Haunted houses, horror movies, ghost stories – none of it scares me any more. I enjoy it, I appreciate it, and I look forward to it every year. But it just doesn’t frighten me.
I wasn’t always like this. As a kid, the idea of anything spooky or gory scared the crap out of me, because I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it. The advertisements for the infamous Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, NJ, shook me so badly that I never got the nerve to go in during our family trips to the shore. Growing up, the scariest movie my dad ever took me to see was “House of Wax” (Vincent Price in 3D!) Hearing other kids talk about the latest Jason or Freddy flick conjured images far worse than anything in the actual films, which my parents forbade me to see. And on the rare occasion I did enter a haunted house (Orlando’s Mystery Fun House, Six Flags Great Adventure’s Haunted Mansion), I did it with one eye closed and the other squinting. Even the cover of “Fangoria” on the supermarket magazine rack freaked me out.
I’m not sure when my attitude towards scary stuff started to change. My next-door neighbors, who put on an annual haunted house, let me play a severed head one year, and I had a blast. When I got to high school, I became interested in theater, filmmaking, and makeup, which naturally led to an interest in horror. By the time I got to college I counted Dawn of the Dead as one of my favorite films, and I dragged my girlfriend to every midnight horror flick at the local theater.
But the big turning point came after I moved to Orlando and started working for Universal. I started on the day shift as a tech at the old Ghostbusters show, so I experienced my first Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) as a guest. But by the next year I was involved in special event production, and was neck-deep in Halloween. Over the next few years, I did everything from hang lights to apply makeup to escort “scareactors.” Seeing the event from the inside slowly stripped away my ability to be scared by it all. I no longer saw demons and ghouls, I saw actors I knew in mazes I helped build.
The final nail in the coffin was Halloween of 1999, when I stage-managed the Mummy and Doomsday haunted houses. 6 to 8 hours a night of prowling the service halls of a haunted house, earplugs barely dampening the brain-splitting soundtrack, cured me of any remaining illusions. I discovered that the actors are in far more danger from the guests than vice versa, and that drunken guys will do amazingly stupid things to prove how brave they are to their girlfriends.
By the end of that Halloween I realized that I had lost the ability to be frightened by a haunted house. My actors would try mightily to scare me during my walk-throughs, and on rare occasions one could surprise me. But it was more a startle reflex than genuine fear. Now, I walk through haunted houses admiring (or criticizing) the technical details, and predicting where the next “boo” will come from.
So how does someone like me evaluate the latest incarnation of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando’s annual orgy of terror? What criteria do you judge a haunted attraction on, if no how “scary” it is?
I review haunted houses by the same criteria as any other theme park attraction. Does it have an interesting and identifiable story? Is the theming consistent and well-designed? Does the house take you through a variety of environments in a logical progression? Are there subtle creative details that make you feel like you need to go twice to catch everything? Is it well paced, with a variety of scares properly spaced? Is it engineered to move large crowds in a safe and efficient manner? Most importantly, does it create a “realistic” immersive experience, or are you constantly reminded that you’re walking though a plywood maze?
For the impatient reader, the bottom line is that this year’s HHN is a success. Universal has done a much better job of integrating the event into Island’s of Adventure, as opposed to the obvious growing pains of last year’s event. For many in Orlando, this is a must-visit event, and visitors this year can count on getting their money’s worth.
It’s important to note one thing for the haunted house connoisseurs out there: there is no pulsing in the houses at all this year. Not even on slower nights – the queue attendants I talked to didn’t even know what “pulsing” is. For the uninitiated, that’s the practice of letting small numbers (a dozen or so) into the house with a brief gap between groups. This is the way the designers would like you to experience the houses. It’s more intimate, and therefore more frightening, and the actors have time to set up their scares better. Without pulsing you shuffle through the house on an endless conga line. This hurts the actors’ ability to scare effectively, can seriously detract from things like mirror mazes.
Unfortunately, Universal has had to bow to the pressure of running a hugely popular event. While in years past there was lip service paid to pulsing, all pretence has now been abandoned. This is understandable if you look at the math. Let’s say you sent a dozen people at a time, with just 15 seconds between groups. You’d move less than 1500 people per hour. A slow night at HHN attracts 15,000 people; a peak night 2 or 3 times that. With so few attractions open, and the houses being the main draw, the need to move people as fast as possible becomes obvious. This doesn’t ruin the houses, or make the event not worth visiting. But those used to smaller, less busy haunted houses may be in for a surprise. You best bet for an optimal experience is to visit at the very end of the night,
A final word of warning: I know from personal experience that things can change drastically between the 1st and 2nd weekends of HHN. The houses I stage managed had numerous gags and effects added after the first weekend. In years past, shows have been rewritten or recast after opening weekend. So, your mileage may vary when you visit HHN. I’ll be visiting again later in the season, and I’ll pass along any changes I notice.
Enough blather – let’s get on with the review!
Admission and Port of Evil
I arrived at 6:45pm (15 minutes before opening) on Sunday evening and found a sizeable crowd waiting to buy tickets. Regular admission is $55.33 (including tax), but annual passholders like myself can buy a “Frequent Fear” pass for $44.68. This allows unlimited visits on non-peak nights (every night except Friday and Saturday) and is a great value if you plan on visiting more than once.
I also opted to buy a Universal Express booklet for $15. This gives you one coupon for VIP admission to each ride, show, and attraction in the park. Even on an off-peak night, wait times for the houses on the night I visited ranged from 30 minutes to over an hour. The wait with the Express passes was under 5 minutes. Even though attendance was relatively light, I felt the Express was well worth the money, and I’d consider it essential on a busy night. If projected attendance is 15000 or more (ask the cashier when you buy your tickets) I suggest you spring for the Express – you’ll be glad you did when you see the queues.
After making your way through the turnstiles and security checkpoint (metal detectors are now a fact of life, sad to say), you enter the Port of Entry, now know as Port of Evil. Fog machines and giant fans create a damp “vortex” to pass through. On the other side, you’ll find demonic stilt walkers (in excellent makeup) and scantily-clad dancing girls in chains (always fun to watch). By the way, Confisco’s is the only full-service restaurant open, and it closes at 10:30pm, so if you’re hungry plan accordingly.
There are no haunted houses in Marvel Superhero Island this year, which is a bit disappointing. The scenic design in the streets is also less elaborate than last year. Theming consists of toxic waste barrels (cleverly marked “Property of Oscorp”) and trucks spraying foam. The mutant scareactors make this area look like the Toxic Avenger’s family reunion. “Hulk,” “Spiderman” and “Doctor Doom” are all open, but otherwise there isn’t much going on here.
Hide and Shrieek!
The massive foam party that was last year’s Toon Lagoon has, thankfully, gone away. Instead, we have spooky lighting and scareactors camouflaged to blend in with the scenery. I’m embarrassed to admit that, while trying to navigate the crowds in the dark and fog, I stepped under one of the scenic water elements and got a good soaking. “Dudley Do-Righ” is operating, but not “Popeye” (for obvious reasons).
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
For many, this is the annual highlight of HHN. The story has become as ritualized as the Latin Mass: Bill & Ted (of 80’s movie fame) show up in their time-traveling phone booth, pop-culture villains attack them, heroes show up out of nowhere to fight back, and in the end everyone joins in a big dance number. If anything, this year’s plot is more perfunctory than ever (“Plot?” asks one of Charlie’s Angels,”There’s a plot?”), and the dancing and stunts overwhelm the outrageous satire that was once the hallmark of the show. This year’s villains, Saddam and Osama, whipped the audience into a hootin-n-hollerin frenzy, but don’t go looking for sharp political humor.
This year’s characters range from the obvious (Neo and Trinity, Laura Croft) to the pointless (Justin Timberlake, Stripperella), but there are some inspired moments. The show opens with a rapping Gollum and a witty send-up of preshow safety announcements. Captain Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” isn’t given enough to do, but an actor with a gift for physical comedy plays Captain Barbarras as a malfunctioning audio-animatron. There is some fun “Matrix”-style fight choreography (with 3 actors on wires simultaneously), and clever jabs at Disney, but the dance finale wears out its welcome. This year’s B&T is solid, and worth seeing, but it isn’t a classic on the level of “Kirk vs. Picard” from a few years back.
Grade: A- (for first-timers) / B- (for B&T veterans)
Ship of Screams
Scary Tales 2, last year’s house in the “Popeye” queue line, was an insult to the Scary Tales legacy. This year’s “Ship of Screams” isn’t a debacle, but it suffers from the limitations imposed by the location. By shoehorning a haunted house into the Popeye boathouse, the designers are limited in environments they can create. Even so, they’ve done a good job with the theme, especially with the use of water gags. The front half of the house is a little slow, but there are a couple of great tableaus towards the end. The “Titanic” houses from 1998 made better use of the same theme, but this house is a noble effort. Hopefully next year they’ll stop trying to use this location and go back to Marvel.
Jurassic Park in the dark is so well-themed that not much is needed to make it spooky. Forest-camouflaged scareactors and strategically-placed flamethrowers give this island all the atmosphere it needs. “Jurassic Park River Adventure” is running (and much better in the dark).
Funhouse of Fear
Who doesn’t hate clowns? This house, located in the Thunderfalls Terrace (where Fear Factor was last year) is the most colorful and disorienting maze this year. Mirror mazes, tilted hallways, and garish colors abound. To make things worse, you are provided with a pair of 3D glasses to wear. These are simple prismatic glasses that make certain colors pop or recede, but they add greatly to the visual confusion. My only complaint is that the environment becomes a bit repetitive, and there are too many similar-looking rubber clown masks. Very different than the other houses, and a lot of fun.
Jungle of Doom
The Triceratops Encounter queue is one of the most detailed in the park, and should make the perfect setting for a haunted trail. Or so you would think. The fact that it’s outdoors makes it a change of pace from the other houses, and there are some nice set pieces. I liked the barbeque-scented cannibal roast, and the ubiquitous half-naked demon girl. But most of the trail consists of lots of greenery, without enough scares or décor. Better than last year’s Evilution, but not much.
Wow! I would never have guessed that the designers would be able to fit such a complex, detailed maze into the ground floor of the Jurassic Park Discovery Center. This house takes you through a decrepit mental asylum, from the admission desk to the TV room (cartoons, of course) to the foulest bathroom imaginable (great use of scent machines). There are even multiple paths to further unsettle you. What makes this house so great are the actors: instead of just screaming, many ramble on with bizarre, and genuinely creepy, psychotic monologues. Great stuff, I only wish it could have been longer.
The park guide talks about a “titanic battle” between fire and ice. I saw lots of fog, and red and blue lasers. Whatever. “Dueling Dragons” is open, and is a must-ride in the dark. “Flying Unicorn” is also surprisingly enjoyable in the dark, especially in the back row, and there was no line.
The “Director” character is this year’s icon, and the centerpiece of the controversial advertising campaign (the Orlando Sentinel ran a long article asking if the TV ad, with its images of torture, goes “too far”). He’s a creepy character as long as he keeps his mouth shut, but Infestation proves he can’t carry a show. In this “Fear Factor”-esque show, staged every 40 minutes in front of the Enchanted Oak, volunteers (paying a nominal fee) and strapped to a chair and have vermin dumped on their heads. It’s a neat concept, but there are several fatal flaws.
For one, the roaches, scorpions, and rats are extremely docile, and are gently placed on the guest one at a time by a wrangler. Two, the critters are also removed by hand before the next victim is brought out, making for a slow-paced show with no sense of danger. These problems would be surmountable if it wasn’t for the third problem, the Director. The actor I saw in the role had the stage presence of wilted lettuce, and was heckled by the audience throughout. With a great M.C., this would be mildly amusing for reality-TV fans. Without a strong host to carry through the many dead spots in the show, this is a waste of time.
All Nite DrIvE-In
This house is a massive near-miss. It starts off great, with a giant movie screen showing classic splatter films that you walk right though. The sets are well detailed and realistic, taking you from suburban Haddonfield to Camp Crystal Lake to an Elm Street boiler room. I especially admired Leatherface’s exquisitely detailed dinner table. This could have been the best house in years, if not for two problems. One, pace: there are, believe it or not, too many scareactors, and many of them look alike. At one point there were 2 Michael Meyers in the same room with me at once. I would rather have seen one hulking screen-accurate Jason than 3 short guys in store-bought hockey masks. Two, the maze is too darn short. Just when it really gets going, you’re out the door. This is surprising, considering that the house is built in a giant soundstage. A good house, but heartbreaking because it could have been great.
Audrey Geisel is fiercely protective of her late husband’s image, do don’t expect to see Horton Slaughters a Who. Theming in Seuss Landing is limited to lighting, fog, and spooky music. All the rides in this area are supposed to be open, though “Cat in the Hat” was closed during my visit.
This was the highlight of last year’s HHN, and it’s one of the best attractions this year. Universal has created a detailed and realistic environment, starting with the startlingly real decaying house façade you enter. This house features a variety of environments, from claustrophobic parlors to outdoor graveyards. There is also a healthy dose of gore, something that has been in short supply at HHN since 2001. The only disappointment is that the house seems a little less elaborate than last year’s, and the excellent mirror gag from last year’s finale is gone.
HHN 13 Overall grade: B+.
That, folks, is Halloween Horror Nights 13. They’ve learned a lot from last year’s failures, and I expect them to do even better next year. It’s disappointing (though not unexpected) that the early rumors of an “extreme” haunted house experience turned out to be the limp Infestation show. I’d like to see more live entertainment next year, and I miss the parade. I’d love to see the next Bill & Ted show discard some of its more tired conventions and focus on sharper parody. The park will be brutal on peak nights, and uncomfortable on all but the slowest, making the Express passes are worth their weight in gold. None of these criticisms stop Halloween Horror Nights from being one of the best theme-park experiences you’ll ever have.
So if you’re in Orlando this month, be sure to pay a visit to all the monsters and maniacs at Universal. Just don’t blame me if you don’t make it back…
When WDW Had a Racetrack – The Creation of the Walt Disney World Speedway
A few months back, when Len Testa & I recorded a Bandcamp exclusive podcast – the one where we attempted to walk from the Ticket & Transportation Center at Walt Disney World all the way over to the Magic Kingdom, only to then be stymied by all of the construction at the Grand Floridian.
Anyway … As I was driving over to the Poly to meet Mr. Testa, I made use of that new flyover ramp that now directly connects World Drive with Floridian Way. Which gave me a brief glimpse down into the southeastern corner of the Magic Kingdom Parking Lot. Which – from 1995 – 2015 – was home to the Walt Disney World Speedway. Or – as Indy Car fans used to like to call that one mile long, three turn tri-oval track – the Mickyard.
That name is – of course – a Disney-ified play on the Brickyard, the 2.5 mile-long track which is probably better known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Which is where the Indy 500 is held every May .
And the Indy 500 actually plays a crucial role in the creation of Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. For the seed for this $6 million project was planted just eight months after Michael Eisner first became the CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
“The Wonderful World of Disney” Indy 500
Mind you, this is back when Michael was doing everything he could to get the Disney name & its characters out in front of as many people as possible. Which is why – for the running of the 70th edition of the Indy 500 back in 1985 – Eisner cut a deal with the folks who staged that race to have that year’s Indy 500 Fest themed to “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
As Michael tells this story:
Jeffrey Katzenberg & I flew out to Indianapolis in 1985 to attend that year’s Indy 500. So we’re sitting in the stands with 500,000 people. And there’s this parade that’s held inside of the Speedway before the official start of the race where cars with celebrities and politicians roll by.
So first the governor of Indiana goes by, and there is polite applause. Then Mickey Mouse goes by his car, and there is more applause from the crowd at the Speedway. Which makes me feel good about the Disney characters. But then Jim Varney goes by in a car dressed as Ernest and 500,000 people go berzerk.
That’s when I turn to Jeffrey Katzenberg and say “’We should probably do something about that.’
Right after that race, Disney roped Varney into doing four “Ernest” movies (which were then released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner from 1987 – 1991). Jim also voiced Slinky Dog in the first two “Toy Story” films before we tragically lost Jim in February of 2000. And that was all because Michael Eisner went to the Indianapolis 500 just 8 months after he became Disney’s CEO.
Disney Get’s Into Sports
But what Michael also remembered from that trip in Indiana was those 500,000 people who were seated in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now you have to remember that – when the Bass Brothers (Those were those billionaires from Texas who had helped Eisner land his new job at Disney back in late September of 1984) – Michael had been told by Sid Bass that Priority No. One was developing Walt Disney World. Taking those 40 square miles of swampland that the Company owned in Central Florida and finding all sorts of new ways that Disney could then profit off of that property.
And Michael Eisner? He liked sports. Anyone who was paying attention during the 20+ years that Michael ran the Mouse House knows this. After all, on Eisner’s watch, we got:
- The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, a Disney-owned NHL team in 1993
- The Walt Disney World Marathon got underway in 1994
- Later that same year (1994), the All-Star Resort opened at Walt Disney World
- It bought ESPN in 1995 (That was part of Disney’s $19 billion acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities)
- Disney bought the Los Angeles Angels from Gene Autry in 1996 and then renamed this baseball team the Anaheim Angels
- It opened Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida in 1997 (That 220-acre facility was rebranded as the Wide World of Sports Complex in 2010)
That’s obviously a lot of sports-related stuff. But today we’re here to talk about the Walt Disney World Speedway.
Why Build the Walt Disney World Speedway?
Eisner first broached the idea of building a race track somewhere on property in Florida with the Imagineers in the mid-to-late 1980s. Mind you, by this time, work was already well underway on the Disney-MGM Studio Tour project. So the thinking back then was “Let’s finish Disney World’s third gate first. Then we can circle back around to that thing that the Boss wants us to do that we’ve never, ever done before.”
The question then became … Well, where would be the very best place to build such an enterprise? And after visiting a number of speedways around the country (Not to mention reviewing the television coverage of the past few Indy 500s), what the Imagineers realized is that … Well, for the two weeks leading up to the actual race (This was when the Indy 500 trials were being held), the Goodyear Blimp would fly back and forth over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And since a big part of those marching orders the Bass Brothers gave Michael Eisner back in the Fall of 1984 was “You guys really need to do a better job of promoting Walt Disney World” … Well, here’s the decision tree that eventually led to the Imagineers proposing to Eisner that they place the Walt Disney World Speedway in the lower southeastern corner of the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot.
- Michael wants us to build a raceway in Florida. Something that could then help lure Guests to the Walt Disney World Resort during those times of year when attendance is really soft at the Parks.
- We have the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot. 125 acres of previously prepped, already graded land which has room for 12,000 cars but is rarely if ever full.
- If we were to build this raceway in the lower southwestern corner of the Magic Kingdom parking (the part of that parking lot that only gets used during the busiest times of year, like Fourth of July, Christmas or New Years), if a blimp were to cover a race that were staged at the Walt Disney World Speedway, the WDW Resorts around Seven Seas Lagoon & Bay Lake (not to mention the Magic Kingdom itself) would virtually be guaranteed to be on camera multiple times during the live broadcast of this race. Which would then translate into millions of dollars in free advertising for the WDW Resort.
Let’s also not overlook the fact that – because of the site prep that already been done on this corner of Walt Disney World property / how all of this acreage in the lower southwestern corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot had been graded back in late 1969 / early 1970 when the WDW Resort was first being built, the Walt Disney World Speedway team could really hit the ground running here. Not to mention save tons when it came to the traditional construction start-up costs.
Building the Walt Disney World Speedway
Initial survey work on the project was done in secret in September of 1994 by Buena Vista Construction. The project was formally announced on January 23, 1995. With the very first race to be held at the venue – the inaugural Indy 200 – being announced at a press conference which was held on April 13th of that same year.
Just to be clear here: The very first race to be held at the Walt Disney World Speedway wouldn’t get underway ‘til January of the following year. January 27, 1996, to be exact. (That’s basically a full year after this project was first announced. And we’ll get to the significance of that January 27th date in a moment).
Anyway … The official groundbreaking on the Walt Disney World Speedway wasn’t held ‘til June 27, 1995. That’s when Mari Hulman George (She was the Chairman of the Board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) flew down to Walt Disney World to take part in this ceremony. During which – to make sure that the racing press understood that there was going to be a very strong connection between the Brickyard and the Mickyard – Ms. George presented WDW officials with one of the original paving bricks that was used to create the Brickyard back in Indiana back in 1909.
Weird bit of trivia: It took 3.2 million of these 9 & a half pound bricks to pave the full circuit of that 2.5 mile long, rectangular oval course back in the day. I wonder if Ms. George opted to make that ceremonial brick her carry-on when she flew from Indy down to Disney?
After this groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the Walt Disney World Speedway began in earnest. As pavers laid down 5,200 tons of asphalt to create this race track’s surface, construction crews poured 1,800 yards of concrete to form the Speedway’s outside walls. Which were then strung with 10 miles worth of safety restraint cabling. And a similar amount of effort went into the creation of this Speedway’s pit row area. With an additional 2,300 feet of concrete being poured there.
And did I mention that the Summer of 1995 was one of the soggiest in Central Florida history, with 75 inches of rain falling between the months of June & July of that year alone? Which (as you might guess) really hampered Buena Vista Construction’s effort to keep the Walt Disney World Speedway project on schedule.
But by October 18th of that year, the final bit of paving on this one mile long, three-turn tri-oval (which had been designed by Kevin Forbes, the chief engineer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Again with the idea of stressing that there was going to be this strong connection between the Mickyard & the Brickyard) was done. This $6 million project was then formally dedicated on November 28, 1995 in an elaborate ceremony which included Indy racing legends forming a five-car “Flying V” formation as they zoomed around this track while fireworks exploded overhead.
Why all this publicity? Because the inaugural Indy 200 was supposed to be the first-ever event staged by the Indy Racing League. More to the point, the date for the televised debut of the Walt Disney World Speedway had been carefully selected by the Mouse’s marketing team & Indy Racing League managers. You see, January 27th wasn’t just any Saturday. It was the day before Super Bowl 1996 was staged.
A New Pre-Super Bowl Tradition
A little background here: Michael Eisner started his career in television in 1966 (he was hired to be Barry Diller’s assistant. Who – at that time, anyway – was ABC’s national programming director). Which meant that Eisner had a front row seat when the very first Super Bowl was broadcast in January of 1967. Over the next two+ decades, Michael watched as the Super Bowl steadily grew in popularity ‘til it then became this broadcasting behemoth.
So Eisner knew – from personal experience – that a televised sporting event that was properly positioned & promoted could eventually become this enormous thing. And as I mentioned earlier into today’s story … The Walt Disney Company had acquired ABC / Cap Cities back in 1995 for $19 billion. Which include ABC Sports & ESPN.
So if Disney (and the folks at the Indy Racing League, of course) handled the televised debut of the inaugural Indy 200 at Walt Disney World just right … Well, the Indy 200 wouldn’t just become the first professional auto race of the year. It could also become a brand-new television tradition. The race that sports fans watched the day before the Super Bowl.
Indy 2000 Failure
Sadly, all the ambitious plans that the Mouse & the Indy Racing League originally had for this corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot never came to fruition. And by January of 2000, the Indy 200 was pretty much defunct. At least as far as the Walt Disney World Speedway was concerned.
So why did this highly anticipated, seemingly can’t-miss project eventually wind up as the home of the severely under-utilized Richard Petty Driving Experience? Only to finally be shuttered in 2015 and then be turned back into a parking lot?
We’ll get to that part of this story on the second & final installment of this series.
31 Long-Gone Rides, Shows & Attractions at Disney-MGM (Hollywood Studios)
May 1, 1989 … It was 34 years ago that the Disney-MGM Studio theme park first opened its door. So many great attractions have come & gone over the past three decades that we thought that it would be fun to look back at a few of our favorites.
“The Great Movie Ride”
First up, it’s the Great Movie Ride. This was the thesis attraction for this entire park (much like Spaceship Earth is for Epcot), a celebration of all things cinema. The exterior of this 95,000 square foot show building was a faithful recreation of Hollywood’s iconic Chinese Theater. Once you climbed aboard your theater car, you were literally whisked over the rainbow to the Land of Oz (Watch out for the Wicked Witch of the West. Which was the most sophisticated Audio-Animatronic figure that WDI had ever produced. Circa 1989, I mean).
Did you know? … That the Great Movie Ride was originally supposed to have featured a scene built around “Ghostbusters” ? Sadly, Universal snagged the theme park rights ahead of Disney for that 1984 Columbia Pictures. But if the Imagineers had had their way, you’d have come face-to-face with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as Peter, Ray, Ego & Winston wielded their proton packs. Ah, what might have been …
“Monster Sound Show”
How many of you recall the Monster Sound Show sponsored by Sony?
This Guest participation show (four members of the audience were recruited to recreate the various sound effects that were prominently featuring in a short film starring Chevy Chase & Martin Short) actually served a dual purpose. It was a way for Disney to showcase some of the amazing devices that its FX wizards had built over the past 60 years to then create those crazy sound effects featured in its full-length films & animated shorts. It also gave Disney-MGM at least one attraction that paid tribute (sort of) to horror films.
Sadly, “The Monster Sound Show” only ran at Disney-MGM from May of 1989 through July of 1997. After that, this attraction was rebranded as the “ABC Sound Show” (Which then tied this theme park show in with Disney’s August 1995 acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities).
“Studio Backlot Tour”
We continue with the Studio Backlot Tour. Which took many different forms during the over-25-years that this experience was available to Guests visiting the WDW Resort.
Early on, the Studio Backlot Tour had a rather rigid form. This nearly two-hour-long experience began with a tram ride through Residential Street (Where you could then see a recreation of the “Golden Girls” house) and then a thrilling detour through Catastrophe Canyon. Then Guests took a walking tour of the three state-of-the-art soundstages that Disney had just built in Florida.
When Guests complained about how long the original version of the Studio Backlot Tour was, Disney then turned this attraction into two separate experiences: a backstage tram ride and THEN a walking tour of its Florida soundstages. Both of these were discontinued in September of 2014 to make way for “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”
“The Magic of Disney Animation”
Our look at now-long-gone attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) now continues with something of a heart-breaker. Which was the “Magic of Disney Animation” attraction, which was home to Disney Feature Animation – Florida from 1989 – 2003.
This was where Guests could visit the fish bowl (That’s what all of the artists & animators who actually work in the glassed-in portion of this walk-through attraction called this part of the tour) and peer down at work being done on upcoming animated features & shorts. Among the films that were primarily produced in Florida were “Mulan,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “Brother Bear” & “Roller Coaster Rabbit.”
Sadly, when Walt Disney Animation Studios decided in the early 2000s to shift over to producing CG films (Disney’s last two hand-drawn films – to date, anyway – were 2009’s “Princess & the Frog” and 2011’s “Winnie-the-Pooh”), the decision was made to shutter the Florida studio and lay off most of the staff who worked there. Many still consider this to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made by Mouse House executives.
“Super Star Television”
Let’s revisit SuperStar Television. This sponsored-by-Sony show gave upwards of 30 visitors to this theme park to make appearances in classic TV shows like “I Love Lucy,” “Bonaza” and “Gilligan’s Island.”
I myself got recruited to be part of a presentation of SuperStar Television. I was selected to be hit in the face with a pie by Curly Howard in a scene starring the Three Stooges. As I recall, I was dressed in a swallow-tailed tuxedo which Velcroed up the back. And the two lines that I had to say were “Dinner is served” (after which I got hit in the kisser with that pie) and then “Why you!” (After which I then tried to throw a pie at Moe but wound up hitting this high society lady instead).
Sadly, “SuperStar Television” was shut down in September of 1998 so that this centrally locate theater could then become a number of different attractions (among them “The American Idol Experience”).
One of my favorite places to dine at this theme park back in the day was the Soundstage Restaurant. How many of you got to visit this quick service eatery right after Disney-MGM first opened? Back then, you could dine in a full-sized recreation of the lobby of NYC’s Plaza Hotel (This lavish set had originally been built for the 1988 Touchstone comedy, “Big Business.” And once production of this Bette Midler / Lily Tomlin comedy was complete, it was then shipped from California to Florida and installed just off this theme park’s Animation Courtyard area).
And speaking of animation … The dining room of the Soundstage Restaurant was redressed a number of times over the next 9 years to celebrate the most recent release from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which meant – depending on which year you visited this quick service eatery – you could have dined in Belle’s Village or the Cave of Wonders from “Aladdin.”
Mind you, your parents may have a very different memory of the Soundstage Restaurant. Largely because – upstairs – was the Catwalk Bar. Which was a quick spot away from the noise & the heat that served adult beverages.
So let’s all raise a glass to the late, great Soundstage Restaurant. Which closed in November of 1998 to make way for the “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live On Stage” show.
“Here Come the Muppets” Stage Show
Our story starts in August of 1989 (just three months after this theme park first opened) with the announcement that The Walt Disney Company would acquiring The Jim Henson Company for $150 million. With the idea here being that the Muppets would then make their home at Disney-MGM and fill up this place with all sorts of crazy, one-of-a-kind attractions. Places like the Great Gonzo’s Pandemonium Pizza Parlor and the Swedish Chef’s TV Cooking School.
Mind you, those elaborate attractions (which were then going to be located inside of Muppet Studios, a brand-new land at Disney-MGM) were going to take a few years to design & construct. And – in the interim – Jim Henson personally worked with the Imagineers to quickly get a live stage show which featured the Muppets up out of the ground as quickly as possible.
“Here Come the Muppets” opened at Disney-MGM on May 25, 1990. Which was just nine months after Disney’s deal to acquire Henson had first been announced. Sadly, just 9 days prior to this show opening at the Studios, Jim Henson died of bacterial pneumonia. Which eventually derail Disney’s first attempt to acquire the Muppets.
How many of you remember “Here Come the Muppets” ? Which featured Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem making their entrance in this show via a monorail that they first hijacked & then drove straight to the wall of that theater.
“Sorcery in the Sky” Fireworks Show
Let’s now discuss this theme park’s first nighttime show. Which was “Sorcery in the Sky.”
Don Dorsey – the talented gentleman who created “Laserphonic Fantasy” & then “IllumiNations” for EPCOT – really had his work cut for him when he was first handed the “Sorcery in the Sky” project. You have to remember that – back then – Disney-MGM was an active film & television production center as well as a working theme park. Which is a polite way of saying that – when the Imagineers first designed Disney-MGM – they weren’t actually planning on presenting a nightly fireworks display at the place.
So working with a tight schedule (WDW officials wanted “Sorcery in the Sky” up & running 13 months after Disney-MGM first opened) and an even tighter budget, Don did what he could. Which was craft a show that was kind of a camel. Half a celebration of classic Hollywood (featuring the music of memorable motion pictures like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and the other half to Disney’s 1940 release, “Fantasia.”
It’s the conclusion of “Sorcery in the Sky” that most people remember even today. That’s when – as an excerpt from Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” played – a 50-foot-tall inflatable version of Mickey Mouse slowly rose up on the rooftop of the Chinese Theater. And as “Sorcery in the Sky” reached its climax, sparks then shot out Mickey’s finger tip (which was pointed out towards Disney-MGM’s parking lot. As if this giant Mouse was saying “That’s where your car is. Now please get out.”)
“Sorcery in the Sky” (which was originally narrated by screen legend Vincent Price) ran at this theme park from May of 1998 – October of 1998. This nighttime fireworks display was discontinued when the Florida version of “Fantasmic!” debut in the Fall of that same year.
Dick Tracy in the “Dimond Double-Cross” Stage Show
Let’s take a look at a piece of cross promotion at this theme park that then resulted in an intriguing stage show.
In the Spring of 1990, Walt Disney Studios was getting ready to release its answer to Tim Burton’s hugely successful “Batman” movie. And that was a feature film based on another comic book character, Dick Tracy. And since the Studios wanted the company’s theme parks to help promote this Warren Beatty, they were then tasked with creating some sort of Dick Tracy-themed stage show.
So director Robert Jess Roth & choreographer Matt West put their heads together and crafted a 28-minute-long musical comedy (which then used a few of the songs that legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim had written for the “Dick Tracy” film) called “Diamond Double-Cross.”
Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” movie quickly sank at the box office. But “Diamond Double-Cross” was hugely popular with theme park guests and ran for nine months at Disney-MGM’s old Theater of the Stars (Back when this Hollywood Bowl-inspired structure was still located next to that theme park’s Brown Derby Restaurant).
In fact, then-Disney president Michael Eisner was so impressed with what Roth & West had done when it came to translating “Dick Tracy” into a theme park show that – when the Company decided in 1993 that it was going to turn Disney’s animated hit, “Beauty & the Beast” into a Broadway musical – who did Michael recruit for this job? Robert & Matt.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appear on the Streets of America
As we continue our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s check out the Streets of America.
When this theme park first opened in May of 1989, the only way you could see this part of Disney-MGM (which – back then – was known as New York Street) was if you climbed aboard a tram and took the Backstage Studio Tour. By December of that same year, the Imagineers had realized that they needed to give visitors to WDW’s third theme park lots more elbow room. Which is when they decided to open New York Street (now known as the Streets of America) to foot traffic.
Of course, the problem with opening up all of this space at the very back of Disney-MGM was … Well, you now needed to give those Guests who actually hiked back there something to see & do other than poke around al those empty NYC-themed storefronts.
Luckily, in March of 1990, the very first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was released to theaters. And this New Line Cinema movie did so well at the box office (It was the fourth highest grossing film of that year, just behind “Ghost,” “Pretty Woman” & “Home Alone”) that Disney moved quickly to acquire the theme park rights to these hugely popular characters.
Which is why – just three months after TMNT originally debuted at your local multiplex — Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael (along with April O’Neil) were making multiple appearances daily out on New York Street. How many of you remember how these characters used to first roll onstage aboard the Turtle Party Wagon, then do a brief martial arts demonstration while April sang the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme song? This all-too-brief show (we’re talking 4 minutes, tops) ended with Guests then getting the chance to get their picture taken with their favorite turtle.
Sadly, these “Heroes on a Half Shell” didn’t hang on all that long at Disney-MGM. By 1994, the Teenage Mutant Turtles were no longer doing meet-n-greets on the Streets of America. But a different character from New Line Cinema (one which Disney also licensed the theme park rights to) would soon begin greeting theme park guests. We’ll get to him in a future installment of this series.
“Muppets on Location: Day of Swine and Rose” Stage Show
As we press ahead with our look at now-extinct rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), it’s now time to talk about “Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses.”
This outdoor presentation – which was presented as often as 5 times daily at the very back of Muppet Studios – was sort of a sequel to “Here Come the Muppets,” an indoor stage show we’ve previously discussed in this series.
And “Muppets on Location” … Well, its goal was to solve Guests’ No. 1 complaint about Disney-MGM’s “Here Come the Muppets” show. Which was “I want to get my picture taken with and/or collect the autograph of my favorite Muppet. How exactly do I do that?”
WDW’s Entertainment team came up with kind of an ingenious solution to this problem. They created this moment in the middle of this outdoor stage show where – as Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem played an extended musical number – Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Great Gonzo and Beanie would then move to pre-designated meet-n-greet spots at the edge of the “Muppets on Location” performance area and then interact with as many Guests as they possibly could in that short window of time.
It wasn’t a perfect system. Often Disney-MGM visitors would queue up to get their picture taken with their favorite Muppet character, only to then have Kermit & Co. suddenly rush back to the stage so that they could then take part in this show’s finale. Another aspect of “Muppets on Location” is that … Well, the Muppet walk-around characters at Disney-MGM wouldn’t sign Guests’ autograph books. They’d instead stamp them with a giant rubber stamp which then approximated what that Muppet character’s signature was supposed to look like.
“Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses” didn’t run all that long. By 1994, Miss Piggy & pals had packed up and vacated this corner of Disney-MGM. Which – some 15 years later – then became home to a Phineas & Ferb-themed meet-n-greet.
One especially sad story associated with “Muppets on Location: Days of Swine & Roses” : This was the Disney-MGM show that Jim Henson was supposed to be recording dialogue for on May 16, 1990. Which was the day that this Disney Legend succumbed to bacterial pneumonia.
Let’s now check out a parade that was developed for this theme park which was originally supposed to celebrate the Muppets.
“The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade” was originally supposed to have begun rolling down Hollywood Boulevard the very same summer that “Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3D” opened at Disney-MGM. Unfortunately after Jim’s untimely passing in May of 1990, the Henson family decided that it no longer wanted to sell the Muppets to Disney and broke off negotiations with the Mouse in December of that same year.
This made things complicated for the folks who worked in Entertainment at Walt Disney World, given that they had already begun construction on the various parade floats that were to be featured in “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade.” And given the terms of the settlement that Disney’s lawyers had hashed out with Henson’s attorneys in the Spring of 1991 … Well, Miss Piggy & pals now couldn’t appear on these already-largely-completed parade floats.
So what do you in a situation like this? You improvise. In April of 1991, “Dinosaurs” debuted on ABC. This sitcom was produced by Michael Jacobs Productions & Jim Henson Television in association with Walt Disney Television. Consequently, Disney’s legal agreement with Henson which kept Kermit & Co. off of the floats that had been built for “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade” didn’t apply in this situation.
Which is why – from September of 1991 thru August of 1992 – the Sinclair family made daily appearances at Disney-MGM. Riding on parade floats that had previously been designed for the Great Gonzo as well as Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem. Which then allowed WDW Entertainment to write off all of the money that they’d already spent on the design & development of “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade.”
“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”
It’s time to check out a playground that was added to this theme park’s Street of America area on the heels of the June 1989 release of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
This Joe Johnston film (which was released to theaters just 8 weeks after Disney-MGM first opened to the public) was the surprise hit of the Summer of 1989. “Honey” actually wound up being the fifth highest grossing film of that year, just behind “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Rain Man.”
Walt Disney Pictures immediately announced plans to produce a slew of sequels (They even went as far as to copyright a number of possible titles for these films in the late Summer of 1989. These included “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon,” “Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog,” and “Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible”). And on the theme park side of things, the Imagineers rushed to get a “Honey” -themed playground in the works for Disney-MGM Studios.
Which wasn’t as easy as you might think. After, Florida is hurricane country. So when you’re talking about installing 30-foot-tall blades of grasses, you then have to make sure that this structures are then properly anchored / can then stand up to 300 MPH.
Then there’s the issue of making sure that when little kids come sliding down off of that giant piece of film that’s then sticking out of that oversized Kodak cannister (And – just in case you’re wondering – Kodak got that kind of prominent product placement inside of this playground because they contributed to the cost of building “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”) and then not hurting themselves when they hit the ground.
“How’d the Imagineers manage that?,” you ask. The entire surface of this 11,000 square foot playground was covered with a material called Playdeck. Which was made up of ground-up truck tires.
Sadly, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” closed in May of 2016 to make room for another movie set adventure. Maybe you’ve heard of it? “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” ?
“Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show
Let’s talk about a stage show at this theme park that had some surprising legs. And that’s “Voyage of the Little Mermaid.”
To explain: In show biz parlance, when you say that a show has legs … Well, that then means this show has settled in for a surprisingly long run at the theater it’s being presented at. And that’s certainly what happened with the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” show at Disney-MGM. It opened in the Animation Courtyard Theater back on January 7, 1992. And to be honest, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic (which forced all of Walt Disney World to shut down for almost three months in early 2020), the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” would probably be running at that theme park even today.
Mind you, this 17-minute-long presentation was pretty much a Reader’s Digest version of this Academy Award-winning animated feature. But “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” packed an awful lot of 1990s era FX & pizzaz in that very short running time. There were lasers (to simulate the waves in the ocean as we journeyed “Under the Sea”), black light puppets, and bubbles galore. And who can forget that 12 foot-tall, 10 foot-wide Ursula puppet which sang “Poor Unfortunate Soul” ?
What was really intriguing about the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show is … Well, WDW’s Entertainment team deliberately designed this show to only run for 18 months (Given that the stage show which preceded “Mermaid” in the Animation Courtyard – “Here Come the Muppets” – only occupied this space for 16 months [May 1990 – September 1991], a year-and-a-half long stint at Disney-MGM seemed realistic) because the Imagineers had already begun designing a “Little Mermaid” dark ride that was supposed to installed over in the Magic Kingdom.
Which did eventually happen. “Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid” would indeed open at that theme park as part of the New Fantasyland project. But that wouldn’t happen ‘til more than 20 years after the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show first opened in 1992. And even after that “Under the Sea” dark ride began entertaining visitors to WDW’s Magic Kingdom, “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” kept being presented in DHS’s Animation Courtyard Theater.
Just so you know: There have been rumors that a brand-new production of “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” may soon be mounted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Of course, that all depends on how well Disney’s new live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” – the one starring Halle Bailey & Melissa McCarthy – does at the box office when it’s released to theaters later this month.
“Macy’s New York Christmas”
Let’s now look at perhaps the seasonal show which had the shortest run at this WDW theme park. And that’s “Macy’s New York Christmas.”
This all keyed off of the Company looking for ways to … Well, not only to celebrate Goofy’s 60th birthday but also raise awareness for “Goof Troop” (i.e., that then-new animated series which had just joined the “Disney Afternoon” programming block in syndication on September 5th of that same year). Which is why Disney cut a deal with the Macy’s Parade Studio to craft a 65-foot-tall inflatable version of this cartoon character which would be dressed as Santa Claus. Which would then make an appearance in the 66th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Which would march through the streets of NYC & be televised nationally on November 26, 1992.
As part of Disney’s deal with Macy’s, the Company got the rights to (after the Thanksgiving Day Parade was over, of course) bring that Santa Goofy balloon down to Florida. Where – along with four other balloons which had been featured in that year’s parade (i.e., Kermit the Frog, Betty Boop, Snuggle the fabric softener Bear and Humpty Dumpty) – these inflatables would then tethered to the tops of buildings down in Disney-MGM’s backlot. Which Guests could then view as they strolled through the Streets of America from December 5, 1992 – January 3, 1992.
And given that I’ve been lucky enough to befriend some folks who work in Macy’s Parade Studio, I can now tell you that this idea – keeping 5 of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons inflated for a full month (rather than for just the few hours it typically takes to pre-inflate these things, then send them aloft in time for their televised trip down Broadway, then get these ginormous balloons un-inflated & packed up for their trip back to Hoboken, NJ. Which is where – until 2011 — the actual physical Parade Studio was located in an old Tootsie Roll factory) – absolutely terrified the folks who worked at Macy’s.
Why? Because those Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons are rather fragile creatures. More to the point, helium – the gas that’s used to inflate these things – rapidly expands when exposed to heat. So the fear here was keeping these 5 balloons inflated for a full month in the Florida sun was going to eventually leave these things in tatters.
Luckily, Santa Goofy & his pals came through their 29-day-long stint at Disney-MGM unscathed. And while this was a one-and-done seasonal extravaganza as far as the Disney Parks was concerned, Universal just loved this idea. Which is why – starting in 2002 – the Macy’s Holiday Parade (later Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s) began seasonally rolling through Universal Studios Florida.
“Aladdin’s Royal Caravan”
As we continue our look back at rides, shows & attractions that we can no longer see at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s take a look at “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan,” a hugely popular parade that debuted at this theme park back on December 21, 1992. Which was one month after the animated feature that inspired “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” first debuted in theaters.
To be honest, WDW Entertainment had never ever done this before. Based a parade for the Parks on a single film. Much less a specific sequence from a Walt Disney Animation Studios production. But the “Prince Ali” number from this Ron Clements / John Musker movie was such a high point from this soon-to-be Oscar-winning film that it felt … Well, almost like a no-brainer to use this Howard Ashman & Alan Menken number as the jumping-off point for “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan.”
Mind you, because Robin Williams’ Genie character appears in so many different disguises in this part of the “Aladdin” movie that WDW Entertainment then felt free to have multiple versions of this character make appearances in “Royal Caravan.” First there was the Drum Major Genie who started off the parade, followed by the 32-foot-tall inflatable version of this character. Directly behind this super-sized Genie was a version of this character in the bathtub. Who was then followed by a Genie who had been split into his upper & lower half.
This five-unit parade – which featured those infamous golden camels (Watch out! They spit!) – may not have been the longest thing to roll through the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But WDW visitors just loved “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan.” So much so that this WDW Entertainment-designed affair (which was only supposed to run for a year) got its run at this theme park extended through August of 1995.
In fact, “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” was so popular with folks who visited the Mouse’s theme parks in Florida that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided that Disneyland needed a clone of this parade. This second version of “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” was then rushed into production and managed to debut in Anaheim by April 2, 1993.
“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action”
“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action” – kind of redefines “short-lived.”
For those of you who don’t remember “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” this was a Jim Carrey comedy that was released to theaters back in February of 1994. This Tom Shadyac movie did well enough at the box office that Warner Bros. quickly greenlit a sequel, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – When Nature Calls.”
To help promote this sequel (which arrived in theaters on November 5, 1995), Warner Bros. cut a deal with Disney to have a live stunt show featuring the Ace Ventura character presented 5 times daily on Disney-MGM’s “Streets of America.” It was hoped that this stunt show would then help raise awareness of “When Nature Calls” and maybe convince a few visitors to WDW’s third theme park to then go see this “Ace Ventura” sequel at the AMC Pleasure Island (i.e., that movie theater which is now known as the AMC Dine-In Disney Springs 24).
This “Live in Action” stunt show mainly consisted of a Disney cast member dressed as Ace Ventura climbing up & down various facades found on the “Streets of America.” Sometimes Ace would attempt to capture a giant spider that had gotten loose. Other times this Pet Detective would enlist Guests help in finding a rare albino bat (which kids would eventually find hanging from one of these buildings’ fire escape. After shouting a few of the catch-phrases for these Jim Carrey movies (EX: “Do NOT go in there!), Ace would then pose for pictures & sign some autographs.
Though “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – When Nature Calls” did significantly better at the box office than the first “Ace Ventura” did (i.e., selling $212 million worth of tickets versus the $107 million purchased for the first film), Carrey, Morgan Creek Productions & Warner Bros. opted not to make a third “Ace Ventura” film for theatrical release.
And as for this stunt show, with the start of the New Year in 1996, Disney-MGM quietly pulled the plug on “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action.” Here’s hoping that WDW Entertainment found some good homes for that giant spider & albino bat.
“The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights“
We now arrive at the seasonal attraction that most longtime WDW fans will cite as the thing they miss most of all, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
This holiday favorite … Well, it grew out of a request that Breezy Osborne made to her Dad back in 1986. She asked Jennings (a successful Arkansas businessman) if they could please cover their Little Rock home with Christmas lights.
Daddy honored Breezy’s request. And with every passing year, Jennings added even more Christmas lights. Until – by 1993 – the Osborne family home was lit up by more than 3 million bulbs. Which turned this annual holiday display into a genuine tourist attraction in Little Rock. Not to mention really annoying Jenning’s neighbors.
As you might expect, this matter eventually wound up in court. When the Arkansas Supreme Court shut down this seasonal display in 1995, the Entertainment team at Walt Disney World reached out to the Osborne family and offered up Residential Street as a possible new home for those 3 million+ bulbs.
Mind you, it took four full-sized Mayflower moving vans to haul all those Christmas lights from Little Rock down to Orlando. It then took Disney technicians two weeks to untangle those thousands of strings of bulbs. But by November 22, 1995, Residential Street was all lit up. And WDW suddenly found itself with a new seasonal favorite.
Over time (and to better handle the crowds that came out every year to see this holiday display), the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights eventually moved from Residential Street over to the Streets of America. And that’s where they stayed until WDW finally decided to pull the plug on this Christmas tradition on January 3, 2016 so that DHS’ backlot area could then be torn down. Which would then allow construction of the Florida version of “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” to get underway.
Just so you know: Every so often, WDW officials revisit the idea of reviving the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. There’s even been talk of building an entire faux neighborhood on property so that people could then drive through every holiday season and view this Christmas display just as Breezy & Jennings originally intended. But to date, The Walt Disney Company has yet to put that plan in motion.
“Toy Story Parade”
I’d like to now offer up a story about one of my personal favorite, which was the Toy Story Parade.
I was living down in Orlando when this parade originally debuted at WDW’s third theme park. Not only that, but the day that the “Toy Story Parade” debuted at Disney-MGM (i.e., November 22, 1995) … Well, I started my morning over at the AMC Pleasure Island. Where I caught the very first screening of “Toy Story,” Pixar’s first full-length animated feature.
That screening began at 11 a.m. Given that this John Lasseter film was only one hour and 17 minutes long, I was able to walk out of that screening of “Toy Story,” climb into my trusty Geo Metro and then drive over to Disney-MGM. Where I was then able to gain entrance to that theme park just in time to catch the very first presentation of the “Toy Story Parade.” Which stepped off at 1 p.m. at Crossroads of the World and then rolled up Hollywood Boulevard.
Given that Disney had never done this before (i.e., have a parade that keyed off of a specific film debut at one of the Company’s theme parks day & date with that very same movie’s arrival in theaters), I have to tell you that it was genuinely surreal to see the “Toy Story” characters
And I have to tell you it was genuinely surreal to see all of these Pixar character suddenly writ large. The “Toy Story Parade” started off with the Green Army Men manning the marquee float. Next came Hamm & Mr. Potato on top of a pile of over-sized board games. After that came Buzz atop of his “Star Command” box surrounded by Little Green Aliens. Bringing up the rear was Woody & Rex. And inbetween these four floats were walk-around versions of Bo Peep & Slinky Dog. Not to mention a Barrel O’ Monkeys.
One especially strong memory of that day was the woman who was standing next to me as the “Toy Story Parade” made its inaugural trip through Disney-MGM. And all she kept saying was “Where’s Mickey? I don’t know who any of these characters are.” And as soon as all those floats & performers cleared Crossroads of the World, this woman marched straight into Guest Relations and then complained loudly about how … Well, a parade at a Disney park should feature Disney characters. Not these weird Pixar characters from some movie that no one’s ever seen.
Mind you, everyone knows who Buzz & Woody are now. And what with “Toy Story 5” already in the works … Who knows? Maybe Disney’s Hollywood Studios will host an all-new “Toy Story Parade” in the not-too-distant future
As we continue our look back at rides, shows & attractions that used to be up & running at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), how many of you recall the Backlot Theater?
This immense performance venue (it had seating for 1500 Guests) originally came online on May 23, 1993 (30 years ago this week). The Backlot Theater was built as a replacement for the Theater of the Stars, that inspired-by-the-Hollywood-Bowl complex that used to be located just off of Hollywood Bowl at this theme park.
The two live stage shows that most Guests saw in the Backlot Theater keyed off of two animated features that Disney released in the mid-1990s. First came “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” a stage version of this Academy Award-winning film. This 28-minute-long retelling of Disney’s “Pocahontas” movie (which – FYI – began presenting performances at Disney-MGM on the exact same day that the animated feature version of this film first opened in theaters. Which was June 23, 1995) featured a 28-foot-tall version of Grandmother Willow. Not to mention a cast of 30 singers & dancers.
“The Spirit of Pocahontas” had a relatively short run at WDW’s third theme park. This stage show closed on February 24, 1996 to make way for an even more elaborate production. Which was “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure.”
Just like with “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” the “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” was a stage version of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ most recent (at that time, anyway) theatrical release. It opened on June 21, 1996 (again the very same day that the animated “Hunchback” opened in movie theaters nationwide) and then settled in for a good long run. The very last presentation of “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” wouldn’t happen ‘til over 6 years later. On September 28, 2002 to be exact.
FYI: If you have memories of sweating through performances of “The Spirit of Pocahontas” and/or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure,” there’s a reason for that. The Backlot Theater was an open-air theater. The stage itself was undercover, which protected the actors from that changeable Central Florida weather. But not the audience.
Mind you, once the “Hunchback” stage show ended in its run in 2002, the Imagineers transformed this Streets of America area performance venue into a totally enclosed theater with air conditioning. It would then be redubbed the Premier Theater and eventually become home to the first iteration of the “For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-along” show.
“Super Soap Weekend”
Let’s take a look at one of the more popular fan events to ever be presented at this theme park. And that’s Super Soap Weekend.
This event actually dates back to August of 1995. Which is when The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be acquiring ABC / Cap Cities for $19 billion (That’s $37 billion in 2023 dollars).
Mind you, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner actually started his career at the Alphabet network. He quickly rose through the ranks. And – by 1971 – Michael was the vice president of daytime programming at ABC. Which meant that Eisner helped get two of that television network’s long running soap operas – “One Life to Live” & “All My Children” – up out of the ground.
So is it any wonder that – after The Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities in February of 1996 — one of the very first things that Michael Eisner did was order that Disney-MGM stage an in-park event that then celebrated the Alphabet Network’s daytime dramas.
And just eight months later (On October 19 – 20th, to be exact), the very first Super Soap Weekend was staged at WDW’s third theme park. And while Disney had hoped this event would be popular, they were stunned when people began lining up outside MGM’s gates at 3 a.m. Just so they could then be sure to get the autograph of their favorite soap star.
Since Nancy was (and still is) a huge ABC Daytime fan, she & I attended all but one of the Super Soap Weekends. And when I say that I “attended,” what I mean is that I got Nancy to Disney-MGM first thing in the morning and then collected her late at night after that day’s festivities had wrapped.
Sadly, Disney-MGM staged its last Super Soap Weekend in November of 2008. But we still have a pile of those black & white 5 & 7s that ABC gave away for free of Nancy’s favorite daytime performers. She still looks back on those times with much fondness.
“Star Wars Weekends”
As we continue our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s talk about an annual event that eventually led to a whole new land at this theme park. And that’s Star Wars Weekends.
It was an outside event that actually made the Mouse decide to take a flyer on this four / sometimes five weekend-long event. And that was George Lucas’ decision to release the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. When “A New Hope” opening in theaters on January 31, 1997, then “The Empire Strikes Back” following Episode 4 into your local multiplex just three weeks later on February 21st.
In fact, the Special Editions of Episode 4 & 5 did so well at the box office that Lucas (along with 20th Century Fox) opted to push back the release date of the Special Edition of “Return of the Jedi” by a full week (from March 7, 1997 to March 14th of that same year). Just so “The Empire Strikes Back” would then have even more time to sell tickets to Star Wars fans.
And when Disney Parks learned in 1996 that George Lucas was readying the “Special Editions” for theatrical release in the first quarter of 1997 … Well, they saw an opportunity to piggyback on all of the promotion that Lucas & 20th Century Fox would obviously be doing in order to convince moviegoers that they really needed to see these spruced-up version of “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
Which is why they scheduled their own month-long Star Wars-related event to kick off on Friday, February 21st. Which was just as the Special Edition of “The Empire Strikes Back” was arriving in theaters. Using Disney-MGM’s “Star Tours” (Not to mention the full-sized Imperial Walker & Ewok Village that the Imagineers built just outside the entrance of this motion-based simulator attraction) as the center pole for this 5-week-long event … Well, they invited the stars of the original Star Wars trilogy (We’re talking people like …
- David Prowse AKA Darth Vader
- Kenny Baker AKA R2D2
- Anthony Daniels AKA C3P0
- Peter Mayhew AKA Chewbacca
- Jeremy Bullock AKA Boba Fett
- And Warwick Davis AKA Wicket the Ewok)
… to take part in daily motorcades, not to mention meet-n-greets and autograph sessions with Star Wars fans.
The first Star Wars Weekends (which ends on March 23, 1997. Which as just as the Special Edition of “The Return of the Jedi” was ending its theatrical run) was so hugely successful that – when “The Phantom Menace” premiered in theaters in May of 1999 and did boffo box office – the Mouse announced that Star Wars Weekends would be returning to Disney-MGM.
As it did (with a year off in 2002) for the next 15 years. Disney’s Hollywood Studios only discontinued Star Wars Weekends after the 2015 edition so that work could then begin on this theme park’s “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” land.
“Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show”
Let’s talk about another really short-live show at this theme park. Which was the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show.
Now when it came to the original iteration of Disney-MGM Studios, the Imagineers always knew that this theme park came up short when it came to one particular film genre. And that was horror.
Oh, sure. There was Disney-MGM’s “Monster Sound Show” (but that wasn’t really about horror. But – rather – how sound effects are added to films in post-production). Likewise the mummy’s tomb scene in “The Great Movie Ride” (but that wasn’t really about horror either. It was mostly an extension of that ride-thru attraction’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequence).
Mind you, the Imagineers developed a few horror-themed attractions for Disney-MGM. There was Soundstage 13, which was supposed to be home to this theme park’s “Hotel Mel” ride (Believe it or not, Mel Brooks was actually supposed to be the host of this ride-thru show that spoofed horror. Which – over time – mutated in this theme park’s signature attraction, “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”). There was also the “Creatures Choice Awards,” which was supposed to mix Hollywood’s love of awards shows in with a salute to the horror genre. And this show – if it had ever built – was supposed to climax with Godzilla literally bringing down the house as he arrived to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award.
But because the Disney Parks like to be considered family-friendly … Well, it wasn’t ‘til R.L. Stines’ best-selling series of scary tales for young adults (not to mention the “Goosebumps” TV series that spun off from that set of books) came along in the mid-1990s that the Imagineers thought they finally had a horror-themed property that would then work for Disney-MGM Studio theme park.
So the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show was built towards the back of the Streets of America (kind of where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stage show / meet-n-greet had been located at this same theme park back in the late 1980s). It opened in early October of 1997 (just in time for Halloween) and featured popular Goosebumps characters like Slappy the ventriloquist doll, Prince Khor-Ru the Mummy, Curly the Skeleton and Cuddles the Giant Hamster.
Mind you, the Mouse had to pay R.L. Stine (not to mention the producers of the “Goosebumps” television series) for the rights to use these characters in a theme park setting. And when the “Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show” didn’t prove to be as popular with visitors to Disney-MGM as the Company had originally hoped … Well, they opted not to renew this deal.
Which is why – after one last Halloween presentation – the “Goosebumps Horrorland Fright Show” closed on November 1, 1998.
was an attraction at Disney’s MGM Studios in Walt Disney World and ran from October 8, 1997, to November 1, 1. 998.
It’s now time to talk about “Doug Live!,” the short-lived musical based on that Emmy-nominated animated series.
This show arrived at Disney-MGM in kind of a convoluted way. By the Spring of 1998, “Superstar Television” (which was an opening day attraction at this theme park) was showing its age. WDW’s Entertainment team had tried to freshen up this celebration of network TV by folding in new vignettes that were pulled from recent Touchstone Television-produced hits like “Home Improvement” & “Empty Nest.” But in the end (largely because return visitors to Disney-MGM were now regularly passing this audience participation show by), they knew it was now time to develop a “Superstar Television” replacement.
On a parallel track, in 1996, Disney acquired Jumbo Studios (i.e., the animation production company that made “Doug.” Which was that popular animated series which debuted on Nickelodeon back in August of 1991). As a direct result of this acquisition, the Mouse now had the rights to produce three additional seasons of “Doug.” Which – to differentiate this new set of shows from the ones that Jumbo had originally produced for Nickelodeon – would now be rebranded as Disney’s “Doug.”
And since Disney prides itself on being a synergy machine (And also because there was a belief out there in the mid-to-late 1990s that Disney-MGM didn’t have enough stuff that appealed to pre-teens), a “Doug” musical was put in development for this theme park. The goal going into this project was to create a show that could be presented at least 5 times a day. Getting as many Guests as possible in & out of this 1000-seat venue over the course of a typical operating day.
To be honest, “Doug Live!” didn’t live all that long. This musical was presented inside of Disney-MGM’s old “Superstar Television” from September 26, 1998 through May 12, 1999. So this show only got an eight month-long run.
That said, fans of the “Doug” TV shows (both the four seasons that ran on Nickelodeon AND the three seasons produced by Disney. Not to mention “Doug’s 1st Movie,” which was released theatrically in March of 1999) still talk about the great job that the human performer who played Porkchop (That’s Doug’s dog) did in this stage show.
“ABC Sound Studio: Sounds Dangerous!”
Let’s now talk about all of the auditory excitement that Guests got to experience whenever they dropped by this theme park’s ABC Sound Studio. Which is where the “Sounds Dangerous!” show was presented.
Of course, this Echo Lake-adjacent complex used to be home to Disney-MGM’s “Monster Sound Show.” But when attendance began dropping for this opening day attraction in the mid-1990s … Well, WDW first tried to turn this situation around by launching a new show in this space back in July of 1997 that was deliberately aimed at a pre-teen audience.
Unfortunately, the “One Saturday Morning” show (which keyed off of how ABC promoted its Saturday morning line-up back in the mid-to-late 1990s) didn’t appeal to adults. Which is why WDW Entertainment halted this presentation after just 19 months and then turned to Drew Carey for help.
At that time, Carey was the star of two hit shows on ABC (i.e., “The Drew Carey Show” and “Whose Line is it Anyway”). More to the point, Drew just loved the Disney theme parks. So much so that — when he wasn’t busy taping his two shows for the Alphabet Network — Carey could often be found at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
Anyway … In late 1998, the Imagineers reached to Drew and said “We were thinking about building an attraction for the Parks around you.” And as the story goes, Carey said “Yes!” before the folks at 1401 Flower Street could even explain to him what this new show for Disney-MGM was supposed to be about.
“Sounds Dangerous!” made use of that binaural technology which used to be showcased in the post-show portion of “The Monster Sound Show.” How many of you remember taking a seat in one of those darkened booths, putting on a set of headphones and then getting a haircut in 3D sound?
The Drew Carey version of this 3D sound show involved sitting in a dark theater for 12 minutes and then getting menaced by scary sounding things like stampeding elephants & killer bees. Which (I’ll admit) doesn’t sound like much fun. But Carey’s likability as a performer coupled with the Imagineers’ ingenuous of binaural technology made “Sounds Dangerous!” a fun way to spend part of your day at Disney-MGM.
This revamped attraction was a regular offering at this theme park through early 2009. After that point, “Sounds Dangerous!” then became a seasonal offering at Disney-MGM (which meant that it was only open to Guests when this theme parks was at its absolute busiest and then needed the additional capacity). By May of 2011, this starring-Drew-Carey show closed for good. Only to then be replaced in November of 2015 by “Star Wars: The Path of the Jedi.”
“Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage”
Let’s take a look at an interactive stage show that parents with preschoolers used to flock to. And that’s “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage.”
The inspiration for this theme park attraction was – of course – the “Bear in the Big Blue House” TV series. That show debuted as part of the Disney Channel’s Playhouse Disney programming block back in October of 1997. And this Shadow Projects / Jim Henson Television co-production was so popular that four seasons of this Emmy Award-winning series were eventually produced.
And Disney being Disney … Well, when you have a successful TV show, you then immediately look for ways to bring that IP into your theme park which celebrates film & television. Which is – of course – Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Now where this gets interesting is how Disney decided to bring “Bear in the Big Blue House” into WDW’s third theme park. Given that – if the Park opted to build a brand-new structure to house this stage show – it would have been a year or more before toddlers finally got the chance to hang out with Bear, Tutter, Ojo & Treelo. And who knew if this TV program would even still be popular with preschoolers by then?
This is why – in order to fast-track this project – managers at Disney-MGM opted to shut down that theme park’s Soundstage Restaurant on November 14, 1998. They then transformed the dining area of this breakfast buffet / quick service venue into a performance space. Which then threw open its doors just seven months later on June 7, 1999.
What WDW managers especially loved about “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage” was … Well, because preschoolers’ attention spans are short, they were then allowed to keep the running time of this interactive stage show extremely short as well. We’re talking just a 15 minute-long run time. Which meant that this theme park could then load a brand-new audience into Soundstage 5 every 30 minutes.
And when that 7-foot-tall bear came out onstage, those toddlers would react like they were in the presence of Elvis. They’d scream. They’d cry. They’d clap.
Mind you, to broaden the appeal of this Disney-MGM offering, “Bear in the Blue House: Live on Stage” was shut down in August of 2001 for retooling. Some two months later, “Playhouse Disney – Live on Stage!” debuted inside of Soundstage 5. And in addition to Bear, this now-20 minute-long interactive experience featured appearances by characters from other popular Disney Junior shows like “Rolie Polie Olie,” “Stanley” and “The Book of Pooh.”
FYI: The “Bear in the Big Blue House” TV series became available for streaming on Disney+ in October of last year. And there has been a lot of talk lately about the Company possibly reviving this hugely popular program for preschoolers. So stay tuned.
We’re in the home stretch now in regards to rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) that are no longer with us. And perhaps the most controversial item to ever be built at this theme park had to be the Sorcerer’s Hat. Which was that 122-foot-tall structure built at the top of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theater.
Mind you, that’s not where the Imagineers originally wanted to this structure to be built. The thinking – early on, anyway – was that the Sorcerer’s Hat should be built down by Disney-MGM’s entrance. To be specific, just off to the right of where Guests enter this theme park after they get off the boat from Epcot.
What’s more, WDI’s original design for the Sorcerer’s Hat (which was supposed to be the focal point of Walt Disney World’s “100 Years of Magic” celebration in 2001) was so much larger. So large in fact that the Mickey ears which jutted out to either side of this super-sized conical wizard’s cap were supposed to have been a pair of full-sized Ferris Wheels that Guests could have then ridden. Not only that, but the rectangular building which was to have served as the base of this fanciful structure … Well, that’s where the “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” exhibit was originally supposed to be housed.
Unfortunately, as time went by, the Company’s plan for WDW’s 15-month-long “100 Years of Magic” celebration got far less ambitious and far more economical. This is why – instead of building a brand-new structure to house “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” out towards the main entrance to this theme park – that Disneyana exhibition eventually got shoehorned into the old Post-Production portion of Disney-MGM’s backstage walking tour.
And as for the Sorcerer’s Hat … This 156-ton structure then became part of the hot new fad that WDW Resort was really leaning into at that time. Which was pin trading. This is why that 60,000 square foot space at the base of the Hat got turned into a pin shop.
The Sorcerer’s Hat opened on October 1, 2001. And for the next 13+ years, it blocked Guests’ view of the Chinese Theater. Thankfully, on January 7, 2015, demolition of the Hat began. And by February 25th of that same year, the 91 panels that made up this structure were all cleared away. Which was quite the hat trick.
“Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade”
Let’s take a look at a parade that rolled through this theme park for over 6 years in the early 2000s. And that’s “Disney Stars and Motor Cars.”
In the early, early days of Disney-MGM (we’re talking the late 1980s / early 1990s here), there was a daily “Star of the Day” motorcade at this theme park. Some veteran of film or television would first climb into the back of a convertible and roll up Hollywood Boulevard as they waved to the Guests gathered on the sidewalk. After that, this celebrity would then take part in a handprint ceremony out in front of the Chinese Theater.
WDW Entertainment remembered how popular that daily motorcade had been with visitors to Disney-MGM. Which is why – when the Company was readying a year-long celebration of Walt Disney’s birth (i.e., That resort’s “100 Years of Magic” celebration. Which kicked off on October 1, 2001) – these folks wondered: Could we maybe replicate that event? Only instead of having some aging actor in a convertible roll up Hollywood Boulevard, how about we create a daily motorcade for the Studios that then treats the Disney & Pixar characters like the stars that they are?
And that was the jumping-off point for the development of “Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade.” With the basic idea here being mixing classic Hollywood (which is why all of the vehicles that the characters ride in were deliberately crafted to look vintage) with Disney & Pixar’s latest & greatest. In fact, right from the get-go, that was one of the main creative conceits of this new daily parade at Disney-MGM. That the grand marshall of that day’s presentation of “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” would always be the lead character of whatever Disney or Pixar film just happened to be out in theaters at that same time.
Which is why – over the six+ year run of “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” – Guests got to see Chicken Little, Remy from “Ratatouille” & Giselle from “Enchanted” – serve as this parade’s grand marshall.
Anyway … This parade concept proved to be so sturdy / so popular with Guests that, after “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” ended its run in Florida, this parade was then packed up & shipped off to France. Where – in April of 2009 – it then began rolling through Disney-MGM’s sister park. Which is Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris.
Which begs the question: When “Disney Stars and Motor Cars” made its Parisian debut, was it now just a rolling used car lot?
“American Idol Experience”
There’s only a handful of stories left to share in this series about now-defunct rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). So now let’s talk about a show that – to be blunt – was kind of snake-bit during its 5-year-long run at this theme park. And that’s the “American Idol Experience.”
Okay. To understand how Disney-MGM wound up with an “American Idol” -themed show, we first have to talk about “American Idol,” the TV show. Which debuted on Fox in June of 2002 and quickly became this white-hot phenomenon.
Meanwhile, at Disney-MGM, the Imagineers were genuinely struggling when it came to fill that theme park’s 1000-seat “Superstar Television” theater. We’ve talked previously in this series about one show that was staged in this space. And that was “Doug Live!,” the 30 minute-long musical which ran in this theater from March of 1999 – May of 2001. Then there was the “Get Happy … with ABC” show, which debuted in this space on July 1, 2002 and was then gone by October 5th of that same year.
The theater that previously housed “Superstar Television” then stood empty for more than 5 years until – in February of 2008 – it was revealed that a live performance attraction based on the then-hugely popular Fox reality series would open at Disney-MGM in just one year’s time.
Ah, but what no one at the Mouse House foresaw was – over the next 364 days – “American Idol” ‘s formerly stellar ratings on Fox would then begin to slip. So by the time the “American Idol Experience” opened at Disney-MGM on February 14, 2009, this brand-new attraction at that theme park was now based on a show that was rapidly losing its previously devoted audience.
So few people attended performances of the “American Idol Experience” that – by June of 2014 – WDW managers suddenly announced that this audience participation show would be shuttering in early January of 2015. Later that same Summer, things got so dire at Disney-MGM that this theme park actually pushed forward the closing of this attraction by a full 5 months and then pulled the plug on the place on August 30, 2014.
What was especially galling to the Imagineers is that – just prior to the opening of Disney-MGM’s “American Idol Experience” back in 2009 — they had spent millions overhauling the interior of the “Superstar Television” theater so that it then looked exactly like the set of this Fox TV show. Only to have this expensive-to-mount show barely eek out a 5-year-long run. But the upside is … The very next show to be staged in this space (i.e., “For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration,” which opened in the now-renamed Hyperion Theater on June 17, 2015) has proven to be hugely popular with Guests. Barring a seven month-long shutdown in 2020 due to the pandemic, this show has been presented continuously in this theater – sometimes as often as 10 times a day.
“Journey Into Narnia: Creating The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”
It’s now time to discuss Disney’s attempt to launch a “Chronicles of Narnia” film series. Which then lead to two attractions at DHS.
If we’re being completely honest here, it was the success of the first two “Harry Potter” movies (i.e., 2001’s “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and 2002’s “Chamber of Secrets”) that spurred executives at the Mouse House to seek out another book series which featured magic that could then be turned into a film franchise.
With this idea in mind, Disney announced in March of 2004 that it would be partnering with Walden Media to produce “The Chronicles of Narnia.” This series of live-action adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novels would kick off with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Which would arrive in theaters just in time for the 2005 holiday season.
And – of course (because the Mouse prides itself on synergy) – Disney’s Hollywood Studios would help promote this just-getting-underway film series. Which is why – on December 9, 2005 (i.e., the very same day that Disney’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” first opened in theaters – “Journey into Narnia: Creating The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” threw open its doors at this theme park.
This walk-thru exhibit (which was set up inside of Soundstage Four) started with Guests stepping through a super-sized wardrobe. Once inside, people found themselves wandering around a frosty (You can thank Disney-MGM’s cooling plant for that), snow-filled forest. Where – after watching a few clips from this Andrew Adamson movie and then being addressed by a cast member dressed as the White Witch – Guests were then funneled in a second part of this building. Which is where props & costumes from the “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” movie were displayed.
The first “Chronicles of Narnia” film did well enough at the box office that Disney & Walden Media produced a sequel (i.e., “Prince Caspian,” which arrived in theaters in May of 2008). Disney-MGM used that movie as an excuse to update its “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” walk-thru with props & costumes from the second film in the “Chronicles” series.
Unfortunately, “Prince Caspian” seriously under-performed. So much so that Disney opted out of making a third “Chronicles of Narnia” movie with Walden Media. That said, Disney’s Hollywood Studios let its “Prince Caspian” walk-thru limp along ‘til September 10, 2011. That’s when Soundstage 4 was transformed into the attraction which we’ll talk about tomorrow.
“The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow”
We now officially bring our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) to a close by talking about one of the more misbegotten things to ever be foisted on the theme park going public. And that’s “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Now you have to understand that – when this 13-minute-long show opened inside of Soundstage 4 – it had been a year and a half since the last “Pirates” movie (i.e., “On Stranger Tides”) had opened in theaters. So this project wasn’t done to help promote that movie. But – rather – to help keep this film franchise front-of-mind with WDW visitors until the Studios finally got around to making “Pirates 5.” Which wouldn’t happen for another six years.
Now where this gets weird is that – in spite of the fact that Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies were filled with exciting action scenes and sometimes bawdy humor – “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow” was written to appeal to a very young audience. We’re talking 5 & 6-year-olds, tops. Which is why there was a talking skull in this show that kept encouraging audience members to do things like roar back at the Kraken and stomp their feet (which then scared away a menacing mermaid). Not to mention periodically scream “Arr!”
Mind you, Imagineering persuaded Johnny Depp himself to come back and play Captain Jack Sparrow in this short-lived show. He was inserted into the proceedings through the use of hi-def digital projection. It was a fun moment in the show. But (if we’re being completely honest here) not enough to redeem “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Given how many adult Guests complained about this “Pirates of the Caribbean” show being mostly for little kids, DHS managers quickly realized that they had seriously miscalculated with “The Legend of Jack Sparrow.” Which is why it was shuttered in early November of 2014, less than two years after this “Pirates”-for-pre-schoolers show had first opened.
And what went next into Soundstage 4? Nothing. This entire structure at the Studios was torn down so that WDI could then create an entrance for an entirely new land for DHS. Which was “Toy Story Land.” Which opened at this theme park in late June of 2018.
From Aladdin to Indy – How Did We Get an Indiana Jones Stage Show at Disneyland?
Be sure to check out Part One: How Did We Get “Aladdin’s Oasis” at Disneyland?
The Tahitian Terrace – a Polynesian-themed restaurant which had operated in the Adventureland section of Disneyland Park for 30 years – was shut down in the Spring of 1993 to “ … make way for Prince Ali.”
“Aladdin’s Oasis” (the dinner adventure) only operated for 14 months. This show closed in August of 1994.
“Aladdin’s Oasis – The Restaurant”
Just to clarify here, though. The “Aladdin’s Oasis” show closed after a brief 14 month run. But because the Park had spent so much money building this new Adventureland restaurant (Remember it had been a rush job – going from concept to throwing open its doors in just 5 months – on Michael Eisner’s expressed orders) … That – in an effort to recover some of that money – “Aladdin’s Oasis” (in 1995) re-opened as just a restaurant in Adventureland that didn’t offer a show. People oohed & aahed at all the exquisite detail inside (the in-laid ceramic tiles in the floor. That 15 foot-tall tiger’s head that sat at the center of the stage at the front of this restaurant. FYI: This served as the Cave of Wonders in the “Aladdin’s Oasis” show).
This Adventureland restaurant was admittedly a beautiful venue. But Disneyland visitors in the mid-1990s weren’t all that adventurous. At least when it came to food. And a restaurant that served Americanized Middle Eastern fare had trouble attracting customers back then. Which is why the only-a-restaurant version of “Aladdin’s Oasis” closed in 1995.
The way theme parks operate financially … Well, Disneyland couldn’t just tear “Aladdin’s Oasis” down and start anew. They’d spent far too much money building the thing. Strictly for tax purposes, this big chunk of Adventureland real estate now had to just sit there, empty as it depreciated.
“Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine”
Disneyland would periodically try & find other uses for this space. For a time, there was a “Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine” show staged inside of this now vacant restaurant. Two Cast Members dressed as Aladdin & Jasmine would first tell the story of the “Aladdin” movie. Then – as this show’s finale – the Cave of Wonders would suddenly come roaring to life. And – in a puff of smoke – the Genie would magically appear by leaping out of this giant stone tiger’s open mouth. And then … Well, it was time for the Guests to line-up and get their picture taken with these three characters from “Aladdin.” Maybe grab an autograph or two.
But “Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine” was only presented at the Park on a seasonal basis. Only during those times of year that Disneyland was busiest. For the most part, this Adventureland eatery stood empty for the better part of a decade. Until word came from Lucasfilm in 2007 that they were about to begin production of a new “Indiana Jones” film.
Indiana Jones Back in Theaters and Promotion at Disneyland
Given that the previous “Indiana Jones” film (i.e., the third in the series, “Last Crusade”) had come out back in May of 1989 … To finally be getting a new “Indy” film after 18 years was a very big deal.
FYI: The gap between the release of the fourth film in the series (i.e, 2008’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Indy” film No. 5 (i.e., 2023’s “Dial of Destiny”) is almost as long. 15 years & change.
Given that Disneyland obviously had its “Indiana Jones Adventureland” attraction (which opened in March of 1995) … Well, they saw the upcoming release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” as a synergistic opportunity. So Disney reached out to Lucasfilm and proposed a bit of cross promotion that would involve Disneyland Park.
Just to be clear here: This was back in late 2007 / early 2008. The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm wouldn’t happen ‘til October of 2012. That’s more than 4 years off in the future.
Translation: It was Lucasfilm – with the highly anticipated movie that Disney now wanted to capitalize on — that had all of the power in this situation. NOT the Mouse. Keep that in mind as we move ahead with our story here.
“Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” – Disneyland Show
Anyway … In March of 2008, Disneyland announces that it will be holding auditions for a new show that will soon be presented in the Adventureland section of that theme park. They’re looking for performers with stage combat experience to fill the following roles:
- Indiana Jones: Male, 40’s; a rugged adventurer, great physical shape; can play drama, toss off comic lines and throw a punch all with equal ability; must interact well with children.
- An archaeologist: Female, late 20’searly 40’s; English accent; starts out kind and helpful but eventually reveals a villainous side; will interact with children and lead them through a series of activities.
- The Bad Guy: Male; imposing stature; physical agility and stamina a must; pursues Indiana Jones through the crowded streets of Adventureland, ending in a series of balcony and rooftop confrontations.
This supposedly kid-friendly attraction – which goes by the name “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” – is supposed to be alive-action adventure that will be staged several times a day all over Adventureland. The idea here is that – over the Summer of 2008 (coming right on the heels of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” In fact, this new show at Disneyland would begin presenting performances at that Park on the very same day “Indiana Jones 4” was released to theaters. Which – again – was May 22, 2008) – Disneyland Guests could join Doctor Jones and solve mysteries, battle evil villains and uncover ancient mysteries.
On paper, this three month-long cross promotion (which – because it was only going to held at Disneyland over that theme park’s Summer months – went by the title of “Indiana Jones Summer of Hidden Mysteries”) was a great idea. In their heart of hearts, the Entertainment team at Disneyland Park was hoping that the centerpiece of this three month-long seasonal event (That would be the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show. Which we’ll get to in a moment) would be such an enormous success that they’d then be able to turn this kid-friendly show into a permanent attraction at Disneyland Park.
Indiana Jones Themed “Jedi Training Academy”
Let me explain what was really going on here: Disneyland’s Entertainment team was hoping that they’d be able to turn the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show (which – given its title – was obviously going to be staged inside of the now-empty “Aladdin’s Oasis” with that 15-foot-tall version of the Cave of Wonders serving as the centerpiece of this show) into another “Jedi Training Academy” -like show.
Just so you know: The “Jedi Training Academy” started out as a kid-friendly offering at the very first “Star Wars Weekend” at Disney-MGM in February of 1997. This show was so hugely popular with the under-10 crowd that it was eventually pulled out of this seasonal event at the Parks and turned into an audience-participation experience that was then offered multiple times at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as well as out in Anaheim at Disneyland Park.
Anyway … That was the template that Disneyland’s Entertainment team was using. The Jedi Training Academy. So what they were shooting for here was a 15-minute-long audience participation experience themed around the adventures of Indiana Jones that could then be presented inside of the old “Aladdin’s Oasis” restaurant.
Again, a great idea on paper. But harder to pull off in the real world then you might think.
“The Secret of the Stone Tiger” Stage Show Premise
Why? Okay. The villain in the “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was Irina Spalko, a Soviet scientist played by Cate Blanchett.
So to keep some sort of continuity between the “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” movie and “The Secret of the Stone Tiger” stage show, it was decided that the villain of this kid-friendly audience participation show at Disneyland Park would also be a female.
Okay. So this 15-minute-long show would start out with a Doctor Rachel Flannery standing in front of the Cave of Wonders inside of the old “Aladdin’s Oasis” restaurant. Only – according to Rachel – these supposedly long-abandoned ruins were now the Bengalese temple of Sherdil, the tiger-god.
As Dr. Flannery explains, Indiana Jones had recently rediscovered this temple and gone inside. Indy was supposedly searching for the Golden Rod of Sherdil, an ancient object which is rumored to have great mystical power. But it had now been days since anyone had last seen Doctor Jones.
Anyway … Rachel recruits the help of the kids in the audience. And by using various clues scattered around “Aladdin’s Oasis,” they figure out how to re-open the now-sealed temple of Sherdil. Whereupon Indiana Jones comes stumbling out of the Stone Tiger’s mouth clutching the Golden Rod of Sherdil.
As Indy is thanking the kids in the audience for getting him out of that sealed ancient temple, he puts down the Golden Rod of Sherdil. Dr. Flannery now picks it up and seemingly suddenly gets possessed by the demonic spirit of Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War.
Just a quick reminder here: “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” is supposed to be a kid-friendly audience participation show for the under 10 set.
Indy now realizes that Doctor Flannery is holding the Golden Rod of Sherdil and is possessed by Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War. He first tries to wrestle this ancient artifacts out of her hands, but Rachel (because she’s possessed by the Hindu God of War) is super-powerful. She punches Indy a few times, so he punches her back.
Stage Show Complaints
It was at this point that the mothers of Orange County got upset. That’s a man beating up a woman in a show at Disneyland. To which the Entertainment team at that theme park said “Actually, no. That’s Indiana Jones battling with an fellow archaeologist who’s just been possessed by Kartikeya, the super-powerful Hindu God of War. Indy’s battling with a female character, just like he does in ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.’ Which just opened at a theater near you.”
That explanation didn’t matter. The mothers of Orange County were outraged. They marched en masse to Disneyland’s Guest Relations Department to lodge their complaints. Which is why – just days after the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show opened at that theme park, in an interview with the Orange County Register – Disneyland’s PR team announced that “Secret of the Stone Tiger” would now be altered. Indiana Jones would no longer throw direct punches at the woman character (Doctor Flannery) in this supposedly kid-friendly show, he would simply dodge.
And speaking of dodging … What also upset the mothers of Orange County (as well as a significant number of Disneyland Guests) was … Well, in the agreement that Disney had cut with Lucasfilm to have the Indiana Jones character appear at that theme park during “The Summer of Hidden Mysteries,” the Cast Member playing Indy was not allowed to meet with park guests in your typical meet-and-greet format. This meant that no one came away with a photo of or an autograph from their favorite archaeologist.
This meant that a lot of little kids walked away from the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show in tears. Not because Indy beat up the lady. But because Dr. Jones wouldn’t sign their autograph book.
Irony here: Remember that scene in “The Last Crusade” where Indy accidentally bumps into Adolph Hitler at a book-burning rally. And the Fuhrer then signs Doctor Henry Jones, Str’s grail diary.
So sure. Adolph Hitler gives autographs. But not Indiana Jones.
Fate of “The Secret of the Stone Tiger” and “Aladdin’s Oasis” – Disneyland “Tropical Hideaway”
This is why the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show didn’t become the next Jedi Training Academy. By the Fall of 2008, the only Indy-related things that was left in Adventureland was the “Temple of the Forbidden Eye.”
More to the point, this is why – some ten years later (after “Aladdin’s Oasis” had experienced enough depreciation that it could now be taken off of Disneyland’s books) – this long-empty Adventureland venue was torn down in early 2018 and then turned into the “Tropical Hideaway.” Which soft-opened in December of that same year.
Kind of appropriate that this new Adventureland eatery soft-opened. Because they serve several different types of Dole Whip here. Along with Bao Buns & Sticky Pork.
Full circle. Kind of back to what the Tahitian Terrace offered.
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