Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
Paying Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain: Taking WDW’s Backstage Magic Tour
JHM contributor Paul Schnebelen returns with a report on his 6-hour behind-the-scenes tour of Walt Disney World’s theme parks. (Or should that be “behind-the-ears”? You decide.)
Hi. My name’s Paul and I’m a tour junkie. (Hi, Paul!)
Sad but true, folks. Some people have insatiable addictions to alcohol, drugs, or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. My insatiable addiction is for taking guided tours. Given the money and the opportunity, I’ll happily take any guided tour of a Disney theme park – never mind that I probably know the theme park I’m visiting like the back of my hand, or even that I’ve taken that same tour before. (How many times have I taken the Fab Tour now, Michelle?) I enjoy having the chance to walk around and learn the stories behind the Disney parks; reading about the parks’ history or about how an attraction is “imagineered” is always fun, but it adds something to the experience to be able to see what’s being discussed right in front of you.
Last January, I was on vacation at Walt Disney World with my fiancée. I was having fun visiting the parks, but I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just riding the attractions and seeing the shows. Nope, I knew Walt Disney World offered a variety of behind the scenes tours, and I was determined to take at least one. But which one? Keys to the Kingdom? Nope, done that. The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains?
I love trains almost as much as Walt did, but that starts at 7 a.m. — I’m on vacation here. Behind the Seeds? My fiancée, AKA the green thumb extraordinaire, loves that one, but I wasn’t sure. Then I saw the listing on the Internet.
Backstage Magic. A full day behind the scenes at three of the Disney theme parks. Ooh, that sounds intriguing — we have a winner. Let’s see, it costs … $199 per person?!? Ouch. Well, at least it included lunch. I called up the WDW Reservations line, even though I’d been told that you had to book this tour months in advance, and there’d be no way I could get on this tour on such short notice…
I got two slots on the tour for the following Wednesday. Folks, there are some definite advantages to visiting WDW during the slow season.
The adventure began just outside the entrance to Epcot, where our group of about 10 people met Bobbi, a retired schoolteacher who became a Disney Institute instructor and tour guide. Bobbi introduced herself and had everyone in the group do the same, then handed out our ID buttons – a picture of Mickey going “thru the mirror” to see what was on the other side (kinda like what we were doing!).
Once the administrative stuff was done, our group entered Epcot — but didn’t go very far. We went to a gate right next to Spaceship Earth, where Bobbi demonstrated the difference between “onstage ” and “backstage” by having us look at the ground. In the on-stage area we were in, the ground was painted red, symbolizing the “red carpet” treatment that Disney guests receive when they enter the parks. We walked through a door in the gate and looked at the ground again – it was still red, which had a couple of if wondering if Bobbi was pulling a fast one on us. Not so; since the area immediately behind the gate is visible to the public when the gate is fully open, it’s an onstage area, hence the pavement was still red. Once we walked away from the gate, the ground went from red to black; now that we were officially backstage, it was time to start exploring the magic.
We took a quick walk and boarded a waiting Disney Cruise Line bus, which would be the transportation for our tour, then the bus drove on an access road behind The Living Seas, The Land, and the Imagination pavilions. I was surprised by all the open space behind the Future World pavilions – I’ve been in the guest areas of Epcot and driven on the access roads outside, and you’d never know from looking at either that there was that much space back there! A short drive later, and we were behind a large, rectangular building, which turned out to be the back of the American Adventure pavilion.
Entering through the back door of the pavilion, we found ourselves looking at a very large structure that looked like a giant cage full of Audio-Animatronic figures. This “cage” is home to most of the AA scenes you see in The American Adventure (except for the Rosie the Riveter scene, which is lowered to the stage); the “cage” moves forward and backward under the auditorium and the scene to be played rises up onto the stage when it’s in the proper position.
Bobbi asked us to take a closer look into the cage at the AA figures. As it happened, Thomas Jefferson was being worked on by a couple of Imagineers, so we got to see him undressed! It’s not as kinky as it sounds, folks. Under their clothes, AA figures have a clear plastic shell in the rough shape of a human body; and under the shell are the actual pneumatics that move the figure.
Bobbi told us about the figures used in the show. She mentioned as the years have passed, the figures have become more and more sophisticated and the movements have been more and more refined. For example, Susan B. Anthony’s movements have become less exaggerated (and thus more lifelike); Mark Twain has gotten better at smoking his cigars! Bobbi asked us how we thought the AA figures “spoke” during the show – the voices don’t come from the figures themselves, and we couldn’t see any speakers on the sets. The secret is that there are speakers on the sets – they’re just disguised as props such as cabinets or boxes. Needless to say, making a speaker look like a cabinet can be a pretty good trick!
Bobbi directed our attention to a large area above and behind the “cage”. This area is where the slide and film projectors that show the scenes not involving the AAs are located, as is the lighting that creates the “sunset” effect you see at the end of the show. The film, slides, and “sunset” are rear-projected onto the screens lowered onto the stage instead of over the heads of the audience.
I was amazed by the sheer size of The American Adventure’s backstage area; it’s easily as large as the lobby and the seating area, and it’s full of equipment – the “cage”, the projectors and lighting effects, and all of the computers that run the figures. As big as the show building appears to be from the guests’ view, there’s a lot more that you don’t see.
As fascinating as The American Adventure’s backstage area was, it was time to move on. We hopped back on the bus, and as the bus drove down the access road to Future World, Bobbi showed us a video about… um, well to be honest, I don’t know what the video was about, because I was too busy looking out the window at what Epcot looked like backstage. I’m sure the video was nice. The bus stopped behind the Wonders of Life pavilion, and the group was ushered into a small foyer; the foyer contained a monitor showing the seating area of a Body Wars vehicle. This was the point where Bobbi told us she’d normally let us watch the guests on Body Wars get knocked around by the attraction, but as it happened there was nobody riding. Ah, well, that’s what happens when you go to WDW in the slow season.
Bobbi told us a little about the simulator technology used on Body Wars, explaining that the technology was developed from the flight simulators used to train military and commercial pilots; and motion of the vehicles is combined with a back-projected film shown on the front “window” of the vehicle. Once her explanation was done, Bobbi opened another set of doors and led us through a heavy curtain – put up to keep light from the foyer and outside from entering the simulator room and letting the guests have a look at the vehicles as they board – and into a Plexiglas cubicle. Once the boarding of the vehicle was complete, some of the lights of the simulator room were turned on and we watched one of the ride vehicles go through its ride cycle. Folks, if you think that the vehicles move around a lot during the show, you have no idea. That sucker looks even more violent when you’re watching it from outside that it feels when you’re riding it! This demonstration probably convinced several members of our tour group members never to ride Body Wars again!
Leaving Body Wars, it was time to get back on the bus and drive over to a nearby group of one-story buildings and trailers gaily decorated with lots of graphics representing the countries in the World Showcase. These buildings are Epcot’s main employee area; the trailers are the cast library and education center, used by Epcot’s international cast members. We entered the main building through a side corridor, also decorated with a series of murals done by Epcot cast members in tribute to their various work departments. We soon arrived at the central corridor, which was abuzz with cast members rushing between the locker rooms, break rooms, and the shuttles to the various pavilions. Bobbi told us more about what was going on in the various rooms off the main corridor; the rooms included break rooms, interactive learning (computer) centers, and scheduling offices.
After a brief explanation of the cast member scheduling system (which I won’t bore you with), Bobbi walked us into the cast locker room. That’s “locker room”, not “locker rooms;” it’s one large room with lots of rows of lockers. Before you get carried away with visions of scantily clad cast members, you should know that the locker rooms are intended for cast members’ storage of their personal effects only; there are gender-separated changing rooms off the main room for changing into costumes. In fact, there are signs posted all over reminding the cast members NOT to change clothes in the locker room!
Bobbi walked the group into the adjoining costume issue room. The room looked like a giant supermarket stocked with nothing but clothes — right down to the checkout stands manned by costuming cast members. Bobbi explained that when a cast member needs a costume, he or she goes to the appropriate rack (don’t ask me how they find the right one among all of the racks in there!), picks up whatever costume items they need in the appropriate sizes, then head for the checkout counter, where the scanner reads the cast member’s ID barcode and the barcode on each item. Cast members go through this every day, with two exceptions. If you’re a cast member on the “Fast Track” program, you get several days’ worth of costumes and check them out all at once, then take them home or put them in your locker and trade them in for clean ones when they’ve all been used. If you’re a cast member with an unusual figure, the costuming department gets your measurements, makes up special costumes for you, and places them on a special rack (at which point you hope that someone else doesn’t come in and take them before you do).
Bobbi told us about cast member appearance and behavior standards and explained that how these standards are in place because Disney considers the cast to be an important part in setting the stage for the theme park “show.” This brought an objection from a person on the tour, because she remembered seeing a “Wendy” face character at the Magic Kingdom that seemed to be acting very rude toward the guests; Bobbi argued that Wendy may have just have been “in character”, but asked to get information about where and when the person saw this, so she could pass it on and make sure that other guests’ experiences wouldn’t be ruined as this person’s experience had been.
We walked through the rest of the Epcot costuming building on our way back to the bus. One place we passed by and peeked into but didn’t get to enter was the “wig room”, where the beauticians prepare the various wigs worn by the face characters (yes, folks, it’s not their real hair — sorry to disappoint you); apparently, at one time, the wig rooms were on the backstage tours, but after a high muckety-muck read a description of the “wig room” and the “head room” (where the beauticians prepare the character heads) on the Internet and had a fit about how the “show” was destroyed, the wig room visits ended. (Well, folks, if a lot of what I tell you about is no longer on itinerary of the Backstage Magic tour when you take the tour, you know who to blame!)
From Epcot Costuming, we proceeded to the Disney -MGM Studios. We briefly stopped at the gate, where a WDW security officer boarded the bus and checked IDs — the only time any guard did so at any of the parks. Now, I understand why they have to do this – guest security and all that – but why we were only checked at the entrance to the Studios? Anyway, once we cleared security, we were dropped off at the Creative Costuming building. Creative Costuming is the place where all costumes used at WDW are designed and all the parade and character costumes are made (the parks have their own costuming departments where regular cast costumes are made and maintained). The first thing we had to do was to wait to be announced on the building PA system by the receptionist — not for security reasons or to hide anything, but to keep us from walking in on anybody who was improperly dressed while being fitted for a costume!
Once we got the OK, we visited the cubicles of one of the cast costume designers, who explained to us about how the design process for cast costumes worked. At least I think she did; I was too busy looking at the walls of the room, which were full of sketches of the various costumes these folks had designed for the attractions and parades. I was having a great time trying to guess which costumes went with which shows! Somebody should seriously consider putting a book of these sketches together for sale.
Our next stop was the office of the parade costume designers. They told us a little about how the process for designing parade costumes worked and showed the group a doll-sized model of a ball gown they were working on. Well, half of a ball gown, anyway. Parade costume designers create miniature models of half of the costume so they can see what it’ll look like when it’s done; they only make half because the other half is pretty much going to look like the half that they’re modeling. Just because there’s only half a costume, don’t think that it isn’t a faithful representation of the finished costume – the models are accurate down to every last detail you’ll see in the parades. The designers told us that they keep copies of all the patterns for the costumes they create, although these days the patterns are created and stored on computer instead of on paper; this makes costume patterns easier to find and easier to modify to fit the dimensions of a new performer.
Now that we’d heard about the design process, it was time to have a look at the production of the costumes. Anyone who’s been on the Backlot Tram Tour at the Studios would probably recognize the production area, since it’s one of the places you get to peek into on the tour; the difference is that while the folks on the Backlot Tram Tour got to look in on the room for about a minute, on the Backstage Magic tour, you get to spend some time finding out what exactly all those people are doing! The production area was a large room with a dozen or more seamstresses hard at work at individual tables. The room also contained what looked like a cross between a drafting table and an air hockey machine with a piece of fabric on it. This is the computer controlled cutting table, which can take the patterns stored on the computers and accurately cut the pattern in a matter of seconds using a cutting blade on a mobile arm. As to why it looks like an air hockey table, it kind of works like one in reverse; when fabric is placed on the table, a vacuum is created underneath that ensures the fabric is flat enough to ensure the most accurate cut. The table was pretty impressive, and it works really well, but if I worked there, I wouldn’t put my fingers anywhere near that thing! As for putting the costume together, there’s no fancy computer -controlled system for that — just a plain old-fashioned (but extremely talented) seamstress on a sewing machine.
From Creative Costuming, we took the bus to the other side of the Studios (have you figured out that you shouldn’t take this tour is you don’t like bus rides?), where we had lunch at Mama Melrose’s. Lunch was four or five items from the menu served family-style to the group; I loved this idea — it encourages you to talk to your fellow tour group members as well as sample several of the items from the restaurant. This is something that Disneyland might want to consider for tours that include lunch – after the tour, I was ready to go back to Mama Melrose’s and try everything that I sampled again! Once lunch was done, Bobbi took us through a door at the back of the restaurant – and we immediately found ourselves on the service road backstage. I’ve been to Mama Melrose’s a couple of times before, and I never would have suspected that there was a road ten feet away from back of the dining room!
Back on the bus again, we left the Studios and headed for the Magic Kingdom. Bobbi showed another video about the creation of Walt Disney World, featuring footage from Walt’s “Project Florida” film and film of construction of the parks. We entered the MK behind Frontierland and got to see the rear of the show buildings for Splash Mountain; if it weren’t for the swimming pool-like tank of water behind the building, you wouldn’t suspect that the attraction was on the other side! Nearby were the parade barn and the service canal, which was our next stop.
Once we were off the bus, we had a look at the Electrical Water Pageant barges, which were moored in the service canal. They’re not quite as impressive in daylight and up close as they are at night on the Seven Seas Lagoon – they’re basically pontoon floats with speakers and a tall chain link fence on them, and strung on the fence are the same kind of Christmas lights you probably have strung on your house during the holidays. Bobbi told us the story of how the Electrical Water Pageant came to be. The show was created not long after the Magic Kingdom opened and was intended as a temporary show to keep resort guests entertained until something better could be come up with. Well, it’s been thirty years, and a lot of people would argue that they couldn’t come up with anything better to put on the lagoon!
From there, Bobbi led the group into the parade barn. Our first stop was the performers practice studio, where the performers in the parades practice their moves on hardwood floors and in front of full-length mirrors. Something about this set up seems to inspire people to dance; five minutes in this room and I was trying to tap dance as Bobbi explained how the room was used! (If you’ve never seen me tap dance, consider yourself lucky.)
After leaving the practice studio, we passed the storage racks for the SpectroMagic costumes – which unlike the Electrical Water Pageant barges were pretty impressive even with the lights off! – and entered the main section of the barn, where the parade units are stored. We were able to take a look at the SpectroMagic floats from a distance, then Bobbi let us have a look inside the SpectroMagic Ursula float, so we could have a look at the driving controls of a typical parade unit. If you drive the Ursula float. you’d better be friends with whoever plays Ursula’s top half, because the performer is basically standing on the driver’s shoulder for the entire parade! The material the SpectroMagic floats are made of does allow for a little bit of a view out, but not much. My understanding is that there’s equipment in the vehicle that allows the driver to know where exactly he is on the route and lets the system that controls the music know the same thing. Either way, a parade float driver is not a job for the claustrophobic!
We left the fully enclosed section of the parade barn, which is home to the SpectroMagic floats, and went into a section of the barn covered only by a roof; this is where the units of the Share A Dream Come True Parade are parked. For those of you that have always wondered, yes, the snowglobes on the floats are air conditioned, although Bobbi mentioned that even with the AC it can get pretty hot in there. The performers basically have to crawl into the snowglobe from the inside of the float. In the tradition of the “hidden Mickeys” all over WDW, each float in the Share A Dream Come True Parade floats has a “hidden Walt”! Some of the “hidden Walts” are pretty obvious, others are less so. Sorry, but I’m not telling where they are – I’m going to leave it up to you to try and find them!
After leaving the parade barn, (Say it with me, folks) we got back on the bus again and left the MK and headed for an area behind the park. There are a number of buildings behind the Magic Kingdom; these buildings provide many of the support functions for all four parks. We left the bus at Central Shops, a cavernous building that’s home to just about anyone who does construction or maintenance on anything
in the parks; you name the building or repair specialty, they probably do it at Central Shops.
After getting a pair of safety goggles (which are required to enter the building), we went up to two balconies and got a bird’s eye view of the metalworking and electrical shops.
Did you ever take shop class in high school? Imagine that the entire student body of your high school took shop all at once in the same building and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the metalworking and electrical shops looked like from the balcony. I had a pretty good time trying to guess what everyone was working on; some of the stuff was obvious, like the guy who was working on a trash can, but some of things they were working on I’d never be able to identify. Guess I should have paid more attention in shop class.
From the balconies, the group went to a large central corridor; this was the work area for the larger equipment, such as ride vehicles. I saw a lot of vehicles from many different rides being worked on there – from Splash Mountain logs to Space Mountain rockets – but the things that held my attention the most were the ride vehicles being assembled for the (then still under construction) Mission: Space. As folks who have ridden the attraction can attest, the ride vehicles are cramped; if you think they look small on the inside, you should see them on the outside – they look like 4-person coffins. (Gee, there’s an image you want on your mind as you ride for the first time.)
A little farther down the corridor was the Wood Shop, where we got to see a naked carousel horse! The horse in question was from Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel, and it had been stripped down to the bare wood; even bereft of even a drop of paint, it was absolutely beautiful — you’ve never really appreciated the craftsmanship that went into creating these horses until you’ve seen one in this state. The shop worker, with obvious pride in his work (if I could do that kind of woodwork, I’d be proud, too), told us all about what he was doing. The horses on the Golden Carrousel are traded out regularly and are refurbished by the shop workers; stripping the horses down the bare wood doesn’t happen as often, but it was still done. If you ever hear someone telling you that all the Carrousel horses are just cheap copies made of Fiberglas, don’t you believe it; many of the horses on the Golden Carrousel are reproductions, but many others are the genuine article, and they deserve to be considered works of art. How often do you get to ride a work of art?
After a walk through the Fiberglas shop, where a couple of boats were being refurbished, we entered “Alligator Alley,” the shop for repair and construction of Audio-Animatronic figures. Bobbi explained the shop’s unusual name; in the early years of WDW, there was an incident where one non-Audio- Animatronic alligator wandered into Central Shops and temporarily took up residence until he was “convinced” that he might be happier back in the swamp! Fortunately, Alligator Alley’s current residents are a little less frightening (although many people who have ridden “it’s a small world” may disagree).
Bobbi brought the group over to a display featuring two AA figures — a seriously de-feathered Tiki Bird, representing the earliest versions of Audio-Animatronic figures, and Bonnie Appetit, formerly of Epcot’s “Kitchen Kabaret,” fitted with an arm that was too big for her petite figure but was otherwise none the worse for wear. Bobbi explained how the movements of AA figures are controlled by pneumatic lines and computer tapes, then gave a lucky volunteer (me) the opportunity to demonstrate how the pneumatics controlled the movements of the figures by having the volunteer press valves on a pneumatic control manifold. Press one valve, and the Tiki Bird’s beak opened; press another and Bonnie’s right arm moved to the right, press a third valve and it moved to the left, and so on. I can imagine how many lines it must take to control the Auctioneer!
On our way out of Alligator Alley, we saw the AA testing bench, with a row of figures from “it’s a small world” being tested. The figures were going through endurance tests in preparation for installation; this consists of repeating each motion the figure can do 10,000 times to ensure it won’t fail after it’s installed on the attraction. And if you’re one of those people that think these figures are creepy on the attraction, try watching them for several minutes doing the same movement over and over again. Heck, I like “it’s a small world”, and after a couple of minutes, they were freaking me out! Don’t ask me how the people who work in Alligator Alley can be in there with those figures without taking a baseball bat to them at the end of the day.
Leaving Alligator and Central Shops, our group walked across the street and into what appeared to be another nondescript warehouse. As soon as we walked in, we traveled back in time to Christmas! No time travel was involved in this feat; it turned out that the building we’d entered was the Holiday Shop, where all of the Christmas decorations for the Walt Disney World Resort, Vero Beach Resort, and the Disney Cruise Line are created, maintained, and stored.
Bobbi took us over to a small stand in from of the Holiday Shop administrative office and showed us a few examples of the many decorations that the shop is responsible for, then explained a little about how Disney Christmas decorations are made, lighted, and installed. Like everything else at the Disney parks, Christmas decorations are themed to the place where they’ll be located; the materials used, the colors used and even the lights used are selected to fit in with the theme. For example, if a decoration is being made for Animal Kingdom Lodge, the decoration will be made of wood and other natural materials; the lights on the decoration will normally be yellow and brown. Unlike your Christmas trees and lights at home, most WDW Christmas trees and wreaths have their decorative elements permanently attached and are stored intact after the holidays; with the number of decorations the Holiday Shop is responsible for, it’d be too labor-intensive to take things completely apart and put them back together every year!
Our group walked around the warehouse and looked at rows and rows of shelves full of Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands; all the items on the shelves were wrapped up in plastic and labeled with a code indicating the park or resort where they would be placed. I had a fun time trying to figure out the codes!
A lot of shelves were still empty, even though it was late January, confirming my suspicions that Disney was stretching out the time they took to remove the holiday decorations from the resorts. (For those of you that have never seen the transformation, the Disney parks and resorts normally put up Christmas decorations practically overnight in the theme parks and within a few days in the resorts; the decorations come down almost immediately in the parks and used to come down almost as quickly everywhere else -it certainly never used to take more than a month to take everything down!)
We walked into a room adjoining the warehouse full of workbenches; each workbench had lots of decorations on them. This was the repair and production facility, where new decorations are made and decorations coming back from the parks and resorts are repaired after they’re removed. Bobbi told us that decoration creation and repair is a year-round job. If you always wanted to live Christmas every day of the year and you make your own Christmas decorations, WDW may have the perfect job for you! (I know that I’ll never be working here. Last year, I was given the opportunity to make my own “Mickey Mouse wreath” at Disneyland, and poor Mickey came out with the droopiest ears you’ve ever seen.)
Now that we’d had one last chance to get in a little Christmas, we got back on the bus and left Central Shops for the Magic Kingdom. We passed the Monorail/ Railroad barn, where maintenance is done on the trains, and the Transportation area, where everything else on wheels that travels around the resort is maintained. The bus entered the MK at a gate near Space Mountain and stopped at a backstage area behind Town Square. Bobbi took the group through a door and down a flight of stairs into the Utilidors, the network of corridors under the MK used to provide support for the park. I could see how someone could get lost pretty easily down there – all the Utilidors looked pretty much the same to me. Bobbi pointed out how the cast members managed to find their way down there; the Utilidors have color schemes and logos placed to allow cast members to tell what part of the park they’re under at any given time.
We briefly walked through the Utilidors serving Main Street and Adventureland, then came out on-stage near Tony’s Town Square Cafe, so we could watch the Share a Dream Come True Parade and “see how everything we’ve seen comes together”, as Bobbi put it. I must admit that this is the only part of the tour that disappointed me. Don’t get me wrong — I love the parade, but I would have rather spent the time seeing more of the Utilidors or the MK backstage areas. A couple of years ago, on my first trip to WDW, I went on the Keys to the Kingdom tour and got to see the main entrance to the Utilidors, the door to the room housing the DACS computer system (that’s the system that runs the attractions), and the main cast areas. Apparently, most of this was dropped from the backstage tours due to security concerns after 9/11.
That’s a real shame. I’d be more than willing to go through a thorough security check to see more!
After the parade was done, Bobbi walked our group up Main Street and pointed out some of the windows on the second stories of the buildings. The names on the windows are the Magic Kingdom’s “credits”, paying tribute to the people who created WDW and kept it going. The professions of the folks listed on the windows are in-jokes reflecting their backgrounds, hobbies, or roles in WDW’s development (for example, Card Walker, President of the Company in the 1970s, is listed on his window as a psychologist – guess he had to counsel a few people who were having some issues!) Once we arrived at the Plaza, Bobbi took a few questions from the group, then took us backstage again and got us on the bus back to Epcot. On the way back, Bobbi handed each of us a gift – a pin of Mickey going “thru the mirror,” with the words “Backstage Magic” written in reverse! (Nice touch.)
The Backstage Magic Tour is a great overview of how Disney makes everything that you see in the parks happen; it’s a long tour – more than six hours – and it’s not cheap, but it’s as close as a person can get to seeing “the magic behind the magic” without getting a job with the Mouse! The guides are very personable and very knowledgeable – I think I found my new dream job. (Disney, if you’re ever hiring, I’m available…) It’s not perfect, of course. It’s an official Disney tour, so you’re not going to get to see and hear about everything that goes on behind the scenes — but see, after taking the tour, you to have to take one of Jim’s tours and get the rest of the story! (I solemnly swear that Jim had nothing to do with that plug.) The tour also doesn’t include a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom; I’m told that the American Zoological Association has some sort of requirement that prevents DAK from being part of the tour, but there is a separate backstage tour available. Overall, though, it’s a great tour. On your next visit to WDW, take a day and see for yourself if the view from behind the scenes isn’t as fascinating as the view from on-stage.
Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment
Abraham Lincoln is Here to Stay – Walt’s Disneyland Attraction That “Can’t” Be Replaced
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Happy Presidents Day. Which is when we – as Americans – are supposed to honor the memory of two of our country’s commanders-in-chief: George Washington (born on February 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809).
Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln
Walt Disney was a life-long admirer of Honest Abe. Walt often told the tale of how – back when he was a kid – Disney fashioned a stove pipe hat & a fake beard for himself (supposedly made out of poster paper). Then – dressed in this outfit — Disney stood in front of his grade class and recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg address from memory.
Walt’s obvious affection & admiration for our 16th President continued well into his adulthood. Which explains “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” an attraction that the Imagineers originally created for the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair which was built around an Audio Animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln.
This robotic Lincoln caused such a sensation among visitors to Flushing Meadows that – even before this edition of the New York World’s Fair ended on October 15, 1965 – Walt had a second version of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” built. Which he then had installed inside of the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland Park.
Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”
This second version of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opened on July 18, 1965. But the West Coast clone of this New York World’s Fair show never quite caught on the way that the East Coast original had. Even when Disneyland began giving away a free pass to this Main Street, U.S.A. attraction with every ticket book sold to Guests, the Californian version of “Great Moments” failed to capture even a tenth of the people who visited this theme park annually.
And given that the Main Street Opera House was this 500-seat venue right up by the entrance of Walt’s family fun park, it made the Imagineers crazy that this beautifully appointed / centrally located theater would only have a handful of people inside at most performances of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Which is why – after Walt passed away in December of 1966 – WDI began quietly casting around for show ideas that they could possibly use as replacements for the seriously under-performing “Great Moments.”
Walt Disney Replaces “Great Moments”
Ironically, it was Walt himself who provided the solution to Anaheim’s “Great Moments” problem. As part of Walt Disney Productions’ 50th anniversary celebration, the Imagineers mounted “The Walt Disney Story” inside of the Main Street Opera House. This exhibit (which featured a lobby filled with the awards that Walt had won over his lifetime as well as a film which then looked back at Disney’s career) necessitated the closing of Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
Which did NOT sit well with the good folks of Orange County. This corner of Southern California is known nationwide as a conservative stronghold. Which is why – when these folks learned that the April 8, 1973 opening of “The Walt Disney Story” at Disneyland meant that that theme park’s robotic version of Honest Abe would now go into storage – these people began bombarding the Mouse House with angry phone calls & letters.
“The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”
Which is why — less than two years into the run of “The Walt Disney Story” at Disneyland Park – the Company caved. The Main Street Opera House closed its doors on February 12, 1975 and began yet another revamping. Some four months later, this 500-seat venue re-opened with what can politely be described as something of a camel of an attraction: “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
The way that this retooled version of this Main Street, U.S.A. attraction worked was … Well, the lobby area of the Main Street Opera House now celebrated the life & career of Walt Disney. Whereas once Guest entered the actual theater portion of Disneyland’s opera house … This was where the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show from the 1964 – 1964 New York World’s Fair was now framed in such a way that this AA-based attraction was supposed to be seen as one of Walt’s greatest achievements. This technological triumph that then paid tribute to our 16th president.
This creative compromise may have addressed many of the concerns that Southern Californian conservatives had (not to mention quelling a lot of the complaints that had been coming out of Orange County). But it also frustrated Disneyland managers as well as the Imagineers.
“And why was that?,” you ask. Because the revised “Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” hadn’t solved the Main Street Opera House’s attendance problem. This nearly-10-year-old attraction was now even less popular with Disneyland visitors. Fewer than 1-in-20 Guests now bothered to check out this show during their day at the Park.
Bringing “Hall of Presidents” to Disneyland
What especially made the Imagineers crazy about Mr. Lincoln’s return to the Main Street Opera House is that this development then derailed their plans to bring Disney World’s “Hall of Presidents” to Anaheim.
How many of you remember the “Disneyland Presents a Preview of Coming Attractions” display that used to be on Main Street, U.S.A.? This collection of models & concept art was housed inside of that theme park’s old Wurlitzer Music Hall building. And from 1973 to 1989, Guests could drop by here for free and then check out some of the rides, shows & attractions that the Imagineers were considering for construction in Anaheim.
And among those ideas was a West Coast version of WDW’s “Hall of Presidents.” Which – if all had gone according to plan – was to have opened at Disneyland Park just in time for the Summer of 1976 (i.e., America’s bicentennial).
But what with the good folks of Orange County insisting on “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” ‘s return to the Main Street Opera House ASAP back in 1973, that idea was now off the table. Which is why – instead of a West Coast version of WDW’s “Hall of Presidents” – Disneyland got another patriotic, Audio Animatronic-filled show out ahead of America’s bicentennial. And that located-in-Tomorrowland attraction was “America Sings,” which opened at Disneyland Park on June 29, 1974.
Meanwhile, attendance levels for the “Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show continued to erode (Now fewer than 1-in-50 visitors bothered to swing by the Main Street Opera House to check out that show during their day in the Park). The Imagineers tried to use cutting edge-tech as a reason to lure people back to this under-attended attraction. Which is why — in 1984 — they installed an all-new Lincoln in this theater that (at that time, anyway) was the most sophisticated Animatronic figure ever built for a Disney park. It didn’t matter. People still stayed away.
“MuppetVision 3D” to Replace “Great Moments” at Disneyland
Which brings us to the Summer of 1990. Prior to his tragic passing on May 16th of that year, Jim Henson had completed production of “MuppetVision 3D.” Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to honor his friend’s memory by having “MuppetVision 3D” open at Disney theme parks on both coasts in the Spring of 1991.
Down in Florida, “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” would be shown inside of a purpose-built theater at Disney-MGM Studios. Whereas the West Coast version of this attraction … Well, by now, attendance levels for “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” had fallen straight through the floor. Only 1-out-of-a-100 Guests ever bothered to drop by the Main Street Opera house. And even with that new cutting-edge Lincoln AA figure (which made use of the very same tech that powered the Wicked Witch of the West AA figure in “The Great Movie Ride” at Disney-MGM Studios theme park) on display, this seriously-under-attended show often experienced walk-outs.
Which is why the Imagineers now wanted to install “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” in the Main Street Opera House at Disneyland. Given that the theater that the Imagineers were building in Florida was to have 564 seats and the one that already existed in Anaheim had 500 seats … These two venues for “MuppetVision 3D” basically had the same hourly capacity.
So the plan was that “The Walt Disney Story featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” was to quietly close after the Labor Day Weekend in 1990. Then the Imagineers would retool the Main Street Opera House both inside & out so that it would then be a suitable venue for the Muppets. The Imagineers were already inside of this Main Street, U.S.A. taking measurements for this proposed redo when these plans then went off the rails.
Abe Lincoln to Stay
You see – on August 19, 1990 – news broke about this upcoming redo of the Main Street Opera House. Both the Orange County Register & the Los Angeles Times ran stories about this proposed show swap. And while Disneyland spokesman Bob tried to put things in the best possible light, insisting that this Disneyland theater would soon receive a floor-to-ceiling refurbishment, that this venue would look better than it had in years, Orange County conservatives would have none of this. In a large way, it was 1973 all over again. They quickly flooded the Company’s switchboards with thousands of angry phone calls.
And within one week’s time, the Los Angeles Times actually ran an article with this headline:
Will Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” Ever Get Replaced?
And since then … Well, while the Imagineers still periodically make an attempt at sprucing up Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show (How many of you remember that god-awful binaural sound version of this attraction which debuted in Anaheim back in July of 2001? That version — which featured a 3D haircut as well as Honest Abe seeming to bend over & whisper into Guests’ ears – earned the comical nickname, “Creepy Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” It was quietly shuttered in February of 2005) … Nowadays, the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show at Disneyland Park is considered untouchable.
Whenever the Imagineers have tried in the past to put a different show in this space at that theme park, Orange County conservatives have risen up in force. And as a direct result, the Main Street Opera is one of the most under-utilized facilities at Disneyland Park. Last I heard, the average attendance for a presentation of this Audio Animatronic show is 30 people.
But on the other hand, if you’re looking for something to do at Disneyland and you happen to be headed there on Presidents Day Weekend … Well, there’s one place at that theme park where I can guarantee you that you won’t encounter a line.
Film & Movies
Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland
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This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.
John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.
Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.
Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”
What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.
Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?
It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.
Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths
So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.
So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.
Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.
Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive
Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.
Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression
What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.
Lightning Lane – Raising Prices
Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).
And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.
Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.
“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects
Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”
That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.
Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays
Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:
So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.
Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.
Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:
So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:
Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel
Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?
What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.
It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”
Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel
And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.
And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).
Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel
That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.
- Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
- Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain
Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.
This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.
Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings
It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.
All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.
It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.
Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.
Walley World Shooting Locations
And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.
The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).
Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Film & Movies
“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland
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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.
Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.
Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film
Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.
Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …
Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.
But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”
And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.
It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.
The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real
By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.
It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance
Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically). Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland
The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).
There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.
And those words supposedly were “Build this.”
It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.
So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.
Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.
There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.
This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.
How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”
Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.
In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.
Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America
Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).
If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.
The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.
While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.
As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.
This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:
“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland
It wasn’t that easy.
The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”
Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”
Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”
Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”
Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.
So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.
And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.
The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland
This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Halley (As in Halley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).
There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Halley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.
How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?
Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.
This is where the Imagineers were wrong.
Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse
Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.
200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.
Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.
To be specific here: Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.
Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).
Ken Annakin – Film Director
Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.
Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.
Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”
And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.
New Robin Hood on Disney+?
Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.
So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.
So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”
This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.
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