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History of Epcot’s World ShowPlace & Millennium Celebration

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Epcot Millenium Celebration
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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.”

Yeah. Right.

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 …

Epcot 2.0

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” ? )

Credit: Disney

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.

Spaceship Earth (2000)
Credit: TouringPlans.com

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).

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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.

Imagineer Terry Dobson with Innoventions
Imagineer Terry Dobson
Credit: apu.edu

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.”

Disneyland Innoventions

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.

“Millennium Village”

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.

Millennium Village

Sweeden

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.”

Jerusalem

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.

Credit: Eric Hersey

“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.

Credit: Disney

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.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 386/387”, published on August 8 & 15, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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

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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 …

… photographed on the island of Tobago in the West Indies and that it is shaping up into such an exciting and thrilling picture that the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ shows every promise of equaling or surpassing every production our Company has ever put out.

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.

Adventureland Upgrades

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.

Drained Jungle Cruise – Credit: imgur.com

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:

“Here. This is where I want you guys to build Disneyland’s version of the Swiss Family Treehouse.”

“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.

Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse Construction (1962) – Credit: thedisneyblog.com

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, Halley (As in Halley 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, Halley & 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

Disney Legend Ken Annakin – Credit: D23

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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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

The Road to Cars Land – Part One

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It’s the early 2000s. Things are starting to get spikey between Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs in regards to Pixar Animation Studios.

These two titans of industry are trying to hammer out a third extension of that animation studio’s production & distribution deal with the Mouse House. Their original three picture deal had been signed back in March of 1991, and then – following the enormous success of “Toy Story” in November of 1995 – was then been renegotiated & turned into a 5-picture co-production deal in February of 1997.

As far as Steve Jobs was concerned, Pixar was now within inches of meeting its contractual obligation to Disney. Which meant that was now time for these two studios to hammer out a new deal. One that would be far more lucrative for Pixar. After all, the folks up in Emeryville (They’d only just moved from Pixar’s original studio set-up in Port Richmond over to Emeryville in 2000) had already delivered six films for Disney to distribute:

  • “Toy Story” (1995)
  • “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
  • “Toy Story 2” (1999)
  • “Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • “Finding Nemo” (2003)
  • “The Incredibles” (2004)

“Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” Don’t Count – Pixar’s Original Film Obligation to Disney

Not so fast, says Disney’s lawyers. “Toy Story” was produced outside of that 5 picture co-production deal that was signed back in February in 1997. So it then couldn’t be counted as one of the five films that Pixar was contractually obligated to deliver to Disney.

More to the point, because “Toy Story 2” was a sequel to the original “Toy Story” movie from 1995 (and was originally supposed to be a Disney Home Premiere, rather than a theatrical release. Disney only decided that “Toy Story 2” would be released to theaters a year or so out from completion of that production. Which caused an awful lot of angst up in Emeryville) … Well, that film also couldn’t be counted towards those 5 co-productions that Pixar was now contractually obligated to deliver to Disney.

Which made Steve Jobs furious.

Credit: Gitlab

Steve Jobs had every right to be angry – given how many movie tickets had been sold to “Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” (the first film in this series earned $244 million at the worldwide box office. While the second film in this series effectively doubled the first “Toy Story” ‘s box office take, pulling in $487 million at the worldwide box office), it just made Jobs crazy that a film franchise which had already pull in three quarters of a billion dollars at the worldwide box office didn’t count towards Pixar’s 5 picture co-production deal. Never mind the hundreds of millions of merchandising-related dollars that Disney had also pulled in from the sales of “Toy Story” -related toys.

Anyway … As far as Disney was concerned, factoring in the whole the-first-“Toy-Story”-doesn’t-count-towards-that-five-picture-deal-because-it-was-produced-before-this-co-production-deal-was-signed and “Toy-Story-2”-doesn’t-count-towards-that-five-picture-co-production-deal-either-because-it’s-a-sequel-to-the-original-“Toy-Story” thing … Well, Disney’s lawyers insisted that – to date – Pixar had only delivered four of the five movies it was under contract to deliver to the Mouse House.

  • “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
  • “Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • “Finding Nemo” (2003)
  • “The Incredibles” (2004)

Early Talks of “Toy Story 3” – Will It Count ?!

Now where this gets interesting is that – in the middle of this negotiation in the early 2000s – Pixar actually approached Disney with an idea for “Toy Story 3.” Which they then wanted to produce as the fifth and final film Pixar was contractually obligated to deliver to Disney as part of that co-production deal they’d signed with the Mouse House back in February of 1997.

Now remember that the first two “Toy Story” movies had already earned three quarters of a billion at the worldwide box office. So it was a gimme that a third “Toy Story” film would sell lots & lots of movie tickets as well. Not to mention all of the fees that Disney would collect from toy manufacturers for those officially licensed “Toy Story” toys.

And – just in case you’re wondering – Disney wasn’t wrong. When “Toy Story 3” was finally released to theaters in June of 2010, it would go on to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office all by itself. Never mind about all of the officially licensed toy money.

But here’s the thing: Pixar will only make “Toy Story 3” IF Disney agrees that this sequel then counts as the fifth and final film that this Emeryville-based operation is still under contract to deliver to the Mouse House. And Michael Eisner – when he hears about this – digs in his heels and says “You know that’s not the deal. Sequels don’t count towards your 5-picture contractual obligation to us. If you opt to produce ‘Toy Story 3,’ you’re still going to need to deliver another movie to Disney after that in order to honor the terms of that contract.”

Which makes Jobs furious. Here he was offering Disney yet another sequel to “Toy Story” that – as I mentioned earlier – would eventually go on to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office … And here was Michael Eisner saying “Nope. That doesn’t count towards completion of our 5-picture co-production deal. You’re still going to owe us another movie after you deliver ‘Toy Story 3.’ “

Which is when Jobs decides to play hardball. He says “Okay then. No ‘Toy Story 3.’ “

To which Eisner responds “Okay then. No ‘Toy Story 3.’ Let’s make that cars movie instead.”

“The Yellow Car” – Origin Story to “Cars”

Which now brings us to “Cars.” Or – as this proposed animated feature was known back then (when work first began on the development of this Pixar project back in 1998) – “The Yellow Car.” Now – given what’s going on in California right now (You did see where that State is looking to ban the sales of new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by 2035?) – the original storyline that Pixar had put together for “The Yellow Car” was kind of interesting. It dealt with a tiny little electric car – which had just arrived from overseas – trying to make a new life for itself in the American southwest. Where it was then surrounded by all of these gas-guzzling 4-wheelers and long-haul trucks.

Credit: Pixar Room

That storyline might have had a chance today. But back in the late 1990s / early 2000s, the story notes that Disney kept sending Pixar were more along the lines of “Is there any way we can change that scrappy immigrant into … Say, a young race car who’s on the cusp of his first big professional win?”

And that note reportedly came from Michael Eisner himself. Who – even though he had said “No” to Pixar making “Toy Story 3” because of that whole contractual-obligation thing – still thought that he had a huge winner for Disney in “Cars.” And that was because – back in the late 1960s – Michael had had a front row seat when Mattel’s Hot Wheels first arrived on the scene.

Michael Eisner & Hot Wheels

You gotta remember that Michael Eisner started out in television. To be specific, he had two brief stints at NBC & CBS in the mid-1960s before he then got hired ABC. Where – in 1968 — Eisner was named that network’s director of program development for the East Coast. Which meant that Michael was then largely responsible for what aired on ABC on Saturday morning.

And around this very same time (May of 1968), Mattel introduced Hot Wheels. Which was this new toy line of scale model cars. The first 16 Hot Wheels hit the market that year and were supported by this massive television advertising campaign (with the bulk of that commercial time which was supposed to support the launch of this new toy line — of course — being purchased on shows that would air on Saturday mornings. Which is when kids would be guaranteed to be watching TV).

So taking into account where Michael Eisner was working at that time, he was obviously keenly aware of what an enormous success the “Hot Wheels” toy line had been for Mattel. So – some 35 years later – when Pixar effectively told Eisner “You can’t have ‘Toy Story 3.’ You’ll now have to settle for ‘The Yellow Car’ instead,” Michael’s response was “Okay. Disney will temporarily shut down its ‘Toy Story’ gold mine and now go and open a ‘Cars’ -themed platinum mine instead.”

Now please note that I used the word “temporarily” there. That was because Disney’s lawyers believed that they owned the Pixar-produced characters from the original agreement.

Pixar Breaks Away from Disney – Disney Creates Circle 7 Studios

In January of 2004 – Steve Jobs announced that he was breaking off negotiations with The Walt Disney Company and upon delivery of “Cars” – which would be released to theaters in June of 2006 – Pixar was finally free & clear of its obligations to the Mouse House. Which is why they now open negotiations with other studios in Hollywood seeking a new production / distribution partner.

Once Pixar formally broke off negotiations with Disney, The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be starting Circle 7 Studios (named for the street that this brand-new animation studio was located on. Which is Circle 7 Drive in Glendale, CA. Which is where KABC, the Los Angeles-based ABC affiliate is located. “And what is the KABC logo?,” you ask. A 7 – for Channel 7 – with a circle around it)

… And at Circle 7 Studios, Disney intended to produce its own sequels to “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Because – under the terms of those production & distribution deals, later co-production deals that Pixar had signed with Disney back in 1991 and then 1997 respectively – the Mouse felt that they owned this Pixar-produced characters & storylines outright and could then do whatever they wanted with them.

That whole Circle 7 Studios was a nightmare for the folks at Pixar. Though – it’s worth noting here – the people at Disney who did work on those “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” sequels did do some decent work.

Original “Toy Story 3” Plot

The storyline for Disney’s version of “Toy Story 3” (which had Buzz Lightyear getting recalled to the factory that originally made him in Japan, and then the Andy’s Room gang shipping themselves via FedEx to that very same factory in an effort to save Buzz from being dismantled) had its charms.

“Monsters, Inc.” Sequel – “Lost in Scaradice”

I’d argue that the storyline for Disney’s version of “Monsters, Inc.” (which was to have been entitled “Lost in Scaradice”) would have made for a far better film than the one that Pixar themselves produced in June of 2013. Which was “Monsters University.”

But we’re not here to talk about “Lost in Scaradice.” We’re here to talk about “Cars.”

“Cars” – Michael Eisner’s Decision Creates Billions with New Franchise

“Cars” finally got released to theaters in June of 2006 and then went on earn $461 million at the worldwide box office.

Which – admittedly – wasn’t the over-a-billion that “Toy Story 3” would earn at the worldwide box office just four years later in June of 2010. But then when you factor in the $11 BILLION in sales of officially licensed “Cars” toys (And that was just in the first two years after “Cars” was released to theaters) … Well, like I said earlier, Disney had just temporarily traded its “Toy Story” -themed gold mine for a “Cars” -themed platinum mine.

Important to stress here: Michael Eisner’s “Hot Wheels” -related hunch proved to be correct. Him deciding to make Pixar produce “Cars” rather than opting to greenlight production of Toy Story 3” created a whole new, extremely lucrative franchise for The Walt Disney Company. Which is paying off even today.

For example, Over on Disney+ the very day that this Bandcamp Exclusive show went live (September 8, 2022), a brand new original animated series – “Cars on the Road” – starring Mater & Lightning McQueen debuts. Nine episode detailing what happens on a road trip when Lightning & Mater drive back East to attend Mater’s sister’s wedding. Can’t wait to see what Mater’s sister looks like.

Bob Iger Helps Disney Reclaim Pixar

Eisner doesn’t often get credit for the success of cars. But that’s largely because Michael Eisner is no longer the CEO of The Walt Disney Company. He stepped down in September of 2005. Now Bob Iger is called the shots at the Mouse House. And he’s determined to do whatever he has to in order to repair the Company’s working relationship with Pixar. Up to & including buying that animation studio in January of 2006 for $7.4 billion and then making Steve Jobs the Company’s largest individual shareholder. For a time, Steve owned 7% of that Company.

And when you lay out that kind of cash … Well, of course, you’re looking for a quick return on your investment. Which is Iger then turned to the Imagineers and said “I want a lot of Pixar-related stuff in the Disney Parks as quickly as possible.”

“Cars” Attractions in Disney Parks

And the Imagineers took the orders they were getting from Disney’s new CEO very seriously. Which is why – a year to the day after “Cars” first opened in theaters (June 9, 2006) – Cars Race Rally opened at Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris (on June 9, 2007).

Cars Race Rally at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris

Mind you, Cars Race Rally wasn’t the most elaborate or ambitious attraction to ever be installed at a Disney theme park. Located in the Toon Studios section of Walt Disney Studios Park, this flat ride was a reimagining of Zamperla’s Demolition Derby. Only in this case, this ride’s vehicles that have been rethemed to look as though they were part of the ”Cars” universe.

Credit: Flickr/Ramella

Radiator Springs Announcement for Disney California Adventure

But just four months after Cars Race Rally would open at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris (on October 17, 2007, to be exact), The Walt Disney Company announced its $1.1 billion redo of Disney California Adventure. This 5-year-long project be capped off by the creation of a 12-acre area that would basically recreate Radiator Springs in all its glory at the very center of this theme park. Which – it was hoped – would then give Southern Californians a compelling new reason to go visit the Disneyland Resort’s second gate.

Mind you, the irony here is – if you look back at the original plans for Disney’s California Adventure (back when this theme park was first announced back in July of 1996), Disneyland’s second gate was supposed to have had an area that celebrated California Car Culture. A place that would have allowed DCA visitors to experience firsthand street racing or the joy of cruising along Route 66 or just the fun of sitting in a classic car from the 1950s outside of a neon-laden drive-in restaurant. Where you could then have had your fast food order brought right to your vehicle by a car hop who was wearing roller skates.

Credit: Inside The Magic

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? So how did we go from an area at DCA that was supposed to have celebrated California’s car culture to a land that then recreated Radiator Springs from Pixar’s original “Cars” movie? We’ll get to that on the second installment of this new Bandcamp Exclusive series, “The Road to Cars Land.”

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History

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.

Not the Newsletter Obi Wan is Looking For
If you know of the newsletter we are looking for leave a comment below.

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.

Credit: Deadline

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.”

Credit: Orlando Sentinel

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.

Credit: WDWMagic

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.

Credit: WDWMagic

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.


This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 390”, published on September 5, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.


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