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It’s 1996. And Disney Parks & Resorts is already thinking about how it should handle the Millennium.
Not that Y2K bug thing, mind you.
Y2K and the Disney Theme Parks
Do you remember how – back in the late 1990s – there were people who were absolutely terrified that, due to a flawed bit of computer code … Well, at the very second the world transitioned over from 1999 to 2000, everything that was run by computer would suddenly shut down. Including the North American power grid.
This was something that many corporations – including The Walt Disney Company – took very, very seriously in the lead-up to the Millennium. The Mouse actually set up a dedicated task force of 800 employees to investigate the Disney Company’s possible exposure to a Y2K bug threat and then put together a response plan.
One element of Disney’s Y2K bug response plan was – should the North American power grid actually fail at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 – each of Disney’s stateside parks had dozens of emergency lights & back-up generators on hand. These items were stashed backstage at the Parks (out of sight of the Guests, of course), ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Just in case the country’s power grid really did suddenly collapse that night.
Shutting Down Every Attraction on 12/31/1999
And speaking of December 31, 1999, how many Disney theme park fans remember how – on that night – the Mouse shut down every single ride, show & attraction at its stateside theme parks 15 minutes prior to midnight and then held those things in place / in check for 30 minutes or so? They did this until it was clear that the North American power grid hadn’t actually collapsed and that every computer on the planet hadn’t really gone haywire.
“Better safe than sorry” was the thinking among the Park’s Ops Team. They didn’t want Guests stuck on Disneyland’s or WDW’s attractions should the Y2K bug prove be a very real thing.
Anyway … A half hour after the stroke of midnight on what-was-now-January 1st, 2000, all of those rides, shows & attractions at Disney’s stateside parks were back up & running again. Loaded with happy, still alive Guests.
Mind you, the Mouse never admitted publicly that the reason they’d shut down all of the rides, shows & attractions at its stateside theme parks just prior to midnight on December 31, 1999 was out of Y2K bug-related safety concerns. What Disney spokespersons said instead was – in essence – “ … we just to be sure that all of our Guests got the chance to see that night’s special fireworks display.”
Millennium Celebration for Walt Disney World and Disneyland
Back to 1996 now.
What The Walt Disney Company was most concerned about – as it looked ahead to the Millennium was — … Well, to borrow a phrase from a very famous Prince song, figure out what to do in California & Florida when Disney theme park fans wanted “ … to party like it’s 1999.”
On the West Coat, given that Disney’s California Adventure would still be under construction at the start of the Millennium (That theme park wouldn’t actually open to the public ‘til February 8, 2001. And given that the Disneyland Parking Lot would close on January 21, 1998 to then make room for DCA … Well, the rest of that Resort would largely be a maze of construction fences when December 31, 1999 finally arrived), a one-night-only party seems like the smartest way to go.
Whereas in Florida … The thinking is – instead of a one-night-only party – Walt Disney World should explore the idea of a staging a months-long Millennium celebration. Something that could start in 1999 and then roll on into 2000.
Quick aside here: WDW’s PR team just loved this idea. Largely because – by the late Spring / early Summer of 1999 — the newness & excitement associated with Disney’s Animal Kingdom (That theme park was due to open in April of 1998) would have begun to wear off.
Selecting Epcot for the Millennium Celebration at Walt Disney World
As to which park should host Walt Disney World’s Millennium Celebration … Well, that was kind of a gimmee back then. Largely because — while Epcot was the park at the Walt Disney World Resort with the second highest attendance levels (Magic Kingdom was first) — it was also [at that time, anyway] the least profitable park on property.
I know that that’s strange to hear today. Especially given the hand-over-fist money that the WDW Resort now makes off of those super-sized, extended versions of Food & Wine and Flower & Garden. But you also have to remember that today’s story starts back in 1996. And the …
- 1st Flower & Garden wasn’t held til April of 1994 (And even then, it was just five weeks long)
- Likewise the 1st Food & Wine wasn’t held ‘til September of 1996 (and it was just 30 days long)
- Interestingly, the 1st Holidays Around the World / now International Festival of the Holidays debuted that very same year. In November of 1996 to be precise (it also was just five weeks long)
- And Epcot’s International Festival of the Arts is the newest of the bunch. It debuted just 5 years ago in January of 2017 (and was also only five weeks long)
So you have to understand that these massive money makers (as we know them today, anyway) weren’t really in place back then. Which is why Epcot – which then had to largely rely on its original assortment of attractions to lure WDW visitors through its turnstiles – was the least profitable park on property.
Anyway … Disney Parks & Resorts hoped to turn this situation around (at least for 15 months or so) by making Epcot Center the center of WDW’s Millennium Celebration. Which was supposed to get underway in October of 1999 and then run at least through December of 2000.
Just so you know, though: There was a secondary agenda being serviced here as well … Disney Parks & Resorts wanted to use WDW’s Millennium Celebration as a way to reintroduce the world to a new, fun version of Epcot …
Sound familiar? Yep, that is exactly what Walt Disney World had also hoped they’d be able to do with the Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration which began back on October of 2021. Reintroduce the world to the brand-new, fun version of Epcot 2.0. (They say no good idea ever dies at Disney. But wasn’t it Santayana who said that “ … a fanatic is someone who redoubles their effort when they’ve forgotten their original aim” ? )
Of course, when it came to the launch of the brand-new, fun version of Epcot 2.0, the pandemic & its impact on the labor force and worldwide supply chains kind of blew that very ambitious plan right out of the water. So instead of a bright new shiny version of Walt Disney World’s science & discovery park being in place just in time for the launch of this Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration back in October of 2021 … What we got instead is a handful of new rides, shows & attractions like “Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure,” “HarmonioUS,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind,” “The Creations Store,” “Space 220,” “The Connections Café & Eatery,” and – soon – “Moana: The Journey of Water” opening one at a time in kind of a scattershot fashion … Which (let’s be honest here) didn’t have nearly as big an impact / make nearly as big a splash than as if all of these new rides, shows & attractions had managed to come online in the exact same window of time (i.e., late Summer / early Fall of 2021. Just in time for the start of WDW’s 50th anniversary celebration).
Quick aside: I want to be clear here: This wasn’t poor planning on Disney’s part. Nobody could have ever foreseen that a once-in-a-century pandemic would come over the hill and then disrupt WDW’s a-decade-in-the-making 50th anniversary plans. Epcot’s still limping along through its reimagining right now. Which — I’m now hearing –should largely be complete by 2024 (This is when the Play! Pavilion, CommuniCore Hall & Communicore Plaza are supposed to finally come online. We’ll get to those latter two projects in the back half of today’s story).
Prepping Epcot for WDW’s Millennium Celebration
Back to 1996 and the Resort’s advance prep & planning for WDW’s Millennium celebration now … There was a method to the Imagineers’ madness. All of the changes that were to be made to Epcot out ahead of October of 1999 (the target date for the launch of this park’s 15 month-long Millennium celebration) had a very deliberate purpose.
- That giant “Sorcerer Mickey” arm which was erected over Spaceship Earth was supposed to send a message to Guests that Epcot was now far more magical & fun.
- The “Tapestry of Nations” parade (which was presented twice daily, once starting at 6:30 p.m. and then a second presentation of the same parade starting at 8:10 p.m.) was supposed to compel Guests to stay in Epcot long enough each day to actually view that parade. And while these people were killing time waiting … Well, they’d either have to shop or grab a meal (Which would then hopefully help with Epcot’s least-profitable-theme-park problem) …
- Then – to absolutely make sure that people lingered as long as possible inside of Epcot while the Resort’s Millennium Celebration was being presented – WDW Entertainment rolled out a brand-new edition of “Illuminations,” “Reflections of Earth.” Which was a significant upgrade of the previous nighttime show that had been staged out on World Showcase Lagoon. With giant torches erected all along the esplanade and the Inferno Barge literally starting this show with a bang.
The hope was that people would have such a great time at WDW’s 15 month-long Millennium Celebration that they’d then want to commemorate this special occasion. This is why the Imagineers then built the “Leave a Legacy” plaza directly in front of Spaceship Earth.
This retail initiative was a sequel of sorts to those hugely popular “Walk Around the World” pavers that had been sold over at the Magic Kingdom as part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration.
FYI: WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration was also originally supposed to be just a 15 month-long celebration, running from October of 1996 through December of 1997. But that event proved to be so popular with WDW visitors that the Resort’s 25th anniversary celebration got extended another three months. All the way to March of 1998.
And to be honest, if the Resort could have gotten away with it, they’d have extended WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration event even further than that. But they were forced to finally shut those festivities down in March of 1998, largely because Disney’s Animal Kingdom would be opening in late April of that same year. And that theme park’s opening was supposed to be the primary focus of the WDW Resort’s promotional efforts for the bulk of 1998).
“Leave a Legacy” at Epcot
Back to the “Leave a Legacy” retail program now … The Imagineers built a Stonehenge-like plaza in front of Spaceship Earth which had space for 750,000 tiles that could then feature the smiling faces of Guests who had just attended Epcot’s Millennium Celebration (Which the Company really hoped would eventually turn into a WDW 20th anniversary-like success. Which would have then forced the Resort to extend its 15th month-long Millennium celebration another three months into the late Winter / early Spring of 2001).
That wasn’t to be, though. “Leave a Legacy” ultimately proved to be something of a disappointment. Only 440,000 tiles were sold over the course of Epcot’s Millennium celebration. (I’m told that this was because most people didn’t like how their likenesses on the finished tiles turned out AND because it was then hard to find your “Leave a Legacy” tile once it was finally put in place in that stone garden in front of Spaceship Earth).
Terry Dobson (Walt Disney Imagineer)
We’ve talked about what Walt Disney World was going to do in order to get Guests to linger at Epcot in the late afternoon / early evening during that Resort’s Millennium Celebration with that one-two punch of “Tapestry of Nations” and “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” But what was supposed to compel people to visit that theme park earlier in the day while this 15-month-long event was going on?
That was the assignment that was handed to Terry Dobson. Who – at this point – was a veteran Show Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Innoventions at Epcot
From January of 1993 through October of 1994, Terry had been the guy who rode herd on the transformation of CommuniCore West into Innoventions. That 100,000 square foot exhibition officially opened in Epcot’s Future World section in July of 1994 and featured displays by all sorts of major American corporations. Among them AT&T, GE, GM, Motorola, Honeywell, IBM, Apple, Silicon Graphics, and Lego.
That Future World display proved to be so popular that the team who was working on reimagining Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area back in the late 1980s / early 1990s then said “Hey, we wanted an Innoventions too.”
So from February of 1996 through May of 1998 (which is when Disneyland’s new version of a New Tomorrowland finally opened), Terry did the exact same thing. Which was take a pre-existing structure (In this case, the Carousel of Progress theater-go-round building) and then turn it into a space where … Well, here’s a piece of Disney speak for you …
… deliver corporate messages through family play experiences through a mixture of high-tech, low-tech and no-tech hands-on exhibits.
This time around, Dobson delivered a 30,000 square foot exhibition space that featured displays by for SAP, Compaq, Honeywell, AT&T, GM and Kaiser Permanente. That last sponsor was a throwback to an opening day attraction at Disneyland.
Anyway, just like the East Coast version of Innoventions, the West Coast version of this exhibit proved to be hugely popular with Guests. Which is why – when Dobson finally returned to his office at Imagineering headquarters in Glendale – he found WDW’s the Millennium Celebration team waiting for him.
Epcot’s World ShowPlace and Millennium Village
They told Terry “Hey, how’d you like to tackle another Innoventions-like project with lots of displays? Only this time, you’ll be working with countries, rather than corporations. Which – I’m sure — will be far easier to deal with. But the upside is … At least this time, you’ll be working with a brand-new 65,000 square foot building.”
Did I say “building” ? To be honest here, the World ShowPlace (that’s what this 65,000 square foot structure eventually became known as. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, shall we?) is a tent. A very large, supposed-to-be-temporary tent.
Those tents that now house Pete’s Silly Sideshow & Big Top Souvenirs over WDW’s Magic Kingdom, which were originally erected back in 1988 as part of Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration and then only supposed to be in place for a year), there’s nothing quite so permanent as a supposed-to-be-temporary tent at Walt Disney World.
As Terry Dobson began actively developing World ShowPlace and the Millennium Village display that was supposed to eventually be staged inside of this 65,000 square foot temporary building / tent, this Imagineering vet quickly realized that he was now serving two masters.
By that I mean: WDW Resort officials wanted the Millennium Village to be this must-see spectacle. A colorful gathering which represented over 50 nations from around the globe that would then compel people to fly on down to Orlando and check this exhibition out during its 15-month-long run. Disney World’s only creative caveat going into this project was that Terry NOT include any displays from countries that already had a pavilion out along the shores of World Showcase Lagoon. Only new & different nations, please.
Whereas Epcot’s management team … Well, they went into the Millennium Village / World ShowPlace project with a somewhat different agenda. They were much more intrigued by how this 65,000 square foot building / tent / supposedly-temporary structure could possibly be used AFTER WDW’s 15-month-long Millennium Celebration was over.
Rain’s Impact on Festival Attendance at Epcot
By that I mean: At this point in that theme park’s history, Epcot had been running its seasonal Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, and Holidays Around the World festival for a few years now. And while all three of these seasonal events had shown huge profit potential … Well, the problem was that Flower & Garden, Food & Wine as well as Holidays Around the World was that they were largely events that were staged outdoors. Which mean that all it took to tank that day’s attendance at Epcot (and thereby significantly undermine the profit potential of that particular seasonal event) was one of Central Florida’s famous torrential rainstorms.
So – to mitigate this situation – Epcot wanted a big, new, under-cover venue. Some place where — even when it was pouring outside – Guests could then gather indoors and still enjoy food from around the globe, or listen to Disney’s own horticulturists tell them how to improve their gardens at home, or shop for pieces of art that these tourists could then haul home.
Constructing Epcot’s World ShowPlace
And to get this enormous, new, under-cover venue … Epcot was willing to make some pretty big sacrifices. They were willing to give up that expansion pad between World Showcase’s Canada Pavilion and the UK Pavilion (This is where – back when EPCOT Center was originally being designed – the Imagineers envisioned another international pavilion eventually rising up) so that a long, wide walkway could then built to allow WDW visitors access to the largely-backstage area where World ShowPlace was being built.
Of course, this was kind of costly. Which is why Epcot’s managers reached out to Walt Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office. And then basically said “The Imagineers are now designing a brand-new venue at our theme park that you guys are probably going to want to start using once WDW’s Millennium Celebration is over. Do you want to give them any input / some notes?”
And indeed Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office did. Seeing World ShowPlace as a place where – in the not-so-distant future – they could soon begin staging super-sized dessert parties for companies that were holding their annual conventions on WDW property … Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office asked that the plans for World ShowPlace include:
- A giant professional prep kitchen (which was supposed to have its loading dock deliberately orientated out towards Epcot’s perimeter road. Which would then make food & supply deliveries to this super-sized facility far simpler)
- An enormous bathroom just off of the theme-park-facing entrance to this 65,000 square foot structure. This was to be at the top of that walkway up from World Showcase Promenade. Which – again – had been built between Epcot’s UK pavilion & the Canada pavilion.
The idea here was … Well, if you were having some sort of corporate event with an open bar, you’d then have a place where all of these deep-pocketed / paying-with-their-per-diem Guests could quickly pee before they then walked out towards World Showcase Lagoon to watch a presentation of “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.”
- Next is an element that’s crucial for any building-of-size that was being built in Central Florida today. And that’s no less than six enormous professional-grade air conditioning units, which were set up around the perimeter of this enormous tent-like structure. Which would virtually guarantee that – no matter how many people were crammed into this building at any one time dressed in formal business attire – they’d all always stay cool.
- And speaking of keeping things cool (or should I say “wet”?), a network of sprinklers were to be built into the roof line of the again-supposed-to-be-temporary World ShowPlace.
These sprinklers were be turned on every night just prior to the start of “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” So that – should a stray firework shell ever accidentally come down on top of this massive tent-like structure as this nightly fireworks / laser extravaganza is being presented – World ShowPlace wouldn’t then go up in flame.
Now please keep in mind that all of the above were permanent structures that were then added to the plans of what was originally supposed to be just a temporary structure. Which obviously added to the cost of originally building World ShowPlace but also – further on down the line — made this Epcot addition that much more valuable & versatile as a venue for corporate & special events.
But before any of that stuff could happen, Terry Dobson had to first deliver that Innoventions-like “Millennium Village” display. Which needed to be up & running by October of 1999.
And remember how Terry’s original marching orders were “We want a spectacle. A massive display featuring over 50 nations from around the globe”? Well, recruiting corporations to show off their latest & greatest hi-tech wares in Innoventions was a lot easier than persuading countries to come take part in Epcot’s Millennium Village exhibition. In the end, Dobson was only able to persuade 24 nations to set up displays inside of World ShowPlace.
And even then, a lot of countries weren’t willing to come be part of the “Millennium Village” unless they were then allowed to cut corners.
Case in point: Sweden. While this Nordic country was genuinely interested in taking part in Epcot’s Millennium Celebration, Swedish officials weren’t all that eager to spend a large sum of money to build a brand-new display for Disney World. Which is why they asked permission to just recycle the “Four Seasons of Sweden” exhibit that Swedish officials had originally built for Expo ’98 (which had been held the year previous in Lisbon, Portugal) and erect those 30 foot-tall egg-shaped biodomes inside of World ShowPlace. Dobson said “Yes.”
One country that Terry maybe – in hindsight – wishes that he hadn’t recruit for this event was Israel. Who then presented the somewhat controversial “Journey to Jerusalem” simulator ride in that country’s section of the Millennium Village.
“And what was so controversial about Israel’s ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ ride?,” you ask. Well, this motion-based experience gave WDW visitors a simulated tour of that Holy City through various periods in history.
And because Jerusalem is considered a holy city by a number of religions, this motion-based experience became a hot button issue even before Epcot’s Millennium Village officially opened in October of 1999.
The Arab League was especially incensed by the “Journey to Jerusalem” ride. They all but accused The Walt Disney Company of helping Israel to reinforce that country’s long-held claim that Jerusalem was actually Israel’s capital. Which had – of course — been a bone of contention in this region ever since Israel had first declared its independence back in May of 1948.
Disney (which had offered some creative input when the “Journey to Jerusalem” ride was first put into development) insisted that this motion-based simulator was apolitical. But when word got out that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – rather than its Ministry of Tourism – had contributed some $1.8 million towards the cost of building this $8 million attraction … Well, that then gave this controversy some additional oxygen.
As a direct result of this bout of bad publicity, WDW’s Millennium Celebration got off to a somewhat rocky start. Disney tried to paper over this controversy by bringing Maya Angelou & UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in late October of 1999 to give the Millennium Village their official blessing.
World ShowPlace After Millennium Celebration
Once Epcot’s Millennium Celebration officially ended in December of 2000, Epcot officials and the folks in charge of WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Events office finally got to use World ShowPlace for the purposes they had originally envisioned. Which was as a large under-cover space where various aspects of Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, Festival of the Holidays & Festival of the Arts could be presented indoors. And – when those seasonal events aren’t being staged – WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Events office could then make this very same space available to companies that are staging their conventions down in Orlando.
The downside is … A lot of these corporations over the past 20+ years have already staged their company’s events inside of World ShowPlace. And lately, they’ve been looking for someplace new on WDW property where they can then stage these events / hold their after-convention cocktail parties.
“Park in the Sky”
Which brings us to that “Park in the Sky” project which was first announced at the Disney Parks & Resorts panel that was held at the D23 Expo back in August of 2019. This was when Bob Chapek first revealed that Epcot’s World Showcase was going to be broken up into three distinct neighborhoods:
- World Discovery
- World Nature
- and World Celebration
And serving an anchor for World Celebration was supposed to be this brand-new pavilion, a three story-tall structure that would be both a venue for live events as well as the home base for Epcot’s signature festivals.
The ground level portion of this three story-tall structure was to have been known as the Plaza. Guests could easily passed through this space / directly under this building as they walked from the Creations Shop out towards World Showcase Lagoon.
As for the second floor of this structure, this was to have been the expo level. This was where various panels & presentations offered at Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, Festival of the Holidays & Festival of the Arts were to have been staged.
And as for the top floor of this three-story structure … This was the space that Disney’s Corporate Events / Special Events office was most interested in. During the day, it was supposed to be this lovely green space filled with curving walkways that then offered commanding views of Epcot (Hence its “Park in the Sky” designation).
But at night, this elevated garden would have been offered to corporate groups as a possible venue for their cocktail parties / after-convention gatherings. And these companies would have been charged top dollar for the privilege of giving their employees such a stellar view of “HarmonioUS.”
Sadly, in early May of this year, Walt Disney World announced that it had revised its plans for this corner of World Celebration. In place of that three-story tall “Park in the Sky” (which would have really made an interesting architectural statement), we’re now going to get a far more conventional-looking (more importantly, cheaper-to-build) CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza. Which – going forward – will eventually serve as Epcot’s new festival center.
Which – I know – has to disappoint the folks at WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Event offices. They’d already begun talking with various corporations about possibly renting out Epcot’s “Park in the Sky” for their upcoming Orlando-based conventions. My understanding was that – prior to the pandemic – this three-story-tall structure was supposed to have opened no later than 2023.
CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza
Now … From what I’m being told, the earliest that CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza will be the Fall of 2024. And most of the corporations that had previously shown interest in staging events up on the third floor of Epcot’s proposed “Park in the Sky” are now reportedly disappointed with this new version of the festival center that’s now supposed to be built in World Celebration.
Of course, what’s kind of ironic here is that – by the time CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza finally open in late 2024 – World ShowPlace (that originally-supposed-to-be-temporary structure) will then be old enough to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Nothing’s quite as permanent as a temporary tent at Walt Disney World.
The Closing of Walt Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
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I need help from a Disney World employee. To be specific, someone who used to work at the Magic Kingdom back in the late 1980s / early 1990s.
The reason I’m asking for help is that there used to be this one-page newsletter that that theme park printed & distributed weekly to Cast Members who worked JUST at the Magic Kingdom.
Walt Disney World Cast Member Newsletter Request
I want to stress that this newsletter was different from the Eyes & Ears – which (back then, anyway) was a weekly newspaper (not a newsletter) that the Resort then printed & distributed to ALL Cast Members who worked on property.
This publication – which might have been called Kingdom Cast (Sorry. It’s been almost 30 years now. I’m old after all and I’m now blanking this newsletter’s name) – was typically printed on different colored paper stock every week.
I just need some help here when it comes to recalling the specific name of this newsletter which was primarily intended for Disney World employees who worked at the Magic Kingdom.
Magic Kingdom Newsletter – August 1994
Anyway … I was living down in Orlando at this time. Where I was trying to make a living writing about The Walt Disney Company. Which was challenging in those pre-Internet days. On the upside, I had lots of friends who worked at the Resort at the time. Who would then slip me copies of all sorts of in-house publications. Which then allowed me to stay on top of what was actually going on on-property.
Anywho … In late August of 1994, I got sent a copy of this particular Magic-Kingdom-only newsletter. Which included a brief item (That I’m recalling from memory now) that said …
… any & all Cast Members who had worked at “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” over the past 23 years are invited to come by this Fantasyland attraction on the night of Monday, September 5th. We’d like to get together as many current & former 20K employees as possible for a group photo in front of that attraction’s marquee. This image will then be used to commemorate the closing of this Disney World favorite.
This item in that newsletter then went on to say that – after the Magic Kingdom had officially closed for the night – all WDW Cast Members were then welcome to come by the Subs and get in one last ride before “20,000 Leagues” closed for good.
So I immediately realized that this was huge, huge news.
Disney World is closing the Subs at the Magic Kingdom.
And since I was friendly with Leslie Doolittle, the reporter who was wrote the “On Tourism” column for the Orlando Sentinel, I give Leslie a call and read her this item straight out of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter verbatim. Which Ms. Doolittle then reports in her very next “On Tourism” column. Which then prompts WDW officials to lose their minds.
Initially senior management at the Resort flat-out denies that this Opening Day attraction is actually closing and they demand that the Sentinel immediately print a full retraction. After I provide Ms. Doolittle with a physical copy of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter and she then shares that with WDW’s PR team … Well, the Resort’s senior management then changes its tune.
They now say … Well, yes. “20,000 Leagues” WILL be closing on September 5, 1994. But what was published in that Magic Kingdom employee newsletter was incorrect. This Fantasyland favorite is NOT closing permanently. But – rather –- 20K will be going down for a lengthy rehab. A REALLY lengthy rehab. The longest ever in this ride’s history.
Maintenance Issues with WDW’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
To explain: Anyone who loved this WDW attraction back in the day will talk about how frustrating it would be back then to visit the Magic Kingdom and then find that “20,000 Leagues” was down for maintenance … again.
Between the harsh Florida sun bleaching the color out of the fake coral & all those plastic fish (which is why – every year – the lagoon had to be drained & dried so these items could then be repainted) not to mention all of the mechanical challenges associated with keeping that fleet of 14 diesel-powered Subs up & running … “20K” was an operational nightmare.
Not to mention being a huge money suck when it came to the Magic Kingdom’s annual operating budget.
So what Disney World senior management said – on the heels of that Orlando Sentinel story — was that “20K” was now closing for a top-to-bottom overhaul. This would be a two year-long project. But the good news was work would be completed in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration. Which was supposed to begin in October of 1996.
Which – I have to tell you – wasn’t the truth at all.
That Magic Kingdom employee only newsletter had actually gotten everything right. Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues” ride WAS closing for good on September 4, 1994. But not for the reason you might think.
Euro Disney Financial Troubles
Euro Disney had opened back in April of 1992. The park itself did well, attendance-wise. Not so much when it came to those 6 on-site hotels. Weighed down by enormous debt, Eisner actually talked about closing the place down in December of 1993 unless a new financial arrangement could be worked out with the 30+ banks that had originally funded construction of this $4.4 billion resort. A deal was reached in the late Winter / early Spring of 1994. But one of the conditions of this deal is that The Walt Disney Company would suspend the collection of any royalty payments that the Company was due from the Euro Disney Project from 1994 through 1998.
This new agreement / financial restructuring may have saved Euro Disney (which then got rebranded / relaunched as the Disneyland Paris Resort). But it also choked off a huge revenue stream at The Walt Disney Company. Which is why word then came down from on high that ALL divisions at the Mouse House now needed to tighten their belts. Economize.
And down at Walt Disney World … Well, managers then saw this edict as an opportunity to finally pull the plug on the Magic Kingdom’s expensive-to-maintain / difficult-to-operate “20,000 Leagues” ride. And the beauty part was … This wasn’t their fault. They were just following Corporate’s orders.
Fan Backlash for “20,000 Leagues” Closing Announcement
What Walt Disney World senior management hadn’t anticipated was – on the heels of Leslie Doolittle’s story about how “20K” would be closing – that the Resort would then be flooded with letters begging Magic Kingdom managers to change their minds. Save this opening day attraction.
Which – again – brings us back to that “The-Subs-will-be-back-up-and-running-by-1996-just-in-time-for-WDW’s-25th-anniversary” story. Which – I’ll again remind you – just wasn’t true. This was a lie that the Company quickly put out there to deflect & divert from what quickly had become a PR nightmare for the Magic Kingdom.
Michael Ovitz – Save or Close “20k Leagues”
So okay. We now jump ahead to August of 1995. Which is when Michael Ovitz – previously the head of CAA and once rumored to be the most powerful man in Hollywood – becomes the President of The Walt Disney Company. Michael Eisner hires Ovitz to be his new second-in-command (Following the tragic death of Frank Wells back in April of 1994).
And Ovitz … He wants to hit the ground running. Prove to Eisner that he’s now going to be an extremely valuable member of the Disney team.
So picture this. It’s now September of 1995. And Michael Ovitz – because he wants to learn about every aspect of The Walt Disney Company – is now on a familiarization tour of the entire corporation. And one of his very first stops is The Walt Disney World Resort.
And Michael (Ovitz, not Eisner) is a very data-driven guy. And he knows about the now-thousands of letters & phone calls that the Walt Disney World Resort has received about “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Which – again (remember) – WDW managers have been saying publicly is only temporarily closed. At this point, they’re still insisting that that this Opening Day Attraction will be back up & running in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary. Which is supposed to start on October 1, 1996.
So Ovitz – once he arrives on WDW property says – “Hey, I’ve heard about the Magic Kingdom’s 20K problem. And I’d like to personally check out that ride while I’m down here in Florida. Maybe once I see it, I can then make some recommendations. Perhaps help speed along the funding you need to get that ride up & running again.”
And seeing as Michael Ovitz is the newly installed second-in-command at the Mouse House, WDW senior management – after they hear this request – says “Sure. Absolutely. We’d love to do that, Mr. Ovitz. We’ll come by your hotel first thing tomorrow morning and take you straight over to the Magic Kingdom before that park opens to the public. That way, you can see for yourself the challenges that we’re now facing with bringing this Fantasyland ride back up online in time for Disney World’s 25th anniversary celebration. We’d LOVE to hear your recommendations.”
Which is why — the following morning at 7 a.m. — Mike Ovitz found himself standing in the queue at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” as a sub that was loudly belching smoke came rumbling up to the dock. The Disney Company’s brand-new President then climbed down the stairs and found a quarter inch of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. When Mike pointed this out, a WDW ops staffer said “Well, you have to understand that a lot of our subs are over 20 years old, Mr. Ovitz. So many of them have developed small pinhole leaks over time.”
The sub then lurched away from the dock and took Ovitz & the ops crew on a somewhat jerky trip around the “20K” ride track, with the attraction’s soundtrack barely audible through the ship’s crackling loudspeakers.
As you might imagine, once the boat pulled up to the dock, Michael quickly climbed out of the mildewed interior. He then turned to WDW’s ops staff and then asked what it would cost to bring “20K” back online. Ovitz was then quoted a number that was reportedly more than the Resort was planning on spending on its entire year-long 25th anniversary celebration.
Ovitz knew that a redo of the Subs that was going to be that expensive would be a non-started with Eisner. Especially at that time in the Company’s history, where – on the heels of the Euro Disney debt reorg and Disney deferring any royalty payments they were supposed to take out of that Resort ‘til 1998 – word was coming down from on high to every division at Disney to economize & cut back.
Ovitz wanted to show Eisner that – as The Walt Disney Company’s new president – that he could make the tough calls. So after hearing how much it would supposedly now cost the WDW Resort to bring the Subs back online, Ovitz then supposedy said “Well, maybe we’d just better cancel this rehab project and close 20K for good.” And those WDW managers standing with Ovitz in the Subs Load / Unload area then said “Oh, no. Really? Are you sure?”
Not Reopening by Summer – 20,000 Leagues “Delayed”
Which is why – in the early part of 1996. Just a few months after Michael Ovitz visited the Walt Disney World Resort on that fam trip — Bruce Laval, who was (at that time, anyway) the Resort’s Vice President for Operations – did an interview with the Sentinel. Where Bruce told Leslie Doolittle that …
“We were originally pursuing a short-term strategy with 20K. Something would have then allowed us to reopen the Subs with minor enhancements. But we found that there was no way we could accomplish that by this Summer.”
Now please note that what Bruce is saying in early 1996 is very different from what the Resort had been putting out back in the Fall of 1994. Back then, the Magic Kingdom was going to shut down “20K” for a nearly two-year-long, top-to-bottom redo so that this Fantasyland attraction could then be part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration looking bigger & better from ever. But come April of 1996, that story has significantly changed. The Park was now looking to re-open the Subs with “minor enhancements.” But even that would be impossible for the Resort to now pull off by the Summer of 1996.
Which bring us to what Laval next told the Sentinel:
“We are abandoning those plans for the Subs and are now exploring other long term options.”
So would it surprise you to learn that – in the middle of all the hoopla associated with the officially launch of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration in October of 1996 – Disney World’s PR very quietly realizes the news that 20K is now closed permanently. That – on the recommendation of Michael Ovitz, the president of The Walt Disney Company — the Magic Kingdom is now abandoning any plans to rehab / revitalize that attraction.
Poor Guest Experience for Michael Ovitz
You wanna know the kicker to this story. Those WDW managers – when they brought Michael Ovitz into the Magic Kingdom early that September morning back in 1995 – had totally sandbagged the new president of The Walt Disney Company.
To make sure that Ovitz had the worst possible ride experience that morning …
Well, out of the fleet of 14 subs that had been built for this Fantasyland attraction, those managers deliberately picked the one that was in the worst possible shape.
They then recruited a veteran ride operator and quietly gave this Cast Member the expressed instructions to “Give Ovitz the roughest ride possible.”
Then – to seal the deal — they threw a couple of buckets of water down into the bottom of that Sub to simulate a pinhole leak.
And all of this was done to give Ovitz the impression that WDW’s subs were now beyond salvaging.
The real irony here is that Michael Ovitz, the man who made the permanent closure of the Subs at WDW’s Magic Kingdom possible because he fell for the elaborate ruse that those Disney World managers staged back in September of 1995 … wasn’t all that long-lived at the Mouse House.
Eisner fired Ovitz in December of 1996 (just 15 months after he’d taken the job) largely because Eisner felt that Ovitz just wasn’t a good fit at Disney.
I have to tell you that WDW managers were thrilled that Ovitz was on the job at Disney for as long as he was. For – in September of 1995 — he made it possible to do what they couldn’t. Which was close the Subs for good. Which then left that huge chunk of Fantasyland open for redevelopment.
Mind you, it would take nearly another 13 years (from when the WDW Resort finally officially announced that the Subs at the Magic Kingdom were closed in October of 1996 ‘til the first D23 Expo back in September of 2009. Which was when the WDW Resort officially confirmed that the long-rumored expansion of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland section was in the works) before that redevelopment effort would then move forward. But as anyone who’s been watching the construction of “TRON Lightcycle Run” limp along at the Magic Kingdom these past five years, things move slowly these days at the Magic Kingdom.
And – speaking of the Magic Kingdom – if anyone who worked at that theme park back in the late 1980s / early 1990s could please get back to me about that newsletter-for-Cast-Members-who-worked-specifically-at-that-Park (I’m 90% certain this weekly newsletter was called Kingdom Cast. But – again – I could be wrong), I’d really appreciate it.
Original Disneyland Lessee: Van Camp Seafood and The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
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Since we’ve gotten such strong reaction to previous “Disney Dishes” where Len & I talked about original Disneyland lessees like Swift Meats (who sponsored the Red Wagon Inn at the Park, which was the precursor to Disneyland’s Plaza Inn Restaurants) and Monsanto (who sponsor the Hall of Chemistry AND the House of the Future), I thought that we’d take a moment to shine a spotlight on another company that helped make up the original 48 lessees at Disneyland.
Original Disneyland Lessees
When Disneyland first opened in July of 1955 – the Park had 48 lessees. A number of those were short-lived outfits like Hollywood Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop and the BlueBird Shoes for Children Shop that came & went within the first few years that Disneyland was operational. By 1966 / 1967, the number of lessees that the Park had had shrunk down by nearly a third. To 33, to be exact.
That’s an interesting number – 33.
Seems significant for some reason. Can’t place why, though.
Van Camp Seafood Company
Some 67 years ago (August 29, 1955, to be exact), the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (the quick service restaurant that Van Camp Seafood sponsored at the Park) first opened for business.
Kind of appropriate that Van Camp Seafood came to sponsor a restaurant at Disneyland. After all, this fish canning company actually got its start some 95 miles to the south of Anaheim in San Diego, California back in May of 1914 – founded by Frank Van Camp & his son Gilbert.
And as for that “Chicken of the Sea” thing … That was a bit of branding Van Camp embraced back in 1930. You see, the type of tuna that they initially specialized in canning (i.e., white albacore) was acclaimed for its mild flavor & color.
“Tastes like chicken” = “Chicken of the Sea.”
By 1952, Van Camp Seafood further refined their brand by introducing the Company’s icon: Catalina the Mermaid.
Interesting side note: If Catalina the Mermaid looks kind of familiar to all you Trekkies out there … Well, there’s a good reason for that. Grace Lee Whitney – who played Yeoman Rand on the original “Star Trek” television series – was actually the inspiration for Van Camp Seafood’s corporate icon.
Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon
We jump ahead now to February of 1953, which is when Walt Disney Studios releases its feature-length animated version of “Peter Pan” (which is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”). This animated feature includes a scene where Peter takes Wendy Darling to Mermaid Lagoon. Where those mermaids then try to drown Wendy. I guess Catalina hangs out with a rough crowd.
Jump ahead to 1954. Walt is looking to lock in sponsors for his new family fun park. And Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan” is still very front of mind. Which is why – when Disney representatives reach out to Van Camp Seafoods to ask if this fish canning company would be willing to sponsor some sort of attraction at Disneyland – Frank & his son Gilbert are interested.
The Van Camps do have some conditions, though. As part of whatever their Company sponsors at Disneyland, this shop, restaurant or attraction has to prominently feature Catalina the Mermaid, the Chicken of the Sea icon.
The folks at Disney go away for a bit to ponder this proposition … and then eventually come back with a proposal for the Van Camp family. What about a restaurant that’s also an attraction? As in: The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant.
The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
This massive structure – we’re talking 79 feet long and 80 feet tall (That includes the ship’s three masts. Which were each 60 feet tall) – was to be a recreation of the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook’s ship from Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan.” Guests would have the opportunity to board this vessel and explore the upper deck. Below decks, there’d be a quick service restaurant that only served food items that could be made with Van Camp Seafood products. We’re talking:
- A Tuna Sandwich
- A Tuna Burger
- A Tuna Pie served in a Pastry Shell
- A Tuna Boat Salad
- A Tuna Clipper Salad (a clipper is a slightly bigger boat)
- Shrimp Cocktail (Van Camp Seafood also sold canned shrimp)
- and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream (which must have had a little tuna in it)
Reminds me of that Monty Python bit. “It’s only got some spam in it. Spam, spam, spam, span, baked beans & spam.”)
Frank & Gilbert Van Camp loved this idea. Even so, it took a while to Van Cap Seafood & Walt Disney Productions to negotiate the final contract. Not to mention draw up the construction blueprints for this Fantasyland restaurant / attraction. I’ve seen a set of these blueprints that Fred Stoos (he was one of the original construction coordinators on the Disneyland project) drew up that are dated May 7, 1955.
Building the Jolly Roger
That’s basically 10 weeks before Disneyland first opens to the public. So as soon as those blueprints were signed off on, they immediately began building the Jolly Roger out behind the park’s lumber mill. Which – after the Park was completed – this building would then become the Main Street Opera House.
The ship itself was built out of Douglas Fir. And as for this pirate ship’s trim, that was genuine mahogany which had been shipped in from Honduras.
Now remember that condition that Frank & Gilbert Van Camp insisted upon? That Disneyland’s Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant had to feature their company’s icon – Catalina the Mermaid – in some way?
Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead
Disney honored this sponsorship condition by making Catalina the Jolly Roger’s figurehead. Chris Mueller (who sculpted all of the animals that Guests saw on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the giant squid in Disney Studio’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” film. In addition to creating “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for Universal Pictures’ 1954 film of the same name) not only created that beautiful 6-foot-tall piece, Mueller also sculpted an enormous piece for this ship’s stern. Which replicated the way Catalina the Mermaid was depicted on each can of “Chicken of the Sea” tuna. With Catalina seated atop her shell throne which is then borne on the back of a giant sea turtle. Beautiful piece.
The Flying Jolly Roger
Remember how this pirate ship restaurant was quickly being built backstage at Disneyland out behind that park’s lumber mill? When it came time for this building to finally be moved into place over in Fantasyland … Well, remember how the Jolly Roger flew in Disneyland’s animated version of “Peter Pan” ? This structure flew as well. It was lifted by a construction crane over all of those still-under-construction Tomorrowland buildings and then dropped into place behind the Park’s Mad Tea Party flat ride.
Painting and Camera Tricks
The only problem was … The night before that “Dateline: Disneyland” special aired live on ABC, Walt realized that he was running out of time & money. And the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (while it was now in its proper place in the Park) was still unpainted. And if the Van Camp family saw the restaurant / attraction that they’d paid for show up on live television looking like that, Frank & Gilbert would be furious.
Walt’s solution to this not-enough-time / not-enough-money problem was kind of ingenious. He only had his painters paint the side of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant that faced into the Park (i.e. the side that would appear on camera). Walt then had a bunch of Disney Studios employees placed on deck. When the cameras came on, these folks rushed to the rail and then wave frantically towards the camera. That way, no one would notice that the props or rigging on this ship weren’t in place either.
This trick worked. The Jolly Roger looked great on camera. And just so you know: It would take another six weeks of hard work after the “Dateline: Disneyland” TV special aired before the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was finally ready to serve food / begin entertaining Disneyland Guests.
Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship
This eatery became so popular with Disneyland Guests that … Well, after Walt finally wrestled ABC’s partial ownership of the Park away from that broadcast company in June of 1960 (He had to pay that company $7.5 million for its one third ownership of the Park) … One of the very first thing Disney did was to create a secondary seating area for this Fantasyland eatery.
Here’s how that expansion project was described in the October – November 1960 issue of the “Disneylander” (i.e., the park’s employee newsletter back then):
This article’s headline read: “Pirate Ship To Have New And Exotic Setting”
And here’s a quote from this piece:
“By the time you read this, you’ll be aware that the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship is closed for extensive rehab. It is scheduled to reopen about December 15th. Isolated by craggy cliffs covered with lush tropical foliage will be ‘Pirate’s Cove,’ where the Park’s well known Pirate Ship resides at anchor. WED designers have included in their plans the familiar landmark of Skull Rock from the Peter Pan story with three waterfalls cascading from rocky heights.”
Construction of Pirate’s Cove & Skull Rock actually took a little longer than expected. This Fantasyland addition wouldn’t open ‘til just before Christmas. December 23, 1960, to be exact.
Van Camp Seafood Partnership
The folks at Van Camp Seafood initially seemed very pleased with their association with Disneyland Park. They renewed their original sponsorship agreement with the Park in 1962 for another seven year-long lease. Unfortunately, in 1963, Frank & Gilbert sold their fish canning company to Ralston Purina. And when the sponsorship contract for the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant came up for renewal in 1969, Ralston Purina opted out.
Captain Hook’s Galley
Disneyland management responded to this loss of sponsor by changing the name of this Fantasyland restaurant from The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant to Captain Hook’s Galley. They also made minor tweaks to the ship’s figurehead and the giant stern piece so that the mermaids there no longer looked just like Catalina, Chicken of the Sea’s corporate icon.
Moving to New Fantasyland
We now jump ahead to the Fall of 1981. Work has just begun on Disneyland’s New Fantasyland. Which – when this side of the Park re-opens in the Summer of 1983 – will feature all-new versions of Disneyland’s classic dark rides like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” & “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” featuring then-state-of-the-art effects like fiber optics & digital sound.
Among the changes that are in the works for this side of the Park is that the ship that houses Captain Hook’s Galley is once again going to be lifted by a crane. Only this time, it’s going to lifted over a 100 feet or so that this full-sized pirate ship could then became the finale of Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride. The canal boats – after floating by all of those miniaturized recreations of settings from famous Disney films – would now find themselves, in the final moments of this ride, right alongside of the Jolly Roger.
The Imagineers thinking here was … Well, Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride starts off with a big moment (the canal boat you’re riding in gets swallowed up by Monstro the whale from “Pinocchio”). It should then have a similarly big moment at the moment at the end. Besides – by moving the structure that previously housed Captain Hook’s Galley from the centerbackmost portion of Fantasyland over to the eastern edge of this land at Disneyland – this then opened some very valuable real estate right in the middle of one of the more popular / most crowded corners of the Park.
So okay. So once this part of the Imagineers’ plans for a new Fantasyland at Disneyland was signed off on by Park Management … Phase One of Operation “The Jolly Roger Flies Again” was to first gently pry Chris Mueller’s now 26-year-old mermaid sculptures off of the bow & the stern of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant and then take them backstage to be restored. Then the pirate ship would be hoisted into its new location at the edge of Small World Plaza. Whereupon the load / unload area for the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride would be expanded to create a brand-new lagoon space that this pirate ship could be anchored in.
Just so you know: I’ve never been able to confirm that Skull Rock was to have then be recreated in this new location. The insinuation here was that – once both phases of the New Fantasyland project were complete (Phase One was to be ready for the Late Spring of 1983. While Phase Two – which involved the revamped version of the “Alice in Wonderland” dark ride, the relocation of Disneyland’s “Mad Tea Party” dark ride and the Mad Hatter’s Hat Shop – would open in the Spring of 1984) — the Imagineers would then attempt to ram through the creation of a second version of Skull Rock. Which would then help hide where the maintenance dock for the Storybook Land Canal Boats would be taken every night.
I have also been told that the below-decks area (which was initially supposed to be closed off to Guests once the Jolly Roger was flown into its new location of the Eastern edge of Small World Plaza) was to have then been completely renovated. And that – for the Summer of 1985 (Just in time for Disneyland’s 30th birthday celebration) what had previously been a quick service restaurant would then be turned into a pirate-themed juice bar. Which was kind of a cool idea.
Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger
This was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, after those two mermaid pieces were carefully pried off of the bow & the stern of Captain Hook’s Galley, the forklift that was taking both of these pieces backstage made a sudden stop. The mermaid pieces then fell off and shattered to smithereens.
Worse that that: When the New Fantasyland construction crew went to go arrange the harnesses that were necessary to hoist this 26-year-old pirate ship high in the air over to its new location, they then discovered that the old Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (which — remember – had originally built out of Douglas Fir outside of Disneyland’s old lumber mill and then been trimmed with genuine Honduran mahogany) was now riddled with termites. Long story short: This structure would have immediately crumbled into pieces as soon as that construction crane starts to pull on those harnesses.
As a direct result, the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was left at anchor right where it was until a demolition team could come along and pull this ship-shaped structure down. While they were at it, this demolition team also destroyed one of Disneyland’s favorite photo spots (Skull Island Cove). In its place today, you’ll now find Disneyland’s relocated Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.
Which – of course – makes us OG Disneyland fans sad. I mean, that’s something that Walt put in place and then plussed. But it’s worth noting that the Jolly Roger — as well as Pirate Cove & Skull Rock — do live on. Only at a different Disney theme park.
Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris
When the Imagineers opted to build Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris in the early 1990s, they included a full-sized pirate ship that was then placed at anchor in front of a large-ish version of Skull Rock. And inside of this pirate ship, you’ll find yet another Captain Hook’s Galley. This one’s a counter-service restaurant, though. Not a pirate-themed juice bar.
Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream
Just so you know: If you’re a Disneyland completist and wonder what it was like to actually dine at the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant, if you Google “Disneyland Tuna Burger,” you can find a number of recipes online that will then allow you to replicate this signature item from the menu of this now-gone-for-nearly-40-years restaurant.
Me personally, given that whole everything-served-here-must-make-use-of-items-that-Van-Camp-Seafood-makes-or-sells condition, I still have to wonder just how much tuna there was in that one dessert item the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant sold. Which was the fruit tart with whipped cream.
Hercules: The Muse-ical￼
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Quick trivia question: What were the names of the three stage shows that were presented on the Disney Magic on that vessel’s maiden voyage back in July of 1998?
- “Disney Dreams”
- “Voyage of the Ghost Ship”
- And “Hercules: The Muse-ical”
It’s that last show – which is based on the hand drawn animated feature that Walt Disney Pictures released back in June of 1997 – that occupies an interesting spot in Mouse House history. Largely because Disney’s “Hercules” (the movie, not the stage show) arrived in theaters at a time when the folks who ran the animation side of the operation at Disney Studios were getting a wee bit nervous about the Company’s supposed supremacy over feature animation.
Disney Animation Success: Aladdin & The Lion King
Some three years previous (June of 1994, to be exact), no one in Hollywood had any doubts at all about who was the top dog when it came to feature animation. And that was because “The Lion King” had just arrived in theaters and was such a huge hit at the world-wide box office. $312 million in ticket sales in North America alone.
To put that in perspective: Disney’s previous biggest hit, at least when it came to hand-drawn animated features, had been “Aladdin.” Which arrived in theaters some 20 months earlier in November of 1992 and had sold $217 million worth of movie tickets domestically. So what with “The Lion King” earning basically one-and-a-half times what “Aladdin” had (Mind you, that’s just the domestic release of this movie that we’re talking about here. Overseas, “The Lion King” made $545 million. Which – compared to the $286 million that “Aladdin” made overseas back in 1992 – that’s nearly double the business) … We’re talking some very serious moola.
But then – in August of 1994 – Jeffrey Katzenberg is forced out as the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. He – in turn – joins forces with Steven Spielberg & David Geffen. And – just two months later (October of 1994) – launches DreamWorks SKG. And one of the key components of this brand-new entertainment conglomerate is an animation studio. Which is then supposed to go head-to-head to the Mouse House.
Cold Streak for Disney Animated Films
Compounding this situation is that Walt Disney Feature Animation suddenly starts to have a cold streak. Where “The Lion King” sold $312 million worth of tickets when it was released to North American theaters in the Summer of 1994, Disney’s “Pocahontas” (which is released to theaters just one year later in June of 1995) does less than half that business. $141 million in domestic ticket sales to be exact.
And then – when Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” arrives in theaters just one year after that in June of 1996 – it does 2/3rds of the business that Disney’s “Pocahontas” had done the previous year. It sells $100 million, $100 thousand worth of tickets in North America. Which – given that Disney’s animated “Hunchback” costs a reported $100 million to make … That’s a problem.
Hercules is Coming: Disney Goes All-Out to Promote New Film
So as the Summer of 1997 looms, Disney is now looking to reverse this box office trend. The Studio needs another “Lion King” -sized hit to show those guys at DreamWorks SKG who’s really the boss in Hollywood when it comes to feature animation. And the Mouse is going to use every tool that it has in its promotional tool kit to make sure that every would-be movie-goer knows that “Hercules” is on its way and it’s a big, bright, colorful, really funny animated feature just like Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Side note: Figuring that Robin Williams’ star power was one of the reasons that Disney’s “Aladdin” had zoomed to the top of the box office back in November of 1992, the Studio initially wanted to use the same sort of stunt casting to make Disney’s “Hercules” a must-see movie-going event. Which is why they originally wanted Jack Nicolson to be the voice of Hades and then hire the Spice Girls to served as the voices of the Muses.
Sadly, in both of these cases, though the Company had meetings with Nicholson and the Spice Girls’ representatives, the cost of hiring these performers to voice characters in Disney’s “Hercules” proved to be prohibitive. So that stunt casting idea was ultimately abandoned.
Hercules Mega Mall Tour
Anyway … Back to promoting “Hercules” as only Disney could … This meant – starting in February of 1997 – the Company sent out the “Hercules” Mega Mall Tour. Which – to raise awareness of the June debut of this new full-length animated feature from Walt Disney Studios – involved stops in 20 different cities around North America over five months time. Over the course of this tour, 4 million cassettes of “Zero to Hero” (The song that Alan Menken & David Zippel had written for this animated feature that – it was felt at the time – had the best chance of being the break-out single from the “Hercules” soundtrack) were handed out to mall patrons.
Hercules New York Movie Premiere
And speaking of June … To make sure that as many people as possible were made aware that Disney’s “Hercules” was opening in theaters, the Company decided to stage the world premiere of this new Ron Clements & John Musker movie in New York City. Not only that, but to present a week-long series of screening of Disney’s “Hercules” in the just-renovated New Amsterdam Theater (which would – just 5 months later, in November of 1997 – would then become home of the Company’s long-running smash hit Broadway musical version of “The Lion King”).
Hercules Electrical Parade
And – to make sure that everyone in NYC knew this was happening – Disney got special permission from then-New York City mayor Rudi Guiliani to roll the Main Street Electric Parade (which, for this one-time promotion event, was renamed the “Hercules Electrical Parade”) down 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue.
Speaking of parades … To make sure that theme park goers knew that Disney’s “Hercules” was now in theaters, a “Hercules” – themed parade rolled through four different theme parks that Summer.
- Disneyland Park in Anaheim
- Disney-MGM in Florida
- Disneyland Paris in France
- and also at Tokyo Disneyland in Japan
It was an unprecedented promotional effort on the Company’s part. More to the point, because they were absolutely certain that “Hercules” was going to turn out to be another “Aladdin” or a “Little Mermaid” (The two animated features that Ron Clements & John Musker had previously made for the Mouse House. Which had then turned into these hugely lucrative franchises for The Walt Disney Company which had gone on to have surprisingly long shelf lives) … Well, that’s Disney – even before “Hercules” had actually arrived in theaters – began making plans as to how it could then extend the shelf life of this particular IP.
Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series
One way was “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series.” Which was basically a prequel to that theatrically released animated feature. 65 episodes of “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series” were produced and then began airing on ABC in September of 1998.
Hercules: The Muse-ical on the Disney Magic
But six weeks prior to that (in late July of that same year), the Disney Magic had its maiden voyage. And Guests who sailed on this 984-foot-long, 84,000-ton vessel were treated to performances of “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” I’ve also seen this stage show referred to as “Hercules: The Muse-ical Comedy.”
There’s only one problem with this plan. This new stage show was debuting onboard the Magic some 13 months after Disney’s “Hercules” had originally arrived in theaters.
Hercules the Box-Office Disappointment
By now, everyone knew that this Ron Clements & John Musker movie had been a box office disappointment.
Only selling $99 million worth of tickets in North America – making “Hercules” the first Disney animated feature to not blow through the $100-million-at-the-domestic-box-office barrier since “The Rescuers Down Under” back in November of 1990.
Disney Cruise Musical Success: Hercules: The Muse-ical & Villains Tonight
Which – you’d think – would have doomed “Hercules: The Muse-ical” to a very short run on the Disney Cruise Line. But here’s the thing: people who voyaged on the Disney Magic (and – later – the Disney Wonder. Which got its own clone of this stage show) just loved “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” They just loved how this stage show was one part stand-up comedy act and another part well-put together musical review.
Which is when – when “Hercules: The Muse-ical” came to the end of its run (in 2005 on the Magic & then in 2008 on the Wonder) – Disney’s Entertainment Department did a very unusual thing. They crafted a sequel show of sorts, “Villains Tonight.” Which brought back the three most popular characters from “Hercules: The Muse-ical” (i.e., Hades, Lord of the Dead and his hapless minions, Pain & Panic) and then had this trio interact with some of Disney’s most famous fiends. Among them Maleficent from “Sleeping Beauty,” the Evil Queen from “Snow White,” Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” … you get the idea.
“Villains Tonight” debut on the Disney Magic in 2010 and quickly proved to be so popular that this stage show was then replicated for the Disney Dream the following year (2011). “Villains Tonight” had a healthy run on both boats, with the Disney Magic version of this show closing up shop in November of 2015 and the Disney Dream version shuttering in August of 2017.
Stage Adaptation of Hercules
But here’s the weird part: These long-running “Hercules” -inspired stage shows proved that there was actually an audience out there for a full-scale Broadway musical version of this Ron Clements & John Musker movie. Which is why – back in September of 2019 – the Public Theater (for one week only) staged … Well, kind of a trial production for a stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules.” It was presented outdoors at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with a cast of 200.
This stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” got such great reviews (in large part thanks to Roger Bart’s performance as Hades, Lord of the Dead.
Fun fact: Mr. Bart was the singing voice of young Hercules in the original animated feature. So when you hear teenaged Herc belting out “I can go the distance,” that’s actually Roger who singing. Bart’s spent the past 25 years being closely associated with this IP)
This world premiere of a stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” was so well received that a follow-up production was immediately put in the works.
Of course, then the pandemic happened. Which then slowed down the momentum for this stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” a little bit. But that follow-up production now has a venue – the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey (which is where the stage version of Disney’s “Newsies” started off life back in September 2011 and then went on to great success of Broadway). We’ve also got some production dates for that show: February 9 – March 12, 2023.
Disney’s Live-Action Hercules
What’s kind of weird about the timing of all this is – while Disney Theatrical is readying a stage version of “Hercules” – (June 2022), it was revealed that Walt Disney Studios has a live-action version of its animated “Hercules” in the works. This big budget project will be directed by Guy Ritchie (who directed that live-action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” which debuted in theaters back in May of 2019 and then went on to sell over a billion dollars worth of ticket at the worldwide box office) and produced by Joe & Anthony Russo.
That’s significant. Given that Joe & Anthony Russo are the guys who directed “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Which tells us that the action scenes in this upcoming live-action musical comedy are going to feature Marvel-level FX work. Which will make this “Hercules” remake / reboot a must-see for Marvel fans.
More Hercules Musicals on Cruise Ships?
So – long story short – “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight” proved that there was an audience out there for a stage version of this Ron Clements / John Musker movie. Which then led to the world premiere of the stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules” at NYC’s Public Theater in September of 2019. Which eventually led to a second production of this stage, which will bow at NJ’s Papermill Playhouse in just six months time.
But is it possible that Disney’s “Hercules” could eventually make its way back onto the Company’s cruise ships? It is worth noting here that – following the success of the live-action reboot of its animated “Beauty & the Beast” (That Bill Condon film was released to theaters back in March of 2017 and then went on to sell $1.2 billion worth of tickets worldwide), the Disney Cruise Line then mounted an all-new stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” that was then based on that live-action remake.
This production debuted on the Disney Dream back in November of 2017 (some eight months after the live-action “Beauty & the Beast” reboot originally debuted in theaters). So it stands to reason that – if Disney Studios’ upcoming live-action reboot of its animated “Hercules” is equally successful – this film too could eventually become fodder for a future stage show that could then be presented onboard the Disney Cruise Line.
Hades – The Lord of the Dead
One final note: Given that Hades was the break-out character in both of those Disney Cruise Line productions (i.e., “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight.” FYI: Both of these DCL shows are currently available for viewing on YouTube), it’s worth noting here is that how Hades is reportedly based on is actually one of the notorious in-jokes in Hollywood history.
You see, given that the Lord of the Dead in Disney’s “Hercules” is portrayed as this slick show business grifter (“We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy. What do you say?”), it’s worth noting here that James Woods – who voiced Hades in the original animated feature – reportedly based his performance on ousted Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Going forward here, it’ll be interesting to see how this character is portrayed in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live-action version of Disney’s “Hercules.”
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