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From the JHM Archives: Exploring Marc Davis' Enchanted Snow Palace

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From the JHM Archives: Exploring Marc Davis' Enchanted Snow Palace

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Go ahead. Ask a Disneyana fan who Marc Davis was. Better yet: Find yourself a comfy chair, sit down, and THEN ask a Disneyana fan who Marc Davis was.

Marc Davis shows Walt one of the Audio Animatronic figures that were built based on
his designs for Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Because you're about to get an earful. First you'll probably hear about how Davis was this legendary animator at Walt Disney Studios. The guy who played a key role in bringing Snow White, Bambi , Thumper, Cinderella , Alice, Wendy, Malificent and Cruella De Vil all to life. Then they'll undoubtedly talk about how Marc moved over to Imagineering in the early 1960s, where he became one of that organization's top designers. While working there, he created some of the most memorable characters and set pieces for "The Jungle Cruise," "The Enchanted Tiki Room," "it's a small world," "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Hall of Presidents," "The Haunted Mansion" and "Country Bear Jamboree." The list goes on and on.

Then - if they're sticking to the "Readers Digest" version of Davis' life - they'll probably close by telling you about how Marc retired from WED in 1978, but continued to draw and/or make appearances at various Disneyana events 'til his untimely death in January 2000. Which should tie up Davis' life story with a neat little bow.

Except that ... Well ... Were you to start poking around at that version of the Marc Davis story, some holes would begin emerging. And some questions would probably come quickly to mind. Questions like: If Marc was really such a hot-shot designer for WED, why were all of his attractions for the Disney theme parks built and/or up and running by the late 1960s / early 1970s? Given that this guy didn't actually retire from Imagineering 'til 1978, it stands to reason that there should have been quite a few more Marc Davis classics popping up in the parks into the mid-to-late 1970s? So what happened? Did this guy lose his chops or what?

Marc working on the design for the new "Sacking the Treasury" finale sequence for
Walt Disney World's version of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Sadly, the answer is no. Marc never lost his chops. He remained a top designer - doing witty, wonderful work for the parks as well as Disney's consumer products division - right up until the year he died. Even after he'd formally retired, Davis still got calls from folks at WED/WDI - desperate to tap into his expertise. (This is how Marc ended up consulting on attractions for Epcot as well as Tokyo Disneyland.)

So - okay - if Marc was such a WED wunderkind, then how come all that Disney got out of Davis in the mid-to-late 1970s was "America Sings"? This "GE Carousel of Progress" replacement was pretty much Marc's last hurrah for the Mouse House. An ambitious Audio-Animatronic filled (109 figures!) tribute to American song, this Tomorrowland attraction was admittedly fun. But it was also no "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "The Haunted Mansion."

So where's that one last truly great Disney theme park attraction from Marc Davis? That final show that was supposed to have built on everything that Marc learned while working with Walt? That ride-to-end-all-rides? The one that was supposed to have blown our socks off?And the answer is ... Davis actually designed at least two of these attractions in the 1970s. Rides that the Imagineers (who worked at WED at the time and saw Marc's beautifully drawn up plans) still talk about. I've already written at length about one of these shows - the Thunder Mesa project for Walt Disney World's "Phase One" featuring "Western River Expedition." The attraction I'd like to talk about today was probably the last show of size that Marc Davis ever designed for WED: "The Enchanted Snow Palace."This ambitious attraction - which was proposed for the site that Disneyland's massive Fantasyland Theater currently occupies - was considered by many at Imagineering to be the most beautiful thing that they'd ever been designed for a Disney theme park. So why did Mouse House managers from that era opt not to built Marc's beautiful "Enchanted Snow Palace"? Patience, Grasshopper.

One of the "plusses" Marc Davis was looking to add to Disneyland's version of "The
Jungle Cruise" in the mid-1970s. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Let's first talk about the ride as Marc originally envisioned it. This whole attraction sprang out of Davis' desire to create something cool for Disneyland. Not cool as in "That ride was bitchin' fast" or "The kids seem to really get off on stuff like." But a place where guests could go to escape the cruel Southern California sun.

Davis - while on a field trip to Disneyland one hot summer's afternoon in the early 1970s (He was out at the park, scouting locations for the new sequences that he was dreaming up for Adventureland's "Jungle Cruise") - really felt beat down by the heat. As he drove back to Glendale, Marc thought to himself: "Wouldn't it be great if Disneyland had a place where guests could go to escape the heat on a day like today? Someplace cool & peaceful, away from the crowds?" And from that slim notion ... Marc spun out his entire "Enchanted Snow Palace." A cool & peaceful place, away from the crowds.

Picture - if you will - an enormous white & blue show building. Similar in size and scale to "it's a small world." Only this building isn't really a building at all. It's a glacier. (Or at least a mock-up of one. Carefully carved out of plastic and plaster by the artisans at Imagineering). As we queue up for the ride, we notice that all the ice and snow seems to have melted into some very unique shapes. There - amid all the icicles - are graceful towers and windows and walls. All seemingly carved out of ice. Wait a minute. Could it be that someone actually lives inside this massive block of ice? As we trot down the faux snow covered stairs and get into a ice blue bateaux, I guess we're about to find out.

Marc Davis concept painting for "The Enchanted Snow Palace"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Just like on "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "it's a small world," the power of the water itself (as well as a few well hidden conveyer belts) sends our boat floating gently into the show building. Once we slip through a hole in the glacier, we're dazzled by all the blue and the white inside. To the strains of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," Audio Animatronic polar bears and penguins caper on iceflows all around us. Timber wolves stand on top of nearby snowdrifts, howling at the moon. Robotic walruses pop up next to our boat and playfully squirt water at us. It's a magical - if somewhat naturalistic - environment.

But then the aurora borealis shimmers in the sky above our heads. Which somehow causes our boat to drift into a mysterious snow cave ... And - once we're inside - the real magic begins. Immense snow giants - carrying huge icicles clubs - tower over us. But we needn't fear. For these snow giants seem dazzled by the frost fairies that are flitting in the air in front of them. (What do the frost fairies look like? Remember the ones from Fantasia 's "Nutcracker" sequence? Well, Marc brought them back to life. Only in 3D form.)

We then pass the Snow Queen's beautiful hand maidens - each dressed in an ornate Ziegfeld Girl-seque gown. Every one of them wears an elaborate head dress made out of ice. Each is attended by a snowy owl or an arctic fox or snow white ermine. Then our boat finally floats into the throne room of the Snow Queen herself. As the music builds, we see that the Queen is getting ready to make her nightly rounds. Her sled - with a team of snowshoe rabbits - is standing by the palace door. Her majesty gestures gracefully toward us ... and suddenly the air is filled with snow. We drift through this brief blizzard back into the sunlight ... out toward the "Enchanted Snow Palace" 's load/unload area.

Marc Davis' design for the Snow Queen. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

There. Doesn't that proposed attraction sound beautiful? Not all that compelling from a narrative point of view, of course. And - to be honest - the ride itself (in spite of all its elaborate, ornate tableaus) sounds fairly passive. A bit on the dull side. That said, you've still got to admit that Marc Davis' plans for his "Enchanted Snow Palace" do sound like they would have been very beautiful.

Yes, Davis put his heart and soul into this project. Making sure that all of his concept sketches for this Fantasyland addition were as dazzling as possible. Which is why he did his drawings for this proposed attraction in the style of Erté, the famous Parisian designer best known for his extraordinary sets and costumes for the Follies Bergeres. And Marc's drawings were beautiful. The trouble was - back in the mid 1970s - Disney Company management wasn't really looking for passive but pretty rides like "The Enchanted Snow Palace." They were looking for attractions that thrilled and dazzled guests, not shows that caused them to smile & snooze.

The real problem was that - circa 1975 - the American theme park industry was undergoing a fundamental change. The era of the steel coaster had finally arrived. And amusement park owners - particularly Disney - were noticing what rides like these could do for a corporation's bottom line. Mouse House managers couldn't help but notice the immediate, positive impact that the original Space Mountain had on Walt Disney World attendance levels when this Tomorrowland thrill ride first opened back in January 1975. Which is why the company rushed construction of an Anaheim version of this attraction (which eventually opened at Disneyland on May 4, 1977).And if one thrill ride could drive up attendance levels at the company's theme parks this much, Disney's operations staff wondered: What would TWO thrill rides do? Which is why management decided to dust off Tony Baxter's plans for his runaway mine train ride ... And the rest of the story, you know.

Tony Baxter's concept painting for the exterior of Big Thunder Mountain Railway.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, with all of WED's funds being funneled into quickly creating high speed thrill rides for Disneyland and Walt Disney World (not to mention the development of rides & shows for Epcot), there just wasn't any money left to build something that was just - well - beautiful like Marc's "Enchanted Snow Palace." So the project languished. And Davis - feeling somewhat out of step with what Imagineering was up to at the time - decided that now might be a good time to retire.

The question now is: Would Marc's "Enchanted Snow Palace" have really been a good addition to the parks? Would it have been a show like "small world" or "Pirates" that the public immediately embraced and loved for years to come, or would it have been more like "America Sings" (Which - to be honest - fell out of favor fairly quickly, playing to mostly empty houses 'til the attraction finally closed in 1988)?

My personal feeling - while I love Marc's concept sketches for this attraction - is that his "Enchanted Snow Palace" was almost too artsy - fartsy for its own good. The proposed storyline for the show was just too slender. There weren't enough laughs or thrills to really entertain guests as they floated through the building. All the "Snow Palace" had going for it was that it would be A) cool inside and B) pretty to look at. Which was really not enough to justify the proposed attraction's estimated $15 million construction costs. Which is WED opted to take a pass on the project.

A litho that Marc Davis personally put together towards the end of his life which
touched on many of the projects that he worked on during his career at Walt
Disney Imagineering. Please note which never-built attraction has the
centermost / most prominent position in this image. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But the beauty of Marc's work for this proposed attraction lives on. Both in the hearts of the Imagineers who were lucky enough to see Davis' original sketches when he was first working on the project, as well as the cast members who work in the Disney Gallery.

A few years back (around the holiday season), the Gallery sold a limited edition lithograph of one of Marc Davis' concept paintings for "The Enchanted Snow Palace." It showed one of the Snow Queen's hand maidens in all her icy glory, dressed in a long blue & white gown, with a snowy owl at her feet. The lithos - which included a crystal "Snow Palace" Christmas ornament - sold like hot cakes.

Which proves - I guess - that there really is an audience out there for a strictly beautiful Disney theme park attraction. Whether or not it would have been as big an audience as - say - the folks who like "Big Thunder" or "Space Mountain," who can say?

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  • Just as the differing concepts of Marc Davis and Claude Coats combined to make the Haunted Mansion what it is today, is it possible that Marc Davis' concepts could be adapted for a new attraction tied to the upcoming "Frozen" movie about the Snow Queen?

  • If Frozen does blockbuster business, then it might be considered for an attraction, though there are some other gems that Disneyland might want a clone of: namely the Be Our Guest restaurant, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride going into WDW.  

    I could see the Fantasyland Theatre being demolished for either of these, or perhaps even a Ratatouille dark ride clone.  There is so much land there, especially if they connected the west side of Toontown to this area, it would have good traffic flow.  Or they could go original and do a Brave dark ride with animatronic bears.

  • Personally, I've always felt that a chili tundra-inspired ice capade land would work wonders in Animal Kingdom. The land needs a dark ride, and a cool one themed to artic and antartic animals would be amazing. Toss in a matterhorn clone with a facelift and you'll have a winner for sure!

  • Is it possible that the Enchanted Snow Palace idea may have influenced the Norway ride at EPCOT?  Some of the scenes like the polar bears and the ice giants sound somewhat similar.

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