "Frozen" 's central trio, Georgina Haig (Elsa), Elizabeth Lail (Anna) and Scott Michael Foster (Kristoff) are almost sure to shine on this TV show.

And it's not just ABC that will be extending / expanding "Frozen" 's storyline. On January 6, 2015, Disney & Random House will be launching a brand-new series of chapter books. Entitled "Anna & Elsa: Sisterhood is the Strongest Magic," the first of these "Frozen" -inspired tales will be called "All Hail the Queen" while its follow-up is entitled "Memory and Magic." Then in March comes the third "Anna & Elsa" chapter book, "A Warm Welcome" while in May Disney & Random House will release "The Great Ice Engine."

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All rights reserved

Walt Disney Animation Studios also plans on getting into the expanding-the-"Frozen"- universe business with a brand-new short which will feature the entire Arendelle gang. Tentatively titled "Frozen Fever," this seven minute-long film (which will be directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee and produced by Peter Del Vecho, the exact same trio that rode herd on the full-length version of "Frozen") will detail Elsa & Kristoff's efforts to make Anna's birthday her best day ever.

John Lasseter -- who, as part of a recent "Making of Frozen" TV special, described "Frozen Fever" as being " ... absolutely hilarious" -- promised that this new short will feature a brand-new song by Bobby & Kristen Anderson-Lopez (i.e., the husband-and-wife team who won this year's Best Song Oscar for "Let It Go") and will bow sometime in Spring of 2015.

And speaking of animation ... Perhaps that the only complaint that animation fans have had about "Frozen" is that they wish that this feature had been done in hand-drawn animation like many of the other, earlier Disney Princess films. Which is what makes the way that the Disney Studio Store and Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop in Hollywood has chosen to celebrate "Frozen" all the more intriguing.

Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories Animation Art & Convervation Center

You see, these folks -- who have set up shop right next door to the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard -- wanted to see what Elsa would look like had she been animated just like Ariel. Using the same sorts of inks, paints & cels that were used to produce Disney's "The Little Mermaid" back in 1989.

Which is why Disney Studio Store and Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop turned to the talented team at the S/R Laboratories Animation Art & Conservation Center and genuinely challenged them. They asked "Can you create something that in 2D that looks like it's almost 3D."

So the artists & technicians at S/R Labs -- using inspirational artwork from "Frozen" that Walt Disney Studios provided -- took on this project. Starting with a 16 field cel, they spent months experimenting with special paints to recreate the ice crystals in Elsa's dress. They also used all sorts of special effects to make this studio replica look positively frosty.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The end result has become a huge hit with animation fans. With hundreds of them making special trips into Hollywood just so they can then view this 2D "Frozen" studio replica which is on display at the Disney Studio Store and Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop in person and then perhaps purchase a copy of this limited edition collectible.

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is that "The Little Mermaid" was the very first hand-drawn animated feature to make use of CAPS, the Computer Animation Production System that Walt Disney Animation Studios developed with Pixar in the late 1980s. So if it hadn't been for all those lessons that Disney learned the hard way "Under the Sea," it's highly unlikely that the world would have ever seen an animated feature like "Frozen."

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on September 17, 2014

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  • So no truth to the rumors that they will completely gut the building, expand the show building backstage and use the new ride system that is now in use at Hong Kong’s Mystic Manor?  Seemed far fetch given the timeline, but then again, if they wanted to be that aggressive, they certainly could be.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Nope. Not happening. A trackless vehicle-based attraction might be in the works for the Great Movie Ride (I've recently been told that WDI is going to throw a lot of money at that massive show building in the not-so-distant future so that this sadly-out-of-date attraction can then transform into " ... something cool." That's an exact quote from the person I spoke with. And -- no -- I don't think that they were talking about yet another "Frozen" -themed attraction). But as for the "Maelstrom" / "Frozen" redo, everything that I've been told suggests that the boats-and-trough set-up that's there right now is staying in place. WDI's looking to expand / lengthen the trough in a few places so that they can then add an additional show scene or two. But beyond that, it'll be the exact same ride system that's taking getting through "Maelstrom" today.

  • This is incredible stuff.  I know the doom and gloom merchants are up in arms about losing what was 6 months ago described as a stale ride and is now a treasured classic, but this is exactly what WDW needs.  This is exactly what little kids want, not what us old farts want.  AS we age people need to remember that these parks and movies were made for families and most importantly to wow children.  They don't look for chips of paint missing or light bulbs that are burnt out.  They look to see their hero's and Anna and Elsa are the two biggest characters the mouse has right now.  

    Nobody went to WDW to ride the Maelstrom.  People will go to ride the new Frozen attraction.  Whether it fits with the original idea of EPCOT or not doesn't really matter because the park has been pretty stale and flat for years according to the same people who don't want this change.  IF the mouse does nothing he is old and past it.  If they replace a ride they are taking the cheap and easy way out.  If they put it in Fantasyland people would wonder why they aren't adding capacity to EPCOT or DHS.  They can't win whatever they do, except with kids and those parents who get to watch their kids cry and hug their favorite characters.

    I for one can't wait to stand in line for 4 hours next year to get a picture for my kids and then to go back and ride this ride.  If you can look at it from a child's point of you, you will see the magic.  It's still there hiding in your inner child's mind.

    As for the Maelstrom?  Let it Go!

  • Will they retain the backwards and drop portion of "Maelstrom"? I think going backwards and the drop are both unnecessary thrilling parts of "Maelstrom" that should be discarded. They also speed up the attraction to a minimal 2 to 3 minutes long, which is a very short ride and largely forgettable.

    I would love for them to add a portion where Elsa creates a snow storm and you can feel your boat breaking through the icy waters. Then you find yourself in the ice palace before returning safely to the castle.

    That's good news about The Great Movie Ride, but what about the rumors that Star Wars might go in there?

    Since I'm on the subject of EPCOT, another big show building is Ellen's Energy Adventure thats due for a makeover. They should retain the dinosaur portion by making the ride all about dinosaurs and no Ellen.

    I would love to see Ratatouille come to the France pavilion, but they need to add a new show building.

    What about the unused Body Wars ride simulator at the closed health pavilion? They can certainly take a cue from the Hong Kong Disneyland Iron Man makeover by turning Body Wars into The Incredibles ride instead.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Yikes. Lots & lots of questions here. And I'm down in Orlando right now on deadline for a Halloween Horror Nights story. So think of this as the lightning round.

    RE: Backwards & Drop Portion of "Maelstrom" ? ... My understanding is that this stay. Any new trough sections will be downstairs.

    RE: Star Wars in Great Movie Ride? ... Um, I had heard a rumor that -- because the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular pad was no longer available for the Speeder Bikes ride that the Bike were, at one time anyway, being considered for possible installation in the cavernous Great Movie Ride show building. But I'm pretty sure that ship has sailed at this point and GMR is now being concerned for other non-Star Warsy things.

    RE: Energy Pavilion ... My understanding is that -- as part of the lead-up to "Finding Dory" -- Ellen Degeneres is supposed talking with WDI about possibly participating in a redo / refresh of this Future World attraction. Given that Degeneres is arguably more popular now than when she first became the host of "Ellen's Energy Adventure," this certainly makes sense. I think the main problem right now is -- in our world of carbon taxes, fracking and controversial pipelines -- how one tells a story about energy that isn't controversial.

    RE: Ratatouille ... My understanding is that Disney Studios Paris has a five year exclusive on that ride. So the earliest we'd see this thing stateside at Epcot or DHS (Or -- for that matter -- out at the Disneyland Resort in one of their two parks) would be 2019 or 2020.

    RE: Body Wars ... is never coming back. A lot of those motion-based simulators have long since been stripped for parts to help keep "Star Tours" over at DHS going. You should just get used to the idea that the "Wonders of Life" pavilion is going to be used for a support venue for special events. Because you're never going to see any new rides or shows being built inside of the current structure as it exists now.

    Gotta get back to work here. Hope that I was able to answer most of your questions.

  • Little Mermaid didn't use CAPS, it was the last ink-and-painted movie in the animated canon. Rescuers Down Under was the first film done in CAPS.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Actually, they did use CAPS on "The Little Mermaid." It was used to color a few scenes at the very end of this animated feature (If I remembering correctly, the one where King Triton waves his trident and creates a rainbow is one of them) as a test to see whether this new computer animation production system was workable / viable. Given that no one in the general public could tell the scenes that had been hand-inked & painted from the ones that had been produced with CAPS ... Well, that's when Disney decided to go full-steam-ahead with this computer animation production system that the guys at Pixar had developed. Which is when they then decided to make "The Rescuers Down Under" Walt Disney Animation Studios' first film produced entirely in CAPS.

  • My kids actually couldn't care less about Frozen and love the Maelstrom. That being said, I do realize they are in the minority.

    I think Late 2015 is still too late for the ride to open. It should be open now, but I don't think there was any way for Disney to foresee the success of Frozen. It would have been a huge risk opening a ride to coincide with the opening of the movie.

  • Speaking of new attractions, rumors flying that Backlot Tour, Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground and other stuff nearby may close after October 11th to make way for a Pixar Place expansion including several kiddie rides.  Hear anything about that?

  • I'm all for a "Frozen" ride, but not at the expense of an existing one. Putting a ride set in a fictional country in the Norway part of the World Showcase is kind of missing the point of what the World Showcase is supposed to showcase: the real culture of real countries. Was this really the only place they could put it?

  • Agreed; A Frozen ride is not a bad thing but it's coming at the expense of a non-Disney related attraction, which is SO welcome with the adult set and, apparently, some of the children as well.  In today's Disney age it's refreshing to find the few attractions left that do not connect directly to a film and now we're losing another.

    Glad to hear the flume may be extended as it's far too short.  Imagine the lines now....

    That's great to hear about the GMR, but I really hope that at least some of the better animatronic scenes can be repurposed.  We don't need a ride-through of simulated effects.

    Every time I watch the  Ellen attraction I think, she should really do an update.  Shorten the beginning and ending films, update some of the "We've found enough of xx and xx to last 50 years!" lines to not spell doom and gloom entirely, and of course upgrade her animatronic.  I noticed she was missing during the ride about 3 weeks ago; maybe they've already begun work on just that?

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