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If there are two topics you can depend on Roger to give you more information about, they are Disney and railroading. This week, he puts them together in a look at just some of the Disney movies that have featured trains.

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Okay a couple of things before get started on this scholarly (read long) effort today. Don’t be misled by all of the railroad aspects of this story. There are a lot of Disney tidbits in it as well.

A couple of things of note from the San Francisco Chronicle for August 20, 2003.

It looks like Trader Vic’s will be back in San Francisco sometime next year. Today’s Food Section mentions that it will be moving into the location at 555 Golden Gate Avenue that used to be Stars. Earthquake retrofitting will keep them busy for a while. More details as I get them to pass along. One item has the creation of a place called Old Havana with a Cuban influence as part of the project — complete with lots of rum drinks!

The front page carried this story about a woman who died after being attacked by a great white shark (a.k.a. Bruce from “Jaws”) while swimming 75 yards off of Avila Beach on the California Coast. Now any death is tragic, but this one seriously qualifies for the Darwin Awards, in my opinion. This woman had been swimming along the coast for a number of years, so she should have known about sharks. Specifically that these sharks favor seals as the food of choice. So? What does she do? She’s dressed in a black full body wet suit, and is out swimming with… THE SEALS!!! And the shark, out for a snack, swims up to the pack, and goes in for the kill, getting this woman, instead of a seal. And to add to the irony, there was a group of lifeguards on shore not far away doing a series of competitions nearby.

So that’s from the news…

Now to the story for today.

Our textbook — Walt Disney’s Railroad Story by Michael Broggie. Regrettably, after two printings (a total of 17,000 copies), this book is currently out of print. Checking Amazon or eBay, you might find a copy for sale, but at a premium price. Giving Mr. Broggie credit, this volume is a fine work. Now the book does tell the tale of Walt and his love of railroads. But only briefly is addressed is how that crossed over into movies. It doesn’t go quite far enough. A small sidebar covers “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Fess Parker, but doesn’t really tell the whole story.

That’s like offering you a fine meal, but only serving one course. Rather than have you go away hungry, allow me to serve up the rest.

In particular, we’ll be looking at three movies. The first two were made when Walt was still alive, and the last involved one the most well know steam locomotives in the country.

Astute readers of the book may recall that Ward Kimball’s “Grizzly Flats Railroad” was a favorite of Walt’s as well. But it lacked something every railroad needs — a station building. Mr. Broggie well relates the tale of how Ward convinced Walt to give him the set pieces that made up the depot structure from the film “So Dear To My Heart”. And it tells the tale of how Ward and company assembled the pieces as best they could, matching paint. Now remember this was only a three sided set, not a real station building. Using a crane, the crew set the roof on the structure, only to have it collapse under it’s own weight. There simply wasn’t sufficient framing to hold it up.

The final result admired as the Grizzly Flats station ended up being an almost new structure using very little of the set pieces. Most notable were the doors and windows. Ward recalled later that he could have built the building from scratch for less than in finally cost him.

The book also recounts how the drawings for the station (done by Ward) ended up being used as the basis for Disneyland’s Frontierland station structure.

The “E.P. Ripley”, Santa Fe & Disneyland #2 arrives on the platform
at the Frontierland Station with the Holiday One trainset.
Photo by Roger Colton.

Now what it doesn’t tell is the story of the locomotive used in the film. And considering the subject, that’s a shame. But not to worry, cause that’s a gap I’m going to fill in today.

This part of today’s tale goes way back, and into my neck of the woods, to Nevada. One of my earlier efforts told the tale of Billy Ralston and his Bank of California. In an effort to extend their control over Virginia City and the Comstock, they built a railroad. Originally conceived as the means of transporting ore from the mines to their mills for processing, it became the connection to both the East and West coasts by connecting with the Central Pacific nearby at Reno.

A new railroad needed new equipment to do the job, and the Virginia & Truckee ordered locomotives from several sources. One company was the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Having experienced success with previous orders, the V&T looked to Baldwin again, and on March 22, 1875, their latest product arrived in Reno. “Inyo”, the name applied, is Indian term meaning “dwelling place of a great spirit.” It is also affixed to a lengthy mountain range and a large county in eastern California. At a cost of $9,065, she was the latest word in technology. Given the number 22 on the railroad’s roster, she served a long career. Here’s a link to more details.

The glory days of the V&T lasted as long as the ore was profitable on the Comstock. When boom turned to borrasca, many of the railroad’s locomotives were stored out of service in the great stone enginehouse in Carson City. “Inyo” was one of those, considered retired after 1926, but seeing occasional service as needed.

In what could easily be called kismet, the V&T was discovered by the folks in Hollywood. John Ford’s 1924 silent film, “The Iron Horse” made extensive use of the V&T. The use locomotives and cars from the era of the construction of the transcontinental railroad undoubtedly contributed to the first major success of Ford’s career. Yet as realistic as the location and equipment were, it wasn’t practical to send a company out there for every picture requiring a train.

So, the studios did the next best thing. They bought the train and made use of it closer to home, if not on the backlot. The “Inyo” was one of the first to go, to Paramount, appearing first in 1937’s “High, Wide and Handsome“. In 1939, she appeared in Cecil B. Demille’s “Union Pacific” (covering the same subject as Ford’s “Iron Horse, although not as well, in my opinion).

The locomotive was used in Disney’s “Great Locomotive Chase” in 1956. Filmed on location in Georgia, “Inyo” appeared in the guise of the “Texas”, while the Baltimore & Ohio’s “William Mason” (from the B&O Museum in Baltimore) did the duty as the “General”. The Museum also contributed the “Lafayette” appearing as the yard locomotive “Yonah”. This link offers more info on both and others in the B&O Museum collection. (The Museum suffered tragic damage this last winter when part of the roof of the historic roundhouse where locomotives and cars were on display collapsed under the weight of record snowfall. Luckily, both of these locomotives were not in the building at that time.)

Now for the ironic element of the story. For television’s “Wild Wild West”, the “Inyo” was one of several locomotives to appear in various views hauling the private train of Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon. This link offers a glimpse into more history of that production. (The pilot episode for the series featured the Sierra Railroad at Jamestown, California (which you might remember from another effort) and their locomotive #3, star of many other tv shows and movies — most recently as the locomotive in “Back to the Future III.”) In the recent movie version of the “Wild Wild West,” it was the “William Mason” that took the role as the locomotive on the train or the “Wanderer” as it has become known.

Among many other movie and television roles, “Inyo” appeared in “So Dear To My Heart” along with the Ward Kimball station at Fulton’s Corners. And just as the station survives (somewhat) at Ward’s Grizzly Flats Railroad, the “Inyo” survives at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City.

Much of the V&T’s equipment that survived into the later years found it’s way to Hollywood. The “Inyo” and sister locomotive “Dayton” found their way to Utah’s Promontory Point (The Gold Spike National Historic Site) where they stood in for the original locomotives for the centennial of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1969.

The two locomotives from 1869, Union Pacific #119 and Central Pacific “Jupiter” were both scrapped after years of productive service on their respective railroads. In 1980, the National Park Service had replicas created by Chadwell O’Connor Engineering of Costa Mesa with assistance from Ward Kimball.

Chad O’Connor also has a Disney connection. During an afternoon of filming trains on the platform at the Southern Pacific’s Glendale station, he was approached by someone who was interested in his unique camera setup. That setup was the early version of the fluid head camera mount allowing smooth camera movements. The person he was approached by was Walt Disney, and O’Connor was hired to provide his fluid head mount (for which he later won a special Oscar for technical achievement) for Disney’s True to Life series of films.

“Dayton” was another veteran of films and was purchased by the State of Nevada along with the “Inyo” and other equipment from Paramount in 1974. Both came back to Carson City and are restored to museum standards. “Inyo” has been to many events since including the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair. She is under steam on a regular basis, bringing her history back to life for Museum guests.

At the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, “Inyo”
under steam with “Dayton” on display behind.
Photo by Roger Colton.

The “Dayton” has a further Disney connection. She was one of ten of her class built by the Central Pacific in their Sacramento shops in1873. The V&T purchased two identical locomotives from this group. One other locomotive in this group was numbered 173. That was the same locomotive that Walt Disney based his “Carolwood & Pacific” “Lilly Belle” upon using original Central Pacific construction drawings.

Moving up the timeline, how about Disney’s “Pollyanna?” You might recall that I mentioned that the location where the movie’s opening scenes were filmed. That was the Southern Pacific’s branch line to Calistoga, and today you can enjoy a trip on the Napa Wine Train to the same train station in St. Helena. The train seen in those opening and closing moments of the film? Yes, it’s still around today. The locomotive, Watertown & Eastern #94? That’s the next chapter…

In 1909, the Western Pacific Railroad was building its line from a connection with the Denver & Rio Grande and the Missouri Pacific to complete the rail empire of industrialist Jay Gould. When finished, the WP promised to open ports in the West, breaking the monopoly of the Harriman railroads — the Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific. This would have the effect of opening the Pacific rim to rest of the nation as cargos could flow both in and out of the ports of San Francisco and Oakland at favorable rates.

The WP ordered new locomotives based on tried and true designs then in use on the parent railroads. Blessed by design with minimal grades, standards were adopted to keep passengers and freight moving. The new company turned to the American Locomotive Company and ordered a series of locomotives that would see service for the next forty years.

To celebrate the opening of the route, the railroad operated the “Press Representative Special” from Salt Lake to Oakland. Along with the members of the Fourth Estate were a variety of local dignitaries. Stops were made at important points along the way to offer opportunities to explore the wonders of this new route.

Of the locomotives that pulled that train, one survived on the roster of the railroad until 1964. Number 94 was one of 21 locomotives in its class. Builders #46446 was designed to pull trains of eight to ten cars at speeds up to seventy miles per hour over the railroad. It pulled the special train through the scenic Feather River canyon between Portola and Oroville in the summer of 1910. After that it was one of the workhorses of the fleet on trains such as the Scenic Limited and the Feather River Express.

WP employee Gilbert Kneiss should be given the credit for seeing to it that the railroad preserved this locomotive. When due to be retired and scrapped in 1948, he convinced railroad officials that it could be renovated and used to celebrate the 40th anniversary or Ruby Jubilee of the line’s opening. While her sisters were scrapped (as diesel electric locomotives came into service, saving costs in labor and fuel), she was to be saved for the future.

The railroad used the 94 for those anniversary celebrations and then made her available for excursions over the next few years. In 1953, she was restored to her original appearance with gold leaf for striping and lettering. The next time you watch “Pollyanna,” note the “Watertown & Eastern” lettering applied by the Disney artists for the film. After filming was completed, they reapplied the Western Pacific lettering over it. (That was the source of a great joke years later when we repainted the tender after removing the Disney lettering. On several occasions we got some kid to ask our master mechanic what Watertown & Eastern stood for. It was usually good for a quick rise as he was one of the folks who operated the sand blaster removing it!)

The last outing for the 94 again as to celebrate an anniversary, this time the 50th. She made a trip from Oakland to Niles where she was placed in the front of the California Zephyr for the final miles into Oakland. Then she sat in storage in a roundhouse with other historic equipment awaiting a museum home. Finally in 1964, she was donated to the San Francisco Maritime Museum Association for a combined rail and maritime museum project proposed for San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf Area. While waiting for that to occur, she was moved to join other equipment belonging to the Pacific Coast Chapter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in shed near the toll plaza of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge.

When the museum project fell through, she sat forgotten by most of the rail fans in the area. In the mid Seventies, the shed where she was stored was slated to be removed to allow for expansion of facilities at the Oakland Army Base/Port of Oakland. Two very dedicated volunteers from the California Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction were instrumental in convincing the Board of the Maritime Museum Association that they could restore the locomotive and several others to operation. They had already done so with one locomotive (that their museum did not fully own), and were now looking for another project. Their timing was just right.

Ross Cummings and Gerry Hanford were those two people. Ross was a specialty machinist restoring vintage racecars. Gerry was a member of a team that had restored as well as even built locomotives. (The Redwood Valley Railroad recreates railroading as it might have been on the California North Coast at the turn of the Twentieth Century, albeit in a smaller, but very accurate scale.) They lead an effort that got folks like me involved in every filthy job needed to get the 94 ready to move on her own wheels in the spring of 1979.

The WP provided a special train with a locomotive and a caboose that towed the 94 over the same rails she had seen in service for over fifty years. Arriving at Rio Vista Junction, further repairs were completed that allowed the operation under steam for the first time in almost twenty years. During those first days, we were all very proud as the 94 was quite the lady back in service, even if only on a short leash.

At speed on the Museum mainline in 1980.
Photo by Roger Colton.

Now locomotives are just like other machines and they do wear out. The stresses of operation take their toll. Such was the case with the 94. She last operated in the summer of 1989 on a special train for a potential donor. Since then she has been stored out of view of Museum visitors inside a barn at Rio Vista Junction with a very bleak future.

Her last complete overhaul was in 1949 by the WP. While we were able to do some repairs at the Museum, it was simply time for a more involved restoration. The boiler shell needed to be checked for soundness. The boiler tubes and flues were at the end of their lifetimes. Replacement was the only option. And we were noting other signs of age as well that could no longer be ignored. A plan was formulated and a budget adopted.

Things changed at the Museum. First came a name change (to the Western Railway Museum) to avoid confusion with the State railroad museum in Sacramento. Later, a clique of members who have been in power for more than thirty years decided not to pursue further steam operations. Finally they ended all steam restoration projects and passenger train service, with the goal of seeing folks who supported both (such as myself) leaving once their projects were no longer viable or funded. A very cold, callous and calculated series of actions all cleverly manipulated to get the intended results. (No links to the Western Railway Museum nor do I encourage anyone to support any of their activities in any way, shape or form.)

It’s not impossible that the 94 will again steam, just unlikely for a while.

The last locomotive in this story was one of the major players in the Touchstone production of “Tough Guys” with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Filmed on location in the Taylor Yard complex of the Southern Pacific in Los Angeles and on the Kaiser Steel railroad near Fontana, this train was as much a part of history as the “Gold Coast Flyer” it portrayed.

The Southern Pacific Railroad offered passenger service along the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the days before Highway 101 or Interstate 5, and before the advent of air travel, the Espee was the only way for many travelers to get to their destinations. Following the route established by the Spanish with their Missions, the railroad travels for 113 miles along the shore of the Pacific Ocean. As the Depression was coming to an end, the president of the railroad looked for ways to increase passenger traffic. Equipping the premier train in 1939 with new cars and locomotives in an attractive paint scheme of red, orange and black, the “Coast Daylight” was an overwhelming success. So much so that extra sections of the train were sold out as well! (While I don’t know for certain, it is very possible that Walt might have ridden on the “Daylight” or one of the other trains of the Coast route at some point, perhaps pulled by one of those new locomotives.)

My mother has many fond memories of riding the streetcar from her home on San Francisco’s Twenty-Ninth Avenue to the downtown station of the Southern Pacific at Third and Townsend Streets (today the location of Pacific Bell Park — home of the San Francisco Giants!) to board the “Daylight” for the ride to San Luis Obispo to spend time with her maternal grandparents. It was exciting for everyone, not just young girl! A particular highlight was a meal in the dining car, served on the railroads Prairie Mountain Wildflower china with silver and linen as well.

The locomotives ordered for the train were the latest in superpower technology. Produced by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, they were streamlined and fast. Called the Golden State or GS classes, there were over 60 of these destined for service across the Espee system. From the premiere passenger train, they went to secondary trains, then to commute service between San Francisco and San Jose, and finally into freight service. (My great grandfather’s last trip as an engineer was made aboard one pulling a mail train from Carlin to Sparks, Nevada in 1950.) The last one was replaced by diesel locomotives in 1958. Two were saved for museums. One went to St Louis, Missouri and the other to Portland, Oregon. It looked like a quiet retirement for both.

In the early Seventies, a group was looking for ways to celebrate the upcoming Bicentennial of the United States. One concept had a train traveling the country to exhibit rare artifacts for the nation’s past, including the Declaration of Independence. Rather than simply use diesel locomotives from the current railroads, they decided to look around the country for a steam locomotive with enough historic significance to be part of the exhibits it’s self. A team traveled to country looking at many potential candidates. In the end, they chose two – one from the east and one from the west. The western choice? One of those two remaining Daylight steam locomotives. Number 4449, in Portland, Oregon, was restored to operating condition.

Painted red, white and blue, she traveled east from to join the train in 1975 and toured a good deal of the country ending up in Florida in 1977. To get home to Portland, she carried the “Amtrak Transcontinental Steam Excursion”, making day trips between cities along the way. In 1981, she was repainted into her distinctive “Daylight” colors and traveled to Sacramento for the opening celebrations for the California State Railroad Museum. (As an amusing side note, the Western Pacific 94 was specifically not invited to participate, but was in operation under steam less than twenty five miles away, during the festivities.)

In 1984, she was again under steam with a complete train. The “World’s Fair Daylight” traveled from Portland to New Orleans along the Espee route, again carrying passengers on day trips.

For “Tough Guys”, she traveled down in early 1986 to Los Angeles. Her engineer, Doyle McCormack, even has a speaking role as the train’s engineer. “No one robs trains anymore.” The Disney studio folks built two replicas of the 4449 for the movie. One was a full size replica of the locomotive cab’s interior that rode on a flatcar. It was easier to film than in the real cab. The other replica was a full-size mock-up for the scenes at the end of the film where the train crashes through the fence at the Mexican border. (Not to worry, they used a miniature for the very convincing action scenes.) The replica appeared after the incident, complete with the following dialogue: “Gee, we wrecked their train.” “Well, they weren’t going to use it any more anyway.” As much of a train enthusiast as Walt was, I know he would have enjoyed it.

The “Gold Coast Flyer” in the Espee’s Taylor Yard in 1986.
Photo collection of Roger Colton.

I chased the train both down to San Luis Obispo with Jeff Ferris and another railfan (who will remain anonymous, as he’s still working on a railroad) and then back from Los Angeles several months later. That was quick a shock to my wife to be as she later learned that I had been out doing this the week before we were getting married. (Seventeen years later she still hasn’t forgiven me.)

The 4449 has appeared on various excursions since that time. In 2002, she was repainted into her Freedom Train colors and made several trips out of Portland. She’s on display right now at the upcoming Oregon State Fair until September 1.

So there you have it. More tales about railroads and Disney films.

Be back next week for another thrilling chapter in Roger’s “Things You Always Wanted To Do…” series as we head out onto the open range! “Saddle up! We’re burning daylight!”

Thanks again to everyone for supporting these efforts through Roger’s Amazon Honor System Paybox. It keeps him going during these long hours at the keyboards.

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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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History

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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History

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

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

Original Disneyland Lessees

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

That’s an interesting number – 33.

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

Van Camp Seafood Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon

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

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

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

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

The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant

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

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

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

Credit: iCollector.com

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

Building the Jolly Roger

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

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

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

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

Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead

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

Credit: Pinterest/Chicken of the Sea

The Flying Jolly Roger

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

Painting and Camera Tricks

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

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

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

Credit: Disney Parks

Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship

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

Credit: MickeyMousePark.com

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

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

And here’s a quote from this piece:

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

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

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

Van Camp Seafood Partnership

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

Captain Hook’s Galley

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

Moving to New Fantasyland

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

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

Credit: Walt Disney Family Museum

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

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

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

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

Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger

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

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

Credit: MickeyMousePark.com

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

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

Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris

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

Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream

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

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

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

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