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The Sad Tail … I mean “Tale” … of the Stalled Roger Rabbit Sequel

In this piece from the Jim Hill archives, learn why you shouldn’t expect a return trip to ToonTown anytime soon…



Now that Peter Schneider — former head of feature animation — is the new chairman of Walt Disney Studios, does that mean his old buddies at Feature Animation will get preferential treatment?

Not bloody likely.

Peter Schneider – Chairman of Walt Disney Studios

Schneider is a true corporate creature, folks. The moment he took over for former Disney studio head Joe Roth, all loyalty to Disney Feature Animation [DFA] ended abruptly. Now Peter leans hard on his former charges to keep production costs down and productivity up.

Which is a shame. Because for a while there, some DFA staffers thought Schneider might do something positive with his new-found power.

Like — say — finally green-light a film that animation fans have been waiting twelve years for.

Will “Roger Rabbit II” Get Made?

But don’t hold your breath, folks. “Roger Rabbit II” isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Though the key pieces are already in place (A script — featuring five new Alan Menken songs — has been written. Menken himself has agreed to serve as the film’s executive producer. Master Disney animator Eric Goldberg has committed to supervising the animation of this project. Disney Feature Animation’s Florida unit even had staffers working on test footage last spring), this long awaited sequel to the 1988 blockbuster stalled out again last summer.

What happened? How is it that a film like “Roger Rabbit II” — a project that’s almost guaranteed to make money — keeps failing to get made?

Part of the problem is cost. Then there’s that deal Eisner made with Spielberg. Plus all the personality conflicts involved.

*Sigh* It’s a long story, folks. (I know, I know. ALL my stories are long stories. Sorry. I guess — when it comes to the history of the Walt Disney Company — there are no neat, short answers).

But — to understand why it is that a guaranteed blockbuster like “Roger Rabbit II” can’t get made — you have to go back over the unlikely chain of events that lead up to the original film getting produced in the first place.

Ron Miller Pushes for “Who Censored Roger Rabbit”

Roger Rabbit started on the road to screen stardom away back in 1980, when then-Disney Studio head Ron Miller got a hold of the galley proofs for a soon-to-be-published novel. This book — Gary Wolf’s “Who Censored Roger Rabbit” — was a clever spoof of all those old hardboiled detective novels. It was a twisted tale set in a film noir never-neverland; a Hollywood where humans and toons lived and worked uneasily side by side.

Miller thought that Walt Disney Productions could make something really special out of Wolf’s book. He brought the story to the attention of then-Disney CEO Card Walker. Walker was less than impressed. Finding the novel weird and dark, Card told Ron to pass on the project.

Miller didn’t. In fact — over Walker’s objections — Ron paid $25,000 for the film rights to “Who Censored Roger Rabbit.” Miller then handed the project off to a young Disney production executive, Mark Sturdivant, for development. Sturdivant hired two former advertising copywriters, Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, to work up a screenplay. He also assigned Disney animator Darrell Van Citters to begin roughing out character designs as well as pencil tests for the project.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Script

Seaman and Price wrote ten different drafts of their Roger Rabbit screenplay before they finally got the story right. In the process, the screenwriters chucked out most of Wolf’s original storyline, while retaining most of his character names as well as the book’s core concept.

What made Seaman and Price’s final version of their Roger Rabbit screenplay so much fun is that they decided to go whole hog with Wolf’s “toons are real” idea. So they wrote a murder mystery set in 1947 Hollywood, where private detective Eddie Valiant didn’t just interact with Roger, Jessica and Baby Herman. He also had to rub elbows with Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny and tons of other established cartoon stars before he could solve the murder of R.K. Maroon.

It was a daring idea for a Disney film. One that that Miller and Sturdivant were sure Walt himself would have loved. But it was also a potentially pricey project. In order for the film to work, the Mouse needed to get clearances from several other Hollywood studios to use their classic cartoon characters.

Working With Other Studios

Now please remember that this was ‘way back in the early 1980s. Disney was not the media giant we know today. It was still an entertainment industry also-ran, best known for its fine theme parks and lame-ass movies.

Miller had Sturdivant approach Warner Brothers, Paramount and Universal about contracting their classic cartoon characters out to appear in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” They all just laughed, said no and/or asked for such ridiculously high fees that they made making a deal impossible.

Testing “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

In spite of this setback, Miller still had Sturdivant and Citters continue work on “Roger Rabbit.” He ordered that live action footage be shot, so that pencil test animation could be layered over these scenes — to see if a toony Roger Rabbit could convincingly interact with a live action Eddie Valiant.

Early subscribers to the Disney Channel actually got a chance to see this footage on an April 1983 broadcast of “Disney Studio Showcase.” Hosted by animation historian John Culhane, this program (which also hyped the then-in-production film “Baby – Secret of the Lost Legend” as well as Tim Burton’s TV version of Hansel & Gretel) included a preview of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

The test footage featured an unknown actor standing in for Eddie Valiant. After exiting an alley, Eddie is suddenly accosted by a giant cartoon police detective. He’s then shown drinking at a bar with an early version of Jessica (Who at this point in her development, wasn’t quite so voluptuous. This Jessica — who was supposed to be the villain in this version of the film — looked a lot like Cruella De Vil-gone-Hollywood). The segment ends with Culhane exiting the Roger Rabbit production offices, just before a fully animated and painted version of Roger strolled through this live action setting.

Spielberg/Zemekis Pass on “Roger Rabbit”

Miller was determined to get this film made. He sent the test footage as well as the Roger Rabbit script to Steve Spielberg, Robert Zemekis and Joe Dante for their review. Each of these directors was intrigued by the project. But they also doubted that tired old Disney Studios had what it took to get this sort of special effects extravaganza off the ground. Miller offered to put up a budget of $25 million. All three directors still passed on the picture.

Even in the face of these high profile rejections, Miller still pressed ahead with his plans for a Roger Rabbit feature. He had a picture of Roger placed in the 1983 Walt Disney Productions annual report, its caption reading “Work continues on the live action – animated Roger Rabbit.” Miller also authorized Citters to begin auditioning talent to voice Disney’s latest creation. Citters eventually selected a then-unknown comic from LA’s “Groundling” improvisation troupe. His name? Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman).

Miller kept plugging away at “Roger Rabbit,” trying relentlessly to get the movie made. He kept faith in the project right up until September of 1984, when the Walt Disney Company suddenly lost faith in him. That’s when Miller was unceremoniously forced out and Michael Eisner became the Big Cheese at the Mouse Factory.

Miller’s Out, Eisner’s In – And Where is “Roger”?

Quick cut to 1986: Eisner has been on board at Disney for a year or so now.

Having quickly thrown together a few live action films like “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People” that made money for the company, Uncle Mikey is anxious to do something more ambitious.

What does Eisner want to do? He wants Disney to produce a major motion picture. A film with a huge budget and tons of special effects. The sort of project that makes critics as well as moviegoers sit up and take notice. Something that could win awards as well as offer lots of opportunities to generate cash (toys, games, soundtrack albums, etc) for the company.

Eisner wanted to make something that would send a message to the rest of the entertainment world that Disney was no longer a Mickey Mouse operation.

In short, an event film. A blockbuster.

But where do you find a blockbuster? Particularly when you have next to no dough to develop such a thing?

Actually, then-Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg (a.k.a. the Golden Retriever) uncovered just such a project one day while reading through some old scripts Disney had previously put into development. ‘Way down deep in the pile, he discovered Seaman and Price’s screenplay for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Sensing he’d struck the mother lode, Jeffrey quickly brought the script to Eisner’s attention.

Eisner read the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” screenplay and immediately realizes that this was the film he was looking for. Here was the ideal movie for Disney’s new production team to tackle as their first big budget project. Roger Rabbit had something for everyone: animation to draw in the small fry and their families, plus enough sly wit and action to keep adults and teenagers happy. This project had blockbuster written all over it. The big question was: Could Disney pull it off?

Classic Cartoon Characters and Spielberg

The only stumbling blocking for Eisner and the revived Roger Rabbit project was the same thing that tripped up Ron Miller: Getting the clearances from all those other Hollywood studios for use of their classic cartoon characters. Without those non-Disney 1940s era toons for Eddie to interact with, Roger Rabbit wouldn’t be special. The film would just fall flat.

But Eisner had a secret weapon: his personal and professional relationship with movie maestro Steven Spielberg.

Back in 1980, Spielberg and George Lucas had been looking for a home for their dream project: a big budget remake of the old Saturday matinee serials. It featured exotic locations, elaborate stunts as well as an unlikely sounding hero: Indiana Jones.

Based on Lucas and Spielberg’s box office reputation, every studio in town (including Disney) wanted a shot at producing “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But none of them dared to take on the project, after they learned about the film’s projected budget as well as the outrageous financial terms Spielberg and Lucas were asking. Only Eisner — then head of production at Paramount Pictures — dared to make the deal.

That gamble had paid off handsomely, both in its profits for Paramount as well as Eisner’s friendship with Spielberg. So now — six years later — Eisner had his own dream project that needed help. So he called Steven at his Amblin production offices over on the Universal backlot, asking him to come on down to Burbank for a little confab.

Spielberg — of course — remembered the Roger Rabbit script and shared Eisner’s enthusiasm for the proposed film. But Steve also knew that this ambitious mix of animation and live action would be an expensive and time consuming project. It was almost too much film for one studio to make.

Disney Partners with Amblin

That’s when Eisner proposed that Disney and Amblin produced “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” together. Disney would lend its animation expertise to the project. Steven would bring in his buddy, George Lucas and his wizards at ILM to handle the film’s special effects. More importantly, Spielberg could use his considerable clout to persuade the other Hollywood studios to allow the Mouse to use their classic cartoon characters in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

Steven was willing to take Uncle Mikey on his offer — with one condition: Disney and Amblin had to share the copyright on any characters that were created for the film. That meant that the two companies would split everything right down the middle. 50 / 50. That included merchandising revenues, sequel and spin-off rights, any theme park projects, basically the whole ball of wax.

Eisner was so desperate to get his event film made that he quickly agreed to Spielberg’s terms. That may have been the last time Michael and Steven agreed on anything relating to “Roger Rabbit.”

Producing “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

The actual production of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is a classic Hollywood horror story.

A troubled film right from the start, its budget started at $30 million, then quickly escalated to $50.6 million.

Work on the movie fell so far behind schedule that — in February 1988 — it looked Roger Rabbit might miss its June 24th opening date. Since Disney had already signed multi-million dollar promotional deals with McDonalds and Coca Cola that keyed on Roger Rabbit opening on that day, missing the film’s opening date was not an option. So Uncle Mikey forced then-Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg to personally take charge of the project. Jeffrey did everything he could think of — kicked, cried, screamed, cajoled — to get the Roger Rabbit team into meet their production deadline.

The one aspect of the project that did not go over-budget was the licensing deals Spielberg worked out for use of the non-Disney classic cartoon characters to be featured in the film. True to his word, Spielberg persuaded the other Hollywood studios to lease their toons to the Mouse for a ridiculously low fee: $5000 per character.

Bugs Bunny & Mickey Mouse in “Roger Rabbit”

Of course, there were a few conditions. Warners insisted that — if Bugs Bunny were to appear in the film — he could only appear in scenes where he performed directly opposite Mickey Mouse. And — when the characters spoke — Bugs had to have the same exact number of words of dialogue that Mickey did.

(Warners’ insistence on a similar arrangement for Donald and Daffy Duck actually resulted in one of the best scenes from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Since Donald and Daffy had to appear together, director Robert Zemekis threw them on stage as a team at the Ink and Paint club. Their loony dueling pianos rendition of the “Hungarian Rhapsody” was one of the real highlights of the first film.)

“Roger Rabbit” is a Box Office Success

With Katzenberg cracking the whip, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” did actually make it into theaters on June 24th. The film immediately became a box office sensation — grossing over $154 million in its initial domestic release alone. Overseas, Roger Rabbit was even more popular, taking in $174 million at the international box office.

Disney and Spielberg had created a hugely popular movie. Consumers snatched up mounds of Roger Rabbit merchandise, then clamored for more. The film won four Academy Awards.

Fans screamed for a sequel.

But now — twelve years later — Roger languishes in limbo.

Will There Ever Be a “Roger Rabbit” Sequel?

The follow-up to this hit motion picture is almost a decade overdue. Plans for sure-fire Disney theme park attractions based on the characters (other than the one-off “Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin” at Disneyland’s ToonTown) just lay around WDI, gathering dust.

What the hell happened? The answer lies in that 50 / 50 deal Eisner made with Spielberg. Both Disney and Amblin own half of the copyright on the characters created for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” That means — before any project involving Roger can move forward — both sides have to agree exactly on the exact terms of the contract. Every time Roger appears in a film or a theme park attraction or even on a toy, there’s a lengthy negotiation between Disney and Spielberg’s lawyers involved.

As you might imagine, this sort of micro-management takes up a lot of time — which is why Roger Rabbit’s career has been on hold these years past ten years.

Mind you, it wasn’t always like this. Back in 1989 — right after “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was released to universal acclaim and the film did boffo business at the box office — both Disney and Spielberg were anxious to cash in on the film’s popularity.

Roger Rabbit – Shorts and Disney-MGM Studios Attractions

So, hoping to keep the character fresh in the public’s mind, Disney quickly put a new Roger Rabbit short, “Tummy Trouble,” into production. Spielberg okayed the idea, as well as the Mouse’s plan to fold elements from the hit film into their then still-under-construction Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park.

“Roger Rabbit” Props at Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park

Guests who visited that park during its first year of operation may remember how prominently Roger Rabbit and friends were featured at the studio theme park. Folks who took the backstage tram tour rolled past many of the props used in the film, including Eddie Valiant’s roadster and a “Red Car” trolley. They even encountered a recreation of the Acme Warehouse, where they were menaced by the Dipmobile.

After exiting the tram, guests followed Roger’s large footprints into the Looney Bin. There, they could play among the props in the Acme Gagworks or have their picture taken cuddling with Jessica and / or careening around ToonTown inside Benny the Cab. Other “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” props were featured prominently inside the Special Effects workshop.

“Tummy Trouble” Short

That summer, “Tummy Trouble” debuted in theaters nationwide. Audiences flocked to see the new short (as well as the feature film that followed it: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids“). Given the response at the box office, it was obvious that Roger was no one hit wonder.

Is Roger Rabbit the Next Mickey Mouse?

Properly handled, it looked this rabbit could be a perennial. A character with legs. Someone like Mickey or Donald who could stay popular with audiences not for just a year, but for decades at a time. An evergreen money machine.

That was Disney’s goal, anyway. So — with the hope of keeping the “Roger Rabbit ” gravy train rolling — the Mouse quickly cut a deal with Spielberg to co-produce a sequel to the first film. They then announced that they’d be following up “Tummy Trouble” with a whole new series of Roger Rabbit shorts. The next installment, “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” would actually be produced at its Disney / MGM animation studio in Florida.

It all seemed too good to last.

It was.

It was actually the next short that started all the problems.

“Roller Coaster Rabbit”, “Arachnophobia”, and “Dick Tracy”

Spielberg wanted “Roller Coaster Rabbit” to be shown in front of a film Amblin was producing for the Walt Disney Company. (A little side note here: That film, “Arachnophobia,” was actually the first title to be released through Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division). On the other hand, Disney just blew $45 million making Warren Beatty’s troubled summer blockbuster, “Dick Tracy.”

Knowing that Beatty’s big screen comic book was going to need all the help it could get to make back its production costs, Disney wanted to put “Roller Coaster Rabbit” in front of “Dick Tracy.” (Why? Because — the previous summer — Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids ” had made $124 million. Some people thought that the film had become a hit on its own. But there were an equally large number of folks at the studio who felt that “Honey” only did as well as it did because it had a new Roger Rabbit short showing in front of it.)

In the end, Disney got what it wanted. “Dick Tracy” — thanks in part to the Roger Rabbit short that ran in front of it — wasn’t exactly a hit, but it did make back its production costs. On the other hand, “Arachnophobia,” despite some great reviews, under-performed. (Making just $52 million, the movie barely covered its promotion and production costs.) It became obvious that that “Arachnophobia” could have really used the extra box office juice that would have come from having a new Roger rabbit short in front of it. But “Dick Tracy” and the Mouse had won that time …

Spielberg — a man who is used to getting what he wants — was upset at what he perceived as Disney’s slight. As a co-owner of Roger Rabbit, he felt that he should have had more of a say in how the character was being used — particularly concerning which short got put in front of which movie.

“Hare in My Soup” – Nothing Moves Forward Without Spielberg Approval

So Spielberg decided to make his position regarding Roger Rabbit and Disney clear. He waited ’til Disney actually had a new short, “Hare in My Soup,” in production. Then Spielberg announced “I don’t like the story for the new short. Without my approval, you can’t go forward with this film. Shut down production.”

Given that these were indeed the terms of the Roger Rabbit deal, Disney reluctantly halted work on “Hare in My Soup.” None of the other story ideas for shorts the Mouse pitched to Spielberg met his fancy either. As a result, there was no new Roger Rabbit short that year. (Not so co-incidentally, the film “Hare in My Soup” would have appeared in front of — “The Rocketeer” — which went on to under-perform at the box office. It could have really benefited from all the excitement having a new Roger Rabbit short.)

It would be two years before Spielberg would allow work to proceed on a new Roger Rabbit short, “Trail Mix-Up.”

“Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” – “Roger Rabbit” Prequel

By then, Steven was also holding up production on a proposed sequel to the original feature film. Its title was to have been “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

Steven’s explanation for stalling the Roger Rabbit feature length follow-up was that he had issues with Nat Mauldin’s screenplay. The script (which, by the way, wasn’t a sequel, but a prequel: its storyline took place well before the events featured in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) dealt with Roger’s early days in Hollywood as he struggled to make it as a star.

There are several different storylines that ran through “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” One covered Roger’s courtship of Jessica. Another dealt with his search for his long-lost mother. And — because the film was set during World War II — still another story-line dealt with a popular radio host that Jessica worked for who was eventually revealed to be a Nazi spy.

Now keep in mind that we’re talking about Steven Spielberg circa 1993 here. This is a guy who’s just had a major spiritual awakening due to his work on “Schindler’s List.” Having embraced his Jewish heritage, Spielberg announced that — due to the atrocities his people had suffered during the Holocaust — he could no longer allow nazis to appear as stock villains in his films.

Okay. I can respect that. (Though — if I were a mean and petty person — I might point out that less than four years later, Spielberg did another film called “Saving Private Ryan.” And weren’t the villains in that movie, well, nazis? But I digress.)

Anyway, Spielberg says “No more Nazi villains in my movies.” Disney has to honor the request of the co-owner of the Roger Rabbit copyright. So they began reworking Mauldin’s script. The Nazi sub-plot got cut, but so did the film’s Hollywood setting. The time period shifts back a few years and…

Presto Changeo! What was once a World War II comic adventure was now a Busby Berkley movie musical. Now set in New York City during the depths of the Depression, “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” was the story of Roger as a young toon bumbling around Broadway — looking for his big break.

Mind you, not everything from Mauldin’s story had been changed. Roger still courts Jessica while searching for his long-lost mother. Only this time around, he lands a job on the stage crew of the musical Jessica performing in. One night, Roger’s trapped on stage as the curtain goes up and… a star is born.

This story line might sound a bit shopworn and tired. But the new version of “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” (reworked by Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver) is actually a funny and affectionate tribute to those old movie musicals. There are lots of great jokes as well as some fun character moments for the toons. Best of all, it retains Mauldin’s terrific end gag for the film: revealing the identity of Roger’s long lost father.

This version of the script (Which – for a short time – was considered as a direct-to-video project) impressed a lot of people at Disney. In fact, someone liked the screenplay so much that they slipped a copy to Disney’s house composer, Alan Menken. Menken was so impressed with what he read that in addition to writing five songs for the film, he signed on as executive producer.

This brings us up to 1997.

Will Dreamworks SKG Be a Problem?

The Mouse is anxious to finally get production underway on their Roger Rabbit prequel. But now there’s another hitch. Jeffrey Katzenberg now works with Spielberg at Dreamworks SKG. Given Jeffrey’s animosity toward Disney in general (and Eisner in particular), Uncle Mikey worries that Katzenberg could deliberately bad-mouth the project, compelling Spielberg to pull the plug on the prequel.

But Eisner has a plan. He recruits two of Steven’s long-time Amblin associates — Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy — to serve as producers on the Roger Rabbit prequel. Surely Spielberg won’t say “no” to a film shepherded by his loyal former assistants. Particularly given that Marshall and Kennedy are planning on using the Roger Rabbit prequel project to establish themselves effective producers outside of Amblin.

Eisner’s ploy works. Though Spielberg does have reservations about the revised script, for the sake of Kennedy and Marshall’s big break, he keeps his mouth shut and allows pre-production work to proceed on “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

Testing Animation on “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

However, since the original Roger Rabbit feature had gone so horrendously over-budget ‘way back in 1988, the Mouse was determined to keep costs down this time around. Before committing to full-scale production on the prequel, Disney wanted to do a production test. Their mission was to see whether all the new animation techniques the studio had developed in the 1990s would have a positive impact (read that as “show us a cheaper way”) to combine live action and animated footage

This test quietly got underway in the spring of 1998 at Disney Feature Animation in Florida. Master animator Eric Goldberg (who actually got his first opportunity to work for the Mouse when he was hired to animate Roger in the original movie) put together a new model sheet for the wacky rabbit, making Roger younger looking as well as easier-to-draw. (After all — since “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” was set a full decade before “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” — it stood to reason that Roger should look younger, shouldn’t he?)

The test footage Disney put together was deceptively simple. A live action actor — playing a big-time Hollywood agent — sits behind at a desk in his office. Suddenly, the door flies opens. Two menacing weasels enter, armed with Tommy guns.

The weasels “persuade” the agent into letting their friend, Roger Rabbit, come in for an audition. Roger now burst into the room and — surprise, surprise — thoroughly destroys the office. Papers fly off the desk and knickknacks get shattered as he dances on the desktop. It’s just another day in ToonTown.

The purpose behind this particular test was to see if traditionally animated characters and computer animated props could fit together cohesively on top of live action footage. So the machine guns that the weasels aimed at the agent were CGI, as was a small table Roger breaks while trying to demonstrate an ill-conceived magic trick.

Unfortunately, the computer generated props and the more traditionally animated rabbit and weasels didn’t exactly mesh with each other in the initial test footage. So the Feature Animation folks in Disney-MGM took another pass at the test. This time around though, both the characters as well as the props they handled were done using computer animation.

This version of the “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” test was initially met with a lot of enthusiasm back in Burbank … at least until someone slipped Eisner a projected budget for the film. Using computer animation to do all the toons in the film would drive the cost of the Roger Rabbit prequel well north of the $100 million mark. As soon as he heard that, Uncle Mikey pulled the plug on the project.

According to Eisner’s way of thinking, $100 million was just too much to pay for a sequel for a twelve-year-old movie.

Sequels Underperforming

Now don’t blame Eisner.

Disney has learned the hard way about waiting too long to produce follow-up films. The studio’s “Another Stakeout” — coming six years after the 1987 original starring Richard Dreyfus and Emilio Estevez — died a dog’s death at the box office. “The Rescuers Down Under” — released thirteen years after the original animated feature — also under-performed. And let’s not even get started on “Return to Oz.”

There is also a general rule of thumb in Hollywood concerning sequels: Follow-up films rarely make more than 2/3 of what the original film grossed. Since production costs on “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?” had been projected to go well over $100 million, while its estimated box office take looked to be well under that amount, it just didn’t make sense for Eisner to go forward with development of the feature.

So — with the project’s age and projected cost weighing against it — all pre-production work was suspended in the summer of 1999. Eisner took the money he had been earmarked for the Roger Rabbit follow-up and shifted it over to another event film Disney had in development: “Tennessee.” (Now known as “Pearl Harbor,” this is Michael Bay’s big budget blockbuster for the summer of 2001. An epic romance set in the early days of World War II, this massive motion picture — initially budgeted at $140 million — has been described as “Titanic” meets “Tora! Tora! Tora!”)

Will There Be a “Roger Rabbit” Sequel?

So is the Roger Rabbit sequel really dead?

One learns to never say never in Hollywood. If there were suddenly a bunch of movies that featured animation and live action that hit it big at the box office, Disney would definitely take another look at doing “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?”

Co-incidentally, there are two films coming out this summer that mix live action and animation. The first is 20th Century Fox’s “Monkeybone,” a dark fantasy starring Brendan Fraser. Directed by former Disney stop motion guru Henry (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”) Selick, this film’s currently slated to bow in May.

Then in June, Universal unleashes “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” This film mixes — just as “Who Discovered Roger Rabbit” was supposed to — CGI cartoon characters with live actors.

I’ll say this much. The “Rocky and Bullwinkle” production team at least have the good graces to acknowledge their debt to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” In the teaser trailer that hit theaters over the holiday season, a William Conrad-esque announcer breathlessly described the forthcoming film as “the most spectacular mix of live action and animation Hollywood has ever attempted.”

There’s now an abrupt switch to live action footage. Boris (Jason Alexander), Natasha (Rene Russo) and Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro) stride purposefully down a corridor, with their evil minions in tow. One of the henchmen says to Fearless Leader: “But isn’t this just like that Roger Rabbit movie?”

Fearless Leader turns ferociously on this disrespectful oaf. Slapping his riding crop down on his thigh, Fearless Leader snarls: “This is NOTHING like that movie.”

Funny, funny bit.

Anyway — if either “Monkeybone” or “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” films make big dough at the box office this coming summer — look for Disney to make one more try at resurrecting “Roger Rabbit.”

Unless — of course — Steven Spielberg won’t let them.

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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Film & Movies

“Indiana Jones and the Search for Indiana Jones”



News came late last week that NBC was cancelling the “Magnum PI” remake. This series (which obviously took its inspiration from the Tom Selleck show that originally debuted on CBS back in December of 1980 and then went on run on that network for 8 seasons. With its final episode airing on May 8, 1988).

Anyway … Over 30 years later, CBS decided to remake “Magnum.” This version of the action drama debuted on September 24, 2018 and ran for four seasons before then being cancelled. NBC picked up the “Magnum” remake where it ran for one more season before word came down on June 23rd that this action drama was being cancelled yet again.

FYI: The second half of Season 5 of “Magnum” (10 episodes) has yet to air on NBC. It will be interesting to see when that final set of shows / the series finale gets scheduled.

This all comes to mind this week – out ahead of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” because … Well, if CBS execs had been a bit more flexible back in 1980, the star of the original version of “Magnum PI” (Tom Selleck) would have played the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Which was released to theaters back on June 12, 1981.

That’s the part of the Indiana Jones story that the folks at Lucasfilm often opt to skim over.

That Harrison Ford wasn’t George Lucas’ first choice to play Doctor Jones.

Auditions for Indiana Jones – Harrison’s Not on the List

Mind you, Steven Spielberg – right from the get-go – had pushed for Ford to play this part. The way I hear it, Lucas showed Spielberg a work-in-progress cut of “The Empire Strikes Back.” And Steven was so taken with Harrison’s performance as Han Solo in that Irwin Kershner film that he immediately began pushing for Ford to be cast as Doctor Jones.

Whereas Mr. Lucas … I mean, it wasn’t that George had anything against Harrison. What with Ford’s performances first in “American Grafitti” and then in “A New Hope,” these two already had a comfortable working relationship.

But that said, Lucas was genuinely leery of … Well, the sort of creative collaboration that Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. Where one actor & one director repeatedly worked together. To George’s way of thinking, that was a risky path to follow. Hitching your wagon to a single star.

Which is why – when auditions got underway for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1979 — Mike Fenton basically brought in every big performer of that era to read for Dr. Jones except Harrison Ford. We’re talking:

  • Steve Martin
  • Chevy Chase
  • Bill Murray
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Peter Coyote
  • Nick Nolte
  • Sam Elliot
  • Tim Matheson
  • and Harry Hamlin

Casting a Comedian for Indiana Jones

Please note that there are a lot of comedians on this list. That’s because – while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in development — Spielberg was directed his epic WWII comedy, “1941.” And for a while there, Steve & George were genuinely uncertain about whether the movie that they were about to make would be a sincere valentine to the movie serials of the 1930s & the 1940s or more of a spoof.

It’s worth noting here that three of the more ridiculous set pieces found in “Temple of Doom” …

  • the shoot-out at Club Obi Wan in Shanghai
  • Indy, Willie & Short Round surviving that plane crash by throwing an inflatable life raft out of the cargo hatch
  • and that film’s mine cart chase (which was not only inspired by Disney theme park favorites the Matterhorn Bobsleds & Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but some of the sound effects that you hear in this portion of “Temple of Doom” were actually recorded after hours at Disneyland inside of these very same attractions)

…  all originally supposed to be in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ve actually got a copy of the very first version of the screenplay that Lawrence Kasdan wrote for the first “Indy” movie where all three of these big action set pieces were supposed to be part of the story that “Raiders” told. And I have to tell you that this early iteration of the “Raiders” screenplay really does read more like a spoof of serials than a sincere, loving salute to this specific style of cinema.

Casting Indiana Jones – Jeff or Tom

Anyway … Back now to the casting of the male lead for “Raiders” … After seeing virtually every actor out in LA while looking for just the right performer to portray Indiana Jones, it all came down to two guys:

  • Jeff Bridges
  • and Tom Selleck

Jeff Bridges as Indiana Jones

Mike Fenton was heavily pushing for Jeff Bridges. Having already appeared with Clint Eastwood in 1974’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (Not to mention that “King Kong” remake from 1976), Bridges was a known quantity. But what Fenton liked especially liked about Bridges when it came to “Raiders” was … Well, at that time, Jeff was just coming off “Heaven’s Gate.”

Mind you, nowadays, because we’ve all now had the luxury of seeing the director’s cut of this Michael Cimino movie, we recognize “Heaven’s Gate” for the cinematic masterpiece that it is. But 40+ years ago, that honestly wasn’t the case. All audiences had to judge this movie by was the severely truncated version that United Artists sent out into theaters. Which – because “Heaven’s Gate” had cost $44 million to make and only sold $3.5 million of tickets – then became the textbook example of Hollywood excess.


Long story short: Given that being associated with “Heaven’s Gate” had somewhat dinged Bridges’ reputation for being a marketable star (i.e., a performer that people would pay good money to see up on the big screen), Jeff was now looking to appear in something highly commercial. And the idea of playing the lead in a film directed by Steven Spielberg (the “Jaws” & “Close Encounter” guy) and produced by George Lucas (Mr. “Star Wars”) was very, very appealing at that time. Bridges was even willing to sign a contract with Spielberg & Lucas that would have then roped him into not only playing Indiana Jones in “Raider of the Lost Ark” but also to appear as this very same character in two yet-to-be-written sequels.

Better yet, because “Heaven’s Gate” had temporarily dimmed Bridges’ star status, Jeff was also willing to sign on to do the first “Indy” film for well below his usual quote. With the understanding that – should “Raiders of the Lost Ark” succeed at the box office – Bridges would then be paid far more to appear in this film’s two sequels.

That seemed like a very solid plan for “Raiders.” Landing a known movie star to play the lead in this action-adventure at a bargain price.

Ah, but standing in Mike Fenton’s way was Marcia Lucas.

Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones

Marcia Lucas, who had seen Tom Selleck’s audition for “Raiders” (And you can see it as well. Just go to Google and type in “Tom Selleck” and “Indiana Jones.” And if you dig around for a bit, you’ll then see a feature that Lucas & Spielberg shot for “Entertainment Tonight” back in 2008 [This story was done in support of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”]. And as part of this piece, George and Steve share Tom’s original audition for “Raiders.” And what’s genuinely fascinating about this footage is that Selleck’s scene partner is Sean Young. Who – at that time, anyway – was up for the role of Marion Ravenwood) and kept telling her husband, “You should cast this guy. He’s going to be a big star someday.”

And given that George was smart enough to regularly heed Marcia Lucas’ advice (She had made invaluable suggestions when it came to the editing of “American Graffiti” and the original “Star Wars.” Not to downplay George Lucas’ cinematic legacy, but Marcia Lucas was a world-class storyteller in and of her own right), Lucas then reached out to Spielberg and persuaded him that they should cast relative unknown Tom Selleck as Doctor Jones over the already well-known Jeff Bridges.

Now don’t feel too bad for Jeff Bridges. When he lost out on playing the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Jeff then accepted a role in the very next, high profile, sure-to-be-commercial project that came along. Which turned out to be Disney’s very first “TRON” movie. Which was eventually released to theaters on July 9, 1982.

Back to Tom Selleck now … You have to remember that – back then – Selleck was the handsome guy who’d already shot pilots for six different shows that then hadn’t gone to series. Which was why Tom was stuck being the guest star on shows like “The Fall Guy” and “Taxi.” Whereas once word got out around town that Selleck was supposed to play the lead in a project that Spielberg was directed & Lucas was producing … Well, this is when CBS decided that they’d now take the most recent pilot that Tom had shot and then go to series with this show.

That program was – of course – the original “Magnum PI.” And it’s at this point where our story started to get complicated.

“Magnum PI” – Two Out of Three Say “Yes”

Okay. During the first season of a TV show, it’s traditionally the network – rather than the production company (which – in this case – was Glen A. Larson Productions. The company behind the original versions of “Battlestar Galactica” & “Knight Rider”) or the studio where this series is actually being shot (which – in this case – was Universal Television) that has all the power. And in this particular case, the network execs who were pulling all the strings behind-the-scenes worked for CBS.

And when it came to the first season of “Magnum PI,” CBS had a deal with Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television which stated that the talent which had been contracted to appear in this new action drama would then be available for the production of at least 13 episodes with an option to shoot an additional 9 episodes (This is known in the industry as the back nine. As in: the last nine holes of a golf course).

Anyway, if you take those initial 13 episodes and then tack on the back nine, you then get 22 episodes total. Which – back in the late 1970s / early 1980s, anyway – was what a full season of a network television show typically consisted of.

Anyway … The contract that Selleck had signed with Glen A. Larson Productions, Universal Television & CBS stated that he had to be available when production of Season One of “Magnum PI” began in March of 1980. More to the point, Tom also had to be available should CBS exercise its option to air 22 episodes of this new series on that television network over the course of “Magnum PI” ‘s first season.  

Which then made things complicated for George Lucas & Steven Spielberg because … Well, in order for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to make its June 12, 1981 release date, that then meant that production of the first “Indy” movie would have to get underway no later than June 23, 1980.

But here’s the thing: Production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was scheduled to run through the first week of July of that same year (1980). So in order for Tom Selleck to play Indiana Jones in “Raiders,” he was going to need to be wrapped on production of “Magnum PI” by June 22, 1980 at the absolute latest.

So Spielberg & Lucas went to Glen A. Larsons Productions and asked if Selleck could please be sprung from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligations by June 22nd. And they said “Yes.” Then Steven & George went to Universal Television and asked executives there for their help  in clearing Tom’s schedule so that he’d then be available to start work on “Raiders.” And they say “Yes” as well.

Spielberg & Lucas now go to CBS. But instead of the quick “Yeses” that they got from officials at Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television, it takes those suits at the Tiffany Network weeks before they then decided to say “No, they couldn’t release Tom Selleck early to go work on ‘Raiders’ “ because …

I’ve never really been able to get a straight answer here as to why CBS execs dug in their heels here. Why they flat-out refused to release Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation and allow him to go shoot “Raiders.”

Payback from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” Trash Talk

That said, it is worth noting that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” aired on CBS back in November of 1978. And given that – in the years that followed —  Lucas wasn’t exactly shy when it came to saying how much he hated that two hour-long presentation (Or – for that matter – how George really regretted caving into the requests of CBS execs. Who had insisted that television stars long associated with the Tiffany Network – people like Art Carney, Harvey Korman & Bea Arthur – be given prominent guest starring roles in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”). And I’ve heard whispers over the years that CBS executives preventing Tom Selleck from appearing in “Raiders” could be interpreted as the Tiffany Network getting some payback for what George had said publicly about the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

Harrison Ford Comes to Rescue “Indiana Jones”

Anyway … It’s now literally just weeks before production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is supposed to begin and Spielberg & Lucas have just learned that that they’ve lost their film’s star. CBS is flat-out refusing to release Tom Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation. So Steven & George now have to find someone else to play Indy … and fast.

The real irony here is … The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists would go on strike in the Summer of 1980. Which then shut prematurely shut down production of the first season of “Magnum PI.” (As a direct result, the first full season of this action drama to air on CBS only had 18 episodes, rather than the usual 22). And because this job action lasted ‘til October 23rd of that same year … Well, this meant that Tom Selleck would have actually been free to start shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on June 23, 1980 because production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was already shut down by then due to that AFTRA strike.

But no one knew – in May of 1980, anyway – that this job action was going to happen in just a few weeks. All that Steven Spielberg & George Lucas knew was that they now needed a new lead actor for “Raiders.” And circling back on Jeff Bridges was no longer an option. As I mentioned earlier, Jeff had agreed to do “TRON” for Disney. And – in the interim – Bridges gone off to shoot “Cutter’s Way” for MGM / UA.

Credit: EW

So this is where Harrison Ford enters the equation. As he recalls:

In May of 1980, I get a call from George Lucas. Who says ‘I’m messaging a script over to you this morning. As soon as it gets there, I need you to immediately read this script. Then – as soon as you’re done – I need you to call.

So the script arrives and it’s for ‘Raiders.’ I read it and it’s good. So I call George back and say ‘It’s good.’ And he then says ‘Would you be interested in playing Indy?’ I say that it looks like it would be a fun part to play.

George then says ‘ That’s great to hear. Because we start shooting in four weeks. Now I need you to meet with Steven Spielberg today and convince him that you’re the right guy to play Indy.’

Of course, given that Spielberg had been pushing for Ford to pay Indy ever since he had first seen that work-in-progress version of “The Empire Strikes Back” … Well, Harrison’s meeting with Steven was very, very short. And just a few weeks later, Spielberg, Lucas & Ford were all at the Port de la Pallice in La Rochelle. Where – on the very first day of shooting on “Raiders” (which – again – was June 23, 1980)– the scene that was shot was the one where that Nazi sub (the one that Indy had lashed himself to its periscope by using his bullwhip as a rope) was arriving at its secret base.

And all of this happened because Harrison immediately agreed to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the part of Indy was first offered to him in mid-May of 1980.  

Before “Star Wars” was “Star Wars”

So why such a quick yes? Well, you have to remember that “Empire Strikes Back” wouldn’t be released to theaters ‘til May 21, 1980. And no one knew at that time whether this sequel to the original “Star Wars” would do as well at the box office as “A New Hope” had back in 1977 (FYI: “Empire” would eventually sell over $500 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which is roughly two thirds of what the original “Star Wars” earned three years earlier).

More to the point, the four films that Harrison had shot right after “A New Hope” / prior to “Empire Strikes Back” (i.e., “Heroes” AND “Force 10 from Navarone” AND “Hanover Street” AND “The Frisco Kid”) had all under-performed at the box office. So to Ford’s way of thinking, taking on a role that Tom Selleck was no longer available to play – one that had the potential of spawning two sequels – seemed like a very smart thing to do. Especially after three years of cinematic stumbles.

By the way, whenever this topic ever comes up, Harrison Ford is very gracious. He always makes a point of saying that he’s grateful to have gotten this career opportunity. More to the point, that he still feels kind of bad that Tom Selleck never got the chance to play this part.

Tom Selleck After “Indiana Jones”

That said, we shouldn’t feel too bad for Tom Selleck. After all, the original “Magnum PI” proved to be a long running hit for CBS. And in an effort to smooth over any residual bad feelings that may have resulted from Tom being forced to give up “Raiders” back in May of 1980, Selleck was eventually allowed to create his own production company (i.e., T.W.S. Productions, Inc. As in Thomas William Selleck Productions). Which – after the fact – was then cut in on some of those “Magnum PI” -related revenue streams.

More to the point, while “Magnum PI” was on hiatus following its second year in production, Selleck flew off to Yugoslavia. Where he then shot his own Indiana Jones-esque film for theatrical release. Which was called “High Road to China” in the States, but – overseas – was promoted as “Raiders of the End of the World.”

FYI: Warner Bros. released “High Road to China” stateside 40 years ago this year. On March 18, 1983, to be exact. It didn’t do all that great at the box office. $28 million in ticket sales versus $15 million in production costs.

And over the years, there’s even been some talk of finding a way to maybe set things right here. By that I mean: Finally finding a way to officially fold Tom Selleck into the world of Indiana Jones.

Could Tom Selleck Work with Indiana Jones?

The way I hear it, between the time when “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was theatrically released in May of 1989 and when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” debuted in May of 2008, there were a number of ideas for Indiana Jones sequels tossed around. And from what I’ve been told, there was at least one treatment for a fourth Indiana Jones film written that proposed pairing up Harrison Ford & Tom Selleck. With the idea here being that Selleck was supposed to have played Ford’s brother.

Obviously that film was never made. And – no – I don’t know what state Indiana Jones’ brother was supposed to be named after.

This article is based on research for Looking at Lucasfilm “Episode 80”, published on June 29, 2023. Looking at Lucasfilm is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?



Will Metro Ever Get Made?

First came “Cars” in June of 2006.

This Pixar Animation Studios production did so well (Of all the high grossing films released that year, “Cars” was No. 2 at the box office. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” sold more tickets in 2006) that Disney execs asked John Lasseter to develop a sequel.

“Cars 2” came out in June of 2011 and also did quite well at the box office (It took the No. 7 slot in the Top-Ten-for-ticket-sales that year). Which is why Disney then asked Pixar to prep a follow-up film.

“Cars 3” would eventually arrive in theaters in June of 2017. But in the meantime, Disney & Pixar began exploring the idea of expanding this film franchise. Largely because the amount of money that the Mouse was making off of the sales of “Cars” -related merchandise was … To be blunt here, mind boggling.

Don’t believe me? Well, then consider this: In just the first five years that the “Cars” film franchise existed, global retail sales of merchandise related to these Pixar movies approached $10 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”

So is it any wonder that – while Pixar was still trying to get a handle on what “Cars 3” would actually be about – the Mouse (through its DisneyToon Studios arm. Which produced home premieres like those “TinkerBell” movies) began actively looking into ways to expand this lucrative franchise?

“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off

The first “Cars” spin-off to arrive in the marketplace was “Planes.” This Klay Hall film (which was set in “The World Above Cars”) was released theatrically in August of 2013, with the Blu-ray & DVD version of “Planes” hitting store shelves in November of that same year.

“Planes: Fire and Rescue” followed in the Summer of 2014. And while a “Planes 3” was definitely put in development (At the Disney Animation panel at the 2017 D23 Expo, John Lasseter not only shared a clip from this film. But he also revealed that this project – which, at that time, was entitled “Space” – was slated to be released theatrically in April of 2019) … This animated feature was abruptly cancelled when DisneyToon Studios was shuttered in June of 2018.

But wait. There’s more … In addition to the aborted “Planes 3,”  Disney had other “Cars” spin-offs in the works. One was supposed to be built around boats. While yet another was supposed to have shined a spotlight on trucks.

“Metro” – The World Below Cars

And then there was “Metro.” Which was supposed to have been set in the inner city and focused on what went on in “The World Below Cars.” As in: Down in the subway system.

Just in the past week or so, a few pieces of concept art for “Metro” have surfaced online. Giving us all an intriguing look at what might have been. These preproduction paintings suggest that this “Cars” spin-off would be far grittier than … Say … the sort of adventures that Lightning McQueen & Mater would typically have out in Radiator Springs.

Metro - Cars Spin-Off Movie Poster
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney

That said, it’s worth noting here that – just in the past year or so – we’ve seen Disney & Pixar attempt to expand the turf that these two characters could comfortably cover. Take – for example — “Cars on the Road,” that nine-part series which debuted on Disney+ back in September of last year. This collection of animated shorts literally sent Lightning McQueen & Mater off on a road trip.

So who knows?

Given that Bob Iger (at Disney’s quarterly earnings call held earlier this week) revealed that the Company now has sequels in the works for “Frozen,” “Toy Story,” and “Zootopia” … Well, is it really all that far-fetched to think that – at some point further on down the road – Disney & Pixar will put yet another sequel to “Cars” in the works?

One that might send Lightning McQueen & Mater off to explore the gritty inner-city world that we glimpsed in all that concept art for “Metro,” that never-produced “Cars” spin-off.

Time will tell.

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Park’s Closed: “Vacation ’58” Inspired by Seasonal Closing at Disneyland



This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Warner Bros. released this Harold Ramis movie to theaters back in July of 1983.

John Hughes adapted his own short story (i.e., “Vacation ’58,” which had run in “National Lampoon” magazine less than four years earlier. The September 1979 issue, to be exact) to the screen.

Key difference between “Vacation ‘58” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is that the movie follows the Griswold family on their epic journey to Walley World. Whereas the short story that Hughes wrote (i.e., “Vacation ‘58”) follows an unnamed family to a different theme park. The actual Disneyland in Anaheim.

Let me remove any doubt here. Here’s the actual opening line to John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58.”

If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.

What’s kind of intriguing about the plot complication that sets Act 3 of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in motion (i.e., that – just as the Grisworld arrive at Walley World [after a harrowing cross-country journey] – they discover that “America’s favorite family fun park” is closed for two weeks for cleaning and to make repairs) is that … Well, it’s based on something that Hughes learned about the real Disneyland. That – from 1958 through 1985 [a total of 27 years] the Happiest Place on Earth used to close two days a week during the slower times of year. To be specific, Mondays & Tuesday in the Fall & early Winter as well as in the late Winter / early Spring.

Want to stress here: Two days a week versus the two weeks each year in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

Sorry folks. Park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.

When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?

It wasn’t ‘til February 6, 1985 that Disneyland Park formally switched to being a seven-day-a-week operation. This was just four months after Michael Eisner had become Disney’s new CEO. And part of his effort to get as much profit as possible out of Disney’s theme parks.

Which is a trifle ironic. Given that – back in December of 1958 – Disneyland deliberately switched over to an open-five-days-a-week-during-the-off-season schedule in an effort to get Anaheim’s operating costs under control. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths

So let’s start with the obvious: When Disneyland Park first opened in July of 1955, there had never been one of these before. So the Happiest Place on Earth was a learn-as-you-go operation.

So things that are now closely associated with a visit to Disneyland back in the day (EX: Having to purchase a book of tickets before you entered that theme park. Which then pushed Guests to go seek out various A, B, C & D Ticket attractions around the grounds) … Well, that form of admission media didn’t come online ‘til October 11, 1955. Some three months after Disneyland Park first open.

Prior to this, if you wanted to go on a ride at Disneyland, you had to first get on line at one of the Park’s omni-present ticket booth. Once you got to the front of that line, you then had to open your wallet and purchase enough tickets for your entire family to enjoy that attraction. Only then could you go over to the actual attraction and get in line for that experience. Where – just before boarding that ride – you then surrendered that ticket.

Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive

Interesting side note: It’s now an established part of the on-going Disney theme park narrative that “Going to the Parks has just gotten to be too expensive and/or complicated,” what with the institution of Lightning Lane and then forcing people to use virtual queues if they want to experience newer attractions at the Parks like “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” at Epcot or “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” out in Anaheim.

Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression

What fascinates me about the parallels here is that … When Walt began to see the same thing bubble up in press coverage for his new family fun park (i.e., All of those Summer-of-1955 stories in newspapers & magazines about how expensive it was to visit Disneyland. How – whenever a Guest visited this place – they were constantly being forced to repeatedly open their wallet), his immediate reaction was “We need to fix this now. I don’t want people coming away from their visit to Disneyland with this impression.” And by October 11, 1955 (less than 3 months after Disneyland Park first opened), they had a fix in place.

Lightning Lane – Raising Prices

Counter this with Lightning Lane. Which was first introduced at Walt Disney World in October of 2021. Which has gotten miserable press since Day One (and is a large part of people’s growing perception that it’s just gotten too expensive to take their family on vacation to WDW). Disney Corporate knows about this (hence the number of times questions about this perception has bubbled up in recent surveys that Resort has sent out).

And what does the Company do with this info? During the 2022 holiday season, Disney Parks actually raised the prices on individual Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like “Rise of the Resistance” to $22 a person.

Conclusion: Disney knows about all the bad press the Resort is getting lately but doesn’t care. They like all of the short-term money that Lightning Lane is pulling in right now and are deliberately overlooking all of the long-term implications of the narrative getting out there that going to WDW is getting too expensive.

“Spend Dollars to Get People Back” – Disney Cutting Corners on Projects

Which reminds me of something Walt once said when an Imagineer suggested that the Company could save a few bucks by cutting corners on a particular project: “If people ever stop coming to the Park because they think we cut corners on a project, the few cents we saved ultimately aren’t going to matter. We’re then going to have to spend dollars to get those people back.”

That’s what worries me about Disney’s current situation. What’s the Company ultimately going to have to do convince those people who now think that a trip to WDW has just gotten too expensive for the family to come back.

Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays

Back to Disneyland Park closing on Mondays & Tuesdays during the off-season … When did this practice start? Let me share something that I just found in the 1958 edition of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. This document (which was published on December 23, 1958) states that:

While the gross income of Disneyland was greater this year than in any prior year, the operating expenses for this family fun park were likewise up substantially primarily to two factors.
(1) Operating a seven-day week throughout the 1957 – 1958 week against a six-day week the year before.

(2) Increased costs due to rising salaries and the
inauguration of a 40-hour week. This resulted in lower net profits compared to the prior year.

So – reading between the lines here – in Disneyland’s second year of operation (July 1956 – June 1957), the folks down in Anaheim experimented with keeping Walt’s family fun park open six days a week during the slower times of the year. Which – I’m told – resulted in all sort of angry people at the entrance of Disneyland’s parking lot. Who had to drive down to Anaheim for the day to experience the Happiest Place on Earth only to find said place closed.

Okay. So for Disneyland’s third year of operation (July 1957 – June 1958) on Walt’s orders, Disneyland is then kept open seven days a week all year long. Which proves to be a problem on the off-season, given that there are days in the late Fall / early Spring when there are more Cast Members working in the Park than there are Guests coming through the turnstiles.

Which explains this line in the 1958 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. Which – again – I remind you was published on December 23rd of that year:

This current year, we are operating the park during the winter months on a five-day schedule with resulting savings in operating costs and in the hope that a full week’s business can be compressed within the five days.

So did this change in the way that Disneyland Park ultimately operated off-season ultimately work out? Let’s jump ahead to the 1959 version of Walt Disney Productions’ annual report. In that document (which was also published on December 23rd of that year) states that:

Again this year, as in each year since Disneyland Park first opened in 1955, new records were set for total attendance and per capita spending of park visitors.
The change to a five-day operating week during the 1958 – 1959 winter season from the seven-day schedule in effect the previous year has worked out very well. Reduced operating hours helped to control operating costs in the face of increased wage rates and other rising costs.

Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel

Okay. So this change in the way that Disneyland Park operated during the off-season made things easier for Walt and Disney’s book-keepers back in Burbank. But what about Jack Wrather, the guy that Walt went to back in the Late Winter / Early Spring of 1955 and begged & pleaded for Wrather to build a hotel right next to Disneyland Park?

What happened to the Disneyland Hotel in late 1958 / early 1959 when – in the off-season – Disneyland Park goes to just a five-day-a-week operating schedule? At this point, the Disneyland Hotel is the largest hotel in all of Orange County with over 300 rooms.

It’s at this point that Walt personally reaches out to Jack and says “I know, I know. This operational change at the Park is going to affect your bottom line at the Hotel. Don’t fret. I’m definitely going to make this worth your while.”

Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel

And Walt followed through on that promise. In June of 1961, he extended Disneyland’s monorail system by a full 2 & a half miles so that this futuristic transportation system rolled right up to the Disneyland Hotel’s front door. Which was a perk that no other hotel in Orange County had.

And just in case you’re wondering: The cost of extending Disneyland’s monorail system over to the Disneyland Hotel was $1.9 million (That’s $19 million in 2023 money).


Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel

That very same year, Walt had some of his staff artists design a miniature golf course that could then be built on the grounds of the Disneyland Hotel. This kid-friendly area (called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course) featured elaborately themed holes with recreations of attractions that could be found right next door at Disneyland Park.

  • Hole No. Three was Sleeping Beauty Castle
  • Hole No. Five was Matterhorn Mountain

Other holes featured recreations of popular Disneyland attractions of the 1960s. Among them the TWA Moonliner, the Submarine Voyage, the Painted Desert from Frontierland (this is the area Guests traveled through when they experienced Disneyland”s “Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland” attraction), Tom Sawyer Island, the Fort in Frontierland, not to mention Skull Rock as well as Monstro the Whale from Disneyland’s Fantasyland.

This area was specially illuminated for night-time play. Which meant that the Magic Kingdom Golf Course at the Disneyland Hotel could operate from 10 a.m. in the morning ‘til 10 p.m. a night seven days a week.

Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings

It’s worth noting here that – from the moment the monorail was connected to The Disneyland Hotel – that hotel achieved 100% occupancy. Which is why – even after Disneyland Park switched to a 5-day-a-week operating schedule during the off-season – Disneyland Hotel launched into an aggressive expansion plan. With its 11 story-tall Sierra Tower breaking ground in 1961 (it opened the following year in September of 1962). Not to mention adding all sort of restaurants & shops to the area surrounding that hotel’s Olympic-sized pool.

All of which came in handy during those Mondays & Tuesdays during the Winter Months when people were staying at the Disneyland Hotel and had nowhere to go on those days when the Happiest Place on Earth was closed.

It’s worth noting here that the Disneyland Hotel (with Walt’s permission, by the way) on those days when Disneyland was closed would offer its Guests the opportunity to visit Knott’s Berry Farm as well as Universal Studios Hollywood. A Gray Line Bus would pull up in front of that hotel several times a day offering round-trip transportation to both of those Southern California attractions.

Likewise the Japanese Village and Deer Park over Buena Park. It was a different time. Back when Disney prided itself in being a good neighbor. Back when the Mouse didn’t have to have ALL of the money when it came to the Southern California tourism market. When there was plenty to go around for everyone.

Walley World Shooting Locations

And back to “National Lampoon’s Vacation”… The Walley World stuff was all shot at two Southern California attractions.

The scenes set in the parking lot at Walley World as well as at the entrance of that fictious theme park were shot in the parking lot & entrance of Santa Anita Race Track (Horse Track).

Any scene that’s supposed to be inside of the actual Walley World theme park was shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

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