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Toy Story Midway Mania: From DisneyQuest to Mickey Mouse Rides

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DisneyQuest

Toy Story Midway Mania starts in Orlando. To be specific, on the West Side of Downtown Disney. Which is where the first DisneyQuest opens on June 19, 1998.

For those of you who never got to experience a DisneyQuest, this was an indoor interactive theme park. 5 stories tall with a 100,000 square feet of space inside. Disney’s Regional Entertainment division built the first one in Orlando so that they could fine tune this concept before the Company went worldwide with DisneyQuest. At one point, there was a plan to build 30 of these indoor interactive theme parks around the globe.

Managed to cram a surprising variety of rides, shows & attractions into this 5 story-tall structure. There were things like:

The Virtual Jungle Cruise

Where Guests would climb into a real inflatable raft (which was on a motion base) and then — using a real paddle — they would face a screen where footage of a CG version of a prehistoric river would be projected on.

The storyline here keyed off of Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movies. Wayne Szalinski has invented a time machine. But he gets swept away in the current. And the only way we get to return to the present is if we now head downriver & rescue Wayne while avoiding any dinosaurs we encounter en route.

CyberSpace Mountain

As they waited to board this two person, pitch-and-roll simulator, Guests could actually design the roller coaster that they wanted to experience. Bill Nye the Science Guy — who was starring in a Disney-produced television series back in the mid-to-late 1990s — served as the host of this attraction.

Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride

Guest would first take a seat of a motion-based rig. They’d then get a helmet with a head-mounted display placed on the front of their face. They’d then take off on a magic carpet ride through Agrabah, the mythical Middle Eastern Kingdom seen in Disney’s 1992 hit, “Aladdin.” Your mission — as you zoomed along narrow streets and/or flew past minarets — was to collect enough gems to that you could then rescue the Genie. Who was once again trapped in the Cave of Wonders.

You get the idea, right? Disney stories, characters & attractions that the Guests already love but now powered by cutting edge tech.

And the beauty part was — as part of its ambitious DisneyQuest initiative — the Company’s Regional Entertainment division actually embraced a video arcade aesthetic. Meaning that they knew going in that — in order to keep Guests coming back — the assortment of rides, shows & attractions that DisneyQuest offered would have to be dynamic. There’d have to be something new of size for people to see and/or experience the next time they visit this indoor theme park.

This is why — even though “Hercules in the Underworld” had been an opening day attraction at the Orlando version of DisneyQuest, just two years after this interactive game came online along with the rest of the Downtown Disney version of DisneyQuest, “Hercules in the Underworld” was shuttered to make way for an brand-new interactive experience. And that was “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold

Credit: Flickr Steven Miller

This 5 minute-long experience was really the gold standard for interactive technology back in 2000. Five Guests at a time entered this space where they were enveloped by this 270 degree screen. There were five different stations, four where Guests stood behind cannons with pull string mechanisms and then a centrally located ship’s wheel (This is where the captain stood). And once everyone was issued a pair of 3D glasses, the adventure began.

Your goal here was to sail your pirate ship out into the harbor and then — by using your on-board cannon to barrage the other vessels & sea creatures you encountered — collect as much pirate booty & ammunition as you could. Which your pirate ship would then need as you moved into the final phase of this ride experience. Where you then did battle with Jolly Roger and his ship full of ghostly skeletons.

Now what was truly cool about “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold” was that all five players stood on a motion-based platform that then moved in response to whichever way the captain turned the ship’s wheel. So if he or she suddenly turned your pirate ship starboard, the Guests manning the cannons would suddenly find themselves leaning to the right. The same thing happened when the Captain course corrected to the left. The cannon crew suddenly found themselves swaying to the port side.

Credit: Flickr Steven Miller

Better yet, the images that were projected on that 270 degree screen synced up in real time with the way the captain spun the ship’s wheel. And if all of those cannonballs you fired at another ship were to then cause that pirate ship’s armory to explode … Well, on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneers Gold,” you’d not only hear that explosion in high fidelity surround sound, you’d also briefly feel the heat of the flames. Not to mention get a quick whiff of smoke from that fire.

This was truly cutting-edge tech for the time. And other people working in themed entertainment back in the early 2000s recognized that. Which is why — at the 8th annual THEA Awards (THEA stands for the Themed Entertainment Association) — “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold” was recognized by WDI’s peers / given an award for outstanding achievement.

The irony here is — while “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold” is being singled out for praise by themed entertainment professionals — by 2001, DisneyQuest itself (as a chain of indoor theme parks, I mean) is circling the bowl.

Death of DisneyQuest

A 90,000 square foot version of DisneyQuest opened in Chicago on June 16, 1999. It shuttered on September 4, 2001 after being open for business for just two years & three months. Did well on weekends. Stood empty most weekdays.

Disney Regional Entertainment broke ground on an 80,000 square foot version of DisneyQuest in Philadelphia in February of 1999. But after a cellar hole is dug for this five story structure was dug in the Spring of that same year, work slows down on site as Disney Corporate begins to lose confidence in its indoor theme park concept. Philly locals begin to refer to the now-abandoned worksite as the Disney Hole.

It isn’t ‘til July of 2001 that The Walt Disney Company officially pulls the plug on DisneyQuest (Though the Orlando version of this indoor theme park would stay in business for another 16 years. This West Side fixture would remain open ‘til July 2, 2017. Whereupon this 100,000 square foot structure was gutted to make way for the NBA Experience. Which somehow managed to be even less successful / popular than DisneyQuest was).

Why did the Downtown Disney version of DisneyQuest stay opened?

The Downtown Disney version of DisneyQuest stayed operational for over 19 years for two reasons:

  • There was enough rainy days in Orlando where Guests — after they’d been chased out of the Disney Parks by showers — needed someplace to go that the Downtown Disney version of DisneyQuest did steady if less-than-spectacular business.
  • The Company never invested another dime in developing new attractions for DisneyQuest after “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold” was installed.

Problems at the Walt Disney Company in 2001

Now you have to remember that 2001 was a year when The Walt Disney Company was dealing with a lot of problems. Especially when it came to the theme park & resorts side of things. In February of that same year, Disney’s California Adventure opened at the Disneyland Resort and almost immediately underwhelmed theme park fans. Then seven months after that came 9/11 … And — for at least six months or so — attendance levels at Disney Parks worldwide plummeted because people were afraid to get on airplanes for a while there.

The pressure was on do something — anything, really — to turn DCA around. The initial perception of that theme park is that it lacked kid appeal. Which is why “A Bug’s Land” got fast-tracked. That one-and-a-third-acre “land” opened for business on October 7, 2002.

Which helped. A little. However, over the Paradise Pier portion of this theme park, with the exception of King Triton’s Carousel of the Sea … Well, that side of DCA had no characters. And relatively low overall hourly ride capacity.

Idea for a Dark Ride in California Adventure

Credit: Flickr SLWorking2

The thinking was that this side of California Adventure needed a dark ride. Something built around a popular Disney character to draw people to this side of that theme park.

Now the problem with DCA — at least at this point — was that The Walt Disney Company had initially spent $1.1 billion on the expansion of the Disneyland Resort. And for that amount of money, they’d gotten:

  • The Grand Californian Resort & Spa
  • The Disneyland Esplanade
  • The Downtown Disney shopping & dining district
  • The Mickey & Friends Parking Structure (with spots for 10,000 cars)

And all of that stuff was working just the way it was supposed. That portion of the Disneyland Resort expansion plan was working great. It was only DCA itself that was proving to be a disappointment.

Given the $1.1 billion that the Company had already outlaid (And given the sudden shrink in theme park revenue that came on the heels of 9/11) — Mouse House managers initially held on real tight to those purse strings and only begrudgingly released funds to try & fix California Adventure.

Which is when the Imagineers — as they were putting together proposals for a dark ride to possible add to Paradise Pier’s meager assortment of rides, shows & attractions — went into this project looking for ways to economize. Creative short cuts that would then allow them to deliver a popular character-based ride at a bargain basement development cost.

It was about this time at someone at WDI brought up the cannons that were used in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold.” Seaside amusement parks always had shooting galleries. What if they were to take those cannons with their pull string firing mechanism and somehow attached those to a ride vehicle that passed through a space filled with targets?

The folks at the Disneyland Resort said … Well, yeah. That does sounds like fun. But aren’t we already building a ride like that over in Tomorrowland? The “Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters” attraction? Which is supposed to open in March of 2005 and then be one of the spotlighted aspects of Disneyland Park’s 50th anniversary celebration

The Imagineers response was “Well, the ride-thru shooting gallery we have in the work for DCA’s Paradise Pier area will be different.

  • It won’t be a clone of a pre-existing Disney World attraction (“Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” opened at WDW’s Magic Kingdom some 7 years earlier. November of 1998, to be exact).
  • Our ride-thru shooting gallery won’t have ray guns with triggers. Ours will be completely different. We’ll have cannons with pull strings. CANNONS.
  • More importantly, our ride will be built around the Company’s biggest star: Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse Themed Attraction in Disneyland

The Imagineers — as they were getting ready to enhance Paradise Pier (now Pixar Pier) back in October of 2007, they were looking to add a ride-thru shooting gallery to that portion of Disney California Adventure that would have been built around Mickey Mouse.

You have to remember that — since Disneyland first opened back in July of 1955 — the general public have been clamoring for some sort of ride, show & attraction built around Mickey Mouse.

Where’s Mickey? – Disneyland’s Introduction to Mickey Mouse Walk-around Character

Well, if we’re being completely honest here, it wasn’t until the Fall of that same year that Disneyland began to have a Mickey Mouse problem. Starting on October 3, 1955, “The Mickey Mouse Club” began airing on ABC five days a week, Monday through Friday. This was initially a hour-long program (“The Mickey Mouse Club” wasn’t cut back ‘til the half hour-long length we know today ‘til the start of its third season on ABC. Which began on September 30, 1957).

By the Fall of 1955, Guests were arriving at Disneyland Park and asking the Cast Members who worked there “Where’s Mickey?” And you have to understand that — back then — Disneyland didn’t have a Mickey Mouse costume to put a Cast Member in. In that “Dateline Disneyland’ special that aired on ABC back in July of that same year (You know? That 90 minute-long TV special which showed Mickey, Minnie & the gang parading down Main Street, U.S.A. as part of that live broadcast?), the costumes that had appeared on camera had been borrowed from Ice Capades. Which was this touring ice skating show produced by John H. Harris.

Disney Themed Ice Capades

Back in 1949, the Ice Capades had entered into a multi-year agreement with Walt Disney Productions. The idea here was — with each new production of the Ice Capades (Harris sent a new version of this touring ice show out on the road annually) — there’d be a lengthy segment in each new show that was Disney themed.

This started out in the 1950 edition of Ice Capades. Which included a “Walt Disney Toy Shop” sequence. Where performers dressed as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pinocchio, Dumbo & Pluto (Those last two characters were turned into two person costumes. With one skater up front manipulating the front legs of this suit and another skater to the back moving the back legs of this character costume) would perform as part of that year’s show.

This idea began to evolve with each new edition of the Ice Capades. By the Ice Capades of 1952, this 20 minute-long Disney-themed segment now celebrated a single film. In this case, it was “Cinderella,” which had been released to theaters in March of 1950.

Getting back to Disneyland’s Mickey Mouse problem now. Walt had been able to call John H. Harris back in the Summer of 1955 and borrow all of Ice Capades Disney character costumes for that live TV special which would air on ABC. But by the Fall of that same year, this just wasn’t an option anymore. That year’s edition of the Ice Capades was back on the road at that point. And that touring ice show needed all of these Disney character costumes for its nightly performances.

Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island or Mickey & Minnie Mouse Island

Money was still tight at this time (Remember that — during the late Summer of 1955 — Southern California had experienced record high temperatures. And as a direct result, attendance levels at Disneyland Park in late August / early September had temporarily fallen through the floor). So Walt didn’t have a lot of available capital to work with when it came to appeasing all of those “Mickey Mouse Club” fans who were showing up in Anaheim and then demanding an audience with Mickey.

One idea that was floated at that time was to take the then-still-under-construction Tom Sawyer Island (which wouldn’t open to the public ‘til June 16, 1956) into Mickey & Minnie Mouse Island.

This idea actually dated back to the April 1954 description of Disneyland Park that Nat Winecoff (who was the original General Manager & Vice President of Disneyland, Inc) … Anyway, at Walt’s insistence, Nate wrote this 12-page document which went land by land through this yet-to-be-built family fun park. 

The following description can be found on Page 11 of “The Disneyland Story.” And what I’m reading here is a direct quote from what Mr. Winecoff wrote back on April 20, 1954.

Credit: Craphound.com/Disneyland_Prospectus.pdf

… Old Paddle Wheel River Boat. This boat will be 90 feet long and will carry approximately 125 passengers. Here you can take a trip on the Rivers of America. And as you start up the river, you will see a point of interest on the embankment of each bend. One setting could be Mount Vernon, another New Orleans or Natches or a cotton plantation with Uncle Remus…singing. 

This will be a river boat ride to be remembered as not only will you have an enjoyable trip but it will also be historically correct.

You will notice an island in the river. This will be the Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse Island, the headquarters for all members of the Mickey and Minnie Mouse Club, an international organization. 

When a member arrives at Disneyland, they must find their way to the tree house that will be established on the island. The only way to get there is through an old Tom Sawyer tunnel under the river which will bring them into the trunk of the tree. After they have registered, they can then look through the limbs of the tree. These limbs are telescopes & periscopes and can see all over Disneyland.

Nat Winecoff – The Disneyland Story

Just want to stress here that it was Nat Winecoff who wrote this description. Not Walt. And Nat died ‘way back in January of 1983. So — at this point — it’s hard to get any additional info about that “ … a cotton plantation with Uncle Remus…singing” section of this description.

Also want to stress here that the plans of Disneyland were very dynamic back in 1954. How do I know this? Well, let me now share a similar section from the official Disneyland Prospectus. Which also features a description of the Old Paddle Wheel River Boat ride.

Mind you, this version of a description of that Frontierland attraction was written on September 3, 1954. Some four and a half months after the version that Nate Winecoff wrote. Listen carefully for the key differences.

At the end of Frontier Land, you will find Paul Bunyan’s longest little bar with the tallest glass of root beer. At this point, you can walk over to the Pier and get on the 105 foot Paddle Wheel River Boat, which can carry approximately 300 passengers. This will be a trip that will be well remembered, as you will be taking a ride on the Rivers of America. You will be able to identify the river you are on by the historical point of interest which will be on the embankment, in scale. As you leave FrontierLand, you may see Mount Vernon on the first bend of the river. The next one could be New Orleans, Natchez, Mobile, or any other place of interest that is well known as a historical river landmark.

Nate Winecoff – official Disneyland Prospectus

In four & a half months’ time, the length of the Mark Twain riverboat was changed from 90 feet to 105 feet. This Frontierland attraction’s ride capacity jumped from 125 passengers per trip to 300 passengers per trip. And all mention of seeing a cotton plantation along the banks of the Rivers of America from which Uncle Remus could be heard singing.

You’ll also note that any mention of Mickey & Minnie Mouse Island was also removed. I’m told that this idea stayed on the books ‘til the Fall of 1955. At that point, after a few months of operating Disneyland Park, Walt realized … 

Well, in order to build that secret Tom Sawyer tunnel under the Rivers of America which would then allow Mickey Mouse Club members to secretly enter that tree house … Construction of that admittedly cool sounding feature would have then involved first draining the Rivers of America, then digging the actual tunnel under the riverbed, and finally doing weeks of tests to guarantee that this new underground passageway over to Mickey & Minnie Mouse Island had a water-tight seal. 

And at a time where Disneyland Park was struggling with its hourly ride capacity, taking the Mark Twain Riverboat offline for months at a time (Back in 1955 — had the second highest ride capacity at Disneyland Park, 1500 Guests per hour) wasn’t an option.

Paul Bunyan and Land of Legend at Disneyland

Me personally, I wish that they’d gone ahead with the construction of Paul Bunyan’s longest little bar. But in a way, they did. How many of you remember the Mile Long Bar? There was one at Walt Disney World at the exit of “The Country Bear Jamboree” which operated from October of 1971 through January of 1998. And there was one at Disneyland Park, which operated in the Bear Country section of that theme park from March of 1972 through 2002 (That one got renamed the B’rer Bar in 1989).

The mirror illusion that made the Mile Long Bar work had originally been developed for Paul Bunyan’s biggest little bar back in 1954. Took two decades. But no good idea ever dies at WDI.

Credit: Yesterland

This area was to be known as the “Land of Legend.” Which was supposed to celebrate American folklore. Now I bring this up because … Well, one of the featured attractions of this new land at Disneyland Park was supposed to be the Paul Bunyan Buffeteria. With the idea here being that every meal that this restaurant served would have over-sized portions. 

So the Paul Bunyan Buffeteria would serve up enormous orders of pancakes & omelettes that families could then spilt between them because the chefs there were used to cooking for Paul and didn’t know how to make anything small.

I bring up the oversized food thing because … Well, Pym’s Test Kitchen opened at the Avengers Campus in Anaheim. And the whole creative concept that drives this now hugely popular new Disney California Adventure eatery dates back to Paul Bunyan’s Buffeteria. Which — again — was supposed to be part of the “Land of Legends,” an expansion of Disneyland Park that was proposed back in 1973 that was supposed to celebrate American folklore.

No good idea ever really dies at WDI. It just sometimes takes decades for the right IP to appear.

But back in the Fall of 1955, Walt didn’t have decades to placate those rabid Mickey Mouse Club fans. They wanted face time with their favorite mouse right then & there.

So what did Walt do? And how does that eventually get us to Toy Story Midway Mania?

Mickey Mouse Character Costume

Credit: Disney Dan

In the mid-to-late 1950s, Walt was trying to find a way to address the popularity of “The Mickey Mouse Club” TV show, especially at Disneyland Park. Turning Tom Sawyer Island at that theme park into the worldwide headquarters of that program was briefly considered. But since that project would have involved draining the Rivers of America for months at a time … That didn’t move forward.

Walt’s priorities then shifted to getting a walk-around character costume of Mickey built (since borrowing the one that Disneyland had previously used from the Ice Capades wasn’t really an option).

Getting a workable version of these walk-around character costumes took a number of years to get right. A lot of trial & error was involved. Finding that sweet spot where you had a costume that was a good likeness of that character while — at the same time — was comfortable for the Cast Member to wear / had good sightlines for safety was tough.

Walt assigned John Hench to this project. John, in turn, roped in Disney Studio Costume Department. Who were used to making things that would look good in front of a camera, rather than be practical for a teenager to wear as they worked a shift at a hot Southern Californian theme park.

As I said, the first set of costumes that John & the Disney Studio Costume Department produced for Disneyland Park were extraordinarily heavy and awkward. Take — for example — the earliest set of costumes that were created for the Three Little Pigs. They were made out of rebar and weighed more than 70 pounds each. The Cast Members who were playing the Pigs in the Park would develop severe back & neck aches after just a few minutes out onstage.

Walt quickly realized that John needed help on this project. So he roped in veteran Disney animator Bill Justice to bring some other ideas to the table when it came to character costumes for the Park.

Justice recalled — in his 1992 memoir, “Justice for Disney” — that … 

“ … Walt once told me that  ‘Other places can have thrill rides and bands and trains. But we have our characters.’ “

Disney went on to say …

“Bill, always remember we don’t want to torture the people who are wearing these character costumes. Keep in mind that the Cast Members inside of these things have to be as comfortable as possible. So always try to use the lightest weight materials when building these things and make sure that these character costumes have as much ventilation as possible.

With Walt, his first concern was always the safety & comfort of his Disneyland Cast Members. His second concern was the look of each individual costume. Making sure that the character likeness was as accurate as possible.”

It took nearly six years to get the balance of elements just right. But by the Summer of 1961, Disneyland Park finally had its very own dedicated set of 37 character costumes (They were three of each character created. With the idea that — while one was being cleaned and the other was in for repairs — there’d always be at least one version of that character costume available for a Cast Member to pull in. So that Disney character could then be out in the Park interacting with Guests and/or marching down Main Street, U.S.A. in one of Disneyland’s parades).

Walt had put so much time, effort & money into the creation of this set of character costumes for Disneyland at that point that he insisted that their arrival at his family fun park be promoted as if it were a brand-new ride, show or attraction. Which is why — during the Summer of 1961 — ads were purchased in all of  the major Los Angeles newspapers & magazines which read: 

We’re waiting to meet you at Disneyland

New fun in ’61. 37 of your favorite Disney characters in person. The Happiest Show on Earth has new nighttime adventures, too. Dancing every evening. “Fantasy in the Sky” fireworks nightly.

Why Doesn’t Mickey have his own ride at Disneyland?

While people were excited to now see Mickey daily at Disneyland Park in his walk-around character costume, what Walt now began to hear from Guests is:

Mr. Toad has his own ride. As does Dumbo. And Snow White. And Peter Pan. So why doesn’t Mickey have his own ride at Disneyland?

So Walt began to give this idea some thought. And — by September of 1962 — he did have a workable concept for a Mickey Mouse-themed attraction. Which he then told Canadian journalist Fletcher Markle about.

What Walt wanted to do was take the Mickey Mouse short, “Orphan’s Benefit” (The Studio had made a black & white version of this cartoon, which had been released to theaters in August of 1934. Seven years later, they revisited this story and created an all-new version of the “Orphan’s Benefit.” Only this time in color).

Orphan’s Benefit – Mickey Mouse Attraction

What Walt wanted to build at Disneyland Park was a cartoonish take on an old vaudeville house. Visitors to his family fun park would be seated in this theater’s orchestra section. While up in the mezzanine & balcony in that theater there were supposed to be all sort of Disney characters that we recognized from the Studio’s shorts, feature films & TV shows.

As the show got underway, animatronic versions of Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Clara Cluck & Horace Horsecollar would appear onstage and do brief musical numbers or perform magic tricks. And as each number ended, all of those cartoon characters up in the mezzanine & balcony would cheer, applaud or boo.

Sounds like a fun idea, right? The problem was … Audio-Animatronics was basically still in its infancy in the Fall of 1962. We were still nine months out from “The Enchanted Tiki Room” opening in June of 1963. And it’d be another 10 months after that before “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” “Magic Skyway,” “it’s a small world” and “Progressland” would open at the 1964 – 1965 New York World Fair in April of that year.

And what Walt wanted to do with this “Orphan’s Benefit” -inspired show — with dozen of robotic Disney characters onstage performing tricks & songs, with a hundred or more other robotic characters up in the balcony and seated in the mezzanine responding to what was going on stage — this was WDI’s equivalent of sending a man to the moon. They’d have to make all sorts of technological breakthroughs before a theme park show like this was even possible.

And then Walt died in December of 1966. And the folks that were left behind — longtime Disney execs like Card Walker & Dick Irvine — they wanted to honor Walt’s legacy. Continue on with the ideas that he’d left behind. But — at the same time — Card & Dick had to be practical.

The Mickey Mouse Revue at Walt Disney World

Credit: RetroWDW

So — as the “Orphan’s Benefit” show idea moved through WED’s development process — the idea of having the balcony & mezzanine levels of that old vaudeville theater filled with robotic Disney characters fell by the wayside. In its place rose “The Mickey Mouse Revue.” Which had Mickey as the maestro of this animatronic orchestra. One where King Louie from Disney’s “The Jungle Book” played tympany while the title character from Disney’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” played Kazoo. 

And as all of these animatronic versions of well-known Disney characters played down in the pit, up onstage, the stars of some of the Studio’s better-known short subjects & feature films (i.e., “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “The Three Little Pigs”) appeared in brief musical numbers.

Mind you, this Audio Animatronic extravaganza was put into development at the same time as another ambitious theme park show. Which was “The Hall of Presidents.” But here’s the thing: When you’re putting together a show about a bunch of stuffy old white guys … Audio-Animatronics (especially the version of animatronics that Disney was using back in the late 1960s / early 1970s. Which was capable of very limited movement) was almost the perfect medium for “The Hall of Presidents.” Largely because stuffy old white guys are only capable of limited movement. Trust me, I know. Given that I myself am a stuffy old white guy …

Whereas if you’re looking to recreate cartoon characters who — in Disney’s feature films & shorts — can do squash & stretch, are capable of great feats of athleticism as they sing & dance … Audio-animatronics is the exact wrong medium. 

This is why — when the Magic Kingdom at the WDW Resort opened in October of 1971 — “The Hall of Presidents” was immediately hailed as this technological marvel. Whereas “The Mickey Mouse Revue” was described as … Well, slight. Cute. A fun show you should catch once.

Which is why — less than 9 years into its run at the Fantasyland theater, “The Mickey Mouse Revue” closed on September 14, 1980. This animatronic show was then packed up & shipped off to Japan. Where it then became an opening day attraction at Tokyo Disneyland (which opened to the public in April of 1983).

Where’s the Mickey Ride?

Credit: ocregister.com

Mind you, this didn’t stop people who were going to the Disney theme park from asking “Where’s the Mickey ride?”

And — this time around — the Imagineers actually heard what the Guests were saying. They didn’t want a sit-down show for the Parks that featured Mickey Mouse. They wanted a ride.

So — for much of the 1970s & 1980s — concepts for various Mickey Mouse-based rides were drawn up.

Mickey’s Madhouse

Which was to have been a tribute to the black & white Mickey Mouse shorts that the Studio produced back in the 1930s. This proposed attraction was kind of a mix of a dark ride & an old-fashioned carnival funhouse.

Circus Disney

Where Mickey was supposed to have been the ringmaster of a three ring circus featuring dozens of your favorite Disney characters. This ambitious Audio-Animatronic extravaganza was to have something along the size & scale of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.

Mickey’s Movieland

This was a ride-thru attraction that Disney Legend Ward Kimball designed for the Disney-MGM Studio theme park that would have taken Guests through the film-making process.

Mickey’s PhilharMagic

Along the way there, we got things like “Mickey’s PhilharMagic” (which first opened at WDW’s Magic Kingdom in October of 2003. With clones of this 3D movie that eventually opened at Hong Kong Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland & Disney California Adventure Park). But let’s be honest here. While Mickey’s name is part of the title for “PhilharMagic,” this is really Donald Duck’s show. You only see Mickey briefly at the beginning & the end of this 12 minute-long film.

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios back in March of last year with great acclaim. Only to then close some 10 days later after the pandemic forced the Company to shutter the entire WDW Resort for a number of months in 2021.

Mickey’s Midway Mania – The Initial Plans for Toy Story Midway Mania

What’s kind of interesting about “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” is that the Imagineer who rode herd on this project — the recently retired Kevin Rafferty — had spent a good chunk of the early 2000s working on an entirely different version of a Mickey-themed ride-thru attraction. One that was supposed to have taken those pull-string cannons that Guests used when they were visiting DisneyQuest in Orlando & Chicago and then played that indoor theme park’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold” and then married that technology to a ride-thru shooting gallery.

That attraction had a name — “Mickey’s Midway Mania.” Management had signed off on the idea of this attraction being built as part of an expansion of the Paradise Pier area at Disney’s California Adventure theme park. A budget & construction timetable was in the works for this project when then — in January of 2006 — The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be acquiring Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion.

So how did we go from a ride-thru shooting gallery that was to star Mickey & his cartoon pals to one that was built around Woody & the toys from Andy’s bedroom?

After nearly 50 years of planning, the Disneyland Resort was finally going to get an attraction that was themed around Mickey Mouse.

As veteran Imagineer Kevin Rafferty recalled in his 2019 memoir, “Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career,” they even had a name for this proposed attraction: Mickey’s Midway Mania!

There was only one teeny tiny problem: Rafferty (who was the writer & director of this proposed addition to Paradise Pier) and Robert Coltrin (who was the concept designer on this ride-thru shooting gallery) really weren’t comfortable shoehorning this particular set of Disney character into this specific setting.

Here. I’ll let Kevin himself explain. The initial idea — going into this project — was that:

… Mickey and the gang would work the game booths. But that didn’t last long because it was difficult for us to land on an easy-to-get story hook. It just didn’t feel right to have our most classic of classic characters operating midway games.

Just to be clear here: Imagineering is often an inexact science. Take — for example — what happened on May 5, 2005. The day that Disneyland Park had kicked off its 50th anniversary.

Kevin & Robert were at the Happiest Place on Earth enjoying the festivities. And among the attractions they sampled that day was the just-opened “Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster.” Mind you, it had taken nearly seven years for Anaheim to finally get a clone of this hugely popular Disney World ride-thru shooting gallery (“Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” officially opened at the Magic Kingdom back in November of 1998). And Rafferty & Coltrin were suitably impressed that the “Astro Blaster” team at WDI had crammed so many show scenes into the old Rocket Rods queue space.

But here’s the thing: Disneyland Park didn’t need a new ride at that time. And DCA desperately did. But the way things worked at WDI at the time was …

  • The year previous (In fact, it was one year to the day: May 4, 2004), California Adventure had gotten a clone of Disney Hollywood Studios’ “Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.” The Company had ponyed up $100 million for the construction of that thrill ride.
  • 2005 was going to be the year that Disneyland was going to celebrate its 50th anniversary. As a direct result, all eyes would be on Anaheim that year. So the obvious expectation here was that Disneyland Park would have some sort of new ride, show or attraction for Guests to experience when they returned to the Happiest Place on Earth to then take part in this year-long party.

Toy Story Attraction Clone

Tokyo Disneyland had already expressed an interest in getting its own clone of “Space Ranger Spin.” (The Japanese version of “Astro Blaster” opened to the pubic on April 15, 2004). And the then-still-under-construction Hong Kong Disneyland would have an “Astro Blaster” in its Tomorrowland section when that theme park opened in September of 2005.

  • So the thinking at WDI back then was … Well, hell. We’re already planning on making clones of “Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” for Tokyo & Hong Kong. Disneyland Park needs a new ride for its 50th anniversary. Why don’t we just crank out a third clone of “Buzz” while we’re at it and then throw this ride-thru shooting gallery into that still-empty section of Tomorrowland (Rocket Rods had closed suddenly in September of 2000 for what was originally supposed to have been an eight-month-long rehab. In April of 2001, it was announced that this high speed thrill ride was closed permanently).

So from a cost efficiency / time management / marketing & promotion point-of-view, it did make sense that Disneyland Park got a clone for “Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” for May of 2005. Because — after all — DCA had gotten a clone of “Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” for May of 2004. And from an operational point-of-view, you always want to keep that sense of balance going. Especially when it comes to Disney’s Southern California parks.

The thinking here is that first one park gets a new land or attraction-of-size, and then the other park gets something similar: Case in point, “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” opened at Disneyland Park in May of 2019. And if COVID hadn’t tripped up WDI’s carefully crafted plans, the Anaheim version of Avengers Campus was originally supposed to have opened on July 18, 2020.

But — again — the problem here (at least as far as Kevin & Robert was concerned) was that a ride-thru shooting gallery didn’t belong in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. This attraction belonged over at DCA. To be specific in the Paradise Pier area of that theme park. Which was an area that actually paid tribute to California’s seaside amusement parks. And thus would have been the perfect place to build a shooting gallery-based attraction.

But — again — that didn’t happen because the money in 2005 was slated to go to Disneyland. Because that theme park would be celebrating its 50th anniversary that year. It needed a new attraction as part of this celebration. Hong Kong & Tokyo were already slated to get clones of “Space Ranger Spin.” So Presto! “Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster” wound up being built in Tomorrowland at Disneyland Park, rather than over at DCA as part of Paradise Pier. Where this attraction would have actually fit that area’s theme.

Like I said, it’s kind of an inexact science.

Another Ride-Thru Shooting Gallery – Getting Toy Story Midway Mania in DCA

So — as an outsider — you’d think … Well, they just opened a ride-thru shooting gallery attraction over at Disneyland Park. So you’d then have to wait … What? At least a few years — maybe as long as a decade — before you then proposed building a similar sort of attraction over at DCA, right? Because you never want to repeat yourself, right?

Kevin & Robert were like “Screw that noise.” People clearly like this ride-thru shooting gallery. “Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster” was hugely popular right out of the box with Disneyland visitors. So let’s just build the same thing — only different — over at DCA.

There is actually precedent for this. When Disneyland’s Autopia first opened in July of 1955, it was initially so popular with the small fry that — in an effort to address demand / shorten the length of those lines — Walt ordered the Imagineers to build two more Autopias inside of the berm.

  • First came the Junior Autopia, which opened on April 5, 1956 and then stayed in operation for over two years. It was built where the Mickey Mouse Club Circus tent had been erected.
  • Then came the Midget Autopia. Which opened on April 23, 1957 and was built where the entrance to Disneyland’s “it’s a small world” is currently located. That drive-thru attraction — was tailored for very small children — closed on April 3, 1966. Walt then had those cars sent to Marceline where they were installed in a public park as Disney’s personal gift to the kids who lived in his childhood hometown. That version of this attraction ran for another 11 years.
  • Disneyland’s Junior Autopia closed in September of 1958 for a reimagining. When that attraction re-opened on January 1, 1959, it was now known as the Fantasyland Autopia.
  • Finally, in September of 1999, the Tomorrowland & Fantasyland version of the Autopia were both closed. Those two lengths of track were then merged into one super-sized version of Disneyland’s Autopia. Which then opened to the public on June 29, 2000.

As far as Kevin & Robert were concerned — if Walt did it back in the 1950s (built additional Autopias to help meet Guest demand at Disneyland) — then it was okay for them to proposing building a second ride-thru shooting gallery over at DCA. Because the lines for “Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster” over at Disneyland Park were crazy.

But — again — there was that problem of it didn’t entirely make sense (at least from a story-driven point-of-view) to have the most classic of Disney’s classic characters hosting midway games. There was no Mickey Mouse short — or Donald or Goofy short, for that matter — that showed these characters either visiting a carnival and/or working in a carnival setting.

To make it easier to bring these character into Paradise Pier, Rafferty & Coltrin proposed taking that giant Sun-shaped face off of that 150-foot-tall wheel at the age of Paradise Bay and replacing that Sun face with an equally big pie-eyed Mickey from the 1930s.

Disney Acquires Pixar – More Pixar Attractions at Disney Theme Parks

Credit: Flickr Loren Javier

But then — in January of 2006 — The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be acquiring Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion. And word came down from on high to WDI that Bob Iger (i.e., the newly installed head of The Walt Disney Company. Bob had been the Big Cheese at the Mouse for only four months at this point. Anyway … )

Word came down from on high that Bob really, really, REALLY wanted to see some Pixar-themed attractions get put in the pipeline for the Parks.

And here are Rafferty & Coltrin still trying to put a square peg (Mickey & friends) in a round hole (have these classic Disney characters host a ride-thru shooting gallery attraction in which they’re now supposedly working at a carnival in the midway games section). And Kevin & Robert pause for a moment and think “Well, would this ride concept work better with some Pixar characters instead of Mickey & friends?”

More Toy Story Characters – Green-lighting Toy Story Midway Mania

I mean, they couldn’t use the “Toy Story” characters … Could they? After all, “Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster” had just opened up eight months earlier over at Disneyland Park. And Buzz was one of the lead characters from “Toy Story.” WDI management would never allow them to create yet another ride-thru shooting gallery based on the exact same IP … Would they?

Rafferty said that — in the 30 years that he had worked at WDI — he had never seen a ride concept move so quickly through the approval process. Just six weeks after they drew up some concept art for this proposed attraction (which was now known as “Toy Story Midway Mania”) and then wrote their pitch. Which was this:

“Traditional midway games that you can ride through, hosted by the Toy Story characters.”

Building Toy Story Midway Mania at Disneyland and Walt Disney World

This project was not only greenlit, but Disney management wanted two versions of this attraction built. One for Disney California Adventure Park and another for Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Now keep in mind that — again — Disney bought Pixar in January of 2006. Rafferty & Coltrin began pitching their “Toy Story Midway Mania” concept in the Spring of that same year. And by the Summer of 2006, this project — which called for the construction of two $80 million attractions on opposite sides of the continent — was a “Go.”

Which is why — on August 19th of that year — the East Coast version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — Play It!” suddenly closed. So that all of the sets & seats for this recreation of ABC’s once-hugely-popular game show could then be cleared out of Soundstage 3.

On the West Coast … Well, the Imagineers originally toyed with the idea of pulling down the Mailboomer and then building the show building for DCA’s version of “Toy Story Midway Mania!” there. But it was quickly determined that that site had too small a footprint for the ride-thru shooting gallery ride that WDI now wanted to build at that theme park.

Which is when Robert Coltrin proposed a unique solution: What if the Imagineers were to build the show building for the West Coast version of “Toy Story Midway Mania!” under that theme park’s California Screamin’ roller coaster? After some onsite survey work was done, it was determined that — yeah — Robert’s idea would work. All they’d need to do is remove three of the booths for Paradise Pier’s carnival midway games and one steel support beam for California Screamin.

This project was officially announced at a press conference which was held at Walt Disney World on December 15, 2006. Barely 11 months after Disney bought Pixar.

Differences Between Toy Story Midway Mania in Walt Disney World and Disneyland

Want to stress here that — while the interiors of these two ride-thru shooting gallery attraction were basically supposed to be identical — the exteriors of the West Coast & East Coast versions of the “Toy Story Midway Mania” show buildings were two very different animals.

The DCA version had to fit in with Paradise Pier’s pre-established design esthetic (i.e., which was “a tribute to Southern California’s amusement piers of the 1920s & 1930s). So that show building was deliberately designed to look like a turn-of-the-century seaside structure that would then fit right in with this area’s carnival-like atmosphere.

Whereas the Disney’s Hollywood Studios version of “Toy Story Midway Mania” … Well, since this theme park celebrated movie making, John Lasseter got the idea that the East Coast version of this ride-thru shooting gallery should be located in an entirely new “land” at that theme park: Pixar Place. Which would then ape the look of the actual Pixar Animation Studio campus in Emeryville, CA. Right down to the color of the bricks that would be used to decorate the exterior walls of Soundstage 3.

Toy Story Midway Mania Character CG Animation and Guest Shrinking

While work was already well underway on these two huge show buildings, WDI was working with the folks at Pixar on the CG version of the Pixar characters that would appear inside of this attraction. Believe it or not, this was the very first time that Woody, Buzz, Bo & Jessie had ever been done in 3D animation. So there was a lot of trial & error involved here when it came to get the look of these Pixar characters just right.

One particular concern was making sure that the cast of “Toy Story” didn’t get too big. Remember, the creative conceit of this ride-thru shooting gallery attraction is that we’ve been shrunk down to the size of toys. And we’ve now been invited under Andy’s bed, which is where Hamm, Rex and the Little Green Space Aliens have set up a variety of carnival games.

During the playtesting phase of this attraction at WDI headquarters in Glendale, CA, the Imagineers played very close to how people reacted to the full-sized animated versions of Buzz, Woody, Bo & Jessie. They found that — if they made these “Toy Story” characters any taller than 5 foot, six — they then got kind of scary.

Mr. Potato Head Audio Animatronic in Toy Story Midway Mania

Credit: Flickr Dennis D

That’s why the Audio Animatronic version of Mr. Potato Head (who plays the carnival barker for this ride-thru shooting gallery. He’s outside for the DCA version and inside for the Florida version) is only 5 feet tall. But to make sure that the folks in the back of the queue can see him, Mr. Potato Head is positioned on top of a three foot tall pedestal.

The Imagineers really wanted this AA figure to be able to interact with the Guests as they moved through the “Toy Story Midway Mania” queue. Which is why they had Don Rickles come to WDI headquarters and record upwards of 30 – 35 hours worth of dialogue.

Don was in his early 80s at the time. But Kevin Rafferty and Roger Gould (he’s Pixar’s creative liaison to WDI) have very fond memories of those long, long hours in the booth with Rickles. He recorded every bit of dialogue without complaint. Only occasionally (largely because this is what people expected of Don when they met him) would he put on his insult comic hat. Gould recalls that Don once told him that he was “ … like the son I never wanted.”

Don Rickles: Voice of Mr. Potato Head

Don Rickles actually got to be the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” movies. In the early 1990s, John Lasseter personally drove out to Malibu to try & pitch Rickles on this role. He even bought a plastic Mr. Potato Head doll as a gift for Don.

Anyway … Lasseter walks to the front door of the Rickles’ Point Dume home. Don personally answers the door after John rings. Lasseter goes to hand Rickles the Mr. Potato Head doll. And — of course — its little plastic hat falls off, as they always do. Don bends over to pick up that hat. And as he does, Lasseter looks down and realizes that Rickle’s head looks exactly like a potato. It’s the perfect potato shape. So it’s fate that Don was up for this part.

I don’t think Lasseter told Rickles that his head was potato-shaped until after he actually signed his “Toy Story” contract.

Sadly, we lost Rickles in April of 2017 at the age of 90.

Which — given that “Toy Story 4” didn’t arrive in theaters ‘til two years & two months later (June 21, 2019 to be exact) should have meant that we wouldn’t hear Don voicing Mr. Potato Head in that Pixar Animation film. But because WDI had all 30 – 35 hours worth of recordings that that Rickles did for the carnival barker version of Mr. Potato Head that appears in “Toy Story Midway Mania,” the sound team at Pixar was able to repurpose some of that dialogue. Which is why the Mr. Potato Head that you hear in “Toy Story 4” is the real deal. Authentic Don Rickles.

Mind you, it took hours & hours & hours of work to do this. But — in the end — it was a worthy tribute to a comedy legend.

How Much Did It Cost to Build Toy Story Midway Mania

Credit: MickeyJman06

Bob Iger was so pleased with the work that was being done on the “Toy Story Midway Mania” project (which — again — cost $80 million each to build. The full cost of both the East Coast & the West Coast versions of this ride-thru shooting gallery attraction — if you include the exterior work & area improvements — reportedly came in just north of $200 million)

By the Summer of 2007, Bob Iger was so pleased with the way the “Toy Story Midway Mania” project was shaping up that he then decided to roll the dice on DCA. Which is why — on October 17th of that same year — Iger announced that Disneyland’s second gate would soon undergo a 5-year-long, $1.1 billion makeover. With the first component of this DCA redo being … You guessed it. “Toy Story Midway Mania!”

When did Toy Story Midway Mania Open?

The Disney’s Hollywood Studios version of “Toy Story Midway Mania” opened on May 31, 2008.

The California Adventure version of “Toy Story Midway Mania” opened some three weeks later on June 17th of that same year.

These ride-thru shooting galleries were such a huge hit that the Oriental Land Company reached out and insisted that they get one for the Tokyo Disney Resort as well. That one opened at Tokyo DisneySea some four years later. On July 9, 2012 to be exact.

Disney-MGM Rebranding Tied to Toy Story Midway Mania

Disney World’s third theme park was known as Disney-MGM until January 6, 2008. The very next day, this theme park was renamed / rebranded as Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And a big part of that theme park’s renaming / rebranding effort was tied to “Toy Story Midway Mania.” Cast Members at the WDW Resort were actively coached to say — when Guests asked:

Q: Where is that new Toy Story ride? Which park do I have to go to? The Magic Kingdom? Epcot? MGM?

A: No. You want to go to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Buzz Lightyear wasn’t there in person for the opening of the Disney’s Hollywood Studios version of “Toy Story Midway Mania.” That’s because — that morning (May 31, 2008) — an action figure version of this “Toy Story” character had been launched into space aboard the Space Shuttle. Kind of cool publicity stunt.

Expanding Toy Story Midway Mania

Now remember how we’d just been talking about how Walt — in the late 1950s — in response to the popularity of the Tomorrowland Autopia built two more Autopias inside of Disneyland Park.

Well, the Walt Disney World version of “Toy Story Midway Mania” started off hugely popular and then just got busier from there. And then — in hindsight — the combination of all that brick & the hot Florida sun may have been a mistake. Especially given the number of people who’d queue up outside in that very tight space inside of Pixar Place and then stand in the sun for hours, waiting to get into the interior air conditioning queue space for “Toy Story Midway Mania.”

After one too many tourist face-planted on those bricks, the Imagineers decided that it was finally time to do something about the Florida version of “Toy Story Midway Mania.” Which is why — on March 5, 2015 — they announced that they’d not only be adding a third ride track to the Florida version of this ride-thru shooting gallery attraction but that they’d soon be adding a third theater to Epcot’s “Soarin’ “ attraction.

Some 14 months later, the third track for the Disney’s Hollywood Studios version of “Toy Story Midway Mania” opens in May of 2016. And then — just a week or so after that — the third theater for “Soarin’ “ opens over in Epcot’s Future World section on May 27th of that same year.

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

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Music Theatre, Stage, & Performance Art

Hercules: The Muse-ical

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Quick trivia question: What were the names of the three stage shows that were presented on the Disney Magic on that vessel’s maiden voyage back in July of 1998?

  • “Disney Dreams”
  • “Voyage of the Ghost Ship”
  • And “Hercules: The Muse-ical”

It’s that last show – which is based on the hand drawn animated feature that Walt Disney Pictures released back in June of 1997 – that occupies an interesting spot in Mouse House history. Largely because Disney’s “Hercules” (the movie, not the stage show) arrived in theaters at a time when the folks who ran the animation side of the operation at Disney Studios were getting a wee bit nervous about the Company’s supposed supremacy over feature animation.

Disney Animation Success: Aladdin & The Lion King

Some three years previous (June of 1994, to be exact), no one in Hollywood had any doubts at all about who was the top dog when it came to feature animation. And that was because “The Lion King” had just arrived in theaters and was such a huge hit at the world-wide box office. $312 million in ticket sales in North America alone.

To put that in perspective: Disney’s previous biggest hit, at least when it came to hand-drawn animated features, had been “Aladdin.” Which arrived in theaters some 20 months earlier in November of 1992 and had sold $217 million worth of movie tickets domestically. So what with “The Lion King” earning basically one-and-a-half times what “Aladdin” had (Mind you, that’s just the domestic release of this movie that we’re talking about here. Overseas, “The Lion King” made $545 million. Which – compared to the $286 million that “Aladdin” made overseas back in 1992 – that’s nearly double the business) … We’re talking some very serious moola.

DreamWorks SKG

But then – in August of 1994 – Jeffrey Katzenberg is forced out as the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. He – in turn – joins forces with Steven Spielberg & David Geffen. And – just two months later (October of 1994) – launches DreamWorks SKG. And one of the key components of this brand-new entertainment conglomerate is an animation studio. Which is then supposed to go head-to-head to the Mouse House.

Cold Streak for Disney Animated Films

Compounding this situation is that Walt Disney Feature Animation suddenly starts to have a cold streak. Where “The Lion King” sold $312 million worth of tickets when it was released to North American theaters in the Summer of 1994, Disney’s “Pocahontas” (which is released to theaters just one year later in June of 1995) does less than half that business. $141 million in domestic ticket sales to be exact.

And then – when Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” arrives in theaters just one year after that in June of 1996 – it does 2/3rds of the business that Disney’s “Pocahontas” had done the previous year. It sells $100 million, $100 thousand worth of tickets in North America. Which – given that Disney’s animated “Hunchback” costs a reported $100 million to make … That’s a problem.

Hercules is Coming: Disney Goes All-Out to Promote New Film

So as the Summer of 1997 looms, Disney is now looking to reverse this box office trend. The Studio needs another “Lion King” -sized hit to show those guys at DreamWorks SKG who’s really the boss in Hollywood when it comes to feature animation. And the Mouse is going to use every tool that it has in its promotional tool kit to make sure that every would-be movie-goer knows that “Hercules” is on its way and it’s a big, bright, colorful, really funny animated feature just like Disney’s “Aladdin.”

Side note: Figuring that Robin Williams’ star power was one of the reasons that Disney’s “Aladdin” had zoomed to the top of the box office back in November of 1992, the Studio initially wanted to use the same sort of stunt casting to make Disney’s “Hercules” a must-see movie-going event. Which is why they originally wanted Jack Nicolson to be the voice of Hades and then hire the Spice Girls to served as the voices of the Muses.

Sadly, in both of these cases, though the Company had meetings with Nicholson and the Spice Girls’ representatives, the cost of hiring these performers to voice characters in Disney’s “Hercules” proved to be prohibitive. So that stunt casting idea was ultimately abandoned.

Hercules Mega Mall Tour

Anyway … Back to promoting “Hercules” as only Disney could … This meant – starting in February of 1997 – the Company sent out the “Hercules” Mega Mall Tour. Which – to raise awareness of the June debut of this new full-length animated feature from Walt Disney Studios – involved stops in 20 different cities around North America over five months time. Over the course of this tour, 4 million cassettes of “Zero to Hero” (The song that Alan Menken & David Zippel had written for this animated feature that – it was felt at the time – had the best chance of being the break-out single from the “Hercules” soundtrack) were handed out to mall patrons.

Credit: delaespriella.com

Hercules New York Movie Premiere

And speaking of June … To make sure that as many people as possible were made aware that Disney’s “Hercules” was opening in theaters, the Company decided to stage the world premiere of this new Ron Clements & John Musker movie in New York City. Not only that, but to present a week-long series of screening of Disney’s “Hercules” in the just-renovated New Amsterdam Theater (which would – just 5 months later, in November of 1997 – would then become home of the Company’s long-running smash hit Broadway musical version of “The Lion King”).

Hercules Electrical Parade

And – to make sure that everyone in NYC knew this was happening – Disney got special permission from then-New York City mayor Rudi Guiliani to roll the Main Street Electric Parade (which, for this one-time promotion event, was renamed the “Hercules Electrical Parade”) down 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue.

Speaking of parades … To make sure that theme park goers knew that Disney’s “Hercules” was now in theaters, a “Hercules” – themed parade rolled through four different theme parks that Summer.

  • Disneyland Park in Anaheim
  • Disney-MGM in Florida
  • Disneyland Paris in France
  • and also at Tokyo Disneyland in Japan

It was an unprecedented promotional effort on the Company’s part. More to the point, because they were absolutely certain that “Hercules” was going to turn out to be another “Aladdin” or a “Little Mermaid” (The two animated features that Ron Clements & John Musker had previously made for the Mouse House. Which had then turned into these hugely lucrative franchises for The Walt Disney Company which had gone on to have surprisingly long shelf lives) … Well, that’s Disney – even before “Hercules” had actually arrived in theaters – began making plans as to how it could then extend the shelf life of this particular IP.

Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series

One way was “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series.” Which was basically a prequel to that theatrically released animated feature. 65 episodes of “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series” were produced and then began airing on ABC in September of 1998.

Hercules: The Muse-ical on the Disney Magic

But six weeks prior to that (in late July of that same year), the Disney Magic had its maiden voyage. And Guests who sailed on this 984-foot-long, 84,000-ton vessel were treated to performances of “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” I’ve also seen this stage show referred to as “Hercules: The Muse-ical Comedy.”

There’s only one problem with this plan. This new stage show was debuting onboard the Magic some 13 months after Disney’s “Hercules” had originally arrived in theaters.

Hercules the Box-Office Disappointment

By now, everyone knew that this Ron Clements & John Musker movie had been a box office disappointment.

Only selling $99 million worth of tickets in North America – making “Hercules” the first Disney animated feature to not blow through the $100-million-at-the-domestic-box-office barrier since “The Rescuers Down Under” back in November of 1990.

Disney Cruise Musical Success: Hercules: The Muse-ical & Villains Tonight

Which – you’d think – would have doomed “Hercules: The Muse-ical” to a very short run on the Disney Cruise Line. But here’s the thing: people who voyaged on the Disney Magic (and – later – the Disney Wonder. Which got its own clone of this stage show) just loved “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” They just loved how this stage show was one part stand-up comedy act and another part well-put together musical review.

Which is when – when “Hercules: The Muse-ical” came to the end of its run (in 2005 on the Magic & then in 2008 on the Wonder) – Disney’s Entertainment Department did a very unusual thing.  They crafted a sequel show of sorts, “Villains Tonight.” Which brought back the three most popular characters from “Hercules: The Muse-ical” (i.e., Hades, Lord of the Dead and his hapless minions, Pain & Panic) and then had this trio interact with some of Disney’s most famous fiends. Among them Maleficent from “Sleeping Beauty,” the Evil Queen from “Snow White,” Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” … you get the idea.

“Villains Tonight” debut on the Disney Magic in 2010 and quickly proved to be so popular that this stage show was then replicated for the Disney Dream the following year (2011). “Villains Tonight” had a healthy run on both boats, with the Disney Magic version of this show closing up shop in November of 2015 and the Disney Dream version shuttering in August of 2017.

Stage Adaptation of Hercules

But here’s the weird part: These long-running “Hercules” -inspired stage shows proved that there was actually an audience out there for a full-scale Broadway musical version of this Ron Clements & John Musker movie. Which is why – back in September of 2019 – the Public Theater (for one week only) staged … Well, kind of a trial production for a stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules.” It was presented outdoors at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with a cast of 200.

This stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” got such great reviews (in large part thanks to Roger Bart’s performance as Hades, Lord of the Dead.

Fun fact: Mr. Bart was the singing voice of young Hercules in the original animated feature. So when you hear teenaged Herc belting out “I can go the distance,” that’s actually Roger who singing. Bart’s spent the past 25 years being closely associated with this IP)

This world premiere of a stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” was so well received that a follow-up production was immediately put in the works.

Of course, then the pandemic happened. Which then slowed down the momentum for this stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” a little bit. But that follow-up production now has a venue – the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey (which is where the stage version of Disney’s “Newsies” started off life back in September 2011 and then went on to great success of Broadway). We’ve also got some production dates for that show: February 9March 12, 2023.

Disney’s Live-Action Hercules

What’s kind of weird about the timing of all this is – while Disney Theatrical is readying a stage version of “Hercules” – (June 2022), it was revealed that Walt Disney Studios has a live-action version of its animated “Hercules” in the works. This big budget project will be directed by Guy Ritchie (who directed that live-action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” which debuted in theaters back in May of 2019 and then went on to sell over a billion dollars worth of ticket at the worldwide box office) and produced by Joe & Anthony Russo.

That’s significant. Given that Joe & Anthony Russo are the guys who directed “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Which tells us that the action scenes in this upcoming live-action musical comedy are going to feature Marvel-level FX work. Which will make this “Hercules” remake / reboot a must-see for Marvel fans.

More Hercules Musicals on Cruise Ships?

So – long story short – “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight” proved that there was an audience out there for a stage version of this Ron Clements / John Musker movie. Which then led to the world premiere of the stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules” at NYC’s Public Theater in September of 2019. Which eventually led to a second production of this stage, which will bow at NJ’s Papermill Playhouse in just six months time.

But is it possible that Disney’s “Hercules” could eventually make its way back onto the Company’s cruise ships? It is worth noting here that – following the success of the live-action reboot of its animated “Beauty & the Beast” (That Bill Condon film was released to theaters back in March of 2017 and then went on to sell $1.2 billion worth of tickets worldwide), the Disney Cruise Line then mounted an all-new stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” that was then based on that live-action remake.

This production debuted on the Disney Dream back in November of 2017 (some eight months after the live-action “Beauty & the Beast” reboot originally debuted in theaters). So it stands to reason that – if Disney Studios’ upcoming live-action reboot of its animated “Hercules” is equally successful – this film too could eventually become fodder for a future stage show that could then be presented onboard the Disney Cruise Line.

Hades – The Lord of the Dead

One final note: Given that Hades was the break-out character in both of those Disney Cruise Line productions (i.e., “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight.” FYI: Both of these DCL shows are currently available for viewing on YouTube), it’s worth noting here is that how Hades is reportedly based on is actually one of the notorious in-jokes in Hollywood history.

You see, given that the Lord of the Dead in Disney’s “Hercules” is portrayed as this slick show business grifter (“We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy. What do you say?”), it’s worth noting here that James Woods – who voiced Hades in the original animated feature – reportedly based his performance on ousted Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Going forward here, it’ll be interesting to see how this character is portrayed in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live-action version of Disney’s “Hercules.”

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 385”, published on August 1, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

“House of the Future” – The Plastic House in Disneyland

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Monsanto Disneyland House of the Future with Paper Bag
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I was down in Massachusetts the other day doing some shopping at the Target in Framingham. And as I completed that transaction, I was somewhat surprised to see my groceries being loaded into … Well, not the usual Target bags (i.e., those white plastic ones with the bright red circular Target symbol on the side). But – rather – some plain jane brown paper bags.

Of course, that was because the State of Massachusetts (along with California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont & Washington State) has banned the use of plastic bags within the borders of that state.

FYI: The State of New Jersey put its own statewide ban of plastic bags in place earlier this year. On May 4, 2022, to be exact.

Which – if you’re a child of the 1960s – this is kind of an ironic development. Given that – back when we were kids – the world-at-large seemed to be actively looking for even more ways to incorporate the use of plastic in our day-to-day lives.

Which reminds me of one of the odder walk-thru experiences that was ever built at Disneyland Park (Which – given that Happiest Place on Earth was once home to the Hollywood-Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop [This Main Street, U.S.A. store used to feature – no lie — a “Wonderful Wizard of Bras” show] – is really saying something). That was the “House of the Future,” a 1,280-square-foot structure  that the Monsanto Corporation proudly proclaimed was made out of 14 different types of plastics.

Given that this Tomorrowland attraction wasn’t designed by the Imagineers … Well, how the “House of the Future” wind up being built right off Disneyland’s Hub to the left of the entrance of Disneyland?

Disneyland's House of the Future
Credit: D23

Post World War II – Moving Out of the City

Well, to tell that story, we have to jump back in time to the years right after World War II. Where – thanks to the G.I. Bill – hundreds of thousands of veterans decided to pursue college degrees. Which then allowed these former fighting men to land positions that paid much, much better than the jobs that their parents had held years previous.

And since these newly affluent veterans could now afford to move out of the city … Well, that’s just what they did. Which we saw places like Levittown (i.e., America’s very first planned community. The prototypical suburb, if you will) get founded in New York State’s Nassau in 1947 and – in just six years time – become the home of more than 70,000 residents.

Mind you, the downside of this sort of building boom is that – by the mid-1950s – America began to experience sort of a shortage when it came to the supplies necessary to continue to build all these new homes for would-be surburbanites.

Monsanto and Plastic Homes

Which the Monsanto Corporation – which was actively looking for additional way to market the plastic that that company produced – saw as an opportunity. Which is when Monsanto executives reached out to Marvin Goody & Richard Hamilton, who were members of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that taught the principles of architecture to students attending that prestigious university. And those execs then asked Goody & Hamilton two intriguing questions:

  • Would it be possible to build an affordable modular home entirely out of plastic?
  • And – if so – what would that structure look like?

These two MIT professors then went off and considered this problem. And the concept that Goody & Hamilton eventually came up with was … Well, this prefabricated plastic structure that consisted of four cantilevered “wings” that would then rise up off of a concrete slab, which would then as the foundation for what Monsanto was now calling its “House of the Future.”

Designs of the House of the Future
Monsanto’s Marvin Goody (standing) along with Floor Plans and Designs for the “House of the Future”
Credit: ModernDesign.org

And the executives at Monsanto just loved what Goody & Hamilton had designed & developed. They knew that – if this prefabricated plastic home prototype were promoted properly and if enough consumers then indicated to home-builders that they’d be interested in purchasing & then living in this sort of modular structure – the “House of the Future” could turn into a significant new revenue stream for that corporation.

Which is when Monsanto then began casting about for a very prominent spot where they could then build a “House of the Future” prototype. Some place where thousands of people could then tour this prefabricated plastic home every single day.

Walt Disney and Problems with Tomorrowland

Which brings us to Walt Disney. Who – in the mid-1950s – has a few problems of his own. Chief among them being that his then-newly-built Disneyland Park desperately needed some new attractions. Especially in the Tomorrowland section of Walt’s family fun park.

What’s genuinely ironic here is that – in spite of the fact that “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond” (i.e., A trio of “Tomorrowland” themed episodes of the “Disneyland” TV show which then aired on that ABC anthology series between March of 1955 & December of 1957) were among the most popular episodes to air on this program … The Tomorrowland section of Disneyland Park was this under-developed hodge-podge of pseudo-futuristic elements.

I mean, sure. This side of Walt’s family fun park had the “Flight to the Moon” ride. Likewise “Space Station X-1.” But right next door to these two genuinely forward-looking attractions were shows that had absolutely nothing to do with the future. Walk-through exhibits like the Dutch Boy Color Gallery, Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum and Crane’s Bathroom of the Future.

Monsanto Corporation Partnership with Walt Disney Productions

Now it’s important to note here that the Monsanto Corporation and Walt Disney Productions already had a working relationship at this point. After all, Monsanto was already sponsoring an attraction at Disneyland, the Hall of Chemistry.

And it’s about this same time (we’re talking late 1956) that some enterprising executive at Monsanto thinks: “No wait a minute. Disneyland gets thousands of visitors every day. And if we build the prototype of our prefabricated plastic home there, our ‘House of the Future’ project would then virtually be guaranteed to get plenty of foot traffic.”

“House of the Future” in Disneyland

So they then reach out to Walt. And as the story goes, the executives at Monsanto hadn’t even finished their pitch for this prototype-prefabricated-plastic-home-to-be-displayed-at-Disneyland idea when Disney said “Yes.” In fact, according to what Disney Legend John Hench once told me, Walt was so enthusiastic about Monsanto’s “House of the Future” that he proposed that this prototype of a prefabricated plastic home not just be built in Tomorrowland but that it be built right at the entrance of Tomorrowland. As in: That the “House of the Future” would be one of the very first things Guests would see when they arrived at Disneyland’s Hub.

More importantly, that Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic house be built right across the way from the most photographed thing in Walt’s family fun park. Which was – of course – Sleeping Beauty Castle.

To say that this project was fast-tracked is an understatement. Within weeks of signing the deal with Monsanto, the folks at Disneyland were already pouring the concrete slab that this 1,280-square-foot house would then sit on.

Credit: Disney Avenue

By the way, to make sure that virtually every Disneyland Guest would be able to tour the “House of the Future” when they visited Walt’s family fun park, this new Tomorrowland attraction was heavily hyped as being a freebie. As was Monsanto’s Hall of Chemistry, by the way.

Credit: SuperRadNow.com

Opening Monsanto’s “House of the Future” at Disneyland

And Walt … Of the heels of construction of Monsanto’s “House of the Future” beginning, he decided to double down on expanding & upgrading Disneyland’s Tomorrowland section. Which is why — just two days before Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic home opened to the public on June 12, 1957, Walt cut the ribbon on the Viewliner. Which was advertised as the “Train of Tomorrow.” Though –truth be told – WED’s resident mechanical genius Bob Gurr had cobbled together this futuristic-looking narrow gauge train out of parts he’d harvested off of various Oldsmobiles & Jeeps.

Anyway … Monsanto’s instincts when it came to building its “House of the Future” at Disneyland Park translating into lots of foot traffic for its prefabricated plastic home prototype turned out to be dead on. Within the first six weeks that this new Tomorrowland attraction was open to the public, over 435,000 people toured the “House of the Future.” That’s over 10,000 Guests per day.

Credit: SuperRadNow.com

And the Disneyland hosts & hostesses (That’s what Disneyland employees were called back in the late 1950s / early 1960s. Not Cast Members. But – rather – hosts & hostesses) who led tour groups through the prototype of Monsanto’s prefabricated home proudly talked about the 14 different types of plastic that had been used in its construction. They also pointed out the cutting edge tech that had been incorporated into this house’s design. Things like a microwave oven.

The Future of Plastic Homes

But while over 20 million people who trooped through Monsanto’s “House of the Future” during its decade-long stay in Tomorrowland (and then “Ooohed” & “Aaahed” at things like this home’s ultra sonic dishwasher. Which didn’t use any water to clean the all-plastic dishes & utensils that were used in its kitchen) … Unfortunately, Monsanto got very few takers for its prefabricated plastic homes.

Which is why – by the early 1960s – the Company had all but abandoned its original idea of making the manufacture of prefabricated plastic homes a new division for the Monsanto Corporation. Which is why – when Walt approached Monsanto around this same time and said “Hey, we’re thinking of redoing Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area. Do you want to stay on as a sponsor of something on this side of the Park?,” Monsanto’s response was “Yeah. But we want something new. Pull down the ‘House of the Future’ and close the’ Hall of Chemistry.’ This time around,  we want some sort of Tomorrowland attraction that the Guests can ride on.”

And that’s exactly what the Imagineers did. They gutted Monsanto’s “Hall Of Chemistry” and then placed an Omnimover inside of that Tomorrowland show building. And that became the ride system which then took Disneyland visitors on an “Adventure Thru Inner Space.” Which first opened to the public on August 5, 1967.

What Happened to Disneylands “House of the Future”?

As for the “House of the Future” … Given that that structure was constructed out of 14 different types of plastics, pulling down this Tomorrowland attraction proved to be problematic. What was supposed to be completed in a single day eventually stretched out into a two week-long ordeal. Largely because this prefabricated plastic house stymied all of the usual methods that Disneyland employees used (i.e., wrecking balls, bulldozers, etc) when they were leveling a show building. In time, they had to go at this futuristic structure with hacksaws & chain pullers. Because that was the only way to reduce the “House of the Future” to small enough pieces that it could then be hauled away.

Mind you, the concrete slab that had served as the “House of the Future” ‘s foundation stayed in place. As did the vaguely futuristic-looking landscaping that Morgan “Bill” Evans and the rest of Disneyland’s horticultural team had planted around this Tomorrowland walk-thu.

Jump ahead a few years. And now that landscaping (which had been originally planted back in 1957 to give the “House of the Future” a lush, green frame) had grown up so much that this section of the Hub was then redubbed this theme park’s Alpine Garden. With the idea now being that this chunk of greenery would now serve as the forested foothills of Matterhorn Mountain.

Credit: BubbleMania & Flickr/Neatocoolville

That was done in the early 1970s. Nearly 15 years after that, someone else moved into the neighborhood: The Little Mermaid. Which is why – in 1996 – Disneyland’s Alpine Garden was renamed King Triton’s Garden. Then in 2008, this part of that theme park (which had been changed into a place where Guests could then meet & greet with Ariel) was reimagined as Pixie Hollow. Which then gave Disneyland visitors a place where they could go interact with Tinker Bell.

This meet & greet is still operational at the Happiest Place on Earth. That said, if you look off the right of that oversized teapot which Tink calls home … Well, you can still see that concrete slab which – over 50 years ago now – once served as the foundation for the “House of the Future.”

FYI: If you’d like to learn more about this Tomorrowland walk-thru, Dave Bossert – the author of “Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios” and “Claude Coats: Walt Disney’s Imagineer—The Making of Disneyland, From Toad Hall to the Haunted Mansion and Beyond” – is in the process of writing a brand-new book, “The House of the Future: Walt Disney, MIT, and Monsanto’s Vision of Tomorrow.” Which is due to be published sometime in 2023.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 379”, published on June 20, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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History

Fort Wilderness – What Might Have Been

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Fort Wilderness Campground Walt Disney World Vintage Map
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The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness Campground has been silent for 27 months. On June 23, 2022, Pioneer Hall will come roaring back to life with three nightly presentations of this beloved musical dinner show (4 p.m., 6:15 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.)

Hoop Dee Doo Revue Chair
Credit: Flickr/JeffChristiansen

Building Fort Wilderness Campground

Just 9 months prior to the October 1971 opening of the WDW Resort – Dick Nunis (who had just been placed in charge of getting Disney World open on time) had just learned that little to no work had been done to date on the Disney’s Fort Wilderness resort’s campground.

Dick turned to Keith Kambak – a veteran Disneyland employee who had a degree in recreation – and effectively said “You’re coming to Florida with me. And you’re going to build a campground.”

When Keith pointed out that he had never built a campground before and began to ask questions like “What sort of budget am I working with?,” Dick growled “Don’t bother me with questions. Just go build that campground?”

Kambak gets on the ground in Orlando and then discovers why Nunis didn’t tell him what the budget was for Fort Wilderness.

There is no budget.

Disney World is so far over-budget at this point that there’s a real question – in the late Winter / early Spring of 1971 – whether the Resort will be able to find the funding necessary to complete construction of the Contemporary and/or the Polynesian Village Resorts. Let alone get started on building a new onsite campground.

But the PR material for Walt Disney World has been talking up camping at the Vacation Kingdom for over 5 years now. Saying things like …

Walt Disney World will offer a whole new vacation way of life. In addition to exploring the Magic Kingdom theme park, Guests will have the opportunity to frolic in Bay Lake & Seven Seas Lagoon. This 650-acre expanse of water, lined with four miles of white sand beaches, will ideal for swimming, sailing, fishing and water skiing.

Meanwhile over at Fort Wilderness, visitors will find 600 acres of campgrounds, boating, nature trails, park-like recreation areas and the Tri-Circle D Ranch, where saddle horses are available.

People have already booked trips to Disney World because they wanted to go camping at that Resort. Go swimming in Bay Lake. So Disney now has to figure out how to deliver on what it said in all those press release.

1971 Walt Disney World Map of Fort Wilderness Credit: Imaginerding / Story of Walt Disney World Guidebook

Luckily, Keith Kambak is clever, resourceful and slightly dishonest. He becomes famous for waiting ‘til the construction workers go home at 5 and then sending trucks into the Magic Kingdom worksite to steal lumber & bags of cement. Which is what Keith then uses to build Fort Wilderness’ original reception center and the first 200 campsites.

Opening Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground

Mind you – Fort Wilderness isn’t ready for opening day.

Hell, this campground really isn’t ready when in finally throws open its doors on November 19, 1971seven weeks after the first group of Guests pushed through the turnstiles over at the Magic Kingdom.

But even if Fort Wilderness isn’t really ready for prime time, campers absolutely love the place right out of the gate. It initially costs $11 a night to stay there.  And the people who stay there are really excited that – as part of that $11 fee – they get access to the entire WDW transportation system. The monorails, the launches, the motor coaches.

And given that demand for those 200 campsites far exceeds the available supply, Walt Disney World quickly begins to expand Fort Wilderness. In October of 1972 (just in time for the celebration of the Resort’s grand opening a year previous), it is announced that Disney World’s onsite campground will more than doubling in size. Adding an additional 300 sites.

By now, WDW managers have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Guests who are staying at the Contemporary & Polynesian Village will make a special trip over to Fort Wilderness over the course of their WDW vacation just to check the place out.

Mind you, there isn’t much to see at this point. A handful of campsites and a trading post. But the Imagineers make note of the steady stream of daily visitors that Fort Wilderness has been experiencing and then decides … Well, let’s give them something to see.

Fort Wilderness Railroad

So a plan is formed. First and foremost, the Imagineers decide to build a transportation system that will take Guests from Fort Wilderness’ reception area to the south all the way up to the campground’s recreation area along Bay Lake. This 3-mile-long round-trip narrow gauge rail line (which will be serviced by four steam trains with 5 cars each – capable of carrying 90 passengers at a time) will carry Guests from their campsites to the reception area and then down to the waterfront.

Walt Disney World Fort Wilderness Railroad Attraction Poster, Railroad in action, and remnants of old track.
Walt Disney World Fort Wilderness Railroad Attraction Poster, Railroad in action, and remnants of old track.

That rail line gets installed over the Summer of 1973. It’s field-tested in the Fall of that same year and finally fully operational just time for Christmas Week 1973 / 1st week of January 1974.

Tri-Circle D Ranch

There’s another reason that the Imagineers built that rail line. That’s because they’re looking to develop the middle-most section of Fort Wilderness. This area – known as the Settlement – initially holds just the Tri-Circle D Ranch (which is where the horses that pull the trolleys on Main Street over at the Magic Kingdom spend their days off. Likewise Fort Wilderness’ petting zoo).

But because so many Guests staying at the Contemporary & the Polynesian Village are making a special trip over to Fort Wilderness as part of their WDW vacation just to see what there is to see over there … the Imagineers give them something to see.

Pioneer Hall

The first thing up out of the ground is Pioneer Hall, which is constructed out of 1,283 hand-fitted pine logs from Montana and 70 tons of stones from North Carolina. This venue first opens its doors on April 1, 1974. And initially there is absolutely no mention of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.”

Instead, Pioneer Hall is described as having “ … a 250-seat steak house where ranch-style barbecues will be offered, plus a 150-seat snack bar, theme shops and an arcade for after-hours recreation.”

Mind you, if you dig down in the original Pioneer Hall press release (which initially says that this complex will be up & running by February of 1974), there is mention that this “new service-oriented campground complex” would be fully equipped when it came to the presenting of musical stage shows.

But at this point (The Spring of 1974), there’s honestly no talk of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo.” There is – however – all sorts of talk of the other components of Fort Wilderness’ Settlement project. Which are supposed to begin construction shortly.

By next summer, Fort Wilderness’ steam train system will connect the campground’s reception area and its waterfront recreation facilities with the Fort Wilderness Stockade and Western Town. Where complete dining, shopping and entertainment facilities are being built in phases.

And a year or so after Western Town opened at Fort Wilderness opened, the Imagineers then wanted to build (this is from the Company’s 1973 annual report) …

… the Fort Wilderness “swimming hole,” a major recreational facility.

The Roost and River Country

Wait. It gets better. WDW managers – at this point – were actually talking about building a fun house onsite at Fort Wilderness. One that would feature show scenes designed by Marc Davis and would be housed in an eccentric-looking mansion that would be called “The Roost.”

River Country Wagon
Credit: Flickr/Auntie Rain

Once “The Roost” was opened (This project was projected to be completed by the Summer of 1977, with Fort Wilderness’ swimming hole – eventually called “River Country” – opening the previous year. Just in time for America’s bicentennial), WDW officials eventually envisioned selling visitors to their Florida vacation kingdom a special Fort Wilderness ticket book. Which would then give Guests a full day of fun at Fort Wilderness.

  • Take the bus over to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
  • Then take the train down to that campground’s settlement section
  • Swim in the morning at River Country
  • Spend the afternoon exploring the Roost, hiking Fort Wilderness’ nature trails, visiting the petting zoo and/or go horseback riding
  • Catch a performance of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue” at Pioneer Hall
  • Do some souvenir shopping in Frontier Town
  • Walk down to the waterfront at Bay Lake after dusk and then catch a presentation of the “Electrical Water Pageant”
  • Grab the train and head back up to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
  • Take a motor coach back to your hotel

1973 Arab Oil Embargo Impacts Fort Wilderness Development

This was the plan as the Fall of 1973. Which then – of course – is when the Arab Oil Embargo got underway. And attendance levels at Walt Disney World suddenly fell off by 20% because of the odd / even gas rationing that was going on at that time. So many Guests were worried that – if they began driving down to Walt Disney World – that they then wouldn’t be able to find enough gasoline en route to complete their journey to the Resort.

The Arab Oil Embargo obviously had a huge impact on Fort Wilderness’ previously-stellar occupancy levels (Typically at 100% capacity from Christmas Week through Labor Day) because of the number of people who’d drive down to Disney World pulling a trailer. Occupancy levels dropped to 70% and managers there got scared.

The other components of the Fort Wilderness’ Settlement area – the Stockade and Western Town, to be specific – that were to follow Pioneer Hall got placed on hold. As did Marc Davis’ The Roost project.

As for “River Country” … I’m told that the only reason that project went forward is because the Company had already ordered the 2500 feet of flume that would eventually be used to build Whoop-n-Holler Hollow.

Fascinating to think what might have been around Pioneer Hall if the Arab Oil Embargo hadn’t tripped up WDW’s executives to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long destination for Disney World visitors to experience over their Florida vacation.

One final stat from a Disney annual report from 1974 that just fascinated me:

“Pioneer Hall,” a major entertainment, restaurant and arcade facility, opened in March and soon established itself as a popular guest attraction and profitable operation. Twice as many guests come from the resort-hotels to attend the dinner show in Pioneer Hall than from the campgrounds themselves.

Just so you know: WDW didn’t entirely abandon its plans to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long vacation destination.

Opening River Country at Fort Wilderness Campground

River Country opened at Fort Wilderness on June 19, 1976. This five-acre water park quickly started drawing – on average — 4,700 Guests per day during the Summer months of 1976. Interestingly enough, there is no drop in attendance levels over at the Magic Kingdom after the opening of River Country. Which means that this new water park is drawing an additional nearly 5000 people to the Resort every day. Which means that River Country immediately became a huge new profit center at WDW.

Downside … All of these additional people coming to Fort Wilderness every day needing to get down to the water park just as most people staying at WDW’s campsite want to get over to the Magic kingdom overwhelm the campground’s steam train line / eventually causing the system to fail.

Imagineers immediately begin looking for ways to expand Fort Wilderness. Company’s 1976 annual report mentions plans for “ … more water rides, an additional raft ride or a two-man boat ride.”

Likewise, to try and handle the crowds who are now pouring int Fort Wilderness each day, the Imagineers revisit the idea of building Frontiertown in the stretch of land that exists between Pioneer Hall and River Country.

Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground

But then the Company gets serious about going forward with construction of EPCOT Center. And all available funding for future expansion at the WDW Resort – including the funds that had been set aside for Fort Wilderness – gets funneled into WDW’s second gate.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 378”, published on June 13, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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