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.
When WDW Had a Racetrack – The Creation of the Walt Disney World Speedway
A few months back, when Len Testa & I recorded a Bandcamp exclusive podcast – the one where we attempted to walk from the Ticket & Transportation Center at Walt Disney World all the way over to the Magic Kingdom, only to then be stymied by all of the construction at the Grand Floridian.
Anyway … As I was driving over to the Poly to meet Mr. Testa, I made use of that new flyover ramp that now directly connects World Drive with Floridian Way. Which gave me a brief glimpse down into the southeastern corner of the Magic Kingdom Parking Lot. Which – from 1995 – 2015 – was home to the Walt Disney World Speedway. Or – as Indy Car fans used to like to call that one mile long, three turn tri-oval track – the Mickyard.
That name is – of course – a Disney-ified play on the Brickyard, the 2.5 mile-long track which is probably better known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Which is where the Indy 500 is held every May .
And the Indy 500 actually plays a crucial role in the creation of Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. For the seed for this $6 million project was planted just eight months after Michael Eisner first became the CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
“The Wonderful World of Disney” Indy 500
Mind you, this is back when Michael was doing everything he could to get the Disney name & its characters out in front of as many people as possible. Which is why – for the running of the 70th edition of the Indy 500 back in 1985 – Eisner cut a deal with the folks who staged that race to have that year’s Indy 500 Fest themed to “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
As Michael tells this story:
Jeffrey Katzenberg & I flew out to Indianapolis in 1985 to attend that year’s Indy 500. So we’re sitting in the stands with 500,000 people. And there’s this parade that’s held inside of the Speedway before the official start of the race where cars with celebrities and politicians roll by.
So first the governor of Indiana goes by, and there is polite applause. Then Mickey Mouse goes by his car, and there is more applause from the crowd at the Speedway. Which makes me feel good about the Disney characters. But then Jim Varney goes by in a car dressed as Ernest and 500,000 people go berzerk.
That’s when I turn to Jeffrey Katzenberg and say “’We should probably do something about that.’
Right after that race, Disney roped Varney into doing four “Ernest” movies (which were then released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner from 1987 – 1991). Jim also voiced Slinky Dog in the first two “Toy Story” films before we tragically lost Jim in February of 2000. And that was all because Michael Eisner went to the Indianapolis 500 just 8 months after he became Disney’s CEO.
Disney Get’s Into Sports
But what Michael also remembered from that trip in Indiana was those 500,000 people who were seated in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now you have to remember that – when the Bass Brothers (Those were those billionaires from Texas who had helped Eisner land his new job at Disney back in late September of 1984) – Michael had been told by Sid Bass that Priority No. One was developing Walt Disney World. Taking those 40 square miles of swampland that the Company owned in Central Florida and finding all sorts of new ways that Disney could then profit off of that property.
And Michael Eisner? He liked sports. Anyone who was paying attention during the 20+ years that Michael ran the Mouse House knows this. After all, on Eisner’s watch, we got:
- The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, a Disney-owned NHL team in 1993
- The Walt Disney World Marathon got underway in 1994
- Later that same year (1994), the All-Star Resort opened at Walt Disney World
- It bought ESPN in 1995 (That was part of Disney’s $19 billion acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities)
- Disney bought the Los Angeles Angels from Gene Autry in 1996 and then renamed this baseball team the Anaheim Angels
- It opened Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida in 1997 (That 220-acre facility was rebranded as the Wide World of Sports Complex in 2010)
That’s obviously a lot of sports-related stuff. But today we’re here to talk about the Walt Disney World Speedway.
Why Build the Walt Disney World Speedway?
Eisner first broached the idea of building a race track somewhere on property in Florida with the Imagineers in the mid-to-late 1980s. Mind you, by this time, work was already well underway on the Disney-MGM Studio Tour project. So the thinking back then was “Let’s finish Disney World’s third gate first. Then we can circle back around to that thing that the Boss wants us to do that we’ve never, ever done before.”
The question then became … Well, where would be the very best place to build such an enterprise? And after visiting a number of speedways around the country (Not to mention reviewing the television coverage of the past few Indy 500s), what the Imagineers realized is that … Well, for the two weeks leading up to the actual race (This was when the Indy 500 trials were being held), the Goodyear Blimp would fly back and forth over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And since a big part of those marching orders the Bass Brothers gave Michael Eisner back in the Fall of 1984 was “You guys really need to do a better job of promoting Walt Disney World” … Well, here’s the decision tree that eventually led to the Imagineers proposing to Eisner that they place the Walt Disney World Speedway in the lower southeastern corner of the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot.
- Michael wants us to build a raceway in Florida. Something that could then help lure Guests to the Walt Disney World Resort during those times of year when attendance is really soft at the Parks.
- We have the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot. 125 acres of previously prepped, already graded land which has room for 12,000 cars but is rarely if ever full.
- If we were to build this raceway in the lower southwestern corner of the Magic Kingdom parking (the part of that parking lot that only gets used during the busiest times of year, like Fourth of July, Christmas or New Years), if a blimp were to cover a race that were staged at the Walt Disney World Speedway, the WDW Resorts around Seven Seas Lagoon & Bay Lake (not to mention the Magic Kingdom itself) would virtually be guaranteed to be on camera multiple times during the live broadcast of this race. Which would then translate into millions of dollars in free advertising for the WDW Resort.
Let’s also not overlook the fact that – because of the site prep that already been done on this corner of Walt Disney World property / how all of this acreage in the lower southwestern corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot had been graded back in late 1969 / early 1970 when the WDW Resort was first being built, the Walt Disney World Speedway team could really hit the ground running here. Not to mention save tons when it came to the traditional construction start-up costs.
Building the Walt Disney World Speedway
Initial survey work on the project was done in secret in September of 1994 by Buena Vista Construction. The project was formally announced on January 23, 1995. With the very first race to be held at the venue – the inaugural Indy 200 – being announced at a press conference which was held on April 13th of that same year.
Just to be clear here: The very first race to be held at the Walt Disney World Speedway wouldn’t get underway ‘til January of the following year. January 27, 1996, to be exact. (That’s basically a full year after this project was first announced. And we’ll get to the significance of that January 27th date in a moment).
Anyway … The official groundbreaking on the Walt Disney World Speedway wasn’t held ‘til June 27, 1995. That’s when Mari Hulman George (She was the Chairman of the Board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) flew down to Walt Disney World to take part in this ceremony. During which – to make sure that the racing press understood that there was going to be a very strong connection between the Brickyard and the Mickyard – Ms. George presented WDW officials with one of the original paving bricks that was used to create the Brickyard back in Indiana back in 1909.
Weird bit of trivia: It took 3.2 million of these 9 & a half pound bricks to pave the full circuit of that 2.5 mile long, rectangular oval course back in the day. I wonder if Ms. George opted to make that ceremonial brick her carry-on when she flew from Indy down to Disney?
After this groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the Walt Disney World Speedway began in earnest. As pavers laid down 5,200 tons of asphalt to create this race track’s surface, construction crews poured 1,800 yards of concrete to form the Speedway’s outside walls. Which were then strung with 10 miles worth of safety restraint cabling. And a similar amount of effort went into the creation of this Speedway’s pit row area. With an additional 2,300 feet of concrete being poured there.
And did I mention that the Summer of 1995 was one of the soggiest in Central Florida history, with 75 inches of rain falling between the months of June & July of that year alone? Which (as you might guess) really hampered Buena Vista Construction’s effort to keep the Walt Disney World Speedway project on schedule.
But by October 18th of that year, the final bit of paving on this one mile long, three-turn tri-oval (which had been designed by Kevin Forbes, the chief engineer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Again with the idea of stressing that there was going to be this strong connection between the Mickyard & the Brickyard) was done. This $6 million project was then formally dedicated on November 28, 1995 in an elaborate ceremony which included Indy racing legends forming a five-car “Flying V” formation as they zoomed around this track while fireworks exploded overhead.
Why all this publicity? Because the inaugural Indy 200 was supposed to be the first-ever event staged by the Indy Racing League. More to the point, the date for the televised debut of the Walt Disney World Speedway had been carefully selected by the Mouse’s marketing team & Indy Racing League managers. You see, January 27th wasn’t just any Saturday. It was the day before Super Bowl 1996 was staged.
A New Pre-Super Bowl Tradition
A little background here: Michael Eisner started his career in television in 1966 (he was hired to be Barry Diller’s assistant. Who – at that time, anyway – was ABC’s national programming director). Which meant that Eisner had a front row seat when the very first Super Bowl was broadcast in January of 1967. Over the next two+ decades, Michael watched as the Super Bowl steadily grew in popularity ‘til it then became this broadcasting behemoth.
So Eisner knew – from personal experience – that a televised sporting event that was properly positioned & promoted could eventually become this enormous thing. And as I mentioned earlier into today’s story … The Walt Disney Company had acquired ABC / Cap Cities back in 1995 for $19 billion. Which include ABC Sports & ESPN.
So if Disney (and the folks at the Indy Racing League, of course) handled the televised debut of the inaugural Indy 200 at Walt Disney World just right … Well, the Indy 200 wouldn’t just become the first professional auto race of the year. It could also become a brand-new television tradition. The race that sports fans watched the day before the Super Bowl.
Indy 2000 Failure
Sadly, all the ambitious plans that the Mouse & the Indy Racing League originally had for this corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot never came to fruition. And by January of 2000, the Indy 200 was pretty much defunct. At least as far as the Walt Disney World Speedway was concerned.
So why did this highly anticipated, seemingly can’t-miss project eventually wind up as the home of the severely under-utilized Richard Petty Driving Experience? Only to finally be shuttered in 2015 and then be turned back into a parking lot?
We’ll get to that part of this story on the second & final installment of this series.
31 Long-Gone Rides, Shows & Attractions at Disney-MGM (Hollywood Studios)
May 1, 1989 … It was 34 years ago that the Disney-MGM Studio theme park first opened its door. So many great attractions have come & gone over the past three decades that we thought that it would be fun to look back at a few of our favorites.
“The Great Movie Ride”
First up, it’s the Great Movie Ride. This was the thesis attraction for this entire park (much like Spaceship Earth is for Epcot), a celebration of all things cinema. The exterior of this 95,000 square foot show building was a faithful recreation of Hollywood’s iconic Chinese Theater. Once you climbed aboard your theater car, you were literally whisked over the rainbow to the Land of Oz (Watch out for the Wicked Witch of the West. Which was the most sophisticated Audio-Animatronic figure that WDI had ever produced. Circa 1989, I mean).
Did you know? … That the Great Movie Ride was originally supposed to have featured a scene built around “Ghostbusters” ? Sadly, Universal snagged the theme park rights ahead of Disney for that 1984 Columbia Pictures. But if the Imagineers had had their way, you’d have come face-to-face with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as Peter, Ray, Ego & Winston wielded their proton packs. Ah, what might have been …
“Monster Sound Show”
How many of you recall the Monster Sound Show sponsored by Sony?
This Guest participation show (four members of the audience were recruited to recreate the various sound effects that were prominently featuring in a short film starring Chevy Chase & Martin Short) actually served a dual purpose. It was a way for Disney to showcase some of the amazing devices that its FX wizards had built over the past 60 years to then create those crazy sound effects featured in its full-length films & animated shorts. It also gave Disney-MGM at least one attraction that paid tribute (sort of) to horror films.
Sadly, “The Monster Sound Show” only ran at Disney-MGM from May of 1989 through July of 1997. After that, this attraction was rebranded as the “ABC Sound Show” (Which then tied this theme park show in with Disney’s August 1995 acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities).
“Studio Backlot Tour”
We continue with the Studio Backlot Tour. Which took many different forms during the over-25-years that this experience was available to Guests visiting the WDW Resort.
Early on, the Studio Backlot Tour had a rather rigid form. This nearly two-hour-long experience began with a tram ride through Residential Street (Where you could then see a recreation of the “Golden Girls” house) and then a thrilling detour through Catastrophe Canyon. Then Guests took a walking tour of the three state-of-the-art soundstages that Disney had just built in Florida.
When Guests complained about how long the original version of the Studio Backlot Tour was, Disney then turned this attraction into two separate experiences: a backstage tram ride and THEN a walking tour of its Florida soundstages. Both of these were discontinued in September of 2014 to make way for “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”
“The Magic of Disney Animation”
Our look at now-long-gone attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) now continues with something of a heart-breaker. Which was the “Magic of Disney Animation” attraction, which was home to Disney Feature Animation – Florida from 1989 – 2003.
This was where Guests could visit the fish bowl (That’s what all of the artists & animators who actually work in the glassed-in portion of this walk-through attraction called this part of the tour) and peer down at work being done on upcoming animated features & shorts. Among the films that were primarily produced in Florida were “Mulan,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “Brother Bear” & “Roller Coaster Rabbit.”
Sadly, when Walt Disney Animation Studios decided in the early 2000s to shift over to producing CG films (Disney’s last two hand-drawn films – to date, anyway – were 2009’s “Princess & the Frog” and 2011’s “Winnie-the-Pooh”), the decision was made to shutter the Florida studio and lay off most of the staff who worked there. Many still consider this to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made by Mouse House executives.
“Super Star Television”
Let’s revisit SuperStar Television. This sponsored-by-Sony show gave upwards of 30 visitors to this theme park to make appearances in classic TV shows like “I Love Lucy,” “Bonaza” and “Gilligan’s Island.”
I myself got recruited to be part of a presentation of SuperStar Television. I was selected to be hit in the face with a pie by Curly Howard in a scene starring the Three Stooges. As I recall, I was dressed in a swallow-tailed tuxedo which Velcroed up the back. And the two lines that I had to say were “Dinner is served” (after which I got hit in the kisser with that pie) and then “Why you!” (After which I then tried to throw a pie at Moe but wound up hitting this high society lady instead).
Sadly, “SuperStar Television” was shut down in September of 1998 so that this centrally locate theater could then become a number of different attractions (among them “The American Idol Experience”).
One of my favorite places to dine at this theme park back in the day was the Soundstage Restaurant. How many of you got to visit this quick service eatery right after Disney-MGM first opened? Back then, you could dine in a full-sized recreation of the lobby of NYC’s Plaza Hotel (This lavish set had originally been built for the 1988 Touchstone comedy, “Big Business.” And once production of this Bette Midler / Lily Tomlin comedy was complete, it was then shipped from California to Florida and installed just off this theme park’s Animation Courtyard area).
And speaking of animation … The dining room of the Soundstage Restaurant was redressed a number of times over the next 9 years to celebrate the most recent release from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which meant – depending on which year you visited this quick service eatery – you could have dined in Belle’s Village or the Cave of Wonders from “Aladdin.”
Mind you, your parents may have a very different memory of the Soundstage Restaurant. Largely because – upstairs – was the Catwalk Bar. Which was a quick spot away from the noise & the heat that served adult beverages.
So let’s all raise a glass to the late, great Soundstage Restaurant. Which closed in November of 1998 to make way for the “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live On Stage” show.
“Here Come the Muppets” Stage Show
Our story starts in August of 1989 (just three months after this theme park first opened) with the announcement that The Walt Disney Company would acquiring The Jim Henson Company for $150 million. With the idea here being that the Muppets would then make their home at Disney-MGM and fill up this place with all sorts of crazy, one-of-a-kind attractions. Places like the Great Gonzo’s Pandemonium Pizza Parlor and the Swedish Chef’s TV Cooking School.
Mind you, those elaborate attractions (which were then going to be located inside of Muppet Studios, a brand-new land at Disney-MGM) were going to take a few years to design & construct. And – in the interim – Jim Henson personally worked with the Imagineers to quickly get a live stage show which featured the Muppets up out of the ground as quickly as possible.
“Here Come the Muppets” opened at Disney-MGM on May 25, 1990. Which was just nine months after Disney’s deal to acquire Henson had first been announced. Sadly, just 9 days prior to this show opening at the Studios, Jim Henson died of bacterial pneumonia. Which eventually derail Disney’s first attempt to acquire the Muppets.
How many of you remember “Here Come the Muppets” ? Which featured Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem making their entrance in this show via a monorail that they first hijacked & then drove straight to the wall of that theater.
“Sorcery in the Sky” Fireworks Show
Let’s now discuss this theme park’s first nighttime show. Which was “Sorcery in the Sky.”
Don Dorsey – the talented gentleman who created “Laserphonic Fantasy” & then “IllumiNations” for EPCOT – really had his work cut for him when he was first handed the “Sorcery in the Sky” project. You have to remember that – back then – Disney-MGM was an active film & television production center as well as a working theme park. Which is a polite way of saying that – when the Imagineers first designed Disney-MGM – they weren’t actually planning on presenting a nightly fireworks display at the place.
So working with a tight schedule (WDW officials wanted “Sorcery in the Sky” up & running 13 months after Disney-MGM first opened) and an even tighter budget, Don did what he could. Which was craft a show that was kind of a camel. Half a celebration of classic Hollywood (featuring the music of memorable motion pictures like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and the other half to Disney’s 1940 release, “Fantasia.”
It’s the conclusion of “Sorcery in the Sky” that most people remember even today. That’s when – as an excerpt from Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” played – a 50-foot-tall inflatable version of Mickey Mouse slowly rose up on the rooftop of the Chinese Theater. And as “Sorcery in the Sky” reached its climax, sparks then shot out Mickey’s finger tip (which was pointed out towards Disney-MGM’s parking lot. As if this giant Mouse was saying “That’s where your car is. Now please get out.”)
“Sorcery in the Sky” (which was originally narrated by screen legend Vincent Price) ran at this theme park from May of 1998 – October of 1998. This nighttime fireworks display was discontinued when the Florida version of “Fantasmic!” debut in the Fall of that same year.
Dick Tracy in the “Dimond Double-Cross” Stage Show
Let’s take a look at a piece of cross promotion at this theme park that then resulted in an intriguing stage show.
In the Spring of 1990, Walt Disney Studios was getting ready to release its answer to Tim Burton’s hugely successful “Batman” movie. And that was a feature film based on another comic book character, Dick Tracy. And since the Studios wanted the company’s theme parks to help promote this Warren Beatty, they were then tasked with creating some sort of Dick Tracy-themed stage show.
So director Robert Jess Roth & choreographer Matt West put their heads together and crafted a 28-minute-long musical comedy (which then used a few of the songs that legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim had written for the “Dick Tracy” film) called “Diamond Double-Cross.”
Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” movie quickly sank at the box office. But “Diamond Double-Cross” was hugely popular with theme park guests and ran for nine months at Disney-MGM’s old Theater of the Stars (Back when this Hollywood Bowl-inspired structure was still located next to that theme park’s Brown Derby Restaurant).
In fact, then-Disney president Michael Eisner was so impressed with what Roth & West had done when it came to translating “Dick Tracy” into a theme park show that – when the Company decided in 1993 that it was going to turn Disney’s animated hit, “Beauty & the Beast” into a Broadway musical – who did Michael recruit for this job? Robert & Matt.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appear on the Streets of America
As we continue our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s check out the Streets of America.
When this theme park first opened in May of 1989, the only way you could see this part of Disney-MGM (which – back then – was known as New York Street) was if you climbed aboard a tram and took the Backstage Studio Tour. By December of that same year, the Imagineers had realized that they needed to give visitors to WDW’s third theme park lots more elbow room. Which is when they decided to open New York Street (now known as the Streets of America) to foot traffic.
Of course, the problem with opening up all of this space at the very back of Disney-MGM was … Well, you now needed to give those Guests who actually hiked back there something to see & do other than poke around al those empty NYC-themed storefronts.
Luckily, in March of 1990, the very first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was released to theaters. And this New Line Cinema movie did so well at the box office (It was the fourth highest grossing film of that year, just behind “Ghost,” “Pretty Woman” & “Home Alone”) that Disney moved quickly to acquire the theme park rights to these hugely popular characters.
Which is why – just three months after TMNT originally debuted at your local multiplex — Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael (along with April O’Neil) were making multiple appearances daily out on New York Street. How many of you remember how these characters used to first roll onstage aboard the Turtle Party Wagon, then do a brief martial arts demonstration while April sang the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme song? This all-too-brief show (we’re talking 4 minutes, tops) ended with Guests then getting the chance to get their picture taken with their favorite turtle.
Sadly, these “Heroes on a Half Shell” didn’t hang on all that long at Disney-MGM. By 1994, the Teenage Mutant Turtles were no longer doing meet-n-greets on the Streets of America. But a different character from New Line Cinema (one which Disney also licensed the theme park rights to) would soon begin greeting theme park guests. We’ll get to him in a future installment of this series.
“Muppets on Location: Day of Swine and Rose” Stage Show
As we press ahead with our look at now-extinct rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), it’s now time to talk about “Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses.”
This outdoor presentation – which was presented as often as 5 times daily at the very back of Muppet Studios – was sort of a sequel to “Here Come the Muppets,” an indoor stage show we’ve previously discussed in this series.
And “Muppets on Location” … Well, its goal was to solve Guests’ No. 1 complaint about Disney-MGM’s “Here Come the Muppets” show. Which was “I want to get my picture taken with and/or collect the autograph of my favorite Muppet. How exactly do I do that?”
WDW’s Entertainment team came up with kind of an ingenious solution to this problem. They created this moment in the middle of this outdoor stage show where – as Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem played an extended musical number – Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Great Gonzo and Beanie would then move to pre-designated meet-n-greet spots at the edge of the “Muppets on Location” performance area and then interact with as many Guests as they possibly could in that short window of time.
It wasn’t a perfect system. Often Disney-MGM visitors would queue up to get their picture taken with their favorite Muppet character, only to then have Kermit & Co. suddenly rush back to the stage so that they could then take part in this show’s finale. Another aspect of “Muppets on Location” is that … Well, the Muppet walk-around characters at Disney-MGM wouldn’t sign Guests’ autograph books. They’d instead stamp them with a giant rubber stamp which then approximated what that Muppet character’s signature was supposed to look like.
“Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses” didn’t run all that long. By 1994, Miss Piggy & pals had packed up and vacated this corner of Disney-MGM. Which – some 15 years later – then became home to a Phineas & Ferb-themed meet-n-greet.
One especially sad story associated with “Muppets on Location: Days of Swine & Roses” : This was the Disney-MGM show that Jim Henson was supposed to be recording dialogue for on May 16, 1990. Which was the day that this Disney Legend succumbed to bacterial pneumonia.
Let’s now check out a parade that was developed for this theme park which was originally supposed to celebrate the Muppets.
“The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade” was originally supposed to have begun rolling down Hollywood Boulevard the very same summer that “Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3D” opened at Disney-MGM. Unfortunately after Jim’s untimely passing in May of 1990, the Henson family decided that it no longer wanted to sell the Muppets to Disney and broke off negotiations with the Mouse in December of that same year.
This made things complicated for the folks who worked in Entertainment at Walt Disney World, given that they had already begun construction on the various parade floats that were to be featured in “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade.” And given the terms of the settlement that Disney’s lawyers had hashed out with Henson’s attorneys in the Spring of 1991 … Well, Miss Piggy & pals now couldn’t appear on these already-largely-completed parade floats.
So what do you in a situation like this? You improvise. In April of 1991, “Dinosaurs” debuted on ABC. This sitcom was produced by Michael Jacobs Productions & Jim Henson Television in association with Walt Disney Television. Consequently, Disney’s legal agreement with Henson which kept Kermit & Co. off of the floats that had been built for “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade” didn’t apply in this situation.
Which is why – from September of 1991 thru August of 1992 – the Sinclair family made daily appearances at Disney-MGM. Riding on parade floats that had previously been designed for the Great Gonzo as well as Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem. Which then allowed WDW Entertainment to write off all of the money that they’d already spent on the design & development of “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade.”
“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”
It’s time to check out a playground that was added to this theme park’s Street of America area on the heels of the June 1989 release of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
This Joe Johnston film (which was released to theaters just 8 weeks after Disney-MGM first opened to the public) was the surprise hit of the Summer of 1989. “Honey” actually wound up being the fifth highest grossing film of that year, just behind “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Rain Man.”
Walt Disney Pictures immediately announced plans to produce a slew of sequels (They even went as far as to copyright a number of possible titles for these films in the late Summer of 1989. These included “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon,” “Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog,” and “Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible”). And on the theme park side of things, the Imagineers rushed to get a “Honey” -themed playground in the works for Disney-MGM Studios.
Which wasn’t as easy as you might think. After, Florida is hurricane country. So when you’re talking about installing 30-foot-tall blades of grasses, you then have to make sure that this structures are then properly anchored / can then stand up to 300 MPH.
Then there’s the issue of making sure that when little kids come sliding down off of that giant piece of film that’s then sticking out of that oversized Kodak cannister (And – just in case you’re wondering – Kodak got that kind of prominent product placement inside of this playground because they contributed to the cost of building “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”) and then not hurting themselves when they hit the ground.
“How’d the Imagineers manage that?,” you ask. The entire surface of this 11,000 square foot playground was covered with a material called Playdeck. Which was made up of ground-up truck tires.
Sadly, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” closed in May of 2016 to make room for another movie set adventure. Maybe you’ve heard of it? “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” ?
“Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show
Let’s talk about a stage show at this theme park that had some surprising legs. And that’s “Voyage of the Little Mermaid.”
To explain: In show biz parlance, when you say that a show has legs … Well, that then means this show has settled in for a surprisingly long run at the theater it’s being presented at. And that’s certainly what happened with the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” show at Disney-MGM. It opened in the Animation Courtyard Theater back on January 7, 1992. And to be honest, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic (which forced all of Walt Disney World to shut down for almost three months in early 2020), the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” would probably be running at that theme park even today.
Mind you, this 17-minute-long presentation was pretty much a Reader’s Digest version of this Academy Award-winning animated feature. But “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” packed an awful lot of 1990s era FX & pizzaz in that very short running time. There were lasers (to simulate the waves in the ocean as we journeyed “Under the Sea”), black light puppets, and bubbles galore. And who can forget that 12 foot-tall, 10 foot-wide Ursula puppet which sang “Poor Unfortunate Soul” ?
What was really intriguing about the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show is … Well, WDW’s Entertainment team deliberately designed this show to only run for 18 months (Given that the stage show which preceded “Mermaid” in the Animation Courtyard – “Here Come the Muppets” – only occupied this space for 16 months [May 1990 – September 1991], a year-and-a-half long stint at Disney-MGM seemed realistic) because the Imagineers had already begun designing a “Little Mermaid” dark ride that was supposed to installed over in the Magic Kingdom.
Which did eventually happen. “Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid” would indeed open at that theme park as part of the New Fantasyland project. But that wouldn’t happen ‘til more than 20 years after the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show first opened in 1992. And even after that “Under the Sea” dark ride began entertaining visitors to WDW’s Magic Kingdom, “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” kept being presented in DHS’s Animation Courtyard Theater.
Just so you know: There have been rumors that a brand-new production of “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” may soon be mounted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Of course, that all depends on how well Disney’s new live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” – the one starring Halle Bailey & Melissa McCarthy – does at the box office when it’s released to theaters later this month.
“Macy’s New York Christmas”
Let’s now look at perhaps the seasonal show which had the shortest run at this WDW theme park. And that’s “Macy’s New York Christmas.”
This all keyed off of the Company looking for ways to … Well, not only to celebrate Goofy’s 60th birthday but also raise awareness for “Goof Troop” (i.e., that then-new animated series which had just joined the “Disney Afternoon” programming block in syndication on September 5th of that same year). Which is why Disney cut a deal with the Macy’s Parade Studio to craft a 65-foot-tall inflatable version of this cartoon character which would be dressed as Santa Claus. Which would then make an appearance in the 66th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Which would march through the streets of NYC & be televised nationally on November 26, 1992.
As part of Disney’s deal with Macy’s, the Company got the rights to (after the Thanksgiving Day Parade was over, of course) bring that Santa Goofy balloon down to Florida. Where – along with four other balloons which had been featured in that year’s parade (i.e., Kermit the Frog, Betty Boop, Snuggle the fabric softener Bear and Humpty Dumpty) – these inflatables would then tethered to the tops of buildings down in Disney-MGM’s backlot. Which Guests could then view as they strolled through the Streets of America from December 5, 1992 – January 3, 1992.
And given that I’ve been lucky enough to befriend some folks who work in Macy’s Parade Studio, I can now tell you that this idea – keeping 5 of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons inflated for a full month (rather than for just the few hours it typically takes to pre-inflate these things, then send them aloft in time for their televised trip down Broadway, then get these ginormous balloons un-inflated & packed up for their trip back to Hoboken, NJ. Which is where – until 2011 — the actual physical Parade Studio was located in an old Tootsie Roll factory) – absolutely terrified the folks who worked at Macy’s.
Why? Because those Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons are rather fragile creatures. More to the point, helium – the gas that’s used to inflate these things – rapidly expands when exposed to heat. So the fear here was keeping these 5 balloons inflated for a full month in the Florida sun was going to eventually leave these things in tatters.
Luckily, Santa Goofy & his pals came through their 29-day-long stint at Disney-MGM unscathed. And while this was a one-and-done seasonal extravaganza as far as the Disney Parks was concerned, Universal just loved this idea. Which is why – starting in 2002 – the Macy’s Holiday Parade (later Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s) began seasonally rolling through Universal Studios Florida.
“Aladdin’s Royal Caravan”
As we continue our look back at rides, shows & attractions that we can no longer see at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s take a look at “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan,” a hugely popular parade that debuted at this theme park back on December 21, 1992. Which was one month after the animated feature that inspired “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” first debuted in theaters.
To be honest, WDW Entertainment had never ever done this before. Based a parade for the Parks on a single film. Much less a specific sequence from a Walt Disney Animation Studios production. But the “Prince Ali” number from this Ron Clements / John Musker movie was such a high point from this soon-to-be Oscar-winning film that it felt … Well, almost like a no-brainer to use this Howard Ashman & Alan Menken number as the jumping-off point for “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan.”
Mind you, because Robin Williams’ Genie character appears in so many different disguises in this part of the “Aladdin” movie that WDW Entertainment then felt free to have multiple versions of this character make appearances in “Royal Caravan.” First there was the Drum Major Genie who started off the parade, followed by the 32-foot-tall inflatable version of this character. Directly behind this super-sized Genie was a version of this character in the bathtub. Who was then followed by a Genie who had been split into his upper & lower half.
This five-unit parade – which featured those infamous golden camels (Watch out! They spit!) – may not have been the longest thing to roll through the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But WDW visitors just loved “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan.” So much so that this WDW Entertainment-designed affair (which was only supposed to run for a year) got its run at this theme park extended through August of 1995.
In fact, “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” was so popular with folks who visited the Mouse’s theme parks in Florida that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided that Disneyland needed a clone of this parade. This second version of “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” was then rushed into production and managed to debut in Anaheim by April 2, 1993.
“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action”
“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action” – kind of redefines “short-lived.”
For those of you who don’t remember “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” this was a Jim Carrey comedy that was released to theaters back in February of 1994. This Tom Shadyac movie did well enough at the box office that Warner Bros. quickly greenlit a sequel, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – When Nature Calls.”
To help promote this sequel (which arrived in theaters on November 5, 1995), Warner Bros. cut a deal with Disney to have a live stunt show featuring the Ace Ventura character presented 5 times daily on Disney-MGM’s “Streets of America.” It was hoped that this stunt show would then help raise awareness of “When Nature Calls” and maybe convince a few visitors to WDW’s third theme park to then go see this “Ace Ventura” sequel at the AMC Pleasure Island (i.e., that movie theater which is now known as the AMC Dine-In Disney Springs 24).
This “Live in Action” stunt show mainly consisted of a Disney cast member dressed as Ace Ventura climbing up & down various facades found on the “Streets of America.” Sometimes Ace would attempt to capture a giant spider that had gotten loose. Other times this Pet Detective would enlist Guests help in finding a rare albino bat (which kids would eventually find hanging from one of these buildings’ fire escape. After shouting a few of the catch-phrases for these Jim Carrey movies (EX: “Do NOT go in there!), Ace would then pose for pictures & sign some autographs.
Though “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – When Nature Calls” did significantly better at the box office than the first “Ace Ventura” did (i.e., selling $212 million worth of tickets versus the $107 million purchased for the first film), Carrey, Morgan Creek Productions & Warner Bros. opted not to make a third “Ace Ventura” film for theatrical release.
And as for this stunt show, with the start of the New Year in 1996, Disney-MGM quietly pulled the plug on “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action.” Here’s hoping that WDW Entertainment found some good homes for that giant spider & albino bat.
“The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights“
We now arrive at the seasonal attraction that most longtime WDW fans will cite as the thing they miss most of all, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
This holiday favorite … Well, it grew out of a request that Breezy Osborne made to her Dad back in 1986. She asked Jennings (a successful Arkansas businessman) if they could please cover their Little Rock home with Christmas lights.
Daddy honored Breezy’s request. And with every passing year, Jennings added even more Christmas lights. Until – by 1993 – the Osborne family home was lit up by more than 3 million bulbs. Which turned this annual holiday display into a genuine tourist attraction in Little Rock. Not to mention really annoying Jenning’s neighbors.
As you might expect, this matter eventually wound up in court. When the Arkansas Supreme Court shut down this seasonal display in 1995, the Entertainment team at Walt Disney World reached out to the Osborne family and offered up Residential Street as a possible new home for those 3 million+ bulbs.
Mind you, it took four full-sized Mayflower moving vans to haul all those Christmas lights from Little Rock down to Orlando. It then took Disney technicians two weeks to untangle those thousands of strings of bulbs. But by November 22, 1995, Residential Street was all lit up. And WDW suddenly found itself with a new seasonal favorite.
Over time (and to better handle the crowds that came out every year to see this holiday display), the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights eventually moved from Residential Street over to the Streets of America. And that’s where they stayed until WDW finally decided to pull the plug on this Christmas tradition on January 3, 2016 so that DHS’ backlot area could then be torn down. Which would then allow construction of the Florida version of “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” to get underway.
Just so you know: Every so often, WDW officials revisit the idea of reviving the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. There’s even been talk of building an entire faux neighborhood on property so that people could then drive through every holiday season and view this Christmas display just as Breezy & Jennings originally intended. But to date, The Walt Disney Company has yet to put that plan in motion.
“Toy Story Parade”
I’d like to now offer up a story about one of my personal favorite, which was the Toy Story Parade.
I was living down in Orlando when this parade originally debuted at WDW’s third theme park. Not only that, but the day that the “Toy Story Parade” debuted at Disney-MGM (i.e., November 22, 1995) … Well, I started my morning over at the AMC Pleasure Island. Where I caught the very first screening of “Toy Story,” Pixar’s first full-length animated feature.
That screening began at 11 a.m. Given that this John Lasseter film was only one hour and 17 minutes long, I was able to walk out of that screening of “Toy Story,” climb into my trusty Geo Metro and then drive over to Disney-MGM. Where I was then able to gain entrance to that theme park just in time to catch the very first presentation of the “Toy Story Parade.” Which stepped off at 1 p.m. at Crossroads of the World and then rolled up Hollywood Boulevard.
Given that Disney had never done this before (i.e., have a parade that keyed off of a specific film debut at one of the Company’s theme parks day & date with that very same movie’s arrival in theaters), I have to tell you that it was genuinely surreal to see the “Toy Story” characters
And I have to tell you it was genuinely surreal to see all of these Pixar character suddenly writ large. The “Toy Story Parade” started off with the Green Army Men manning the marquee float. Next came Hamm & Mr. Potato on top of a pile of over-sized board games. After that came Buzz atop of his “Star Command” box surrounded by Little Green Aliens. Bringing up the rear was Woody & Rex. And inbetween these four floats were walk-around versions of Bo Peep & Slinky Dog. Not to mention a Barrel O’ Monkeys.
One especially strong memory of that day was the woman who was standing next to me as the “Toy Story Parade” made its inaugural trip through Disney-MGM. And all she kept saying was “Where’s Mickey? I don’t know who any of these characters are.” And as soon as all those floats & performers cleared Crossroads of the World, this woman marched straight into Guest Relations and then complained loudly about how … Well, a parade at a Disney park should feature Disney characters. Not these weird Pixar characters from some movie that no one’s ever seen.
Mind you, everyone knows who Buzz & Woody are now. And what with “Toy Story 5” already in the works … Who knows? Maybe Disney’s Hollywood Studios will host an all-new “Toy Story Parade” in the not-too-distant future
As we continue our look back at rides, shows & attractions that used to be up & running at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), how many of you recall the Backlot Theater?
This immense performance venue (it had seating for 1500 Guests) originally came online on May 23, 1993 (30 years ago this week). The Backlot Theater was built as a replacement for the Theater of the Stars, that inspired-by-the-Hollywood-Bowl complex that used to be located just off of Hollywood Bowl at this theme park.
The two live stage shows that most Guests saw in the Backlot Theater keyed off of two animated features that Disney released in the mid-1990s. First came “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” a stage version of this Academy Award-winning film. This 28-minute-long retelling of Disney’s “Pocahontas” movie (which – FYI – began presenting performances at Disney-MGM on the exact same day that the animated feature version of this film first opened in theaters. Which was June 23, 1995) featured a 28-foot-tall version of Grandmother Willow. Not to mention a cast of 30 singers & dancers.
“The Spirit of Pocahontas” had a relatively short run at WDW’s third theme park. This stage show closed on February 24, 1996 to make way for an even more elaborate production. Which was “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure.”
Just like with “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” the “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” was a stage version of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ most recent (at that time, anyway) theatrical release. It opened on June 21, 1996 (again the very same day that the animated “Hunchback” opened in movie theaters nationwide) and then settled in for a good long run. The very last presentation of “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” wouldn’t happen ‘til over 6 years later. On September 28, 2002 to be exact.
FYI: If you have memories of sweating through performances of “The Spirit of Pocahontas” and/or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure,” there’s a reason for that. The Backlot Theater was an open-air theater. The stage itself was undercover, which protected the actors from that changeable Central Florida weather. But not the audience.
Mind you, once the “Hunchback” stage show ended in its run in 2002, the Imagineers transformed this Streets of America area performance venue into a totally enclosed theater with air conditioning. It would then be redubbed the Premier Theater and eventually become home to the first iteration of the “For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-along” show.
“Super Soap Weekend”
Let’s take a look at one of the more popular fan events to ever be presented at this theme park. And that’s Super Soap Weekend.
This event actually dates back to August of 1995. Which is when The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be acquiring ABC / Cap Cities for $19 billion (That’s $37 billion in 2023 dollars).
Mind you, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner actually started his career at the Alphabet network. He quickly rose through the ranks. And – by 1971 – Michael was the vice president of daytime programming at ABC. Which meant that Eisner helped get two of that television network’s long running soap operas – “One Life to Live” & “All My Children” – up out of the ground.
So is it any wonder that – after The Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities in February of 1996 — one of the very first things that Michael Eisner did was order that Disney-MGM stage an in-park event that then celebrated the Alphabet Network’s daytime dramas.
And just eight months later (On October 19 – 20th, to be exact), the very first Super Soap Weekend was staged at WDW’s third theme park. And while Disney had hoped this event would be popular, they were stunned when people began lining up outside MGM’s gates at 3 a.m. Just so they could then be sure to get the autograph of their favorite soap star.
Since Nancy was (and still is) a huge ABC Daytime fan, she & I attended all but one of the Super Soap Weekends. And when I say that I “attended,” what I mean is that I got Nancy to Disney-MGM first thing in the morning and then collected her late at night after that day’s festivities had wrapped.
Sadly, Disney-MGM staged its last Super Soap Weekend in November of 2008. But we still have a pile of those black & white 5 & 7s that ABC gave away for free of Nancy’s favorite daytime performers. She still looks back on those times with much fondness.
“Star Wars Weekends”
As we continue our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s talk about an annual event that eventually led to a whole new land at this theme park. And that’s Star Wars Weekends.
It was an outside event that actually made the Mouse decide to take a flyer on this four / sometimes five weekend-long event. And that was George Lucas’ decision to release the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. When “A New Hope” opening in theaters on January 31, 1997, then “The Empire Strikes Back” following Episode 4 into your local multiplex just three weeks later on February 21st.
In fact, the Special Editions of Episode 4 & 5 did so well at the box office that Lucas (along with 20th Century Fox) opted to push back the release date of the Special Edition of “Return of the Jedi” by a full week (from March 7, 1997 to March 14th of that same year). Just so “The Empire Strikes Back” would then have even more time to sell tickets to Star Wars fans.
And when Disney Parks learned in 1996 that George Lucas was readying the “Special Editions” for theatrical release in the first quarter of 1997 … Well, they saw an opportunity to piggyback on all of the promotion that Lucas & 20th Century Fox would obviously be doing in order to convince moviegoers that they really needed to see these spruced-up version of “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
Which is why they scheduled their own month-long Star Wars-related event to kick off on Friday, February 21st. Which was just as the Special Edition of “The Empire Strikes Back” was arriving in theaters. Using Disney-MGM’s “Star Tours” (Not to mention the full-sized Imperial Walker & Ewok Village that the Imagineers built just outside the entrance of this motion-based simulator attraction) as the center pole for this 5-week-long event … Well, they invited the stars of the original Star Wars trilogy (We’re talking people like …
- David Prowse AKA Darth Vader
- Kenny Baker AKA R2D2
- Anthony Daniels AKA C3P0
- Peter Mayhew AKA Chewbacca
- Jeremy Bullock AKA Boba Fett
- And Warwick Davis AKA Wicket the Ewok)
… to take part in daily motorcades, not to mention meet-n-greets and autograph sessions with Star Wars fans.
The first Star Wars Weekends (which ends on March 23, 1997. Which as just as the Special Edition of “The Return of the Jedi” was ending its theatrical run) was so hugely successful that – when “The Phantom Menace” premiered in theaters in May of 1999 and did boffo box office – the Mouse announced that Star Wars Weekends would be returning to Disney-MGM.
As it did (with a year off in 2002) for the next 15 years. Disney’s Hollywood Studios only discontinued Star Wars Weekends after the 2015 edition so that work could then begin on this theme park’s “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” land.
“Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show”
Let’s talk about another really short-live show at this theme park. Which was the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show.
Now when it came to the original iteration of Disney-MGM Studios, the Imagineers always knew that this theme park came up short when it came to one particular film genre. And that was horror.
Oh, sure. There was Disney-MGM’s “Monster Sound Show” (but that wasn’t really about horror. But – rather – how sound effects are added to films in post-production). Likewise the mummy’s tomb scene in “The Great Movie Ride” (but that wasn’t really about horror either. It was mostly an extension of that ride-thru attraction’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequence).
Mind you, the Imagineers developed a few horror-themed attractions for Disney-MGM. There was Soundstage 13, which was supposed to be home to this theme park’s “Hotel Mel” ride (Believe it or not, Mel Brooks was actually supposed to be the host of this ride-thru show that spoofed horror. Which – over time – mutated in this theme park’s signature attraction, “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”). There was also the “Creatures Choice Awards,” which was supposed to mix Hollywood’s love of awards shows in with a salute to the horror genre. And this show – if it had ever built – was supposed to climax with Godzilla literally bringing down the house as he arrived to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award.
But because the Disney Parks like to be considered family-friendly … Well, it wasn’t ‘til R.L. Stines’ best-selling series of scary tales for young adults (not to mention the “Goosebumps” TV series that spun off from that set of books) came along in the mid-1990s that the Imagineers thought they finally had a horror-themed property that would then work for Disney-MGM Studio theme park.
So the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show was built towards the back of the Streets of America (kind of where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stage show / meet-n-greet had been located at this same theme park back in the late 1980s). It opened in early October of 1997 (just in time for Halloween) and featured popular Goosebumps characters like Slappy the ventriloquist doll, Prince Khor-Ru the Mummy, Curly the Skeleton and Cuddles the Giant Hamster.
Mind you, the Mouse had to pay R.L. Stine (not to mention the producers of the “Goosebumps” television series) for the rights to use these characters in a theme park setting. And when the “Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show” didn’t prove to be as popular with visitors to Disney-MGM as the Company had originally hoped … Well, they opted not to renew this deal.
Which is why – after one last Halloween presentation – the “Goosebumps Horrorland Fright Show” closed on November 1, 1998.
was an attraction at Disney’s MGM Studios in Walt Disney World and ran from October 8, 1997, to November 1, 1. 998.
It’s now time to talk about “Doug Live!,” the short-lived musical based on that Emmy-nominated animated series.
This show arrived at Disney-MGM in kind of a convoluted way. By the Spring of 1998, “Superstar Television” (which was an opening day attraction at this theme park) was showing its age. WDW’s Entertainment team had tried to freshen up this celebration of network TV by folding in new vignettes that were pulled from recent Touchstone Television-produced hits like “Home Improvement” & “Empty Nest.” But in the end (largely because return visitors to Disney-MGM were now regularly passing this audience participation show by), they knew it was now time to develop a “Superstar Television” replacement.
On a parallel track, in 1996, Disney acquired Jumbo Studios (i.e., the animation production company that made “Doug.” Which was that popular animated series which debuted on Nickelodeon back in August of 1991). As a direct result of this acquisition, the Mouse now had the rights to produce three additional seasons of “Doug.” Which – to differentiate this new set of shows from the ones that Jumbo had originally produced for Nickelodeon – would now be rebranded as Disney’s “Doug.”
And since Disney prides itself on being a synergy machine (And also because there was a belief out there in the mid-to-late 1990s that Disney-MGM didn’t have enough stuff that appealed to pre-teens), a “Doug” musical was put in development for this theme park. The goal going into this project was to create a show that could be presented at least 5 times a day. Getting as many Guests as possible in & out of this 1000-seat venue over the course of a typical operating day.
To be honest, “Doug Live!” didn’t live all that long. This musical was presented inside of Disney-MGM’s old “Superstar Television” from September 26, 1998 through May 12, 1999. So this show only got an eight month-long run.
That said, fans of the “Doug” TV shows (both the four seasons that ran on Nickelodeon AND the three seasons produced by Disney. Not to mention “Doug’s 1st Movie,” which was released theatrically in March of 1999) still talk about the great job that the human performer who played Porkchop (That’s Doug’s dog) did in this stage show.
“ABC Sound Studio: Sounds Dangerous!”
Let’s now talk about all of the auditory excitement that Guests got to experience whenever they dropped by this theme park’s ABC Sound Studio. Which is where the “Sounds Dangerous!” show was presented.
Of course, this Echo Lake-adjacent complex used to be home to Disney-MGM’s “Monster Sound Show.” But when attendance began dropping for this opening day attraction in the mid-1990s … Well, WDW first tried to turn this situation around by launching a new show in this space back in July of 1997 that was deliberately aimed at a pre-teen audience.
Unfortunately, the “One Saturday Morning” show (which keyed off of how ABC promoted its Saturday morning line-up back in the mid-to-late 1990s) didn’t appeal to adults. Which is why WDW Entertainment halted this presentation after just 19 months and then turned to Drew Carey for help.
At that time, Carey was the star of two hit shows on ABC (i.e., “The Drew Carey Show” and “Whose Line is it Anyway”). More to the point, Drew just loved the Disney theme parks. So much so that — when he wasn’t busy taping his two shows for the Alphabet Network — Carey could often be found at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
Anyway … In late 1998, the Imagineers reached to Drew and said “We were thinking about building an attraction for the Parks around you.” And as the story goes, Carey said “Yes!” before the folks at 1401 Flower Street could even explain to him what this new show for Disney-MGM was supposed to be about.
“Sounds Dangerous!” made use of that binaural technology which used to be showcased in the post-show portion of “The Monster Sound Show.” How many of you remember taking a seat in one of those darkened booths, putting on a set of headphones and then getting a haircut in 3D sound?
The Drew Carey version of this 3D sound show involved sitting in a dark theater for 12 minutes and then getting menaced by scary sounding things like stampeding elephants & killer bees. Which (I’ll admit) doesn’t sound like much fun. But Carey’s likability as a performer coupled with the Imagineers’ ingenuous of binaural technology made “Sounds Dangerous!” a fun way to spend part of your day at Disney-MGM.
This revamped attraction was a regular offering at this theme park through early 2009. After that point, “Sounds Dangerous!” then became a seasonal offering at Disney-MGM (which meant that it was only open to Guests when this theme parks was at its absolute busiest and then needed the additional capacity). By May of 2011, this starring-Drew-Carey show closed for good. Only to then be replaced in November of 2015 by “Star Wars: The Path of the Jedi.”
“Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage”
Let’s take a look at an interactive stage show that parents with preschoolers used to flock to. And that’s “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage.”
The inspiration for this theme park attraction was – of course – the “Bear in the Big Blue House” TV series. That show debuted as part of the Disney Channel’s Playhouse Disney programming block back in October of 1997. And this Shadow Projects / Jim Henson Television co-production was so popular that four seasons of this Emmy Award-winning series were eventually produced.
And Disney being Disney … Well, when you have a successful TV show, you then immediately look for ways to bring that IP into your theme park which celebrates film & television. Which is – of course – Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Now where this gets interesting is how Disney decided to bring “Bear in the Big Blue House” into WDW’s third theme park. Given that – if the Park opted to build a brand-new structure to house this stage show – it would have been a year or more before toddlers finally got the chance to hang out with Bear, Tutter, Ojo & Treelo. And who knew if this TV program would even still be popular with preschoolers by then?
This is why – in order to fast-track this project – managers at Disney-MGM opted to shut down that theme park’s Soundstage Restaurant on November 14, 1998. They then transformed the dining area of this breakfast buffet / quick service venue into a performance space. Which then threw open its doors just seven months later on June 7, 1999.
What WDW managers especially loved about “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage” was … Well, because preschoolers’ attention spans are short, they were then allowed to keep the running time of this interactive stage show extremely short as well. We’re talking just a 15 minute-long run time. Which meant that this theme park could then load a brand-new audience into Soundstage 5 every 30 minutes.
And when that 7-foot-tall bear came out onstage, those toddlers would react like they were in the presence of Elvis. They’d scream. They’d cry. They’d clap.
Mind you, to broaden the appeal of this Disney-MGM offering, “Bear in the Blue House: Live on Stage” was shut down in August of 2001 for retooling. Some two months later, “Playhouse Disney – Live on Stage!” debuted inside of Soundstage 5. And in addition to Bear, this now-20 minute-long interactive experience featured appearances by characters from other popular Disney Junior shows like “Rolie Polie Olie,” “Stanley” and “The Book of Pooh.”
FYI: The “Bear in the Big Blue House” TV series became available for streaming on Disney+ in October of last year. And there has been a lot of talk lately about the Company possibly reviving this hugely popular program for preschoolers. So stay tuned.
We’re in the home stretch now in regards to rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) that are no longer with us. And perhaps the most controversial item to ever be built at this theme park had to be the Sorcerer’s Hat. Which was that 122-foot-tall structure built at the top of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theater.
Mind you, that’s not where the Imagineers originally wanted to this structure to be built. The thinking – early on, anyway – was that the Sorcerer’s Hat should be built down by Disney-MGM’s entrance. To be specific, just off to the right of where Guests enter this theme park after they get off the boat from Epcot.
What’s more, WDI’s original design for the Sorcerer’s Hat (which was supposed to be the focal point of Walt Disney World’s “100 Years of Magic” celebration in 2001) was so much larger. So large in fact that the Mickey ears which jutted out to either side of this super-sized conical wizard’s cap were supposed to have been a pair of full-sized Ferris Wheels that Guests could have then ridden. Not only that, but the rectangular building which was to have served as the base of this fanciful structure … Well, that’s where the “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” exhibit was originally supposed to be housed.
Unfortunately, as time went by, the Company’s plan for WDW’s 15-month-long “100 Years of Magic” celebration got far less ambitious and far more economical. This is why – instead of building a brand-new structure to house “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” out towards the main entrance to this theme park – that Disneyana exhibition eventually got shoehorned into the old Post-Production portion of Disney-MGM’s backstage walking tour.
And as for the Sorcerer’s Hat … This 156-ton structure then became part of the hot new fad that WDW Resort was really leaning into at that time. Which was pin trading. This is why that 60,000 square foot space at the base of the Hat got turned into a pin shop.
The Sorcerer’s Hat opened on October 1, 2001. And for the next 13+ years, it blocked Guests’ view of the Chinese Theater. Thankfully, on January 7, 2015, demolition of the Hat began. And by February 25th of that same year, the 91 panels that made up this structure were all cleared away. Which was quite the hat trick.
“Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade”
Let’s take a look at a parade that rolled through this theme park for over 6 years in the early 2000s. And that’s “Disney Stars and Motor Cars.”
In the early, early days of Disney-MGM (we’re talking the late 1980s / early 1990s here), there was a daily “Star of the Day” motorcade at this theme park. Some veteran of film or television would first climb into the back of a convertible and roll up Hollywood Boulevard as they waved to the Guests gathered on the sidewalk. After that, this celebrity would then take part in a handprint ceremony out in front of the Chinese Theater.
WDW Entertainment remembered how popular that daily motorcade had been with visitors to Disney-MGM. Which is why – when the Company was readying a year-long celebration of Walt Disney’s birth (i.e., That resort’s “100 Years of Magic” celebration. Which kicked off on October 1, 2001) – these folks wondered: Could we maybe replicate that event? Only instead of having some aging actor in a convertible roll up Hollywood Boulevard, how about we create a daily motorcade for the Studios that then treats the Disney & Pixar characters like the stars that they are?
And that was the jumping-off point for the development of “Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade.” With the basic idea here being mixing classic Hollywood (which is why all of the vehicles that the characters ride in were deliberately crafted to look vintage) with Disney & Pixar’s latest & greatest. In fact, right from the get-go, that was one of the main creative conceits of this new daily parade at Disney-MGM. That the grand marshall of that day’s presentation of “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” would always be the lead character of whatever Disney or Pixar film just happened to be out in theaters at that same time.
Which is why – over the six+ year run of “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” – Guests got to see Chicken Little, Remy from “Ratatouille” & Giselle from “Enchanted” – serve as this parade’s grand marshall.
Anyway … This parade concept proved to be so sturdy / so popular with Guests that, after “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” ended its run in Florida, this parade was then packed up & shipped off to France. Where – in April of 2009 – it then began rolling through Disney-MGM’s sister park. Which is Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris.
Which begs the question: When “Disney Stars and Motor Cars” made its Parisian debut, was it now just a rolling used car lot?
“American Idol Experience”
There’s only a handful of stories left to share in this series about now-defunct rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). So now let’s talk about a show that – to be blunt – was kind of snake-bit during its 5-year-long run at this theme park. And that’s the “American Idol Experience.”
Okay. To understand how Disney-MGM wound up with an “American Idol” -themed show, we first have to talk about “American Idol,” the TV show. Which debuted on Fox in June of 2002 and quickly became this white-hot phenomenon.
Meanwhile, at Disney-MGM, the Imagineers were genuinely struggling when it came to fill that theme park’s 1000-seat “Superstar Television” theater. We’ve talked previously in this series about one show that was staged in this space. And that was “Doug Live!,” the 30 minute-long musical which ran in this theater from March of 1999 – May of 2001. Then there was the “Get Happy … with ABC” show, which debuted in this space on July 1, 2002 and was then gone by October 5th of that same year.
The theater that previously housed “Superstar Television” then stood empty for more than 5 years until – in February of 2008 – it was revealed that a live performance attraction based on the then-hugely popular Fox reality series would open at Disney-MGM in just one year’s time.
Ah, but what no one at the Mouse House foresaw was – over the next 364 days – “American Idol” ‘s formerly stellar ratings on Fox would then begin to slip. So by the time the “American Idol Experience” opened at Disney-MGM on February 14, 2009, this brand-new attraction at that theme park was now based on a show that was rapidly losing its previously devoted audience.
So few people attended performances of the “American Idol Experience” that – by June of 2014 – WDW managers suddenly announced that this audience participation show would be shuttering in early January of 2015. Later that same Summer, things got so dire at Disney-MGM that this theme park actually pushed forward the closing of this attraction by a full 5 months and then pulled the plug on the place on August 30, 2014.
What was especially galling to the Imagineers is that – just prior to the opening of Disney-MGM’s “American Idol Experience” back in 2009 — they had spent millions overhauling the interior of the “Superstar Television” theater so that it then looked exactly like the set of this Fox TV show. Only to have this expensive-to-mount show barely eek out a 5-year-long run. But the upside is … The very next show to be staged in this space (i.e., “For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration,” which opened in the now-renamed Hyperion Theater on June 17, 2015) has proven to be hugely popular with Guests. Barring a seven month-long shutdown in 2020 due to the pandemic, this show has been presented continuously in this theater – sometimes as often as 10 times a day.
“Journey Into Narnia: Creating The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”
It’s now time to discuss Disney’s attempt to launch a “Chronicles of Narnia” film series. Which then lead to two attractions at DHS.
If we’re being completely honest here, it was the success of the first two “Harry Potter” movies (i.e., 2001’s “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and 2002’s “Chamber of Secrets”) that spurred executives at the Mouse House to seek out another book series which featured magic that could then be turned into a film franchise.
With this idea in mind, Disney announced in March of 2004 that it would be partnering with Walden Media to produce “The Chronicles of Narnia.” This series of live-action adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novels would kick off with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Which would arrive in theaters just in time for the 2005 holiday season.
And – of course (because the Mouse prides itself on synergy) – Disney’s Hollywood Studios would help promote this just-getting-underway film series. Which is why – on December 9, 2005 (i.e., the very same day that Disney’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” first opened in theaters – “Journey into Narnia: Creating The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” threw open its doors at this theme park.
This walk-thru exhibit (which was set up inside of Soundstage Four) started with Guests stepping through a super-sized wardrobe. Once inside, people found themselves wandering around a frosty (You can thank Disney-MGM’s cooling plant for that), snow-filled forest. Where – after watching a few clips from this Andrew Adamson movie and then being addressed by a cast member dressed as the White Witch – Guests were then funneled in a second part of this building. Which is where props & costumes from the “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” movie were displayed.
The first “Chronicles of Narnia” film did well enough at the box office that Disney & Walden Media produced a sequel (i.e., “Prince Caspian,” which arrived in theaters in May of 2008). Disney-MGM used that movie as an excuse to update its “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” walk-thru with props & costumes from the second film in the “Chronicles” series.
Unfortunately, “Prince Caspian” seriously under-performed. So much so that Disney opted out of making a third “Chronicles of Narnia” movie with Walden Media. That said, Disney’s Hollywood Studios let its “Prince Caspian” walk-thru limp along ‘til September 10, 2011. That’s when Soundstage 4 was transformed into the attraction which we’ll talk about tomorrow.
“The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow”
We now officially bring our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) to a close by talking about one of the more misbegotten things to ever be foisted on the theme park going public. And that’s “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Now you have to understand that – when this 13-minute-long show opened inside of Soundstage 4 – it had been a year and a half since the last “Pirates” movie (i.e., “On Stranger Tides”) had opened in theaters. So this project wasn’t done to help promote that movie. But – rather – to help keep this film franchise front-of-mind with WDW visitors until the Studios finally got around to making “Pirates 5.” Which wouldn’t happen for another six years.
Now where this gets weird is that – in spite of the fact that Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies were filled with exciting action scenes and sometimes bawdy humor – “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow” was written to appeal to a very young audience. We’re talking 5 & 6-year-olds, tops. Which is why there was a talking skull in this show that kept encouraging audience members to do things like roar back at the Kraken and stomp their feet (which then scared away a menacing mermaid). Not to mention periodically scream “Arr!”
Mind you, Imagineering persuaded Johnny Depp himself to come back and play Captain Jack Sparrow in this short-lived show. He was inserted into the proceedings through the use of hi-def digital projection. It was a fun moment in the show. But (if we’re being completely honest here) not enough to redeem “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Given how many adult Guests complained about this “Pirates of the Caribbean” show being mostly for little kids, DHS managers quickly realized that they had seriously miscalculated with “The Legend of Jack Sparrow.” Which is why it was shuttered in early November of 2014, less than two years after this “Pirates”-for-pre-schoolers show had first opened.
And what went next into Soundstage 4? Nothing. This entire structure at the Studios was torn down so that WDI could then create an entrance for an entirely new land for DHS. Which was “Toy Story Land.” Which opened at this theme park in late June of 2018.
From Aladdin to Indy – How Did We Get an Indiana Jones Stage Show at Disneyland?
Be sure to check out Part One: How Did We Get “Aladdin’s Oasis” at Disneyland?
The Tahitian Terrace – a Polynesian-themed restaurant which had operated in the Adventureland section of Disneyland Park for 30 years – was shut down in the Spring of 1993 to “ … make way for Prince Ali.”
“Aladdin’s Oasis” (the dinner adventure) only operated for 14 months. This show closed in August of 1994.
“Aladdin’s Oasis – The Restaurant”
Just to clarify here, though. The “Aladdin’s Oasis” show closed after a brief 14 month run. But because the Park had spent so much money building this new Adventureland restaurant (Remember it had been a rush job – going from concept to throwing open its doors in just 5 months – on Michael Eisner’s expressed orders) … That – in an effort to recover some of that money – “Aladdin’s Oasis” (in 1995) re-opened as just a restaurant in Adventureland that didn’t offer a show. People oohed & aahed at all the exquisite detail inside (the in-laid ceramic tiles in the floor. That 15 foot-tall tiger’s head that sat at the center of the stage at the front of this restaurant. FYI: This served as the Cave of Wonders in the “Aladdin’s Oasis” show).
This Adventureland restaurant was admittedly a beautiful venue. But Disneyland visitors in the mid-1990s weren’t all that adventurous. At least when it came to food. And a restaurant that served Americanized Middle Eastern fare had trouble attracting customers back then. Which is why the only-a-restaurant version of “Aladdin’s Oasis” closed in 1995.
The way theme parks operate financially … Well, Disneyland couldn’t just tear “Aladdin’s Oasis” down and start anew. They’d spent far too much money building the thing. Strictly for tax purposes, this big chunk of Adventureland real estate now had to just sit there, empty as it depreciated.
“Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine”
Disneyland would periodically try & find other uses for this space. For a time, there was a “Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine” show staged inside of this now vacant restaurant. Two Cast Members dressed as Aladdin & Jasmine would first tell the story of the “Aladdin” movie. Then – as this show’s finale – the Cave of Wonders would suddenly come roaring to life. And – in a puff of smoke – the Genie would magically appear by leaping out of this giant stone tiger’s open mouth. And then … Well, it was time for the Guests to line-up and get their picture taken with these three characters from “Aladdin.” Maybe grab an autograph or two.
But “Storytime with Aladdin & Jasmine” was only presented at the Park on a seasonal basis. Only during those times of year that Disneyland was busiest. For the most part, this Adventureland eatery stood empty for the better part of a decade. Until word came from Lucasfilm in 2007 that they were about to begin production of a new “Indiana Jones” film.
Indiana Jones Back in Theaters and Promotion at Disneyland
Given that the previous “Indiana Jones” film (i.e., the third in the series, “Last Crusade”) had come out back in May of 1989 … To finally be getting a new “Indy” film after 18 years was a very big deal.
FYI: The gap between the release of the fourth film in the series (i.e, 2008’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Indy” film No. 5 (i.e., 2023’s “Dial of Destiny”) is almost as long. 15 years & change.
Given that Disneyland obviously had its “Indiana Jones Adventureland” attraction (which opened in March of 1995) … Well, they saw the upcoming release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” as a synergistic opportunity. So Disney reached out to Lucasfilm and proposed a bit of cross promotion that would involve Disneyland Park.
Just to be clear here: This was back in late 2007 / early 2008. The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Lucasfilm wouldn’t happen ‘til October of 2012. That’s more than 4 years off in the future.
Translation: It was Lucasfilm – with the highly anticipated movie that Disney now wanted to capitalize on — that had all of the power in this situation. NOT the Mouse. Keep that in mind as we move ahead with our story here.
“Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” – Disneyland Show
Anyway … In March of 2008, Disneyland announces that it will be holding auditions for a new show that will soon be presented in the Adventureland section of that theme park. They’re looking for performers with stage combat experience to fill the following roles:
- Indiana Jones: Male, 40’s; a rugged adventurer, great physical shape; can play drama, toss off comic lines and throw a punch all with equal ability; must interact well with children.
- An archaeologist: Female, late 20’searly 40’s; English accent; starts out kind and helpful but eventually reveals a villainous side; will interact with children and lead them through a series of activities.
- The Bad Guy: Male; imposing stature; physical agility and stamina a must; pursues Indiana Jones through the crowded streets of Adventureland, ending in a series of balcony and rooftop confrontations.
This supposedly kid-friendly attraction – which goes by the name “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” – is supposed to be alive-action adventure that will be staged several times a day all over Adventureland. The idea here is that – over the Summer of 2008 (coming right on the heels of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” In fact, this new show at Disneyland would begin presenting performances at that Park on the very same day “Indiana Jones 4” was released to theaters. Which – again – was May 22, 2008) – Disneyland Guests could join Doctor Jones and solve mysteries, battle evil villains and uncover ancient mysteries.
On paper, this three month-long cross promotion (which – because it was only going to held at Disneyland over that theme park’s Summer months – went by the title of “Indiana Jones Summer of Hidden Mysteries”) was a great idea. In their heart of hearts, the Entertainment team at Disneyland Park was hoping that the centerpiece of this three month-long seasonal event (That would be the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show. Which we’ll get to in a moment) would be such an enormous success that they’d then be able to turn this kid-friendly show into a permanent attraction at Disneyland Park.
Indiana Jones Themed “Jedi Training Academy”
Let me explain what was really going on here: Disneyland’s Entertainment team was hoping that they’d be able to turn the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show (which – given its title – was obviously going to be staged inside of the now-empty “Aladdin’s Oasis” with that 15-foot-tall version of the Cave of Wonders serving as the centerpiece of this show) into another “Jedi Training Academy” -like show.
Just so you know: The “Jedi Training Academy” started out as a kid-friendly offering at the very first “Star Wars Weekend” at Disney-MGM in February of 1997. This show was so hugely popular with the under-10 crowd that it was eventually pulled out of this seasonal event at the Parks and turned into an audience-participation experience that was then offered multiple times at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as well as out in Anaheim at Disneyland Park.
Anyway … That was the template that Disneyland’s Entertainment team was using. The Jedi Training Academy. So what they were shooting for here was a 15-minute-long audience participation experience themed around the adventures of Indiana Jones that could then be presented inside of the old “Aladdin’s Oasis” restaurant.
Again, a great idea on paper. But harder to pull off in the real world then you might think.
“The Secret of the Stone Tiger” Stage Show Premise
Why? Okay. The villain in the “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was Irina Spalko, a Soviet scientist played by Cate Blanchett.
So to keep some sort of continuity between the “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” movie and “The Secret of the Stone Tiger” stage show, it was decided that the villain of this kid-friendly audience participation show at Disneyland Park would also be a female.
Okay. So this 15-minute-long show would start out with a Doctor Rachel Flannery standing in front of the Cave of Wonders inside of the old “Aladdin’s Oasis” restaurant. Only – according to Rachel – these supposedly long-abandoned ruins were now the Bengalese temple of Sherdil, the tiger-god.
As Dr. Flannery explains, Indiana Jones had recently rediscovered this temple and gone inside. Indy was supposedly searching for the Golden Rod of Sherdil, an ancient object which is rumored to have great mystical power. But it had now been days since anyone had last seen Doctor Jones.
Anyway … Rachel recruits the help of the kids in the audience. And by using various clues scattered around “Aladdin’s Oasis,” they figure out how to re-open the now-sealed temple of Sherdil. Whereupon Indiana Jones comes stumbling out of the Stone Tiger’s mouth clutching the Golden Rod of Sherdil.
As Indy is thanking the kids in the audience for getting him out of that sealed ancient temple, he puts down the Golden Rod of Sherdil. Dr. Flannery now picks it up and seemingly suddenly gets possessed by the demonic spirit of Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War.
Just a quick reminder here: “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” is supposed to be a kid-friendly audience participation show for the under 10 set.
Indy now realizes that Doctor Flannery is holding the Golden Rod of Sherdil and is possessed by Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War. He first tries to wrestle this ancient artifacts out of her hands, but Rachel (because she’s possessed by the Hindu God of War) is super-powerful. She punches Indy a few times, so he punches her back.
Stage Show Complaints
It was at this point that the mothers of Orange County got upset. That’s a man beating up a woman in a show at Disneyland. To which the Entertainment team at that theme park said “Actually, no. That’s Indiana Jones battling with an fellow archaeologist who’s just been possessed by Kartikeya, the super-powerful Hindu God of War. Indy’s battling with a female character, just like he does in ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.’ Which just opened at a theater near you.”
That explanation didn’t matter. The mothers of Orange County were outraged. They marched en masse to Disneyland’s Guest Relations Department to lodge their complaints. Which is why – just days after the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show opened at that theme park, in an interview with the Orange County Register – Disneyland’s PR team announced that “Secret of the Stone Tiger” would now be altered. Indiana Jones would no longer throw direct punches at the woman character (Doctor Flannery) in this supposedly kid-friendly show, he would simply dodge.
And speaking of dodging … What also upset the mothers of Orange County (as well as a significant number of Disneyland Guests) was … Well, in the agreement that Disney had cut with Lucasfilm to have the Indiana Jones character appear at that theme park during “The Summer of Hidden Mysteries,” the Cast Member playing Indy was not allowed to meet with park guests in your typical meet-and-greet format. This meant that no one came away with a photo of or an autograph from their favorite archaeologist.
This meant that a lot of little kids walked away from the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show in tears. Not because Indy beat up the lady. But because Dr. Jones wouldn’t sign their autograph book.
Irony here: Remember that scene in “The Last Crusade” where Indy accidentally bumps into Adolph Hitler at a book-burning rally. And the Fuhrer then signs Doctor Henry Jones, Str’s grail diary.
So sure. Adolph Hitler gives autographs. But not Indiana Jones.
Fate of “The Secret of the Stone Tiger” and “Aladdin’s Oasis” – Disneyland “Tropical Hideaway”
This is why the “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Stone Tiger” show didn’t become the next Jedi Training Academy. By the Fall of 2008, the only Indy-related things that was left in Adventureland was the “Temple of the Forbidden Eye.”
More to the point, this is why – some ten years later (after “Aladdin’s Oasis” had experienced enough depreciation that it could now be taken off of Disneyland’s books) – this long-empty Adventureland venue was torn down in early 2018 and then turned into the “Tropical Hideaway.” Which soft-opened in December of that same year.
Kind of appropriate that this new Adventureland eatery soft-opened. Because they serve several different types of Dole Whip here. Along with Bao Buns & Sticky Pork.
Full circle. Kind of back to what the Tahitian Terrace offered.
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