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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.)

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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.

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Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

The Road to Cars Land – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which made Steve Jobs furious.

Credit: Gitlab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Pixar Room

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

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

Michael Eisner & Hot Wheels

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

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

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

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

Pixar Breaks Away from Disney – Disney Creates Circle 7 Studios

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

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

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

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

Original “Toy Story 3” Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Iger Helps Disney Reclaim Pixar

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

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

“Cars” Attractions in Disney Parks

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

Cars Race Rally at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris

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

Credit: Flickr/Ramella

Radiator Springs Announcement for Disney California Adventure

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

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

Credit: Inside The Magic

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney World Cast Member Newsletter Request

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

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

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

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

Magic Kingdom Newsletter – August 1994

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

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

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

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

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

Disney World is closing the Subs at the Magic Kingdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Euro Disney Financial Troubles

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

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

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

Fan Backlash for “20,000 Leagues” Closing Announcement

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

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

Michael Ovitz – Save or Close “20k Leagues”

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

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

Credit: Deadline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which bring us to what Laval next told the Sentinel:

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

Credit: Orlando Sentinel

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

Poor Guest Experience for Michael Ovitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: WDWMagic

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

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

Credit: WDWMagic

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


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


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

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

Original Disneyland Lessees

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

That’s an interesting number – 33.

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

Van Camp Seafood Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon

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

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

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

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

The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant

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

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

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

Credit: iCollector.com

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

Building the Jolly Roger

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

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

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

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

Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead

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

Credit: Pinterest/Chicken of the Sea

The Flying Jolly Roger

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

Painting and Camera Tricks

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

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

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

Credit: Disney Parks

Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship

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

Credit: MickeyMousePark.com

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

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

And here’s a quote from this piece:

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

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

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

Van Camp Seafood Partnership

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

Captain Hook’s Galley

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

Moving to New Fantasyland

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

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

Credit: Walt Disney Family Museum

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

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

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

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

Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger

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

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

Credit: MickeyMousePark.com

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

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

Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris

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

Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream

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

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

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

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