Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
Toy Story Midway Mania: From DisneyQuest to Mickey Mouse Rides
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.
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
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.
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
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.
… 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.
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
Abraham Lincoln is Here to Stay – Walt’s Disneyland Attraction That “Can’t” Be Replaced
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Happy Presidents Day. Which is when we – as Americans – are supposed to honor the memory of two of our country’s commanders-in-chief: George Washington (born on February 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809).
Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln
Walt Disney was a life-long admirer of Honest Abe. Walt often told the tale of how – back when he was a kid – Disney fashioned a stove pipe hat & a fake beard for himself (supposedly made out of poster paper). Then – dressed in this outfit — Disney stood in front of his grade class and recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg address from memory.
Walt’s obvious affection & admiration for our 16th President continued well into his adulthood. Which explains “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” an attraction that the Imagineers originally created for the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair which was built around an Audio Animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln.
This robotic Lincoln caused such a sensation among visitors to Flushing Meadows that – even before this edition of the New York World’s Fair ended on October 15, 1965 – Walt had a second version of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” built. Which he then had installed inside of the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland Park.
Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”
This second version of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opened on July 18, 1965. But the West Coast clone of this New York World’s Fair show never quite caught on the way that the East Coast original had. Even when Disneyland began giving away a free pass to this Main Street, U.S.A. attraction with every ticket book sold to Guests, the Californian version of “Great Moments” failed to capture even a tenth of the people who visited this theme park annually.
And given that the Main Street Opera House was this 500-seat venue right up by the entrance of Walt’s family fun park, it made the Imagineers crazy that this beautifully appointed / centrally located theater would only have a handful of people inside at most performances of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Which is why – after Walt passed away in December of 1966 – WDI began quietly casting around for show ideas that they could possibly use as replacements for the seriously under-performing “Great Moments.”
Walt Disney Replaces “Great Moments”
Ironically, it was Walt himself who provided the solution to Anaheim’s “Great Moments” problem. As part of Walt Disney Productions’ 50th anniversary celebration, the Imagineers mounted “The Walt Disney Story” inside of the Main Street Opera House. This exhibit (which featured a lobby filled with the awards that Walt had won over his lifetime as well as a film which then looked back at Disney’s career) necessitated the closing of Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Which did NOT sit well with the good folks of Orange County. This corner of Southern California is known nationwide as a conservative stronghold. Which is why – when these folks learned that the April 8, 1973 opening of “The Walt Disney Story” at Disneyland meant that that theme park’s robotic version of Honest Abe would now go into storage – these people began bombarding the Mouse House with angry phone calls & letters.
“The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”
Which is why — less than two years into the run of “The Walt Disney Story” at Disneyland Park – the Company caved. The Main Street Opera House closed its doors on February 12, 1975 and began yet another revamping. Some four months later, this 500-seat venue re-opened with what can politely be described as something of a camel of an attraction: “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
The way that this retooled version of this Main Street, U.S.A. attraction worked was … Well, the lobby area of the Main Street Opera House now celebrated the life & career of Walt Disney. Whereas once Guest entered the actual theater portion of Disneyland’s opera house … This was where the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show from the 1964 – 1964 New York World’s Fair was now framed in such a way that this AA-based attraction was supposed to be seen as one of Walt’s greatest achievements. This technological triumph that then paid tribute to our 16th president.
This creative compromise may have addressed many of the concerns that Southern Californian conservatives had (not to mention quelling a lot of the complaints that had been coming out of Orange County). But it also frustrated Disneyland managers as well as the Imagineers.
“And why was that?,” you ask. Because the revised “Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” hadn’t solved the Main Street Opera House’s attendance problem. This nearly-10-year-old attraction was now even less popular with Disneyland visitors. Fewer than 1-in-20 Guests now bothered to check out this show during their day at the Park.
Bringing “Hall of Presidents” to Disneyland
What especially made the Imagineers crazy about Mr. Lincoln’s return to the Main Street Opera House is that this development then derailed their plans to bring Disney World’s “Hall of Presidents” to Anaheim.
How many of you remember the “Disneyland Presents a Preview of Coming Attractions” display that used to be on Main Street, U.S.A.? This collection of models & concept art was housed inside of that theme park’s old Wurlitzer Music Hall building. And from 1973 to 1989, Guests could drop by here for free and then check out some of the rides, shows & attractions that the Imagineers were considering for construction in Anaheim.
And among those ideas was a West Coast version of WDW’s “Hall of Presidents.” Which – if all had gone according to plan – was to have opened at Disneyland Park just in time for the Summer of 1976 (i.e., America’s bicentennial).
But what with the good folks of Orange County insisting on “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” ‘s return to the Main Street Opera House ASAP back in 1973, that idea was now off the table. Which is why – instead of a West Coast version of WDW’s “Hall of Presidents” – Disneyland got another patriotic, Audio Animatronic-filled show out ahead of America’s bicentennial. And that located-in-Tomorrowland attraction was “America Sings,” which opened at Disneyland Park on June 29, 1974.
Meanwhile, attendance levels for the “Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show continued to erode (Now fewer than 1-in-50 visitors bothered to swing by the Main Street Opera House to check out that show during their day in the Park). The Imagineers tried to use cutting edge-tech as a reason to lure people back to this under-attended attraction. Which is why — in 1984 — they installed an all-new Lincoln in this theater that (at that time, anyway) was the most sophisticated Animatronic figure ever built for a Disney park. It didn’t matter. People still stayed away.
“MuppetVision 3D” to Replace “Great Moments” at Disneyland
Which brings us to the Summer of 1990. Prior to his tragic passing on May 16th of that year, Jim Henson had completed production of “MuppetVision 3D.” Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to honor his friend’s memory by having “MuppetVision 3D” open at Disney theme parks on both coasts in the Spring of 1991.
Down in Florida, “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” would be shown inside of a purpose-built theater at Disney-MGM Studios. Whereas the West Coast version of this attraction … Well, by now, attendance levels for “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” had fallen straight through the floor. Only 1-out-of-a-100 Guests ever bothered to drop by the Main Street Opera house. And even with that new cutting-edge Lincoln AA figure (which made use of the very same tech that powered the Wicked Witch of the West AA figure in “The Great Movie Ride” at Disney-MGM Studios theme park) on display, this seriously-under-attended show often experienced walk-outs.
Which is why the Imagineers now wanted to install “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” in the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland. Given that the theater that the Imagineers were building in Florida was to have 564 seats and the one that already existed in Anaheim had 500 seats … These two venues for “MuppetVision 3D” basically had the same hourly capacity.
So the plan was that “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was to quietly close after the Labor Day Weekend in 1990. Then the Imagineers would retool the Main Street Opera House both inside & out so that it would then be a suitable venue for the Muppets. The Imagineers were already inside of this Main Street, U.S.A. taking measurements for this proposed redo when these plans then went off the rails.
Abe Lincoln to Stay
You see – on August 19, 1990 – news broke about this upcoming redo of the Main Street Opera House. Both the Orange County Register & the Los Angeles Times ran stories about this proposed show swap. And while Disneyland spokesman Bob tried to put things in the best possible light, insisting that this Disneyland theater would soon receive a floor-to-ceiling refurbishment, that this venue would look better than it had in years, Orange County conservatives would have none of this. In a large way, it was 1973 all over again. They quickly flooded the Company’s switchboards with thousands of angry phone calls.
And within one week’s time, the Los Angeles Times actually ran an article with this headline:
Will Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” Ever Get Replaced?
And since then … Well, while the Imagineers still periodically make an attempt at sprucing up Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show (How many of you remember that god-awful binaural sound version of this attraction which debuted in Anaheim back in July of 2001? That version — which featured a 3D haircut as well as Honest Abe seeming to bend over & whisper into Guests’ ears – earned the comical nickname, “Creepy Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” It was quietly shuttered in February of 2005) … Nowadays, the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show at Disneyland Park is considered untouchable.
Whenever the Imagineers have tried in the past to put a different show in this space at that theme park, Orange County conservatives have risen up in force. And as a direct result, the Main Street Opera is one of the most under-utilized facilities at Disneyland Park. Last I heard, the average attendance for a presentation of this Audio Animatronic show is 30 people.
But on the other hand, if you’re looking for something to do at Disneyland and you happen to be headed there on Presidents Day Weekend … Well, there’s one place at that theme park where I can guarantee you that you won’t encounter a line.
Film & Movies
Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland
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This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.
John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.
Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.
Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”
What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.
Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?
It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.
Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths
So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.
So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.
Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.
Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive
Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.
Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression
What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.
Lightning Lane – Raising Prices
Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).
And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.
Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.
“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects
Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”
That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.
Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays
Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:
So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.
Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.
Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:
So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:
Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel
Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?
What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.
It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”
Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel
And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.
And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).
Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel
That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.
- Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
- Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain
Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.
This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.
Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings
It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.
All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.
It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.
Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.
Walley World Shooting Locations
And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.
The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).
Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Film & Movies
“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland
Listen to the Article
Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.
Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.
Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film
Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.
Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …
Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.
But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”
And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.
It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.
The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real
By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.
It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance
Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically). Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland
The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).
There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.
And those words supposedly were “Build this.”
It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.
So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.
Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.
There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.
This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.
How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”
Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.
In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.
Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America
Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).
If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.
The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.
While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.
As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.
This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:
“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland
It wasn’t that easy.
The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”
Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”
Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”
Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”
Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.
So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.
And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.
The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland
This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Halley (As in Halley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).
There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Halley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.
How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?
Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.
This is where the Imagineers were wrong.
Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse
Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.
200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.
Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.
To be specific here: Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.
Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).
Ken Annakin – Film Director
Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.
Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.
Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”
And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.
New Robin Hood on Disney+?
Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.
So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.
So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”
This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.
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