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How long should theme parks & movie studios wait when dealing with projects & products that have been impacted by tragedy?

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How long should theme parks & movie studios wait when dealing with projects & products that have been impacted by tragedy?

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Six times a day, Louis the Alligator is up onstage at WDW's Magic Kingdom. Performing in front of Cinderella Castle as part of the cast of characters featured in "Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire."

Which wasn't always the case. When this new theme park show officially debuted at the Walt Disney World Resort back on June 21st, this trumpet-playing gator from Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" was nowhere to be seen.

Which is perfectly understandable. Given that - just one week earlier - little Lane Graves had been pulled into Seven Seas Lagoon by an alligator as this 2-year old was playing at water's edge at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Since it would seem insensitive to have "The Princess and the Frog" 's goofy gator character entertaining the crowds at the Magic Kingdom right after the Graves had just lost their son in the worst way imaginable, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Creative Entertainment decided to temporarily cut Louis out of "Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire."

Concept art for Louis' appearance - along with Tiana & Prince Naveen
from Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" in "Mickey's Royal
Friendship Faire." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved 

Not only that, but given that - in the wake of this tragedy - Mouse House managers felt that the crowds at Walt Disney World might find any attempts at crocodilian-related humor to be poor taste, orders came down to temporarily remove the Tick-Tock the Crocodile (i.e., the croc who has been chasing Captain Hook ever since Peter Pan cut off that pirate captain's right hand and threw it overboard for Tick-Tock to eat) float from the Magic Kingdom's daily "Festival of Fantasy" parade.

WDW officials also ordered cast members who worked as skippers on the Jungle Cruise to alter the spiel that they'd been using on this Adventureland attraction for the past 45 years. Temporarily removing any reference to that ride's "crocodile country" section and its two mechanical residents, Old Smiley (who's " ... always looking for a hand-out") and his girlfriend Ginger (who " ... doesn't bite. But she does snap").

Mind you, this isn't the first time that cast members who work at WDW's Jungle Cruise have been asked to remove jokes from that Adventureland attraction's spiel. Immediately following 9/11, Magic Kingdom managers ordered all skippers to stop pointing out the wreckage of a cargo plane that the Imagineers had placed in this faux forest back in the early 1990s. These cast members were also told to hold off on using any of their tried-and-true plane crash jokes for a while (i.e., "How did I land this job?" As the skipper now points to the cargo plane wreckage at water's edge, he says "Well, it's kind of plane to see. I took the crash course").

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And it wasn't just Disney theme park employees who had to make adjustments in the wake of 9/11. On the heels of reports that the hijackers who had taken American Airlines Flights 11 & 77 and United Airlines Flights 93 & 175 had overwhelmed the crews of those airplanes by using knives & box cutters, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner reportedly came into work later that same week and ordered that all knives, guns & swords be removed from the Studio's then-still-in-production animated feature, "Treasure Planet." Which led one wag who was working on this John Musker / Ron Clements movie to allegedly say " ... Michael understands that this is a pirate movie, right? If he makes us get rid of all the guns, swords and knives in 'Treasure Planet,' how are the characters then supposed to battle one another? With cutting remarks?"

Musker & Clements had to deal with a similar sort of editorial suggestion for a Disney executive on an earlier project, "Aladdin." As John recalled in a 2015 interview with E! News, that animated feature was originally set in Baghdad, but " ...  then the Gulf War happened -- the first Gulf War. Roy Disney said, 'This can't be in Baghdad.' So, I took (Baghdad) and did a jumbled anagram (of that Iraqi city's name) and came up with Agrabah."

"Aladdin" needed a relatively minor tweak to keep the real world at bay. "Lilo & Stitch" (which was just nine months away from being released theatrically when those airplanes hit the Towers) needed a major makeover. As you can see by the video below ...

... the original version of this Chris Sanders / Dean DeBlois film climaxed with Experiment 626 hijacking a 747 and then flying it through the concrete canyons of downtown Honolulu in an effort to rescue Lilo from Captain Gantu. On the heels of American Airlines Flight 11 & United Airlines Flight 175 plowing into the North and South towers, what had once seemed outrageously funny & exciting was now in appalling bad taste. Which is why staffers at Walt Disney Feature Animation - Florida spent the next six months frantically reanimating "Lilo & Stitch" 's action-packed finale. Changing this action scene's setting from downtown Honolulu to a far-less populated part of the island. Not only that, but swapping out the vessel that Stitch flies to Lilo's rescue. Changing that hijacked 747 to Jumba & Pleakley's spaceship.

And just so you know: It wasn't just Walt Disney Animation Studios that found itself scrambling in the wake of 9/11. You may recall that - in the weeks & months that followed those attacks on Towers & the Pentagon - letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to two Senate offices and several news organizations. And that - as each of these incidents were investigated - the nightly news would then be filled with images of people in yellow hazmat suits at the scene of the crime.

This genuinely concerned the folks at Pixar Animation Studios. Since "Monsters, Inc." was scheduled to open in theaters on November 2, 2001 and that one of the main plot threads of this Pete Docter movie had to do with the CDA (i.e., The Child Detection Agency. Which investigated any reports of a child being spotted in Monstropolis by rushing in wearing the exact same sort of yellow hazmat suits that the law enforcement officials who were investigating those anthrax spores wore).

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Given that the first incident involving an anthrax-laced letter happened on September 18, 2001, executives at both Disney & Pixar spent much of that month (not to mention the first two weeks of October) fretting about this soon-to-debut animated feature. Wondering if they should put off "Monsters, Inc." 's release for a few months so that they could then retool this film. Come up with a whole new look for this movie's CDA agents so that they didn't look just like those people in yellow hazmat outfits who were investigating all of these anthrax incidents. Or - worst case scenario - cutting any & all references to the Child Detection Agency from this soon-to-be-released Pixar Animation Studios production.

Luckily the last of these anthrax-laced letters were mailed on October 9, 2001. And as images of people wearing yellow hamzat suits investigating crime scenes faded from the nightly news, Disney & Pixar execs gradually stopped worrying about "Monsters, Inc." This Pete Docter film - in its original form - arrived in theaters as scheduled and quickly became one of the top grossing films of 2001.

And just so you know: Disney & Pixar weren't the only studios who found themselves having to make changes to movies that they then had in the works because of 9/11. In August of 2001, Sony released a teaser trailer for "Spider-Man" that - as you can see from the video below ...

... ended with a helicopter full of crooks being trapped in a web that Spidey had spun between the North & South Towers. Given that using the World Trade Center as a punchline in a promotion for an upcoming superhero movie just wasn't going to fly with moviegoers post-9/11, Sony quickly pulled this particular teaser trailer for that Sam Raimi movie. They also ordered all theaters who were then displaying a "Spider-Man" advance poster that showed the WTC reflected into Spidey's eyes to immediately pull down said poster.

If you look closely at Spidey's eye piece in the above poster ... Copyright Sony Pictures
Digital Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved. Spider-Man and associated characters
copyright 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

... you can see a reflection of the World Trade Center's North
and South Towers. Copyright Sony Pictures Digital
Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved. Spider-Man
and associated characters copyright 2001 Marvel
Characters, Inc. All rights reserved

And just to be fair here: It isn't just the Disney theme parks who have had to suddenly make changes on the heels of a tragedy. Take - for example - what happened at Universal Studios Florida back in February of 1998. Universal Creative had spent millions retooling the interior of that theme park's "Ghostbusters Spooktacular" show building so that it could then become home to a brand-new attraction based on Universal Pictures' summer 1996 blockbuster, "Twister."

But then - on the night of February 22-23, 1998 -- the deadliest tornado event in Florida history happened. By the time these F3 (and - in some cases - near-F4) storms finished passing through Central Florida, 42 people were dead and another 260 were injured. And obviously - in the wake of this much death & destruction - opening a theme park attraction which was then supposed to give USF visitors a sense of what it would be like to come face-to-face with a tornado would be incredibly poor taste. Which is why the Universal Orlando Resort decided to push off the opening of "Twister ... Ride It Out" for three months.

It wasn't 'til May 4, 1998 that this effects-filled attraction finally officially opened to the public. Universal Orlando hoped that enough time had passed at that point that "Twister ... Ride It Out" could then be experienced by theme park goers without seeming insensitive to all the suffering that Central Florida residents had gone through during The Night of the Tornadoes.

Concept art for Universal Studios Florida's "Twister ... Ride It Out" attraction.
Copyright Universal Studios. All rights reserved

Which brings us back to what's been going on at Walt Disney World this past summer. How long do you think that Resort should have waited after the Lane Graves incident before they then began bringing all of the gator-themed entertainment at their Florida theme parks back online? Do you think that Disney did the right thing by only waiting 3 weeks?

Because - by July 13th of this year - as I mentioned at the very start of this article, Louis the alligator was up onstage, playing his trumpet for the crowds at WDW's Magic Kingdom. And Jungle Cruise skippers had gone back to using their standard spiel. Warning tourists as they climbed aboard this Adventureland attraction to keep an eye on their children " ... because - if you don't - the crocodiles will."

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on September 3, 2016

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  • I think adding Louis back into the show is less directly insensitive - he's a cheery jazz-playing crocodile, there is no element of threat. But the Jungle Cruise line seems in bad taste to begin with, let alone after a family actually lost their child that way. That's less like having an innocuous mention of the something loosely related to tragedy that needs removing and instead a direct joke about the actual thing that killed a boy on their property only a few weeks earlier, a tragedy parents will have to relive their entire lives, a real little boy who won't ever grow up whose memory is standing awkwardly behind that punch line.

  • I thank Disney for at least taking the 3 weeks off from Gator/Croc gags.  The rest of the real world must go on.  As a Father who lost his Son in a tragedy, I know the pain, but also know that the rest of the world goes on.  I pray comfort for Lane's family.

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