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Toy Story Midway Mania: From DisneyQuest to Mickey Mouse Rides

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DisneyQuest

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

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

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

The Virtual Jungle Cruise

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

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

CyberSpace Mountain

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

Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride

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

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

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

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

Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold

Credit: Flickr Steven Miller

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

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

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

Credit: Flickr Steven Miller

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

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

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

Death of DisneyQuest

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

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

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

Why did the Downtown Disney version of DisneyQuest stay opened?

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

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

Problems at the Walt Disney Company in 2001

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

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

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

Idea for a Dark Ride in California Adventure

Credit: Flickr SLWorking2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mickey Mouse Themed Attraction in Disneyland

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

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

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

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

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

Disney Themed Ice Capades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Craphound.com/Disneyland_Prospectus.pdf

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

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

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

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

Nat Winecoff – The Disneyland Story

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

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

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

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

Nate Winecoff – official Disneyland Prospectus

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

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

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

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

Paul Bunyan and Land of Legend at Disneyland

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

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

Credit: Yesterland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mickey Mouse Character Costume

Credit: Disney Dan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disney went on to say …

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

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

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

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

We’re waiting to meet you at Disneyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orphan’s Benefit – Mickey Mouse Attraction

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

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

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

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

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

The Mickey Mouse Revue at Walt Disney World

Credit: RetroWDW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the Mickey Ride?

Credit: ocregister.com

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

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

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

Mickey’s Madhouse

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

Circus Disney

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

Mickey’s Movieland

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

Mickey’s PhilharMagic

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

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toy Story Attraction Clone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disney Acquires Pixar – More Pixar Attractions at Disney Theme Parks

Credit: Flickr Loren Javier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Toy Story Midway Mania at Disneyland and Walt Disney World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toy Story Midway Mania Character CG Animation and Guest Shrinking

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

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

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

Mr. Potato Head Audio Animatronic in Toy Story Midway Mania

Credit: Flickr Dennis D

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

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

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

Don Rickles: Voice of Mr. Potato Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Much Did It Cost to Build Toy Story Midway Mania

Credit: MickeyJman06

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

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

When did Toy Story Midway Mania Open?

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

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

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

Disney-MGM Rebranding Tied to Toy Story Midway Mania

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

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

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

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

Expanding Toy Story Midway Mania

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

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

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

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

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

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Film & Movies

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”: The Movie & Early Attractions

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This article is part of a series documenting the story of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and Disney Science-Based movies. Be sure to check out our additional research on the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.

When Michael Eisner came on board as Disney’s new CEO in the mid-1980s, he had gone over the company’s books and learned that there was this certain type of film (a science-based gimmick comedy) that the Studio used to release that had done very well at the box office over the past 25 years or so.

We’re talking about Disney-produced comedies like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.” FX-filled films where college kids accidentally a paint that could then make them invisible.  Or a family pet — in this case, a duck — gets exposed to radiation and then starts laying solid-gold eggs. You know, things that could happen to anyone in every day life. Provided — of course — your name is Dean Jones or Kurt Russell.

Flight of the Navigator and Rebirth of Science-Based Movies

So Eisner decides that it’s high time that Walt Disney Pictures gets back in the science-based gimmick comedy business again. Which is why he greenlights production of “Flight of the Navigator,” which arrives in theaters in July of 1986. The only problem is … This Randall Kleiser film (Remember that name. It’s going to come up again) suffers from “This-movie-really-wants-to-be-E.T.-instead” syndrome. Which means that it’s heartfelt and has some wonderful, sincere moments as well as some killer visual effects.

Credit: Disney

 But “Flight of the Navigator” is not long on laughs. And remember that the reason that Eisner put this Randall Kleiser film into production in the first place is because he wanted to revive the science-based gimmick comedy genre at Disney Studios.

But “Flight of the Navigator” (while it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire when it was released to theaters in the Summer of 1986) did well enough when the VHS version of this movie hit store shelves in January of 1987 that Eisner thought “Okay. We can take another stab at this. Get me a script for another science-based gimmick comedy.”

Which is when the script for “Teenie Weenies” shows up on his desk.

Teenie Weenies – Origins of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”

Now “Teenie Weenies” has kind of an interesting pedigree. Because it came to Disney by way of Stuart Gordon. Who — back in the mid-1980s, anyway — was best known for having written & directed some pretty out-there horror comedies, 1985’s “Re-Animator” and 1986’s “From Beyond.” But Stuart also had a love for cheesy 1950s sci-fi films like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (which Universal Pictures first released to theaters in April of 1957).

And one day Gordon had a brainstorm: What if — instead of some earnest white guy scientist in a lab coat who gets shrunk down to the size of a bread crumb — it’s a kid instead? Or — better yet — kids? What would happen in that case?

So Gordon and his frequent collaborators — Ed Naha & Brian Yuzna — work up a screenplay that explores this idea. And it eventually makes its way to Disney. And Eisner likes what he sees. But even so, Michael doesn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on this movie. Plus he’s not crazy about that title, “Teeny Weenies.” Can we please come up with a better title for this movie? Which is why — for a time — this film is called “Grounded,” then “The Big Backyard.”

Credit: Worthpoint

So Stuart is initially supposed to direct this movie for Disney. Which — I know — given that this guy previously directed really out-there horror comedies (Trust me, folks. If you’ve ever seen “Re-Animator,” you’ll know what I’m talking about) seems like a weird choice for the Mouse House.

But Michael’s thinking at the time was … Well, “The Big Backyard” is going to be full of visual effects shots. And given some of the scenes in “Re-Animator” & “From Beyond,” this guy already knows how to do this stuff. So better to stick with the devil you know.

So — to keep production cost down — Disney decides to shoot “The Big Backyard” down in Mexico City at Churubusco Studios. So Stuart casts up the project.

FYI: The role of inventor Wayne Szalinski was originally written with Chevy Chase in mind. But since he was shooting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” around this same time, he wasn’t available. So Disney then offer this part to John Candy. Who — when he passed on the role — suggested that the Studio consider Rick Moranis, his old pal from “SCTV,” for the part. Which is how Moranis became Szalinksi.

Production & Filming “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”

Production is just about to get underway on “The Big Backyard.” But then Stuart Gordon gets sick and has to withdraw from this project. Michael Eisner now starts freaking out. I’ve got a big new visual-effects-drive comedy for Disney Studios all set to start shooting and — days before production is supposed to begin — I don’t have a director.

Enter Academy Award-winning visual effects guy Joe Johnston. This is the guy who started as a concept artist on the first “Star Wars” film, went on to design Boba Fett for “The Empire Strikes Back,” and — by the time “Willow” rolled around — George Lucas had promoted Joe to associate producer. More to the point, Johnston was the production designer on those two “Ewok” TV movies that ran on ABC in 1984 & 1985.

So Joe had come up through the ranks at Lucasfilm. Yet, he hadn’t actually directed a movie up until that time. But he’d basically done everything else you could do behind-the-camera on a big visual effects film. Johnston was the right guy in the right place at the right time when Disney desperately needed a director for “The Big Backyard.” So tag. You’re it.

And Joe — to his credit — delivered. Disney was so pleased with the work that he did on “The Big Backyard” that — after this science-based gimmick comedy officially opened at the box office in June of 1989 and did really, really well, the Studio immediately offered Johnston another FX-fille project. This one being a big screen adaptation of Dave Stevens’ cult classic comic book, “The Rocketeer.”

Joe Johnston, Thomas Wilson Brown, Amy O’Neill, and Robert Oliveri in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) Credit: iMDB

From “The Big Backyard” to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”

But that title. “The Big Backyard.” Michael still hated it. He wanted something punchy & fun like the titles of those earlier Disney science-based gimmick comedies from the 1960s & the 1970s. Something like “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t” or “The Monkey’s Uncle.” A title that tells you right up front that this is a family comedy.

There was a line in the movie that always got a big laugh at test screenings. It was when Rick Moranis turned to his wife Marcia Strassman and then reluctantly admitted “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Eisner said “That gets a laugh. Let’s go with that.” Which is how “The Big Backyard” became “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Box Office Success

And “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did crazy business at the box office in the Summer of 1989. We’re talling $222 million in ticket sales worldwide. Which is the equivalent of nearly a half a billion dollars in today’s money. Which then made “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” the highest grossing live-action Disney film of all time. A title it retained for five years, only to then be dethroned by “The Santa Clause.”

Now it’s worth noting here that one of the reasons that “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did so well at the box office in the Summer of 1989 was that — right in front of this Joe Johnston movie — was the very first “Roger Rabbit” short, “Tummy Trouble.” The film that inspired this short — “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” — had come out the previous summer and done very well at the box office. That Robert Zemeckis movie had taken home four Oscars at the 61st Academy Awards, which had been held just three months previous in late March of 1989.

So there are some folks even today who say “Well, ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ wasn’t really this monstrous hit back in the Summer of 1989. It was more a case that ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ — when it was paired with “Tummy Trouble” — was such a tempting combo that moviegoers just could not resist this double bill. Especially on the heels of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and how well that movie had done the previous Summer.

“Honey, I Blew Up the Kid”

This would become painfully clear in the Summer of 1992 when the sequel to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” — “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” — finally arrived in theaters. Only instead of a new “Roger Rabbit” short, this Randall Kleiser film (See. I told you that name would come up again) had a Disney-produced CG short in front of it called “Off Your Rocker.” And that Barry Cook cartoon — while fun — just wasn’t the box office draw that “Tummy Trouble,” “Roller Coaster Rabbit” or “Trail Mix-Up” had been.

Consequently, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” only did about 2/3rds of the business that “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did domestically. We’re talking $96 million in ticket sales in North America versus $130 million in North American ticket sales back in 1989.

Which — when you factor in that the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” cost $18 million to make versus the $32 million it cost to make “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” — isn’t a great place to be. Especially in a Hollywood where — increasingly — the Studio’s accountants are the ones calling the shots. Rather than the creatives.

Honey I Blew Up the Kid Movie Poster

Potential “Honey” Sequels

It’s the Summer of 1989 and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is still this enormous hit. Which Disney immediately wants to make all sorts of sequels to.

Which is why — as the Wall Street Journal reported in August of that same year — the Studio pre-emptively trademarked a bunch of possible titles for follow-ups to the original “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movies. These titles included:

  • “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon”
  • “Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible”
  • “Honey, I Xeroxed the Kids”
  • and “Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog”

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Attractions at Disney MGM Studio Theme Park

Now where this gets interesting is that — even before “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” had opened in theaters (on June 23, 1989) — Michael Eisner was insisting that this Joe Johnston movie be folded into the Disney theme parks somewhere.

Luckily in the Late Winter / early Spring of that same year, the Imagineers were readying the Disney MGM Studio theme park for its May 1st opening.

Tram Tour Blue Screen Bumble Bee Experience

Since WDW’s 3rd gate was supposed to help promote the Studio’s latest releases … Well, WDI decided that — as part of the Visual Effects portion of that theme park’s Backstage walking tour (which used to be the second half of the Tram Tour at Disney MGM) — they’d use Blue Screen as a way to recreate that moment from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” when the boys accidentally fall onto the back of a bumble bee and then get flown all around the backyard.

This experience selected two kids to demonstrate how blue screen technology worked. They were then strapped by Cast Members to this huge fake bumble bee. These kids were then told to flail about as a camera moved in and out, capturing their expressions.

Then — seconds later — this just-captured footage was inserted into a clip from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Which then showed these same kids — now miniaturized — buzzing around a backyard on the back of a giant bumble bee.

Siskel and Ebert Cameo

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel (who — at the time — were the hosts of the hugely popular “At the Movies” show) suddenly came onscreen. Roger & Gene then seemingly began to criticize the performance of the two kids who had just volunteered to demonstrate how blue screen technology worked. With Roger Ebert (he was the heavy-set grumpier member of this duo. Siskel was the more even-tempered, bald-headed guy) complained that “ … it looked like those two were hanging onto a huge fuzzball.”

This cameo was made possible by a deal that Disney had made with Roger & Gene back in 1986. Prior to that, Ebert & Siskel’s movie review show — which began life as a one-time-only TV special on Chicago Public Television back in 1975 — had been shown on various PBS stations around the country. Disney offered to make “At the Movies” the very first syndicated show offered by Buena Vista Television and to then take Ebert & Siskel nationally.

Roger & Gene agreed to this deal with one condition: That Disney execs wouldn’t then interfere in any way with the production of “At the Movies.” More to the point, if Walt Disney Studios made a stinker of a movie, that Ebert & Siskel would then be allowed to state that opinion — loud & clear — on a TV show that the Mouse himself produced.

Michael Eisner personally guaranteed that Roger & Gene would be free to say whatever they liked about Disney-produced films. And because Disney execs made a point of being completely hands-off when it came to “At the Movies” …

Well, that’s why — when the Imagineers came a-calling and said “Would you please shoot this 30 second bit for the Special Effects Workshop. Which will be part of the Backstage Tour thing we’re now building at Disney-MGM Studios,” Ebert & Siskel said “Sure.”

I mean, these two guys took their film criticism jobs seriously. They were total pros. But at the same time, Roger & Gene didn’t take themselves all that seriously. They got the gag, I mean.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Playground

When “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” finally opened in theaters and then became the fifth highest grossing film of the year (behind “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Rain Man”), Eisner insisted that something of size that celebrated the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” be built at Disney MGM. Which is why — between New York Street and the Studio Catering Company — a brand-new playground began to rise up.

The gimmick of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” was — as soon as Guests enterted this space — they were shrunk down to the size of an ant. This enclosed space (which was designed to look like a teeny tiny chunk of the Szlanski’s backyard that was now writ huge) featured 30-foot-tall blades of grass that were built out of metal & fiber glass. Which — prior to installation — had to (in model form, mind you) go through a wind tunnel test to prove that these faux enormous blades of grass could withstand 300 MPH winds and still stay in place. Because … Well, Florida. Hurricanes. You do the math.

And since this “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” play area was being built in Florida … Well, keeping Guests cool was a major consideration. So the Imagineers have people choices. They could either stand under a 52-foot-long nozzle of a giant garden hose and periodically get dripped. Or they could stand in front of a giant dog nose. And — every so often — that enormous canine would sneeze. But instead of snot, a cool mist of water would come shooting out of those enormous nostrils.

By the way, both of these enormous props — the leaky nozzle of that garden hose AND that giant dog nose — were manufactured out in California at WDI’s Tujunga facility and then shipped cross country. You gotta wonder what motorists in the Midwest thought of that as they saw a flatbed with a giant dog nose on it rolling by them on the interstate.

A lot of folks — when talking about the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” — remember that soggy material which covered the ground. It sort of looked like dirt. That was Safe Deck, a material that the Imagineers found which was made up of ground-up old truck tires. Mind you, to make it actually look like the dirt you have in your own backyard, the Imagineers had to scatter little handfuls of ground up green truck tires & red truck tires & blue truck tries. Which brings us to the real important question: Where do you get green & blue truck tires?

Kodak-themed Slide: Was Kodak the Sponsor of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”?

One of the most popular and famous props in the play area was a slide that was shaped as an enormous, partially opened cannister of Kodak film.

Because that huge cannister of Kodak film was so obviously on display in the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” — did that then mean that Kodak was the sponsor of this Disney-MGM attraction?

And the answer to that question is actually “No.” Eastman Kodak Co. signed a 15-year-long promotional agreement with The Walt Disney Company the year previous (On April 27, 1989. Just days before Disney-MGM officially opened to the public). And this was a deal that linked Disney & Kodak in multiple ways. On television, at the movies and in the Disney theme parks.

The Kodak-themed slide was actually something of a freebie. I mean, you have to understand that the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” was one of the very first projects that Walt Disney Imagineering put into development after the Mouse House signed that new 15-year-long deal with Eastman Kodak.

And what better way to tell all of those Kodak executives back in Rochester, NY that we really appreciate you sticking with us for the long haul and being a participant at Disney Parks & Resorts but then surprise them with a slide that was shaped like an enormous cannister of Kodak film.

Mind you, all of this goodwill would evaporate just a few years later when the Imagineers went to Kodak and said “Hey. It’s time to redo the ‘Journey into Imagination’ ride at Epcot.” To which Kodak executives replied “Film sales are falling through the floor because of the rise of digital photography. We have no money available to fund a redo of the ‘Imagination’ ride. You’re on your own, Disney.”

Closing “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”

The “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” had a good long run at the Studio theme park. It officially opened on December 17, 1990 and then closed on April 2, 2016 to make way for an entirely different sort of movie set adventure. Maybe you’ve heard of the place? “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” ?

Up Next: Sequel Challenges and 3D Movie Experiences.

Anyway … On the next installment of this series (The third & final chapter of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” story), we’ll discuss Disney’s troubles when it came to developing a suitable sequel to the first film in this series. Not to mention the challenges that the Imagineers faced when they decided to build a new 3D movie experience around Wayne Szalinski’s shrink ray.

Get ready for way too many mice.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 374”, published on May 16, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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History of Reedy Creek Improvement District: Part 4

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History of Reedy Creek Improvement District - DeSantis

This article is part of a series – History of Reedy Creek Improvement District. Be sure to check out our additional research on the RCID.

Back in the 1960s, Florida legislators weren’t picking fights with Disney Corporate. But rather, they welcomed the Mouse with open arms.

Do you remember how — on November 15, 1965Florida Governor Haydon Burns actually shared a dais with Walt Disney & his brother Roy at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando as they then shared their plans for Project Florida?

Florida Representatives Meet in Burbank

Well, what doesn’t get talked about all that often is what happened just one month later. On December 16, 1965, a delegate of some of the most powerful people in Florida flew from Tallahassee to Burbank. We’re talking:

  • Fred “Bud” Dickinson, the State Comptroller
  • J. Ed Straughn, the director of the Florida Revenue Commission
  • Wilken McDuff & Edward Cowart, both prominent attorneys within the Attorney General’s Office
  • And Joseph Chapman, administrative assistant to Governor Haydon Burns

These gentlemen — along with key members of their support staff — made a special trip out to California just days before Christmas because, in the eyes of Governor Haydon Burns, this matter just could not wait. The Disney World Project was seen as such a huge opportunity for Florida that the state’s elected officials had to move with all due speed.

So a month and a day after Walt first spoke — in pretty non-specific terms, mind you — about what his Company was thinking about doing with that 43 square miles of swampland in Central Florida it had just purchased, here was a delegation from Tallahassee meeting personally with Walt & Roy so that they could then better understand the whole of Walt Disney Productions. More importantly, so that these elected officials could then make it easier for the Mouse to quickly set up shop in the Sunshine State.

As Walt’s brother recounted in an article that was published about these state officials’ trip to Disney Corporate Headquarters in the December 1965 – January 1966 issue of “The Disney World,” the Company’s in-house newsletter back then:

“They need to study our operation in considerable detail so that they can then advise us on how Florida tax laws would apply to our proposed project,” Roy said.

Touring WED and Disneyland

After they spent the morning with Walt & Roy drilling down into the specifics of Project Florida, the team from Tallahassee was then taken over to Glendale. Where they then toured WED (which is where all of the rides, shows & attractions for the Disney Parks were designed). More importantly, this was where the folks from Florida got their very first glimpse at what the Imagineers were actually dreaming up for Disney World.

To make sure that — when the team from Tallahassee flew back home to Florida — they had only good things to say about everything they’d seen … After WED closed for the day, the folks from Florida were then invited to linger at this facility after-hours. You see, that night (Friday, December 17th) was when Imagineering held its third annual holiday party / open house. So there was plenty of food & drink on hand. Not to mention the opportunity to schmooze with Disney stars like Dick Van Dyke & Dean Jones.

The very next day, this delegation from Florida was then driven down to Anaheim. Where they were then given a thorough behind-the-scenes tour of Disneyland Park. With the idea that they’d then have an intimate understanding of how an East Coast version of this family fun park might operate. After this backstage tour was over, the team from Tallahassee was then cut loose to explore Disneyland on their own / experience many of the Park’s rides, shows & attractions for a few hours.

That evening, the Florida delegation regrouped in Town Square. Where they were then Walt’s personal guests at the premiere of that year’s edition of Disneyland’s holiday parade.

These elected officials then flew home on Sunday. And — on Monday morning — walked back into the state capital and then told the Governor “Give Disney whatever it wants. We have to bring this project to Florida. We will make so much damn money.”

Disneyland Holiday Parade (1965) Credit: Walt Disney Archives

Excitement About EPCOT: Event at Park West Theater

We jump ahead to February of 1967. Which is when Walt Disney Productions — in an invitation-only event that’s held in the Park West Theater in Winter Park, FL — shows people other than that selected delegation that flew out to Burbank in December of 1965 — exactly what the Company’s plans are for all that swampland in Orange & Osceola County.

908 leaders from the local community cram into this auditorium and are just dazzled by what the Disney team presents. Which — at that time, anyway — call for developing (over time) 20,000 of the 27,500 acres that the Mouse now owned in Central Florida.

It’s important to stress here that a lot of what excited the audience in the Park West Theater wasn’t that Vacation Kingdom the Imagineers wanted to build next to Bay Lake (i.e., The Magic Kingdom and the monorail resorts right outside that theme park). But — rather — Phase 2 of Project Florida. Which was supposed to see a city of the future (with a 30 story-tall skyscraper at its very center) and its adjacent industrial park. Which was then — in Walt’s own words — supposed to eventually become “ … “ … a showplace for American free enterprise.”

Credit: State Archives of Florida

It was this part of Project Florida that especially tantalized the folks up in Tallahassee. Think about it: If Disney had actually built Epcot-the-City and that radial design industrial park right next door, Central Florida wouldn’t just become a tourism destination thanks to the Magic Kingdom and the monorail resorts. But rather, Walt Disney World could have potentially turned this part of the State into a second Cape Canaveral. A place where thousands of highly paid folks would then have worked at full-time hi-tech jobs.

Those folks who worked in Epcot’s industrial park would have had to live locally. And the money that they made from those high paying, hi-tech jobs in this showcase for American industry would have then poured right back into the local economy.

It was this aspect of Project Florida — rather than the Vacation Kingdom — that really powered the push to ram the Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation through. If you thought that Ron DeSantis’ response to Disney’s opposition to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education “ legislation (AKA the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) was fast, consider this: That presentation in the Park West Theater was held in February 2, 1967.

Fast-tracking the Reedy Creek Improvement District

By May 12th of that same year (Just three months and 10 days later), the bill that gave Walt Disney Productions the right to … Well, not only to build 18 story-tall castles and install cutting-edge transportation systems without seeking the approval from some local planning commission — not to mention collecting taxes and issuing bonds — was being signed into law. In a ceremony that’s held in the garden at the Governor’s mansion, no less.

I also want to stress here that — back then, anyway — the Reedy Creek Improvement District had bipartisan support. Haydon Burns — the governor who shared the dais with Walt & Roy at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in November of 1965 — was a Democrat. Whereas Claude Kirk — the governor who actually signed this bill into law in May of 1967 — was a Republican. The first Republican governor the State of Florida had had since the Reconstruction, I might add.

Governor Claude Kirk and Roy O. Disney (05/12/1967) Credit: State Archives of Florida.

A bit more background here: At this special signing ceremony in the garden of the Governor’s mansion in Florida, Roy O. Disney went out of his way to state publicly that …

The entire delegation from Orange and Osceola County, in which we will soon be making our home, have given us the upmost in cooperation since the inception of this project. I would particularly like to call attention to Senator Bob Elrod and Bill Gunter, and Representatives John Ducker and Henry Land of this delegation. These four men acted as floor leaders and primary sponsors for the Disney legislation.

Roy O. Disney

So — just to be clear here — the Reedy Creek Improvement District wasn’t some sort of shady backroom deal with Walt Disney Productions that suddenly got rammed through by the folks up in Tallahassee in the dark of night. There were all sorts of public hearings and lots of thoughtful discussion about what should actually go into this bill prior to Governor Claude Kirk actually signing the thing.

Dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 2023: Where is the City of the Future?

That’s why DeSantis’ people are running into so much trouble now. They tried to undo a comprehensive piece of legislation that had been carefully crafted over a period of months by top notch state attorneys (Not to mention Disney’s own corporate lawyers) with a bill that was hastily slapped together over days. Which is why their effort to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District is doomed to fail once it finally gets challenged in court.

Which isn’t to say that Governor DeSantis doesn’t have another card up his sleeve. I’m told that his new plan when it comes to taking on The Walt Disney Company has to do with promises the Mouse made to the State of Florida that then weren’t kept. To be specific, the construction of the City of EPCOT and its adjacent industrial park.

As I mentioned earlier, it was that aspect of Project Florida — rather than the Vacation Kingdom — that really excited Florida legislators back in the mid-1960s. The idea that the State could soon have a second Cape Canaveral of sorts, a second place in Florida where highly educated folks would work at high-tech jobs that paid well (with a good chunk of their salaries being funneled back into the local community via payroll taxes and purchases at area businesses & restaurants) was what ultimately powered Sunshine State officials to grant the Mouse this unprecedented amount of autonomy.

This is how DeSantis’ people are reportedly looking to spin Phase 2 of their dissolve-Reedy-Creek effort. They’re going to say “ … We’re doing this because Disney never actually delivered on their promise to build a city-of-the-future in the swamps of Central Florida. Back in the 1960s, we were promised all of these high paying, high tech jobs. What we got instead were thousands of low paying positions in Disney’s theme parks.”

Model of EPCOT – City – Credit: Walt Disney Company

Given that the Walt Disney World Resort is still in the process of celebrating its 50th, it’ll be hard for the Company to put together a solid response to this line of attack at this particular moment in time. I mean, it’s been five decades now. Shouldn’t that City of the Future — and all of those high paying jobs that were supposed to come along with it — have risen up out of Central Florida’s swamps by now?

Of course, Disney’s response will no doubt involve pointing at Epcot-the-theme park as well as at Celebration. But let’s face it: A theme park and a residential community isn’t exactly a City of the Future or its adjacent industrial park.

Disney’s reportedly readying its response to the anticipated continuation of Governor DeSantis’ effort to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District. That’s one of the main reasons that Geoff Morrell was let go as Disney’s Communications Chief after less than four months on the job. Going forward, the Company wants to take a far more nuanced approach to how Disney Corporate handles the governor of Florida. Who has learned — given how much money has recently poured into DeSantis’ war chest for his potential Presidential run in 2024 — how truly lucrative it can be to attack the Mouse House.

That’s Disney’s real worry right now. That what’s happening in Florida — Disney being pulled into the culture war that’s currently inflamed public discourse across the country — could then become a prairie fire. With other politicians across the United States deciding that they too need to get into the declaring-that-Disney-is-evil game. All with the hope that they too will then be able to fundraise off of this controversy.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

And that — for now, anyway — is the end of our look back at the formation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It’s honestly hard to imagine — given how eager Florida officials initially were to make this deal, persuade Disney to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to turn some swampland in Orange & Osceola County into a world class tourist destination — to see the current state of the State’s relationship with the Mouse House. But here we are.

And not to belabor the obvious, but we’ve got another six months ‘til November. Which is when the Mid Terms happen. Not to mention when we learn whether Governor DeSantis winds up getting re-elected as the Governor of Florida. That’s a lot of time for The Walt Disney Company to find itself back in the spotlight in a not-so-flattering fashion.

It’s gonna be interesting to see what happens next.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 372”, published on April 25, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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History

History of Reedy Creek Improvement District: Part 3

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Reedy Creek Improvement District Sign with Roy O. Disney

In our last Reedy Creek Improvement District article, I shared a lot of information that I had pulled from Walt Disney Productions’ annual report of 1966. That fiscal year had closed back on September 30th of that same year. Staffers then pulled together the necessary info for this report about the various divisions at Disney. And the report itself was published on December 9, 1966.

Then Walt died just six days later on December 15, 1966.

Walt Disney Productions’ Annual Report – Revisions After Walt’s Death

This is why that year’s annual report came with a wraparound. A document that had been hastily attached to the outside of that physical booklet. Which would then acknowledge … Well, the obvious.

I’m quoting from this wraparound now:

An Important Message to Our Shareholders and Employees.

This annual report was prepared prior to Walt Disney’s passing.

The enthusiasm for the future you’ll find in these pages stemmed directly from Walt.

In this report are the fact that supported that enthusiasm. It should confirm for you that the substantial creative assets of Walt Disney Productions — Motion Picture Properties (completed and yet to be produced), real estate, Disneyland, Character Merchandising, Music, Publications and the world-famous Disney name — will result in a successful future.

It was Walt’s wish that — when the time came — he would have built an organization with the creative talents to carry on as he had established and directed it through the years. Today this organization has been built and we shall carry out this wish.

Walt Disney’s preparation for the future is a solid, creative foundation. All of the plans for the future that Walt had begun — new motion pictures, the expansion of Disneyland, and our Florida and Mineral King projects as outlined in this report — will continue to move ahead.

Signed Roy O Disney. President and Chairman of the Board. Walt Disney Productions
Credit: Hakes

Walt Disney Productions Real Estate

What fascinates me about this letter is — when Roy is listing what he sees as the Company’s core assets in the wake of Walt’s passing … Well, the batting order he puts together:

  • Motion Picture Properties
  • Real Estate
  • Disneyland
  • Then Character Merchandising

Think about that.

Roy put the Company’s real estate holdings (Which — at that time — were mostly those 43 square miles of undeveloped swampland in Central Florida) ahead of Disneyland. That’s really telling about Walt’s brother’s head space in the immediate wake of Walt’s passing.

You have to remember that — at this point — Walt Disney Productions had spent roughly $5 million on the acquisition of that land. And then General Joe Potter — in order to get this land ready for construction (particularly that 2500 acre chunk right at the heart of this property which would eventually become the home of … Well, as the Company liked to describe Walt Disney World back in the late 1960s / early 1970s, “Florida’s Vacation Kingdom”).

Anyway … To get those 2500 acres of swampland & wetland ready for construction, General Joe had to first build 38 miles of water control channels. All of which Walt had asked Joe not to do as straight Panama Canal-like structures. But — rather — as picturesque winding canals that then blended in with the landscape.

This sort of work (as you might expect) was brutal, hot & expensive. And there were those with the Company (especially in the early part of 1967) who were wondering:

Should we really be spending this money ? I mean, Walt’s gone. Does it even make sense now that we push ahead with construction of this giant project in Florida? Not to mention a ski area up in the High Sierras?

For a time, the sheer momentum of Project Florida was enough to keep that enterprise moving forward. By that I mean, Joe Potter and all that earth-moving equipment were already down in Orange & Osceola County. And even if the Company were to eventually abandon Walt’s dream of building the Vacation Kingdom … Well, if they still wanted to get the full value out of Disney’s massive real estate holding in Central Florida, they’d first have to complete construction of a network of access roads throughout the work site. Likewise mitigate all of that property’s drainage problems. Which — again — brings us to the Reedy Creek Drainage District. The earliest iteration of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Florida Legislators and Project Florida

And now here are Florida’s legislators. Who are still anxiously awaiting those detailed plans for Project Florida. Which Disney is supposed to finally unveil in February of 1967 at a special presentation to Orange & Osceola County officials.

This is a scary, scary time for those folks. Especially when Roy O. briefly steps away from the day-to-day operations of Walt Disney Productions so that he can then mourn the loss of his brother. This period — surprise, surprise — directly coincided with the time between when Walt passed away in December of 1966 and that date in late February of 1967 when the Company was supposed to finally unveil its plans for Project Florida.

And this whole time, officials up in Tallahassee are working the phone, calling folks who are supposedly in the know when it comes to what’s going on in Anaheim & Burbank. As these elected officials try & get some information about what the current thinking inside the Mouse House might be.

Because — remember — Florida officials saw themselves as being in direct competition with the Mineral King project. The thinking back then is … Well, Walt’s gone. And — in the wake of his passing —  there is just no way that the Company will now go forward with construction of both of these ambitious projects. People & corporations naturally get conservative at moments like this. Disney will eventually have to regroup. Retrench.

And when that happens … One of these two projects is going to wind up falling by the wayside. And given what Project Florida could mean to the future of Orange & Osceola County (All of those jobs. Not to mention turning a chunk of Central Florida — which, back then, was largely rural and made most of its money off of growing citrus & raising cattle — into a tourist destination that could potentially eventually rival the Sunshine State’s beaches) … Well, the stakes were just too high here. No matter what the costs, the folks up in Tallahassee just had to make sure that Project Florida ultimately went forward.

Mineral King or Project Florida?

That said, Florida’s elected officials were heartened when they learned that — in late December of 1966 — wilderness protection groups (chief among them the Sierra Club) were mounting a challenge to Mineral King. Their chief concern was that all-weather road which the Forest Service had told Disney officials that it was willing to build in order to grant access to this ski resort which would then have to pass through a grove of Sequoias that had grown up — over time — outside of the physical boundaries of Sequoia National Forest.

To Disney’s way of thinking, that was supposed to be one of the big draws for Mineral King. The natural beauty of California’s High Sierras. Little did they realize that this would also eventually become one of the main drawbacks of Mineral King. That naturalists & environmentalists would have a huge problem with the idea of this giant corporation facilitating the destruction of a grove of Sequoias / old growth forest just so a bunch of tourists could then drive up into the mountains for the day and go hiking or skiing.

And the folks in Florida were right. Inside of the halls of Walt Disney Productions (at least in the early, early part of 1967), the thinking was

“ … Why are we going ahead with this stupid ski area idea? Florida at least makes sense … Sort of. It’s just Disneyland writ large. We — as a company — already have a decade’s worth of experience when it comes to operating family fun parks. All we have to do in Orlando is replicate what we already have in Anaheim. And Boom! Profit.”

That said, there were folks within Disney who argued that

“ … we need to grow beyond just producing movies and operating theme parks. That’s what Walt wanted to, after all. For the Company to keep changing & growing.

And the Company does have experience operating sport-related operations. Look at the Celebrity Sports Center in Denver. We’ve been the sole operator of that 7-acre facility with its 80 bowling alleys and Olympic-sized swimming pool since 1962. And we’ve been making good money off of that place.

More to the point, we — as a Company — know nothing when it comes to building cities. That’s why we need to sell off all of that property in Central Florida. That Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow idea of Walt’s is an absolute recipe for disaster now that he’s gone. This is why we need to forget about Florida and concentrate all of our efforts in California.

Stick with the original Disneyland & our Studio in Burbank. And then build that ski area up in Mineral King.”

So picture this. You’re an elected official up in Tallahassee. And your staffers — who have been diligently working the phones — now come to you with these two distinctly different messages. Meaning that the folks at Disney themselves aren’t sure about whether they want to go forward with Project Florida OR Mineral King.

Credit: Wikipedia

Say “Yes” – Disney’s Leverage on Florida Legislators

At this point, in order to get Walt Disney Productions to say “Yes” to proceeding with developing all of this property that the Company owned in Central Florida (and then creating all sorts of jobs for the residents of largely rural Orange & Osceola County), Florida officials have to literally create a glide path to Disney saying “Yes.” Remove virtually every impediment to the Company moving beyond building just those 38 miles of drainage canals.

Change the Reedy Creek Drainage District into a construction site where things then start going vertical. But to in order to make that happen … That would meaning relaxing a lot of Florida’s zoning regulations and building codes.

Mind you, Florida had done this before. Back in the early 1960s, when developer Del E. Webb expressed an interest in building an East Coast version of Sun City (that hugely popular retirement community that he’d established out in the Southern California desert near the tiny town of Menifee), Sunshine State officials bent over backwards to try and make Del’s dreams of a Sun City in Florida a reality.

Del E. Webb and Sun City Ads (1960s)

In order to get Webb to build Sun City Center in Southern Hillsborough County (to the south of Tampa and the north of Sarasota) on nearly 16 square miles of swampland … Florida made all sort of concessions to that developer. Keeping this huge chunk of property unincorporated, for example.

That — in the end — was enough to convince Webb to purchase this 12,000 acre property in early 1961. Today, Sun City Center (an age restricted retirement community) is home to over 30,000 people.

That was the thinking up in Tallahassee. If we’re going to beat out that ski area up in the High Sierras, we’re going to have to do for Disney what we did for Del Webb. Give them whatever they want.

History of Reedy Creek Improvement District: Part 4

In our next & final chapter, we’ll talk about how the deal for the Reedy Creek Improvement District ultimately came together. And what’s going to happen now, now that the Florida legislature — under the guidance of Governor DeSantis — seems determined to sunset any special districts that were created in that state prior to 1968. What this all means to Walt Disney World as well as the residents of Sun City Center.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 371”, published on April 25, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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