From a column on October 3rd, you may recall a fine tale by Jean de Lutèce about the backstory for Disneyland Paris Ravenswood Manor.
Would it surprise you to know that there is history from Nevada’s Comstock Lode that shares many of the same points as that “story”? If you’ve been reading these Ruminations for a while, it shouldn’t.
So grab your favorite bubbling brew, cuddle up with a beloved ghoul friend or two, and let me illuminate you…
What today is the state of Nevada was once a major part of the Territory of Utah. Before the discovery of gold in California, it was pretty quiet. About the only settlements were stations along the trail here and there. A few Mormon immigrant colonies as well. After the findings at Sutter’s Mill, that changed as the rush was on. More and more, folks coming west stopped here and there, finding water and good grazing land for their stock. Some decided to take their chance with fortune and pan for gold in the more promising spots. Not much to show, so they kept on heading west, where greater riches were waiting for them. After all, the streets were paved with gold in California, right?
Here’s a link to the tale of the discovery of the Comstock Lode. It is considered the largest silver deposit in the United States.
What made this ore richer than any other was the amount of gold found with it. The main ore body was almost two miles long and several hundred feet wide in places. An initial asset in 1859 found that this ore was worth $3400 a ton! It was no wonder that people flocked here from both east and west. Miners who had not found their fortunes in California came here hoping to stake their claims, and retire, rich. Between 1873 and 1880, the total value of ore taken from the Lode was over one-half of a billion dollars, so that wasn’t out of the realm of possibility… But much like today’s California Lottery, the odds were not in one’s favor. It was a hard existence for the average Joe and even more so for the average Jane. The frontier was definitely not the place for all but the most hardy of women.
Among those people who actually did strike it rich were the two upon whom our story focuses today. Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers and Allison “Eilley” Oram Bowers. If ever fortune smiled upon any of the common folk, and then turned them the cold shoulder, they were the ones.
Eilley Bowers is one of the most researched, written and talked about women in Nevada history. She was a continual subject of news reports and writers who sometimes wrote tales of her long, eventful life. Many researchers have tried to uncover more of the facts of her life.
“Eilley” was born on September 6, 1826 in the Royal Burgh of Forfar, Scotland, located in the eastern Scottish countryside. At the young age of fifteen, she married nineteen-year-old Stephen Hunter of Fishcross, Clackmannan, Scotland. After six years of marriage, Stephen converted to the relatively new religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
In January 1849, the Hunters decided to move to America and the new Mormon city in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young had established this home for his followers just two years earlier. The Hunters immigrated to America by ship from Liverpool, England to New Orleans, then by steamer to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they joined a wagon train and walked the rest of the way to Utah. Soon after they arrived, the two were divorced for unknown reasons.
Three years later in 1853, Eilley married again, to Alexander Cowan. He was also from Scotland and a devout Mormon willing to do anything for the church. In the fall of 1855, he was called on a mission to the western most edge of Utah Territory. Today this is Genoa, Nevada, but then it was the small settlement of Mormon Station in Carson County, Utah Territory. Most women stayed in Salt Lake City when their husbands went off to settle a new community. As evidence of her strength, practicality, and commitment to the marriage, Eilley chose to make the journey to the Nevada wilderness with her husband and his 12-year-old-nephew Robert Henderson, who had recently been orphaned.
When their first winter approached, most of the Mormons returned to Salt Lake City, but the Cowans stayed in the small settlement. The following spring, Orson Hyde, the local Mormon elder, decided to move the Mormons to the Washoe Valley. Since the Cowans had stayed behind for the winter, they were among the first to arrive in the Valley. Alexander was able to purchase 320 acres of good farming land complete with a small house and corral.
A little over one year later, the Federal government was experiencing difficulties with the Mormon congregation that brought about the possibility of an open conflict with the United States. In order to save his empire, Brigham Young recalled all of his missionaries who had been sent out to settle small communities like the one in the Washoe Valley. Alexander was faithful to the church and agreed to return to Salt Lake City in the fall of 1857. Eilley and Robert chose to stay behind in Washoe. After the problems with the government and Utah were resolved, Alexander returned to Nevada for a short time, but soon went back to Utah alone. Ultimately, they divorced, and in the settlement Eilley received 160 acres in Washoe Valley of the acreage that they had purchased in 1856.
When the Mormons abandoned the settlement of Franktown, some accounts have Eilley remaining on the ranch. Yet, there are records that show her and Robert moving to Johntown (today it is below Silver City) where she could earn a respectable living in 1857. The camp housed around 180 miners who were searching the surrounding canyons and streams for gold.
From various accounts, she cooked and laundered for her boarders. She was known to occasionally provide entertainment during the evening hours with her crystal ball. Little did she know how important that would become in her later years.
The operation had to have been considered one of the higher-class (and hence, more respectable) boarding houses in Johntown since Eilley had a real building in the midst of a tent city. That was a welcome addition to the rustic camp. Eilley and her nephew lived there until the spring of 1859 when gold was discovered on a nearby hill, and the town of Gold Hill was born.
Eilley and Robert quickly relocated to the new town site and built another boarding house. She took advantage of the situation by acquiring several plots of land. An unsubstantiated tale relates that James Rogers had fallen victim to some of the local “tarantula juice” and could not afford to pay his bill to Eilley, and so transferred his claim to her instead.
That August, she married (for the third time) to Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers. He was an illiterate, but hard working miner who made his way west from Salt Lake possibly as a teamster on one of the expeditions to bring supplies to the Mormon settlements. He stayed on in the area and tried his hand at prospecting, eventually acquiring a claim in Gold Hill that adjoined Eilley’s. Their combined holdings meant the couple was financially stable at this point in their marriage.
(The Bowers claim was a consolidation of the two 10-foot claims located or acquired by Lemuel Sanford (“Sandy”) Bowers and James Rogers on or a few days after January 28, 1859. It was bounded on the north by the unpatented Plato claim and on the south by the patented Bacon No. 59 claim. From the mineral survey plat of the Bacon No. 59 claim it appeared that the Bowers claim lay in the Southeast Quarter of Section 31 and the Southwest Quarter of Section 32, T. 17 N., R. 21 E., M.D.B. & M.)
Soon Gold Hill and the new town of Virginia City were exciting mining towns, with a quickly growing population, producing the most concentrated amount of silver and gold in the United States.
The Bowers were among the first millionaires of the Comstock Lode. Over the next two years, Eilley gave birth to two children. Unfortunately both died as infants, an all too common occurrence in those times.
In celebration of their prosperity, they planned the construction of grand mansion on Eilley’s Washoe Valley property. This new home was completed in 1863 and is considered the finest Nevada example of homes built by the new money class of the Comstock. It was symbolic of the fulfillment of Eilley’s dreams of prestige and respectability. Designed by J. Neeley Johnson, a builder and ex-governor of California, it combined Georgian and Italianate architectural styles. The structure was modeled after a design conceived by Eilley based on her recollection of elegant buildings in her native Scotland. Stonecutters from Scotland were employed for the construction, which eventually cost the astronomical sum of $400,000 to complete.
The two-story mansion is located in a wonderful meadow backing up to the foothills of Mount Rose, and is next to a series of natural hot springs.
Visitors stayed away when the house was new and later when she tried to turn it into a resort. Friends of Sandy Bowers accepted the couple’s invitations, but their wives declined. The “nice ladies” of the day snubbed Eilley Bowers because she was twice divorced, a working class woman and a Mormon — all reflections of prejudices of the era.
The comfort of the family and the entertainment of guests figured in the design of the downstairs library, parlors, sitting rooms, dining room and kitchen. The upstairs originally included a billiard room, but the billiard table’s immense weight put such strain on the floors that it was moved downstairs. Bedrooms upstairs boasted Victorian bedsteads, dressers, vanities and wardrobes.
Now 140 years old, the mansion bears its age well. Carefully fitted stone walls requiring little mortar still stand straight. Deeply recessed, tall windows fill the house with light, their frames so slanted that the slashing storms from the Sierras cannot drive rain or snow beneath the sashes. Restoration removed the ill-conceived and unfinished third floor. Many features survived the decades of neglect including the fountain in front of the house, the marble fireplace mantles, the fitted interior shutters, the intricate ceilings, the carved wooden moldings, the wood-grained paneling, and some of the hardware plated with Comstock silver.
Visiting today, it is easy to be struck by the size of the mansion, as being small. Compare it to the above ground structure of Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” in New Orleans Square and you’ll note the similarities. Yet, that is not uncommon for the era. Remember that many people lived in shacks with flimsy walls and roofs or simple tents. In the sense of a permanent structure, it was immense for the day. Comparing it with other local buildings, even the Federal mint building in Carson City seems small today. The largest building in town was the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s great stone enginehouse — almost a half a contemporary city block in size.
While the mansion was under construction in 1862, Mr. and Mrs. Bowers took their famed European excursion. They hosted a banquet at the International Hotel in Virginia City prior to their departure. They left San Francisco on May 1 bound for New York via the Isthmus of Panama. From there, it was off for Scotland, England and Europe. They enjoyed the good life, purchased treasures for their home and visited her family in Scotland. Local papers shared these adventures of great interest with eager readers.
Among the goals of the European excursion, Eilley dearly wanted to be presented at the Court of Saint James. She made special preparations and purchased an elegant gown in Paris particularly for the occasion. Yet for all their money, the couple lacked social connections and she was to be denied such an opportunity. It is said that Sandy tried to make up for this disappointment for the rest of their stay by finding attractive and unique treasures to distract her.
It appears that Eilley found one of her own in Scotland. When they returned to Nevada in March 1863, the Bowers had a baby girl with them whom they had adopted during their trip. For her own reasons, Eilley did not want the details of the adoption to be made public. The truth of young Margaret Persia’s birth was never known. The Bower family spent several years living in their mansion and generously dispersing the profits of their seemingly endless fortune.
Even though the War Between The States was continuing in the east, the Bowers and the other prosperous residents of the new Nevada Territory (decidedly Union in loyalties) were continuing to enjoy their riches. On October 31, 1864, Nevada became a state (with its motto, “Battle Born”) and followed President Lincoln’s reelection shortly thereafter. Five months later the war ended, Lincoln was assassinated, and the mines of Nevada were entering a period of decline.
As ores began to play out, the Bowers were among those slowly losing the riches they had come to know. Sandy moved back to Gold Hill to try to save the mine, but luck was not with him. In early 1868, he tried to sell a share of the claim. However, before the sale could be completed, he died of silicosis that April. He was buried in a plot on the hill behind the mansion, overlooking the Washoe Valley and Franktown.
Struck with grief as she was, Eilley took over the business affairs with the help of George Waters. The ore was gone and her financial situation was not promising, and in 1870 she sold him all of her interests in the mine.
In 1873, a new and surprisingly large body of ore was discovered, but not on or near the Bowers property. The Big Bonanza brought new life to the Comstock and Nevada. With increased prosperity, the people of Virginia City and the surrounding communities found the need for diversions from their daily toils.
Rather than give up, she revisited her previous professional life in the boardinghouse by making the mansion a resort destination. Nighttime parties and summer picnics became a way of life for Mrs. Bowers. The hot springs and grounds offered a place for all kinds of events. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad completed the line between Reno and Carson in 1872, passing near the Mansion. With trains and the connecting stages from the nearby Franktown station, an excursion to Bowers Mansion was an easily accessible journey for many of the working men and women of the Comstock.
Ads for the parties can be seen in the Territorial Enterprise. One of the balls she hosted was in support of the Women’s Suffrage movement. It was the spot for the annual Miner’s Ball. The Mansion was at its height of popularity from 1873-1875. She was famed for hosting and creating an atmosphere where the grand parties went until the wee hours. People enjoyed the picnics on the grounds. She was known to have opened her doors so that people might see and appreciate the mansion.
During the summer months, the Miners Union, Knights of Pythias, the Pioneers, and many other fraternal organizations often sponsored large picnics. Thousands rode trains, brought their wagons and even walked to these grand affairs. While Eilley was always the gracious hostess greeting guests, this did not greatly assist her financial situation.
At one point, she tried to raffle the mansion, but it had to be suspended, as there were not enough tickets sold to make the venture feasible. She built on a third story to the mansion to bring in more boarders, but this only increased her debt. Things were not going well for Eilley, but the picnics still continued.
During this time, twelve-year-old Persia was sent to Reno to attend a boarding school. Perhaps this was to keep her from the dubious party atmosphere surrounding the mansion. When there was a break between parties, the young lady often came home for a visit. In July, 1874, just such a visit occurred. At the end of her time in the mansion, Eilley accompanied Persia back to Reno, but could not stay long as there was another picnic to host that Sunday. After the picnic, Eilley was told to return to Reno. By the time she arrived, it was too late. Persia had died of a ruptured appendix. She was buried on the hillside behind the mansion next to her father. Even with the loss of her daughter, Eilley had to continue on. Three weeks later she hosted a picnic for all the Sunday School children from the surrounding towns.
After the death of three children and her husband, the loss of her mine and her money, and with the approaching loss of her mansion, she began to turn to her spirit friends for support. From as early as her days in Johntown, Eilley had been known to have a crystal ball, but her fortune telling had then been more for entertainment than anything else. Now it was her only means of support. A visit was not considered fully complete without a peek into one’s future by the “Washoe Seeress”. Her ventures forth into the spirit world may have been in search of solace as well for her tortured soul. Having survived the challenges of pioneer life, the toll could have been enormous on her psyche.
In 1876, her debts became unavoidable, and she finally lost the mansion when it was sold at public auction. The new owner, Myron C. Lake, allowed her to stay in the mansion that summer, but then she was forced to vacate. She had retained a small house in Franktown near her beloved mansion, but often stayed in Virginia City and Reno telling fortunes for money.
Eilley had become a wanderer and professional seeress. She continued to live this life until 1882 when she suddenly disappeared from Nevada. She was later found living and working in San Francisco. In 1884 she returned to Reno for a short time and continued to tell fortunes, but she soon returned to San Francisco.
A colored postcard view of the Mansion as it appeared after the sale.
By the turn of the century, Eilley was financially destitute and was showing signs of senility. She was in her mid-seventies and had lived to see most of her friends die many years prior. Eilley began writing letters to everyone she knew trying to get their support in her effort to get money from the government. In the days when Nevada was a territory, Sandy Bowers is believed to have given the government $14,000 to help fight the Indians in the Paiute Indian war of 1860. Eilley only wanted a little back to help pay for her final days and a decent burial. The money never came.
Eilley made one final return to Reno in the summer of 1901 and was put away in the county poor house. During her stay, she proved to be very troublesome for the caregivers. The Washoe County commissioners were called upon to reach a decision in her case. They finally agreed that she was beyond their help, and they provided her a one-way train ticket to San Francisco and bid her farewell. Local citizens added about $30 in donations to help send her on her way.
After arrival in San Francisco, Eilley went to Oakland where she took up residency in the King’s Daughters Home. She died alone on October 27, 1903 at the age of seventy-seven. With the help of Henry Riter, the new owner of the Mansion (operated as a resort until 1946), Eilley’s ashes were returned to Nevada and she was reunited with her husband Sandy and daughter Persia in the family plot on the hill behind the mansion.
Washoe County purchased the Mansion and grounds in 1946 with the help of the Reno Women’s Civic Club and public donations. It is now a county park with swimming pool (fed by the hot springs), picnic grounds and tours through the mansion itself during the summer season. Within the mansion walls, the story of Sandy and Eilley will continue to live on. As well, her spirit is said to haunt the house to this day, having been seen on a number of occasions roaming the second floor.
In August of 2003, a musical theater production, entitled “Eilley” was performed at the Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. The production was staged by the Gold Hill Theater Troupe. Their more usual venue for performances is at the nearby Gold Hill Hotel, not far for where the Bowers claim is located.
The Bowers Mansion is located in Washoe Valley, on Franktown Rd., 19 miles south of Reno, on the way to Carson City. Access Franktown Rd. from US 395; the junction is marked with a “Bowers Mansion” sign. For further information on hours and house tours, call 775-849-0201 or 775-849-0644. This link has a great selection of views of the Mansion and grounds as the appear today.
So there you have it… While maybe not quite as colorful a tale as that of the Ravenswood Manor, it is all true. “Give or take a lie or two,” as James Garner put it in his role as Wyatt Earp in “Sunset.”
I’m able to add a personal footnote. I’ve been to the Mansion a number of times, but the most notable visit was a big Walker and Colton family picnic on Labor Day of 1967. I recall a dip in the hot-springs fed (and well-filtered) swimming pool as particularly invigorating, if not just down right unusual…
Next up: Roger visited Paramount’s Great America in Santa Clara, California for the last day of its 2003 operating season, and shares some interesting observations from an afternoon.
And if you’ve enjoyed today’s little nugget of information, why not drop a coin or two in Roger’s Amazon Honor System Paybox? Keep him mining away for more shiny bits of knowledge to appear here in the weeks to come. It’s always appreciated!
The Closing of Walt Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
Listen to the Article
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Original Disneyland Lessee: Van Camp Seafood and The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
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Since we’ve gotten such strong reaction to previous “Disney Dishes” where Len & I talked about original Disneyland lessees like Swift Meats (who sponsored the Red Wagon Inn at the Park, which was the precursor to Disneyland’s Plaza Inn Restaurants) and Monsanto (who sponsor the Hall of Chemistry AND the House of the Future), I thought that we’d take a moment to shine a spotlight on another company that helped make up the original 48 lessees at Disneyland.
Original Disneyland Lessees
When Disneyland first opened in July of 1955 – the Park had 48 lessees. A number of those were short-lived outfits like Hollywood Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop and the BlueBird Shoes for Children Shop that came & went within the first few years that Disneyland was operational. By 1966 / 1967, the number of lessees that the Park had had shrunk down by nearly a third. To 33, to be exact.
That’s an interesting number – 33.
Seems significant for some reason. Can’t place why, though.
Van Camp Seafood Company
Some 67 years ago (August 29, 1955, to be exact), the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (the quick service restaurant that Van Camp Seafood sponsored at the Park) first opened for business.
Kind of appropriate that Van Camp Seafood came to sponsor a restaurant at Disneyland. After all, this fish canning company actually got its start some 95 miles to the south of Anaheim in San Diego, California back in May of 1914 – founded by Frank Van Camp & his son Gilbert.
And as for that “Chicken of the Sea” thing … That was a bit of branding Van Camp embraced back in 1930. You see, the type of tuna that they initially specialized in canning (i.e., white albacore) was acclaimed for its mild flavor & color.
“Tastes like chicken” = “Chicken of the Sea.”
By 1952, Van Camp Seafood further refined their brand by introducing the Company’s icon: Catalina the Mermaid.
Interesting side note: If Catalina the Mermaid looks kind of familiar to all you Trekkies out there … Well, there’s a good reason for that. Grace Lee Whitney – who played Yeoman Rand on the original “Star Trek” television series – was actually the inspiration for Van Camp Seafood’s corporate icon.
Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon
We jump ahead now to February of 1953, which is when Walt Disney Studios releases its feature-length animated version of “Peter Pan” (which is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”). This animated feature includes a scene where Peter takes Wendy Darling to Mermaid Lagoon. Where those mermaids then try to drown Wendy. I guess Catalina hangs out with a rough crowd.
Jump ahead to 1954. Walt is looking to lock in sponsors for his new family fun park. And Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan” is still very front of mind. Which is why – when Disney representatives reach out to Van Camp Seafoods to ask if this fish canning company would be willing to sponsor some sort of attraction at Disneyland – Frank & his son Gilbert are interested.
The Van Camps do have some conditions, though. As part of whatever their Company sponsors at Disneyland, this shop, restaurant or attraction has to prominently feature Catalina the Mermaid, the Chicken of the Sea icon.
The folks at Disney go away for a bit to ponder this proposition … and then eventually come back with a proposal for the Van Camp family. What about a restaurant that’s also an attraction? As in: The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant.
The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
This massive structure – we’re talking 79 feet long and 80 feet tall (That includes the ship’s three masts. Which were each 60 feet tall) – was to be a recreation of the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook’s ship from Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan.” Guests would have the opportunity to board this vessel and explore the upper deck. Below decks, there’d be a quick service restaurant that only served food items that could be made with Van Camp Seafood products. We’re talking:
- A Tuna Sandwich
- A Tuna Burger
- A Tuna Pie served in a Pastry Shell
- A Tuna Boat Salad
- A Tuna Clipper Salad (a clipper is a slightly bigger boat)
- Shrimp Cocktail (Van Camp Seafood also sold canned shrimp)
- and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream (which must have had a little tuna in it)
Reminds me of that Monty Python bit. “It’s only got some spam in it. Spam, spam, spam, span, baked beans & spam.”)
Frank & Gilbert Van Camp loved this idea. Even so, it took a while to Van Cap Seafood & Walt Disney Productions to negotiate the final contract. Not to mention draw up the construction blueprints for this Fantasyland restaurant / attraction. I’ve seen a set of these blueprints that Fred Stoos (he was one of the original construction coordinators on the Disneyland project) drew up that are dated May 7, 1955.
Building the Jolly Roger
That’s basically 10 weeks before Disneyland first opens to the public. So as soon as those blueprints were signed off on, they immediately began building the Jolly Roger out behind the park’s lumber mill. Which – after the Park was completed – this building would then become the Main Street Opera House.
The ship itself was built out of Douglas Fir. And as for this pirate ship’s trim, that was genuine mahogany which had been shipped in from Honduras.
Now remember that condition that Frank & Gilbert Van Camp insisted upon? That Disneyland’s Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant had to feature their company’s icon – Catalina the Mermaid – in some way?
Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead
Disney honored this sponsorship condition by making Catalina the Jolly Roger’s figurehead. Chris Mueller (who sculpted all of the animals that Guests saw on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the giant squid in Disney Studio’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” film. In addition to creating “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for Universal Pictures’ 1954 film of the same name) not only created that beautiful 6-foot-tall piece, Mueller also sculpted an enormous piece for this ship’s stern. Which replicated the way Catalina the Mermaid was depicted on each can of “Chicken of the Sea” tuna. With Catalina seated atop her shell throne which is then borne on the back of a giant sea turtle. Beautiful piece.
The Flying Jolly Roger
Remember how this pirate ship restaurant was quickly being built backstage at Disneyland out behind that park’s lumber mill? When it came time for this building to finally be moved into place over in Fantasyland … Well, remember how the Jolly Roger flew in Disneyland’s animated version of “Peter Pan” ? This structure flew as well. It was lifted by a construction crane over all of those still-under-construction Tomorrowland buildings and then dropped into place behind the Park’s Mad Tea Party flat ride.
Painting and Camera Tricks
The only problem was … The night before that “Dateline: Disneyland” special aired live on ABC, Walt realized that he was running out of time & money. And the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (while it was now in its proper place in the Park) was still unpainted. And if the Van Camp family saw the restaurant / attraction that they’d paid for show up on live television looking like that, Frank & Gilbert would be furious.
Walt’s solution to this not-enough-time / not-enough-money problem was kind of ingenious. He only had his painters paint the side of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant that faced into the Park (i.e. the side that would appear on camera). Walt then had a bunch of Disney Studios employees placed on deck. When the cameras came on, these folks rushed to the rail and then wave frantically towards the camera. That way, no one would notice that the props or rigging on this ship weren’t in place either.
This trick worked. The Jolly Roger looked great on camera. And just so you know: It would take another six weeks of hard work after the “Dateline: Disneyland” TV special aired before the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was finally ready to serve food / begin entertaining Disneyland Guests.
Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship
This eatery became so popular with Disneyland Guests that … Well, after Walt finally wrestled ABC’s partial ownership of the Park away from that broadcast company in June of 1960 (He had to pay that company $7.5 million for its one third ownership of the Park) … One of the very first thing Disney did was to create a secondary seating area for this Fantasyland eatery.
Here’s how that expansion project was described in the October – November 1960 issue of the “Disneylander” (i.e., the park’s employee newsletter back then):
This article’s headline read: “Pirate Ship To Have New And Exotic Setting”
And here’s a quote from this piece:
“By the time you read this, you’ll be aware that the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship is closed for extensive rehab. It is scheduled to reopen about December 15th. Isolated by craggy cliffs covered with lush tropical foliage will be ‘Pirate’s Cove,’ where the Park’s well known Pirate Ship resides at anchor. WED designers have included in their plans the familiar landmark of Skull Rock from the Peter Pan story with three waterfalls cascading from rocky heights.”
Construction of Pirate’s Cove & Skull Rock actually took a little longer than expected. This Fantasyland addition wouldn’t open ‘til just before Christmas. December 23, 1960, to be exact.
Van Camp Seafood Partnership
The folks at Van Camp Seafood initially seemed very pleased with their association with Disneyland Park. They renewed their original sponsorship agreement with the Park in 1962 for another seven year-long lease. Unfortunately, in 1963, Frank & Gilbert sold their fish canning company to Ralston Purina. And when the sponsorship contract for the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant came up for renewal in 1969, Ralston Purina opted out.
Captain Hook’s Galley
Disneyland management responded to this loss of sponsor by changing the name of this Fantasyland restaurant from The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant to Captain Hook’s Galley. They also made minor tweaks to the ship’s figurehead and the giant stern piece so that the mermaids there no longer looked just like Catalina, Chicken of the Sea’s corporate icon.
Moving to New Fantasyland
We now jump ahead to the Fall of 1981. Work has just begun on Disneyland’s New Fantasyland. Which – when this side of the Park re-opens in the Summer of 1983 – will feature all-new versions of Disneyland’s classic dark rides like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” & “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” featuring then-state-of-the-art effects like fiber optics & digital sound.
Among the changes that are in the works for this side of the Park is that the ship that houses Captain Hook’s Galley is once again going to be lifted by a crane. Only this time, it’s going to lifted over a 100 feet or so that this full-sized pirate ship could then became the finale of Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride. The canal boats – after floating by all of those miniaturized recreations of settings from famous Disney films – would now find themselves, in the final moments of this ride, right alongside of the Jolly Roger.
The Imagineers thinking here was … Well, Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride starts off with a big moment (the canal boat you’re riding in gets swallowed up by Monstro the whale from “Pinocchio”). It should then have a similarly big moment at the moment at the end. Besides – by moving the structure that previously housed Captain Hook’s Galley from the centerbackmost portion of Fantasyland over to the eastern edge of this land at Disneyland – this then opened some very valuable real estate right in the middle of one of the more popular / most crowded corners of the Park.
So okay. So once this part of the Imagineers’ plans for a new Fantasyland at Disneyland was signed off on by Park Management … Phase One of Operation “The Jolly Roger Flies Again” was to first gently pry Chris Mueller’s now 26-year-old mermaid sculptures off of the bow & the stern of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant and then take them backstage to be restored. Then the pirate ship would be hoisted into its new location at the edge of Small World Plaza. Whereupon the load / unload area for the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride would be expanded to create a brand-new lagoon space that this pirate ship could be anchored in.
Just so you know: I’ve never been able to confirm that Skull Rock was to have then be recreated in this new location. The insinuation here was that – once both phases of the New Fantasyland project were complete (Phase One was to be ready for the Late Spring of 1983. While Phase Two – which involved the revamped version of the “Alice in Wonderland” dark ride, the relocation of Disneyland’s “Mad Tea Party” dark ride and the Mad Hatter’s Hat Shop – would open in the Spring of 1984) — the Imagineers would then attempt to ram through the creation of a second version of Skull Rock. Which would then help hide where the maintenance dock for the Storybook Land Canal Boats would be taken every night.
I have also been told that the below-decks area (which was initially supposed to be closed off to Guests once the Jolly Roger was flown into its new location of the Eastern edge of Small World Plaza) was to have then been completely renovated. And that – for the Summer of 1985 (Just in time for Disneyland’s 30th birthday celebration) what had previously been a quick service restaurant would then be turned into a pirate-themed juice bar. Which was kind of a cool idea.
Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger
This was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, after those two mermaid pieces were carefully pried off of the bow & the stern of Captain Hook’s Galley, the forklift that was taking both of these pieces backstage made a sudden stop. The mermaid pieces then fell off and shattered to smithereens.
Worse that that: When the New Fantasyland construction crew went to go arrange the harnesses that were necessary to hoist this 26-year-old pirate ship high in the air over to its new location, they then discovered that the old Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (which — remember – had originally built out of Douglas Fir outside of Disneyland’s old lumber mill and then been trimmed with genuine Honduran mahogany) was now riddled with termites. Long story short: This structure would have immediately crumbled into pieces as soon as that construction crane starts to pull on those harnesses.
As a direct result, the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was left at anchor right where it was until a demolition team could come along and pull this ship-shaped structure down. While they were at it, this demolition team also destroyed one of Disneyland’s favorite photo spots (Skull Island Cove). In its place today, you’ll now find Disneyland’s relocated Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.
Which – of course – makes us OG Disneyland fans sad. I mean, that’s something that Walt put in place and then plussed. But it’s worth noting that the Jolly Roger — as well as Pirate Cove & Skull Rock — do live on. Only at a different Disney theme park.
Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris
When the Imagineers opted to build Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris in the early 1990s, they included a full-sized pirate ship that was then placed at anchor in front of a large-ish version of Skull Rock. And inside of this pirate ship, you’ll find yet another Captain Hook’s Galley. This one’s a counter-service restaurant, though. Not a pirate-themed juice bar.
Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream
Just so you know: If you’re a Disneyland completist and wonder what it was like to actually dine at the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant, if you Google “Disneyland Tuna Burger,” you can find a number of recipes online that will then allow you to replicate this signature item from the menu of this now-gone-for-nearly-40-years restaurant.
Me personally, given that whole everything-served-here-must-make-use-of-items-that-Van-Camp-Seafood-makes-or-sells condition, I still have to wonder just how much tuna there was in that one dessert item the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant sold. Which was the fruit tart with whipped cream.
History of Epcot’s World ShowPlace & Millennium Celebration
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It’s 1996. And Disney Parks & Resorts is already thinking about how it should handle the Millennium.
Not that Y2K bug thing, mind you.
Y2K and the Disney Theme Parks
Do you remember how – back in the late 1990s – there were people who were absolutely terrified that, due to a flawed bit of computer code … Well, at the very second the world transitioned over from 1999 to 2000, everything that was run by computer would suddenly shut down. Including the North American power grid.
This was something that many corporations – including The Walt Disney Company – took very, very seriously in the lead-up to the Millennium. The Mouse actually set up a dedicated task force of 800 employees to investigate the Disney Company’s possible exposure to a Y2K bug threat and then put together a response plan.
One element of Disney’s Y2K bug response plan was – should the North American power grid actually fail at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 – each of Disney’s stateside parks had dozens of emergency lights & back-up generators on hand. These items were stashed backstage at the Parks (out of sight of the Guests, of course), ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Just in case the country’s power grid really did suddenly collapse that night.
Shutting Down Every Attraction on 12/31/1999
And speaking of December 31, 1999, how many Disney theme park fans remember how – on that night – the Mouse shut down every single ride, show & attraction at its stateside theme parks 15 minutes prior to midnight and then held those things in place / in check for 30 minutes or so? They did this until it was clear that the North American power grid hadn’t actually collapsed and that every computer on the planet hadn’t really gone haywire.
“Better safe than sorry” was the thinking among the Park’s Ops Team. They didn’t want Guests stuck on Disneyland’s or WDW’s attractions should the Y2K bug prove be a very real thing.
Anyway … A half hour after the stroke of midnight on what-was-now-January 1st, 2000, all of those rides, shows & attractions at Disney’s stateside parks were back up & running again. Loaded with happy, still alive Guests.
Mind you, the Mouse never admitted publicly that the reason they’d shut down all of the rides, shows & attractions at its stateside theme parks just prior to midnight on December 31, 1999 was out of Y2K bug-related safety concerns. What Disney spokespersons said instead was – in essence – “ … we just to be sure that all of our Guests got the chance to see that night’s special fireworks display.”
Millennium Celebration for Walt Disney World and Disneyland
Back to 1996 now.
What The Walt Disney Company was most concerned about – as it looked ahead to the Millennium was — … Well, to borrow a phrase from a very famous Prince song, figure out what to do in California & Florida when Disney theme park fans wanted “ … to party like it’s 1999.”
On the West Coat, given that Disney’s California Adventure would still be under construction at the start of the Millennium (That theme park wouldn’t actually open to the public ‘til February 8, 2001. And given that the Disneyland Parking Lot would close on January 21, 1998 to then make room for DCA … Well, the rest of that Resort would largely be a maze of construction fences when December 31, 1999 finally arrived), a one-night-only party seems like the smartest way to go.
Whereas in Florida … The thinking is – instead of a one-night-only party – Walt Disney World should explore the idea of a staging a months-long Millennium celebration. Something that could start in 1999 and then roll on into 2000.
Quick aside here: WDW’s PR team just loved this idea. Largely because – by the late Spring / early Summer of 1999 — the newness & excitement associated with Disney’s Animal Kingdom (That theme park was due to open in April of 1998) would have begun to wear off.
Selecting Epcot for the Millennium Celebration at Walt Disney World
As to which park should host Walt Disney World’s Millennium Celebration … Well, that was kind of a gimmee back then. Largely because — while Epcot was the park at the Walt Disney World Resort with the second highest attendance levels (Magic Kingdom was first) — it was also [at that time, anyway] the least profitable park on property.
I know that that’s strange to hear today. Especially given the hand-over-fist money that the WDW Resort now makes off of those super-sized, extended versions of Food & Wine and Flower & Garden. But you also have to remember that today’s story starts back in 1996. And the …
- 1st Flower & Garden wasn’t held til April of 1994 (And even then, it was just five weeks long)
- Likewise the 1st Food & Wine wasn’t held ‘til September of 1996 (and it was just 30 days long)
- Interestingly, the 1st Holidays Around the World / now International Festival of the Holidays debuted that very same year. In November of 1996 to be precise (it also was just five weeks long)
- And Epcot’s International Festival of the Arts is the newest of the bunch. It debuted just 5 years ago in January of 2017 (and was also only five weeks long)
So you have to understand that these massive money makers (as we know them today, anyway) weren’t really in place back then. Which is why Epcot – which then had to largely rely on its original assortment of attractions to lure WDW visitors through its turnstiles – was the least profitable park on property.
Anyway … Disney Parks & Resorts hoped to turn this situation around (at least for 15 months or so) by making Epcot Center the center of WDW’s Millennium Celebration. Which was supposed to get underway in October of 1999 and then run at least through December of 2000.
Just so you know, though: There was a secondary agenda being serviced here as well … Disney Parks & Resorts wanted to use WDW’s Millennium Celebration as a way to reintroduce the world to a new, fun version of Epcot …
Sound familiar? Yep, that is exactly what Walt Disney World had also hoped they’d be able to do with the Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration which began back on October of 2021. Reintroduce the world to the brand-new, fun version of Epcot 2.0. (They say no good idea ever dies at Disney. But wasn’t it Santayana who said that “ … a fanatic is someone who redoubles their effort when they’ve forgotten their original aim” ? )
Of course, when it came to the launch of the brand-new, fun version of Epcot 2.0, the pandemic & its impact on the labor force and worldwide supply chains kind of blew that very ambitious plan right out of the water. So instead of a bright new shiny version of Walt Disney World’s science & discovery park being in place just in time for the launch of this Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration back in October of 2021 … What we got instead is a handful of new rides, shows & attractions like “Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure,” “HarmonioUS,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind,” “The Creations Store,” “Space 220,” “The Connections Café & Eatery,” and – soon – “Moana: The Journey of Water” opening one at a time in kind of a scattershot fashion … Which (let’s be honest here) didn’t have nearly as big an impact / make nearly as big a splash than as if all of these new rides, shows & attractions had managed to come online in the exact same window of time (i.e., late Summer / early Fall of 2021. Just in time for the start of WDW’s 50th anniversary celebration).
Quick aside: I want to be clear here: This wasn’t poor planning on Disney’s part. Nobody could have ever foreseen that a once-in-a-century pandemic would come over the hill and then disrupt WDW’s a-decade-in-the-making 50th anniversary plans. Epcot’s still limping along through its reimagining right now. Which — I’m now hearing –should largely be complete by 2024 (This is when the Play! Pavilion, CommuniCore Hall & Communicore Plaza are supposed to finally come online. We’ll get to those latter two projects in the back half of today’s story).
Prepping Epcot for WDW’s Millennium Celebration
Back to 1996 and the Resort’s advance prep & planning for WDW’s Millennium celebration now … There was a method to the Imagineers’ madness. All of the changes that were to be made to Epcot out ahead of October of 1999 (the target date for the launch of this park’s 15 month-long Millennium celebration) had a very deliberate purpose.
- That giant “Sorcerer Mickey” arm which was erected over Spaceship Earth was supposed to send a message to Guests that Epcot was now far more magical & fun.
- The “Tapestry of Nations” parade (which was presented twice daily, once starting at 6:30 p.m. and then a second presentation of the same parade starting at 8:10 p.m.) was supposed to compel Guests to stay in Epcot long enough each day to actually view that parade. And while these people were killing time waiting … Well, they’d either have to shop or grab a meal (Which would then hopefully help with Epcot’s least-profitable-theme-park problem) …
- Then – to absolutely make sure that people lingered as long as possible inside of Epcot while the Resort’s Millennium Celebration was being presented – WDW Entertainment rolled out a brand-new edition of “Illuminations,” “Reflections of Earth.” Which was a significant upgrade of the previous nighttime show that had been staged out on World Showcase Lagoon. With giant torches erected all along the esplanade and the Inferno Barge literally starting this show with a bang.
The hope was that people would have such a great time at WDW’s 15 month-long Millennium Celebration that they’d then want to commemorate this special occasion. This is why the Imagineers then built the “Leave a Legacy” plaza directly in front of Spaceship Earth.
This retail initiative was a sequel of sorts to those hugely popular “Walk Around the World” pavers that had been sold over at the Magic Kingdom as part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration.
FYI: WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration was also originally supposed to be just a 15 month-long celebration, running from October of 1996 through December of 1997. But that event proved to be so popular with WDW visitors that the Resort’s 25th anniversary celebration got extended another three months. All the way to March of 1998.
And to be honest, if the Resort could have gotten away with it, they’d have extended WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration event even further than that. But they were forced to finally shut those festivities down in March of 1998, largely because Disney’s Animal Kingdom would be opening in late April of that same year. And that theme park’s opening was supposed to be the primary focus of the WDW Resort’s promotional efforts for the bulk of 1998).
“Leave a Legacy” at Epcot
Back to the “Leave a Legacy” retail program now … The Imagineers built a Stonehenge-like plaza in front of Spaceship Earth which had space for 750,000 tiles that could then feature the smiling faces of Guests who had just attended Epcot’s Millennium Celebration (Which the Company really hoped would eventually turn into a WDW 20th anniversary-like success. Which would have then forced the Resort to extend its 15th month-long Millennium celebration another three months into the late Winter / early Spring of 2001).
That wasn’t to be, though. “Leave a Legacy” ultimately proved to be something of a disappointment. Only 440,000 tiles were sold over the course of Epcot’s Millennium celebration. (I’m told that this was because most people didn’t like how their likenesses on the finished tiles turned out AND because it was then hard to find your “Leave a Legacy” tile once it was finally put in place in that stone garden in front of Spaceship Earth).
Terry Dobson (Walt Disney Imagineer)
We’ve talked about what Walt Disney World was going to do in order to get Guests to linger at Epcot in the late afternoon / early evening during that Resort’s Millennium Celebration with that one-two punch of “Tapestry of Nations” and “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” But what was supposed to compel people to visit that theme park earlier in the day while this 15-month-long event was going on?
That was the assignment that was handed to Terry Dobson. Who – at this point – was a veteran Show Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Innoventions at Epcot
From January of 1993 through October of 1994, Terry had been the guy who rode herd on the transformation of CommuniCore West into Innoventions. That 100,000 square foot exhibition officially opened in Epcot’s Future World section in July of 1994 and featured displays by all sorts of major American corporations. Among them AT&T, GE, GM, Motorola, Honeywell, IBM, Apple, Silicon Graphics, and Lego.
That Future World display proved to be so popular that the team who was working on reimagining Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area back in the late 1980s / early 1990s then said “Hey, we wanted an Innoventions too.”
So from February of 1996 through May of 1998 (which is when Disneyland’s new version of a New Tomorrowland finally opened), Terry did the exact same thing. Which was take a pre-existing structure (In this case, the Carousel of Progress theater-go-round building) and then turn it into a space where … Well, here’s a piece of Disney speak for you …
… deliver corporate messages through family play experiences through a mixture of high-tech, low-tech and no-tech hands-on exhibits.
This time around, Dobson delivered a 30,000 square foot exhibition space that featured displays by for SAP, Compaq, Honeywell, AT&T, GM and Kaiser Permanente. That last sponsor was a throwback to an opening day attraction at Disneyland.
Anyway, just like the East Coast version of Innoventions, the West Coast version of this exhibit proved to be hugely popular with Guests. Which is why – when Dobson finally returned to his office at Imagineering headquarters in Glendale – he found WDW’s the Millennium Celebration team waiting for him.
Epcot’s World ShowPlace and Millennium Village
They told Terry “Hey, how’d you like to tackle another Innoventions-like project with lots of displays? Only this time, you’ll be working with countries, rather than corporations. Which – I’m sure — will be far easier to deal with. But the upside is … At least this time, you’ll be working with a brand-new 65,000 square foot building.”
Did I say “building” ? To be honest here, the World ShowPlace (that’s what this 65,000 square foot structure eventually became known as. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, shall we?) is a tent. A very large, supposed-to-be-temporary tent.
Those tents that now house Pete’s Silly Sideshow & Big Top Souvenirs over WDW’s Magic Kingdom, which were originally erected back in 1988 as part of Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration and then only supposed to be in place for a year), there’s nothing quite so permanent as a supposed-to-be-temporary tent at Walt Disney World.
As Terry Dobson began actively developing World ShowPlace and the Millennium Village display that was supposed to eventually be staged inside of this 65,000 square foot temporary building / tent, this Imagineering vet quickly realized that he was now serving two masters.
By that I mean: WDW Resort officials wanted the Millennium Village to be this must-see spectacle. A colorful gathering which represented over 50 nations from around the globe that would then compel people to fly on down to Orlando and check this exhibition out during its 15-month-long run. Disney World’s only creative caveat going into this project was that Terry NOT include any displays from countries that already had a pavilion out along the shores of World Showcase Lagoon. Only new & different nations, please.
Whereas Epcot’s management team … Well, they went into the Millennium Village / World ShowPlace project with a somewhat different agenda. They were much more intrigued by how this 65,000 square foot building / tent / supposedly-temporary structure could possibly be used AFTER WDW’s 15-month-long Millennium Celebration was over.
Rain’s Impact on Festival Attendance at Epcot
By that I mean: At this point in that theme park’s history, Epcot had been running its seasonal Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, and Holidays Around the World festival for a few years now. And while all three of these seasonal events had shown huge profit potential … Well, the problem was that Flower & Garden, Food & Wine as well as Holidays Around the World was that they were largely events that were staged outdoors. Which mean that all it took to tank that day’s attendance at Epcot (and thereby significantly undermine the profit potential of that particular seasonal event) was one of Central Florida’s famous torrential rainstorms.
So – to mitigate this situation – Epcot wanted a big, new, under-cover venue. Some place where — even when it was pouring outside – Guests could then gather indoors and still enjoy food from around the globe, or listen to Disney’s own horticulturists tell them how to improve their gardens at home, or shop for pieces of art that these tourists could then haul home.
Constructing Epcot’s World ShowPlace
And to get this enormous, new, under-cover venue … Epcot was willing to make some pretty big sacrifices. They were willing to give up that expansion pad between World Showcase’s Canada Pavilion and the UK Pavilion (This is where – back when EPCOT Center was originally being designed – the Imagineers envisioned another international pavilion eventually rising up) so that a long, wide walkway could then built to allow WDW visitors access to the largely-backstage area where World ShowPlace was being built.
Of course, this was kind of costly. Which is why Epcot’s managers reached out to Walt Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office. And then basically said “The Imagineers are now designing a brand-new venue at our theme park that you guys are probably going to want to start using once WDW’s Millennium Celebration is over. Do you want to give them any input / some notes?”
And indeed Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office did. Seeing World ShowPlace as a place where – in the not-so-distant future – they could soon begin staging super-sized dessert parties for companies that were holding their annual conventions on WDW property … Disney World’s Special Events / Corporate Events office asked that the plans for World ShowPlace include:
- A giant professional prep kitchen (which was supposed to have its loading dock deliberately orientated out towards Epcot’s perimeter road. Which would then make food & supply deliveries to this super-sized facility far simpler)
- An enormous bathroom just off of the theme-park-facing entrance to this 65,000 square foot structure. This was to be at the top of that walkway up from World Showcase Promenade. Which – again – had been built between Epcot’s UK pavilion & the Canada pavilion.
The idea here was … Well, if you were having some sort of corporate event with an open bar, you’d then have a place where all of these deep-pocketed / paying-with-their-per-diem Guests could quickly pee before they then walked out towards World Showcase Lagoon to watch a presentation of “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.”
- Next is an element that’s crucial for any building-of-size that was being built in Central Florida today. And that’s no less than six enormous professional-grade air conditioning units, which were set up around the perimeter of this enormous tent-like structure. Which would virtually guarantee that – no matter how many people were crammed into this building at any one time dressed in formal business attire – they’d all always stay cool.
- And speaking of keeping things cool (or should I say “wet”?), a network of sprinklers were to be built into the roof line of the again-supposed-to-be-temporary World ShowPlace.
These sprinklers were be turned on every night just prior to the start of “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” So that – should a stray firework shell ever accidentally come down on top of this massive tent-like structure as this nightly fireworks / laser extravaganza is being presented – World ShowPlace wouldn’t then go up in flame.
Now please keep in mind that all of the above were permanent structures that were then added to the plans of what was originally supposed to be just a temporary structure. Which obviously added to the cost of originally building World ShowPlace but also – further on down the line — made this Epcot addition that much more valuable & versatile as a venue for corporate & special events.
But before any of that stuff could happen, Terry Dobson had to first deliver that Innoventions-like “Millennium Village” display. Which needed to be up & running by October of 1999.
And remember how Terry’s original marching orders were “We want a spectacle. A massive display featuring over 50 nations from around the globe”? Well, recruiting corporations to show off their latest & greatest hi-tech wares in Innoventions was a lot easier than persuading countries to come take part in Epcot’s Millennium Village exhibition. In the end, Dobson was only able to persuade 24 nations to set up displays inside of World ShowPlace.
And even then, a lot of countries weren’t willing to come be part of the “Millennium Village” unless they were then allowed to cut corners.
Case in point: Sweden. While this Nordic country was genuinely interested in taking part in Epcot’s Millennium Celebration, Swedish officials weren’t all that eager to spend a large sum of money to build a brand-new display for Disney World. Which is why they asked permission to just recycle the “Four Seasons of Sweden” exhibit that Swedish officials had originally built for Expo ’98 (which had been held the year previous in Lisbon, Portugal) and erect those 30 foot-tall egg-shaped biodomes inside of World ShowPlace. Dobson said “Yes.”
One country that Terry maybe – in hindsight – wishes that he hadn’t recruit for this event was Israel. Who then presented the somewhat controversial “Journey to Jerusalem” simulator ride in that country’s section of the Millennium Village.
“And what was so controversial about Israel’s ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ ride?,” you ask. Well, this motion-based experience gave WDW visitors a simulated tour of that Holy City through various periods in history.
And because Jerusalem is considered a holy city by a number of religions, this motion-based experience became a hot button issue even before Epcot’s Millennium Village officially opened in October of 1999.
The Arab League was especially incensed by the “Journey to Jerusalem” ride. They all but accused The Walt Disney Company of helping Israel to reinforce that country’s long-held claim that Jerusalem was actually Israel’s capital. Which had – of course — been a bone of contention in this region ever since Israel had first declared its independence back in May of 1948.
Disney (which had offered some creative input when the “Journey to Jerusalem” ride was first put into development) insisted that this motion-based simulator was apolitical. But when word got out that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – rather than its Ministry of Tourism – had contributed some $1.8 million towards the cost of building this $8 million attraction … Well, that then gave this controversy some additional oxygen.
As a direct result of this bout of bad publicity, WDW’s Millennium Celebration got off to a somewhat rocky start. Disney tried to paper over this controversy by bringing Maya Angelou & UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in late October of 1999 to give the Millennium Village their official blessing.
World ShowPlace After Millennium Celebration
Once Epcot’s Millennium Celebration officially ended in December of 2000, Epcot officials and the folks in charge of WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Events office finally got to use World ShowPlace for the purposes they had originally envisioned. Which was as a large under-cover space where various aspects of Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, Festival of the Holidays & Festival of the Arts could be presented indoors. And – when those seasonal events aren’t being staged – WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Events office could then make this very same space available to companies that are staging their conventions down in Orlando.
The downside is … A lot of these corporations over the past 20+ years have already staged their company’s events inside of World ShowPlace. And lately, they’ve been looking for someplace new on WDW property where they can then stage these events / hold their after-convention cocktail parties.
“Park in the Sky”
Which brings us to that “Park in the Sky” project which was first announced at the Disney Parks & Resorts panel that was held at the D23 Expo back in August of 2019. This was when Bob Chapek first revealed that Epcot’s World Showcase was going to be broken up into three distinct neighborhoods:
- World Discovery
- World Nature
- and World Celebration
And serving an anchor for World Celebration was supposed to be this brand-new pavilion, a three story-tall structure that would be both a venue for live events as well as the home base for Epcot’s signature festivals.
The ground level portion of this three story-tall structure was to have been known as the Plaza. Guests could easily passed through this space / directly under this building as they walked from the Creations Shop out towards World Showcase Lagoon.
As for the second floor of this structure, this was to have been the expo level. This was where various panels & presentations offered at Flower & Garden, Food & Wine, Festival of the Holidays & Festival of the Arts were to have been staged.
And as for the top floor of this three-story structure … This was the space that Disney’s Corporate Events / Special Events office was most interested in. During the day, it was supposed to be this lovely green space filled with curving walkways that then offered commanding views of Epcot (Hence its “Park in the Sky” designation).
But at night, this elevated garden would have been offered to corporate groups as a possible venue for their cocktail parties / after-convention gatherings. And these companies would have been charged top dollar for the privilege of giving their employees such a stellar view of “HarmonioUS.”
Sadly, in early May of this year, Walt Disney World announced that it had revised its plans for this corner of World Celebration. In place of that three-story tall “Park in the Sky” (which would have really made an interesting architectural statement), we’re now going to get a far more conventional-looking (more importantly, cheaper-to-build) CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza. Which – going forward – will eventually serve as Epcot’s new festival center.
Which – I know – has to disappoint the folks at WDW’s Special Events / Corporate Event offices. They’d already begun talking with various corporations about possibly renting out Epcot’s “Park in the Sky” for their upcoming Orlando-based conventions. My understanding was that – prior to the pandemic – this three-story-tall structure was supposed to have opened no later than 2023.
CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza
Now … From what I’m being told, the earliest that CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza will be the Fall of 2024. And most of the corporations that had previously shown interest in staging events up on the third floor of Epcot’s proposed “Park in the Sky” are now reportedly disappointed with this new version of the festival center that’s now supposed to be built in World Celebration.
Of course, what’s kind of ironic here is that – by the time CommuniCore Hall & CommuniCore Plaza finally open in late 2024 – World ShowPlace (that originally-supposed-to-be-temporary structure) will then be old enough to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Nothing’s quite as permanent as a temporary tent at Walt Disney World.
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