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Countdown to Disney “Frozen” : How one simple suggestion broke the ice on the “Snow Queen” ‘s decades-long story problems

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Frozen Movie Poster

So how long has Walt Disney Animation Studios been trying to bring “The Snow Queen” to the big screen? Would you believe 70 years?

Concept painting for the aborted Hans Christian Andersen bio pic that Walt Disney andSamuel Goldwyn once considered collaborating on.

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Yep. As far back as 1943 (Which was when Walt was in discussions with Samuel Goldwyn about their two studios possibly collaborating on a feature-length biography of Hans Christian Andersen. With Goldwyn handling the live-action portion of this proposed co-production, while Disney artists would have created animated segments that would have then brought some of Andersen’s best-loved stories & characters to life), Walt was already taking a long, hard look at the Snow Queen. Trying to find a way to turn this character — who, when she initially appears in this classic tale, is described as being …

… a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice — shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance.

— into someone that you could actually build a movie around.

A stamp honoring the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth shows the Snow Queen flying over Kay’s house, listening as this small boy makes his ill-considered boast.

Even back in the mid-1940s, Disney artists saw the obvious cinematic possibilities in this source material. But the Snow Queen herself (as written by Hans Christian Andersen, anyway) was somewhat problematic. Given that she was the character who had spirited Kay away from his parent’s home all because this poor young boy had once idly boasted that he’d ” … set the Snow Queen on the stove and then she’ll melt.” And then given that icy sorceress used her snowy magic to turn this formerly sweet kid into a self-centered brat who …

… was quite blue with cold, indeed almost black, but (Kay) did not feel it; for the Snow Queen had kissed away (his) icy shiverings, and his heart was already a lump of ice.

… it was always easy to cast the Snow Queen as the villain of the piece. Especially since it was Gerda (i.e., the little girl who lived next door to Kay) who was the obvious hero of this tale. Given that it was poor, good-hearted Gerda who faced all sorts of dangers, traveling hundreds of miles and battling harsh winds & freezing temperatures before she finally reached the Snow Queen’s ice palace. Where Gerda eventually saves Kay by weeping …

… hot tears, which fell on (Kay’s) breast and penetrated into his heart, (which then)  thawed the lump of ice (that had formed there).

Given that this fairytale — as Hans Christian Andersen had originally written it — didn’t feature any final showdown / confrontation between Gerda & the Snow Queen (When this brave little girl eventually enters the Snow Queen’s icy castle, the Snow Queen herself is nowhere to be seen. She is — in fact — thousands of miles away, having flown to ” … the black craters at the tops of the burning mountains, Etna and Vesuvius, as they are called. I shall make them look white, which will be good for them, and for the lemons and the grapes”), this story had kind of a flat ending. With Kay & Gerda journeying back to their childhood homes when they are then magically transformed into these grown-ups who are children at heart.

You get what I’m saying yet? The setting of the Snow Queen (i.e., the frozen north) is certainly cinematic. Likewise this story’s title character (i.e., a beautiful, mysterious stranger who can magically manipulate ice & snow). But as for the actual storyline of this particular fairytale, there just wasn’t enough real character conflict to build a full length film around.

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Which isn’t to say that Disney didn’t keep trying to find ways to turn the Snow Queen into … Well, something that could entertain the public in some way. In the early 1970s, Disney Legend Marc Davis designed the Enchanted Snow Palace, an elaborate ride-thru attraction for Disneyland Park which was to have been built where the Fantasyland Theatre is currently located. This elegant, air-conditioned, Audio-Animatronic-filled extravaganza was to have climaxed as your ride vehicle rolled through the Snow Queen’s throne room. Where (as Marc envisioned this Hans Christian Anderson character, anyway) she was supposed to have looked like one of those showgirls that Erté designed gowns for the Ziegfeld Follies and/or George White’s Scandals back in the early 1920s.

But that project for Disneyland Park never really made it past the concept art phase. Meanwhile over at Walt Disney Animation Studios, artists and storymen there (especially as the second golden age of Disney animation was getting underway in the late 1980s) made repeated runs at this Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Trying to find a way to crack the Snow Queen’s passive & problematic storyline and then turn it into something that you could actually build a feature-length film around.

You’d be amazed at some of the talented folks who tried to make the Snow Queen into a Disney movie and ultimately failed. Take — for example — Harvey Fierstein. Back when he was recording the voice of Yao for “Mulan ,” this Tony Award winner reportedly pitched Mouse House execs a version of this Hans Christian Andersen story that the Company ultimately took a pass on.

Glen Keane working on the character of Rapunzel for Disney’s”Tangled.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved

Likewise Glen Keane. Before this master animator turned his full attention to adapting the tale of Rapunzel for the big screen, Glen supposedly spent months exploring the cinematic possibilities of this frozen fairytale. But in the end, Keane just couldn’t find a way to turn the Snow Queen into the sort of fully realized character that could actually support a feature-length story. Not without severely departing from the fairytale that Hans Christian Andersen had originally written, that is.

Next add to this list  the Brizzi brothers, Dick Zondag, and Dave Goetz. They all made attempts to translate “The Snow Queen” to the big screen only to eventually meet with failure. And yet executives at Walt Disney Studios just refused to give up on this project. As James B. Stewart recounted in his great behind-the-scenes-at-the-Mouse-House book, “DisneyWar ” (Simon & Schuster, February 2005), on …

… June 11, 2003, (Then-Disney CEO Michael) Eisner has invited me to a creative meeting of the feature animation team, led by (Thomas) Schumacher’s replacement, David Stainton. Eisner usually attends these meetings once or twice a month.

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The discussion turns to Christmas 2007. Eisner has just read a script for Rapunzel. “Someone told me a woman with long hair is old-fashioned,” Eisner says. “That’s why this has to be a Legally Blonde -type comedy,” replies Mary Jane Ruggels, another creative vice president. Sleeping Beauty was 1938,” Eisner says. “The ending was forced. Like Treasure Planet — it just ended. It wasn’t funny or clever. Are you sure you can save this? Is Ice Queen better?”

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“You mean Snow Queen,” Ruggels says.

“I love The Taming of the Shrew idea,” Eisner says. “Take Martha Stewart. She’s tough, smart — a worthy adversary. If she were a doormat of a woman, no one would go after her. Marlo Thomas used to call me about marketing ‘That Girl .’ She said, ‘If I were a man, I’d be president of the network.” Eisner expresses some reservation about the team assigned to Snow Queen, then adds, “John Lasseter. If we make a new deal with Pixar … “

Michael Eisner and John Lasseter talk on the red carpet at the world premiere of Pixar’s November 2004 release, “The Incredibles.”

Stainton jumps in: “You mean when we make a new deal with Pixar.”

“I said to John, you can have Snow Queen. He loved it. John said, ‘I want to do a princess movie.’ “ Eisner asks for the Snow Queen synopsis.

Storyboards from the aborted Eisner era version of Disney’s”The Snow Queen.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved

“The Snow Queen is a terrible bitch,” Ruggels says. “When her suitors try to melt her heart, the Snow Queen freezes them.” “Each one should be a phony, but different,” Eisner says of the suitors. “Then along comes a regular guy,” Ruggels continues.

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“This is perfect!” Eisner exclaims. “I’m afraid to hear more.” “The regular guy goes up there, he’s not that great, but he’s a good person. He starts to unfreeze her … she melts.” “It’s great,” Eisner says. “Finally. We’ve had twenty meetings on this.”

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“We’ll have a treatment in two weeks,” Ruggels promises. “Can we have this for 2006?” Eisner asks. “No way,” (Pam) Coats says.

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More ideas are tossed around: Frog Princess , Rumpelstiltskin, You Don’t Know Jack about the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel (with a twist: the kids are obnoxious, the witch likable), Mother Goose as a sassy, Queen Latifah type; and something, maybe Aida, that would feature an African “princess.” Eisner worries that Aida is still too live-action. “What’s the Howard Ashman piece we can layer on?” he asks, one of several times Ashman’s name has come up in the meeting.

“This is good,” Eisner concludes, “a good start.” He gets up to leave. “I love Snow Queen.”

But even with Michael Eisner’s blessing, this 2003 version of “The Snow Queen” fell apart at some point. For the next time that this Hans Christian Andersen story comes up in a Disney-related way is March of 2006. Which is when Walt Disney Company officials announced that they had …

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…  signed composer Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner and one of the driving forces behind “The Little Mermaid ” — which helped resuscitate Disney animation in the ’80s — to a nonexclusive, multi-picture deal.

For Disney Creative Entertainment, Menken is creating a stage musical of “The Snow Queen,” set to debut (next summer) at Tokyo DisneySea with Amon Miyamoto directing, John Weidman as (this show’s) bookwriter and Glenn Slater the lyricist.

And that version of “The Snow Queen” (which was supposed to have been presented in that theme park’s Broadway Music Theater as a replacement for “Encore!”) seemed to have some real momentum for a while (Not to mention a lovely score. Check out this ballad that Menken & Slater wrote for “The Snow Queen,” “Love Can’t Be Denied.” Which — on this recording, anyway — is performed by Tony Award nominee Brian D’Arcy James).

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But then in August of 2006, just months after Disney revealed that this live stage version of “The Snow Queen” was in the works for Tokyo DisneySea, the production was abruptly cancelled. As to why … Well, I’ve heard two different stories from Disney insiders. One version suggests that the theme park version of “Snow Queen” got cancelled because Oriental Land Company executives reportedly balked at what it would cost to shut “Encore!” down and then load this elaborate new, effects-filled stage show into the Broadway Music Theater.

The other explanation that I’ve heard was that WDAS execs suddenly had second thoughts about “The Snow Queen.” And that — rather than having this new take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale debut as a theme park show — they now wanted WDAS to produce a movie version of this classic story. And once the big screen version of “The Snow Queen” had been released to theaters, THEN OLC would be allowed to produce a stage version of this project which could then be presented to TDS visitors inside of the Broadway Music Theater.

So Menken & Slater teamed with Mike Gabriel (i.e., the co-director of Disney’s “Pocahontas “) and begin developing a new animated version of “The Snow Queen.” But that production too eventually wound up getting tripped up by the same exact story problems that derailed all of the other, earlier versions of this Hans Christian Andersen story. Which Menken was somewhat philosophical about when he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in November of 2010:

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For years, (Disney had been) working on “The Snow Queen,” first as a stage piece, and then as an animated film, but that got shelved. Clearly, animated films are big commitments and it takes a lot for Disney to greenlight one.

Now jump ahead to 2011. Walt Disney Animation Studios is making yet another stab at using Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as the jumping-off point of a full-length feature. At this point, Chris Buck is the only director assigned to this WDAS production and Peter Del Vecho has just come on board as this project’s producer.

“In that earlier version of this story, the Snow Queen character really was more of a villain. But it was very hard to relate to her, to understand her and why she was doing what she was doing. She was sort of isolated up there in her castle,” Del Vecho said during a recent interview.

Peter Del Vecho addresses the press at last month’s “Frozen” long lead media event.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So as WDAS does every 12 weeks or so when they have a new animated feature in development, they got all of its storyboards up on reels so that they could then show John Lasseter what sort of progress had been made on this project. And afterwards, the entire production team adjourned to a conference to hear John’s thoughts on this work-in-progress.

” That was the game changer. John sat down at this long table. And his first words were, I’ll never forget this, ‘You haven’t dug deep enough,’ ” recalled Michael Giaimo, “Frozen” production designer, during a September roundtable session. “And I remember John saying that the latest version of the Snow Queen story that Chris Buck and his team had come up with was fun, very light-hearted. But the characters didn’t resonate. They aren’t multi-faceted. Which why John felt that audiences wouldn’t really be able to connect with them.”

So Buck and his story team once again returned to the drawing board. They came up with several different variations on the Snow Queen story as they tried to address Lasseter’s main concern with this project. Which is that the audience really wouldn’t connect with these Hans Christian Andersen characters.

(L to R) Peter Del Vecho, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee at the Disney “Frozen” long leadmedia event. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Mind you, this was before Jennifer (Lee, the co-director of “Frozen”)  joined Chris on this project. So the Anna character (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is what the Gerda character is called in Disney’s version of “The Snow Queen”) was there. And we knew that there would be a Snow Queen in the picture. That we knew,” Giaimo continued. “There was definitely a Kristoff character (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the character that Hans Christian Andersen called Kay in the original version of this fairytale). So those three were in place. But that was about it.”

And then — no one remembers who exactly came up with this idea — someone on the story team said “What if Anna and Elsa (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first name of the Snow Queen in the Disney version of this story) were sisters?” From that moment forward, this WDAS project began to jell in some very exciting ways.

“Once we realized that these characters could be siblings and have a relationship, everything changed,” Del Vecho enthused. “I mean, you may not always like what Elsa does or the choices that she makes. But given that she could now have a real emotional connection with Anna, that these two characters — now that they were sisters — would obviously have some history … Well, you could now at least understand the whys behind this story.”

Lasseter also immediately saw the wisdom in taking this approach to adapting the story of “The Snow Queen” to the big screen. That a sibling dynamic like this had never been explored in an animated feature before. Which is why making this particular story change would definitely bring new to that table.

Mind you, John wanted to make the most of this new opportunity. Which is why Lasseter then ordered that Walt Disney Animation Studios hold a sisters summit.

“And what’s a sisters summit?,” you ask. Well, we’ll discuss that next week in the next installment of JHM’s “Countdown to Disney ‘Frozen’ ” series.

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Your thoughts?

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Film & Movies

“Indiana Jones and the Search for Indiana Jones”

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News came late last week that NBC was cancelling the “Magnum PI” remake. This series (which obviously took its inspiration from the Tom Selleck show that originally debuted on CBS back in December of 1980 and then went on run on that network for 8 seasons. With its final episode airing on May 8, 1988).

Anyway … Over 30 years later, CBS decided to remake “Magnum.” This version of the action drama debuted on September 24, 2018 and ran for four seasons before then being cancelled. NBC picked up the “Magnum” remake where it ran for one more season before word came down on June 23rd that this action drama was being cancelled yet again.

FYI: The second half of Season 5 of “Magnum” (10 episodes) has yet to air on NBC. It will be interesting to see when that final set of shows / the series finale gets scheduled.

This all comes to mind this week – out ahead of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” because … Well, if CBS execs had been a bit more flexible back in 1980, the star of the original version of “Magnum PI” (Tom Selleck) would have played the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Which was released to theaters back on June 12, 1981.

That’s the part of the Indiana Jones story that the folks at Lucasfilm often opt to skim over.

That Harrison Ford wasn’t George Lucas’ first choice to play Doctor Jones.

Auditions for Indiana Jones – Harrison’s Not on the List

Mind you, Steven Spielberg – right from the get-go – had pushed for Ford to play this part. The way I hear it, Lucas showed Spielberg a work-in-progress cut of “The Empire Strikes Back.” And Steven was so taken with Harrison’s performance as Han Solo in that Irwin Kershner film that he immediately began pushing for Ford to be cast as Doctor Jones.

Whereas Mr. Lucas … I mean, it wasn’t that George had anything against Harrison. What with Ford’s performances first in “American Grafitti” and then in “A New Hope,” these two already had a comfortable working relationship.

But that said, Lucas was genuinely leery of … Well, the sort of creative collaboration that Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. Where one actor & one director repeatedly worked together. To George’s way of thinking, that was a risky path to follow. Hitching your wagon to a single star.

Which is why – when auditions got underway for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1979 — Mike Fenton basically brought in every big performer of that era to read for Dr. Jones except Harrison Ford. We’re talking:

  • Steve Martin
  • Chevy Chase
  • Bill Murray
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Peter Coyote
  • Nick Nolte
  • Sam Elliot
  • Tim Matheson
  • and Harry Hamlin

Casting a Comedian for Indiana Jones

Please note that there are a lot of comedians on this list. That’s because – while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in development — Spielberg was directed his epic WWII comedy, “1941.” And for a while there, Steve & George were genuinely uncertain about whether the movie that they were about to make would be a sincere valentine to the movie serials of the 1930s & the 1940s or more of a spoof.

It’s worth noting here that three of the more ridiculous set pieces found in “Temple of Doom” …

  • the shoot-out at Club Obi Wan in Shanghai
  • Indy, Willie & Short Round surviving that plane crash by throwing an inflatable life raft out of the cargo hatch
  • and that film’s mine cart chase (which was not only inspired by Disney theme park favorites the Matterhorn Bobsleds & Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but some of the sound effects that you hear in this portion of “Temple of Doom” were actually recorded after hours at Disneyland inside of these very same attractions)

…  all originally supposed to be in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ve actually got a copy of the very first version of the screenplay that Lawrence Kasdan wrote for the first “Indy” movie where all three of these big action set pieces were supposed to be part of the story that “Raiders” told. And I have to tell you that this early iteration of the “Raiders” screenplay really does read more like a spoof of serials than a sincere, loving salute to this specific style of cinema.

Casting Indiana Jones – Jeff or Tom

Anyway … Back now to the casting of the male lead for “Raiders” … After seeing virtually every actor out in LA while looking for just the right performer to portray Indiana Jones, it all came down to two guys:

  • Jeff Bridges
  • and Tom Selleck

Jeff Bridges as Indiana Jones

Mike Fenton was heavily pushing for Jeff Bridges. Having already appeared with Clint Eastwood in 1974’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (Not to mention that “King Kong” remake from 1976), Bridges was a known quantity. But what Fenton liked especially liked about Bridges when it came to “Raiders” was … Well, at that time, Jeff was just coming off “Heaven’s Gate.”

Mind you, nowadays, because we’ve all now had the luxury of seeing the director’s cut of this Michael Cimino movie, we recognize “Heaven’s Gate” for the cinematic masterpiece that it is. But 40+ years ago, that honestly wasn’t the case. All audiences had to judge this movie by was the severely truncated version that United Artists sent out into theaters. Which – because “Heaven’s Gate” had cost $44 million to make and only sold $3.5 million of tickets – then became the textbook example of Hollywood excess.

Credit: Indiewire.com

Long story short: Given that being associated with “Heaven’s Gate” had somewhat dinged Bridges’ reputation for being a marketable star (i.e., a performer that people would pay good money to see up on the big screen), Jeff was now looking to appear in something highly commercial. And the idea of playing the lead in a film directed by Steven Spielberg (the “Jaws” & “Close Encounter” guy) and produced by George Lucas (Mr. “Star Wars”) was very, very appealing at that time. Bridges was even willing to sign a contract with Spielberg & Lucas that would have then roped him into not only playing Indiana Jones in “Raider of the Lost Ark” but also to appear as this very same character in two yet-to-be-written sequels.

Better yet, because “Heaven’s Gate” had temporarily dimmed Bridges’ star status, Jeff was also willing to sign on to do the first “Indy” film for well below his usual quote. With the understanding that – should “Raiders of the Lost Ark” succeed at the box office – Bridges would then be paid far more to appear in this film’s two sequels.

That seemed like a very solid plan for “Raiders.” Landing a known movie star to play the lead in this action-adventure at a bargain price.

Ah, but standing in Mike Fenton’s way was Marcia Lucas.

Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones

Marcia Lucas, who had seen Tom Selleck’s audition for “Raiders” (And you can see it as well. Just go to Google and type in “Tom Selleck” and “Indiana Jones.” And if you dig around for a bit, you’ll then see a feature that Lucas & Spielberg shot for “Entertainment Tonight” back in 2008 [This story was done in support of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”]. And as part of this piece, George and Steve share Tom’s original audition for “Raiders.” And what’s genuinely fascinating about this footage is that Selleck’s scene partner is Sean Young. Who – at that time, anyway – was up for the role of Marion Ravenwood) and kept telling her husband, “You should cast this guy. He’s going to be a big star someday.”

And given that George was smart enough to regularly heed Marcia Lucas’ advice (She had made invaluable suggestions when it came to the editing of “American Graffiti” and the original “Star Wars.” Not to downplay George Lucas’ cinematic legacy, but Marcia Lucas was a world-class storyteller in and of her own right), Lucas then reached out to Spielberg and persuaded him that they should cast relative unknown Tom Selleck as Doctor Jones over the already well-known Jeff Bridges.

Now don’t feel too bad for Jeff Bridges. When he lost out on playing the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Jeff then accepted a role in the very next, high profile, sure-to-be-commercial project that came along. Which turned out to be Disney’s very first “TRON” movie. Which was eventually released to theaters on July 9, 1982.

Back to Tom Selleck now … You have to remember that – back then – Selleck was the handsome guy who’d already shot pilots for six different shows that then hadn’t gone to series. Which was why Tom was stuck being the guest star on shows like “The Fall Guy” and “Taxi.” Whereas once word got out around town that Selleck was supposed to play the lead in a project that Spielberg was directed & Lucas was producing … Well, this is when CBS decided that they’d now take the most recent pilot that Tom had shot and then go to series with this show.

That program was – of course – the original “Magnum PI.” And it’s at this point where our story started to get complicated.

“Magnum PI” – Two Out of Three Say “Yes”

Okay. During the first season of a TV show, it’s traditionally the network – rather than the production company (which – in this case – was Glen A. Larson Productions. The company behind the original versions of “Battlestar Galactica” & “Knight Rider”) or the studio where this series is actually being shot (which – in this case – was Universal Television) that has all the power. And in this particular case, the network execs who were pulling all the strings behind-the-scenes worked for CBS.

And when it came to the first season of “Magnum PI,” CBS had a deal with Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television which stated that the talent which had been contracted to appear in this new action drama would then be available for the production of at least 13 episodes with an option to shoot an additional 9 episodes (This is known in the industry as the back nine. As in: the last nine holes of a golf course).

Anyway, if you take those initial 13 episodes and then tack on the back nine, you then get 22 episodes total. Which – back in the late 1970s / early 1980s, anyway – was what a full season of a network television show typically consisted of.

Anyway … The contract that Selleck had signed with Glen A. Larson Productions, Universal Television & CBS stated that he had to be available when production of Season One of “Magnum PI” began in March of 1980. More to the point, Tom also had to be available should CBS exercise its option to air 22 episodes of this new series on that television network over the course of “Magnum PI” ‘s first season.  

Which then made things complicated for George Lucas & Steven Spielberg because … Well, in order for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to make its June 12, 1981 release date, that then meant that production of the first “Indy” movie would have to get underway no later than June 23, 1980.

But here’s the thing: Production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was scheduled to run through the first week of July of that same year (1980). So in order for Tom Selleck to play Indiana Jones in “Raiders,” he was going to need to be wrapped on production of “Magnum PI” by June 22, 1980 at the absolute latest.

So Spielberg & Lucas went to Glen A. Larsons Productions and asked if Selleck could please be sprung from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligations by June 22nd. And they said “Yes.” Then Steven & George went to Universal Television and asked executives there for their help  in clearing Tom’s schedule so that he’d then be available to start work on “Raiders.” And they say “Yes” as well.

Spielberg & Lucas now go to CBS. But instead of the quick “Yeses” that they got from officials at Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television, it takes those suits at the Tiffany Network weeks before they then decided to say “No, they couldn’t release Tom Selleck early to go work on ‘Raiders’ “ because …

I’ve never really been able to get a straight answer here as to why CBS execs dug in their heels here. Why they flat-out refused to release Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation and allow him to go shoot “Raiders.”

Payback from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” Trash Talk

That said, it is worth noting that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” aired on CBS back in November of 1978. And given that – in the years that followed —  Lucas wasn’t exactly shy when it came to saying how much he hated that two hour-long presentation (Or – for that matter – how George really regretted caving into the requests of CBS execs. Who had insisted that television stars long associated with the Tiffany Network – people like Art Carney, Harvey Korman & Bea Arthur – be given prominent guest starring roles in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”). And I’ve heard whispers over the years that CBS executives preventing Tom Selleck from appearing in “Raiders” could be interpreted as the Tiffany Network getting some payback for what George had said publicly about the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

Harrison Ford Comes to Rescue “Indiana Jones”

Anyway … It’s now literally just weeks before production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is supposed to begin and Spielberg & Lucas have just learned that that they’ve lost their film’s star. CBS is flat-out refusing to release Tom Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation. So Steven & George now have to find someone else to play Indy … and fast.

The real irony here is … The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists would go on strike in the Summer of 1980. Which then shut prematurely shut down production of the first season of “Magnum PI.” (As a direct result, the first full season of this action drama to air on CBS only had 18 episodes, rather than the usual 22). And because this job action lasted ‘til October 23rd of that same year … Well, this meant that Tom Selleck would have actually been free to start shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on June 23, 1980 because production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was already shut down by then due to that AFTRA strike.

But no one knew – in May of 1980, anyway – that this job action was going to happen in just a few weeks. All that Steven Spielberg & George Lucas knew was that they now needed a new lead actor for “Raiders.” And circling back on Jeff Bridges was no longer an option. As I mentioned earlier, Jeff had agreed to do “TRON” for Disney. And – in the interim – Bridges gone off to shoot “Cutter’s Way” for MGM / UA.

Credit: EW

So this is where Harrison Ford enters the equation. As he recalls:

In May of 1980, I get a call from George Lucas. Who says ‘I’m messaging a script over to you this morning. As soon as it gets there, I need you to immediately read this script. Then – as soon as you’re done – I need you to call.

So the script arrives and it’s for ‘Raiders.’ I read it and it’s good. So I call George back and say ‘It’s good.’ And he then says ‘Would you be interested in playing Indy?’ I say that it looks like it would be a fun part to play.

George then says ‘ That’s great to hear. Because we start shooting in four weeks. Now I need you to meet with Steven Spielberg today and convince him that you’re the right guy to play Indy.’

Of course, given that Spielberg had been pushing for Ford to pay Indy ever since he had first seen that work-in-progress version of “The Empire Strikes Back” … Well, Harrison’s meeting with Steven was very, very short. And just a few weeks later, Spielberg, Lucas & Ford were all at the Port de la Pallice in La Rochelle. Where – on the very first day of shooting on “Raiders” (which – again – was June 23, 1980)– the scene that was shot was the one where that Nazi sub (the one that Indy had lashed himself to its periscope by using his bullwhip as a rope) was arriving at its secret base.

And all of this happened because Harrison immediately agreed to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the part of Indy was first offered to him in mid-May of 1980.  

Before “Star Wars” was “Star Wars”

So why such a quick yes? Well, you have to remember that “Empire Strikes Back” wouldn’t be released to theaters ‘til May 21, 1980. And no one knew at that time whether this sequel to the original “Star Wars” would do as well at the box office as “A New Hope” had back in 1977 (FYI: “Empire” would eventually sell over $500 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which is roughly two thirds of what the original “Star Wars” earned three years earlier).

More to the point, the four films that Harrison had shot right after “A New Hope” / prior to “Empire Strikes Back” (i.e., “Heroes” AND “Force 10 from Navarone” AND “Hanover Street” AND “The Frisco Kid”) had all under-performed at the box office. So to Ford’s way of thinking, taking on a role that Tom Selleck was no longer available to play – one that had the potential of spawning two sequels – seemed like a very smart thing to do. Especially after three years of cinematic stumbles.

By the way, whenever this topic ever comes up, Harrison Ford is very gracious. He always makes a point of saying that he’s grateful to have gotten this career opportunity. More to the point, that he still feels kind of bad that Tom Selleck never got the chance to play this part.

Tom Selleck After “Indiana Jones”

That said, we shouldn’t feel too bad for Tom Selleck. After all, the original “Magnum PI” proved to be a long running hit for CBS. And in an effort to smooth over any residual bad feelings that may have resulted from Tom being forced to give up “Raiders” back in May of 1980, Selleck was eventually allowed to create his own production company (i.e., T.W.S. Productions, Inc. As in Thomas William Selleck Productions). Which – after the fact – was then cut in on some of those “Magnum PI” -related revenue streams.

More to the point, while “Magnum PI” was on hiatus following its second year in production, Selleck flew off to Yugoslavia. Where he then shot his own Indiana Jones-esque film for theatrical release. Which was called “High Road to China” in the States, but – overseas – was promoted as “Raiders of the End of the World.”

FYI: Warner Bros. released “High Road to China” stateside 40 years ago this year. On March 18, 1983, to be exact. It didn’t do all that great at the box office. $28 million in ticket sales versus $15 million in production costs.

And over the years, there’s even been some talk of finding a way to maybe set things right here. By that I mean: Finally finding a way to officially fold Tom Selleck into the world of Indiana Jones.

Could Tom Selleck Work with Indiana Jones?

The way I hear it, between the time when “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was theatrically released in May of 1989 and when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” debuted in May of 2008, there were a number of ideas for Indiana Jones sequels tossed around. And from what I’ve been told, there was at least one treatment for a fourth Indiana Jones film written that proposed pairing up Harrison Ford & Tom Selleck. With the idea here being that Selleck was supposed to have played Ford’s brother.

Obviously that film was never made. And – no – I don’t know what state Indiana Jones’ brother was supposed to be named after.

This article is based on research for Looking at Lucasfilm “Episode 80”, published on June 29, 2023. Looking at Lucasfilm is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?

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Will Metro Ever Get Made?

First came “Cars” in June of 2006.

This Pixar Animation Studios production did so well (Of all the high grossing films released that year, “Cars” was No. 2 at the box office. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” sold more tickets in 2006) that Disney execs asked John Lasseter to develop a sequel.

“Cars 2” came out in June of 2011 and also did quite well at the box office (It took the No. 7 slot in the Top-Ten-for-ticket-sales that year). Which is why Disney then asked Pixar to prep a follow-up film.

“Cars 3” would eventually arrive in theaters in June of 2017. But in the meantime, Disney & Pixar began exploring the idea of expanding this film franchise. Largely because the amount of money that the Mouse was making off of the sales of “Cars” -related merchandise was … To be blunt here, mind boggling.

Don’t believe me? Well, then consider this: In just the first five years that the “Cars” film franchise existed, global retail sales of merchandise related to these Pixar movies approached $10 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”

So is it any wonder that – while Pixar was still trying to get a handle on what “Cars 3” would actually be about – the Mouse (through its DisneyToon Studios arm. Which produced home premieres like those “TinkerBell” movies) began actively looking into ways to expand this lucrative franchise?

“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off

The first “Cars” spin-off to arrive in the marketplace was “Planes.” This Klay Hall film (which was set in “The World Above Cars”) was released theatrically in August of 2013, with the Blu-ray & DVD version of “Planes” hitting store shelves in November of that same year.

“Planes: Fire and Rescue” followed in the Summer of 2014. And while a “Planes 3” was definitely put in development (At the Disney Animation panel at the 2017 D23 Expo, John Lasseter not only shared a clip from this film. But he also revealed that this project – which, at that time, was entitled “Space” – was slated to be released theatrically in April of 2019) … This animated feature was abruptly cancelled when DisneyToon Studios was shuttered in June of 2018.

But wait. There’s more … In addition to the aborted “Planes 3,”  Disney had other “Cars” spin-offs in the works. One was supposed to be built around boats. While yet another was supposed to have shined a spotlight on trucks.

“Metro” – The World Below Cars

And then there was “Metro.” Which was supposed to have been set in the inner city and focused on what went on in “The World Below Cars.” As in: Down in the subway system.

Just in the past week or so, a few pieces of concept art for “Metro” have surfaced online. Giving us all an intriguing look at what might have been. These preproduction paintings suggest that this “Cars” spin-off would be far grittier than … Say … the sort of adventures that Lightning McQueen & Mater would typically have out in Radiator Springs.

Metro - Cars Spin-Off Movie Poster
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney

That said, it’s worth noting here that – just in the past year or so – we’ve seen Disney & Pixar attempt to expand the turf that these two characters could comfortably cover. Take – for example — “Cars on the Road,” that nine-part series which debuted on Disney+ back in September of last year. This collection of animated shorts literally sent Lightning McQueen & Mater off on a road trip.

So who knows?

Given that Bob Iger (at Disney’s quarterly earnings call held earlier this week) revealed that the Company now has sequels in the works for “Frozen,” “Toy Story,” and “Zootopia” … Well, is it really all that far-fetched to think that – at some point further on down the road – Disney & Pixar will put yet another sequel to “Cars” in the works?

One that might send Lightning McQueen & Mater off to explore the gritty inner-city world that we glimpsed in all that concept art for “Metro,” that never-produced “Cars” spin-off.

Time will tell.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland

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This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.

John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.

Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.

Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”

If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.

What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.

Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

Sorry folks. Park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.

When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?

It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.

Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths

So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.

So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.

Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.

Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive

Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.

Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression

What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.

Lightning Lane – Raising Prices

Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).

And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.

Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.

“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects

Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”

That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.

Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays

Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:

While the gross income of Disneyland was greater this year than in any prior year, the operating expenses for this family fun park were likewise up substantially primarily to two factors.
(1) Operating a seven-day week throughout the 1957 – 1958 week against a six-day week the year before.

(2) Increased costs due to rising salaries and the
inauguration of a 40-hour week. This resulted in lower net profits compared to the prior year.

So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.

Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.

Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:

This current year, we are operating the park during the winter months on a five-day schedule with resulting savings in operating costs and in the hope that a full week’s business can be compressed within the five days.

So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:

Again this year, as in each year since Disneyland Park first opened in 1955, new records were set for total attendance and per capita spending of park visitors.
The change to a five-day operating week during the 1958 – 1959 winter season from the seven-day schedule in effect the previous year has worked out very well. Reduced operating hours helped to control operating costs in the face of increased wage rates and other rising costs.

Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel

Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?

What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.

It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”

Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel

And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.

And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).

Credit: Ultraswank.net

Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel

That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.

  • Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
  • Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain

Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.

This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.

Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings

It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.

All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.

It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.

Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.

Walley World Shooting Locations

And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.

The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).

Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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