Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
History of Reedy Creek Improvement District: Part 2
In 1966, just a few month prior to his death, Walt Disney was named “Showman for the World” by NATO (Not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But — rather — the National Association of Theater Owners).
Of course, while he was putting in an appearance at NATO’s annual convention to accept this award, Walt was asked “Why don’t you make a sequel to your studio’s biggest hit?” Which — at that time — was “Mary Poppins.” Which had been released to theaters back in August of 1964.
Walt Disney and New Worlds to Conquer
You’ve probably heard a few select quotes from Walt’s response to this question in the past. Which Disney employees have then cherry-picked to support whatever project they were working on at the time. What follows is Walt’s full response. Which may give you some idea what direction Walt Disney Productions was actually headed in just prior to Walt’s untimely passing in December of 1966:
Many people have asked, “Why don’t you make another Mary Poppins?” Well, by nature, I’m a born experimenter. To this day, I don’t believe in sequels. I can’t follow popular cycles. I have to move on to new things — there are many new worlds to conquer.
As a matter of fact, people have been asking us to make sequels ever since Mickey Mouse first became a star. We have bowed only on one occasion to the cry to repeat ourselves. Back in the ‘30’s, “The Three Little Pigs” was an enormous hit, and the cry went up “Give us more pigs.” I could not see how we could possibly top pigs with pigs. But we tried, and I doubt that any of you can name the other cartoons in which the pigs appeared.
We didn’t make the same mistake with “Snow White.” When it was a huge hit, the shout went up for more dwarfs. Top dwarfs with dwarfs? Why try?
Right now, we’re not thinking about making another “Mary Poppins.” We never will. Perhaps there will be other ventures with equal critical and financial success. But we know that we can not hit a home run with the bases loaded every time we go to the plate. We also know that the only way we can even get to First Base is by constantly going to bat and continuing to swing.
So we’re always looking for new ideas and new stories, hoping that somehow we’ll come up with a different kind of “Mary Poppins” … or even a different kind of Disneyland.
As 1967 begins, we have high hopes that some of our current projects may measure up to this exciting challenge. Perhaps it will be a motion picture like “The Happiest Millionaire.” Perhaps it will be our so-called “Disney World” in Florida. Or perhaps it will be our year-round recreation facility in the High Sierra of California, Mineral King.
“… our so-called ‘Disney World’ in Florida”
You gotta love Walt describing “Project Florida” as “ … our so-called ‘Disney World’ in Florida.” As in: Seriously? That’s the best name that you could come up with for this thing? Try again.”
But look at how Walt describes Mineral King: “ … our year-round recreation facility in the High Sierra of California.” Care to guess which one Walt was most excited about? “ … our so-called ‘Disney World’ in Florida” or “ … our year-round recreation facility in the High Sierra of California” ?
Remember the press conference which was held at the Cherry Tree Plaza Hotel in Orlando back in November of 1965. More importantly, Walt’s private meeting with 750 of Florida’s most powerful politicians and business leaders just prior to this press conference.
It was while Walt was speaking with the press & those politicians that the public got its first inkling of what the construction timetable for “Project Florida” might be. Here’s what Walt said at that time:
Based on preliminary estimates that WED had done, it would take “… at least a year and a half to design” the vacation kingdom portion of Disney World and then “ … at least another year-and-a-half to (actually) build” the thing.“
Again, that was revealed back in November of 1965. And since that time, Florida’s politicians and business leaders had been patiently waited on word as to what Walt’s “so-called ‘Disney World’ “ would entail.
But as 1966 drew to a close, word came out of California that Walt Disney Productions was finally ready to reveal what exactly they wanted to build out on those 27,443 acres that the Company acquired out in the swamps of Central Florida.
Here’s the crucial part of that announcement:
“Preliminary plans for Disney World — and a review of local legislation necessary to make the project a reality — will be revealed at a public hearing called by the Central Florida legislative delegation during the first week of February, 1967.”
Which isn’t to say that — while the Imagineers were back in Glendale, designing Disney World’s “Vacation Kingdom” — that there was no work going on on-site on those 27,443 acres.
Early Construction at Walt Disney World – Introducing General Joe Potter
There were huge pieces of heavy earth-moving equipment moving under the guidance of General Joe Potter AKA William Everett Potter. Walt had first met General Joe when he was working with Robert Moses on the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair. This is when Walt Disney learned about Potter’s work history:
- Mr. Potter has supervised the Army Corps of Engineers as they tackled a $100 million project to control the Missouri River
- General Joe followed that challenging work assignment with a 5 year stint as the governor of the Panama Canal Zone.
When Walt learned about General Joe’s work experience when it came to guiding genuinely massive water control projects to completion, Disney quietly pulled Potter aside and said “Have I go a job for you.”
So throughout 1966, General Joe and his team began wrestling with the swamps of Central Florida. With the end goal here getting this twice-the-size-of-the-Island-of-Manhattan wetland ready for construction.
Reedy Creek Drainage District and “Joe’s Ditches”
Now before Potter could begin working onsite, Disney — with the help of state & county officials in Florida — formed the Reedy Creek Drainage District (that name sounds familiar for some reason). The purpose of the Reedy Creek Drainage District was … Well, this was a legal entity that then made it possible for the Company to begin reclaiming and preparing all of the property that it had acquired on-the-sly in 1964 & 1965 for subsequent development.
Now Potter had a lot of plates to spin here as he began working on this project. First and foremost, there was the fact that headwaters of the Everglades actually start in the Orlando area and then flow on through to the Kissimmee chain of lakes. Of which Bay Lake at Walt Disney World is one of the key bodies of water within this ecosystem.
So General Joe had to make sure that — not matter what he was doing on property — water had to continue to flow on through from Bay Lake down on towards the Everglades. While — of course — trying to keep the water table at select sites around Disney World low so that they could then support construction of the Vacation Kingdom.
This meant that Walt Disney Production needed to criss-cross its 27,443 acres of land in Central Florida with miles & miles of new drainage canals. Which Walt — not entirely affectionately — began referring to as “Joe’s ditches.”
Potter oversaw the construction of the Walt Disney World Resort’s entire infrastructure. He supervised the building and operation of the underground utilities and sewer, power, and water treatment plants that were considered revolutionary at the time. Among his achievements, Potter was well-known for the development of drainage canals for the entire property, which were known affectionately as “Joe’s ditches” and kept the water table constant.
Another Disney World Joe – Admiral Joe Fowler
Admiral Joe Fowler was the WWII vet that Walt roped in back in the Summer of 1954 to help turn that orange grove in Anaheim, CA into the Happiest Place on Earth. Fowler had then stayed on with the Disney organization to help build projects-of-size.
So as not to confuse these two men:
- General Joe Potter got the swampland that Walt bought ready for the actual construction of his vacation kingdom.
- Whereas Admiral Joe Potter was the one who then went on to supervise the construction of the Magic Kingdom, the themed resort hotels, World Drive. You get the idea.
Anyway, Admiral Joe Fowler recalled in an interview in the late 1980s:
The first canal Joe Potter laid out ran straight as an arrow from Bay Lake to the south part of the property. I was with Walt when he first saw it. Walt didn’t raise his voice. The only way you could tell he was angry was when he raised his right eyebrow. He raised it and said, ‘Look, Joe. I don’t want any more of those Corps of Engineers canals.’
From then on, at much greater expense, the canals that General Joe Potter had dug on property were deliberately laid out in a meandering pattern to resemble natural rivers.
More to the point, WDW’s water control system was laid out in such a way that — when Central Florida experienced a heavy rain storm (which used to happen virtually every afternoon at around 2 o’clock) — that a system of automatic gates would then open & close. Preventing key portions of the property (the ones that had been designated as construction sites for the theme park, the golf courses and the hotels) from flooding.
Vacation Kingdom or Valuable Real Estate for Sale?
But — again — remember, officials from Walt Disney Productions kept describing those 24,773 acres of land that they’d acquired back in 1964 & 1965 as “ … a major and important real estate acquisition.” A chunk of property that had significantly increased in value since Disney had acquired this parcel.
So all of the time & money that Walt Disney Productions was plowing into the creation of all of those canals criss-crossing Central Florida’s swamps didn’t actually mean that they were really going to go forward with the construction of …
Well, here’s the language that Disney PR flacks put out in 1966 as part of the Company’s annual report:
“ … a recreation and entertainment complex whose impact on the quality of urban life will be measured for generations to come.”
More to the point:
“ … a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone who participates.”
And the whole time that Disney Officials are meeting with folks who are high up in the legislative branches of the State of Florida as they plan out all of the roads, off-ramps & interchanges that will then provide access to the more-than-6,000,000 visitors who are expected to come flooding into the Central Florida area during Disney World’s first year of operation, they’re saying things like:
“Well, Walt hasn’t completely committed yet to building Disney World. I mean, he likes Project Florida and all. But he’s also excited about that ski area the Company looking to build up in the High Sierra. And the Department of the Interior and the State of California are really eager to work with him on Mineral King. They’re already talking about funding the construction of an all-weather road that will take Guests straight to that property.”
With the very unsubtle message here being … If you want us to actually build this vacation kingdom in the swamps of Central Florida, the State and Federal Government are going to have to cover the cost of construction of all these roads, off-ramps & interchanges that will then get Guests to Disney World.
Playing Hardball with Mickey Mouse – Disney and Florida Legislature
That whole year of 1966, Disney Company representatives worked closely with state and county officials, trying to identify key legal issues that would then serve as road blacks to Project Florida. With the idea here being:
- In February of 1967, Walt Disney Productions would first present its plans for the Vacation Kingdom.
- And then — in the months that follow — the Florida Legislature would then vote on a bill (or a package of bills) that would then clear a path for this $100 million project.
Whenever the folks in Orange & Osceola County (or — for that matter — officials up in Tallahassee) would start to complain about the terms & conditions that Walt Disney Productions execs were lying out, how the supposedly family-friendly Mouse was playing hardball here, Disney officials would then drop disturbing little tidbits of information. Like:
- California Governor Ronald Reagan has already gone on record as saying he supports the Mineral King project and that he hopes construction of this “ … year-round recreation facility in the High Sierras” goes forward
- Or that the National Forest Service has just given its okay to construct an all-weather road through a previously preserved section of Sequoias. Which will now provide necessary access to the Mineral King construction.
Long story short: This was a high stakes game of poker that the State of Florida found itself. And if it actually wanted to come out on top here, have Walt Disney Productions move beyond installing just drainage canals on site at the 24,773 acres that it acquired in Central Florida in 1964 & 1965 and then build … Well, not just a theme park & some hotels. But “… a recreation and entertainment complex whose impact on the quality of urban life will be measured for generations to come.”
They had to put up.
Death of Walt Disney – Selling Off Disney?
Then — to add further pressure to the whole situation — Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966. And — for a brief window of time — everyone holds their breath as there are rumors of Roy O. Disney selling off the entire company to RCA and both Project Florida & Mineral King being cancelled.
We’ll get to that part of the story — as well as the actual Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation — in the next installment of this series.
If you missed Part 1 of The History of Reedy Creek Improvement District, be sure to take a look at our coverage of Project Florida and the Epcot film.
If you’d like to learn more about Mineral King, Daniel P. Selmi has written a book about this never-built project, “Dawn at Mineral King Valley: The Sierra Club, the Disney Company, and the Rise of Environmental Law.” This 344-page hardcover is being published by the University of Chicago Press on July 7th of this year. Amazon is currently offering it for $30, $38.50 for the Kindle version.
This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 370”, published on April 18, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products.
Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
Abraham Lincoln is Here to Stay – Walt’s Disneyland Attraction That “Can’t” Be Replaced
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Happy Presidents Day. Which is when we – as Americans – are supposed to honor the memory of two of our country’s commanders-in-chief: George Washington (born on February 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809).
Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln
Walt Disney was a life-long admirer of Honest Abe. Walt often told the tale of how – back when he was a kid – Disney fashioned a stove pipe hat & a fake beard for himself (supposedly made out of poster paper). Then – dressed in this outfit — Disney stood in front of his grade class and recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg address from memory.
Walt’s obvious affection & admiration for our 16th President continued well into his adulthood. Which explains “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” an attraction that the Imagineers originally created for the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair which was built around an Audio Animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln.
This robotic Lincoln caused such a sensation among visitors to Flushing Meadows that – even before this edition of the New York World’s Fair ended on October 15, 1965 – Walt had a second version of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” built. Which he then had installed inside of the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland Park.
Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”
This second version of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opened on July 18, 1965. But the West Coast clone of this New York World’s Fair show never quite caught on the way that the East Coast original had. Even when Disneyland began giving away a free pass to this Main Street, U.S.A. attraction with every ticket book sold to Guests, the Californian version of “Great Moments” failed to capture even a tenth of the people who visited this theme park annually.
And given that the Main Street Opera House was this 500-seat venue right up by the entrance of Walt’s family fun park, it made the Imagineers crazy that this beautifully appointed / centrally located theater would only have a handful of people inside at most performances of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Which is why – after Walt passed away in December of 1966 – WDI began quietly casting around for show ideas that they could possibly use as replacements for the seriously under-performing “Great Moments.”
Walt Disney Replaces “Great Moments”
Ironically, it was Walt himself who provided the solution to Anaheim’s “Great Moments” problem. As part of Walt Disney Productions’ 50th anniversary celebration, the Imagineers mounted “The Walt Disney Story” inside of the Main Street Opera House. This exhibit (which featured a lobby filled with the awards that Walt had won over his lifetime as well as a film which then looked back at Disney’s career) necessitated the closing of Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Which did NOT sit well with the good folks of Orange County. This corner of Southern California is known nationwide as a conservative stronghold. Which is why – when these folks learned that the April 8, 1973 opening of “The Walt Disney Story” at Disneyland meant that that theme park’s robotic version of Honest Abe would now go into storage – these people began bombarding the Mouse House with angry phone calls & letters.
“The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”
Which is why — less than two years into the run of “The Walt Disney Story” at Disneyland Park – the Company caved. The Main Street Opera House closed its doors on February 12, 1975 and began yet another revamping. Some four months later, this 500-seat venue re-opened with what can politely be described as something of a camel of an attraction: “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
The way that this retooled version of this Main Street, U.S.A. attraction worked was … Well, the lobby area of the Main Street Opera House now celebrated the life & career of Walt Disney. Whereas once Guest entered the actual theater portion of Disneyland’s opera house … This was where the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show from the 1964 – 1964 New York World’s Fair was now framed in such a way that this AA-based attraction was supposed to be seen as one of Walt’s greatest achievements. This technological triumph that then paid tribute to our 16th president.
This creative compromise may have addressed many of the concerns that Southern Californian conservatives had (not to mention quelling a lot of the complaints that had been coming out of Orange County). But it also frustrated Disneyland managers as well as the Imagineers.
“And why was that?,” you ask. Because the revised “Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” hadn’t solved the Main Street Opera House’s attendance problem. This nearly-10-year-old attraction was now even less popular with Disneyland visitors. Fewer than 1-in-20 Guests now bothered to check out this show during their day at the Park.
Bringing “Hall of Presidents” to Disneyland
What especially made the Imagineers crazy about Mr. Lincoln’s return to the Main Street Opera House is that this development then derailed their plans to bring Disney World’s “Hall of Presidents” to Anaheim.
How many of you remember the “Disneyland Presents a Preview of Coming Attractions” display that used to be on Main Street, U.S.A.? This collection of models & concept art was housed inside of that theme park’s old Wurlitzer Music Hall building. And from 1973 to 1989, Guests could drop by here for free and then check out some of the rides, shows & attractions that the Imagineers were considering for construction in Anaheim.
And among those ideas was a West Coast version of WDW’s “Hall of Presidents.” Which – if all had gone according to plan – was to have opened at Disneyland Park just in time for the Summer of 1976 (i.e., America’s bicentennial).
But what with the good folks of Orange County insisting on “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” ‘s return to the Main Street Opera House ASAP back in 1973, that idea was now off the table. Which is why – instead of a West Coast version of WDW’s “Hall of Presidents” – Disneyland got another patriotic, Audio Animatronic-filled show out ahead of America’s bicentennial. And that located-in-Tomorrowland attraction was “America Sings,” which opened at Disneyland Park on June 29, 1974.
Meanwhile, attendance levels for the “Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show continued to erode (Now fewer than 1-in-50 visitors bothered to swing by the Main Street Opera House to check out that show during their day in the Park). The Imagineers tried to use cutting edge-tech as a reason to lure people back to this under-attended attraction. Which is why — in 1984 — they installed an all-new Lincoln in this theater that (at that time, anyway) was the most sophisticated Animatronic figure ever built for a Disney park. It didn’t matter. People still stayed away.
“MuppetVision 3D” to Replace “Great Moments” at Disneyland
Which brings us to the Summer of 1990. Prior to his tragic passing on May 16th of that year, Jim Henson had completed production of “MuppetVision 3D.” Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to honor his friend’s memory by having “MuppetVision 3D” open at Disney theme parks on both coasts in the Spring of 1991.
Down in Florida, “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” would be shown inside of a purpose-built theater at Disney-MGM Studios. Whereas the West Coast version of this attraction … Well, by now, attendance levels for “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” had fallen straight through the floor. Only 1-out-of-a-100 Guests ever bothered to drop by the Main Street Opera house. And even with that new cutting-edge Lincoln AA figure (which made use of the very same tech that powered the Wicked Witch of the West AA figure in “The Great Movie Ride” at Disney-MGM Studios theme park) on display, this seriously-under-attended show often experienced walk-outs.
Which is why the Imagineers now wanted to install “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” in the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland. Given that the theater that the Imagineers were building in Florida was to have 564 seats and the one that already existed in Anaheim had 500 seats … These two venues for “MuppetVision 3D” basically had the same hourly capacity.
So the plan was that “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was to quietly close after the Labor Day Weekend in 1990. Then the Imagineers would retool the Main Street Opera House both inside & out so that it would then be a suitable venue for the Muppets. The Imagineers were already inside of this Main Street, U.S.A. taking measurements for this proposed redo when these plans then went off the rails.
Abe Lincoln to Stay
You see – on August 19, 1990 – news broke about this upcoming redo of the Main Street Opera House. Both the Orange County Register & the Los Angeles Times ran stories about this proposed show swap. And while Disneyland spokesman Bob tried to put things in the best possible light, insisting that this Disneyland theater would soon receive a floor-to-ceiling refurbishment, that this venue would look better than it had in years, Orange County conservatives would have none of this. In a large way, it was 1973 all over again. They quickly flooded the Company’s switchboards with thousands of angry phone calls.
And within one week’s time, the Los Angeles Times actually ran an article with this headline:
Will Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” Ever Get Replaced?
And since then … Well, while the Imagineers still periodically make an attempt at sprucing up Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show (How many of you remember that god-awful binaural sound version of this attraction which debuted in Anaheim back in July of 2001? That version — which featured a 3D haircut as well as Honest Abe seeming to bend over & whisper into Guests’ ears – earned the comical nickname, “Creepy Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” It was quietly shuttered in February of 2005) … Nowadays, the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show at Disneyland Park is considered untouchable.
Whenever the Imagineers have tried in the past to put a different show in this space at that theme park, Orange County conservatives have risen up in force. And as a direct result, the Main Street Opera is one of the most under-utilized facilities at Disneyland Park. Last I heard, the average attendance for a presentation of this Audio Animatronic show is 30 people.
But on the other hand, if you’re looking for something to do at Disneyland and you happen to be headed there on Presidents Day Weekend … Well, there’s one place at that theme park where I can guarantee you that you won’t encounter a line.
Film & Movies
Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland
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This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.
John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.
Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.
Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”
What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.
Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?
It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.
Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths
So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.
So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.
Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.
Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive
Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.
Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression
What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.
Lightning Lane – Raising Prices
Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).
And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.
Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.
“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects
Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”
That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.
Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays
Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:
So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.
Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.
Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:
So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:
Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel
Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?
What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.
It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”
Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel
And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.
And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).
Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel
That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.
- Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
- Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain
Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.
This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.
Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings
It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.
All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.
It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.
Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.
Walley World Shooting Locations
And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.
The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).
Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Film & Movies
“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland
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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.
Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.
Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film
Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.
Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …
Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.
But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”
And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.
It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.
The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real
By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.
It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance
Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically). Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland
The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).
There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.
And those words supposedly were “Build this.”
It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.
So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.
Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.
There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.
This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.
How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”
Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.
In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.
Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America
Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).
If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.
The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.
While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.
As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.
This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:
“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland
It wasn’t that easy.
The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”
Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”
Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”
Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”
Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.
So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.
And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.
The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland
This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, 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
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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