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“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” And after a full weekend at Disneyland, Roger is back with tales aplenty. So, grab that mug of your favorite warm beverage, a holiday pastry treat or three and pull up the comfy chair. It’s big and fluffy!



Well, here is the story of a series of “firsts”.

And those of you that have been reading here for a while will recall that when it comes to Disneyland, I usually am somewhat confident that I have seen and done just about everything that one can see and do at the Park.

Until now…

As startling an admission as that may seem, let me say that it was the kind of weekend I will remember for some time to come. Recall last week’s effort where I gave you a glimpse into why I enjoy this time of year in Anaheim, as well as other places. This recent visit was another chance to add to memories and reinforce some others. To sum it all up, I was not disappointed.

Main Street Station all decorated for the holidays!

This won’t be a turn by turn trip report, but more of the highlights. The players for this trip are my mother, Laurie and myself. Wife Michele was about but attended a travel congress for AAA (California State Automobile Association — that’s Northern California, Nevada and Utah) at the Disneyland Hotel. So she has a minor role in this tale…

First up, I’m always amazed that shopping at the Park can have such a yin and yang kind of personality. Either there is a lack of items tempting me to be purchased, or things seem to stand up and shout, “Hey! You’re taking me home, pal!” Don’t know why, but there never seems to be much of a middle ground. Being that we are in the midst of the season of “high retail greed”, you might expect the usual flurry of sales and specials to entice you to put a bigger dent into your choice of plastic commerce. Thankfully, I saw no such seduction in place at the Park this time.

Again, recalling that I hadn’t shopped here since May, it would be easy to see new merchandise and give in to the temptations. But thankfully, with my mother along to remind me, I was good (Are you paying attention, Santa?) and kept my purchases to those for others, instead of for myself. A kind of Christmas shopping for a few friends and family here and there did the trick.

Eeyore (in holiday cap) gets noticed

Major kudos to the various Cast Members on duty at all the shops. As busy as they invariably were, there was no grousing (even from Grumpy) as you’re likely to find from your local mall’s minions, lackeys and varlets. Smiles all around, and the cheerful, willing attitudes that kept folks moving along in lines in front of those cash registers. Boy is that almost an anachronism today! (With credit cards, check or debit cards as popular as they are, the cash transaction is definitely in the minority, or at least, that was the way it appeared this weekend. I did see a fair number of Disney Dollars being used about the Park, however.) While making a purchase at the Market House on Main Street, I was recalled the old, hand crank-operated cash registers. Big brass affairs with real keys to be pushed by the clerk, proudly displaying the price of each item on a pop-up tag, only to have a bell ring out with distinction as your purchase was recorded. Hence the term, “rung up”, for a sale concluded. A great way to keep muscle tone and upper body strength, long before Pilates and other workouts became the fashion.

There was even merchandise specific for particular locations! Something I’m always glad to see, rather than the generic same stuff everywhere.

Lots of pins to tempt one to purchase as well this time. For everyone who says, “Pins are over”, let me set you straight. There are plenty of new pins on the racks with something for everyone. A particular favorite is the Candlelight 2003 pin seen here.

The 2003 Disneyland Candlelight pin

On the other hand, there were disappointments. One in particular was the lack of fleece pullovers with full zippers. Seems that someone must be keeping costs down by going only with half or one-third zippers on these. Lots of them with full-length zippers in children’s sizes, but none for adults.

Setting the WABAC machine for the column on our Memorial Day visit, you might recall that we took the “Walk In Walt’s Footsteps” tour one afternoon. With the 2003 holiday season, there is now another tour to tempt us all. The “Holiday Time at Disneyland Tour” is somewhat popular with space for up to 30 people. The brochure page describes it thus:

“Holiday Time at Disneyland Tour

It’s the Merriest Place On Earth Like You’ve Never Experienced It Before!

The “Holiday Time At Disneyland” Tour
is an absolute “must” for Disneyland fans, or anyone
who loves the holidays. You and your family will
experience the very best of our magical winter
wonderland as you explore the one-and-only
Disneyland park, all decked out for the holidays!

“Holiday Time at Disneyland”
Tour Highlights Include:

– Disney Fastpass access to our most
popular holiday attractions: “it’s a small world”
holiday and Haunted Mansion Holiday

– Reserved seating for our
“A Christmas Fantasy” Parade

– Plus, a very special, surprise
holiday treat!

Available until
January 4, 2004,
the “Holiday Time At
Disneyland” Tour
is offered at
$39 per person
for all ages.

Reserved your place today by calling:
Or stop by City Hall on Main Street, U.S.A.”

Just as it had been for the other tour effort, again, my mother, Laurie, wife Michele and I all managed to be on hand at noon in front of City Hall to start this tour. Usually, the Tour Information cart is parked here, but thanks to the rain (more like mist) they were keeping that indoors. (As well, it was somewhat in the way the previous days with preparations underway for the evening’s Candlelight festivities.)

Jenna in full tour garb the day before at the Disney Gallery at the end
of the “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour.

It wasn’t hard to guess who the tour guides for were as Jenna and Courtney appeared a few minutes before noon in their red raincoats. Keeping us all amused, Jenna related the tale of a visit to Disney World, and especially to Pleasure Island’s “Adventurer’s Club” on Halloween night. She also taught us how Christmas carols were actually taken from Halloween carols. Thanks, Jenna. I’ll never hear “Jingle Bells” now without thinking of you, and no, I won’t share the Halloween version of the song here. Take the tour and ask her to!

Nifty red raincoats and shiny brass buttons. Ooh!
Jenna and Courtney escort the group for the tour.

The tour has a limit of 30 people, and this is broken into two groups. (Ours was 11 including a very young lady — maybe all of four months!) Departing City Hall, our section was being escorted by Courtney, and she introduced us to the Holidays at Disneyland with a brief moment in front of the floral arrangement on the berm below the Main Street Station. With the rain and all of the set-up for the Candlelight, the area around the Plaza and Main Street was hectic, to say the least. Yet we managed to stop at several places along the length. One was in front of the Firehouse where we learned about Walt’s apartment above it, and the decorated tree in the window. From here we also got a fine view of the Main Street Christmas tree. (It may come as a surprise, but it is a real tree this year!)

Main Street and the Christmas Tree!

Without giving away all of the secrets of the tour (and yes, there are some), it is a nice mix of holiday lore and Disneyland history. With the tour equivalent of a Fastpass, the group bypassed the queues at both the Haunted Mansion Holiday (where we kept an eye out for all ten of the Oogie Boogie’s) and “Small World”. A short ride on the Disneyland Railroad from New Orleans Square to Toon Town was a quick way to cross the Park between them. A quick tour of Town Town highlighted the variety of decorations all themed to their particular area or structure.

Rain had canceled the noon performance of the “Christmas Fantasy” parade. (Safety for parade performers and guests both is a concern with only a little moisture needed to make things slippery along the route. I watched a number of guests of all sizes during the day doing the slip, trip and fall routine to make Goofy proud. Slow down folks…)

But the weather held for the 3 p.m. parade and we had great seats (wooden chairs) located directly across from “Small World”. We even had pre-parade entertainment as Jenna and Courtney did their version of “Christmas Fantasy Parade” charades! One young fan of Toy Story requested they do impressions of Buzz and Woody (both who are in the parade). They succeeded much to his enjoyment!

Woody and Buzz in the Christmas Fantasy Parade.

Along with our special seating, we all were greeted with a warm mug of hot chocolate and some yummy holiday treats. The parade was good as ever with all of your holiday favorites including the March of the Wooden Soldiers, Santa and Mrs. Claus, and a host of Disney characters to accompany Mickey and Minnie. Watch out for the Genie in his sleigh with Jasmine and Aladdin! He’s got a bucket of snow and he isn’t afraid to use it (much to the dismay of the folks cleaning up behind the parade)!

Our tour had a rather unique ending to it. After the parade, we all were waiting for things to calm down a bit before making for other destinations in the Park. But it turned out that this was Courtney’s first “official” tour, and she was greeted by a number of other tour hosts and hostesses in recognition of that. And her parents had been in our group for her first tour. So there was a short ceremony as Courtney was awarded her “D” Hostess pin from her mentor. It was a great finish to another interesting tour.

Courtney gets her pin! A full gaggle of tour guides on display?

As a side note, while I enjoyed the tour, I suspect that on a less crowded weekday, and without the mist (or rain), that the tour would be all the more the magical. Making your way through the weekend crowds can be a challenge, even with out the tour. (Yes, I have some interesting bruises from being run into by strollers on a number of occasions this weekend.)

Now the other holiday event of note for this outing was the 2003 edition of Disneyland’s Candlelight Processional and Ceremony. In all my years of visiting the Park, I somehow had never been to this event. I’m happy to say that this oversight has been rectified.

Candlelight is a tradition that dates back to the first year of Disneyland.
Held in 1955, this was a choral festival with groups performing under a gazebo near the Jungle Cruise. Over the next several years the ceremony consisted of a number of choirs who performed around the hub facing a central choir director. Then in 1960, the event grew to 800 singers who followed the Christmas parades. The following year a narrator was added and since the ceremony evolved into the Candlelight we have today. Past Disneyland narrators include Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, James Earl Jones, Mary Hart and, Edward James Olmos.

A highlight of the performance was the creation of a living Christmas tree (consisting of choir members, each holding a candle — okay, an electric candle) on a platform in front of the Main Street station of the Disneyland Railroad. In recent years, the event had been held at the Fantasyland theater. However, with that facility under renovations for the upcoming “Snow White” musical production, it was not available. This year saw a return to the Candlelight’s previous location in front of the Main Street station.

The living Christmas Tree 2003

Getting a seat has been something of a trial — no matter where the event was held. Usually, there is a major block of seats reserved for Disneyland VIP’s, invited guests, and Club 33 members. A somewhat popular option was created for the rest of us, as detailed in this quote from their 2003 Candlelight event press release:

“Interested guests can get reserved seating for “Candlelight” (park admission not included) by dining at selected Disneyland Resort restaurants on the day of the presentation. Participating restaurants include Hook’s Pointe at the Disneyland Hotel, Storytellers Café at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel® (minimum spending of $40 per adult, $15 per child age 3-9); Granville’s Steak House at the Disneyland Hotel, Yamabuki at Disney’s Paradise Pier® Hotel (minimum spending of $50 per adult, $15 per child); Napa Rose at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel or The Vineyard Room in the Golden Vine Winery at Disney’s California Adventure? (minimum spending of $75 per adult, $20 per child).”

When we first considered attending the event, we thought we might explore using one of our connections and seeing about dinner at Club 33 for this. Now this might have worked, had we thought of it way back when, say in August? All of those spots were filled long ago.

I experienced an interesting phenomenon when I inquired about dining packages for Candlelight back in late October. I called the dining reservations line and they didn’t have any information. Transferring my phone call somewhere else in the Disneyland Resort, I was informed that the event was to be for “Disneyland invited guests only”. Imagine my surprise a week or so later when the press release came out…

All of the lesser packages went quickly, and it turned out that there were still some left at the higher end. As much as I want to experience the “Napa Rose” or the “Vineyard Room” at some point, this wasn’t it. So the choice became “Granville’s Steak House” at the Disneyland Hotel.

We arrived just a bit early for our Saturday 5:00 p.m. reservation and waited a few minutes while our table was prepared. It had been several years since I had ventured into this part of the Disneyland Hotel. Stromboli’s had given way to Goofy’s Kitchen, but the Top Brass bar still offers a somewhat quiet spot for a cocktail. I was impressed by someone’s thought at creating a video theater for kids across from the entrance to Goofy’s Kitchen. It is an enclosed room (glassed-in) that has big spaces on several levels for kids to camp out while waiting for their tables to be called.

Stromboli’s had been the location of one of my more interesting meals at Disneyland a few years back. One of the group of which I was dining with that evening worked at a planetarium doing a variety of presentations. For that, he had picked up a laser pointer to help out when it came time to highlight items in the night sky (or the ceiling of the dome). Being one of us who appreciates newfangled gadgets, he brought it along for that trip to the Park.

Back then, the windows at Stromboli’s were heavily tinted. From inside we could see out, but not vice versa. So… He spent the better part of that meal teasing and torturing passers-by with that little red dot racing along the ground outside the window. One young child had to be repeatedly pulled away in protest by his parents. Call it part of the magic, but it was certainly amusing.

Meanwhile, back to our meal at Granville’s…

Stepping inside, you quickly forget the chaos of Goofy’s Kitchen. It was quiet and peaceful with songs from a vintage Bing Crosby radio show playing over the sound system. (Seems I have that same disc at home…)

Our server was right there to ask if we were interested in a cocktail or a glass of wine. As much as we were tempted, we both passed. As a side note, we had enjoyed a free tasting of a BV Beauzeaux — pronounced Bozo — just a bit before at the Golden Vine in DCA. We discovered that opportunity strictly by chance, and it was limited to the first 50 guests — not that there were that many on hand on that rainy, er misty, afternoon.

From the label on the bottle:

“Big red nose, round, generous body and a taste as big as its size 34 feet.”

“It’s a virtual three-ring circus in the mouth… in-your-face-berry pie flavors. It can be juggled with a variety of flavorful foods.”

And it was! It was also mentioned a being lower in alcohol content than most wines. Something I imagine investigating for one of my upcoming train events…

Now recall that in order to obtain tickets for seats for the Candlelight ceremony, we had to each spend at least $50 on our meal. And that would not include taxes, gratuities or alcohol. Looking over the menu, we had a great selection to choose from. Had we not been under the restriction of that amount, there was a surprising offer of a prix fixed meal at only $28 per person. But we forged ahead and chose the following:

Dungeness Crab Cake

Green Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

A 10 ounce Filet Mignon

Forest Mushrooms in a Port Reduction

Heirloom Potatoes with Garlic and Onions


Grand Marnier Soufflé with Grand Marnier Ice Cream

We also got a chuckle as we were asked if we wanted still or sparkling water with our meal. During our trip to Germany in September 2001, it was frequently referred to as “with gas or without.” We chose the still, and were served from a chilled glass bottle of Evian.

Our servers noted we were attending the Candlelight and did their utmost to be certain we would be there in plenty of time. And our Annual Pass discount took some of the sting out of the cost.

The meal was perfect from start to finish. The crab cake was tender and flavorful; the vinaigrette had plenty of berries; the filet’s tender and a perfect medium rare; heirloom potatoes roasted just right; an assortment of tasty mushrooms; finishing with that soufflé. Yumola!

Yes, this crab cake tastes every bit as good as it looks!

We needed the walk from the Disneyland Hotel to Main Street just to recover from dinner and dessert!

We were provided with tickets for seats in the Silver Section for the Candlelight. Not knowing what to expect, we re-entered the Park and were quickly directed to a line on either side of the gate. There was one for tickets with the color-coded sections and one for open seating. We chose the left side and were a short distance from the start of the line, safe and dry under the berm. Our wait time here was less than a lot of lines we have stood in for attractions — maybe 30 minutes. But at about 6:35 p.m. we were directed to our seats.

It turned out that the Silver Section was stage right, and directly in front of the orchestra and the narrator’s platform. To our left was the Blue Section, and I’m guessing to the left of that was the Gold Section. We chose two seats in the second row on the inside aisle between the Silver and Blue. Very nice…

The Candlelight Choir and Orchestra

For the 2003 event, Louis Gossett Jr. was scheduled to perform the narration (a reading of selected verses of the Biblical description of the birth of Christ). However, he was unable to do so on Saturday night (after a small bout of food poisoning, so various places have reported). Marie Osmond was at the park that day for the release of the latest in her Adora Belle series of dolls (as a Tiki Room hostess). She stepped in and provided a very stirring reading of these passages. After the ceremony, she thanked Disneyland for the opportunity, saying that it was extremely difficult to be there and not sing.

Marie Osmond as the guest narrator.

Among the folks we spotted while waiting for the ceremonies to begin were a trio of Disneyland presidents. Matt Ouimet, the current one, along with Jack Lindquist and Ron Dominguez all were seated together in the center of the Blue Section (directly in front of the orchestra platform).

Matt seemed well at ease while chatting with various folks before the performance. Sans necktie, it looked like he was having a good time. (Michele told us later that he had also spoken to the travel congress earlier that day.)

The name tag says “Matt”.

Lots of CM’s we chatted with have been impressed with his being out and about the parks, and have hopes for the future, based on his actions so far.

The Candlelight was everything I expected and more. I later told my mom that I felt like we had almost been to a Christmas midnight mass. I found myself humming along with many of the selections having sung them enough over the years. While I can’t share the program with you –something I wish had been handed out to guests, so I could have — it did close with us all singing “Silent Night”.

So with much appreciation, kudos to everyone (from the performing musicians, choir members, soloist, Rebecca Visca — who translated the evening into sign language for the hearing impaired–, conductor Nancy Sulahian to all of the CM’s working guest control and more!) who participated in bringing this event to us. It was indeed a magical and inspirational evening.

We finished up by watching the Believe holiday fireworks (and the snowfall) from the area in front of the Plaza Pavilion, and then shopped for Christmas ornaments in New Orleans Square. One of the benefits of travel by automobile this time was that we could carry items like that home with a minimum of potential for breakage. In previous years, we’ve been somewhat suspicious of handing over luggage with breakables to the airlines. So, this time, the goodies made it home safe and sound.

Guess I need to mark the calendar for those Club 33 reservations next summer…

Michele and Roger relaxing at DCA.

So there is the tale of the “firsts”. Next week? Well, it’s a ways off yet. No telling what I’ll come along with for that.


If you’re looking for something to do in January, why not consider joining me for our annual private railroad car excursion to the Silver State. Plenty of seats available. Check the web pages for information. Should be another fine time!

Thanks again to everyone for your continued support. If you would like to show your appreciation, click on Roger’s Paypal Donation Box. Any amount is always welcomed!

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Film & Movies

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



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 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:

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:

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.

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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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