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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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History

The Closing of Walt Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

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I need help from a Disney World employee. To be specific, someone who used to work at the Magic Kingdom back in the late 1980s / early 1990s.

The reason I’m asking for help is that there used to be this one-page newsletter that that theme park printed & distributed weekly to Cast Members who worked JUST at the Magic Kingdom.

Walt Disney World Cast Member Newsletter Request

I want to stress that this newsletter was different from the Eyes & Ears – which (back then, anyway) was a weekly newspaper (not a newsletter) that the Resort then printed & distributed to ALL Cast Members who worked on property.

This publication – which might have been called Kingdom Cast (Sorry. It’s been almost 30 years now. I’m old after all and I’m now blanking this newsletter’s name) – was typically printed on different colored paper stock every week.

I just need some help here when it comes to recalling the specific name of this newsletter which was primarily intended for Disney World employees who worked at the Magic Kingdom.

Not the Newsletter Obi Wan is Looking For
If you know of the newsletter we are looking for leave a comment below.

Magic Kingdom Newsletter – August 1994

Anyway … I was living down in Orlando at this time. Where I was trying to make a living writing about The Walt Disney Company. Which was challenging in those pre-Internet days. On the upside, I had lots of friends who worked at the Resort at the time. Who would then slip me copies of all sorts of in-house publications. Which then allowed me to stay on top of what was actually going on on-property.

Anywho … In late August of 1994, I got sent a copy of this particular Magic-Kingdom-only newsletter. Which included a brief item (That I’m recalling from memory now) that said …

… any & all Cast Members who had worked at “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” over the past 23 years are invited to come by this Fantasyland attraction on the night of Monday, September 5th. We’d like to get together as many current & former 20K employees as possible for a group photo in front of that attraction’s marquee. This image will then be used to commemorate the closing of this Disney World favorite.

This item in that newsletter then went on to say that – after the Magic Kingdom had officially closed for the night – all WDW Cast Members were then welcome to come by the Subs and get in one last ride before “20,000 Leagues” closed for good.

So I immediately realized that this was huge, huge news.

Disney World is closing the Subs at the Magic Kingdom.

And since I was friendly with Leslie Doolittle, the reporter who was wrote the “On Tourism” column for the Orlando Sentinel, I give Leslie a call and read her this item straight out of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter verbatim. Which Ms. Doolittle then reports in her very next “On Tourism” column. Which then prompts WDW officials to lose their minds.

Initially senior management at the Resort flat-out denies that this Opening Day attraction is actually closing and they demand that the Sentinel immediately print a full retraction. After I provide Ms. Doolittle with a physical copy of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter and she then shares that with WDW’s PR team … Well, the Resort’s senior management then changes its tune.

They now say … Well, yes. “20,000 Leagues” WILL be closing on September 5, 1994. But what was published in that Magic Kingdom employee newsletter was incorrect. This Fantasyland favorite is NOT closing permanently. But – rather –- 20K will be going down for a lengthy rehab. A REALLY lengthy rehab. The longest ever in this ride’s history.

Maintenance Issues with WDW’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

To explain: Anyone who loved this WDW attraction back in the day will talk about how frustrating it would be back then to visit the Magic Kingdom and then find that “20,000 Leagues” was down for maintenance … again.

Between the harsh Florida sun bleaching the color out of the fake coral & all those plastic fish (which is why – every year – the lagoon had to be drained & dried so these items could then be repainted) not to mention all of the mechanical challenges associated with keeping that fleet of 14 diesel-powered Subs up & running … “20K” was an operational nightmare.

Not to mention being a huge money suck when it came to the Magic Kingdom’s annual operating budget.

So what Disney World senior management said – on the heels of that Orlando Sentinel story — was that “20K” was now closing for a top-to-bottom overhaul. This would be a two year-long project. But the good news was work would be completed in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration. Which was supposed to begin in October of 1996.

Which – I have to tell you – wasn’t the truth at all.

That Magic Kingdom employee only newsletter had actually gotten everything right. Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues” ride WAS closing for good on September 4, 1994. But not for the reason you might think.

Euro Disney Financial Troubles

Euro Disney had opened back in April of 1992. The park itself did well, attendance-wise. Not so much when it came to those 6 on-site hotels. Weighed down by enormous debt, Eisner actually talked about closing the place down in December of 1993 unless a new financial arrangement could be worked out with the 30+ banks that had originally funded construction of this $4.4 billion resort. A deal was reached in the late Winter / early Spring of 1994. But one of the conditions of this deal is that The Walt Disney Company would suspend the collection of any royalty payments that the Company was due from the Euro Disney Project from 1994 through 1998.

This new agreement / financial restructuring may have saved Euro Disney (which then got rebranded / relaunched as the Disneyland Paris Resort). But it also choked off a huge revenue stream at The Walt Disney Company. Which is why word then came down from on high that ALL divisions at the Mouse House now needed to tighten their belts. Economize.

And down at Walt Disney World … Well, managers then saw this edict as an opportunity to finally pull the plug on the Magic Kingdom’s expensive-to-maintain / difficult-to-operate “20,000 Leagues” ride. And the beauty part was … This wasn’t their fault. They were just following Corporate’s orders.

Fan Backlash for “20,000 Leagues” Closing Announcement

What Walt Disney World senior management hadn’t anticipated was – on the heels of Leslie Doolittle’s story about how “20K” would be closing – that the Resort would then be flooded with letters begging Magic Kingdom managers to change their minds. Save this opening day attraction.

Which – again – brings us back to that “The-Subs-will-be-back-up-and-running-by-1996-just-in-time-for-WDW’s-25th-anniversary” story. Which – I’ll again remind you – just wasn’t true. This was a lie that the Company quickly put out there to deflect & divert from what quickly had become a PR nightmare for the Magic Kingdom.

Michael Ovitz – Save or Close “20k Leagues”

So okay. We now jump ahead to August of 1995. Which is when Michael Ovitz – previously the head of CAA and once rumored to be the most powerful man in Hollywood – becomes the President of The Walt Disney Company. Michael Eisner hires Ovitz to be his new second-in-command (Following the tragic death of Frank Wells back in April of 1994).

And Ovitz … He wants to hit the ground running. Prove to Eisner that he’s now going to be an extremely valuable member of the Disney team.

Credit: Deadline

So picture this. It’s now September of 1995. And Michael Ovitz – because he wants to learn about every aspect of The Walt Disney Company – is now on a familiarization tour of the entire corporation. And one of his very first stops is The Walt Disney World Resort.

And Michael (Ovitz, not Eisner) is a very data-driven guy. And he knows about the now-thousands of letters & phone calls that the Walt Disney World Resort has received about “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Which – again (remember) – WDW managers have been saying publicly is only temporarily closed. At this point, they’re still insisting that that this Opening Day Attraction will be back up & running in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary. Which is supposed to start on October 1, 1996.

So Ovitz – once he arrives on WDW property says – “Hey, I’ve heard about the Magic Kingdom’s 20K problem. And I’d like to personally check out that ride while I’m down here in Florida. Maybe once I see it,  I can then make some recommendations. Perhaps help speed along the funding you need to get that ride up & running again.”

And seeing as Michael Ovitz is the newly installed second-in-command at the Mouse House, WDW senior management – after they hear this request – says “Sure. Absolutely. We’d love to do that, Mr. Ovitz. We’ll come by your hotel first thing tomorrow morning and take you straight over to the Magic Kingdom before that park opens to the public. That way, you can see for yourself the challenges that we’re now facing with bringing this Fantasyland ride back up online in time for Disney World’s 25th anniversary celebration. We’d LOVE to hear your recommendations.”

Which is why — the following morning at 7 a.m. — Mike Ovitz found himself standing in the queue at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” as a sub that was loudly belching smoke came rumbling up to the dock. The Disney Company’s brand-new President then climbed down the stairs and found a quarter inch of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. When Mike pointed this out, a WDW ops staffer said “Well, you have to understand that a lot of our subs are over 20 years old, Mr. Ovitz. So many of them have developed small pinhole leaks over time.”

The sub then lurched away from the dock and took Ovitz & the ops crew on a somewhat jerky trip around the “20K” ride track, with the attraction’s soundtrack barely audible through the ship’s crackling loudspeakers.

As you might imagine, once the boat pulled up to the dock, Michael quickly climbed out of the mildewed interior. He then turned to WDW’s ops staff and then asked what it would cost to bring “20K” back online. Ovitz was then quoted a number that was reportedly more than the Resort was planning on spending on its entire year-long 25th anniversary celebration.

Ovitz knew that a redo of the Subs that was going to be that expensive would be a non-started with Eisner. Especially at that time in the Company’s history, where – on the heels of the Euro Disney debt reorg and Disney deferring any royalty payments they were supposed to take out of that Resort ‘til 1998 – word was coming down from on high to every division at Disney to economize & cut back.

Ovitz wanted to show Eisner that – as The Walt Disney Company’s new president – that he could make the tough calls. So after hearing how much it would supposedly now cost the WDW Resort to bring the Subs back online, Ovitz then supposedy said “Well, maybe we’d just better cancel this rehab project and close 20K for good.” And those WDW managers standing with Ovitz in the Subs Load / Unload area then said “Oh, no. Really? Are you sure?”

Not Reopening by Summer – 20,000 Leagues “Delayed”

Which is why – in the early part of 1996. Just a few months after Michael Ovitz visited the Walt Disney World Resort on that fam trip — Bruce Laval, who was (at that time, anyway) the Resort’s Vice President for Operations – did an interview with the Sentinel. Where Bruce told Leslie Doolittle that  …

“We were originally pursuing a short-term strategy with 20K. Something would have then allowed us to reopen the Subs with minor enhancements. But we found that there was no way we could accomplish that by this Summer.”

Now please note that what Bruce is saying in early 1996 is very different from what the Resort had been putting out back in the Fall of 1994. Back then, the Magic Kingdom was going to shut down “20K” for a nearly two-year-long, top-to-bottom redo so that this Fantasyland attraction could then be part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration looking bigger & better from ever. But come April of 1996, that story has significantly changed. The Park was now looking to re-open the Subs with “minor enhancements.” But even that would be impossible for the Resort to now pull off by the Summer of 1996.

Which bring us to what Laval next told the Sentinel:

“We are abandoning those plans for the Subs and are now exploring other long term options.”

Credit: Orlando Sentinel

So would it surprise you to learn that – in the middle of all the hoopla associated with the officially launch of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration in October of 1996 – Disney World’s PR very quietly realizes the news that 20K is now closed permanently. That – on the recommendation of Michael Ovitz, the president of The Walt Disney Company — the Magic Kingdom is now abandoning any plans to rehab / revitalize that attraction.

Poor Guest Experience for Michael Ovitz

You wanna know the kicker to this story. Those WDW managers – when they brought Michael Ovitz into the Magic Kingdom early that September morning back in 1995 – had totally sandbagged the new president of The Walt Disney Company.

To make sure that Ovitz had the worst possible ride experience that morning …

Well, out of the fleet of 14 subs that had been built for this Fantasyland attraction, those managers deliberately picked the one that was in the worst possible shape.

They then recruited a veteran ride operator and quietly gave this Cast Member the expressed instructions to “Give Ovitz the roughest ride possible.”

Then – to seal the deal — they threw a couple of buckets of water down into the bottom of that Sub to simulate a pinhole leak.

And all of this was done to give Ovitz the impression that WDW’s subs were now beyond salvaging.

The real irony here is that Michael Ovitz, the man who made the permanent closure of the Subs at WDW’s Magic Kingdom possible because he fell for the elaborate ruse that those Disney World managers staged back in September of 1995 … wasn’t all that long-lived at the Mouse House.

Eisner fired Ovitz in December of 1996 (just 15 months after he’d taken the job) largely because Eisner felt that Ovitz just wasn’t a good fit at Disney.

Credit: WDWMagic

I have to tell you that WDW managers were thrilled that Ovitz was on the job at Disney for as long as he was. For – in September of 1995 — he made it possible to do what they couldn’t. Which was close the Subs for good. Which then left that huge chunk of Fantasyland open for redevelopment.

Mind you, it would take nearly another 13 years (from when the WDW Resort finally officially announced that the Subs at the Magic Kingdom were closed in October of 1996 ‘til the first D23 Expo back in September of 2009. Which was when the WDW Resort officially confirmed that the long-rumored expansion of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland section was in the works) before that redevelopment effort would then move forward. But as anyone who’s been watching the construction of “TRON Lightcycle Run” limp along at the Magic Kingdom these past five years, things move slowly these days at the Magic Kingdom.

Credit: WDWMagic

And – speaking of the Magic Kingdom – if anyone who worked at that theme park back in the late 1980s / early 1990s could please get back to me about that newsletter-for-Cast-Members-who-worked-specifically-at-that-Park (I’m 90% certain this weekly newsletter was called Kingdom Cast. But – again – I could be wrong), I’d really appreciate it.


This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 390”, published on September 5, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.


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History

Original Disneyland Lessee: Van Camp Seafood and The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant

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Since we’ve gotten such strong reaction to previous “Disney Dishes” where Len & I talked about original Disneyland lessees like Swift Meats (who sponsored the Red Wagon Inn at the Park, which was the precursor to Disneyland’s Plaza Inn Restaurants) and Monsanto (who sponsor the Hall of Chemistry AND the House of the Future), I thought that we’d take a moment to shine a spotlight on another company that helped make up the original 48 lessees at Disneyland.

Original Disneyland Lessees

When Disneyland first opened in July of 1955 – the Park had 48 lessees. A number of those were short-lived outfits like Hollywood Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop and the BlueBird Shoes for Children Shop that came & went within the first few years that Disneyland was operational. By 1966 / 1967, the number of lessees that the Park had had shrunk down by nearly a third.  To 33, to be exact.

That’s an interesting number – 33.

Seems significant for some reason. Can’t place why, though.

Van Camp Seafood Company

Some 67 years ago (August 29, 1955, to be exact), the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (the quick service restaurant that Van Camp Seafood sponsored at the Park) first opened for business.

Kind of appropriate that Van Camp Seafood came to sponsor a restaurant at Disneyland. After all, this fish canning company actually got its start some 95 miles to the south of Anaheim in San Diego, California back in May of 1914 – founded by Frank Van Camp & his son Gilbert.

Chicken of the Sea Fancy Tuna and Frank Van Camp. Credit: MyCompanies & Flickr/Shushmuckle

And as for that “Chicken of the Sea” thing … That was a bit of branding Van Camp embraced back in 1930. You see, the type of tuna that they initially specialized in canning (i.e., white albacore) was acclaimed for its mild flavor & color.

“Tastes like chicken” = “Chicken of the Sea.”

By 1952, Van Camp Seafood further refined their brand by introducing the Company’s icon: Catalina the Mermaid.

Interesting side note: If Catalina the Mermaid looks kind of familiar to all you Trekkies out there … Well, there’s a good reason for that. Grace Lee Whitney – who played Yeoman Rand on the original “Star Trek” television series – was actually the inspiration for Van Camp Seafood’s corporate icon.

Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon

We jump ahead now to February of 1953, which is when Walt Disney Studios releases its feature-length animated version of “Peter Pan” (which is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”). This animated feature includes a scene where Peter takes Wendy Darling to Mermaid Lagoon. Where those mermaids then try to drown Wendy. I guess Catalina hangs out with a rough crowd.

Jump ahead to 1954. Walt is looking to lock in sponsors for his new family fun park. And Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan” is still very front of mind. Which is why – when Disney representatives reach out to Van Camp Seafoods to ask if this fish canning company would be willing to sponsor some sort of attraction at Disneyland – Frank & his son Gilbert are interested.

The Van Camps do have some conditions, though. As part of whatever their Company sponsors at Disneyland, this shop, restaurant or attraction has to prominently feature Catalina the Mermaid, the Chicken of the Sea icon.

The folks at Disney go away for a bit to ponder this proposition … and then eventually come back with a proposal for the Van Camp family. What about a restaurant that’s also an attraction? As in: The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant.

The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant

This massive structure – we’re talking 79 feet long and 80 feet tall (That includes the ship’s three masts. Which were each 60 feet tall) – was to be a recreation of the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook’s ship from Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan.” Guests would have the opportunity to board this vessel and explore the upper deck. Below decks, there’d be a quick service restaurant that only served food items that could be made with Van Camp Seafood products. We’re talking:

  • A Tuna Sandwich
  • A Tuna Burger
  • A Tuna Pie served in a Pastry Shell
  • A Tuna Boat Salad
  • A Tuna Clipper Salad (a clipper is a slightly bigger boat)
  • Shrimp Cocktail (Van Camp Seafood also sold canned shrimp)
  • and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream (which must have had a little tuna in it)

Reminds me of that Monty Python bit. “It’s only got some spam in it. Spam, spam, spam, span, baked beans & spam.”)

Credit: iCollector.com

Frank & Gilbert Van Camp loved this idea. Even so, it took a while to Van Cap Seafood & Walt Disney Productions to negotiate the final contract. Not to mention draw up the construction blueprints for this Fantasyland restaurant / attraction. I’ve seen a set of these blueprints that Fred Stoos (he was one of the original construction coordinators on the Disneyland project) drew up that are dated May 7, 1955.

Building the Jolly Roger

That’s basically 10 weeks before Disneyland first opens to the public. So as soon as those blueprints were signed off on, they immediately began building the Jolly Roger out behind the park’s lumber mill. Which – after the Park was completed – this building would then become the Main Street Opera House.

The ship itself was built out of Douglas Fir. And as for this pirate ship’s trim, that was genuine mahogany which had been shipped in from Honduras.

Now remember that condition that Frank & Gilbert Van Camp insisted upon? That Disneyland’s Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant had to feature their company’s icon – Catalina the Mermaid – in some way?

Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant Hand-Colored Brownline Print (Walt Disney, 1955)
Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant Hand-Colored Brownline Print (Walt Disney, 1955)
Credit: Comics.ha

Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead

Disney honored this sponsorship condition by making Catalina the Jolly Roger’s figurehead. Chris Mueller (who sculpted all of the animals that Guests saw on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the giant squid in Disney Studio’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” film. In addition to creating “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for Universal Pictures’ 1954 film of the same name) not only created that beautiful 6-foot-tall piece, Mueller also sculpted an enormous piece for this ship’s stern. Which replicated the way Catalina the Mermaid was depicted on each can of “Chicken of the Sea” tuna. With Catalina seated atop her shell throne which is then borne on the back of a giant sea turtle. Beautiful piece.

Credit: Pinterest/Chicken of the Sea

The Flying Jolly Roger

Remember how this pirate ship restaurant was quickly being built backstage at Disneyland out behind that park’s lumber mill? When it came time for this building to finally be moved into place over in Fantasyland … Well, remember how the Jolly Roger flew in Disneyland’s animated version of “Peter Pan” ? This structure flew as well. It was lifted by a construction crane over all of those still-under-construction Tomorrowland buildings and then dropped into place behind the Park’s Mad Tea Party flat ride.

Painting and Camera Tricks

The only problem was … The night before that “Dateline: Disneyland” special aired live on ABC, Walt realized that he was running out of time & money. And the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (while it was now in its proper place in the Park) was still unpainted. And if the Van Camp family saw the restaurant / attraction that they’d paid for show up on live television looking like that, Frank & Gilbert would be furious.

Walt’s solution to this not-enough-time / not-enough-money problem was kind of ingenious. He only had his painters paint the side of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant that faced into the Park (i.e. the side that would appear on camera). Walt then had a bunch of Disney Studios employees placed on deck. When the cameras came on, these folks rushed to the rail and then wave frantically towards the camera. That way, no one would notice that the props or rigging on this ship weren’t in place either.

This trick worked. The Jolly Roger looked great on camera. And just so you know: It would take another six weeks of hard work after the “Dateline: Disneyland” TV special aired before the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was finally ready to serve food / begin entertaining Disneyland Guests.

Credit: Disney Parks

Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship

This eatery became so popular with Disneyland Guests that … Well, after Walt finally wrestled ABC’s partial ownership of the Park away from that broadcast company in June of 1960 (He had to pay that company $7.5 million for its one third ownership of the Park) … One of the very first thing Disney did was to create a secondary seating area for this Fantasyland eatery.

Credit: MickeyMousePark.com

Here’s how that expansion project was described in the October – November 1960 issue of the “Disneylander” (i.e., the park’s employee newsletter back then):

This article’s headline read: “Pirate Ship To Have New And Exotic Setting”

And here’s a quote from this piece:

“By the time you read this, you’ll be aware that the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship is closed for extensive rehab. It is scheduled to reopen about December 15th. Isolated by craggy cliffs covered with lush tropical foliage will be ‘Pirate’s Cove,’ where the Park’s well known Pirate Ship resides at anchor. WED designers have included in their plans the familiar landmark of Skull Rock from the Peter Pan story with three waterfalls cascading from rocky heights.”

Construction of Pirate’s Cove & Skull Rock actually took a little longer than expected. This Fantasyland addition wouldn’t open ‘til just before Christmas. December 23, 1960, to be exact.

Credit: Yesterland / Fred M. Nelson, Sr., 1973

Van Camp Seafood Partnership

The folks at Van Camp Seafood initially seemed very pleased with their association with Disneyland Park. They renewed their original sponsorship agreement with the Park in 1962 for another seven year-long lease. Unfortunately, in 1963, Frank & Gilbert sold their fish canning company to Ralston Purina. And when the sponsorship contract for the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant came up for renewal in 1969, Ralston Purina opted out.

Captain Hook’s Galley

Disneyland management responded to this loss of sponsor by changing the name of this Fantasyland restaurant from The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant to Captain Hook’s Galley. They also made minor tweaks to the ship’s figurehead and the giant stern piece so that the mermaids there no longer looked just like Catalina, Chicken of the Sea’s corporate icon.

Moving to New Fantasyland

We now jump ahead to the Fall of 1981. Work has just begun on Disneyland’s New Fantasyland. Which – when this side of the Park re-opens in the Summer of 1983 – will feature all-new versions of Disneyland’s classic dark rides like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” & “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” featuring then-state-of-the-art effects like fiber optics & digital sound.

Among the changes that are in the works for this side of the Park is that the ship that houses Captain Hook’s Galley is once again going to be lifted by a crane. Only this time, it’s going to lifted over a 100 feet or so that this full-sized pirate ship could then became the finale of Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride. The canal boats – after floating by all of those miniaturized recreations of settings from famous Disney films – would now find themselves, in the final moments of this ride, right alongside of the Jolly Roger.

Credit: Walt Disney Family Museum

The Imagineers thinking here was … Well, Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride starts off with a big moment (the canal boat you’re riding in gets swallowed up by Monstro the whale from “Pinocchio”). It should then have a similarly big moment at the moment at the end. Besides – by moving the structure that previously housed Captain Hook’s Galley from the centerbackmost portion of Fantasyland over to the eastern edge of this land at Disneyland – this then opened some very valuable real estate right in the middle of one of the more popular / most crowded corners of the Park.

So okay. So once this part of the Imagineers’ plans for a new Fantasyland at Disneyland was signed off on by Park Management … Phase One of Operation “The Jolly Roger Flies Again” was to first gently pry Chris Mueller’s now 26-year-old mermaid sculptures off of the bow & the stern of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant and then take them backstage to be restored. Then the pirate ship would be hoisted into its new location at the edge of Small World Plaza. Whereupon the load / unload area for the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride would be expanded to create a brand-new lagoon space that this pirate ship could be anchored in.

Just so you know: I’ve never been able to confirm that Skull Rock was to have then be recreated in this new location. The insinuation here was that – once both phases of the New Fantasyland project were complete (Phase One was to be ready for the Late Spring of 1983. While Phase Two – which involved the revamped version of the “Alice in Wonderland” dark ride, the relocation of Disneyland’s “Mad Tea Party” dark ride and the Mad Hatter’s Hat Shop – would open in the Spring of 1984) — the Imagineers would then attempt to ram through the creation of a second version of Skull Rock. Which would then help hide where the maintenance dock for the Storybook Land Canal Boats would be taken every night.

I have also been told that the below-decks area (which was initially supposed to be closed off to Guests once the Jolly Roger was flown into its new location of the Eastern edge of Small World Plaza) was to have then been completely renovated. And that – for the Summer of 1985 (Just in time for Disneyland’s 30th birthday celebration) what had previously been a quick service restaurant would then be turned into a pirate-themed juice bar. Which was kind of a cool idea.

Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger

This was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, after those two mermaid pieces were carefully pried off of the bow & the stern of Captain Hook’s Galley, the forklift that was taking both of these pieces backstage made a sudden stop. The mermaid pieces then fell off and shattered to smithereens.

Worse that that: When the New Fantasyland construction crew went to go arrange the harnesses that were necessary to hoist this 26-year-old pirate ship high in the air over to its new location, they then discovered that the old Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (which — remember – had originally built out of Douglas Fir outside of Disneyland’s old lumber mill and then been trimmed with genuine Honduran mahogany) was now riddled with termites. Long story short: This structure would have immediately crumbled into pieces as soon as that construction crane starts to pull on those harnesses.   

Credit: MickeyMousePark.com

As a direct result, the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was left at anchor right where it was until a demolition team could come along and pull this ship-shaped structure down. While they were at it, this demolition team also destroyed one of Disneyland’s favorite photo spots (Skull Island Cove). In its place today, you’ll now find Disneyland’s relocated Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.

Which – of course – makes us OG Disneyland fans sad. I mean, that’s something that Walt put in place and then plussed. But it’s worth noting that the Jolly Roger — as well as Pirate Cove & Skull Rock — do live on. Only at a different Disney theme park.

Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris

When the Imagineers opted to build Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris in the early 1990s, they included a full-sized pirate ship that was then placed at anchor in front of a large-ish version of Skull Rock. And inside of this pirate ship, you’ll find yet another Captain Hook’s Galley. This one’s a counter-service restaurant, though. Not a pirate-themed juice bar.

Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream

Just so you know: If you’re a Disneyland completist and wonder what it was like to actually dine at the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant, if you Google “Disneyland Tuna Burger,” you can find a number of recipes online that will then allow you to replicate this signature item from the menu of this now-gone-for-nearly-40-years restaurant.

Me personally, given that whole everything-served-here-must-make-use-of-items-that-Van-Camp-Seafood-makes-or-sells condition, I still have to wonder just how much tuna there was in that one dessert item the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant sold. Which was the fruit tart with whipped cream.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 389”, published on August 29, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

History of Epcot’s World ShowPlace & Millennium Celebration

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Epcot Millenium Celebration
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It’s 1996. And Disney Parks & Resorts is already thinking about how it should handle the Millennium.

Not that Y2K bug thing, mind you.

Y2K and the Disney Theme Parks

Do you remember how – back in the late 1990s – there were people who were absolutely terrified that, due to a flawed bit of computer code … Well, at the very second the world transitioned over from 1999 to 2000, everything that was run by computer would suddenly shut down. Including the North American power grid.

This was something that many corporations – including The Walt Disney Company – took very, very seriously in the lead-up to the Millennium. The Mouse actually set up a dedicated task force of 800 employees to investigate the Disney Company’s possible exposure to a Y2K bug threat and then put together a response plan.

One element of Disney’s Y2K bug response plan was – should the North American power grid actually fail at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 – each of Disney’s stateside parks had dozens of emergency lights & back-up generators on hand. These items were stashed backstage at the Parks (out of sight of the Guests, of course), ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Just in case the country’s power grid really did suddenly collapse that night.

Shutting Down Every Attraction on 12/31/1999

And speaking of December 31, 1999, how many Disney theme park fans remember how – on that night – the Mouse shut down every single ride, show & attraction at its stateside theme parks 15 minutes prior to midnight and then held those things in place / in check for 30 minutes or so?  They did this until it was clear that the North American power grid hadn’t actually collapsed and that every computer on the planet hadn’t really gone haywire.

“Better safe than sorry” was the thinking among the Park’s Ops Team. They didn’t want Guests stuck on Disneyland’s or WDW’s attractions should the Y2K bug prove be a very real thing.

Anyway … A half hour after the stroke of midnight on what-was-now-January 1st, 2000, all of those rides, shows & attractions at Disney’s stateside parks were back up & running again. Loaded with happy, still alive Guests.

Mind you, the Mouse never admitted publicly that the reason they’d shut down all of the rides, shows & attractions at its stateside theme parks just prior to midnight on December 31, 1999 was out of Y2K bug-related safety concerns. What Disney spokespersons said instead was – in essence – “ …  we just to be sure that all of our Guests got the chance to see that night’s special fireworks display.”

Yeah. Right.

Millennium Celebration for Walt Disney World and Disneyland

Back to 1996 now.

What The Walt Disney Company was most concerned about – as it looked ahead to the Millennium was — … Well, to borrow a phrase from a very famous Prince song, figure out what to do in California & Florida when Disney theme park fans wanted “ … to party like it’s 1999.”

On the West Coat, given that Disney’s California Adventure would still be under construction at the start of the Millennium (That theme park wouldn’t actually open to the public ‘til February 8, 2001. And given that the Disneyland Parking Lot would close on January 21, 1998 to then make room for DCA … Well, the rest of that Resort would largely be a maze of construction fences when December 31, 1999 finally arrived), a one-night-only party seems like the smartest way to go.

Whereas in Florida … The thinking is – instead of a one-night-only party – Walt Disney World should explore the idea of a staging a months-long Millennium celebration. Something that could start in 1999 and then roll on into 2000.

Quick aside here: WDW’s PR team just loved this idea. Largely because – by the late Spring / early Summer of 1999 — the newness & excitement associated with Disney’s Animal Kingdom (That theme park was due to open in April of 1998) would have begun to wear off.

Selecting Epcot for the Millennium Celebration at Walt Disney World

As to which park should host Walt Disney World’s Millennium Celebration … Well, that was kind of a gimmee back then. Largely because — while Epcot was the park at the Walt Disney World Resort with the second highest attendance levels (Magic Kingdom was first) — it was also [at that time, anyway] the least profitable park on property.

I know that that’s strange to hear today. Especially given the hand-over-fist money that the WDW Resort now makes off of those super-sized, extended versions of Food & Wine and Flower & Garden. But you also have to remember that today’s story starts back in 1996. And the …

  • 1st Flower & Garden wasn’t held til April of 1994 (And even then, it was just five weeks long)
  • Likewise the 1st Food & Wine wasn’t held ‘til September of 1996 (and it was just 30 days long)
  • Interestingly, the 1st Holidays Around the World / now International Festival of the Holidays debuted that very same year. In November of 1996 to be precise (it also was just five weeks long)
  • And Epcot’s International Festival of the Arts is the newest of the bunch. It debuted just 5 years ago in January of 2017 (and was also only five weeks long)

So you have to understand that these massive money makers (as we know them today, anyway) weren’t really in place back then. Which is why Epcot – which then had to largely rely on its original assortment of attractions to lure WDW visitors through its turnstiles – was the least profitable park on property.

Anyway … Disney Parks & Resorts hoped to turn this situation around (at least for 15 months or so) by making Epcot Center the center of WDW’s Millennium Celebration. Which was supposed to get underway in October of 1999 and then run at least through December of 2000.

Just so you know, though: There was a secondary agenda being serviced here as well … Disney Parks & Resorts wanted to use WDW’s Millennium Celebration as a way to reintroduce the world to a new, fun version of Epcot …

Epcot 2.0

Sound familiar? Yep, that is exactly what Walt Disney World had also hoped they’d be able to do with the Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration which began back on October of 2021. Reintroduce the world to the brand-new, fun version of Epcot 2.0. (They say no good idea ever dies at Disney. But wasn’t it Santayana who said that “ … a fanatic is someone who redoubles their effort when they’ve forgotten their original aim” ? )

Credit: Disney

Of course, when it came to the launch of the brand-new, fun version of Epcot 2.0, the pandemic & its impact on the labor force and worldwide supply chains kind of blew that very ambitious plan right out of the water. So instead of a bright new shiny version of Walt Disney World’s science & discovery park being in place just in time for the launch of this Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration back in October of 2021 … What we got instead is a handful of new rides, shows & attractions like “Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure,” “HarmonioUS,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind,” “The Creations Store,” “Space 220,” “The Connections Café & Eatery,” and – soon – “Moana: The Journey of Water” opening one at a time in kind of a scattershot fashion … Which (let’s be honest here) didn’t have nearly as big an impact / make nearly as big a splash than as if all of these new rides, shows & attractions had managed to come online in the exact same window of time (i.e., late Summer / early Fall of 2021. Just in time for the start of WDW’s 50th anniversary celebration).

Quick aside: I want to be clear here: This wasn’t poor planning on Disney’s part. Nobody could have ever foreseen that a once-in-a-century pandemic would come over the hill and then disrupt WDW’s a-decade-in-the-making 50th anniversary plans. Epcot’s still limping along through its reimagining right now. Which — I’m now hearing –should largely be complete by 2024 (This is when the Play! Pavilion, CommuniCore Hall & Communicore Plaza are supposed to finally come online. We’ll get to those latter two projects in the back half of today’s story).

Prepping Epcot for WDW’s Millennium Celebration

Back to 1996 and the Resort’s advance prep & planning for WDW’s Millennium celebration now … There was a method to the Imagineers’ madness. All of the changes that were to be made to Epcot out ahead of October of 1999 (the target date for the launch of this park’s 15 month-long Millennium celebration) had a very deliberate purpose.

  • That giant “Sorcerer Mickey” arm which was erected over Spaceship Earth was supposed to send a message to Guests that Epcot was now far more magical & fun.
  • The “Tapestry of Nations” parade (which was presented twice daily, once starting at 6:30 p.m. and then a second presentation of the same parade starting at 8:10 p.m.) was supposed to compel Guests to stay in Epcot long enough each day to actually view that parade. And while these people were killing time waiting … Well, they’d either have to shop or grab a meal (Which would then hopefully help with Epcot’s least-profitable-theme-park problem) …
  • Then – to absolutely make sure that people lingered as long as possible inside of Epcot while the Resort’s Millennium Celebration was being presented – WDW Entertainment rolled out a brand-new edition of “Illuminations,” “Reflections of Earth.” Which was a significant upgrade of the previous nighttime show that had been staged out on World Showcase Lagoon. With giant torches erected all along the esplanade and the Inferno Barge literally starting this show with a bang.

The hope was that people would have such a great time at WDW’s 15 month-long Millennium Celebration that they’d then want to commemorate this special occasion. This is why the Imagineers then built the “Leave a Legacy” plaza directly in front of Spaceship Earth.

Spaceship Earth (2000)
Credit: TouringPlans.com

This retail initiative was a sequel of sorts to those hugely popular “Walk Around the World” pavers that had been sold over at the Magic Kingdom as part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration.

FYI: WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration was also originally supposed to be just a 15 month-long celebration, running from October of 1996 through December of 1997. But that event proved to be so popular with WDW visitors that the Resort’s 25th anniversary celebration got extended another three months. All the way to March of 1998.

And to be honest, if the Resort could have gotten away with it, they’d have extended WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration event even further than that. But they were forced to finally shut those festivities down in March of 1998, largely because Disney’s Animal Kingdom would be opening in late April of that same year. And that theme park’s opening was supposed to be the primary focus of the WDW Resort’s promotional efforts for the bulk of 1998).

“Leave a Legacy” at Epcot

Back to the “Leave a Legacy” retail program now … The Imagineers built a Stonehenge-like plaza in front of Spaceship Earth which had space for 750,000 tiles that could then feature the smiling faces of Guests who had just attended Epcot’s Millennium Celebration (Which the Company really hoped would eventually turn into a WDW 20th anniversary-like success. Which would have then forced the Resort to extend its 15th month-long Millennium celebration another three months into the late Winter / early Spring of 2001).

That wasn’t to be, though. “Leave a Legacy” ultimately proved to be something of a disappointment. Only 440,000 tiles were sold over the course of Epcot’s Millennium celebration. (I’m told that this was because most people didn’t like how their likenesses on the finished tiles turned out AND because it was then hard to find your “Leave a Legacy” tile once it was finally put in place in that stone garden in front of Spaceship Earth).

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Terry Dobson (Walt Disney Imagineer)

We’ve talked about what Walt Disney World was going to do in order to get Guests to linger at Epcot in the late afternoon / early evening during that Resort’s Millennium Celebration with that one-two punch of “Tapestry of Nations” and “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” But what was supposed to compel people to visit that theme park earlier in the day while this 15-month-long event was going on?

That was the assignment that was handed to Terry Dobson. Who – at this point – was a veteran Show Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Imagineer Terry Dobson with Innoventions
Imagineer Terry Dobson
Credit: apu.edu

Innoventions at Epcot

From January of 1993 through October of 1994, Terry had been the guy who rode herd on the transformation of CommuniCore West into Innoventions. That 100,000 square foot exhibition officially opened in Epcot’s Future World section in July of 1994 and featured displays by all sorts of major American corporations. Among them AT&T, GE, GM, Motorola, Honeywell, IBM, Apple, Silicon Graphics, and Lego.

That Future World display proved to be so popular that the team who was working on reimagining Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area back in the late 1980s / early 1990s then said “Hey, we wanted an Innoventions too.”

Disneyland Innoventions

So from February of 1996 through May of 1998 (which is when Disneyland’s new version of a New Tomorrowland finally opened), Terry did the exact same thing. Which was take a pre-existing structure (In this case, the Carousel of Progress theater-go-round building) and then turn it into a space where … Well, here’s a piece of Disney speak for you …

… deliver corporate messages through family play experiences through a mixture of high-tech, low-tech and no-tech hands-on exhibits.

This time around, Dobson delivered a 30,000 square foot exhibition space that featured displays by for SAP, Compaq, Honeywell, AT&T, GM and Kaiser Permanente. That last sponsor was a throwback to an opening day attraction at Disneyland.

Anyway, just like the East Coast version of Innoventions, the West Coast version of this exhibit proved to be hugely popular with Guests. Which is why – when Dobson finally returned to his office at Imagineering headquarters in Glendale – he found WDW’s the Millennium Celebration team waiting for him.

Epcot’s World ShowPlace and Millennium Village

They told Terry “Hey, how’d you like to tackle another Innoventions-like project with lots of displays? Only this time, you’ll be working with countries, rather than corporations. Which – I’m sure — will be far easier to deal with. But the upside is … At least this time, you’ll be working with a brand-new 65,000 square foot building.”

Did I say “building” ? To be honest here, the World ShowPlace (that’s what this 65,000 square foot structure eventually became known as. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, shall we?) is a tent. A very large, supposed-to-be-temporary tent.

Those tents that now house Pete’s Silly Sideshow & Big Top Souvenirs over WDW’s Magic Kingdom, which were originally erected back in 1988 as part of Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration and then only supposed to be in place for a year), there’s nothing quite so permanent as a supposed-to-be-temporary tent at Walt Disney World.

As Terry Dobson began actively developing World ShowPlace and the Millennium Village display that was supposed to eventually be staged inside of this 65,000 square foot temporary building / tent, this Imagineering vet quickly realized that he was now serving two masters.

By that I mean: WDW Resort officials wanted the Millennium Village to be this must-see spectacle. A colorful gathering which represented over 50 nations from around the globe that would then compel people to fly on down to Orlando and check this exhibition out during its 15-month-long run. Disney World’s only creative caveat going into this project was that Terry NOT include any displays from countries that already had a pavilion out along the shores of World Showcase Lagoon. Only new & different nations, please.

Whereas Epcot’s management team … Well, they went into the Millennium Village / World ShowPlace project with a somewhat different agenda. They were much more intrigued by how this 65,000 square foot building / tent / supposedly-temporary structure could possibly be used AFTER WDW’s 15-month-long Millennium Celebration was over.

Rain’s Impact on Festival Attendance at Epcot

By that I mean: At this point in that theme park’s history, Epcot had been running its seasonal Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, and Holidays Around the World festival for a few years now. And while all three of these seasonal events had shown huge profit potential … Well, the problem was that Flower & Garden, Food & Wine as well as Holidays Around the World was that they were largely events that were staged outdoors. Which mean that all it took to tank that day’s attendance at Epcot (and thereby significantly undermine the profit potential of that particular seasonal event) was one of Central Florida’s famous torrential rainstorms.

So – to mitigate this situation – Epcot wanted a big, new, under-cover venue. Some place where — even when it was pouring outside – Guests could then gather indoors and still enjoy food from around the globe, or listen to Disney’s own horticulturists tell them how to improve their gardens at home, or shop for pieces of art that these tourists could then haul home.

Constructing Epcot’s World ShowPlace

And to get this enormous, new, under-cover venue … Epcot was willing to make some pretty big sacrifices. They were willing to give up that expansion pad between World Showcase’s Canada Pavilion and the UK Pavilion (This is where – back when EPCOT Center was originally being designed – the Imagineers envisioned another international pavilion eventually rising up) so that a long, wide walkway could then built to allow WDW visitors access to the largely-backstage area where World ShowPlace was being built.

Of course, this was kind of costly. Which is why Epcot’s managers reached out to Walt Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office. And then basically said “The Imagineers are now designing a brand-new venue at our theme park that you guys are probably going to want to start using once WDW’s Millennium Celebration is over. Do you want to give them any input / some notes?”

And indeed Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office did. Seeing World ShowPlace as a place where – in the not-so-distant future – they could soon begin staging super-sized dessert parties for companies that were holding their annual conventions on WDW property … Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office asked that the plans for World ShowPlace include:

  • A giant professional prep kitchen (which was supposed to have its loading dock deliberately orientated out towards Epcot’s perimeter road. Which would then make food & supply deliveries to this super-sized facility far simpler)
  • An enormous bathroom just off of the theme-park-facing entrance to this 65,000 square foot structure. This was to be at the top of that walkway up from World Showcase Promenade. Which – again – had been built between Epcot’s UK pavilion & the Canada pavilion.

The idea here was … Well, if you were having some sort of corporate event with an open bar, you’d then have a place where all of these deep-pocketed / paying-with-their-per-diem Guests could quickly pee before they then walked out towards World Showcase Lagoon to watch a presentation of “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.”

  • Next is an element that’s crucial for any building-of-size that was being built in Central Florida today. And that’s no less than six enormous professional-grade air conditioning units, which were set up around the perimeter of this enormous tent-like structure. Which would virtually guarantee that – no matter how many people were crammed into this building at any one time dressed in formal business attire – they’d all always stay cool.
  • And speaking of keeping things cool (or should I say “wet”?), a network of sprinklers were to be built into the roof line of the again-supposed-to-be-temporary World ShowPlace.

These sprinklers were be turned on every night just prior to the start of “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” So that – should a stray firework shell ever accidentally come down on top of this massive tent-like structure as this nightly fireworks / laser extravaganza is being presented – World ShowPlace wouldn’t then go up in flame.

Now please keep in mind that all of the above were permanent structures that were then added to the plans of what was originally supposed to be just a temporary structure. Which obviously added to the cost of originally building World ShowPlace but also – further on down the line — made this Epcot addition that much more valuable & versatile as a venue for corporate & special events.

“Millennium Village”

But before any of that stuff could happen, Terry Dobson had to first deliver that Innoventions-like “Millennium Village” display. Which needed to be up & running by October of 1999.

And remember how Terry’s original marching orders were “We want a spectacle. A massive display featuring over 50 nations from around the globe”? Well, recruiting corporations to show off their latest & greatest hi-tech wares in Innoventions was a lot easier than persuading countries to come take part in Epcot’s Millennium Village exhibition. In the end, Dobson was only able to persuade 24 nations to set up displays inside of World ShowPlace.

And even then, a lot of countries weren’t willing to come be part of the “Millennium Village” unless they were then allowed to cut corners.

Millennium Village

Sweeden

Case in point: Sweden. While this Nordic country was genuinely interested in taking part in Epcot’s Millennium Celebration, Swedish officials weren’t all that eager to spend a large sum of money to build a brand-new display for Disney World. Which is why they asked permission to just recycle the “Four Seasons of Sweden” exhibit that Swedish officials had originally built for Expo ’98 (which had been held the year previous in Lisbon, Portugal) and erect those 30 foot-tall egg-shaped biodomes inside of World ShowPlace. Dobson said “Yes.”

Jerusalem

One country that Terry maybe – in hindsight – wishes that he hadn’t recruit for this event was Israel. Who then presented the somewhat controversial “Journey to Jerusalem” simulator ride in that country’s section of the Millennium Village.

“And what was so controversial about Israel’s ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ ride?,” you ask. Well, this motion-based experience gave WDW visitors a simulated tour of that Holy City through various periods in history.

And because Jerusalem is considered a holy city by a number of religions, this motion-based experience became a hot button issue even before Epcot’s Millennium Village officially opened in October of 1999.

The Arab League was especially incensed by the “Journey to Jerusalem” ride. They all but accused The Walt Disney Company of helping Israel to reinforce that country’s long-held claim that Jerusalem was actually Israel’s capital. Which had – of course — been a bone of contention in this region ever since Israel had first declared its independence back in May of 1948.

Disney (which had offered some creative input when the “Journey to Jerusalem” ride was first put into development) insisted that this motion-based simulator was apolitical. But when word got out that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – rather than its Ministry of Tourism – had contributed some $1.8 million towards the cost of building this $8 million attraction … Well, that then gave this controversy some additional oxygen.

As a direct result of this bout of bad publicity, WDW’s Millennium Celebration got off to a somewhat rocky start. Disney tried to paper over this controversy by bringing Maya Angelou & UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in late October of 1999 to give the Millennium Village their official blessing.

World ShowPlace After Millennium Celebration

Once Epcot’s Millennium Celebration officially ended in December of 2000, Epcot officials and the folks in charge of WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Events office finally got to use World ShowPlace for the purposes they had originally envisioned. Which was as a large under-cover space where various aspects of Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, Festival of the Holidays & Festival of the Arts could be presented indoors. And – when those seasonal events aren’t being staged – WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Events office could then make this very same space available to companies that are staging their conventions down in Orlando.

The downside is … A lot of these corporations over the past 20+ years have already staged their company’s events inside of World ShowPlace. And lately, they’ve been looking for someplace new on WDW property where they can then stage these events / hold their after-convention cocktail parties.

Credit: Eric Hersey

“Park in the Sky”

Which brings us to that “Park in the Sky” project which was first announced at the Disney Parks & Resorts panel that was held at the D23 Expo back in August of 2019. This was when Bob Chapek first revealed that Epcot’s World Showcase was going to be broken up into three distinct neighborhoods:

  • World Discovery
  • World Nature
  • and World Celebration

And serving an anchor for World Celebration was supposed to be this brand-new pavilion, a three story-tall structure that would be both a venue for live events as well as the home base for Epcot’s signature festivals.

Credit: Disney

The ground level portion of this three story-tall structure was to have been known as the Plaza. Guests could easily passed through this space / directly under this building as they walked from the Creations Shop out towards World Showcase Lagoon.

As for the second floor of this structure, this was to have been the expo level. This was where various panels & presentations offered at Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, Festival of the Holidays & Festival of the Arts were to have been staged.

And as for the top floor of this three-story structure … This was the space that Disney’s Corporate Events / Special Events office was most interested in. During the day, it was supposed to be this lovely green space filled with curving walkways that then offered commanding views of Epcot (Hence its “Park in the Sky” designation).

But at night, this elevated garden would have been offered to corporate groups as a possible venue for their cocktail parties / after-convention gatherings. And these companies would have been charged top dollar for the privilege of giving their employees such a stellar view of “HarmonioUS.”

Sadly, in early May of this year, Walt Disney World announced that it had revised its plans for this corner of World Celebration. In place of that three-story tall “Park in the Sky” (which would have really made an interesting architectural statement), we’re now going to get a far more conventional-looking (more importantly, cheaper-to-build) CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza. Which – going forward – will eventually serve as Epcot’s new festival center.

Which – I know – has to disappoint the folks at WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Event offices. They’d already begun talking with various corporations about possibly renting out Epcot’s “Park in the Sky” for their upcoming Orlando-based conventions. My understanding was that – prior to the pandemic – this three-story-tall structure was supposed to have opened no later than 2023.

CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza

Now … From what I’m being told, the earliest that CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza will be the Fall of 2024. And most of the corporations that had previously shown interest in staging events up on the third floor of Epcot’s proposed “Park in the Sky” are now reportedly disappointed with this new version of the festival center that’s now supposed to be built in World Celebration.

Of course, what’s kind of ironic here is that – by the time CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza finally open in late 2024 – World ShowPlace (that originally-supposed-to-be-temporary structure) will then be old enough to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Nothing’s quite as permanent as a temporary tent at Walt Disney World.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 386/387”, published on August 8 & 15, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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