Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
History of Epcot’s World ShowPlace & Millennium 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.”
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.
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.
Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
From Aladdin to Indy – How Did We Get an Indiana Jones Stage Show at Disneyland?
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Be sure to check out Part One: How Did We Get “Aladdin’s Oasis” at Disneyland?
The Tahitian Terrace – a Polynesian-themed restaurant which had operated in the Adventureland section of Disneyland Park for 30 years – was shut down in the Spring of 1993 to “ … make way for Prince Ali.”
“Aladdin’s Oasis” (the dinner adventure) only operated for 14 months. This show closed in August of 1994.
“Aladdin’s Oasis – The Restaurant”
Just to clarify here, though. The “Aladdin’s Oasis” show closed after a brief 14 month run. But because the Park had spent so much money building this new Adventureland restaurant (Remember it had been a rush job – going from concept to throwing open its doors in just 5 months – on Michael Eisner’s expressed orders) … That – in an effort to recover some of that money – “Aladdin’s Oasis” (in 1995) re-opened as just a restaurant in Adventureland that didn’t offer a show. People oohed & aahed at all the exquisite detail inside (the in-laid ceramic tiles in the floor. That 15 foot-tall tiger’s head that sat at the center of the stage at the front of this restaurant. FYI: This served as the Cave of Wonders in the “Aladdin’s Oasis” show).
This Adventureland restaurant was admittedly a beautiful venue. But Disneyland visitors in the mid-1990s weren’t all that adventurous. At least when it came to food. And a restaurant that served Americanized Middle Eastern fare had trouble attracting customers back then. Which is why the only-a-restaurant version of “Aladdin’s Oasis” closed in 1995.
The way theme parks operate financially … Well, Disneyland couldn’t just tear “Aladdin’s Oasis” down and start anew. They’d spent far too much money building the thing. Strictly for tax purposes, this big chunk of Adventureland real estate now had to just sit there, empty as it depreciated.
“Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine”
Disneyland would periodically try & find other uses for this space. For a time, there was a “Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine” show staged inside of this now vacant restaurant. Two Cast Members dressed as Aladdin & Jasmine would first tell the story of the “Aladdin” movie. Then – as this show’s finale – the Cave of Wonders would suddenly come roaring to life. And – in a puff of smoke – the Genie would magically appear by leaping out of this giant stone tiger’s open mouth. And then … Well, it was time for the Guests to line-up and get their picture taken with these three characters from “Aladdin.” Maybe grab an autograph or two.
But “Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine” was only presented at the Park on a seasonal basis. Only during those times of year that Disneyland was busiest. For the most part, this Adventureland eatery stood empty for the better part of a decade. Until word came from Lucasfilm in 2007 that they were about to begin production of a new “Indiana Jones” film.
Indiana Jones Back in Theaters and Promotion at Disneyland
Given that the previous “Indiana Jones” film (i.e., the third in the series, “Last Crusade”) had come out back in May of 1989 … To finally be getting a new “Indy” film after 18 years was a very big deal.
FYI: The gap between the release of the fourth film in the series (i.e, 2008’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Indy” film No. 5 (i.e., 2023’s “Dial of Destiny”) is almost as long. 15 years & change.
Given that Disneyland obviously had its “Indiana Jones Adventureland” attraction (which opened in March of 1995) … Well, they saw the upcoming release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” as a synergistic opportunity. So Disney reached out to Lucasfilm and proposed a bit of cross promotion that would involve Disneyland Park.
Just to be clear here: This was back in late 2007 / early 2008. The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm wouldn’t happen ‘til October of 2012. That’s more than 4 years off in the future.
Translation: It was Lucasfilm – with the highly anticipated movie that Disney now wanted to capitalize on — that had all of the power in this situation. NOT the Mouse. Keep that in mind as we move ahead with our story here.
“Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” – Disneyland Show
Anyway … In March of 2008, Disneyland announces that it will be holding auditions for a new show that will soon be presented in the Adventureland section of that theme park. They’re looking for performers with stage combat experience to fill the following roles:
- Indiana Jones: Male, 40’s; a rugged adventurer, great physical shape; can play drama, toss off comic lines and throw a punch all with equal ability; must interact well with children.
- An archaeologist: Female, late 20’searly 40’s; English accent; starts out kind and helpful but eventually reveals a villainous side; will interact with children and lead them through a series of activities.
- The Bad Guy: Male; imposing stature; physical agility and stamina a must; pursues Indiana Jones through the crowded streets of Adventureland, ending in a series of balcony and rooftop confrontations.
This supposedly kid-friendly attraction – which goes by the name “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” – is supposed to be alive-action adventure that will be staged several times a day all over Adventureland. The idea here is that – over the Summer of 2008 (coming right on the heels of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” In fact, this new show at Disneyland would begin presenting performances at that Park on the very same day “Indiana Jones 4” was released to theaters. Which – again – was May 22, 2008) – Disneyland Guests could join Doctor Jones and solve mysteries, battle evil villains and uncover ancient mysteries.
On paper, this three month-long cross promotion (which – because it was only going to held at Disneyland over that theme park’s Summer months – went by the title of “Indiana Jones Summer of Hidden Mysteries”) was a great idea. In their heart of hearts, the Entertainment team at Disneyland Park was hoping that the centerpiece of this three month-long seasonal event (That would be the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show. Which we’ll get to in a moment) would be such an enormous success that they’d then be able to turn this kid-friendly show into a permanent attraction at Disneyland Park.
Indiana Jones Themed “Jedi Training Academy”
Let me explain what was really going on here: Disneyland’s Entertainment team was hoping that they’d be able to turn the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show (which – given its title – was obviously going to be staged inside of the now-empty “Aladdin’s Oasis” with that 15-foot-tall version of the Cave of Wonders serving as the centerpiece of this show) into another “Jedi Training Academy” -like show.
Just so you know: The “Jedi Training Academy” started out as a kid-friendly offering at the very first “Star Wars Weekend” at Disney-MGM in February of 1997. This show was so hugely popular with the under-10 crowd that it was eventually pulled out of this seasonal event at the Parks and turned into an audience-participation experience that was then offered multiple times at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as well as out in Anaheim at Disneyland Park.
Anyway … That was the template that Disneyland’s Entertainment team was using. The Jedi Training Academy. So what they were shooting for here was a 15-minute-long audience participation experience themed around the adventures of Indiana Jones that could then be presented inside of the old “Aladdin’s Oasis” restaurant.
Again, a great idea on paper. But harder to pull off in the real world then you might think.
“The Secret of the Stone Tiger” Stage Show Premise
Why? Okay. The villain in the “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was Irina Spalko, a Soviet scientist played by Cate Blanchett.
So to keep some sort of continuity between the “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” movie and “The Secret of the Stone Tiger” stage show, it was decided that the villain of this kid-friendly audience participation show at Disneyland Park would also be a female.
Okay. So this 15-minute-long show would start out with a Doctor Rachel Flannery standing in front of the Cave of Wonders inside of the old “Aladdin’s Oasis” restaurant. Only – according to Rachel – these supposedly long-abandoned ruins were now the Bengalese temple of Sherdil, the tiger-god.
As Dr. Flannery explains, Indiana Jones had recently rediscovered this temple and gone inside. Indy was supposedly searching for the Golden Rod of Sherdil, an ancient object which is rumored to have great mystical power. But it had now been days since anyone had last seen Doctor Jones.
Anyway … Rachel recruits the help of the kids in the audience. And by using various clues scattered around “Aladdin’s Oasis,” they figure out how to re-open the now-sealed temple of Sherdil. Whereupon Indiana Jones comes stumbling out of the Stone Tiger’s mouth clutching the Golden Rod of Sherdil.
As Indy is thanking the kids in the audience for getting him out of that sealed ancient temple, he puts down the Golden Rod of Sherdil. Dr. Flannery now picks it up and seemingly suddenly gets possessed by the demonic spirit of Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War.
Just a quick reminder here: “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” is supposed to be a kid-friendly audience participation show for the under 10 set.
Indy now realizes that Doctor Flannery is holding the Golden Rod of Sherdil and is possessed by Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War. He first tries to wrestle this ancient artifacts out of her hands, but Rachel (because she’s possessed by the Hindu God of War) is super-powerful. She punches Indy a few times, so he punches her back.
Stage Show Complaints
It was at this point that the mothers of Orange County got upset. That’s a man beating up a woman in a show at Disneyland. To which the Entertainment team at that theme park said “Actually, no. That’s Indiana Jones battling with an fellow archaeologist who’s just been possessed by Kartikeya, the super-powerful Hindu God of War. Indy’s battling with a female character, just like he does in ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.’ Which just opened at a theater near you.”
That explanation didn’t matter. The mothers of Orange County were outraged. They marched en masse to Disneyland’s Guest Relations Department to lodge their complaints. Which is why – just days after the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show opened at that theme park, in an interview with the Orange County Register – Disneyland’s PR team announced that “Secret of the Stone Tiger” would now be altered. Indiana Jones would no longer throw direct punches at the woman character (Doctor Flannery) in this supposedly kid-friendly show, he would simply dodge.
And speaking of dodging … What also upset the mothers of Orange County (as well as a significant number of Disneyland Guests) was … Well, in the agreement that Disney had cut with Lucasfilm to have the Indiana Jones character appear at that theme park during “The Summer of Hidden Mysteries,” the Cast Member playing Indy was not allowed to meet with park guests in your typical meet-and-greet format. This meant that no one came away with a photo of or an autograph from their favorite archaeologist.
This meant that a lot of little kids walked away from the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show in tears. Not because Indy beat up the lady. But because Dr. Jones wouldn’t sign their autograph book.
Irony here: Remember that scene in “The Last Crusade” where Indy accidentally bumps into Adolph Hitler at a book-burning rally. And the Fuhrer then signs Doctor Henry Jones, Str’s grail diary.
So sure. Adolph Hitler gives autographs. But not Indiana Jones.
Fate of “The Secret of the Stone Tiger” and “Aladdin’s Oasis” – Disneyland “Tropical Hideaway”
This is why the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show didn’t become the next Jedi Training Academy. By the Fall of 2008, the only Indy-related things that was left in Adventureland was the “Temple of the Forbidden Eye.”
More to the point, this is why – some ten years later (after “Aladdin’s Oasis” had experienced enough depreciation that it could now be taken off of Disneyland’s books) – this long-empty Adventureland venue was torn down in early 2018 and then turned into the “Tropical Hideaway.” Which soft-opened in December of that same year.
Kind of appropriate that this new Adventureland eatery soft-opened. Because they serve several different types of Dole Whip here. Along with Bao Buns & Sticky Pork.
Full circle. Kind of back to what the Tahitian Terrace offered.
Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
How Did We Get “Aladdin’s Oasis” at Disneyland?
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Disneyland had what it thought was a solid expansion plan for the early 1990s.
- “Fantasmic!” – this theme park’s new nighttime show – would open in May of 1992.
- Then – in January of 1993 – Mickey’s Toontown (Disneyland’s first new “land” in over 20 years) would open just seven months later at the very back of the Park.
- A year after that (January of 1994), Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin would throw open its doors
- And then – 15 months after that (May of 1995) – the Indiana Jones Adventure come online at this theme park.
This plan meant that – for four years – Disneyland Park would have something new to help drive up attendance levels. Which – given that the Happiest Place on Earth relied heavily on the annual visits of millions of Southern Californian locals in order to meet its annual attendance goals – seemed like a great idea. So budgets were approved, schedules were set. Mouse House managers seemed happy.
But then Disney’s “Aladdin” opened in theaters on November 25, 1992.
Success of Disney’s Animated Film “Aladdin”
This hand-drawn animated feature quickly became the highest grossing film of the year. This Ron Clements / John Musker movie also became the very first full-length animated feature to sell over a half a billion worth of tickets worldwide.
More to the point, “Aladdin” turned out to be an attendance driver at Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Florida. When the “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” parade debuted at that theme park on December 21, 1992 (some four weeks after this film had first bowed in theaters), people lined up along Hollywood Boulevard hours in advance to claim a great viewing spot for this twice-daily presentation.
Likewise the Soundstage Restaurant at that theme park was doing turn-away business for its “Breakfast with Aladdin.” Which did not go unnoticed by the folks back in Burbank.
They turned to the team at Disneyland and said “ … have you seen what’s going on in Orlando with all of the ‘Aladdin’ stuff?” To which Disneyland managers said, “Yes, that’s nice. But have you seen our already scheduled / budgeted expansion plan for the next four years?” To which the folks back in Burbank would say “ … Mr. Eisner really wants to see some stuff in Disneyland that celebrates Aladdin.” To which the people who work in the Team Disney Anaheim building said “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
“Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” Parade
The first thing they did was order up a clone of Disney-MGM’s “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” parade. Even with a rush order, this 5 unit parade (which was supported by a cast of nearly 100 performers) didn’t begin rolling through Disneyland Park ‘til April 2, 1993. Nearly six months after this animated feature first arrived in theaters.
Interesting side note here: Because the parade route at Disneyland is so much longer than the one that runs through Disney-MGM, the Entertainment team in Anaheim decided to expand the cast of their version of the “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” parade. It featured three new sets of characters:
- peacock girls
- silk maidens
- and harem camels.
Trust me on this, people. You do NOT want to Google “Harem Camels.” This walk-around characters from the “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” parade will haunt your dreams.
Dining with Aladdin – Transforming Disneyland’s Tahitian Terrace
Which brings us to the food component of today’s story. Because Disneyland really wanted its own “Aladdin” -themed restaurant that would then do the same sort of turn-away business that Disney-MGM’s Soundstage Restaurant was doing with its super-popular “Breakfast with Aladdin” offering.
On a parallel track, the folks who ran the Tahitian Terrace at Disneyland Park (which had first opened back in 1962 and – I’m now quoting from the flyer that they used to hand Guests as they came through the turnstiles at the front of the Park – served “ … unique Polynesian specialties served in an exotic setting bordering the Rivers of the Jungle Cruise”) realized that this Walt-era restaurant really needed some TLC.
By that I mean: The waterfall curtain (This was one of the defining features of this Adventureland eatery. As Guests dined on teriyaki steak and Australian lobster tail, this waterfall curtain would suddenly part. And then performers would come out and spin fire torches or pull people up onstage & teach them to hula) was looking kind of raggedy. And the Park’s Maintenance Team had a sit-down with the Imagineers about how …
“While You’re Fixing the Jungle Cruise, can you….?”
Well, given that the Jungle Cruise was scheduled to undergo a reinvention the following year (The idea was that all of the boats in this Adventureland attaction’s fleet would then lose their signature red & white awnings and then become far grubbier, more beat-up looking. So that Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise and the soon-to-open “Temple of the Forbidden Eye” would then appear to be telling one consistent, cohesive story), the folks in charge of the Tahitian Terrace were like “ … Hey, you’re making all of those changes to the Jungle Cruise next year. While that work is going on, can we please get some guys come by and fix the waterfall curtain at our restaurant? Cause it’s looking kind of raggedy.”
To which the Imagineers replied “We’ve got an even better idea. We’re now going to gut the Tahitian Terrace and turn it into ‘Aladdin’s Oasis.’ Which will feature animatronics & elaborate special effects that happen right at the dining table in front of the Guests and a big cast of performers. And … “
To which the folks in charge of the Tahitian Terrace said “ … We just need the waterfall curtain repaired.”
How Long Did it Take to Build “Aladdin’s Oasis”?
It didn’t matter. After nearly 30 years in operation (and 40,000 performances of the show which was offered with dinner at this Adventureland eatery), Disneyland’s Tahitian Terrace closed on April 17, 1993. Only to then re-opened just three months later as Aladdin’s Oasis.
To say that this was a rush job was putting in mildly. I got to talk with some of the folks who worked construction on this project. They talked about how – on the usual Disneyland restaurant redo – there was typically a full year between when a concept was first developed and when the finished eatery then opened its doors. In the case of “Aladdin’s Oasis,” from the moment where people in Burbank initially suggested this idea to when this new Adventureland restaurant then opened was five months.
Things were moving so fast on this project … Well, they initially didn’t have any finished blueprints on site. So – to get a sense of what an Aladdin-themed restaurant might look like – one of the construction foreman went down to Main Street and purchased a copy of John Culhane’s “Disney’s Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film” with his own money. The construction team then regularly consulted Culhane’s book when it was crafting props right there onsite.
“Aladdin’s Oasis” Shows and Presentation
The plan here was that “Aladdin’s Oasis” would present eight shows a day starting at 11 a.m. (Three lunch-time performances and then five dinner-time presentations). With the final show getting underway at 10 p.m. every night.
As for the old Tahitian Terrace space with its waterfall curtain, it had been reimagined as this grand Persian Palace which has been built right at the edge of the Rivers that Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise plies. “Aladdin’s Oasis” is – for lack of a better term – a sixth century supper club. 250 people at a time would be seated & then greeted by Kazim, the owner of this now-ornate establishment. Which was now festooned with hanging brass lanterns, colorful canopies and Oriental carpets.
As Guests eyeball the menu (trying to decide if – for their entrée – they’re going to have the chicken shish kabob served with a herb yogurt sauce, the beef shish kabob with ride, or the vegetarian offering), Aladdin suddenly runs into this restaurant clutching a loaf of bread. He’s then pursued by Jafar’s henchmen. And – as these performers race up & down the aisles of this café – they then sing the “One Jump” song for the “Aladdin” film.
That moment pretty much established the style & tone of the show presented in “Aladdin’s Oasis.” It’s not a beat-for-beat recreation of the storyline of that animated feature. But – rather – kind of a greatest hits. With the idea that – whenever possible – the storyline of this sixth century supper club show would then circle back to a food-based moment.
Take – for example – when “Friend Like Me” was performed in this Adventureland eatery. Before this song got underway, Guests were encouraged to rub the magic lamp which was right in the center of their table. It would then begin to smoke. And as the song began, servers would then come out and deliver dessert. Which was a chocolate lamp filled with chocolate mousse and a berry topping.
And did I mention the Audio-Animatronic version of Iago (which Gilbert Gottfried recorded all sorts of new dialogue for?) Or how Jafar actually performed magic tricks onstage, with he & an assistant jamming swords into the top & the sides of a box that Princess Jasmine was supposedly hiding in? Or the ”Three Wishes,” which was this scantily clad trio of girls who belly-danced and often sang back-up for Aladdin & Kazim.
There’s a number of videos of the “Aladdin’s Oasis” show up on YouTube right now. So it’s easy for you to go see how elaborate & ambitious this Disneyland supper club experience once was. What’s not easy to understand is why – even though “Aladdin” was a hit movie (and would then go on – in September of 1993 – to sell millions of VHSs) – why this Adventureland eatery then closed its doors in the late Summer of 1994 (Just 14 months after it first opened).
Was “Aladdin’s Oasis” Successful?
To be blunt, everything at a Disney theme park is considered its own profit center. It has to make a certain regular return-on-investment in order to justify the ongoing cost of staffing the place. And that just wasn’t the case with “Aladdin’s Oasis.”
As it was explained to me … This Disneyland project had been so rushed (in order to make Michael Eisner happy. He reportedly insisted that “Aladdin’s Oasis” had to be up & running at Disneyland Park before the VHS version of “Aladdin” became available for purchase in September of 1993) and the Company has spent so much money getting this sixth century supper club up out of the ground … Well, the only way this place could ever recover its construction costs was if every single seat at all eight seatings every day were filled. And especially during Disneyland’s off-season (when fewer people went to the Park each day. Especially mid-week), that just wasn’t possible.
Disneyland did what it could to boost advance reservations at “Aladdin’s Oasis.” For a time, if you booked a dinner package at this Adventureland eatery, you not only got a reserved viewing spot for the “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” parade, you also got a prime viewing spot for “Fantasmic!” thrown in for free too.
After “Aladdin’s Oasis”
A few months after the very last presentation of the “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” parade rolled through Disneyland in June of 1994, “Aladdin’s Oasis” shut its doors over in Adventureland. For a time, the Park’s Entertainment team would use this space for a storytime meet-n-greet experience with Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie.
More recently, this space along the Rivers that make up Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise was gutted so that the Tropical Hideaway could then be built. This quick service restaurant opened in Adventureland back in December of 2018. Its primary appeal is that you can get a variety of flavors of Dole Whip here, plus Polynesian themed nibblies.
More Supper Club Experiences
Just so you know: The failure of “Aladdin’s Oasis” back in 1993 & 1994 exacted a price. The Imagineers had two other supper club experiences in the works back then. One that was supposed to be built at Disney’s Boardwalk and was supposed to have been Little Mermaid-themed, and another that was supposed to have been built inside of Disney-MGM as part of that theme park’s Sunset Boulevard expansion. That one was supposed to have replicated the South Seas Club from Disney’s June 1991 release, “The Rocketeer.”
Did any of you get to experience “Aladdin’s Oasis” in person? What do you remember of this short-lived dining experience at Disneyland?
Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
Get Your Hands Dirty with Disney-MGM Studios “Star of the Day” Program
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Not so long ago, we got a query from a “Disney Dish” listener about some of those concrete slabs that Guests can see over at the Theater of the Stars at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. These are the ones that feature the handprints, footprints & signatures of various celebrities. I believe the two slabs that we specifically asked about were the ones for Monty Hall & Bob Denver.
These were done back when Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) used to have a “Star of the Day” program. Which …
Well, to tell this story properly, we really have to go back to when the original Grauman’s Chinese Theater (the building that the Chinese Theater – now home to “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” – was modeled after).
Celebrity Handprints in Concrete – Grauman’s Chinese Theater Tradition
This ornate structure was built on the really-for-real Hollywood Boulevard back in the mid-1920s.
Mind you, this massive structure – which originally had seating for 2,200 people inside of one giant theater (but has since been subdivided into six smaller theaters. Which only have seating for 932 people now) – took 18 months to build. And as the story goes, Sid Grauman – the guy who originally funded the construction of Grauman’s Chinese Theater – was taking movie star Norma Talmadge on a tour of this still-under-construction massive movie palace (which cost $2 million to build. A huge sum back in the day).
Anyway … Norma isn’t really watching where she’s walking. And as she’s touring this still-active construction site, Talmadge accidentally steps in some wet cement. Sid – who was already a master showman – looked at Norma’s footprints in that wet cement and immediately saw a promotional opportunity. He leaned over and – right next to Talmadge’s footprints – used his finger to quickly scribble Norma’s name and the date.
And thus a Hollywood tradition was born. Getting your footprints and/or handprints cast in cement so that they could then be displayed in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater. Back in the day, you weren’t really considered a star in Tinsel Town until Sid extended an invitation to you to come on down and do the whole step-in-wet-cement thing with the whole Hollywood press corps looking on. Not to mention all of your adoring fans.
Celebrity Cement Prints at Disney’s Chinese Theater
Okay. So the original Chinese Theater opens in May of 1927. And the clone of this structure that Disney was building in Florida in the late 1980s.
FYI: The Imagineers used the exact same blueprints that Meyer and Holler – an architectural firm that was based in LA – originally drew up for Sid Grauman when they were building a copy of this movie palace to then serve as the central icon [the castle, if you will] of WDW’s third theme park
Well, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted the forecourt of Florida’s Chinese Theater to be just like the original in Hollywood. Which meant that the Imagineers needed to start collecting celebrities’ signatures in cement ASAP.
The first two modern day stars to be captured in cement for Disney-MGM were TV legend Carol Burnett and Cindy Williams, co-star of 1970s sit-com, “Laverne & Shirley.”
Burnett signed her cement block onsite at the still-under-construction Disney-MGM back on June 25, 1988. She was down there then to film “A Conversation with Carol.” Which was one of the very first things to be shot at Disney-MGM. This one-hour-long look back at Burnett’s career was shot inside of the just-completed Soundstage 3. The live audience that attended this taping had to hike across a muddy construction site in order to reach this soundstage. The completed show would then debut on the Disney Channel just two months later and then repeatedly air on that cable channel in the months leading up to the official opening of Disney-MGM.
Cindy Williams – on the other hand – did her cement handprint ceremony out in LA on the set of “Save the Dog.” Which was a TV movie that Cindy was shooting for Disney which would eventually air on NBC as part of that network’s “Magical World of Disney” programming block.
Shipping Cement Blocks from California to Walt Disney World
That’s the dirty little secret of the forecourt of the Chinese Theater at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Because the Imagineers needed hardened cement blocks with celebrities signatures & handprints & footprints that they could then put into place prior to the official opening of this Studio theme park on May 1, 1989 … A bunch of these were done in advance far away from Florida.
The giveaway is the date. If you see a cement block with a star’s signature that says “1988” (EX: Alan Alda’s block), that was most likely done off-site well ahead of the official opening of this theme park.
Disney-MGM Grand Opening
Mind you, for the actual grand opening of Disney-MGM (a three day-long affair that stretched from April 29th – May 1st), there were celebrities galore on hand. And the Mouse deliberately staged several events in front of the press where multiple stars pressed their hands in wet cements (at the same time, mind you) in front of the cameras.
Among the stars who did this as part of Disney-MGM official grand opening were Bette Midler & Kevin Costner. There were also representatives from Hollywood’s golden age like Mickey Rooney & Ann Miller. Former glamor girls like Lauren Bacall & Audrey Hepburn. Television pioneers like Buffalo Bob of “Howdy Doody” fame, Imogene Coca and Edie Adams. Sitcom stars from the 1960s like Rose Marie & Morey Amsterdam. Not to mention Werner Kempler (Colonel Klink from “Hogan’s Heroes”).
Entertainment legends like Bob Hope & George Burns. Top music stars like Willy Nelson & the Pointer Sisters. Disney Legends by Annette Funicello & Art Linkletter. Not to mention modern day icons like Walter Cronkite, Leonard Nimoy and Dick Van Dyke.
And Disney did their damnedest to capture all of these celebrities’ signatures & handprints & footprints in cement. Which – after they dried & hardened – were then dropped in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater at Disney-MGM.
“Star of the Day” at Disney-MGM
The week that WDW’s third theme park first opened, Disney-MGM then kicked off its “Star of the Day” program. FYI: Annette Funicello officially kicked this program off.
This is the typical schedule that Disney-MGM’s “Star of the Day” program followed (FYI: There were typically two “Stars of the Day” each week at this theme park. One would appear Monday – Thursday. Then the second star would make appearances at Disney-MGM from Friday – Sunday.
Sweet gig. Disney would fly celebrities who’d agreed to part of MGM’s “Star of the Day” program into Orlando. They put these people & their immediate families up at the Grand Flo. Given them free admission to the Parks / assign them a Plaid to make sure that they never waited in line for anything. Comped all of their meals. Their hotel room as well.
All Disney asked in return was three hours of that celebrity’s time each day that they agreed to be a part of MGM’s “Star of the Day” program. They’d be picked up at the Grand Flo each day at Noon and then travel by town car backstage to the Studio theme park. Once there, they’d have a quick hair & make-up session. Then …
“Star of the Day” Celebrity Schedule
This celebrity’s day in the Park would typically kick off at 1 p.m. with a “Star Conversation” in the Theater of the Star (This was back when that outdoor performance venue was located just off of Hollywood Boulevard next to the Brown Derby), where this performer would then answer questions that Guests in the audience of this show would ask. At 2 p.m., it was then time for this celebrity to then ride up Hollywood Boulevard while seated in an open convertible. They’d then take part in a public handprint ceremony that was staged in front of the Chinese Theater and then pose for some pictures out in front of that building.
By 2:30 p.m., this “Star of the Day” was now off the clock. The Plaid that was assigned to them would now run this celebrity back to the Grand Flo and/or take them to wherever their family was playing on property. Like I said earlier, sweet, sweet gig. Basically a free WDW vacation for you & your family in exchange for three hours of being adored by the theme park-going public. What celebrity would say “No” when offered this gig.
FYI: A lot of folks said “Yes” when offered an opportunity to take part in the “Star of the Day” program when Disney-MGM was still relatively new because they themselves were curious about the Park / wanted to check out the Company’s new state-of-the-art soundstages, etc.
We were just talking about people taking pictures of those celebrities out in front of the Chinese Theater pressing their hand into the cement … If you didn’t bring your camera to Disney-MGM and then couldn’t capture an image of this performer in action … Well, if you wanted an official 5 by 7 black & white image of that “Star of the Day,” all you had to do – when you were leaving Disney-MGM for the day – was swing into Guest Relations. They always had a stack of free pile of official images of that day’s “Star” to then give away to Guests there.
Are There Multiple Concrete Slabs with Celebrity Prints?
Yes, I’ve been told by folks who worked at Disney-MGM during the height of that theme park’s “Star of the Day” program (which was largely discontinued in the mid-1990s once Sunset Boulevard & Twilight Zone Tower Terror opened) that – yes – they’d wind up with multiple slabs of hardened concrete with that celebrity’s signature in them.
If a decision was eventually made to install that celebrity’s slab in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater at Disney-MGM, they’d actually gather those three or four cement slabs that this celebrity had signed over their stint as “Star of the Day” at that theme park and then decide which was the best looking slab with the easiest-to-read signature. Some celebrities have horrible handwriting.
If a celebrity really messed up when doing their slab as part of their public handprint ceremony, that one would then be trashed backstage. If they were all good, the multiples were then carefully catalogued and warehoused.
Concrete Slabs at the “Theater of the Stars”
This brings us to Bob Denver & Monty Hall’s cement slabs (The ones on display in the Theater of the Stars). When the decision was made to relocate this performance venue from the edge of Hollywood Boulevard over to Sunset Boulevard when WDW’s third theme park was being expanded in 1993 & 1994 … The decision was made to place the cement blocks of television legends in that space. Which is when the Imagineers went back into the warehouse, pulled out a number of the signed cement blocks that celebrities had done as part of the “Star of the Day” program that weren’t already on display in the Park and … Well, picked the performers with the strongest name recognition AND the best / clearest handwriting.
Quick note to Mr. Iger: You’ve got a warehouse full of cement blocks with celebrities’ signatures on them. Many of these folks were screen & television legends that are no longer with us. If I were Bob, I’d reach out to Van Eaton and hire them to auction some of those suckers off.
Experiencing the “Star of the Day” Program
I was there for the press opening of Disney-MGM (34+ years ago). Almost got a broken neck from my head constantly whipping around at all the celebrities who were there in the Park for this event. People like Rick Moranis & Jim Varney. Three of the four “Golden Girls” (Betty White, Rue McClanahan & Estelle Getty). Comedy legends like Steve Allen & Tony Randall. Disney Legends like Jimmy McDonald (Got all sorts of stories from him about working with Walt as part of an interview I did with him at the event. Really need to dig out that tape at some point). Likewise Charles Fleisher, the voice of Roger Rabbit (Very funny guy. Kind of crazy, though).
If you want to get a sense of who actually took part in Disney-MGM’s “Star of the Day” program (because not all of those cement blocks with celebrity signatures wound up being displayed in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater or over in the Theater of the Stars off Sunset), go to Mama Melrose. There – in the waiting area of that Muppets Courtyard restaurant – you’ll see dozens of those black & white 5 & 7 images that I was telling about. Those cards that Guest Relations used to give away of the “Stars of the Day.”
This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 426”, published on May 8, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.
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