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Maybe they should rename the park “Not-so-Great Adventure”

JHM columnist Seth Kubersky returns from his annual sojourn to New Jersey with an extremely caustic — but still really funny — article about his recent visit to Six Flags Great Adventure.

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If you live anywhere in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area, you’ve probably seen the ads.

“New this season at Six Flags Great Adventure: Superman – Ultimate Flight.” Soar through the air like the Man of Steel, suspended lying on your belly with your arms stretched out in front of you. Hurry hurry hurry! Step right up! Fun for the whole family. How can any rollercoaster fan resist the opportunity to fly the way God (or Siegel & Schuster) intended?

Growing up in Jersey, I had a love-hate relationship with Six Flags. Apart from infrequent family vacations to Orlando, Hershey, or Lake George, it was my first exposure to amusement parks. I remember having the spit scared out of me in the Haunted Mansion only weeks before the tragic 1984 fire that killed 8 guests. I struggled in vain to read a G-force meter while plummeting down the Freefall ride during a physics class school trip. And the Great American Scream Machine was my introduction to looping coasters.

But as I got older, and visited more parks around the country, I realized just how awful a park Great Adventure was. The filth and decay of the facility was often shocking. Major rides were frequently torn down after only a couple years of operation, usually for safety or maintenance issues. Years before our current post-9/11 obsession with security, metal detectors were installed to deal with rampant gang violence. Only last month, a train full of rides made headlines when they were trapped for 20 minutes hanging upside down on the Chiller coaster.

At a certain point I vowed never to return. My last visit was shortly after the opening of Viper, a Togo heartline coaster built in the same spot as the long-defunct Ultra Twister heartline. But the lure of Superman was just too great. As a dedicated observer of all things amusement, I considered it my sacred duty to try this latest-and-greatest for myself. So, while spending a couple weeks vacation at the folks’ place in North Jersey, I hopped in the car and made the hour (or hour and a half — thank you very much, NJDOT construction) drive down the Turnpike to Jackson. A quiet Tuesday at the end of the season. Slightly overcast but dry and warm — the perfect day for visit. Or so one would think…

Approaching the Six Flags complex, you are given the choice of entering the Hurricane Harbor water park, the drive-thru Safari (“Warning: Monkeys WILL damage your vehicle. No convertibles allowed.) or the theme park. After paying $10 (seriously!) to enter the theme park parking lot, I got my first clue as to how the day would proceed: no parking attendants. Not a single one, for a lot nearly the size of any at Disney. It was a free-for-all, with cars parking the wrong direction and small children nearly being run down. To top it off, there are no row or space numbers, just a few poles marked A though H scattered around the enormous lot.

I joined the throng streaming towards the main entrance, and received my second clue: massive lines stretching out from the ticket booths. With no queue stanchions or greeters to be seen, the lines more closely resembled an angry mob. My only bit of good luck was to find a line that was half as long as most of the others, and a family with “Buy 1, get 1 free” tickets and an odd number of people. Twenty minutes and a quick frisking from security later, I had my $24 half-price ticket and was in the park.

My first stop was Guest Relations. I could tell immediately by the crowds at the entrance that my plans to visit on a low-attendance day had failed miserably. I had read on their user-unfriendly website about their new Fastlane system. Introduced in 2001, and revamped for this season, it takes Disney’s Fastpass to another level. Unfortunately, the level it takes it to seems to be the bottom level of Dante’s Inferno.

For an initial $20 plus deposit (plus another $10 for each additional member of your party, up to 6 people) you receive a “Q-Bot.” This is a pager-like device with a couple of buttons and a small LCD text display. At 12 of the most popular rides in park, you insert your Q-Bot into a kiosk and receive a time to return for your ride. You can go around the park and load up reservations for each of the 12 rides, unlike the one-at-a-time system at Disney. When the reservation time for your first attraction arrives, you return and place your Q-Bot in another kiosk. After fighting your way up the ride exit (since none of the queues were designed to accommodate this system) you are allowed to ride after a brief wait. Fifteen minutes after you exit the ride, your Q-Bot with give you the time and location of your next ride.

But wait, there’s more! For double the price of a regular Q-Bot, you can get a Gold Q-Bot. This will cut your wait time even shorter than a normal Q-Bot. How much shorter? Who knows. They claim between 50% and 75% less waiting for your return time, but your mileage may vary. Oh, and these prices only apply for regular ticket holders. There’s an entirely different price structure for Season Passholders.

By the time the Guest Service rep explained all this to me, my head was spinning. The multi-level caste system they’ve devised would make a Brahmin blush. Disney’s Fastpass, controversial as it is, is downright egalitarian in comparison. First come, first serve, one pass at a time, and it’s included in the price no matter what kind of ticket you have.

This Q-Bot seems closer to the Destination Disney plans for a complete pre-planned itinerary. I must admit my inner geek was intrigued by the idea of a new toy to play with. And isn’t this what American capitalism is all about? Those with cash and the willingness to spend it should be privileged above those without. Maybe the future is an eBay-sponsored auction at the front of each attraction, with the high bidders escorted to the front and those who don’t make the minimum reserve kicked out of the park.

The other option, buried deep on the website and not advertised publicly in the park, is a VIP pass. For $50 per person (plus refundable deposit) you get a badge allowing you unlimited back-door access to every ride and attraction in the park. You are allowed past everyone waiting, including Q-Bot users, and can even request the front row. The pass is only supposed to be good for 4 hours. However, the times on the pass are printed in military time, which none of the ride attendants seem to understand, so I was able to get nearly six hours of use from it.

With the VIP pass, my total cost just over $75 (not counting food), but I would have to say I wouldn’t visit the park any other way. The standard lines for the coasters ranged from 45 minutes to over 2 hours, and even the most minor rides had 20 minute waits. In the course of my day, I discover just what kind of bullet I dodged by declining the Q-Bot. For starters, the line to get a Q-Bot runs between one and two hours. The queue to get one stretches for hundreds of people, all filling out paperwork and handing over deposits in case they lose the $180 devices, with only 4 attendants to move the line along. Perhaps they need a Fastlane for getting your Fastlane.

Second, I encountered scores of people who had technical difficulties with their Q-Bot. The most common complaint was that the Q-Bot didn’t recognize that they had completed their ride, and failed to give them a new reservation. Other times, the Q-Bot would tell the person to go to a ride they had already been on, or give a time window that had already passed.

Even when the Q-Bots work correctly, the nature of the system makes for long gaps between reservation times. Even if you load up reservations for all 12 rides immediately upon entering the park, you are not added to the virtual queue for a ride until you have completed the previous ride. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to get off a ride and discover that your next ride time isn’t for several hours. Finally, the multi-level system can make for bizarre reservations. I talked to one woman who made her first reservation around noon, and didn’t get her first return time until nearly 7pm.

At the end of the day, when I returned to Guest Services to get my deposit back, I discovered a long line full of irate people. Half the line was composed of people who didn’t get a Q-Bot and only got to ride 2 or 3 rides all day. They were incensed that just because they didn’t pay extra they didn’t get to experience many rides, and they wanted their money back. The other half of the line was composed of people who DID get a Q-Bot and only got to ride 2 or 3 rides all day. They were incensed that even though they paid extra they didn’t get to experience many rides, and they wanted their money back. One woman became apoplectic, screaming bloody murder at the guest service rep as her husband and small children watched. I got out just as security came to drag her away. It was, perhaps, the best show of the day.

My cynical conclusion is that the Fastlane system is a deliberate red herring. The real problem with Six Flags is the massive inefficiency of the ride employees. For example, Superman is designed to move 1500 guests per hour. The attendants I spoke with said the most they have ever moved through is just over 1300 in an hour, and they usually move less. To have a major ride on a peak day running at barely 80% capacity is a crime. Most of the other coasters are even worse, frequently running 2 trains on rides designed for 3, and leaving many empty seats on each cycle. The Fastlane and VIP guests exacerbate the capacity issue, but they don’t cause it. What the Fastlane system allows park management to do is deflect the anger of irate guests towards a secondary target, while failing to address the fundamental issue. It’s easier to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic by fiddling with Q-Bots than to invest in more efficient training and loading procedures.

So, one hour and $75 after arriving, I was finally ready for my first ride of the day. Before I address specific attractions, let me share some general observations about the park.

1) Great Adventure is set on an enormous lakefront property, nestled in a beautiful forest of mature trees. Bush Gardens took a similar setting in Williamsburg, VA and turned it into one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Six Flags managed to turn their slice of nature into a painful eyesore. The park has the aesthetic appeal of a mall parking lot. In theory there a 6 themed areas, but the only thing that distinguishes one section for another is a change in paint color — ugly brown, ugly green, faded white, etc.

Compounding the problem is the terrible condition of the park. There appears to be no maintenance budgeted for the park. Everywhere is chipped paint, broken railings, and burnt light bulbs. Trash overflows without a sweeper in sight. Service vehicles are parked in full view of guests, and employee costumes are often dirty or mismatched. Even attractions that are only a couple of seasons old look rusty and neglected. Those critics who nitpick Disneyland over every fleck of paint would have their heads explode if they ever visited this place.

2) If you don’t like thrill rides, go away. This isn’t a theme park, or a family park. It’s a coaster park. There are 8 major coasters, a couple state-fair quality spin-and-puke rides, and a handful of kiddie rides. With the exception of a couple of log flumes and a Ferris wheel, there’s next to nothing for the whole family to enjoy together.

3) If you are a fan of live entertainment, go to Broadway. In years past, Six Flags staged some enjoyable stunt shows based on popular movies, such as Batman and Robin Hood. Now, the stunt stadium sits vacant. Entertainment today consists of a kid’s character show and parade, a brief acrobat show, a water-ski show, and a dolphin “discovery.” There is also a fireworks display on peak nights that I didn’t get to see.

The ski and dolphin shows both feature enthusiastic but unpolished performers slogging through poorly-scripted routines as obnoxious music is pumped out of blown speakers. The water skiers landed about four tricks out of five, and the cramped pools the dolphins call home were shocking to this SeaWorld veteran. Subtleties of pace, timing, and theme are completely absent. And shows started as much as 10 minutes after the posted time, a particular pet peeve of mine.

4) Someone needs to teach Six Flags how to leverage their characters. Due to their licensing agreement with Warner Bros., they have access to some of the most recognizable properties outside of Disney. Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes are better-known to today’s kids than Mickey, according to surveys. Add to that the DC comic book heroes, and you have the makings of a fine stable of walk-around characters. But at Six Flags opportunities for character meet and greets are shockingly sparse. Bugs and a hand full of his friends make 5 daily appearances at a single location, in addition to the brief character show in the kiddie section. The guide maps claims more characters can be found at the Character Café, but I couldn’t find them. There are no walk-around superheroes to be found at all. Wouldn’t it be logical to have a Superman face character posing in front of his hyped new ride? Or Batman in front of his? Warner’s MovieWorld in Australia takes these same characters and treats them right. Check out the special currently running on Discovery HD for stunning views of what Six Flags could be doing.

5) Last, but certainly not least, Six Flags employees are the worst I have encountered anywhere in the country. This park is not a good advertisement for the New Jersey public school system. Part of the problem is the nature of a seasonal park: just as employees figure out what they’re doing, everyone is out of a job for the winter, and a whole new crew is trained the next year. Part of the problem is understaffing: even on a peak day, there were only 2 or at most 3 employees working each ride. Not a single ride had a greeter, and at several coasters one employee was responsible for safety checking the entire train. And part of the problem is a lack of management supervision. In the entire day I saw only 3 people who appeared to be leads.

But the biggest problem is the poor quality of many of the employees themselves. Nearly every employee I personally interacted with was apathetic, impatient, or just plain rude. Some were stunning in their ignorance of park policies, ride procedures, and simple common sense.

For example, at one coaster the attendant kept yelling at guests to exit to the left, and couldn’t figure out why they kept getting out on the wrong side. She never seemed to clue in that her left was the guests’ right. At another ride, when I requested a seat in the front row, I was told I’d have to wait six trains to ride. When I pointed out that they were dispatching trains with empty seats in the front, they simply repeated the six train rule.

After a guest “protein spill,” I watched them close off the affected row and all the rows behind it. They sprayed the one seat with Lysol, but left the rest of the seats untouched. After running the train half-empty for a number of cycles, they reopened all the seats. Perhaps they were attempting to air-dry the train? Bizzaro-world experiences like these were the norm throughout the day. They signaled not just apathy or lack of training, but something more serious like high levels of lead in the drinking water.

All right, enough carping. Let’s get to the rides themselves, starting with the one I made the trip for. Wherever possible, I experienced each coaster at least twice, once from the front row and once from the back.

Superman – Ultimate Flight: Winner of the “We made a great commercial, not a great ride” award. Superman takes a compelling concept and fails to make an interesting ride out of it. The seats resemble a standard inverted coaster, with the addition of full chest and shin restraints. The best moment of the ride comes before you leave the station, as the floor drops and the seats pivot back into a prone position. This never fails to elicit laughter and cheers from the riders. But you soon realize the fatal flaw in the seat design: the restraints and headrest prevent you from looking up or extending your arms. You don’t soar in the classic Superman pose as advertised. Instead, with your knees bent and your chin tucked, you resemble Supes after a Kryponite-laced burrito. If you are seated in the front row (an additional half-hour wait) you can strain your head up for a view of the track. Sit in any other row and you get a view of the ground and the seat in front of you.

The ride track itself also fails to deliver. The first drop takes you into a unique “pretzel loop,” which involves a diving loop. The experience of diving headfirst, then lying on your back facing opposite the direction of travel, is unique and thrilling. It almost saves the ride. But the majority of the ride is spent in simple sweeping turns, leading all too quickly to the second and final inversion, a barrel roll. This leads abruptly to a final break run and the return to the station, making for a short and poorly paced ride.

Total ride time, from the top of the lift hill to the brakes, is under a minute. It’s as if the designers knew the novelty of “flying” would attract riders, so they didn’t bother with the rest of the ride. It’s by no means a terrible ride, but certainly not worth the over 2 hour wait that was the norm during my visit. And all you’ll have to entertain you during that wait is some painted flats of Superman characters and the expanse of the parking lot.

Great American Scream Machine: This is the ride that redefined the word “headbanger.” With seven inversions, it was one of the tallest and fastest coasters in the world when built. A rough ride when it opened, time has made it into one of the world’s most painful coasters. Add in the overly-restrictive harnesses and too-low headrests, and you have a ride that has kept New Jersey’s chiropractors in luxury homes. A ride in the front seat is brutal, while a ride in the back would put the Spanish Inquisition to shame. Coaster junkies are advised to ride once, and have a muscle relaxer and neck brace on hand. And remember to remove your glasses and earrings or you may pierce your jugular.

Rolling Thunder: An oldie but a goodie. This classic racer is everything a wooden coaster should be: Bone-jarring, teeth-loosening, and utterly terrifying. In the back seat, the lap bars allow you so much airtime you’ll fear for your life. It recently received a much-needed paint job, but the cars still rattle and squeak like they’re on their last legs. The only negative is that they only seem to run one track, depriving you of the racing element the designers intended. Two white-knuckled thumbs up.

Medusa: Hands-down, the best coaster in the park. Perhaps the best coaster on the East Coast. This is a B&M floorless, meaning you sit in an inverted coaster style chair, but with the track below you. Sitting in the front car is like being tied to the front of a speeding train. This coaster is as powerful as any I’ve been on, and as smooth as glass. The seven inversions are perfectly paced, and the interlocking corkscrews are a thing of beauty. The only coaster I’ve experienced that can give it a run for it’s money is it’s cousin Kraken at SeaWorld Orlando.

Runaway Mine Train: The park’s first steel coaster, it predates Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain. A fun little ride, it features some nice dips over scenic lake setting. A pleasant ride, with a nice little kick if you sit in the back row.

Skull Mountain: Six Flag’s attempt at an indoor themed coaster. An impressive-looking façade leads to a nicely air-conditioned queue. The ride itself is a simple family coaster in pitch darkness. Or, rather, it would be pitch darkness if the maintenance doors didn’t leak light, exposing the beams. Not worth a long wait, it does give some nice airtime in the back row.

Nitro: Second best coaster in the park. This 230-foot mega-coaster feature 7 intense drops. The lift hill just seems to go up and up forever. The design of the lapbars prevent you from getting as much air as I would like, but it is still an intense experience. The front row provides the best view, but not nearly the G-forces or air of the back. On my second ride, a guest in the front lost a pack of cigarettes, which my seatmate snatched out the air — an impressive feat!

Batman The Ride: The classic inverted coaster, cloned at Six Flags across the country, still packs a punch. It features the park’s most successful attempt at queue theming, though most of the garbage and grafitti is now authentic rather than scenic. The Batcave now looks much the worse for wear. Perhaps millionare Bruce Wayne was invested heavily in Enron. But the ride itself is just as thrilling as ever. Though not the tallest or fastest coaster, it is one of the tightest and best-paced. One perfectly engineered element leads right into the next, leaving you breathless by the end. The third-best coaster in the park, not to be missed.

Batman and Robin – The Chiller: A linear induction shuttle coaster, it sends you through a series of inversions forward and then backwards. The launch is the best part, on par with Rock N Roller Coaster, though not as thrilling as Hulk. The two tracks are similar, though not identical, but only one side was running. [Editor’s note: The earlier note about the coaster being closed due to an accident that stranded several guests was incorrect. The “Batman” side has been closed all season. It was the “Robin” side, which is now running, which was involved in the incident. We apologize for the error.] The one-train-at-a-time design usually makes the wait longer than it’s worth, and the restraint design is unnecessarily constricting.

Houdini – The Great Escape: This is an odd one, and seems like it belongs in another park. An elaborately themed preshow sets up the story that you are attempting to contact the spirit of the late Harry Houdini. Since Houdini was a famed skeptic and debunker of spiritualists, this seems like an odd theme.But let’s go with it.

The main show is a Vekoma haunted swing, similar to one at Dutch Wonderland and Alton Towers, combined with lighting and sound effects. The illusion that the room is turning upside down is quite effective. A fun way to get out of the heat for a few minutes.

The Right Stuff Mach 1 Adventure: This was the most entertaining experience of the day. Not because of the queue, a barren hanger that still bears the sign from “Dino Island,” the ride it replaced (which itself was a replacement for the original “Right Stuff” ride). And not because of the pre-show, a brief collection of clips from the old “Right Stuff” movie displayed on a bank of monitors with bad burn-in. And certainly not because of the ride itself, a barely-competent simulator that uses frequent edits and shifts of perspective in the ride film, destroying the necessary suspension of disbelief.

No, the most amusing part of the day was watching the ride’s two attendants have a screaming match in front of the guests over whether or not the seatbelts were all fastened. An entire room of guests, captive in their seats, chuckled nervously as these two future employees-of-the-month went at it. Their argument lasted longer than the ride itself, and when it was over they treated us to incongruous booty-rap music as we exited.

That covers the park’s major attractions. By three hours before closing I was more than ready to head home. I left with a sunburn and a much greater appreciation for the benefits of living in Orlando.

But despite the decaying facilities and moronic employees, we need places like Six Flags. Because they are unconcerned with theming, guest experience, or ride longevity, they can experiment with new ride technologies in a way that Disney and Univesral don’t. Clear some land, throw up some iron, and if it doesn’t work just tear it down next year. This lack of care can lead to bad guest experiences, but it can also spur innovation. If not for Freefall, we wouldn’t have Tower of Terror. If not for Batman, there would be no Dueling Dragons. Technologies like linear induction motors are eventually picked up by the big boys and wedded with story and scenic design, after Six Flags patrons have served as guinea pigs.

Imagine a ride combining the multi-dimensional seating of Superman or X, with a linear induction launch system like The Chiller, and large-format projection. Such a combination would be just what Universal or Disney would need to do justice to a property like “The Matrix.” And you can get a glimpse of the future today, if only you’re willing to suffer through the purgatory that is Great Adventure.

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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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