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Superstar Limo: What Went Wrong?

Given that it’s been over two years since this DCA attraction was last open to the public, many people have forgotten how horrible Superstar Limo was. More importantly, why this Hollywood Pictures Backlot ride wound up being so bad. In a revamped version of a July 2001 LaughingPlace.com series, Jim reveals all the embarrassing details.

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The following is a heavily edited (and somewhat revamped) version of a series of articles that I wrote for LaughingPlace.com back in July 2001. If you’d like to read the full-blown, four part version of this story, visit the Jim Hill archive at LaughingPlace.com. Where you’ll find the original stories — along with many other articles that I wrote during my six month stint at LaughingPlace.com — archived.

Soooo … what exactly went wrong with Superstar Limo?

To be honest, it wasn’t just budget cuts that ruined this Disney’s California attraction. But — rather — it was the death of a princess that actually did the original version of this ride in.

To really understand what went wrong here, you need to know what Superstar Limo would have been like had this attraction been built according to WDI’s original specs. However — in order to get the full effect here — you’ll need to chase down some of the original concept art that the Walt Disney Company put out for California Adventure back in 1996, right after construction of the theme park was originally announced.

You’ll be able to recognize artwork from this period fairly quickly. This was when DCA’s Hollywood district (as this side of the new Disneyland Resort theme park was called back in those days) featured an enormous Sorcerer Mickey hat rising out of the center of this area. This oversized hat would have served as the icon / weenie for this side of the park. Guests would have walked under this super-sized chapeau as they entered “The Magic of Disney Animation” pavilion in the studio section of the park.

Now — if you’ve been able to chase down any conceptual artwork from this period in the park’s history — allow your eyes to drift back toward the north eastern corner of DCA’s Hollywood area. The section where “Hollywood and Dine” now resides. Notice anything unusual?

Yep, that is a miniature version of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. That weirdly futuristic building you’ve undoubtedly seen in dozens of movies and TV shows. It’s the image that many film-makers use as visual shorthand, to quickly let viewers know that the action has suddenly shifted to LA.

According to DCA plans circa late 1996 / early 1997, guests riding the Monorail would have had a particularly nice view of this miniature version of the Theme Building. (According to some WDI insiders I’ve spoken with, there was even talk of putting a miniature version of “Encounters” — that trendy retro, oh-so-hip Disney designed sci-fi themed restaurant/bar that Imagineer Eddie Sotto helped install in the real LA Airport’s Theme Building back in the 1990s — inside the downsized DCA version of this Southern California icon. But — as this project’s budgets began to get slashed in late 1997 — the postage stamp sized version of this chic LA eatery was one of the first things to be placed on DCA’s chopping block. Or so I’ve heard. Anyway …) These folks would have also been able to look down at all the Disney’s California Adventure guests who were queuing up to enter the attraction.

Now it’s important to understand here that the queue area of the current version of Superstar Limo retains some of the wit and edge that the earlier, much more grandieous version of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction would have had. The snarky posters that hang in the pre-show area, that make all those snide industry jokes. The Cast Members who ask “How many in your entourage?”

But having a miniature version of the LAX Theme Building serve as the show building Superstar Limo would have done such a better job of setting the stage for this ride, giving guests a real sense of time and place before they boarded this attraction. How do I know?

Well, those of you who have been lucky enough to ride both the Disneyland and the Walt Disney World version of “it’s a small world,” think carefully now: which version of this Fantasyland attraction has an exterior that does a better job of setting the stage for the ride that follows? Hands down, it’s gotta be the Disneyland version of “it’s a small world,” right? At least the guys at WDI thought so. Which is why they modeled the Disneyland Paris version of this ride after the Anaheim original.

Anyway … many Imagineers will tell you that Disney’s first big mis-step with Superstar Limo was when management decided to cut the budget for this attraction and opted not to go forward with WDI’s original plans, which was to house this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction inside a miniature version of the LA Airport Theme Building. What they did instead was build a fairly bland show building which features a few painted flats over its entrance that caricature several Hollywood / Los Angeles icons like Union Station as well as those crazy California freeways.

Mind you, it’s not like the Imagineers didn’t try to add a few witty touches with the exterior of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction. But some of the gags here are so obscure that only a few folks ever get them. For example: How many DCA visitors get the idea that the planter that’s out in front of Superstar Limo’s entrance is supposed to be a filled in swimming pool? Look for the pool’s ladder the next time you stroll by this attraction.

The stylized luggage carousel that guests see once they reach the building’s interior queue area helps set the stage that they’ve supposedly just arrived at an airport. The huge posters on the walls and the constant announcements over the public address system reinforce this image. But if the executives at Disney had just opted to go with the smaller, funnier version of LAX’s Theme Building, the story could have started so much sooner for folks who were getting in line for the attraction.

These DCA guests would have had a much clearer sense of where they were and who they were supposed to be before they boarded their purple stretch limo and headed off for a wild ride through a satirical, stylized trip through Tinsel Town.

Yes, you read that right. “A wild ride.” Not the poky, slowly paced trip that you take now. But rather a high speed, zippy trip. Not Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, mind you. But something more along the lines of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Only on steroids.

The original storyline for this DCA attraction was supposed to have been that you — the Disneyland Resort guest — were supposed to be this big-time celebrity. From the very moment you got on queue for Superstar Limo, you became Hollywood’s latest sensation. Someone who was world famous but also in danger of being late for your very own film premiere.

As you boarded your limousine, Disney CEO Michael Eisner would appear on the ride vehicle’s video screen and reminded you that you still hadn’t signed the contract for your next picture. That big film that you were supposed to be making for Walt Disney Studios. Michael would then have told you that he would be waiting for you — with contract in hand — at the end of the red carpet at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. All you had to do is get to the theater safely and sign … and your fortune would have been made.

Eisner would then tell you that the paparazzi are out in force that night and to be extra careful on your way to Graumann’s. “Don’t do anything that would ruin your reputation,” Michael warns.

At this point, your unseen limo driver says “So you’re late for your premiere, eh? Don’t worry. I know a few short cuts.” And — with a screech of tires — you were off on a wild trip through Hollywood.

Again, this was *NOT* supposed to be an attraction like Disney-MGM’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, with a high speed launch and loops. That said, there was still supposedly some talk at WDI of putting some banked track in the attraction, a few bumps along the way. Similar to what Walt had originally wanted to do with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. Which was marry a traditional dark ride to a smallish family-friendly roller coaster to give Disneyland visitors a few extra thrills.

Adding to the excitement here was — no matter what route your limousine took to the premiere — you’d inevitably encounter a pack of paparazzi. As soon as he heard the click of those cameras or the flash of the flashbulbs, your limo driver would hit the gas and immediately change direction.

Because your Superstar Limo ride vehicle were supposed to be moving very quickly through its show building, there was no room for quiet, cute little gags in this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction. In order for stuff to really register as you rolled through this DCA ride, the jokes had to be bigger, broader.

A typical gag would have been — as you roared up on Tail O’ the Pup (That famous Los Angeles area hot dog stand that’s shaped like — what else? — a giant hot dog) — you would have seen the back of this grotesquely fat man dressed in a white rhinestone studded jumpsuit. At the same time, you hear the unmistakable sound of flatulence. As your limo took the corner (on two wheels, no doubt), you’d see that the man in the rhinestone jumpsuit was actually Elvis Presley. As for the source of that breaking wind sound, you’d eventually see that the noise came from the squeeze bottle of mustard that Elvis held in his hand. The King would give the bottle a few more squeezes — making even more whoopee cushion noises — as he squirted mustard out on his hot dog. Presley would then say “Thank you very much” as our limo roared off into the darkness, the paparazzi again in hot pursuit.

Veteran Imagineers John Horny and Rennie Marquez really did a superb job with the original version of this attraction, creating a storyline that was littered with gags that were sure to play to both adults and children. Even the attraction’s exit — which would have forced guests to walk up a stylized version of the red carpet at Graumann’s Chinese — would have been fun. The theater’s lobby would have actually have been Superstar Limo’s gift shop, where DCA visitors could have purchased all sort of pseudo-celebrity stuff (Miniature Oscars, t-shirts emblazoned with “Hollywood’s Next Big Thing” on the front, etc.) to help them remember their wild ride through Hollywood.

And — as for that big money contract that Michael Eisner was supposedly holding for you … Well, because you had been unsuccessful in your attempt to evade the paparazzi (The image capture area at the ride exit would have shown pictures of DCA guests who had ridden Superstar Limo slapped on the front of a “National Enquirer” -like tabloid. These pictures would have — of course — be on sale to whatever guest wanted to purchase them) and were all over the scandal sheets, the Disney CEO would politely renege on his promised deal. “Better luck next time, kid,” Eisner would have supposedly said.

And — given all that Superstar Limo had for guests to see — it was hoped that lots of DCA visitors would be happy, eager even, to re-ride this fast paced, funny Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction. But then — months after the ride’s construction site had already been selected and well into Superstar Limo’s development phase — something terrible happened.

On August 31, 1997, Princess Diana and Emad “Dodi” Fayed were killed in a car accident in Paris. Supposedly, their limo driver lost control of their vehicle while he was attempting to evade the paparazzi.

And suddenly the concept of a kooky, crazy Disney theme park ride where the guest was supposed to be this celebrity that was in a fast moving car that was trying to get away from the paparazzi didn’t seem all that funny anymore.

In the wake of Princess Di’s tragic death, the creative team at WDI that was in charge of DCA’s Superstar Limo attraction found itself in a real quandary.

Obviously, it would now be in incredibly poor taste for Disney to move forward with the original storyline of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot ride. But — without the motivation of the paparazzi pursuing the guest/celebrity and their limousine through a gag filled version of Hollywood — the Imagineers wondered: was there even a point to this proposed DCA attraction now?

That’s why — at least for a short time during the Fall of 1997 — plans for Superstar Limo were temporarily shelved while WDI and Disney management weighed their other options. As a result, there was reportedly some very serious discussion at the upper levels of Imagineering about whether it made sense to just postpone construction of this particular DCA attraction for a couple of years (IE: at least until people forgot about the circumstances surrounding Diana’s death) and build something else instead.

It was at this point that WDI supposedly began seriously looking into alternatives to Superstar Limo. Particularly the idea of rushing into construction several other proposed movie-themed rides, shows and attractions that were allegedly under consideration for Phase II of the Disney’s California Adventure project.

Among the attractions that were supposedly considered as possible replacements for Superstar Limo were Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. But — given their expense — cloning these two Disney-MGM rides for DCA didn’t make sense. At least at that point in Disney’s California Adventure’s history. Which is why WDI felt that it had no choice but to find a way to make this proposed Hollywood Pictures Backlot ride work.

The Imagineers’ first decision was to remove — all but for two brief instances in the attraction — any mention of the paparazzi from the ride. WDI then decided — in order to make sure that DCA visitors could never make any connection between Princess Diana’s tragic death and this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attractions– that the Superstar Limo ride vehicles would now move through their show building as slowly as possible.

This last decision created a ripple effect that ultimately turned Superstar Limo into DCA’s most reviled attraction …

Why for? After Princess Diana’s death and that edict that came down from on high and declared that — from this point forward — that “Superstar Limo”‘s ride vehicle would no longer zip through the show building, but — rather — poke along at a snail’s pace, the Imagineers knew that there was just no way that this California Adventure attraction was ever going to work. But no one ever got around to pulling the plug on the thing.

You wanna know why? Because Disney CEO Michael Eisner thought that DCA’s “Superstar Limo” dark ride was a clever idea. Loaded with gags that he — a Hollywood insider — really appreciated. For example: That bizarre sight gag inside the Malibu / Muscle Beach section of the ride, when it appears that the hills of Malibu are simultaneously being plagued with fires and mud slides. That’s real location humor. As is “I guess you had to be there” to get that joke.

But what tourist from Topeka — the very sort of person that the Mouse hopes will fly directly into Southern California to spend the bulk of their vacation in Anaheim exploring the state’s newest destination resort, the newly expanded Disneyland Resort — is ever going to get a joke like that? What sort of palooka from Peoria is going to understand that the Bauble Room — another SSL sight gag, though this one is featured prominently in the Rodeo Drive sequence of the ride — is supposed to be a clever play on words, a riff on LA’s oh-so-exclusive Bubble Room?

Disney used to be known for its skill in storytelling, for its ability to tell a tale well to the broadest possible audience. Now here comes an attraction that seems to run counter to that tradition. A ride that’s filled with jokes that only a lucky few will ever understand.

How did this happen? Well, the folks that actually worked on developing DCA’s “Superstar Limo” ride will insist that this really wasn’t their fault. But — once the decision was made that that the vehicles for this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction could no longer zip through their show building, but had to plod along at a poky pace — WDI’s hands were tied.

After all, when you’re moving slowly through a dark ride, big broad gags no longer very work well. Stuff like revealing that that classical singing sensation, the Three Tenors, is actually one fat guy with three heads isn’t going to play anymore. That’s when they needed subtler stuff, and lots of it. The Imagineers had to load up SSL’s scenes up with lot of detail in order to properly sell the attraction’s now slow moving storyline.

Don’t believe me? Then those of you who have ridden Disney-MGM’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, think back carefully now: Where do you find the most detail on that attraction? Not on the ride itself, where a traffic sign here and a palm tree there effectively gives riders the impression that they’re whizzing along Southern California’s famous freeways on their way to the LA Forum. But in this Sunset Boulevard attraction’s pre- and post-show areas, where the Imagineers are busily setting the stage for the thrill ride that’s about to begin and/or putting an effective tag on the tale.

Better yet, think about those two Disney theme park classics: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Both of these attractions are jam-packed with detail. Why? Because A) it’s effective story telling and B) theme park guests tend to get bored if you move them slowly through an environment where there isn’t a lot of interesting things to look at.

So — to try and compensate for the new slow speed of Superstar Limo’s ride vehicles — the Imagineers began cramming this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction full of industry jokes. Gags that only a person who’d worked in the industry for years was going to get.

Someone like — say — Disney CEO Michael Eisner?

I keep hearing that — no matter how bad things got, no matter how far “Superstar Limo” began to wander away from the sensibilities of the average theme park goer — Eisner supposedly always thought that this DCA attraction was going to be a real winner. He allegedly particularly enjoyed a gag that was prominently featured in the concept art and mock-up version of the ride, where Dreamworks SKG’s distinctive looking animation studio loomed behind a giant gate with the name “DreamJerks Studio” on it. ( Let’s give Eisner a few points here, though, folks. At least Disney’s CEO had the good sense to understand that this sort of mean-spirited gag wasn’t going to play with the general public. Which is why he wouldn’t allow it to be installed in the finished version of the attraction. That said, that still doesn’t mean that Uncle Michael didn’t get a huge chuckle whenever he saw that vicious visual in the attraction’s concept art or mock-up stage. Anyway …)

But — toward the end — Eisner must have understood that something was seriously going wrong with Superstar Limo. What probably clued him in? Maybe it was the way that the Imagineers had to keep cannibalizing concepts for the finale of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction in order to stretch out the ride’s paltry storyline.

Do you remember the finale that the Imagineers had originally proposed for Superstar Limo: where DCA guests were actually supposed to exit their stretch limo in front of the Chinese Theater. According to the attraction’s original storyline, SSL riders were supposed to get the full celebrity trip. They would stroll up the red carpet, surrounded by the roar of the crowd and the blinding flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras.

They’d then enter a gift shop that was designed to look like the lobby of the Chinese Theater, where the staff was supposed to still be fawning all over them — as if these folks were real movie stars. (It was hoped that this extra obsequious service would trick more people into opening up their wallets and purchasing that photograph that Disney’s digital image capture system had plastered up on the big screen. That picture that clearly showed these folks in a fake limousine but still being treated like real celebrities.)

But — as Superstar Limo’s storyline got thinner and thinner — the Imagineers realized that they were going to need extra scenes to pad out the attraction’s storyline. Which is why SSL’s original finale as well as the ride’s exit / shop area ended up being folded into the show. WDI did whatever it had to to try and give this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction more story, more substance.

Finally, as the attraction’s art direction and gag work got more and more out there, Eisner must have seen the handwriting on the wall. And yet Uncle Michael just couldn’t bring himself to pull the plug on an attraction that — at least to his comic sensibilities — did such a witty job of sending up the world he lived in.

After all, all Disney theme parks have dark rides. Which meant that DCA had to have one too. Even it meant that Disney’s California Adventure was going to end up with one as weird as Superstar Limo.

Still, in late 1999, Eisner allegedly began to slowly distance himself from the DCA attraction that he’d initially paid so much attention to. Citing the stylization of the attraction’s sets, Uncle Michael supposedly said that it just didn’t make sense anymore for a real human’s face to suddenly intrude on this toony version of Hollywood. That’s why Eisner reportedly suggested that WDI drop the idea of having the Disney CEO appear on the ride vehicle’s video monitor but go with — maybe — a stylized version of a slimy Hollywood agent.

And — while Imagineering was at it — why didn’t they throw in some other stylized celebrities to help pad out things in DCA’s ***-eyed take on Tinsel Town?

So the call went out in Glendale: “We need celebrities to appear in several scenes for ‘Superstar Limo to help beef up this show.’ ” The trouble is, there really wasn’t all that much money left in the budget of this Hollywood Backlot Pictures attraction to cover this sort of expense. Which meant that the Mouse couldn’t afford to bring any big names on board to help strengthen SSL’s storyline.

These days, it seems like money is always an issue when it comes to which performers get to appear in which Disney theme park attractions. Take — for example — DCA’s “Golden Dreams.” Do you recall that sequence in the film where there’s this clever transition: The film goes in for a close-up of this poor downtrodden woman who’s caught in the depths of the Great Depression. There’s then a quick cross fade and we see the very same woman — still in close-up, but now all cleaned up — seated in a darkened movie theater, laughing at something that’s being projected up on the screen in front of her.

And what exactly was this woman supposed to be laughing at? Well, “Golden Dreams”‘s script originally called for this Dust Bowl survivor to be chuckling at the antics of Charlie Chaplin. Which Chaplin film? Why, “The Great Dictator,” of course.

Why the “Great Dictator”? Because that film features several scenes where Chaplin gets to burlesque Adolph Hitler. A clip from one of those scenes in this 1940 movie would have allowed “GD” to make a virtually seamless transition from its Great Depression sequence right into the section of the film that deals with women’s contributions during World War II (AKA “Rosie the Riveter”).

Unfortunately, the Chaplin estate wanted the Walt Disney Company to pay out an enormous amount of money for the rights to use scenes from “The Great Dictator” in “Golden Dreams.” Disney representaives — in an effort to bring the price down — tried to play on the Chaplin family’s sympathies. They talked up how Walt and Charlie had been friends way back when and how this brief cameo in an attraction for Disney’s California Adventure would pay tribute to that friendship, etc.

The Chaplin estate didn’t fall for that. They told Disney’s representatives that they could either pay the original asking price or do without the footage from “The Great Dictator.” WDI staffers then appealed to folks higher up in the Mouse House food chain, asking for the extra money necessary to save “GD”‘s carefully scripted smooth transition. In the end, the sharp pencil boys didn’t think that the Chaplin footage was all the essential to the ultimate success of “Golden Dreams.” So they said “No.”

Which is why that woman in the movie theater is now laughing at a scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 film, “The Flying Deuces.” That clip may not have not done much to help with the film’s transition from the Great Depression to WW II. But it was certainly a hell of lot more affordable than a clip from “The Great Dictator.”

Speaking of Disney cutting corners on DCA’s “Golden Dreams”: One place where the Mouse decidedly did NOT cut corners was in its pursuit of imagery of one specific sports figure to use in the closing moments of the film’s musical montage. It literally took months of negotiations — as well as a $50,000 fee — but Disney was finally able to land the rights to use footage of Tiger Woods at the very end of “Just One Dream.” (If that brief glimpse of Tiger at the tail end of the film really worth $50,000? Well, some folks have suggested the negotiation for Tiger’s “Golden Dreams” appearance was really just the dress rehearsal for the even bigger deal that Woods signed with the Mouse House back in 2001. Compared to that princely fee, $50,000 was just a drop in the bucket. That said, that amount would have covered the cost of inserting the “Great Dictator” footage into “Golden Dreams.” Several times over. So it’s always interesting to see what Disney’s sharp pencil boys are willing to spend the company’s money on.)

Speaking of the sharp pencil boys, these guys just weren’t willing to throw good money after bad in an attempt to fix Superstar Limo. Which is why they wouldn’t allow the Imagineers to go after any performers that weren’t already under contract and/or had a pending deal with the Walt Disney Company to make an appearance in this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction.

You heard right, folks. Every celebrity — and I mean every one of them — that makes a caricatured cameo in Superstar Limo already has some sort of direct tie to the Walt Disney Company. You’ve heard of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? Well, now it’s time to play “Disney’s Limo Links.”

First up is Regis Philbin. The co-host of Buena Vista Television’s hit syndicated series, “Live with Regis and Kelly” as well as the MC of ABC’s new hit game show, “Super Millionaire.” Philbin feels that he owes much of his fame and fortune to his friends in the Mouse House. Which is why — when WDI called and asked for Regis’ permission to use his likeness in Superstar Limo — Philbin’s final answer was “Yes.”

Next up is Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. Melanie made a number of films for the Mouse House back in the 1990s, among them “Paradise” (1991), “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) and “Born Yesterday” (1993). In April of 1992, she and her then-husband Don Johnson hosted the American version of the TV special that celebrated the grand opening of Euro Disneyland. But perhaps her favorite Disney project would have to be “Two Much,” the romantic comedy she made for the company back in 1996. For it was on the set of that particular picture that she met her now-husband, Antonio Banderas.

Speaking of Antonio, Banderas too has strong ties to Walt Disney Studios. In addition to the before-mentioned “Two Much,” Antonio has made appearances in several Mouse made movies. Among them are “Miami Rhapsody” (1995), “Evita” (1996), “The 13th Warrior” (1998) and “Spy Kids I, II and 3D.”

Anywho, given that these two actually met on the set of a Disney film, is it any wonder they have a soft spot toward the Mouse House? Which is why — when the Imagineers called about Superstar Limo — Melanie and Antonio immediately said “Yes.”

Tim Allen is another performer with incredibly strong ties to the Walt Disney Company. His long running sitcom, “Home Improvement,” was actually produced by the Mouse’s television division. As were three of his feature films, “The Santa Clause,” “Jungle 2 Jungle” and “The Santa Clause 2.” Allen also provided the voice of Buzz Lightyear for those animated hits “Toy Story, ” “Toy Story 2” and the direct-to-video “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.” Tim’s two best selling books — “Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man” and “I’m Not Really Here” — were published by Disney’s Hyperion Press.

Given that Allen owes a lot of his success to Disney (which — ‘way back in 1991 — originally signed Tim to appear in the Robin Williams role for a TV version of “The Dead Poets Society.” Strange but true, folks), Tim quickly said “Yes” when WDI came calling.

Which brings us to super model Cindy Crawford. Not a person that you’d think would have strong ties to the Walt Disney Company. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Crawford — as it turns out — has a three year development deal with ABC Television. Cindy also served as the on-line hostess for DCA when Disney.com began offering previews of the Disneyland Resort’s newest theme park late last year. Ever anxious to deepen her ties with the second largest media company in the world, Crawford gladly gave the Imagineers permission to sculpt her famous figure — mole and all — for SSL.

Drew Carey. Just like Regis and Tim Allen, here’s another guy who basically owes his career to the Mouse.

Carey signed a TV development deal with Disney back in 1991, right after his boffo appearance on the old “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Though the first sitcom Drew appeared on — Touchstone Television’s “The Good Life” — bombed, Disney still felt that the Cleveland comic had big potential. Which is why they quickly got behind his second sitcom, “The Drew Carey Show,” which debuted on ABC in the Fall of 1995. This snarky little show eventually grew into a huge hit for the Disney owned network.

Since then, the love affair between Drew Carey and Disney has just grown and grown. His best selling novel — “Dirty Jokes and Beer: Stories of the Unrefined” — was published by Disney’s Hyperion Press. Carey also delivered a second hit show for the network in the summer of 1999 when the Americanized version of that old Brit TV hit, “Whose Line is It Anyway?” debuted. Last year, Drew made his musical debut in “Gepetto,” an original musical that the company presented on “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Carey’s love of the Disney theme parks is well known as well. Drew happily took part in the opening hoopla/promotion of both Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s California Adventure. He even has his own theme park attraction: Disney-MGM’s “Sounds Dangerous” show. So is it any wonder that the Imagineers felt that they didn’t have to worry about whether Drew would give them his permission to place his likeness in Superstar Limo. The guys at WDI knew that this was a done deal even before they asked. And so it was.

Next up: Action superstar Jackie Chan. Again, not a guy that you’d think would have any real connection to the Mouse House. But — as it turns out — Chan already has huge ties to Disney. For example, Chan sang the title song for the Chinese release of Disney’s 1990 animated hit, “Beauty and the Beast.” Jackie then followed this toon work up by providing the voice of Shang for both the Cantonese and Mandarin versions of the studio’s 1998 release, “Mulan.”

More recently, Jackie has begun doing some live action work for Walt Disney Studios. His appearance in Touchstone Pictures’ “Shanghai Noon” and “Shanghai Knights” help cement his reputation as a top box office draw here in the West. (Which perhaps explains why Disney recently acquired the domestic distribution rights to Chan’s next big budget feature, “Around the World in 80 Days.”)

Anywho … anxious to be seen as a mainstream Hollywood player, Chan quickly said “Yes” when WDI asked to use his likeness in Superstar Limo.

As for Cher … this was pretty much the last deal that the Imagineers made to land a celebrity to appear in Superstar Limo. Indeed, folks who rode this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction during DCA’s Annual Passholder previews will swear to you that they didn’t see the sexy chanteuse when they went on the ride. And they’d be right. The Cher figure wasn’t installed in SSL ’til just days prior to the official opening of the park.

As for Whoopi … again, Whoopi Goldberg’s another performer with strong pre-existing ties to the Walt Disney Company. She’s had hit films with the studio: “Sister Act” (1992) and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” (1993), as well as done voice work for one of the company’s biggest animated films, 1994’s “The Lion King.” Her besting book — “Book” — was published by Disney’s Hyperion Press. She’s done TV work for ABC, hosting the Academy Awards for the network back in March of 1999.

More to the point, Whoopi was already on board on another project for DCA: Serving at the host/narrator — Califia, Goddess of California — for the “Golden Dreams” show. So it didn’t take too much additional arm twisting from WDI to get the actress to let the Imagineers use her likeness in SSL.

You see how easy that was? Disney was quickly able to corral a lot of celebrities who were willing to allow WDI to include their likenesses in Superstar Limo. Would that this would have made the difference.

But — even with Whoopi, Drew, Regis and Cher on hand — most theme park fans still felt that Superstar Limo was a significant snore. What exactly was the problem? Some didn’t care for all the inside industry jokes that this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction used. Still others felt that the likenesses of the celebrity figures that WDI did are way too stylized, making many of SSL’s star cameos virtually unrecognizable to most DCA guests.

Whatever the ride’s real problem may be, one thing is certain: Superstar Limo was DCA’s first confirmed dud. The attraction that most guests — when asked by those Disneyland Resort pollsters, who lurk around the park’s exits, PalmPilots in hand — regularly refer to as the most disappointing thing they experienced during their day at Disney’s California Adventure.

So there you have it. The Reader’s Digest version of why DCA’s Superstar Limo went so wrong,

Your thoughts?

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

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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