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You know, as a kid, I always wanted to see how Santa Claus and his team of eight tiny reindeer actually got ready for their annual flight. But given that Connecticut is an awfully long way away from the North Pole, I never got the chance to see what the jolly old elf did prior to Christmas Eve … until just recently.
You see, earlier this month, I was out in Anaheim. And — as I was touring Disneyland — I came across this banner …
Photo by Jeff Lange
Which led me to this sign …
Photo by Jeff Lange
And — sure enough — Santa and his reindeer had temporarily taken up residence at Big Thunder Ranch.
Photo by Jeff Lange
While I was visiting the ranch, most of the reindeer there seemed to be snoozing. As if they were saving up energy for that trip ’round the world on December 24th.
Photo by Jeff Lange
Mind you, a few appeared to be pulling on the old feedbag. Storing up as much energy as they could.
Photo by Jeff Lange
But I guess you burn off a lot of calories while you’re hauling Santa and that huge sleigh around. Speaking of Mr. Claus, I caught him making his list and checking it twice …
Photo by Jeff Lange
And — as it turns out — I guess that this turkey must have been really nice this year …
Photo by Jeff Lange
For President Bush opted to pardon him. Rather than serve this tom up as the main course at the White House’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Photo by Jeff Lange
Anywho … That’s the news for all you folks out there who believe in Santa. That Mr. Claus and his team are rested & refreshed after spending a few weeks in Anaheim. So I’m sure that they’ll all do a swell job tomorrow night.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
Jeff Lange is the staff photographer / archivist here at JHM. He recently launched his own series of unofficial Disney theme park DVDs. Which now includes “California Candelight,” a full recording of the 2005 Candlelight Procession from Disneyland. Which was narrated by Disney Legend *** Van ***.
For further information on “California Candlelight” and/ or any of the other entertaining & informative DVDs that Mr. Lange has produced, we suggest that you follow this link.
Hercules: The Muse-ical￼
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Quick trivia question: What were the names of the three stage shows that were presented on the Disney Magic on that vessel’s maiden voyage back in July of 1998?
- “Disney Dreams”
- “Voyage of the Ghost Ship”
- And “Hercules: The Muse-ical”
It’s that last show – which is based on the hand drawn animated feature that Walt Disney Pictures released back in June of 1997 – that occupies an interesting spot in Mouse House history. Largely because Disney’s “Hercules” (the movie, not the stage show) arrived in theaters at a time when the folks who ran the animation side of the operation at Disney Studios were getting a wee bit nervous about the Company’s supposed supremacy over feature animation.
Disney Animation Success: Aladdin & The Lion King
Some three years previous (June of 1994, to be exact), no one in Hollywood had any doubts at all about who was the top dog when it came to feature animation. And that was because “The Lion King” had just arrived in theaters and was such a huge hit at the world-wide box office. $312 million in ticket sales in North America alone.
To put that in perspective: Disney’s previous biggest hit, at least when it came to hand-drawn animated features, had been “Aladdin.” Which arrived in theaters some 20 months earlier in November of 1992 and had sold $217 million worth of movie tickets domestically. So what with “The Lion King” earning basically one-and-a-half times what “Aladdin” had (Mind you, that’s just the domestic release of this movie that we’re talking about here. Overseas, “The Lion King” made $545 million. Which – compared to the $286 million that “Aladdin” made overseas back in 1992 – that’s nearly double the business) … We’re talking some very serious moola.
But then – in August of 1994 – Jeffrey Katzenberg is forced out as the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. He – in turn – joins forces with Steven Spielberg & David Geffen. And – just two months later (October of 1994) – launches DreamWorks SKG. And one of the key components of this brand-new entertainment conglomerate is an animation studio. Which is then supposed to go head-to-head to the Mouse House.
Cold Streak for Disney Animated Films
Compounding this situation is that Walt Disney Feature Animation suddenly starts to have a cold streak. Where “The Lion King” sold $312 million worth of tickets when it was released to North American theaters in the Summer of 1994, Disney’s “Pocahontas” (which is released to theaters just one year later in June of 1995) does less than half that business. $141 million in domestic ticket sales to be exact.
And then – when Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” arrives in theaters just one year after that in June of 1996 – it does 2/3rds of the business that Disney’s “Pocahontas” had done the previous year. It sells $100 million, $100 thousand worth of tickets in North America. Which – given that Disney’s animated “Hunchback” costs a reported $100 million to make … That’s a problem.
Hercules is Coming: Disney Goes All-Out to Promote New Film
So as the Summer of 1997 looms, Disney is now looking to reverse this box office trend. The Studio needs another “Lion King” -sized hit to show those guys at DreamWorks SKG who’s really the boss in Hollywood when it comes to feature animation. And the Mouse is going to use every tool that it has in its promotional tool kit to make sure that every would-be movie-goer knows that “Hercules” is on its way and it’s a big, bright, colorful, really funny animated feature just like Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Side note: Figuring that Robin Williams’ star power was one of the reasons that Disney’s “Aladdin” had zoomed to the top of the box office back in November of 1992, the Studio initially wanted to use the same sort of stunt casting to make Disney’s “Hercules” a must-see movie-going event. Which is why they originally wanted Jack Nicolson to be the voice of Hades and then hire the Spice Girls to served as the voices of the Muses.
Sadly, in both of these cases, though the Company had meetings with Nicholson and the Spice Girls’ representatives, the cost of hiring these performers to voice characters in Disney’s “Hercules” proved to be prohibitive. So that stunt casting idea was ultimately abandoned.
Hercules Mega Mall Tour
Anyway … Back to promoting “Hercules” as only Disney could … This meant – starting in February of 1997 – the Company sent out the “Hercules” Mega Mall Tour. Which – to raise awareness of the June debut of this new full-length animated feature from Walt Disney Studios – involved stops in 20 different cities around North America over five months time. Over the course of this tour, 4 million cassettes of “Zero to Hero” (The song that Alan Menken & David Zippel had written for this animated feature that – it was felt at the time – had the best chance of being the break-out single from the “Hercules” soundtrack) were handed out to mall patrons.
Hercules New York Movie Premiere
And speaking of June … To make sure that as many people as possible were made aware that Disney’s “Hercules” was opening in theaters, the Company decided to stage the world premiere of this new Ron Clements & John Musker movie in New York City. Not only that, but to present a week-long series of screening of Disney’s “Hercules” in the just-renovated New Amsterdam Theater (which would – just 5 months later, in November of 1997 – would then become home of the Company’s long-running smash hit Broadway musical version of “The Lion King”).
Hercules Electrical Parade
And – to make sure that everyone in NYC knew this was happening – Disney got special permission from then-New York City mayor Rudi Guiliani to roll the Main Street Electric Parade (which, for this one-time promotion event, was renamed the “Hercules Electrical Parade”) down 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue.
Speaking of parades … To make sure that theme park goers knew that Disney’s “Hercules” was now in theaters, a “Hercules” – themed parade rolled through four different theme parks that Summer.
- Disneyland Park in Anaheim
- Disney-MGM in Florida
- Disneyland Paris in France
- and also at Tokyo Disneyland in Japan
It was an unprecedented promotional effort on the Company’s part. More to the point, because they were absolutely certain that “Hercules” was going to turn out to be another “Aladdin” or a “Little Mermaid” (The two animated features that Ron Clements & John Musker had previously made for the Mouse House. Which had then turned into these hugely lucrative franchises for The Walt Disney Company which had gone on to have surprisingly long shelf lives) … Well, that’s Disney – even before “Hercules” had actually arrived in theaters – began making plans as to how it could then extend the shelf life of this particular IP.
Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series
One way was “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series.” Which was basically a prequel to that theatrically released animated feature. 65 episodes of “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series” were produced and then began airing on ABC in September of 1998.
Hercules: The Muse-ical on the Disney Magic
But six weeks prior to that (in late July of that same year), the Disney Magic had its maiden voyage. And Guests who sailed on this 984-foot-long, 84,000-ton vessel were treated to performances of “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” I’ve also seen this stage show referred to as “Hercules: The Muse-ical Comedy.”
There’s only one problem with this plan. This new stage show was debuting onboard the Magic some 13 months after Disney’s “Hercules” had originally arrived in theaters.
Hercules the Box-Office Disappointment
By now, everyone knew that this Ron Clements & John Musker movie had been a box office disappointment.
Only selling $99 million worth of tickets in North America – making “Hercules” the first Disney animated feature to not blow through the $100-million-at-the-domestic-box-office barrier since “The Rescuers Down Under” back in November of 1990.
Disney Cruise Musical Success: Hercules: The Muse-ical & Villains Tonight
Which – you’d think – would have doomed “Hercules: The Muse-ical” to a very short run on the Disney Cruise Line. But here’s the thing: people who voyaged on the Disney Magic (and – later – the Disney Wonder. Which got its own clone of this stage show) just loved “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” They just loved how this stage show was one part stand-up comedy act and another part well-put together musical review.
Which is when – when “Hercules: The Muse-ical” came to the end of its run (in 2005 on the Magic & then in 2008 on the Wonder) – Disney’s Entertainment Department did a very unusual thing. They crafted a sequel show of sorts, “Villains Tonight.” Which brought back the three most popular characters from “Hercules: The Muse-ical” (i.e., Hades, Lord of the Dead and his hapless minions, Pain & Panic) and then had this trio interact with some of Disney’s most famous fiends. Among them Maleficent from “Sleeping Beauty,” the Evil Queen from “Snow White,” Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” … you get the idea.
“Villains Tonight” debut on the Disney Magic in 2010 and quickly proved to be so popular that this stage show was then replicated for the Disney Dream the following year (2011). “Villains Tonight” had a healthy run on both boats, with the Disney Magic version of this show closing up shop in November of 2015 and the Disney Dream version shuttering in August of 2017.
Stage Adaptation of Hercules
But here’s the weird part: These long-running “Hercules” -inspired stage shows proved that there was actually an audience out there for a full-scale Broadway musical version of this Ron Clements & John Musker movie. Which is why – back in September of 2019 – the Public Theater (for one week only) staged … Well, kind of a trial production for a stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules.” It was presented outdoors at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with a cast of 200.
This stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” got such great reviews (in large part thanks to Roger Bart’s performance as Hades, Lord of the Dead.
Fun fact: Mr. Bart was the singing voice of young Hercules in the original animated feature. So when you hear teenaged Herc belting out “I can go the distance,” that’s actually Roger who singing. Bart’s spent the past 25 years being closely associated with this IP)
This world premiere of a stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” was so well received that a follow-up production was immediately put in the works.
Of course, then the pandemic happened. Which then slowed down the momentum for this stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” a little bit. But that follow-up production now has a venue – the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey (which is where the stage version of Disney’s “Newsies” started off life back in September 2011 and then went on to great success of Broadway). We’ve also got some production dates for that show: February 9 – March 12, 2023.
Disney’s Live-Action Hercules
What’s kind of weird about the timing of all this is – while Disney Theatrical is readying a stage version of “Hercules” – (June 2022), it was revealed that Walt Disney Studios has a live-action version of its animated “Hercules” in the works. This big budget project will be directed by Guy Ritchie (who directed that live-action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” which debuted in theaters back in May of 2019 and then went on to sell over a billion dollars worth of ticket at the worldwide box office) and produced by Joe & Anthony Russo.
That’s significant. Given that Joe & Anthony Russo are the guys who directed “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Which tells us that the action scenes in this upcoming live-action musical comedy are going to feature Marvel-level FX work. Which will make this “Hercules” remake / reboot a must-see for Marvel fans.
More Hercules Musicals on Cruise Ships?
So – long story short – “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight” proved that there was an audience out there for a stage version of this Ron Clements / John Musker movie. Which then led to the world premiere of the stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules” at NYC’s Public Theater in September of 2019. Which eventually led to a second production of this stage, which will bow at NJ’s Papermill Playhouse in just six months time.
But is it possible that Disney’s “Hercules” could eventually make its way back onto the Company’s cruise ships? It is worth noting here that – following the success of the live-action reboot of its animated “Beauty & the Beast” (That Bill Condon film was released to theaters back in March of 2017 and then went on to sell $1.2 billion worth of tickets worldwide), the Disney Cruise Line then mounted an all-new stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” that was then based on that live-action remake.
This production debuted on the Disney Dream back in November of 2017 (some eight months after the live-action “Beauty & the Beast” reboot originally debuted in theaters). So it stands to reason that – if Disney Studios’ upcoming live-action reboot of its animated “Hercules” is equally successful – this film too could eventually become fodder for a future stage show that could then be presented onboard the Disney Cruise Line.
Hades – The Lord of the Dead
One final note: Given that Hades was the break-out character in both of those Disney Cruise Line productions (i.e., “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight.” FYI: Both of these DCL shows are currently available for viewing on YouTube), it’s worth noting here is that how Hades is reportedly based on is actually one of the notorious in-jokes in Hollywood history.
You see, given that the Lord of the Dead in Disney’s “Hercules” is portrayed as this slick show business grifter (“We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy. What do you say?”), it’s worth noting here that James Woods – who voiced Hades in the original animated feature – reportedly based his performance on ousted Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Going forward here, it’ll be interesting to see how this character is portrayed in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live-action version of Disney’s “Hercules.”
“House of the Future” – The Plastic House in Disneyland
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I was down in Massachusetts the other day doing some shopping at the Target in Framingham. And as I completed that transaction, I was somewhat surprised to see my groceries being loaded into … Well, not the usual Target bags (i.e., those white plastic ones with the bright red circular Target symbol on the side). But – rather – some plain jane brown paper bags.
Of course, that was because the State of Massachusetts (along with California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont & Washington State) has banned the use of plastic bags within the borders of that state.
FYI: The State of New Jersey put its own statewide ban of plastic bags in place earlier this year. On May 4, 2022, to be exact.
Which – if you’re a child of the 1960s – this is kind of an ironic development. Given that – back when we were kids – the world-at-large seemed to be actively looking for even more ways to incorporate the use of plastic in our day-to-day lives.
Which reminds me of one of the odder walk-thru experiences that was ever built at Disneyland Park (Which – given that Happiest Place on Earth was once home to the Hollywood-Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop [This Main Street, U.S.A. store used to feature – no lie — a “Wonderful Wizard of Bras” show] – is really saying something). That was the “House of the Future,” a 1,280-square-foot structure that the Monsanto Corporation proudly proclaimed was made out of 14 different types of plastics.
Given that this Tomorrowland attraction wasn’t designed by the Imagineers … Well, how the “House of the Future” wind up being built right off Disneyland’s Hub to the left of the entrance of Disneyland?
Post World War II – Moving Out of the City
Well, to tell that story, we have to jump back in time to the years right after World War II. Where – thanks to the G.I. Bill – hundreds of thousands of veterans decided to pursue college degrees. Which then allowed these former fighting men to land positions that paid much, much better than the jobs that their parents had held years previous.
And since these newly affluent veterans could now afford to move out of the city … Well, that’s just what they did. Which we saw places like Levittown (i.e., America’s very first planned community. The prototypical suburb, if you will) get founded in New York State’s Nassau in 1947 and – in just six years time – become the home of more than 70,000 residents.
Mind you, the downside of this sort of building boom is that – by the mid-1950s – America began to experience sort of a shortage when it came to the supplies necessary to continue to build all these new homes for would-be surburbanites.
Monsanto and Plastic Homes
Which the Monsanto Corporation – which was actively looking for additional way to market the plastic that that company produced – saw as an opportunity. Which is when Monsanto executives reached out to Marvin Goody & Richard Hamilton, who were members of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that taught the principles of architecture to students attending that prestigious university. And those execs then asked Goody & Hamilton two intriguing questions:
- Would it be possible to build an affordable modular home entirely out of plastic?
- And – if so – what would that structure look like?
These two MIT professors then went off and considered this problem. And the concept that Goody & Hamilton eventually came up with was … Well, this prefabricated plastic structure that consisted of four cantilevered “wings” that would then rise up off of a concrete slab, which would then as the foundation for what Monsanto was now calling its “House of the Future.”
And the executives at Monsanto just loved what Goody & Hamilton had designed & developed. They knew that – if this prefabricated plastic home prototype were promoted properly and if enough consumers then indicated to home-builders that they’d be interested in purchasing & then living in this sort of modular structure – the “House of the Future” could turn into a significant new revenue stream for that corporation.
Which is when Monsanto then began casting about for a very prominent spot where they could then build a “House of the Future” prototype. Some place where thousands of people could then tour this prefabricated plastic home every single day.
Walt Disney and Problems with Tomorrowland
Which brings us to Walt Disney. Who – in the mid-1950s – has a few problems of his own. Chief among them being that his then-newly-built Disneyland Park desperately needed some new attractions. Especially in the Tomorrowland section of Walt’s family fun park.
What’s genuinely ironic here is that – in spite of the fact that “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond” (i.e., A trio of “Tomorrowland” themed episodes of the “Disneyland” TV show which then aired on that ABC anthology series between March of 1955 & December of 1957) were among the most popular episodes to air on this program … The Tomorrowland section of Disneyland Park was this under-developed hodge-podge of pseudo-futuristic elements.
I mean, sure. This side of Walt’s family fun park had the “Flight to the Moon” ride. Likewise “Space Station X-1.” But right next door to these two genuinely forward-looking attractions were shows that had absolutely nothing to do with the future. Walk-through exhibits like the Dutch Boy Color Gallery, Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum and Crane’s Bathroom of the Future.
Monsanto Corporation Partnership with Walt Disney Productions
Now it’s important to note here that the Monsanto Corporation and Walt Disney Productions already had a working relationship at this point. After all, Monsanto was already sponsoring an attraction at Disneyland, the Hall of Chemistry.
And it’s about this same time (we’re talking late 1956) that some enterprising executive at Monsanto thinks: “No wait a minute. Disneyland gets thousands of visitors every day. And if we build the prototype of our prefabricated plastic home there, our ‘House of the Future’ project would then virtually be guaranteed to get plenty of foot traffic.”
“House of the Future” in Disneyland
So they then reach out to Walt. And as the story goes, the executives at Monsanto hadn’t even finished their pitch for this prototype-prefabricated-plastic-home-to-be-displayed-at-Disneyland idea when Disney said “Yes.” In fact, according to what Disney Legend John Hench once told me, Walt was so enthusiastic about Monsanto’s “House of the Future” that he proposed that this prototype of a prefabricated plastic home not just be built in Tomorrowland but that it be built right at the entrance of Tomorrowland. As in: That the “House of the Future” would be one of the very first things Guests would see when they arrived at Disneyland’s Hub.
More importantly, that Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic house be built right across the way from the most photographed thing in Walt’s family fun park. Which was – of course – Sleeping Beauty Castle.
To say that this project was fast-tracked is an understatement. Within weeks of signing the deal with Monsanto, the folks at Disneyland were already pouring the concrete slab that this 1,280-square-foot house would then sit on.
By the way, to make sure that virtually every Disneyland Guest would be able to tour the “House of the Future” when they visited Walt’s family fun park, this new Tomorrowland attraction was heavily hyped as being a freebie. As was Monsanto’s Hall of Chemistry, by the way.
Opening Monsanto’s “House of the Future” at Disneyland
And Walt … Of the heels of construction of Monsanto’s “House of the Future” beginning, he decided to double down on expanding & upgrading Disneyland’s Tomorrowland section. Which is why — just two days before Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic home opened to the public on June 12, 1957, Walt cut the ribbon on the Viewliner. Which was advertised as the “Train of Tomorrow.” Though –truth be told – WED’s resident mechanical genius Bob Gurr had cobbled together this futuristic-looking narrow gauge train out of parts he’d harvested off of various Oldsmobiles & Jeeps.
Anyway … Monsanto’s instincts when it came to building its “House of the Future” at Disneyland Park translating into lots of foot traffic for its prefabricated plastic home prototype turned out to be dead on. Within the first six weeks that this new Tomorrowland attraction was open to the public, over 435,000 people toured the “House of the Future.” That’s over 10,000 Guests per day.
And the Disneyland hosts & hostesses (That’s what Disneyland employees were called back in the late 1950s / early 1960s. Not Cast Members. But – rather – hosts & hostesses) who led tour groups through the prototype of Monsanto’s prefabricated home proudly talked about the 14 different types of plastic that had been used in its construction. They also pointed out the cutting edge tech that had been incorporated into this house’s design. Things like a microwave oven.
The Future of Plastic Homes
But while over 20 million people who trooped through Monsanto’s “House of the Future” during its decade-long stay in Tomorrowland (and then “Ooohed” & “Aaahed” at things like this home’s ultra sonic dishwasher. Which didn’t use any water to clean the all-plastic dishes & utensils that were used in its kitchen) … Unfortunately, Monsanto got very few takers for its prefabricated plastic homes.
Which is why – by the early 1960s – the Company had all but abandoned its original idea of making the manufacture of prefabricated plastic homes a new division for the Monsanto Corporation. Which is why – when Walt approached Monsanto around this same time and said “Hey, we’re thinking of redoing Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area. Do you want to stay on as a sponsor of something on this side of the Park?,” Monsanto’s response was “Yeah. But we want something new. Pull down the ‘House of the Future’ and close the’ Hall of Chemistry.’ This time around, we want some sort of Tomorrowland attraction that the Guests can ride on.”
And that’s exactly what the Imagineers did. They gutted Monsanto’s “Hall Of Chemistry” and then placed an Omnimover inside of that Tomorrowland show building. And that became the ride system which then took Disneyland visitors on an “Adventure Thru Inner Space.” Which first opened to the public on August 5, 1967.
What Happened to Disneylands “House of the Future”?
As for the “House of the Future” … Given that that structure was constructed out of 14 different types of plastics, pulling down this Tomorrowland attraction proved to be problematic. What was supposed to be completed in a single day eventually stretched out into a two week-long ordeal. Largely because this prefabricated plastic house stymied all of the usual methods that Disneyland employees used (i.e., wrecking balls, bulldozers, etc) when they were leveling a show building. In time, they had to go at this futuristic structure with hacksaws & chain pullers. Because that was the only way to reduce the “House of the Future” to small enough pieces that it could then be hauled away.
Mind you, the concrete slab that had served as the “House of the Future” ‘s foundation stayed in place. As did the vaguely futuristic-looking landscaping that Morgan “Bill” Evans and the rest of Disneyland’s horticultural team had planted around this Tomorrowland walk-thu.
Jump ahead a few years. And now that landscaping (which had been originally planted back in 1957 to give the “House of the Future” a lush, green frame) had grown up so much that this section of the Hub was then redubbed this theme park’s Alpine Garden. With the idea now being that this chunk of greenery would now serve as the forested foothills of Matterhorn Mountain.
That was done in the early 1970s. Nearly 15 years after that, someone else moved into the neighborhood: The Little Mermaid. Which is why – in 1996 – Disneyland’s Alpine Garden was renamed King Triton’s Garden. Then in 2008, this part of that theme park (which had been changed into a place where Guests could then meet & greet with Ariel) was reimagined as Pixie Hollow. Which then gave Disneyland visitors a place where they could go interact with Tinker Bell.
This meet & greet is still operational at the Happiest Place on Earth. That said, if you look off the right of that oversized teapot which Tink calls home … Well, you can still see that concrete slab which – over 50 years ago now – once served as the foundation for the “House of the Future.”
FYI: If you’d like to learn more about this Tomorrowland walk-thru, Dave Bossert – the author of “Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios” and “Claude Coats: Walt Disney’s Imagineer—The Making of Disneyland, From Toad Hall to the Haunted Mansion and Beyond” – is in the process of writing a brand-new book, “The House of the Future: Walt Disney, MIT, and Monsanto’s Vision of Tomorrow.” Which is due to be published sometime in 2023.
Fort Wilderness – What Might Have Been
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The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness Campground has been silent for 27 months. On June 23, 2022, Pioneer Hall will come roaring back to life with three nightly presentations of this beloved musical dinner show (4 p.m., 6:15 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.)
Building Fort Wilderness Campground
Just 9 months prior to the October 1971 opening of the WDW Resort – Dick Nunis (who had just been placed in charge of getting Disney World open on time) had just learned that little to no work had been done to date on the Disney’s Fort Wilderness resort’s campground.
Dick turned to Keith Kambak – a veteran Disneyland employee who had a degree in recreation – and effectively said “You’re coming to Florida with me. And you’re going to build a campground.”
When Keith pointed out that he had never built a campground before and began to ask questions like “What sort of budget am I working with?,” Dick growled “Don’t bother me with questions. Just go build that campground?”
Kambak gets on the ground in Orlando and then discovers why Nunis didn’t tell him what the budget was for Fort Wilderness.
There is no budget.
Disney World is so far over-budget at this point that there’s a real question – in the late Winter / early Spring of 1971 – whether the Resort will be able to find the funding necessary to complete construction of the Contemporary and/or the Polynesian Village Resorts. Let alone get started on building a new onsite campground.
But the PR material for Walt Disney World has been talking up camping at the Vacation Kingdom for over 5 years now. Saying things like …
People have already booked trips to Disney World because they wanted to go camping at that Resort. Go swimming in Bay Lake. So Disney now has to figure out how to deliver on what it said in all those press release.
Luckily, Keith Kambak is clever, resourceful and slightly dishonest. He becomes famous for waiting ‘til the construction workers go home at 5 and then sending trucks into the Magic Kingdom worksite to steal lumber & bags of cement. Which is what Keith then uses to build Fort Wilderness’ original reception center and the first 200 campsites.
Opening Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground
Mind you – Fort Wilderness isn’t ready for opening day.
Hell, this campground really isn’t ready when in finally throws open its doors on November 19, 1971 – seven weeks after the first group of Guests pushed through the turnstiles over at the Magic Kingdom.
But even if Fort Wilderness isn’t really ready for prime time, campers absolutely love the place right out of the gate. It initially costs $11 a night to stay there. And the people who stay there are really excited that – as part of that $11 fee – they get access to the entire WDW transportation system. The monorails, the launches, the motor coaches.
And given that demand for those 200 campsites far exceeds the available supply, Walt Disney World quickly begins to expand Fort Wilderness. In October of 1972 (just in time for the celebration of the Resort’s grand opening a year previous), it is announced that Disney World’s onsite campground will more than doubling in size. Adding an additional 300 sites.
By now, WDW managers have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Guests who are staying at the Contemporary & Polynesian Village will make a special trip over to Fort Wilderness over the course of their WDW vacation just to check the place out.
Mind you, there isn’t much to see at this point. A handful of campsites and a trading post. But the Imagineers make note of the steady stream of daily visitors that Fort Wilderness has been experiencing and then decides … Well, let’s give them something to see.
Fort Wilderness Railroad
So a plan is formed. First and foremost, the Imagineers decide to build a transportation system that will take Guests from Fort Wilderness’ reception area to the south all the way up to the campground’s recreation area along Bay Lake. This 3-mile-long round-trip narrow gauge rail line (which will be serviced by four steam trains with 5 cars each – capable of carrying 90 passengers at a time) will carry Guests from their campsites to the reception area and then down to the waterfront.
That rail line gets installed over the Summer of 1973. It’s field-tested in the Fall of that same year and finally fully operational just time for Christmas Week 1973 / 1st week of January 1974.
Tri-Circle D Ranch
There’s another reason that the Imagineers built that rail line. That’s because they’re looking to develop the middle-most section of Fort Wilderness. This area – known as the Settlement – initially holds just the Tri-Circle D Ranch (which is where the horses that pull the trolleys on Main Street over at the Magic Kingdom spend their days off. Likewise Fort Wilderness’ petting zoo).
But because so many Guests staying at the Contemporary & the Polynesian Village are making a special trip over to Fort Wilderness as part of their WDW vacation just to see what there is to see over there … the Imagineers give them something to see.
The first thing up out of the ground is Pioneer Hall, which is constructed out of 1,283 hand-fitted pine logs from Montana and 70 tons of stones from North Carolina. This venue first opens its doors on April 1, 1974. And initially there is absolutely no mention of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.”
Instead, Pioneer Hall is described as having “ … a 250-seat steak house where ranch-style barbecues will be offered, plus a 150-seat snack bar, theme shops and an arcade for after-hours recreation.”
Mind you, if you dig down in the original Pioneer Hall press release (which initially says that this complex will be up & running by February of 1974), there is mention that this “new service-oriented campground complex” would be fully equipped when it came to the presenting of musical stage shows.
But at this point (The Spring of 1974), there’s honestly no talk of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo.” There is – however – all sorts of talk of the other components of Fort Wilderness’ Settlement project. Which are supposed to begin construction shortly.
And a year or so after Western Town opened at Fort Wilderness opened, the Imagineers then wanted to build (this is from the Company’s 1973 annual report) …
The Roost and River Country
Wait. It gets better. WDW managers – at this point – were actually talking about building a fun house onsite at Fort Wilderness. One that would feature show scenes designed by Marc Davis and would be housed in an eccentric-looking mansion that would be called “The Roost.”
Once “The Roost” was opened (This project was projected to be completed by the Summer of 1977, with Fort Wilderness’ swimming hole – eventually called “River Country” – opening the previous year. Just in time for America’s bicentennial), WDW officials eventually envisioned selling visitors to their Florida vacation kingdom a special Fort Wilderness ticket book. Which would then give Guests a full day of fun at Fort Wilderness.
- Take the bus over to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
- Then take the train down to that campground’s settlement section
- Swim in the morning at River Country
- Spend the afternoon exploring the Roost, hiking Fort Wilderness’ nature trails, visiting the petting zoo and/or go horseback riding
- Catch a performance of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue” at Pioneer Hall
- Do some souvenir shopping in Frontier Town
- Walk down to the waterfront at Bay Lake after dusk and then catch a presentation of the “Electrical Water Pageant”
- Grab the train and head back up to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
- Take a motor coach back to your hotel
1973 Arab Oil Embargo Impacts Fort Wilderness Development
This was the plan as the Fall of 1973. Which then – of course – is when the Arab Oil Embargo got underway. And attendance levels at Walt Disney World suddenly fell off by 20% because of the odd / even gas rationing that was going on at that time. So many Guests were worried that – if they began driving down to Walt Disney World – that they then wouldn’t be able to find enough gasoline en route to complete their journey to the Resort.
The Arab Oil Embargo obviously had a huge impact on Fort Wilderness’ previously-stellar occupancy levels (Typically at 100% capacity from Christmas Week through Labor Day) because of the number of people who’d drive down to Disney World pulling a trailer. Occupancy levels dropped to 70% and managers there got scared.
The other components of the Fort Wilderness’ Settlement area – the Stockade and Western Town, to be specific – that were to follow Pioneer Hall got placed on hold. As did Marc Davis’ The Roost project.
As for “River Country” … I’m told that the only reason that project went forward is because the Company had already ordered the 2500 feet of flume that would eventually be used to build Whoop-n-Holler Hollow.
Fascinating to think what might have been around Pioneer Hall if the Arab Oil Embargo hadn’t tripped up WDW’s executives to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long destination for Disney World visitors to experience over their Florida vacation.
One final stat from a Disney annual report from 1974 that just fascinated me:
Just so you know: WDW didn’t entirely abandon its plans to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long vacation destination.
Opening River Country at Fort Wilderness Campground
River Country opened at Fort Wilderness on June 19, 1976. This five-acre water park quickly started drawing – on average — 4,700 Guests per day during the Summer months of 1976. Interestingly enough, there is no drop in attendance levels over at the Magic Kingdom after the opening of River Country. Which means that this new water park is drawing an additional nearly 5000 people to the Resort every day. Which means that River Country immediately became a huge new profit center at WDW.
Downside … All of these additional people coming to Fort Wilderness every day needing to get down to the water park just as most people staying at WDW’s campsite want to get over to the Magic kingdom overwhelm the campground’s steam train line / eventually causing the system to fail.
Imagineers immediately begin looking for ways to expand Fort Wilderness. Company’s 1976 annual report mentions plans for “ … more water rides, an additional raft ride or a two-man boat ride.”
Likewise, to try and handle the crowds who are now pouring int Fort Wilderness each day, the Imagineers revisit the idea of building Frontiertown in the stretch of land that exists between Pioneer Hall and River Country.
But then the Company gets serious about going forward with construction of EPCOT Center. And all available funding for future expansion at the WDW Resort – including the funds that had been set aside for Fort Wilderness – gets funneled into WDW’s second gate.
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