Film & Movies
Countdown to Disney “Frozen” : How one simple suggestion broke the ice on the “Snow Queen” ‘s decades-long story problems
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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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Film & Movies
Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?
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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.
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.
Film & Movies
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.”
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.”
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:
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:
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:
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).
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.
Film & Movies
“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland
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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.
Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.
Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film
Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.
Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …
Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.
But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”
And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.
It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.
The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real
By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.
It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance
Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically). Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland
The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).
There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.
And those words supposedly were “Build this.”
It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.
So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.
Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.
There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.
This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.
How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”
Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.
In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.
Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America
Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).
If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.
The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.
While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.
As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.
This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:
“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland
It wasn’t that easy.
The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”
Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”
Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”
Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”
Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.
So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.
And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.
The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland
This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Hayley (As in Hayley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).
There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Hayley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.
How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?
Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.
This is where the Imagineers were wrong.
Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse
Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.
200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.
Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.
To be specific here: Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.
Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).
Ken Annakin – Film Director
Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.
Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.
Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”
And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.
New Robin Hood on Disney+?
Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.
So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.
So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”
This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.
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