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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

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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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

“House of the Future” – The Plastic House in Disneyland

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Monsanto Disneyland House of the Future with Paper Bag
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I was down in Massachusetts the other day doing some shopping at the Target in Framingham. And as I completed that transaction, I was somewhat surprised to see my groceries being loaded into … Well, not the usual Target bags (i.e., those white plastic ones with the bright red circular Target symbol on the side). But – rather – some plain jane brown paper bags.

Of course, that was because the State of Massachusetts (along with California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont & Washington State) has banned the use of plastic bags within the borders of that state.

FYI: The State of New Jersey put its own statewide ban of plastic bags in place earlier this year. On May 4, 2022, to be exact.

Which – if you’re a child of the 1960s – this is kind of an ironic development. Given that – back when we were kids – the world-at-large seemed to be actively looking for even more ways to incorporate the use of plastic in our day-to-day lives.

Which reminds me of one of the odder walk-thru experiences that was ever built at Disneyland Park (Which – given that Happiest Place on Earth was once home to the Hollywood-Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop [This Main Street, U.S.A. store used to feature – no lie — a “Wonderful Wizard of Bras” show] – is really saying something). That was the “House of the Future,” a 1,280-square-foot structure  that the Monsanto Corporation proudly proclaimed was made out of 14 different types of plastics.

Given that this Tomorrowland attraction wasn’t designed by the Imagineers … Well, how the “House of the Future” wind up being built right off Disneyland’s Hub to the left of the entrance of Disneyland?

Disneyland's House of the Future
Credit: D23

Post World War II – Moving Out of the City

Well, to tell that story, we have to jump back in time to the years right after World War II. Where – thanks to the G.I. Bill – hundreds of thousands of veterans decided to pursue college degrees. Which then allowed these former fighting men to land positions that paid much, much better than the jobs that their parents had held years previous.

And since these newly affluent veterans could now afford to move out of the city … Well, that’s just what they did. Which we saw places like Levittown (i.e., America’s very first planned community. The prototypical suburb, if you will) get founded in New York State’s Nassau in 1947 and – in just six years time – become the home of more than 70,000 residents.

Mind you, the downside of this sort of building boom is that – by the mid-1950s – America began to experience sort of a shortage when it came to the supplies necessary to continue to build all these new homes for would-be surburbanites.

Monsanto and Plastic Homes

Which the Monsanto Corporation – which was actively looking for additional way to market the plastic that that company produced – saw as an opportunity. Which is when Monsanto executives reached out to Marvin Goody & Richard Hamilton, who were members of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that taught the principles of architecture to students attending that prestigious university. And those execs then asked Goody & Hamilton two intriguing questions:

  • Would it be possible to build an affordable modular home entirely out of plastic?
  • And – if so – what would that structure look like?

These two MIT professors then went off and considered this problem. And the concept that Goody & Hamilton eventually came up with was … Well, this prefabricated plastic structure that consisted of four cantilevered “wings” that would then rise up off of a concrete slab, which would then as the foundation for what Monsanto was now calling its “House of the Future.”

Designs of the House of the Future
Monsanto’s Marvin Goody (standing) along with Floor Plans and Designs for the “House of the Future”
Credit: ModernDesign.org

And the executives at Monsanto just loved what Goody & Hamilton had designed & developed. They knew that – if this prefabricated plastic home prototype were promoted properly and if enough consumers then indicated to home-builders that they’d be interested in purchasing & then living in this sort of modular structure – the “House of the Future” could turn into a significant new revenue stream for that corporation.

Which is when Monsanto then began casting about for a very prominent spot where they could then build a “House of the Future” prototype. Some place where thousands of people could then tour this prefabricated plastic home every single day.

Walt Disney and Problems with Tomorrowland

Which brings us to Walt Disney. Who – in the mid-1950s – has a few problems of his own. Chief among them being that his then-newly-built Disneyland Park desperately needed some new attractions. Especially in the Tomorrowland section of Walt’s family fun park.

What’s genuinely ironic here is that – in spite of the fact that “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond” (i.e., A trio of “Tomorrowland” themed episodes of the “Disneyland” TV show which then aired on that ABC anthology series between March of 1955 & December of 1957) were among the most popular episodes to air on this program … The Tomorrowland section of Disneyland Park was this under-developed hodge-podge of pseudo-futuristic elements.

I mean, sure. This side of Walt’s family fun park had the “Flight to the Moon” ride. Likewise “Space Station X-1.” But right next door to these two genuinely forward-looking attractions were shows that had absolutely nothing to do with the future. Walk-through exhibits like the Dutch Boy Color Gallery, Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum and Crane’s Bathroom of the Future.

Monsanto Corporation Partnership with Walt Disney Productions

Now it’s important to note here that the Monsanto Corporation and Walt Disney Productions already had a working relationship at this point. After all, Monsanto was already sponsoring an attraction at Disneyland, the Hall of Chemistry.

And it’s about this same time (we’re talking late 1956) that some enterprising executive at Monsanto thinks: “No wait a minute. Disneyland gets thousands of visitors every day. And if we build the prototype of our prefabricated plastic home there, our ‘House of the Future’ project would then virtually be guaranteed to get plenty of foot traffic.”

“House of the Future” in Disneyland

So they then reach out to Walt. And as the story goes, the executives at Monsanto hadn’t even finished their pitch for this prototype-prefabricated-plastic-home-to-be-displayed-at-Disneyland idea when Disney said “Yes.” In fact, according to what Disney Legend John Hench once told me, Walt was so enthusiastic about Monsanto’s “House of the Future” that he proposed that this prototype of a prefabricated plastic home not just be built in Tomorrowland but that it be built right at the entrance of Tomorrowland. As in: That the “House of the Future” would be one of the very first things Guests would see when they arrived at Disneyland’s Hub.

More importantly, that Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic house be built right across the way from the most photographed thing in Walt’s family fun park. Which was – of course – Sleeping Beauty Castle.

To say that this project was fast-tracked is an understatement. Within weeks of signing the deal with Monsanto, the folks at Disneyland were already pouring the concrete slab that this 1,280-square-foot house would then sit on.

Credit: Disney Avenue

By the way, to make sure that virtually every Disneyland Guest would be able to tour the “House of the Future” when they visited Walt’s family fun park, this new Tomorrowland attraction was heavily hyped as being a freebie. As was Monsanto’s Hall of Chemistry, by the way.

Credit: SuperRadNow.com

Opening Monsanto’s “House of the Future” at Disneyland

And Walt … Of the heels of construction of Monsanto’s “House of the Future” beginning, he decided to double down on expanding & upgrading Disneyland’s Tomorrowland section. Which is why — just two days before Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic home opened to the public on June 12, 1957, Walt cut the ribbon on the Viewliner. Which was advertised as the “Train of Tomorrow.” Though –truth be told – WED’s resident mechanical genius Bob Gurr had cobbled together this futuristic-looking narrow gauge train out of parts he’d harvested off of various Oldsmobiles & Jeeps.

Anyway … Monsanto’s instincts when it came to building its “House of the Future” at Disneyland Park translating into lots of foot traffic for its prefabricated plastic home prototype turned out to be dead on. Within the first six weeks that this new Tomorrowland attraction was open to the public, over 435,000 people toured the “House of the Future.” That’s over 10,000 Guests per day.

Credit: SuperRadNow.com

And the Disneyland hosts & hostesses (That’s what Disneyland employees were called back in the late 1950s / early 1960s. Not Cast Members. But – rather – hosts & hostesses) who led tour groups through the prototype of Monsanto’s prefabricated home proudly talked about the 14 different types of plastic that had been used in its construction. They also pointed out the cutting edge tech that had been incorporated into this house’s design. Things like a microwave oven.

The Future of Plastic Homes

But while over 20 million people who trooped through Monsanto’s “House of the Future” during its decade-long stay in Tomorrowland (and then “Ooohed” & “Aaahed” at things like this home’s ultra sonic dishwasher. Which didn’t use any water to clean the all-plastic dishes & utensils that were used in its kitchen) … Unfortunately, Monsanto got very few takers for its prefabricated plastic homes.

Which is why – by the early 1960s – the Company had all but abandoned its original idea of making the manufacture of prefabricated plastic homes a new division for the Monsanto Corporation. Which is why – when Walt approached Monsanto around this same time and said “Hey, we’re thinking of redoing Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area. Do you want to stay on as a sponsor of something on this side of the Park?,” Monsanto’s response was “Yeah. But we want something new. Pull down the ‘House of the Future’ and close the’ Hall of Chemistry.’ This time around,  we want some sort of Tomorrowland attraction that the Guests can ride on.”

And that’s exactly what the Imagineers did. They gutted Monsanto’s “Hall Of Chemistry” and then placed an Omnimover inside of that Tomorrowland show building. And that became the ride system which then took Disneyland visitors on an “Adventure Thru Inner Space.” Which first opened to the public on August 5, 1967.

What Happened to Disneylands “House of the Future”?

As for the “House of the Future” … Given that that structure was constructed out of 14 different types of plastics, pulling down this Tomorrowland attraction proved to be problematic. What was supposed to be completed in a single day eventually stretched out into a two week-long ordeal. Largely because this prefabricated plastic house stymied all of the usual methods that Disneyland employees used (i.e., wrecking balls, bulldozers, etc) when they were leveling a show building. In time, they had to go at this futuristic structure with hacksaws & chain pullers. Because that was the only way to reduce the “House of the Future” to small enough pieces that it could then be hauled away.

Mind you, the concrete slab that had served as the “House of the Future” ‘s foundation stayed in place. As did the vaguely futuristic-looking landscaping that Morgan “Bill” Evans and the rest of Disneyland’s horticultural team had planted around this Tomorrowland walk-thu.

Jump ahead a few years. And now that landscaping (which had been originally planted back in 1957 to give the “House of the Future” a lush, green frame) had grown up so much that this section of the Hub was then redubbed this theme park’s Alpine Garden. With the idea now being that this chunk of greenery would now serve as the forested foothills of Matterhorn Mountain.

Credit: BubbleMania & Flickr/Neatocoolville

That was done in the early 1970s. Nearly 15 years after that, someone else moved into the neighborhood: The Little Mermaid. Which is why – in 1996 – Disneyland’s Alpine Garden was renamed King Triton’s Garden. Then in 2008, this part of that theme park (which had been changed into a place where Guests could then meet & greet with Ariel) was reimagined as Pixie Hollow. Which then gave Disneyland visitors a place where they could go interact with Tinker Bell.

This meet & greet is still operational at the Happiest Place on Earth. That said, if you look off the right of that oversized teapot which Tink calls home … Well, you can still see that concrete slab which – over 50 years ago now – once served as the foundation for the “House of the Future.”

FYI: If you’d like to learn more about this Tomorrowland walk-thru, Dave Bossert – the author of “Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios” and “Claude Coats: Walt Disney’s Imagineer—The Making of Disneyland, From Toad Hall to the Haunted Mansion and Beyond” – is in the process of writing a brand-new book, “The House of the Future: Walt Disney, MIT, and Monsanto’s Vision of Tomorrow.” Which is due to be published sometime in 2023.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 379”, published on June 20, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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History

Fort Wilderness – What Might Have Been

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Fort Wilderness Campground Walt Disney World Vintage Map
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The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness Campground has been silent for 27 months. On June 23, 2022, Pioneer Hall will come roaring back to life with three nightly presentations of this beloved musical dinner show (4 p.m., 6:15 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.)

Hoop Dee Doo Revue Chair
Credit: Flickr/JeffChristiansen

Building Fort Wilderness Campground

Just 9 months prior to the October 1971 opening of the WDW Resort – Dick Nunis (who had just been placed in charge of getting Disney World open on time) had just learned that little to no work had been done to date on the Disney’s Fort Wilderness resort’s campground.

Dick turned to Keith Kambak – a veteran Disneyland employee who had a degree in recreation – and effectively said “You’re coming to Florida with me. And you’re going to build a campground.”

When Keith pointed out that he had never built a campground before and began to ask questions like “What sort of budget am I working with?,” Dick growled “Don’t bother me with questions. Just go build that campground?”

Kambak gets on the ground in Orlando and then discovers why Nunis didn’t tell him what the budget was for Fort Wilderness.

There is no budget.

Disney World is so far over-budget at this point that there’s a real question – in the late Winter / early Spring of 1971 – whether the Resort will be able to find the funding necessary to complete construction of the Contemporary and/or the Polynesian Village Resorts. Let alone get started on building a new onsite campground.

But the PR material for Walt Disney World has been talking up camping at the Vacation Kingdom for over 5 years now. Saying things like …

Walt Disney World will offer a whole new vacation way of life. In addition to exploring the Magic Kingdom theme park, Guests will have the opportunity to frolic in Bay Lake & Seven Seas Lagoon. This 650-acre expanse of water, lined with four miles of white sand beaches, will ideal for swimming, sailing, fishing and water skiing.

Meanwhile over at Fort Wilderness, visitors will find 600 acres of campgrounds, boating, nature trails, park-like recreation areas and the Tri-Circle D Ranch, where saddle horses are available.

People have already booked trips to Disney World because they wanted to go camping at that Resort. Go swimming in Bay Lake. So Disney now has to figure out how to deliver on what it said in all those press release.

1971 Walt Disney World Map of Fort Wilderness Credit: Imaginerding / Story of Walt Disney World Guidebook

Luckily, Keith Kambak is clever, resourceful and slightly dishonest. He becomes famous for waiting ‘til the construction workers go home at 5 and then sending trucks into the Magic Kingdom worksite to steal lumber & bags of cement. Which is what Keith then uses to build Fort Wilderness’ original reception center and the first 200 campsites.

Opening Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground

Mind you – Fort Wilderness isn’t ready for opening day.

Hell, this campground really isn’t ready when in finally throws open its doors on November 19, 1971seven weeks after the first group of Guests pushed through the turnstiles over at the Magic Kingdom.

But even if Fort Wilderness isn’t really ready for prime time, campers absolutely love the place right out of the gate. It initially costs $11 a night to stay there.  And the people who stay there are really excited that – as part of that $11 fee – they get access to the entire WDW transportation system. The monorails, the launches, the motor coaches.

And given that demand for those 200 campsites far exceeds the available supply, Walt Disney World quickly begins to expand Fort Wilderness. In October of 1972 (just in time for the celebration of the Resort’s grand opening a year previous), it is announced that Disney World’s onsite campground will more than doubling in size. Adding an additional 300 sites.

By now, WDW managers have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Guests who are staying at the Contemporary & Polynesian Village will make a special trip over to Fort Wilderness over the course of their WDW vacation just to check the place out.

Mind you, there isn’t much to see at this point. A handful of campsites and a trading post. But the Imagineers make note of the steady stream of daily visitors that Fort Wilderness has been experiencing and then decides … Well, let’s give them something to see.

Fort Wilderness Railroad

So a plan is formed. First and foremost, the Imagineers decide to build a transportation system that will take Guests from Fort Wilderness’ reception area to the south all the way up to the campground’s recreation area along Bay Lake. This 3-mile-long round-trip narrow gauge rail line (which will be serviced by four steam trains with 5 cars each – capable of carrying 90 passengers at a time) will carry Guests from their campsites to the reception area and then down to the waterfront.

Walt Disney World Fort Wilderness Railroad Attraction Poster, Railroad in action, and remnants of old track.
Walt Disney World Fort Wilderness Railroad Attraction Poster, Railroad in action, and remnants of old track.

That rail line gets installed over the Summer of 1973. It’s field-tested in the Fall of that same year and finally fully operational just time for Christmas Week 1973 / 1st week of January 1974.

Tri-Circle D Ranch

There’s another reason that the Imagineers built that rail line. That’s because they’re looking to develop the middle-most section of Fort Wilderness. This area – known as the Settlement – initially holds just the Tri-Circle D Ranch (which is where the horses that pull the trolleys on Main Street over at the Magic Kingdom spend their days off. Likewise Fort Wilderness’ petting zoo).

But because so many Guests staying at the Contemporary & the Polynesian Village are making a special trip over to Fort Wilderness as part of their WDW vacation just to see what there is to see over there … the Imagineers give them something to see.

Pioneer Hall

The first thing up out of the ground is Pioneer Hall, which is constructed out of 1,283 hand-fitted pine logs from Montana and 70 tons of stones from North Carolina. This venue first opens its doors on April 1, 1974. And initially there is absolutely no mention of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.”

Instead, Pioneer Hall is described as having “ … a 250-seat steak house where ranch-style barbecues will be offered, plus a 150-seat snack bar, theme shops and an arcade for after-hours recreation.”

Mind you, if you dig down in the original Pioneer Hall press release (which initially says that this complex will be up & running by February of 1974), there is mention that this “new service-oriented campground complex” would be fully equipped when it came to the presenting of musical stage shows.

But at this point (The Spring of 1974), there’s honestly no talk of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo.” There is – however – all sorts of talk of the other components of Fort Wilderness’ Settlement project. Which are supposed to begin construction shortly.

By next summer, Fort Wilderness’ steam train system will connect the campground’s reception area and its waterfront recreation facilities with the Fort Wilderness Stockade and Western Town. Where complete dining, shopping and entertainment facilities are being built in phases.

And a year or so after Western Town opened at Fort Wilderness opened, the Imagineers then wanted to build (this is from the Company’s 1973 annual report) …

… the Fort Wilderness “swimming hole,” a major recreational facility.

The Roost and River Country

Wait. It gets better. WDW managers – at this point – were actually talking about building a fun house onsite at Fort Wilderness. One that would feature show scenes designed by Marc Davis and would be housed in an eccentric-looking mansion that would be called “The Roost.”

River Country Wagon
Credit: Flickr/Auntie Rain

Once “The Roost” was opened (This project was projected to be completed by the Summer of 1977, with Fort Wilderness’ swimming hole – eventually called “River Country” – opening the previous year. Just in time for America’s bicentennial), WDW officials eventually envisioned selling visitors to their Florida vacation kingdom a special Fort Wilderness ticket book. Which would then give Guests a full day of fun at Fort Wilderness.

  • Take the bus over to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
  • Then take the train down to that campground’s settlement section
  • Swim in the morning at River Country
  • Spend the afternoon exploring the Roost, hiking Fort Wilderness’ nature trails, visiting the petting zoo and/or go horseback riding
  • Catch a performance of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue” at Pioneer Hall
  • Do some souvenir shopping in Frontier Town
  • Walk down to the waterfront at Bay Lake after dusk and then catch a presentation of the “Electrical Water Pageant”
  • Grab the train and head back up to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
  • Take a motor coach back to your hotel

1973 Arab Oil Embargo Impacts Fort Wilderness Development

This was the plan as the Fall of 1973. Which then – of course – is when the Arab Oil Embargo got underway. And attendance levels at Walt Disney World suddenly fell off by 20% because of the odd / even gas rationing that was going on at that time. So many Guests were worried that – if they began driving down to Walt Disney World – that they then wouldn’t be able to find enough gasoline en route to complete their journey to the Resort.

The Arab Oil Embargo obviously had a huge impact on Fort Wilderness’ previously-stellar occupancy levels (Typically at 100% capacity from Christmas Week through Labor Day) because of the number of people who’d drive down to Disney World pulling a trailer. Occupancy levels dropped to 70% and managers there got scared.

The other components of the Fort Wilderness’ Settlement area – the Stockade and Western Town, to be specific – that were to follow Pioneer Hall got placed on hold. As did Marc Davis’ The Roost project.

As for “River Country” … I’m told that the only reason that project went forward is because the Company had already ordered the 2500 feet of flume that would eventually be used to build Whoop-n-Holler Hollow.

Fascinating to think what might have been around Pioneer Hall if the Arab Oil Embargo hadn’t tripped up WDW’s executives to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long destination for Disney World visitors to experience over their Florida vacation.

One final stat from a Disney annual report from 1974 that just fascinated me:

“Pioneer Hall,” a major entertainment, restaurant and arcade facility, opened in March and soon established itself as a popular guest attraction and profitable operation. Twice as many guests come from the resort-hotels to attend the dinner show in Pioneer Hall than from the campgrounds themselves.

Just so you know: WDW didn’t entirely abandon its plans to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long vacation destination.

Opening River Country at Fort Wilderness Campground

River Country opened at Fort Wilderness on June 19, 1976. This five-acre water park quickly started drawing – on average — 4,700 Guests per day during the Summer months of 1976. Interestingly enough, there is no drop in attendance levels over at the Magic Kingdom after the opening of River Country. Which means that this new water park is drawing an additional nearly 5000 people to the Resort every day. Which means that River Country immediately became a huge new profit center at WDW.

Downside … All of these additional people coming to Fort Wilderness every day needing to get down to the water park just as most people staying at WDW’s campsite want to get over to the Magic kingdom overwhelm the campground’s steam train line / eventually causing the system to fail.

Imagineers immediately begin looking for ways to expand Fort Wilderness. Company’s 1976 annual report mentions plans for “ … more water rides, an additional raft ride or a two-man boat ride.”

Likewise, to try and handle the crowds who are now pouring int Fort Wilderness each day, the Imagineers revisit the idea of building Frontiertown in the stretch of land that exists between Pioneer Hall and River Country.

Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground

But then the Company gets serious about going forward with construction of EPCOT Center. And all available funding for future expansion at the WDW Resort – including the funds that had been set aside for Fort Wilderness – gets funneled into WDW’s second gate.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 378”, published on June 13, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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Steam Trains & World’s Fair Attractions: Speed of Construction at Disneyland in the 1960s

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Walt Disney Standing with Attraction Posters
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Steam train fans rejoiced in May 2022 when photos appeared online showing crews prepping the rail bed for the Walt Disney World Railroad. This Magic Kingdom favorite was temporarily shut down in early December of 2018 so that site prep could then begin for Tomorrowland’s next thrill ride, TRON Lightcycle Run.

Three years and 5 months later (which – let’s be honest here – is a pretty relaxed definition of “temporarily”), what with the rail bed being regraded … It’s only a matter of time before the ties that the rails sit on get put in place. Which means that we’re only months out from the Walt Disney World Railroad once again making a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom. 20-minute-long experience / rolling along 1.5 miles worth of track.

Early Disneyland Attraction Downtime and Maintenance

I have to say that Walt himself wouldn’t have tolerated the idea of Disney World’s steam train being out of commission for 3 & a ½ years while a single attraction was added to the Magic Kingdom. He could barely tolerate it back in late 1965 / early 1966 when Disneyland’s railroad had to be shut down for a few months so that FOUR new attractions could added to “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Mind you, Walt had an advantage in Anaheim back in the Fall of 1965 / Spring of 1966 that the folks who operate the Disney theme parks in Florida never got to enjoy. Which was — for much of the first 30 years Disneyland Park was in operation – that theme park was closed on Mondays & Tuesdays during the slow season. Which was the early Fall and late Winter months.

Which meant that – during those two-days-a-week the theme park-going public wasn’t wandering around the Happiest Place on Earth, getting underfoot – construction teams could get a crazy amount of work done.

More to the point: This was right after “Mary Poppins” had first opened in theaters (Its Hollywood premiere was held in late August of 1964, with the film itself going into wide release just three weeks later). And given that this Walt Disney Productions release would go on to be the highest grossing film of 1964 … Well, Walt now had a money fire hose in his hand and wasn’t afraid to use it.

World’s Fair Attractions Moved to Disneyland

So the first season of the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair ends on October 18, 1964. Walt immediately has the Lincoln animatronic pulled out of the Illinois pavilion and brought back to Glendale. Where the Imagineers not only build a brand-new version of Honest Abe (one that will then address all of the operational issues that this Audio Animatronic had during its first year in Flushing Meadow where it was then constantly dealing with the Fair’s flukey electrical system), they built a second animatronic Lincoln.

Which is how the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show was able to open in the Main Street Opera House on July 18, 1965 (just as Disneyland was celebrating its tencennial. As in: The 10th anniversary of the Park’s opening to the public).

Changing Disneyland’s Anniversary

Interesting side note: While Walt was still alive, Disney’s anniversary of Disneyland’s opening was always celebrated on July 18th (which was when the public was first allowed into that family fun park). After Walt died in December of 1966, the date of the celebration of the anniversary of the opening of Disneyland Park eventually got shifted one day forward to July 17th. Because – if the Company used that date instead of July 18th – it then became possible to reshow that 90 minute-long “Dateline: Disneyland” special that aired live on ABC. Not to mention share all of those pictures of celebrities who visited the Park on July 17, 1955.

Disney’s done the same thing in the past. Mickey Mouse’s birthday used to be October 1st. Walt Disney himself – back in 1933 – announced that was the Mouse’s birthdate. But in 1978, then-Disney archivist Dave Smith issued a correction. Given that Mickey’s first cartoon with synchronized sound – “Steamboat Willie” – debuted at New York City’s Colonial Theatre on November 18, 1928 … Well, from that point forward, November 18th would be considered Mickey’s birthday.

Long story short: To borrow a phrase from “Doctor Who,” when it comes to the timey-wimey aspects of Disney Company history, things can get a little slippy-slidey.

Moving “it’s a small world” to Disneyland

Getting back to Walt and his money fire hose … While the New York World’s Fair was shut down for the Winter between October 1964 and April of 1967, Walt had the 27 technicians that he’d sent out from Disney Studios out to New York to keep all of the shows that the Imagineers had built for the Fair up & running … Well, Walt first had these folks retool the load / unload area for “it’s a small world.”

it's a small world at New York World's Fair

That sponsored-by-Pepsi-Cola attraction was a people-eating machine. On average, 4500 people a hour were able to experience “The Happiest Voyage That Ever Sailed.” Which meant that 80% of the people who went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 & 1965 were able to experience “Small World.”

But Walt thought that they could do even better. Which is why – during the off-season – he had the Imagineers reworked that attraction’s load/ unload area so that it could be even more efficient. With the goal of getting an additional 500 people an hour through “it’s a small world.”

World’s Fair Closing and Final Move

Of course, once the New York World’s Fair closed for good on October 17, 1965, the race was on. The Imagineers partnered with the Mayflower Moving Company to get all of those sets & animatronic figures packed up as quickly as possible and then set back to Glendale for refurbishment. That’s what happened to the 32 animatronic figures in “General Electric’s Progressland” pavilion. Likewise all of the mechanical dinosaurs that used to menace fairgoers as they rolled through “Ford’s Magic Skyway.”

Now the genuinely crazy part of this story is that – just seven months later – the Disneyland versions of these New York World’s Fair shows began to open in Anaheim. “it’s a small world” opened on the West Coast on May 28, 1966. And this wasn’t just the exact same show that had played in Flushing Meadow for the past two years. Walt insisted that it be plussed & improved prior to installation. Which is how the Anaheim edition of “it’s a small world” wound up with two additional scenes – the Pacific Islands and the North Pole.

Credit: Disney History Institute

“The Primeval World” Diorama

And just a month or so after that, “The Primeval World” – which, at that time, the Company’s PR team described as “ … the world’s largest diorama featuring life-like recreations of some of the largest creatures to ever roam our planet” – opened on July 1, 1966.

Now what’s kind of intriguing about the “Primeval World” diorama is what’s to either side of this structure. Which is the old Disneyland administration building. This three story structure – which was also built in late 1965 / early 1966 as part of what was then supposed to be the biggest building program in Disneyland history – was built in such a way that half of this 450 foot-long structure was built on the outside of the berm and the other half of this 450 foot-long structure was built on the inside of the berm. With the structure that the Disneyland steam train passed through, that lengthy glassed-in room full of animatronic dinosaurs then serving as … Well, if you think of Disneyland’s new Admin building as an enormous Oreo, the “Primeval World” diorama then served as this 100,000 square foot structure’s creamy center.

Kind of a funny side story here. Everyone who worked in the 200 offices who were housed in Disneyland’s new Admin building would tell the same story. How – for the first few days you worked in this three story tall structure – you couldn’t help but notice how the Admin building would rumble as the steam train passed through the giant diorama in the middle of that structure. Or – for that matter – how the roar of the mechanical dinosaurs below would endlessly faintly echo center through the building as long as that ride was running.

Conversely though, after a few days of working in the Disneyland admin building, the rumble of the steam train and the roar of the dinosaurs just became white noise. That’s how you’d then know if you were dealing with a new hire at the Park. If someone who had just been assigned to the Admin building would then turn to you and say “What is that noise?” And – as a Company vet – you could then say “Oh, yeah. About that.”

“…a Disneyland without its steam trains just isn’t worth the full price of admission.”

Getting back to all of the construction that was going on at Disneyland in late 1965 / early 1966 … You  have to remember that – if we’re talking about “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “it’s a small world” – we’re talking about two attractions with huge show buildings that were built outside of the theme park. Which meant – in order for these two boat-powered rides to take Guests under the berm and then out to their main show buildings and then back into the Park to their off-load areas … That meant digging a passage under the track bed of the Disneyland Railroad. Several passages, actually.

But again, because the steam train at Disneyland was Walt’s personal property at this time (along with the Mark Twain steamboat AND the Alweg Monorail), Walt just wouldn’t tolerate the idea that the steam train at the park would be shut down for a year or more to allow construction of these four new major attractions. As Disneyland’s tencennial celebration began to wind down in the late Summer / early Fall of 1965, Walt turned to the Imagineers and said “I’ll give you five months. Figure it out.”

Mind you, Walt reportedly got furious with the Imagineers when – due to the enormous construction challenges this $23 million project entailed — …

… That – by the way – is what it cost to building the Disneyland version of “it’s a small world,” New Orleans Square, Pirates of the Caribbean, Primeval World AND the Park’s new administration building. Just $23 million total .

… Anyway, Walt reportedly got furious when – due to a very wet Spring (By the way, that Albert Hammond song from 1972 – “It Never Rains in Southern California” – lies through its teeth) – work on getting the Disneyland Railroad fell behind schedule by one entire month.

John Hench once told me about how – when they had to tell Walt that the opening of Disneyland’s railroad would be delayed by a full month in the Spring of 1966 – he’d never seen his boss so mad. Walt reportedly went on & on about how a Disney theme park without a steam train wasn’t worth the price that they were then charging people to get into Disneyland (a then-whopping $5.00 for adults, $4.50 for juniors – ages 12 – 17 – and $4.00 for kids 3 – 11. That would have gotten you the park’s Deluxe 15 Ticket book). Walt reportedly turned to John and said “If people ask, we’re going to have to agree to issue them a refund. Because a Disneyland without its steam trains just isn’t worth the full price of admission.”

I wonder what would happen if someone today went into City Hall at WDW’s Magic Kingdom and shared that story from the Spring of 1966. What a Cast Member who was working in Guest Relations at that theme park would have to say in response.

Walt Disney World Railroad Downtime

I mean, I get that it’s not their fault that the Walt Disney World Railroad has been out of commission since December of 2018. And we also have to acknowledge that much of the Resort was shuttered for months in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic.

Walt Disney World Railroad

But even so, at a time when the Florida parks are continually struggling to keep the rides, shows & attractions that they already have up & running on a reliable, regular basis, to have a people eater like the Magic Kingdom’s steam trains shut down for 3 & a half years … That’s just inexcusable.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 377”, published on June 6, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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