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I am Number Three: Competing in the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament

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I really should have studied.

That was the main thought going through my mind as I walked
toward the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday, August 18th. I had meant to
prepare for the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament by reading my copy of "Disney A to Z" and any Disney trivia books I could get my hands on, but I never found
the time. And by this point, it was too late to do anything about it. I was
going to have to hope that whatever amount of Disney knowledge that was
floating around in my brain was going to be enough to get me far enough in the
tournament that I wouldn't embarrass myself. 

Please understand that I had shown up for the Ultimate
Disney Trivia Tournament with no expectation that I'd be in the running for the
grand prize, a 3-day cruise on the Disney Fantasy. I had decided to participate
just to get an idea of how much I knew about Disney, and because the whole idea
of competing against some of the most knowledgeable Disney fans as well as the
quiz masters from D23 & the Walt Disney Archives sounded as intriguing to
me as it sounded terrifying.  I made up
my mind from the beginning that I'd be happy with my final standing in the
tournament no matter how far I got – as long as I didn't get eliminated right
from the start.


Dan Roebuck of  "LOST" fame served as MC of the 2011 Ultimate Disney Trivia
tournament. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That Thursday morning, there were a couple hundred people
standing in line outside the Anaheim Convention Center waiting to test their
mettle.  The group was very diverse as
far as ages and background. There were teenage girls and older men, folks from
southern California and folks from the East Coast and Japan, and people that I
knew pretty well from the Disney fan community as well as people who I'd never
met before.

Some people were quizzing each other in the queue in the
hope of improving their chances. While others just stood quietly, confident
that they were ready for whatever Disney could throw at them.  I spotted several people in line that I knew
would go pretty far in the tournament. After hearing a few trivia questions, I
was even surer that I really should have studied more. Well, as the Ghost Host
might say, there's no turning back now.

The first round of the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament was
the one that had me the most worried. What the folks from D23 did for the first
round was to have a couple of people at a time walk through the doors of the
Convention Center, where a D23 staff member would then meet each
contestant.  Each contestant would be
asked one question. If the contestant got the question, they'd then get a
sticker with Ludwig Von Drake on it, and they'd proceed up the escalator to the
third floor of the Convention Center and Round Two of the tournament. If the
person blew the question, they'd get a sticker with Bertie Birdbrain from Toot,
Whistle, Plunk, and Boom
on it and they were done, although the person could
get back in line and try again. The line was supposed to be cut off by 9:30
a.m., or as soon as Disney had 2,000 people who made it through the first
round. Fortunately for anyone who did mess up on their question, it didn't look
like there would be enough contestants for the 2,000-person-limit to be a
problem.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I walked up to the D23 staff member, as nervous as all
get-out and hoping that I wouldn't be taking the "Disney Trivia Walk of Shame".
Then came the question: What were the names of Donald's nephews? I breathed a sigh
of relief that I had gotten such an easy question, answered "Huey, Dewey, and
Louie", and then got my Ludwig von Drake sticker.

Although I'd read the rules of the Tournament before
deciding to participate, I really didn't know what to expect as I stepped off
the escalator and walked to the entrance of D23 Expo's Stage 23. I definitely
wasn't expecting to be handed a pencil and a Scantron sheet as I walked through
the door.  But that's what was used to
test the contestants in the second round of the Tournament. 

The contestants would be asked 50 multiple choice questions;
they had 30 seconds to read the question shown on the auditorium's video screen
and choose the correct response.  A
certain number of contestants with the highest scores would advance to the
third round; a list of the people that would be announced later in the day, via
a posting on the D23 website and a list posted at the entrance to the
Convention Center Although Disney's original plan called for multiple second
round quizzes to be administered to 500 people at a time, there couldn't have
been more than a couple of hundred contestants in Stage 23 for this first quiz,
so by this point I think everyone in the auditorium was feeling confident about
their chances of making it to the third round. That didn't mean that any of us
were going to take the second round quiz in stride, however.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Four friends of mine from the Disneyana Fan Club – David,
Doug, Eric, and Roger – had also entered the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament
and made it to Stage 23. So we decided to sit together to provide each other
moral support.  Our quizmaster for the
second round, Graham from the Walt Disney Archives, walked on stage, explained
how the quiz would work, and told us how to correctly complete the Scantron sheet.
(Well, it had been a while since the last time some of us had taken a
test).  

The first ten questions of the second round quiz were easy
enough that there were more than a few chuckles coming from the audience, but
the questions got harder as the quiz continued. By the time Graham had gotten
to the last 10 questions, things were getting pretty tricky. (Some examples:
What year did the Flying Saucers attraction open at Disneyland?  What was the real name of Marge Champion, the
model for Snow White?) I felt relatively confident that I'd done well on the
quiz, although I didn't think I'd done all that well on the final questions; my
friends felt pretty confident, too.  We
handed in our Scantrons as we left Stage 23 and went our separate ways to wait
for the afternoon and the announcement of the contestants selected to advance
to the third round.  (Oh, and for those
of you who are wondering: The Flying Saucers opened in 1961 and Marge
Champion's real name was Marjorie Belcher.)

It was about 1:30 on Thursday afternoon when I got the word.
My girlfriend and I had decided to walk over to Disney California Adventure for
lunch, and after we'd finished eating at Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta, I borrowed
my girlfriend's iPhone and had a look at the D23 website.  Disney had selected about 100 contestants to
advance to the third round
, and my friends and I were all on the list! I had
until 3 p.m. to report back to Stage 23 for the third round, but I wasn't going
to take any chances; my girlfriend and I left DCA and walked back to the
Convention Center.  After having faced my
old schoolhouse nemesis the Scantron in the second round, I thought for a
moment that for the third round we'd be handed "blue books" and asked to write
a "compare and contrast" essay.  The
folks from D23 and the Archives weren't quite that mean, but some of the
questions they asked in the third round made me feel like they'd gotten pretty
close.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The contestants entering Stage 23 for the third round were
given a sticker featuring Professor Owl and a big white sticker with a number.
(We later learned that the number roughly matched our standings from the second
round. It turns out that I came in about 15th – wow!). The contestants were
divided into groups of eight, and each group was directed to sit in a row. On
stage were several sets of flip boards, and each board had three sets of flip
cards with the letters A through E. One row at a time would be brought on
stage, and the quizmasters would ask each group three multiple choice
questions; the contestants on stage would answer the questions using the flip
cards. If someone got at least two questions right, they'd continue in the
tournament. If they got no questions right or just one question right, they
were out of the tournament. This would continue until there were about 30
contestants left.

Another new element for this round of the tournament was
that we'd have an audience. Friends and family could join the contestants in
Stage 23, and contestants who were eliminated from the tournament could then
stay and watch as well. So now we had witnesses if we crashed and burned.
Graham, who again served as our quizmaster for part of the third round,
informed the competitors that the questions would be a little more difficult,
with some of the questions being downright "fiendish".   No pressure.

Actually, in spite of the added twists, things went
reasonably well. This biggest problem the competitors ran into was a series of
"flip card malfunctions", where the cards would fall off the stands from being
tossed a little too vigorously. (We Disney geeks take our trivia quizzes
seriously, folks.) The D23 folks were quick to take the problem flip card
boards away at the first sign of trouble, so these flip card issues were at
worst an annoyance. The questions…well, the questions were definitely getting
really tough by this point.


Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce in Walt Disney Pictures' 1983 release "Something
Wicked This Way Comes." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anything related to Disney, no matter how obscure, was a
possible topic, and the questions covered most of the major parts of the world
of Disney equally well. A competitor might answer a question like "Where do the
Wizards of Waverly Place live?" (New York),  followed by a question about the name for the canoe attraction in Tokyo
Disneyland (the Beaver Brothers Explorer Canoes), and then get a question about
Jason Robards' character in "Something Wicked This Way Comes." (Jason Robards
was actually in that movie?)  A few
competitors fell by the wayside in the initial quizzes. But after about three
of four trips to the stage, most of the competitors – myself included – were
doing well enough that it looked like this round was going to take a while.
(Thank goodness you could miss one question in each round without being
eliminated.) 

Of course, Disney could not let this competition go on
forever, so they made a few changes. Graham left the stage to be replaced by
Steven Vagnini from the Archives, and short while thereafter came – DUM DUM
DUUUM!!! – the tougher questions. This was the point where we really started
losing competitors – we were down from about 70 competitors to 26 in almost no
time at all. Alas, my friend David was the first in our circle of friends to
fall, followed a short time later by Eric. But three of our group survived to
make it into a group of 26 that would compete in the second part of the third
round.

If the first part of the third round had been like running a
series of sprints, the second part was more like running a 5K. We were once
again divided into small groups – one group of 8, two groups of 9 – and each
group was asked 23 questions in a row. The competitors flipped up their answers
three at a time, and then cleared their flip boards for the next set of three
questions. The questions were tougher than ever. But at least this time, there
was no chance of instant elimination – the judges kept tallies of the number of
questions gotten right, and once everyone had gotten their turn on stage, the
scores were added up. The top 18 people would be invited to compete in the
semi-finals.  I don't know how everyone
else felt, but I walked off the stage after my set of questions figuring I was
done – I was sure I hadn't gotten more than two-thirds of them right, and I was
sure that that wouldn't be good enough to get me into the next round. Well, at
least I had made it this far.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The scores were added up, and a funny thing happened. I made
the cut! My friends Doug, Roger, and I had all been selected to compete in the
semi-finals, to be held at Stage 23 the following evening. The competitors
received a button featuring Merlin from "The Sword in the Stone," and the 8
folks who didn't make it were then invited to come to the show the next day;
they would serve as alternates if anybody failed to show up.

Remember the group of friends that I was afraid I was going
to embarrass myself in front of? They offered their congratulations and wished
all three of us the best of luck in the competition. About this time, Dan
Roebuck
from "LOST"  — who would be our
MC for the final rounds — came by and offered his congratulations. Dan told us
that he was looking forward to seeing us in the competition.  Somehow it didn't seem real to me just
yet. 

Let's flash forward to late Friday afternoon, when the
remaining competitors gathered outside Stage 23. We were met by Graham, who
told us the rules for the final rounds of the competition. First off, the 18 competitors
who'd made it through the previous day's rounds would be joined by two more
competitors who'd been selected in competitions at the Destination D events in
California
and Florida. We would be split into two groups, with one group being
sequestered off-stage while the other group competed. We learned the how the
final rounds would work (more on that later). We also learned that there would
be no more multiple choice questions – we were on our own as far as coming up
with answers, although we were told there would be notepads available for us to
work with. (Oh, no – did that mean there would be MATH QUESTIONS?!?)


The stakes get higher as the 2011 edition of D23's Ultimate Disney Trivia Challenge
enters its final phase. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Saying that I was nervous at this point would be a massive
understatement, but Graham said something at this point that was actually comforting:
"Just remember that no matter what happens inside, you folks are the twenty
smartest people in the building today." 
I realized that making it this far was in itself a major accomplishment,
and no matter how bad I flubbed it on stage, at least nobody could take that
away from me. A little calmer now but not necessarily any more relaxed,  I was escorted with everyone else to the
waiting area, where we'd all sit and chat for a bit while the audience and our
judges took their places inside Stage 23.

Each group sat at opposite ends in the waiting area – not
out of animosity or anything, but just because the D23 folks wanted to be sure
the first group could be quickly gotten on stage and the second group would be
unable to hear how things were going for the first group once they went in, to
prevent the second group from gaining any sort of advantage. Our group idly
chatted about things Disney – by this point, nobody felt like quizzing each
other to test their knowledge! I learned that two of the competitors in my
group had won employee trivia tournaments once held by the Disney Store. That
didn't make me feel much better about my chances. But by then I had decided
that was going to be happy if I managed to get a couple of questions right and
could thus be eliminated with a bit of dignity. A short time later, my group
was brought on stage.

On stage, there was a table with ten mikes and notepads.
Next to the table were a couple of plush leather chairs. And in those chairs
were the competition's main judges: retired Disney archivist Dave Smith,
current head of the Walt Disney Archives Becky Cline and our old friend Graham,
who — along with Steven Vagnini — had written many of the questions for the
Tournament. Dan Roebuck paced in front of the table with his mike and his
cards. And in front of him (or behind him, from our perspective) were more
judges and one really big audience. Aside from all my friends cheering me on as
I took to the stage, I really didn't notice the audience much. Whether it was
because they were obscured by the stage lights or because I was too nervous to
notice, I wasn't sure.


"The biggest word you ever heard and this is how it goes … "
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The first round was the Basil of Baker Street Round. Each
contestant was asked three questions. They earned a point for each question
they got right, with no points deducted for wrong answers, and only the person
being asked the questions could answer them. I can't remember what the first
question I got was, but I do remember that I got it right, and that I got a
nice round of applause from the audience. My next question was about "Something
Wicked This Way Comes," and I didn't have an answer at all. (Someday I'm really
going to have to watch that movie.) 
Fortunately, I got my third question right. Not a bad showing at all, if
I say so myself. It could have been a lot worse – one contestant was asked to
spell "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!"

The second round of the semi-finals was the Scare Floor
Round. An image of a set of 12 doors appeared on the video screens in Stage 23,
and each contestant got to choose one door; each door featured an audio clue, a
video clue, or a prop that was brought on stage. For my question, an Egyptian
pharaoh's headdress was brought onstage, and I was asked to name the attraction
where this headdress had come from. (I recognized it almost immediately as
being from Spaceship Earth.) Another contestant got a video from Disney Legend
Bob Gurr, who asked for the name of the person that he and Walt had taken for
an unauthorized ride on the Disneyland Monorail on its opening day. (That would
be Vice-President Richard Nixon.)  The
questions were tricky, but our group did pretty well with them.

The third round of the semi-finals was the Lightning McQueen
Round. Each of the contestants had buzzers in front of them, and for three
minutes, Dan asked a series of questions. As soon as someone had the answer,
they'd then try to buzz in first and respond. Unlike the two prior rounds, if
someone missed the question, they lost a point, and other contestants could
buzz in to try to answer. I decided that my best bet was to be conservative. If
I wasn't sure of the answer, I wasn't going to try to buzz in and guess. I
didn't lose any points following this strategy, but I didn't pick up any,
either.


Then-Vice President Richard Nixon and his family help Walt Disney cut
the ribbon at the official opening of Disneyland's monorail system.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The person next to me on stage, John Kurowski, had no
intention of playing conservatively; he buzzed in on just about every question,
and he got just about every one that he buzzed in on right. John got enough
points that he easily became the top scorer of our group. The competition for
the next two highest scores – and for the two remaining invitations to compete
in the final round – was going to be closer.

I was so focused on trying to beat John to the questions
that I really didn't notice the scores until the round was over. When I looked,
it turned out that I'd gotten third place in my group. I had made it to the
final round! Unfortunately, my friends Doug and Roger hadn't been as lucky in
their round. It was up to me to make a good showing for our group. Again, no
pressure.

The finals of the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament had only
six contestants, and it worked about the same as the semi-final round. There
were only two parts to the final round: The Hasbro's Trivial Pursuit Disney Edition
Round and a second Lightning McQueen Round. For the Trivial Pursuit
round, each of us would choose a Trivial Pursuit category and try to answer a
question (roughly) based on that category. Each contestant got two points for
getting the question right and lost no points lost for missing it. But the
question would be open to everyone else if it was missed. By this time, I was
so wrapped up in the excitement of being in the finals that all I remember
about this round was that I answered a question about the location of Walt
Disney World
(it's in Orange and Osceola Counties), and I think that I missed
my own question.


Walt Disney stands in front of the Florida Project site map in 1966.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

After having competed against John in the semi-final
Lightning McQueen Round, I was pretty sure that the outcome of the final
Lightning McQueen round – and thus the Tournament – was a foregone conclusion,
and I was right. The round was five minutes long this time, and once again John
dominated the round. He overwhelmed everyone else so thoroughly that by the
final minute or so of the round – when I finally managed to beat John to the
buzzer a couple of times – John was given my points by mistake.  By the time the round was over, John was
undeniably the winner of the Tournament and of that cruise on the Disney
Fantasy. According to the scores displayed on the monitors, I was going to have
to be content with finishing in fifth place. 

Or was I? As soon as Dan went to shake the hand of the
third-pace finisher, calls went out from the group that had come to cheer me on
that the scores were wrong. The judges checked out the scores, and sure enough,
I actually had a couple more points than the scoreboard showed. John was in no
danger of losing the Tournament. But with the revised scores, I'd moved up from
fifth place to third. When I heard that, even I was impressed!

Now I didn't get anything for my third-place finish in the
Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament other than bragging rights and a copy of
Hasbro's new Trivial Pursuit Disney For All game (everyone who made it to the
semi-finals got a copy). But I really didn't mind. I'd competed against some of
the best and the brightest Disney fans, and I'd done better than I'd ever
expected. I'm not going to claim I was smarter than anyone else on stage –
honestly, had it not been for a bit of luck as well as what I had remembered,
the outcome might have been very different. But it was an amazing experience,
and I enjoyed all of the congratulations that I got from my friends throughout
the weekend of the D23 Expo. A few friends called out "Hey, Number 3!" and held
three fingers up in the air every time they saw me.  And of course, I proudly wore my third-round
button for the entire weekend. 


"And for our runners-up, a lovely parting gift: a copy of Hasbro's new Trivial Pursuit
Disney For All game." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I can't wait for the next Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament.
I don't know if how far I'll make it next time, but I know it'll be fun. And
who knows? Maybe if I study next time and learn to handle a buzzer better, I
just might pull off a win. No pressure.

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Film & Movies

“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland

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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.

Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.

Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film

Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.

Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …

… photographed on the island of Tobago in the West Indies and that it is shaping up into such an exciting and thrilling picture that the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ shows every promise of equaling or surpassing every production our Company has ever put out.

Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.

But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”

And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.

It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.

The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real

By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.

It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.

Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance

Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically).  Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland

The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).

There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.

And those words supposedly were “Build this.”

It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.

So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.

Adventureland Upgrades

Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.

There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.

This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.

How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”

Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”

That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.

In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.

Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America

Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).

If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.

Drained Jungle Cruise – Credit: imgur.com

The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.

While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.

As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.

This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:

“Here. This is where I want you guys to build Disneyland’s version of the Swiss Family Treehouse.”

“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland

It wasn’t that easy.

The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”

Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”

The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”

Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”

Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”

Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.

So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.

Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse Construction (1962) – Credit: thedisneyblog.com

And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.

The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland

This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Halley (As in Halley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).

There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Halley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.

How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?

Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.

This is where the Imagineers were wrong.

Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse

Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.

200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.

Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.

To be specific here:  Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.

Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).

Ken Annakin – Film Director

Disney Legend Ken Annakin – Credit: D23

Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.

Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.

Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”

And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.

New Robin Hood on Disney+?

Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An  Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.

So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.

So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

The Road to Cars Land – Part One

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It’s the early 2000s. Things are starting to get spikey between Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs in regards to Pixar Animation Studios.

These two titans of industry are trying to hammer out a third extension of that animation studio’s production & distribution deal with the Mouse House. Their original three picture deal had been signed back in March of 1991, and then – following the enormous success of “Toy Story” in November of 1995 – was then been renegotiated & turned into a 5-picture co-production deal in February of 1997.

As far as Steve Jobs was concerned, Pixar was now within inches of meeting its contractual obligation to Disney. Which meant that was now time for these two studios to hammer out a new deal. One that would be far more lucrative for Pixar. After all, the folks up in Emeryville (They’d only just moved from Pixar’s original studio set-up in Port Richmond over to Emeryville in 2000) had already delivered six films for Disney to distribute:

  • “Toy Story” (1995)
  • “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
  • “Toy Story 2” (1999)
  • “Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • “Finding Nemo” (2003)
  • “The Incredibles” (2004)

“Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” Don’t Count – Pixar’s Original Film Obligation to Disney

Not so fast, says Disney’s lawyers. “Toy Story” was produced outside of that 5 picture co-production deal that was signed back in February in 1997. So it then couldn’t be counted as one of the five films that Pixar was contractually obligated to deliver to Disney.

More to the point, because “Toy Story 2” was a sequel to the original “Toy Story” movie from 1995 (and was originally supposed to be a Disney Home Premiere, rather than a theatrical release. Disney only decided that “Toy Story 2” would be released to theaters a year or so out from completion of that production. Which caused an awful lot of angst up in Emeryville) … Well, that film also couldn’t be counted towards those 5 co-productions that Pixar was now contractually obligated to deliver to Disney.

Which made Steve Jobs furious.

Credit: Gitlab

Steve Jobs had every right to be angry – given how many movie tickets had been sold to “Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” (the first film in this series earned $244 million at the worldwide box office. While the second film in this series effectively doubled the first “Toy Story” ‘s box office take, pulling in $487 million at the worldwide box office), it just made Jobs crazy that a film franchise which had already pull in three quarters of a billion dollars at the worldwide box office didn’t count towards Pixar’s 5 picture co-production deal. Never mind the hundreds of millions of merchandising-related dollars that Disney had also pulled in from the sales of “Toy Story” -related toys.

Anyway … As far as Disney was concerned, factoring in the whole the-first-“Toy-Story”-doesn’t-count-towards-that-five-picture-deal-because-it-was-produced-before-this-co-production-deal-was-signed and “Toy-Story-2”-doesn’t-count-towards-that-five-picture-co-production-deal-either-because-it’s-a-sequel-to-the-original-“Toy-Story” thing … Well, Disney’s lawyers insisted that – to date – Pixar had only delivered four of the five movies it was under contract to deliver to the Mouse House.

  • “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
  • “Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • “Finding Nemo” (2003)
  • “The Incredibles” (2004)

Early Talks of “Toy Story 3” – Will It Count ?!

Now where this gets interesting is that – in the middle of this negotiation in the early 2000s – Pixar actually approached Disney with an idea for “Toy Story 3.” Which they then wanted to produce as the fifth and final film Pixar was contractually obligated to deliver to Disney as part of that co-production deal they’d signed with the Mouse House back in February of 1997.

Now remember that the first two “Toy Story” movies had already earned three quarters of a billion at the worldwide box office. So it was a gimme that a third “Toy Story” film would sell lots & lots of movie tickets as well. Not to mention all of the fees that Disney would collect from toy manufacturers for those officially licensed “Toy Story” toys.

And – just in case you’re wondering – Disney wasn’t wrong. When “Toy Story 3” was finally released to theaters in June of 2010, it would go on to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office all by itself. Never mind about all of the officially licensed toy money.

But here’s the thing: Pixar will only make “Toy Story 3” IF Disney agrees that this sequel then counts as the fifth and final film that this Emeryville-based operation is still under contract to deliver to the Mouse House. And Michael Eisner – when he hears about this – digs in his heels and says “You know that’s not the deal. Sequels don’t count towards your 5-picture contractual obligation to us. If you opt to produce ‘Toy Story 3,’ you’re still going to need to deliver another movie to Disney after that in order to honor the terms of that contract.”

Which makes Jobs furious. Here he was offering Disney yet another sequel to “Toy Story” that – as I mentioned earlier – would eventually go on to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office … And here was Michael Eisner saying “Nope. That doesn’t count towards completion of our 5-picture co-production deal. You’re still going to owe us another movie after you deliver ‘Toy Story 3.’ “

Which is when Jobs decides to play hardball. He says “Okay then. No ‘Toy Story 3.’ “

To which Eisner responds “Okay then. No ‘Toy Story 3.’ Let’s make that cars movie instead.”

“The Yellow Car” – Origin Story to “Cars”

Which now brings us to “Cars.” Or – as this proposed animated feature was known back then (when work first began on the development of this Pixar project back in 1998) – “The Yellow Car.” Now – given what’s going on in California right now (You did see where that State is looking to ban the sales of new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by 2035?) – the original storyline that Pixar had put together for “The Yellow Car” was kind of interesting. It dealt with a tiny little electric car – which had just arrived from overseas – trying to make a new life for itself in the American southwest. Where it was then surrounded by all of these gas-guzzling 4-wheelers and long-haul trucks.

Credit: Pixar Room

That storyline might have had a chance today. But back in the late 1990s / early 2000s, the story notes that Disney kept sending Pixar were more along the lines of “Is there any way we can change that scrappy immigrant into … Say, a young race car who’s on the cusp of his first big professional win?”

And that note reportedly came from Michael Eisner himself. Who – even though he had said “No” to Pixar making “Toy Story 3” because of that whole contractual-obligation thing – still thought that he had a huge winner for Disney in “Cars.” And that was because – back in the late 1960s – Michael had had a front row seat when Mattel’s Hot Wheels first arrived on the scene.

Michael Eisner & Hot Wheels

You gotta remember that Michael Eisner started out in television. To be specific, he had two brief stints at NBC & CBS in the mid-1960s before he then got hired ABC. Where – in 1968 — Eisner was named that network’s director of program development for the East Coast. Which meant that Michael was then largely responsible for what aired on ABC on Saturday morning.

And around this very same time (May of 1968), Mattel introduced Hot Wheels. Which was this new toy line of scale model cars. The first 16 Hot Wheels hit the market that year and were supported by this massive television advertising campaign (with the bulk of that commercial time which was supposed to support the launch of this new toy line — of course — being purchased on shows that would air on Saturday mornings. Which is when kids would be guaranteed to be watching TV).

So taking into account where Michael Eisner was working at that time, he was obviously keenly aware of what an enormous success the “Hot Wheels” toy line had been for Mattel. So – some 35 years later – when Pixar effectively told Eisner “You can’t have ‘Toy Story 3.’ You’ll now have to settle for ‘The Yellow Car’ instead,” Michael’s response was “Okay. Disney will temporarily shut down its ‘Toy Story’ gold mine and now go and open a ‘Cars’ -themed platinum mine instead.”

Now please note that I used the word “temporarily” there. That was because Disney’s lawyers believed that they owned the Pixar-produced characters from the original agreement.

Pixar Breaks Away from Disney – Disney Creates Circle 7 Studios

In January of 2004 – Steve Jobs announced that he was breaking off negotiations with The Walt Disney Company and upon delivery of “Cars” – which would be released to theaters in June of 2006 – Pixar was finally free & clear of its obligations to the Mouse House. Which is why they now open negotiations with other studios in Hollywood seeking a new production / distribution partner.

Once Pixar formally broke off negotiations with Disney, The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be starting Circle 7 Studios (named for the street that this brand-new animation studio was located on. Which is Circle 7 Drive in Glendale, CA. Which is where KABC, the Los Angeles-based ABC affiliate is located. “And what is the KABC logo?,” you ask. A 7 – for Channel 7 – with a circle around it)

… And at Circle 7 Studios, Disney intended to produce its own sequels to “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Because – under the terms of those production & distribution deals, later co-production deals that Pixar had signed with Disney back in 1991 and then 1997 respectively – the Mouse felt that they owned this Pixar-produced characters & storylines outright and could then do whatever they wanted with them.

That whole Circle 7 Studios was a nightmare for the folks at Pixar. Though – it’s worth noting here – the people at Disney who did work on those “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” sequels did do some decent work.

Original “Toy Story 3” Plot

The storyline for Disney’s version of “Toy Story 3” (which had Buzz Lightyear getting recalled to the factory that originally made him in Japan, and then the Andy’s Room gang shipping themselves via FedEx to that very same factory in an effort to save Buzz from being dismantled) had its charms.

“Monsters, Inc.” Sequel – “Lost in Scaradice”

I’d argue that the storyline for Disney’s version of “Monsters, Inc.” (which was to have been entitled “Lost in Scaradice”) would have made for a far better film than the one that Pixar themselves produced in June of 2013. Which was “Monsters University.”

But we’re not here to talk about “Lost in Scaradice.” We’re here to talk about “Cars.”

“Cars” – Michael Eisner’s Decision Creates Billions with New Franchise

“Cars” finally got released to theaters in June of 2006 and then went on earn $461 million at the worldwide box office.

Which – admittedly – wasn’t the over-a-billion that “Toy Story 3” would earn at the worldwide box office just four years later in June of 2010. But then when you factor in the $11 BILLION in sales of officially licensed “Cars” toys (And that was just in the first two years after “Cars” was released to theaters) … Well, like I said earlier, Disney had just temporarily traded its “Toy Story” -themed gold mine for a “Cars” -themed platinum mine.

Important to stress here: Michael Eisner’s “Hot Wheels” -related hunch proved to be correct. Him deciding to make Pixar produce “Cars” rather than opting to greenlight production of Toy Story 3” created a whole new, extremely lucrative franchise for The Walt Disney Company. Which is paying off even today.

For example, Over on Disney+ the very day that this Bandcamp Exclusive show went live (September 8, 2022), a brand new original animated series – “Cars on the Road” – starring Mater & Lightning McQueen debuts. Nine episode detailing what happens on a road trip when Lightning & Mater drive back East to attend Mater’s sister’s wedding. Can’t wait to see what Mater’s sister looks like.

Bob Iger Helps Disney Reclaim Pixar

Eisner doesn’t often get credit for the success of cars. But that’s largely because Michael Eisner is no longer the CEO of The Walt Disney Company. He stepped down in September of 2005. Now Bob Iger is called the shots at the Mouse House. And he’s determined to do whatever he has to in order to repair the Company’s working relationship with Pixar. Up to & including buying that animation studio in January of 2006 for $7.4 billion and then making Steve Jobs the Company’s largest individual shareholder. For a time, Steve owned 7% of that Company.

And when you lay out that kind of cash … Well, of course, you’re looking for a quick return on your investment. Which is Iger then turned to the Imagineers and said “I want a lot of Pixar-related stuff in the Disney Parks as quickly as possible.”

“Cars” Attractions in Disney Parks

And the Imagineers took the orders they were getting from Disney’s new CEO very seriously. Which is why – a year to the day after “Cars” first opened in theaters (June 9, 2006) – Cars Race Rally opened at Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris (on June 9, 2007).

Cars Race Rally at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris

Mind you, Cars Race Rally wasn’t the most elaborate or ambitious attraction to ever be installed at a Disney theme park. Located in the Toon Studios section of Walt Disney Studios Park, this flat ride was a reimagining of Zamperla’s Demolition Derby. Only in this case, this ride’s vehicles that have been rethemed to look as though they were part of the ”Cars” universe.

Credit: Flickr/Ramella

Radiator Springs Announcement for Disney California Adventure

But just four months after Cars Race Rally would open at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris (on October 17, 2007, to be exact), The Walt Disney Company announced its $1.1 billion redo of Disney California Adventure. This 5-year-long project be capped off by the creation of a 12-acre area that would basically recreate Radiator Springs in all its glory at the very center of this theme park. Which – it was hoped – would then give Southern Californians a compelling new reason to go visit the Disneyland Resort’s second gate.

Mind you, the irony here is – if you look back at the original plans for Disney’s California Adventure (back when this theme park was first announced back in July of 1996), Disneyland’s second gate was supposed to have had an area that celebrated California Car Culture. A place that would have allowed DCA visitors to experience firsthand street racing or the joy of cruising along Route 66 or just the fun of sitting in a classic car from the 1950s outside of a neon-laden drive-in restaurant. Where you could then have had your fast food order brought right to your vehicle by a car hop who was wearing roller skates.

Credit: Inside The Magic

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? So how did we go from an area at DCA that was supposed to have celebrated California’s car culture to a land that then recreated Radiator Springs from Pixar’s original “Cars” movie? We’ll get to that on the second installment of this new Bandcamp Exclusive series, “The Road to Cars Land.”

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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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