Connect with us

Film & Movies

Be Careful What You Wish For – The Story of Robin Williams and Disney Films

In this April 2000 piece from the archives, Jim Hill exposes what really happened with comic genius Robin Williams and the Walt Disney Company's handling of the film "Aladdin" and looks at the tense relationship since.

Published

on

Robin Williams Disney Legend
Listen to the Article

Spring 1991: Robin Williams was suited up in green tights and hanging from a wire when he got the call.

It was then Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg on the line. Realizing that Robin was busy filming Steven Spielberg’s big budget Peter Pan update, Jeffrey apologized for the intrusion. But the Mouse had a real problem with an animated film they had in the works. So Katzenberg was wondering if Williams — who was well known in the industry as a big-time toon buff — might drop by Burbank and offer his opinion of the project.

Given that “Hook” was already running weeks behind schedule, Robin should have said “No.” But Williams had a soft spot when it came to the Mouse.

After all, Robin pretty much owed his film career in the 1990s to Disney.

“Good Morning Vietnam” & “The Dead Poets Society” – Early Robin Williams Disney Films

After starring in a string of cinematic stinkers like “Club Paradise” and “The Survivors,” Williams virtually couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood by the mid 1980s.

Then there was the very public collapse of his first marriage as well as rumors of drug and alcohol addiction.

Things were looking pretty bleak for the comic back then

But — in 1987 — Disney decided to take a chance on Robin. Figuring that the failures of his earlier films were due mainly to a poor marriage of performer and material, Disney sought to create a movie that would be a showcase for William’s gift for comic improvisation.

Katzenberg & Co. spent weeks looking for just the right piece of material for Robin. Finally — when Disney learned that Paramount Pictures had just put in to turnaround a script about an Armed Forces Network disc jockey and his adventures during the early days of the Vietnam War — Jeffrey knew that they had found the perfect vehicle for Williams. So the studio quickly snatched up the rights to “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Williams — who was grateful for any opportunity to work at this point in his career — jumped at the chance to appear in this film. He even agreed to Disney’s less-than-generous financial terms, getting half of his usual $2 million paycheck to portray DJ Adrian Cronauer.

In the end, Disney’s gamble on Williams paid off handsomely. “Good Morning, Vietnam” proved to be a huge hit at the box office in the Winter of 1988. Both critics and audiences loved Robin’s performance. The role even earned him his first ever Academy Award nomination for best actor.

Disney decided to build on Williams’ success in “Good Morning, Vietnam” by starring the comic in another film for the studio, 1989’s “The Dead Poets Society.” Directed by noted Australian film-maker Peter Weir, this coming-of-age drama was also proved to be a huge hit with the movie-going public. Williams’ performance as devoted teacher John Keating earned Robin his second Oscar nomination as well as established him as a gifted dramatic actor.

Thanks to these two films, Robin Williams’ movie-making career came roaring back to life. All because Jeffrey Katzenberg had decided to take a chance on a semi-washed up comedian.

Which is why Robin Williams thought he would be forever grateful to the Mouse…

Or so he thought.

Saying Yes to “Aladdin” – Robin Williams Becomes the Genie

Anyhow, due to this sense of personal and professional obligation, Robin agreed to drop by Disney Studios on his very next day off from “Hook.” Less than a week later, Williams found himself in a meeting with Katzenberg as well as Disney animators John Musker, Ron Clements and Eric Goldberg.

Jeffrey thanked Robin for dropping by, then explained Disney’s dilemma: Feature Animation had just had one of its latest projects, a new musical version of “Aladdin,” spin into the dirt. The film’s screenwriter and lyricist Howard Ashman had tragically died from AIDS a month or so earlier. The “Aladdin” script Ashman had left behind had a lot of interesting things in it. But — structurally and story-wise — it was a mess.

Katzenberg then explained to Williams that the studio was thinking of junking Ashman’s screenplay. They’d hang on to most of Howard’s wonderful lyrics. But — beyond that — Disney was thinking of taking this animated musical in a whole new direction.

That said, Jeffrey directed Robin’s attention to a nearby TV monitor. There on the screen was an animated Robin Williams — doing a routine from his 1979 “Reality … What a Concept” album. The cartoon Williams announced that “Tonight, I’d like to talk to you about schizophrenia.” The toony Robin then grew a second head, which quickly told the first head to “Shut up! No he doesn’t!”

Williams was thoroughly charmed by the footage. Animator Goldberg — who had personally put together the test animation — had done a masterful job of transforming Robin’s comic genius into toon form. Turning back to Jeffrey, Williams then asked what it was that the Mouse wanted him to do now.

Katzenberg laid it on the line: We’d like you to join the cast of “Aladdin” as the voice of the Genie.

Williams hesitated for a moment. After all, the coming year was going to be one of his busiest ever, professionally. Once Robin finished playing Peter Pan in “Hook,” he’d leap right into work on “Toys.” This whimsical military satire set behind-the-scenes at a toy factory was a project that Williams was really looking forward to — for it would re-unite him with his “Good Morning, Vietnam” director, Barry Levinson. Between all the work he’d have to do to complete these two special effects-laden films, there just didn’t seem to be enough time to squeeze in an animated film for Disney.

But Jeffrey persisted. “Think of your son, Zachary,” Katzenberg said, “Or your daughter, Zelda. Wouldn’t they love to see their dad starring in a Disney animated film?”

That was the argument that finally won Williams over to doing “Aladdin.” Since so many of his earlier films had been rated R or PG, Robin’s children had yet to really see their daddy perform on the big screen. But here now was a movie that Williams could proudly take his kids to see on its opening day.

That was enough to win Robin over to the idea of doing the voice of the genie. However, this is not to say that Williams didn’t have a few conditions he wanted Disney to agree to before formally signing up to work on “Aladdin.”

Conditions for “Aladdin”: Robin’s Other Film -“Toys”

Chief among these conditions was Robin’s insistence that Disney Studio could not use his name or image in any theatrical posters, print ads, movie trailers or TV commercials to promote “Aladdin.

What was the deal here?

Was Robin pulling some sort of silly star trip on the Mouse?

No, not at all. It was just that Williams’ next live action film, “Toys,” and the animated “Aladdin” were due to be released within weeks of one another. “Aladdin” would roll into theaters over the 1992 Thanksgiving weekend, while “Toys” would be released in December.

Robin had agreed to do “Toys” first, so Williams felt that his primary loyalties had to lie with Levinson and his movie. Disney was free to promote “Aladdin” any way that they saw fit. Just so long as they didn’t create the impression that their animated film starred Robin Williams.

After all, the Genie was just a supporting role in “Aladdin.” So Robin asked that all ads for Disney’s film reflect that reality, and not give the false impression that the animated film somehow starred Williams’ character.

Jeffrey smiled and assured Robin that Disney Studios would be happy to meet his conditions.

However, the Mouse also had a few conditions of its own.

As much as Disney wanted Williams to play the voice of the Genie, the studio just wasn’t willing to pick up Robin’s now standard $8 million-per-picture paycheck. Since Disney would only be using Williams’ voice — which the Mouse could record in just a few quick studio sessions — in the movie, would Robin be willing to work for a significantly smaller fee?

Like — say, maybe — scale? Screen Actor Guild minimum. $485 a day.

Williams’ agent — the then all-powerful head of Creative Artist Associates (CAA) Michael Ovitz — thought the deal Disney was offering Robin was absurd. If the Mouse wasn’t willing to pay for Williams’ services up front, Ovitz insisted that the very least they could do was offer Robin a piece of the movie’s back end.

Williams told Ovitz to butt out. After all, he wasn’t making “Aladdin” to make money. Robin was making this movie so that Zachary and Zelda could see their daddy in a Disney movie.

“Besides,” Williams continued, “This is animated. How much money could the movie make, anyway?”

How Much Can an Animated Movie Make in the Early 90s?

From our position (current day), where a “Lion King” can earn a billion dollars at the box office plus a billion more off of toys, games, videos, etc. — Williams’ statement seems awfully naive. But please remember that Robin was talking to Ovitz back in the Spring of 1991. Disney’s latest animated film, 1990’s “The Rescuers Down Under,” had just under-performed at the box office. And while it was true that 1988’s “The Little Mermaid” had earned $80 million domestically, that film’s performance seemed more like a fluke than the start of a trend.

Williams had no idea that Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was lying out there in the bushes, getting ready to change forever the way people viewed animation. When that film hit theaters in November 1991, it racked up great reviews and huge box office numbers. By the spring of 1992, that movie would gross over $140 million as well as earn the first ever “Best Picture” nomination for a feature length animated film.

$140 million seemed like an extraordinary amount for an animated film to make. But “Aladdin” — with its $217 million gross — did better than “Beauty and the Beast.” And 1994’s “The Lion King” — with its $350 million — did even better than that.

But Williams had no idea that any of this was going to happen. He had no clue that animation was about to become really big money for the film industry. Robin just wanted to make a movie that he could take his kids to see.

But — more importantly — Williams wanted to pay Katzenberg & Co. back for all the kindness Disney had showed him in the mid-1980s. If the Mouse hadn’t taken a chance on him and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Robin’s film career might still be on the skids. So, if the Walt Disney Company wanted to keep costs down on “Aladdin” by only paying him scale for his recording sessions, that was okay by Robin.

So Williams agreed to Katzenberg’s proposal — working for scale — provided, of course, that the studio honored Robin’s request to keep his names out of all the “Aladdin” ads.

“Hook”, “Toys”, and “Aladdin” – Robin Williams Busy Schedule

Robin kept his end of the bargain. Over the next 18 months, while working on “Hook” and “Toys,” Williams would slip away for a day or two every month for recording sessions on “Aladdin.” At each of these session, he’d start off with just straight readings of the scenes he was given from Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s screenplay. But — once those sequences were recorded — Robin would begin to ad-lib additional dialogue for each of these scenes.

Musker and Clements loved the material Williams was inventing for the Genie. So much so that they began reworking “Aladdin” so that the Genie went from a minor supporting role in the film to a part that was almost as big as the title character’s.

This is where things started to get difficult for Katzenberg. All the test screenings Disney Studio held for their still-in-production animated film showed that “Aladdin” was going to be a huge hit. Maybe even bigger than “Beauty and the Beast.”

But — when they polled the audience after each test screening as to who their favorite character in the film was — Disney found that the audience just loved the Genie. The very character that Jeffrey had promised Williams that the studio would do nothing to promote.

Now here was Katzenberg’s dilemma: How could he honor his agreement with Williams and not mention his name in any of the film’s ad, yet still somehow clue people in to the comic’s incredible vocal performance in the movie?

Using the Genie in the Promo Material for “Aladdin” – Robin Williams and Jeffrey Katzenberg Battle

A last minute re-negotiation of Disney’s deal with Williams made Katzenberg’s job somewhat easier. Jeffrey convinced Robin that — since the Genie was featured prominently in 25% of “Aladdin”‘s running length — the character should be featured in 25% of every movie trailer, print ad, TV commercial and lobby poster for the film. After getting Katzenberg’s assurance that all this revamped advertising would not give the audience the false impression that Williams’ character was the star of the movie, Robin okayed the change.

“Aladdin” Theatrical Poster

But — as soon as Williams got his first glance of the original theatrical poster for “Aladdin” — he immediately regretted changing the terms of his deal with Katzenberg. Sure, the Genie was only featured on 25% of the poster. But his big blue face was the largest image on the thing. His smiling mug towered over the film’s title, while infinitely smaller images of Aladdin and Jasmine riding their magic carpet appeared toward the bottom of the poster. While Williams’ name was nowhere to be found on the poster, it was clear to Robin that Disney was trying to get across the message that his character was the biggest thing in “Aladdin.”

Williams complained loudly to Katzenberg’s office about the imagery used in the “Aladdin” movie theater poster. Jeffrey apologized, but pointed out that he had honored the exact conditions of their deal. Robin’s name WAS nowhere to be seen on the poster. More importantly, the Genie’s image did only took up 25% of the surface space of the poster. Katzenberg had honored the language of their agreement, even if the poster’s imagery totally violated the spirit of their deal.

Fearing that featuring his character so prominently in the movie’s posters and ads would sink “Toys” chances at the box office, Williams asked that all the original “Aladdin” advertising material be recalled and new posters be issued. Katzenberg again said he was sorry, but there was no way that was going to happen. Disney had already spent millions launching “Aladdin.” Any changes in advertising imagery would just have to wait till the film’s secondary release, when the studio would create new ads and posters … maybe.

Robin was furious at the way he felt Jeffrey had mislead him in regard to the way Disney was advertising “Aladdin.” And this would not be the last time Williams and Katzenberg would clash over the way the studio chose to hype the the film.

The Genie on Posters at American Bus Shelters

Just after “Aladdin” opened, Williams was driving through downtown Los Angeles and was shocked to see that many of the city’s bus shelters featured huge blue posters of the Genie. No other characters from “Aladdin” were featured in these enormous public advertisements. Just the Genie.

When Williams called Katzenberg to complain about the bus shelter posters, Jeffrey apologized profusely. “Obviously, there must have been some sort of mix-up,” the then-Disney Studio head said. “I’ll have them removed immediately.”

So all 300 of the LA area “Aladdin” bus shelter posters were recalled and destroyed. It was only later that Williams learned that thousands of these huge blue Genie posters had been created and had been installed in bus shelters all over the country, where they remained up for the entire time “Aladdin” was in theaters. Only the big blue Genie bus shelter posters that were in areas where Williams was likely to see them had been removed.

This was typical of Katzenberg’s abuse of his “Aladdin” advertising agreement with Williams. Time and again, Jeffrey would pay lip service to Robin — saying that he was doing everything he could to make sure that Disney’s marketing department honored their deal concerning all aspects of the advertising on “Aladdin.” But, once that phone call was over, Katzenberg would then turn around and tell the studio’s marketing guys that they could do whatever they wanted to help promote the film.

“Toys” Disappointment

Just as Williams had feared, the Thanksgiving release of “Aladdin” totally over-shadowed the December release of “Toys.” Sure, this Barry Levinson film’s chances for success at the box office were hobbled by the vicious reviews this limp comedy received. But — had it been the only Robin Williams film in the marketplace that holiday season — “Toys” might have still done some business.

Unfortunately, for Christmas 1992, movie-goers had two Robin Williams films to chose from. 99.999% of the holiday audience opted to go see “Aladdin.” So “Toys” sank like a stone, barely taking in $23 million (which was less than half of the film’s production costs).

As “Toys” sank and “Aladdin” soared, Williams just didn’t know what to think.

On one hand, Robin was thrilled at “Aladdin”‘s amazing success.

Week after week, it was number 1 at the box office.

On the other hand, Robin felt incredibly guilty, thinking that Disney’s relentless advertising of “Aladdin” had snuffed out “Toys” (a film his friend Levinson had labored for 15 years to get made) only chances of ever finding an audience.

Then there was the performer’s ambivalence toward all the praise Williams was receiving for his work in “Aladdin.” Time and again, people would come up to Robin and tell him his performance in the animated film was his best thing he’d ever done. Initially, Williams enjoyed these compliments — until he realized that people were saying that his very best work was in a cartoon, a medium that only made use of an actor’s voice, not his face. This is the sort of thing that can really start to bug a guy who studied at Juilliard.

Awards and the Final Straw for the Genie

Williams’ ambivalence toward “Aladdin” became public knowledge in February 1993, when he received a certificate of special achievement for his work in the film at the Golden Globes. As he went up on the stage, the clearly uncomfortable Robin didn’t know what to say about this alleged honor. He jokingly asked the celebrities and foreign film critics assembled for the ceremony, “Is this like a coupon I can turn in to get a real award?”

Oddly enough, it was Disney’s attempt to capitalize on Williams’ win at the Golden Globes that proved to be the final breaking point between the Mouse and Mork. Katzenberg okayed a brand new series of print and TV ads for “Aladdin.” Each of these clearly mentioned Williams’ name, prominently playing up the award the Foreign Film Critics Association had honored the comic with.

As the then-head of Disney Studio, Jeffrey thought that he was just doing his job by okaying these ads. After all, the Golden Globes are considered by many in the film industry as a prelude to the Academy Awards. If Williams’ work as the Genie in “Aladdin” had been honored by the Foreign Film Critics Association, maybe the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences could also see their way clear to honoring Robin. Maybe they could even give him a special Oscar for the best vocal performance in an animated film. Hey, stranger things have happened.

However, when Williams saw these new ads, he finally blew his top. This was the last straw as far as the comic was concerned. Robin had deliberately asked Katzenberg to keep his name out of any “Aladdin” advertising. Now here was his name prominently displayed in ads throughout the trades as part of Disney’s Oscar campaign for the film.

Robin phoned Katzenberg and told the studio chief that he had repeatedly broken his word to the performer. As a result, Williams felt that he could no longer trust any executives associated with the Mouse Works. Robin then vowed that he would never again make another film for Walt Disney Studios.

Jeffrey Katzenberg Attempts to Win Over Robin Williams

Jeffrey — who was in the middle of orchestrating a million dollar ad campaign that would hopefully help “Aladdin” win a few Oscars — was horrified by what he called “Mork’s melt-down.” Sure, maybe Katzenberg had gone back on his word a few times concerning the film’s advertising. But couldn’t Robin see that Jeffrey had only done this because he had the movie’s best interests at heart? With a domestic gross of $217 million, “Aladdin” was then the highest grossing picture in the history of Walt Disney Studios. Wasn’t Williams thrilled to just to be a part of that enormous success?

Williams was not. In fact, Williams was beginning to feel like a really big schmuck for having agreed to work for scale on “Aladdin.” In addition, many of Robin’s friends in the industry began bad-mouthing the Mouse for not belatedly cutting Williams in on a chunk of the animated film’s enormous success. A very popular joke in Hollywood at the time went something like this:

Q: Why won’t the Mouse write Robin Williams a check for his work in “Aladdin”?

A: You try holding a pen with only four fingers.

Katzenberg tried to make amends with Williams by sending him a Picasso. Jeffrey made sure that word got out that Disney had spent over $5 million to purchase this belated “Thank You” gift for Robin. Imagine Katzenberg’s embarrassment when it later became common knowledge among industry insiders that the studio had picked up the painting at an estate sale for less than $750,000.

In spite of the lavish gift, Robin still refused to have anything to do with the Mouse. For years, he wouldn’t look at the scripts the studio sent him. He returned all invitations to the company’s premieres and/or theme park events. Things looked pretty hopeless…

Until Joe Roth replaced Jeffrey Katzenberg as the head of Disney Studios.

Joe Roth, Marcia Garces Williams, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”

Just like he used to have for Katzenberg & Co, Williams had a soft spot in his heart for Joe Roth.

Why for? Because — before going over to Disney in early 1992 to start up Caravan Pictures — Roth had been in charge of film production at 20th Century Fox. One of Joe’s last official acts as head of that studio was greenlighting production of Williams’ Christmas 1992 hit, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Why would this make Williams feel grateful toward Roth? Because “Mrs. Doubtfire” was the first film produced by Marcia Garces Williams — Robin’s wife. Marcia had long been the butt of many cruel jokes in Hollywood, given the unusual way her relationship with Robin began. (Garces had originally been hired by Robin’s first wife, Valerie, to act as a nanny to their son, Zachary. Williams and Garces had an affair that eventually led to the end of Robin’s marriage to Valerie. Garces then became Williams’ personal assistant before finally marrying the comic in 1989.) But “Mrs. Doubtfire” finally dispelled all those rumors about Marcia being Yoko to Robin’s John Lennon.

That film’s big box office gave Marcia huge credibility in Hollywood. All the cruel jokes ended — all because Joe Roth had greenlighted production of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Once Joe Roth took over production at Disney Studios, he learned that Francis Ford Coppola was readying a film, “Jack,” that would be perfect for Robin Williams to star in. So Joe had the script messengered to Williams’ home in Sonoma Valley.

Williams quickly returned the script, along with a note that explained that — while he would love to do a film with Coppola — he was no longer willing to work for the Mouse.

Joe then personally called Robin and asked why he didn’t want to work for Disney anymore. Williams went into a long involved explanation of how he felt he had been betrayed by Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Roth then pointed out that Katzenberg no longer worked for the Walt Disney Company. Robin went on to say that — since many of the people who had helped Jeffrey pull a fast one on the comic were still working for the Mouse — even with Katzenberg gone, Williams just didn’t feel comfortable coming back to for Disney.

But Joe wouldn’t give up. “What if the company publicly apologized to you?” he asked Robin.

Williams hadn’t expected something like that. And he was floored when Joe Roth then held a press conference in 1996, where the then-studio chief explained to the media how the Walt Disney Company had wronged Robin Williams. Roth then went on to offer a public apology for all wrongs previous company executives had committed against the comic.

Roth followed up on this press conference by taking out full page ads in many of the industry’s trade papers, explaining that the Walt Disney Company was sorry that it hadn’t honored its agreement with Robin Williams.

Robin was flabbergasted that Joe would go to all this trouble to try and right Katzenberg’s wrongs. He gladly accepted Roth’s apology as well as his invitation to come work at Disney on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.”

Robin Williams Works for Disney Again

In fact, Williams was so thrilled at Joe’s efforts on his behalf that he even agreed to once again provide the voice for the Genie in a direct-to-video sequel to the original “Aladdin” movie, 1996’s “Aladdin and the King of Thieves.”

In turn, Disney was so thrilled to have Robin back as the Genie that they threw out all the recordings Dan Castellaneta (the Genie’s voice for the “Aladdin” TV show as well as the film’s first direct-to-video sequel, 1994’s “The Return of Jafar”) had already made as well as the third of the film that had already been animated.

With Williams once again on board, the animators started from scratch. All the extra effort proved to be worthwhile. Immediately upon release, “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” became the number 1 best selling video in the country.

Did Disney’s renewed relationship with Robin Williams last? Williams made two films for the Disney Company in 1997: a remake of Fred McMurray’s “Absent Minded Professor” comedy called “Flubber” that was Walt Disney Pictures’ big Thanksgiving weekend release for that year; as well as “Good Will Hunting,” a drama produced by the company’s art house subsidy, Miramax Pictures. Williams’ performance as the depressed therapist in that film actually earned him a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar at the 1998 Academy Awards.

But there was some storm clouds. Williams is said to be upset at how Disney handled his last film for the company, 1999’s “Bicentennial Man.” First the studio announced the project with much fanfare — heralding it as the long awaited re-union between Robin and his “Mrs. Doubtfire” director, Chris (“Home Alone”) Columbus. Then, well after pre-production is underway, the Mouse abruptly canceled the movie, saying that the film’s projected production budget was too high.

Embarrassed by Disney’s behavior but still anxious to make the movie, Williams and Columbus shaved $20 million or so off the film’s production budget. With these cuts in place, Disney then agreed to put “Bicentennial Man” back into production. The film was finally released Christmas Day 1999 and quickly flopped.

Williams reportedly was upset with the way Disney opted to advertise the film as well as the financial restrictions the Mouse placed on Robin and Columbus while making the movie. The comic felt that the $20 million worth of scenes he and Chris cut out of the script to get the film greenlighted again may have destroyed the “Bicentennial Man”‘s chances of ever winning over an audience.

Equally troubling to Williams was Joe Roth’s decision to step down as head of Disney Studios. Who’s started running the show at the Mouse Works? One of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s former lieutenants from Disney Feature Animation, Peter Schneider.

Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Film & Movies

Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland

Published

on

Listen to the Article

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.”

If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.

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.”

Sorry folks. Park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.

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:

While the gross income of Disneyland was greater this year than in any prior year, the operating expenses for this family fun park were likewise up substantially primarily to two factors.
(1) Operating a seven-day week throughout the 1957 – 1958 week against a six-day week the year before.

(2) Increased costs due to rising salaries and the
inauguration of a 40-hour week. This resulted in lower net profits compared to the prior year.

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:

This current year, we are operating the park during the winter months on a five-day schedule with resulting savings in operating costs and in the hope that a full week’s business can be compressed within the five days.

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:

Again this year, as in each year since Disneyland Park first opened in 1955, new records were set for total attendance and per capita spending of park visitors.
The change to a five-day operating week during the 1958 – 1959 winter season from the seven-day schedule in effect the previous year has worked out very well. Reduced operating hours helped to control operating costs in the face of increased wage rates and other rising costs.

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).

Credit: Ultraswank.net

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.

Continue Reading

Film & Movies

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

Published

on

Listen to the Article

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

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

Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real

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

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

Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance

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

The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland

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

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

And those words supposedly were “Build this.”

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

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

Adventureland Upgrades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America

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

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

Drained Jungle Cruise – Credit: imgur.com

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

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

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

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

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

“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland

It wasn’t that easy.

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

Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”

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

Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”

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

Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.

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

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

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

The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland

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

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

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

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

This is where the Imagineers were wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Annakin – Film Director

Disney Legend Ken Annakin – Credit: D23

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

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

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

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

New Robin Hood on Disney+?

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

So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.

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

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

Continue Reading

Film & Movies

“Khrushchev at Disneyland” – The Film Walt Disney Almost Made

Published

on

Khrushchev Disneyland Film
Listen to the Article

Did you ever hear about … “Khrushchev at Disneyland”?

It was back in October of last year that Disney+ revealed that they were now working on a film about the creation of Disneyland.

Given that Evan Spiliotopoulos – who crafted the screenplay for the Company’s live-action reimagining of “Beauty & the Beast” (which then went on to earn $1.26 billion at the worldwide box office back in 2017) – is reportedly writing the script for this yet-to-be-titled film, I have high hopes for this movie about the making of The Happiest Place on Earth.

After all, if we go by “Saving Mr. Banks” (i.e., That 2013 Walt Disney Pictures release about the making of “Mary Poppins,” where Emma Thompson played “Poppins” author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks turned in a masterful performance as Walt Disney), this company-of-storytellers has already proven that it can turn its own history into entertaining motion pictures.

But that said, if The Walt Disney Company is now actively looking for moments from its past that it can possibly turn into motion pictures … Well, might I suggest a moment that Walt himself might make one hell of a movie. And that’s Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s non-visit to Disneyland.

Khrushchev’s US Visit (1959)

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the details surrounding this incident. Which occurred during Khrushchev’s 11-day trip to the US in September 1959. The Soviet Premier and his entourage arrived in Washington D.C. and — after making a brief stop at the UN in New York City — flew out to LA … And that’s when all the trouble started.

The Los Angeles leg of Nikita’s nationwide tour really did get off to an awful start. By that I mean: As the Premier’s motorcade sped away from LAX, the limousines were actually pelted with tomatoes.

Then Khrushchev was taken to 20th Century Fox, where he and his family were supposed to be feted at a luncheon that featured hundreds of Hollywood’s top stars. Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, David Niven and Maurice Chevalier were there.

Nikita Khrushchev stopped by 20th Century Fox studios in Los Angeles to mingle with some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Credit: PBS

Which (you’d think) would have been enough to entertain the Soviet Premier.

Not Nikita. He stood up at this luncheon and — in front of the entire Hollywood press corps — had a hissy fit. Here’s an excerpt from the remarks that Khrushchev made that afternoon:

We have come to this town where lives the cream of American art. And just imagine (that) I, a Premier, a Soviet representative, when I came here to this city, I was given a plan. A program of what I was to be shown and whom I was to meet here.

But just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. I asked ‘Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?’ I do not know.

And just listen – just listen to what I was told – to what reason I was told. We, which means the American authorities, can not guarantee your security if you go there.

What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken over the place that can destroy me? Then what must I do? Commit suicide?

This is the situation I am in. Your guest. For me, this situation is inconceivable. I can not find words to explain this to my people.

Visiting the “Happiest Place on Earth”

Truth be told, the Soviet Premier was somewhat mistaken. The original itinerary for the Los Angeles leg of his U.S. tour called for just Khrushchev’s wife and children to tour the “Happiest Place on Earth,” while Nikita was scheduled to tour a housing development out in Granada Hills. But when the Russian leader learned where his family was headed, he reportedly told his State Department handlers “Well, I wanna go to Disneyland too.”

This — unfortunately — was just impossible to pull off on such short notice. Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker immediately put the kibosh on Khrushchev’s request. Citing the difficulty of providing adequate security for the Soviet Premier and his motorcade all the way out to Anaheim.

Walt Disney Interested in Khrushchev Visiting Disneyland

Now where this gets interesting is that — somewhere along the way, as US officials were preparing for Khrushchev’s arrival in America — Walt Disney was told that the Russian Premier and his family were interested in visiting Disneyland. And Walt (of course) immediately saw this official state visit as a huge opportunity to generate some publicity for his then-four-year-old theme park.

Disneyland’s PR staff envisioned creating a photo opportunity by having Walt and Khrushchev stand on the “Submarine Voyage” ‘s loading dock as all eight of the ride’s faux subs floated by. Disney’s gag writers even provided a quip for Walt to casually toss off at this photo op. As Nikita looked out at all of those subs, Disney was supposed to say: “Well, now, Mr. Khrushchev, here’s my Disneyland submarine fleet. It’s the eighth largest submarine fleet in the world.”

Walt was — of course — disappointed when he learned that, due to security concerns, only Mrs. Khrushchev and the kids would be coming out to the Park that afternoon. So imagine Disney’s delight when this firestorm of publicity suddenly rose up when the Soviet Premier was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to go to “The Happiest Place on Earth” too.

Disneyland Trip Cancelled for Nikita Khrushchev

Because — once Nitika learned that his own trip out to Anaheim had been axed — he fell into a truly foul mood. In a fit of pique, the Soviet Premier declared that — since it wasn’t safe for him to go to Disneyland — then it wasn’t safe for his wife and children to go out to Anaheim either. So their long planned Disneyland excursion got canceled ASAP.

Immediately after the luncheon broke up, Khrushchev was taken to a nearby soundstage where the Russian Premier observed the filming of a scene from a forthcoming 20th Century Fox musical, “Can Can.” But — rather than being titillated by the sight of Juliet Prowse flashing her 19th century bloomers as she performed the film’s title number — Nikita reportedly declared the whole episode “horribly decadent.” Which embarrassed State Department officials as well as offending the Soviet Premier’s Hollywood hosts.

From there, Khrushchev’s motorcade was taken to Granada Hills, where the Russian Premier was supposed to tour model homes along Sophia Avenue. But — since Nikita was still sulking about not being allowed to go to Disneyland — he refused to even get out of his limousine.

As he pouted inside the car, Khrushchev reportedly told his State Department handlers that “… putting me in a closed car and stewing me in the sun is not the right way to guarantee my safety. This (not being allowed to go to Disneyland) development causes me bitter regret. I thought I could come here as a free man.”

To add insult to injury, four Soviet newsmen (who had been assigned to cover Khrushchev’s US trip) slipped away to Anaheim for the afternoon. They spent four happy hours touring Disneyland, then told US reporters that they believed that the Russian Premier and his family would have really enjoyed the theme park.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gestures as he arrives at the Mark Hopkins hotel on Sept. 20, 1959, in San Francisco. | AP Photo
Credit: Politico/AP

Later that evening, Khrushchev gave a speech at a Los Angeles area hotel. But there was, understandably, very little written about whatever remarks the Soviet Premier made at that long-forgotten dinner. Given that the next day’s newspapers devoted page after page to coverage of Nikita’s very public tantrum once he learned that he was not going to be allowed to visit Disneyland.

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 19 -- Nikita S. Khrushchev's temper exploded today, not long after he arrived here from New York, when he was told that he could not go to Disneyland because security officials could not guarantee his safety.
Credit: NY Times

Khrushchev and his party tried to put some distance between themselves and the Disneyland debacle by quickly boarding a train and heading up to San Francisco. From there, the Russian Premier flew off to Des Moines and eventually returned to Washington D.C. Where Nikita spent a few days at Camp David with President Eisenhower talking about Cold War-related issues.

Which (you’d think) would be how history would remember the Soviet Premier’s 1959 trip to the United States. That Khrushchev & Eisenhower actually sat down and then tried to find a solution to their Germany & Berlin problem. But (picture John Belushi saying this) N-O-O-O-o-o-o. All the US press corps could talk about is how upset Nikita seemed when he had been told that he wouldn’t be allowed to visit Disneyland.

Media Covers Khrushchev’s Disneyland Denial

Within a day or so, there were political cartoons in newspapers nationwide that made fun of the Premier’s very public tantrum. Even Bob Hope eventually got into the act. As part of his annual Christmas television special, Hope stood in front of hundreds of military personnel at a U.S. Air Force base in Nome and quipped: “Here we are in America’s 49th state, Alaska. That’s halfway between Khrushchev and Disneyland.”

And of course, all this talk about how upset the Russian Premier was about not being allowed to visit “The Happiest Place on Earth” generated tons of positive publicity for Walt’s theme park. Newspapers around the world printed article after article about this amusing international incident. Even Herman Wouk (best known as the author of “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Winds of War”) chimed in: “I really don’t blame Khrushchev for jumping up and down in a rage over missing Disneyland. There are fewer things more worth seeing in the United States or indeed anywhere in the world.”

And Walt just didn’t want this fun to end. He kept looking for ways to perpetuate the story. Which is why Disney insisted that clippings highlighting the whole Khrushchev affair be included in the official Disneyland press kit for a number of years after this incident.

Movie About Khrushchev’s “Disneyland Trip”

But as the 1950s slipped into the 1960s and Khrushchev was forced from power by Leonid Brezhnev in October 1964, this story lost some of its charm. But still Walt loved to tell the tale of Nikita’s tantrum. And Disney began to wonder: might there be a way that his company could continue to capitalize on this incident? Like perhaps by maybe making a movie that would put a comic spin on the whole “Khrushchev denied access to Disneyland” incident?

So Walt turned to his very best producer, Bill Walsh (best known these days as the guy who wrote and produced “Mary Poppins,” “The Love Bug” and “Bedknobs & Broomsticks”) and told him to create a screenplay for a live-action comedy that would then be based on this infamous incident. So Walsh got together with his long-time collaborator, Don DaGradi. And eventually the two of then crafted a script or a film they wanted to call “Khrushchev at Disneyland.”

This screenplay (at least for the first 30 pages or so) pretty much follows how the real-life events played out. It recounts — in a light, breezy manner — how the Soviet leader had supposedly flown over to America to meet with President Eisenhower. But — in reality — Nikita had actually traveled all this way because what he really wanted to do was go to Disneyland.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev
Credit: Past Daily

So Khrushchev flew into Southern California, all excited that he was finally going to get his chance to visit “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Only to discover that — due to safety concerns — the State Department had canceled his trip out to Anaheim. Moviegoers were then supposed to see a slightly comic take on the Soviet Premier’s infamous tantrum at 20th Century Fox. And then …

Well, then the film morphs into your typical Walt Disney Productions live-action comedy of the 1960s. First Khrushchev is seen moping around his hotel suite in downtown Los Angeles later that evening. Then the Premier realizes that Disneyland is only 30 miles away. More importantly, that the theme park is open ’til midnight that night.

So Nikita decides that he’s going to sneak out of his hotel and somehow make his way out to Anaheim. Using a goofy disguise, he gives both his Soviet security detail as well as all of his State Department handlers the slip. Then Khrushchev somehow makes his way out to Disneyland, with all of these US & Soviet officials in hot pursuit … and hilarity ensues.

Okay. Admittedly, we’re not talking about “Lawrence of Arabia” here. Walt wasn’t really looking to make a historically accurate film based on this amusing, relatively minor international incident. Disney, Walsh, and DaGradi envisioned “Khrushchev at Disneyland” as being a film that would be very similar in tone to “That Darn Cat!” A comedy caper picture that was aimed straight at the family audience.

So — once this script was completed — how close did “Khrushchev at Disneyland” actually come to getting made? So close that Walt had already lined up an A-List actor to play the Soviet Premier. And that was Academy Award winner Peter Ustinov.

If all had gone according to plan, “Khrushchev at Disneyland” would have been Peter’s follow-up project for Disney Studios once work was completed on “Blackbeard’s Ghost.” Bill Walsh was slated to produce the picture, while the prolific Robert Stevenson would be directing.

By the fall of 1966, all of the necessary pieces were already in place. Disney Studio had a script in hand that was ready to shoot. They also had an A-List actor that was positively eager to get in front of the cameras and then do his impression of the Soviet Premier. Not only that, but Disney’s top producer was slated to ride herd on this project and the studio’s very best director would be helming this picture.

“Khrushchev at Disneyland” Movie Halts Production

So why didn’t “Khrushchev at Disneyland” get made? Well, because Walt Disney died before production could officially get underway. And given that all the studio execs that Walt had left behind were … Well … The polite term for them is “cautious corporate citizens.” The not-so-polite term is “gutless wimps.”

Anyway, these guys shied away from this project. Largely because they were concerned that there would were film fans out there who wouldn’t see the humor in “Khrushchev at Disneyland.” Their genuine fear was – because of Peter Ustinov’s sure-to-be-charming performance as Nikita Khrushchev – there were certain segments of the US population that would then accuse Walt Disney Company of corrupting America’s youth / of going soft on Communism by suggesting that – GASP ! — the Russian people were actually a lot like us. That they too like to do fun things like – say – go to Disneyland.

Of course, the real irony here is that one of the main reason that Walt really wanted his Studio to make “Kruschchev at Disneyland” was because he’d already seen that a Russians-are-people-too family comedy could succeed at the box office without controversy.

“The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”

I’m talking – of course – about “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Which MGM had released to theaters in May of 1966 and had then gone on become the seventh highest grossing film of the year at the North American box office.

And I know for a fact that Walt was well aware of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” for a couple of reasons.

  • This Norman Jewison movie starred Brian Keith, who – just 5 years previous – had co-starred in Disney’s “The Parent Trap” along with Hayley Mills & Maureen O’Hara
  • The year after Disney’s “Parent Trap” had been released to theaters, Jewison had directed “40 Pounds of Trouble.” Which was the first live-action film that Walt had ever allowed to be shot on location at Disneyland Park.
  • For the entire Summer of 1966, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and Disney’s own “Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.” were duking it out at the North American box office. Seeing which family comedy would then go on to sell more tickets domestically. In the end, Disney came out on top. With that Dick Van Dyke movie selling $22 million worth of tickets in North America, while MGM’s Russians-are-people-too picture sold $21 million worth of tickets domestically.

This is why – when Walt made his very last trip to the Disney lot in November of 1966 – “Khrushchev at Disneyland” was very much on his mind. As far as Disney was concerned, this project was a go. Something that his Studio would start shooting in 1967 and then release to theaters the following year.

This is why Walt made a point of dropping by the set of “Blackbeard’s Ghost” that November morning. He wanted to let Peter Ustinov & Bill Walsh know how much he was looking forward to “Khrushchev at Disneyland.” And Ustinov … Well, Peter was supposedly even more excited about this back-then-soon-to-begin-shooting-movie than Walt was. Ustinov reportedly told Disney that – to insure that he look as much like the Soviet Premier as possible – this acclaimed actor was actually planning on shaving his head.

Ustinov then cracked up Walt by saying that he was thinking of basing his portrayal of Khrushchev on Peter’s mother back in England. As Disney laughed, Ustinov insisted that his Mom was a dead ringer for Nikita. “I didn’t know that your Ma was bald,” Walt replied.

Having really enjoyed his visit to the “Blackbeard’s Ghost” set, Disney then quietly excused himself and left the soundstage. Once Walt had left, Walsh and Ustinov quietly talked amongst themselves about how pale and gaunt the studio head had looked.

Of course, neither Peter or Bill knew that Walt had – just days earlier – been diagnosed with lung cancer. Or that – at this point – Disney had just weeks left to live.

And when Walt Disney died in December of 1966, “Khrushchev at Disneyland” pretty much died with him. In spite of all the preparation that had already been done on this project up until that point, Walsh and DaGradi’s script got shelved. And I’d imagine that this screenplay is now stashed away in some filing cabinet, where “Khrushchev at Disneyland” has been gathering dust for over five decades now.

Potential for “Khrushchev/Disneyland” Film

I bring up this project today … Well, for a couple of reasons.

  • Disney+ has this unending appetite for new content. And wouldn’t it be cool if the Studio were to revive a project that Walt himself once wanted to make and then make that movie available to customers of the Company’s subscription streaming service.
  • Given what’s going on in the Ukraine right now and how the Cold War keeps threatening to become a hot one … Well, while I am no fan of Vladimir Putin, I think that a movie which reminds us that the Russian people (NOT the Russian government, mind you. But the Russian PEOPLE) are people too … That might be a smart, hopeful message to put out in the world these days.

Making-of-Disneyland Movie on Disney+

Anyway … If the Company is looking for a follow-up for that making-of-Disneyland movie they’re prepping for Disney+ …

By the way … Interesting side note: The gentleman that Disney has tapped to direct this movie is David Gordon Green. He directed last year’s smash hit horror film, “Halloween Kills.” Which might make David seem like an odd choice to helm a film about The Happiest Place on Earth.

But then again, Gordon also executive-produces “The Righteous Gemstones.” Which is this wonderfully funny TV series about a family of televangelists who also own & operate a theme park. Which perhaps makes Mr. Green the perfect person to direct a movie about the creation of Disneyland.

Anyway … If Disney+ is looking for the perfect follow-up for their making-of-Disneyland movie, might I suggest that someone dig out a copy of “Khrushchev at Disneyland.”

More to the point, someone go ask Josh Gad if he’d be willing to shave off all those curly locks so that he could then play a certain Soviet Premier.

Josh Gadd and Nikita Khrushchev
Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Continue Reading

Trending