You’re going to be seeing a lot of stuff about Tony Baxter online
today. Stories about how this longtime Disney Company employee (i.e. Tony
started at Disneyland Park back in August of 1965 as a sweeper and eventually rose
through the ranks to become Senior Vice President of Creative Development for
Walt Disney Imagineering as well as being Creative Executive for Disneyland) will soon transition from being a full-time Imagineer to becoming a part-time advisor for WDI.
Now for some of you folks out there, the news of Tony’s upcoming exit
from 1401 Flower Street may
come as a shock. But for those of us who have actually been paying attention,
it’s been apparent for quite some time now that Baxter has been unhappy.
Witness what he said from the stage back in November during IAAPA‘s Epcot 30th
anniversary panel. When Tony told a ballroom full of themed entertainment
professionals that ” … I don’t think the Imagination pavilion works
Now for a long-time Company man like Baxter (who’s normally very circumspect. Especially when it came to Disney-related controversies, he tended
to follow Thumper’s Father’s advice. As in: “If you can’t say something
nice, don’t say nothin’ at all”) to be so openly critical of the
changes that have been made to this Future World attraction was seen by many in the industry as a pretty big Red Flag. Especially since one
of the people that Tony was paneling with at this Attractions Expo event was Eric Jacobson, the
veteran Imagineering VP who’s currently in charge of Epcot.
Tony Baxter (far left) and Eric Jacobsen (far right) at the Epcot
30th anniversary panel at the 2012 IAAPA Attractions Expo
So to have Baxter out in public talking like this was a
pretty strong indicator that all was not well in Tonytown. So when I reached
out to some WDI insiders late last year to get their thoughts about what this
second generation Imagineer had said at IAAPA, the general consensus was that
Baxter would be going bye-bye very, very soon.
So when word began to leak out yesterday that Tony had
gotten together with friends at the Tam O’Shanter for lunch so that he could
then announce that he’d soon be transitioning from full-time Imagineer to part-time advisor … I have to say that the themed entertainment professionals that I
spoke with yesterday afternoon to confirm these rumors were sad, but not
“Why sad?,” you ask. Because — to be blunt —
given the way that the corporate culture at The Walt Disney Company in general
and WDI in particular has changed over the past 20 years, the chances that
another Tony Baxter is going to be able to come along and then make that ginormous
leap from ice cream scooper to model designer are slim to none. Things have
become so stratified at 1401 Flower Street
with so much of the work now being out-sourced that … Well, it’s highly,
highly unlikely that those sort of creative opportunities, the ones which
allowed Tony to come to the attention of WED pioneers like Claude Coats and then be mentored are
ever going to happen anymore.
Copyright 2013 CFEC / Cedar Fair Parks
Which is a damned shame. Because in a lot of ways, Baxter
was / is the ideal Imagineer. By that I mean, this guy ate, slept and breathed theme
parks. Case in point: When the Timber Mountain Log Ride opened at Knott’s Berry
Farm on July 11, 1969, Tony
was there in the park that morning. Since this sort of attraction (i.e. a
themed flume ride) was something brand-new to the industry (a field that he hoped to
work in someday), Tony braved the crowds. He had to be there right as this
attraction first opened to the public. So that Baxter could then learn everything he could about how Knott’s
Timber Mountain Log Ride worked, what its most successful show elements were, etc. So
that when Dick Nunis began pushing the Imagineers to come up with some sort of flume
ride for the Disney theme parks, Tony then had a solid body of practical
knowledge to draw from.
And Baxter was very, very generous when it came to that
knowledge. Long before there was an Internet, Tony was already a master of
social media. Back in the late 1980s / early 1990s, he was already making
regular appearances at Mouse Club meetings and National Fantasy Fan Club
conventions. Where — armed with a carousel of slides — Baxter would then take
Disney enthusiasts behind-the-scenes on then still-under-construction projects
like Euro Disney or the Disneyand Resort‘s never-built second gate, WESTCOT
It was these presentations, plus Tony’s willingness to go out
on weekends on his own time and then meet with fans when so many other
Imagineers viewed working at WED as strictly a 9-to-5 job, that helped turn
Baxter into the world’s first celebrity Imagineer. Which (I have to be truthful
here) upset a number of the higher-ups at 1401 Flower
Street. It bothered a lot of these folks that Tony
had become the best-known guy working in the building. The Imagineer that many Disneyana
fans knew by name and revered. Which is why — to counteract his high profile
with the fan community — Baxter supposedly deliberately got assigned lower &
lower profile projects to work on over the past 15 years.
Tony Baxter’s last project of size, the 1998 redo of Disneyland’s
Tomorrowland area. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved
The bizarre irony of this situation is that — at the exact same
time that Tony was reportedly deliberately being marginalized at WDI — one of the
biggest names in themed entertainment supposedly reached out to Baxter and
offered him his dream job.
Here’s the story as it’s been told to me multiple times over
the past 10 years by numerous themed entertainment professionals: American
business magnate Steve Wynn reportedly reached out to Tony and tried to recruit
him to come design theme parks & hotels for his company. Baxter would have supposedly
been the head of his own creative division at Wynn Resorts, Limited and would
have regularly worked on high profile, multi-milllion dollar projects.
Tony was allegedly very flattered by this offer but still
turned Steve down. The reason? “Imagineering is broken and Disney
management hasn’t realize it yet,” Baxter supposedly told his friends.
“That’s why I can’t leave. Someday Disney management is going to realize that WDI is broken and I still need to be in the building when that happens. I’m the one who knows how to fix this place.”
The Tony Baxter tribute painting which is about
to be featured in Big Thunder Mountain
Railroad’s new interactive queue.
Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved
At least that’s how Tony was supposedly thinking a few years
back. As to why he’s now decided to go from being a full-time Imagineer to becoming
a part-time advisor … Well, maybe Baxter just got tired of waiting.
Whatever the case, I’m just grateful that Tony hung in there
as long as he did. More to the point, I genuinely appreciate that — over the past 25 years or so — Baxter has been
as generous with his time, talent and knowledge as he has. The info
that I gleaned from those NFFC presentations that Baxter gave back in the 1980s
& 1990s, the stories that he shared at those events I’ve repeatedly folded
into stories that I’ve posted here on JHM over the past decade. And I’ll
continue to do so for years yet to come.
Here’s hoping that WDI is wise enough to keep its new part-time advisor very,very busy. Because I am certain that there are dozens of themed
entertainment companies out there — especially a certain Las
Vegas mogul — who’d love to be able to pick Baxter’s brain on a
31 Long-Gone Rides, Shows & Attractions at Disney-MGM (Hollywood Studios)
May 1, 1989 … It was 34 years ago that the Disney-MGM Studio theme park first opened its door. So many great attractions have come & gone over the past three decades that we thought that it would be fun to look back at a few of our favorites.
“The Great Movie Ride”
First up, it’s the Great Movie Ride. This was the thesis attraction for this entire park (much like Spaceship Earth is for Epcot), a celebration of all things cinema. The exterior of this 95,000 square foot show building was a faithful recreation of Hollywood’s iconic Chinese Theater. Once you climbed aboard your theater car, you were literally whisked over the rainbow to the Land of Oz (Watch out for the Wicked Witch of the West. Which was the most sophisticated Audio-Animatronic figure that WDI had ever produced. Circa 1989, I mean).
Did you know? … That the Great Movie Ride was originally supposed to have featured a scene built around “Ghostbusters” ? Sadly, Universal snagged the theme park rights ahead of Disney for that 1984 Columbia Pictures. But if the Imagineers had had their way, you’d have come face-to-face with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as Peter, Ray, Ego & Winston wielded their proton packs. Ah, what might have been …
“Monster Sound Show”
How many of you recall the Monster Sound Show sponsored by Sony?
This Guest participation show (four members of the audience were recruited to recreate the various sound effects that were prominently featuring in a short film starring Chevy Chase & Martin Short) actually served a dual purpose. It was a way for Disney to showcase some of the amazing devices that its FX wizards had built over the past 60 years to then create those crazy sound effects featured in its full-length films & animated shorts. It also gave Disney-MGM at least one attraction that paid tribute (sort of) to horror films.
Sadly, “The Monster Sound Show” only ran at Disney-MGM from May of 1989 through July of 1997. After that, this attraction was rebranded as the “ABC Sound Show” (Which then tied this theme park show in with Disney’s August 1995 acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities).
“Studio Backlot Tour”
We continue with the Studio Backlot Tour. Which took many different forms during the over-25-years that this experience was available to Guests visiting the WDW Resort.
Early on, the Studio Backlot Tour had a rather rigid form. This nearly two-hour-long experience began with a tram ride through Residential Street (Where you could then see a recreation of the “Golden Girls” house) and then a thrilling detour through Catastrophe Canyon. Then Guests took a walking tour of the three state-of-the-art soundstages that Disney had just built in Florida.
When Guests complained about how long the original version of the Studio Backlot Tour was, Disney then turned this attraction into two separate experiences: a backstage tram ride and THEN a walking tour of its Florida soundstages. Both of these were discontinued in September of 2014 to make way for “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”
“The Magic of Disney Animation”
Our look at now-long-gone attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) now continues with something of a heart-breaker. Which was the “Magic of Disney Animation” attraction, which was home to Disney Feature Animation – Florida from 1989 – 2003.
This was where Guests could visit the fish bowl (That’s what all of the artists & animators who actually work in the glassed-in portion of this walk-through attraction called this part of the tour) and peer down at work being done on upcoming animated features & shorts. Among the films that were primarily produced in Florida were “Mulan,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “Brother Bear” & “Roller Coaster Rabbit.”
Sadly, when Walt Disney Animation Studios decided in the early 2000s to shift over to producing CG films (Disney’s last two hand-drawn films – to date, anyway – were 2009’s “Princess & the Frog” and 2011’s “Winnie-the-Pooh”), the decision was made to shutter the Florida studio and lay off most of the staff who worked there. Many still consider this to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made by Mouse House executives.
“Super Star Television”
Let’s revisit SuperStar Television. This sponsored-by-Sony show gave upwards of 30 visitors to this theme park to make appearances in classic TV shows like “I Love Lucy,” “Bonaza” and “Gilligan’s Island.”
I myself got recruited to be part of a presentation of SuperStar Television. I was selected to be hit in the face with a pie by Curly Howard in a scene starring the Three Stooges. As I recall, I was dressed in a swallow-tailed tuxedo which Velcroed up the back. And the two lines that I had to say were “Dinner is served” (after which I got hit in the kisser with that pie) and then “Why you!” (After which I then tried to throw a pie at Moe but wound up hitting this high society lady instead).
Sadly, “SuperStar Television” was shut down in September of 1998 so that this centrally locate theater could then become a number of different attractions (among them “The American Idol Experience”).
One of my favorite places to dine at this theme park back in the day was the Soundstage Restaurant. How many of you got to visit this quick service eatery right after Disney-MGM first opened? Back then, you could dine in a full-sized recreation of the lobby of NYC’s Plaza Hotel (This lavish set had originally been built for the 1988 Touchstone comedy, “Big Business.” And once production of this Bette Midler / Lily Tomlin comedy was complete, it was then shipped from California to Florida and installed just off this theme park’s Animation Courtyard area).
And speaking of animation … The dining room of the Soundstage Restaurant was redressed a number of times over the next 9 years to celebrate the most recent release from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which meant – depending on which year you visited this quick service eatery – you could have dined in Belle’s Village or the Cave of Wonders from “Aladdin.”
Mind you, your parents may have a very different memory of the Soundstage Restaurant. Largely because – upstairs – was the Catwalk Bar. Which was a quick spot away from the noise & the heat that served adult beverages.
So let’s all raise a glass to the late, great Soundstage Restaurant. Which closed in November of 1998 to make way for the “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live On Stage” show.
“Here Come the Muppets” Stage Show
Our story starts in August of 1989 (just three months after this theme park first opened) with the announcement that The Walt Disney Company would acquiring The Jim Henson Company for $150 million. With the idea here being that the Muppets would then make their home at Disney-MGM and fill up this place with all sorts of crazy, one-of-a-kind attractions. Places like the Great Gonzo’s Pandemonium Pizza Parlor and the Swedish Chef’s TV Cooking School.
Mind you, those elaborate attractions (which were then going to be located inside of Muppet Studios, a brand-new land at Disney-MGM) were going to take a few years to design & construct. And – in the interim – Jim Henson personally worked with the Imagineers to quickly get a live stage show which featured the Muppets up out of the ground as quickly as possible.
“Here Come the Muppets” opened at Disney-MGM on May 25, 1990. Which was just nine months after Disney’s deal to acquire Henson had first been announced. Sadly, just 9 days prior to this show opening at the Studios, Jim Henson died of bacterial pneumonia. Which eventually derail Disney’s first attempt to acquire the Muppets.
How many of you remember “Here Come the Muppets” ? Which featured Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem making their entrance in this show via a monorail that they first hijacked & then drove straight to the wall of that theater.
“Sorcery in the Sky” Fireworks Show
Let’s now discuss this theme park’s first nighttime show. Which was “Sorcery in the Sky.”
Don Dorsey – the talented gentleman who created “Laserphonic Fantasy” & then “IllumiNations” for EPCOT – really had his work cut for him when he was first handed the “Sorcery in the Sky” project. You have to remember that – back then – Disney-MGM was an active film & television production center as well as a working theme park. Which is a polite way of saying that – when the Imagineers first designed Disney-MGM – they weren’t actually planning on presenting a nightly fireworks display at the place.
So working with a tight schedule (WDW officials wanted “Sorcery in the Sky” up & running 13 months after Disney-MGM first opened) and an even tighter budget, Don did what he could. Which was craft a show that was kind of a camel. Half a celebration of classic Hollywood (featuring the music of memorable motion pictures like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and the other half to Disney’s 1940 release, “Fantasia.”
It’s the conclusion of “Sorcery in the Sky” that most people remember even today. That’s when – as an excerpt from Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” played – a 50-foot-tall inflatable version of Mickey Mouse slowly rose up on the rooftop of the Chinese Theater. And as “Sorcery in the Sky” reached its climax, sparks then shot out Mickey’s finger tip (which was pointed out towards Disney-MGM’s parking lot. As if this giant Mouse was saying “That’s where your car is. Now please get out.”)
“Sorcery in the Sky” (which was originally narrated by screen legend Vincent Price) ran at this theme park from May of 1998 – October of 1998. This nighttime fireworks display was discontinued when the Florida version of “Fantasmic!” debut in the Fall of that same year.
Dick Tracy in the “Dimond Double-Cross” Stage Show
Let’s take a look at a piece of cross promotion at this theme park that then resulted in an intriguing stage show.
In the Spring of 1990, Walt Disney Studios was getting ready to release its answer to Tim Burton’s hugely successful “Batman” movie. And that was a feature film based on another comic book character, Dick Tracy. And since the Studios wanted the company’s theme parks to help promote this Warren Beatty, they were then tasked with creating some sort of Dick Tracy-themed stage show.
So director Robert Jess Roth & choreographer Matt West put their heads together and crafted a 28-minute-long musical comedy (which then used a few of the songs that legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim had written for the “Dick Tracy” film) called “Diamond Double-Cross.”
Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” movie quickly sank at the box office. But “Diamond Double-Cross” was hugely popular with theme park guests and ran for nine months at Disney-MGM’s old Theater of the Stars (Back when this Hollywood Bowl-inspired structure was still located next to that theme park’s Brown Derby Restaurant).
In fact, then-Disney president Michael Eisner was so impressed with what Roth & West had done when it came to translating “Dick Tracy” into a theme park show that – when the Company decided in 1993 that it was going to turn Disney’s animated hit, “Beauty & the Beast” into a Broadway musical – who did Michael recruit for this job? Robert & Matt.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appear on the Streets of America
As we continue our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s check out the Streets of America.
When this theme park first opened in May of 1989, the only way you could see this part of Disney-MGM (which – back then – was known as New York Street) was if you climbed aboard a tram and took the Backstage Studio Tour. By December of that same year, the Imagineers had realized that they needed to give visitors to WDW’s third theme park lots more elbow room. Which is when they decided to open New York Street (now known as the Streets of America) to foot traffic.
Of course, the problem with opening up all of this space at the very back of Disney-MGM was … Well, you now needed to give those Guests who actually hiked back there something to see & do other than poke around al those empty NYC-themed storefronts.
Luckily, in March of 1990, the very first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was released to theaters. And this New Line Cinema movie did so well at the box office (It was the fourth highest grossing film of that year, just behind “Ghost,” “Pretty Woman” & “Home Alone”) that Disney moved quickly to acquire the theme park rights to these hugely popular characters.
Which is why – just three months after TMNT originally debuted at your local multiplex — Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael (along with April O’Neil) were making multiple appearances daily out on New York Street. How many of you remember how these characters used to first roll onstage aboard the Turtle Party Wagon, then do a brief martial arts demonstration while April sang the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme song? This all-too-brief show (we’re talking 4 minutes, tops) ended with Guests then getting the chance to get their picture taken with their favorite turtle.
Sadly, these “Heroes on a Half Shell” didn’t hang on all that long at Disney-MGM. By 1994, the Teenage Mutant Turtles were no longer doing meet-n-greets on the Streets of America. But a different character from New Line Cinema (one which Disney also licensed the theme park rights to) would soon begin greeting theme park guests. We’ll get to him in a future installment of this series.
“Muppets on Location: Day of Swine and Rose” Stage Show
As we press ahead with our look at now-extinct rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), it’s now time to talk about “Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses.”
This outdoor presentation – which was presented as often as 5 times daily at the very back of Muppet Studios – was sort of a sequel to “Here Come the Muppets,” an indoor stage show we’ve previously discussed in this series.
And “Muppets on Location” … Well, its goal was to solve Guests’ No. 1 complaint about Disney-MGM’s “Here Come the Muppets” show. Which was “I want to get my picture taken with and/or collect the autograph of my favorite Muppet. How exactly do I do that?”
WDW’s Entertainment team came up with kind of an ingenious solution to this problem. They created this moment in the middle of this outdoor stage show where – as Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem played an extended musical number – Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Great Gonzo and Beanie would then move to pre-designated meet-n-greet spots at the edge of the “Muppets on Location” performance area and then interact with as many Guests as they possibly could in that short window of time.
It wasn’t a perfect system. Often Disney-MGM visitors would queue up to get their picture taken with their favorite Muppet character, only to then have Kermit & Co. suddenly rush back to the stage so that they could then take part in this show’s finale. Another aspect of “Muppets on Location” is that … Well, the Muppet walk-around characters at Disney-MGM wouldn’t sign Guests’ autograph books. They’d instead stamp them with a giant rubber stamp which then approximated what that Muppet character’s signature was supposed to look like.
“Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses” didn’t run all that long. By 1994, Miss Piggy & pals had packed up and vacated this corner of Disney-MGM. Which – some 15 years later – then became home to a Phineas & Ferb-themed meet-n-greet.
One especially sad story associated with “Muppets on Location: Days of Swine & Roses” : This was the Disney-MGM show that Jim Henson was supposed to be recording dialogue for on May 16, 1990. Which was the day that this Disney Legend succumbed to bacterial pneumonia.
Let’s now check out a parade that was developed for this theme park which was originally supposed to celebrate the Muppets.
“The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade” was originally supposed to have begun rolling down Hollywood Boulevard the very same summer that “Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3D” opened at Disney-MGM. Unfortunately after Jim’s untimely passing in May of 1990, the Henson family decided that it no longer wanted to sell the Muppets to Disney and broke off negotiations with the Mouse in December of that same year.
This made things complicated for the folks who worked in Entertainment at Walt Disney World, given that they had already begun construction on the various parade floats that were to be featured in “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade.” And given the terms of the settlement that Disney’s lawyers had hashed out with Henson’s attorneys in the Spring of 1991 … Well, Miss Piggy & pals now couldn’t appear on these already-largely-completed parade floats.
So what do you in a situation like this? You improvise. In April of 1991, “Dinosaurs” debuted on ABC. This sitcom was produced by Michael Jacobs Productions & Jim Henson Television in association with Walt Disney Television. Consequently, Disney’s legal agreement with Henson which kept Kermit & Co. off of the floats that had been built for “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade” didn’t apply in this situation.
Which is why – from September of 1991 thru August of 1992 – the Sinclair family made daily appearances at Disney-MGM. Riding on parade floats that had previously been designed for the Great Gonzo as well as Doctor Teeth & the Electric Mayhem. Which then allowed WDW Entertainment to write off all of the money that they’d already spent on the design & development of “The Magnificent Muppet All-Star Motorcade.”
“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”
It’s time to check out a playground that was added to this theme park’s Street of America area on the heels of the June 1989 release of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
This Joe Johnston film (which was released to theaters just 8 weeks after Disney-MGM first opened to the public) was the surprise hit of the Summer of 1989. “Honey” actually wound up being the fifth highest grossing film of that year, just behind “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Rain Man.”
Walt Disney Pictures immediately announced plans to produce a slew of sequels (They even went as far as to copyright a number of possible titles for these films in the late Summer of 1989. These included “Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon,” “Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog,” and “Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible”). And on the theme park side of things, the Imagineers rushed to get a “Honey” -themed playground in the works for Disney-MGM Studios.
Which wasn’t as easy as you might think. After, Florida is hurricane country. So when you’re talking about installing 30-foot-tall blades of grasses, you then have to make sure that this structures are then properly anchored / can then stand up to 300 MPH.
Then there’s the issue of making sure that when little kids come sliding down off of that giant piece of film that’s then sticking out of that oversized Kodak cannister (And – just in case you’re wondering – Kodak got that kind of prominent product placement inside of this playground because they contributed to the cost of building “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure”) and then not hurting themselves when they hit the ground.
“How’d the Imagineers manage that?,” you ask. The entire surface of this 11,000 square foot playground was covered with a material called Playdeck. Which was made up of ground-up truck tires.
Sadly, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure” closed in May of 2016 to make room for another movie set adventure. Maybe you’ve heard of it? “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” ?
“Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show
Let’s talk about a stage show at this theme park that had some surprising legs. And that’s “Voyage of the Little Mermaid.”
To explain: In show biz parlance, when you say that a show has legs … Well, that then means this show has settled in for a surprisingly long run at the theater it’s being presented at. And that’s certainly what happened with the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” show at Disney-MGM. It opened in the Animation Courtyard Theater back on January 7, 1992. And to be honest, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic (which forced all of Walt Disney World to shut down for almost three months in early 2020), the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” would probably be running at that theme park even today.
Mind you, this 17-minute-long presentation was pretty much a Reader’s Digest version of this Academy Award-winning animated feature. But “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” packed an awful lot of 1990s era FX & pizzaz in that very short running time. There were lasers (to simulate the waves in the ocean as we journeyed “Under the Sea”), black light puppets, and bubbles galore. And who can forget that 12 foot-tall, 10 foot-wide Ursula puppet which sang “Poor Unfortunate Soul” ?
What was really intriguing about the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show is … Well, WDW’s Entertainment team deliberately designed this show to only run for 18 months (Given that the stage show which preceded “Mermaid” in the Animation Courtyard – “Here Come the Muppets” – only occupied this space for 16 months [May 1990 – September 1991], a year-and-a-half long stint at Disney-MGM seemed realistic) because the Imagineers had already begun designing a “Little Mermaid” dark ride that was supposed to installed over in the Magic Kingdom.
Which did eventually happen. “Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid” would indeed open at that theme park as part of the New Fantasyland project. But that wouldn’t happen ‘til more than 20 years after the “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” stage show first opened in 1992. And even after that “Under the Sea” dark ride began entertaining visitors to WDW’s Magic Kingdom, “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” kept being presented in DHS’s Animation Courtyard Theater.
Just so you know: There have been rumors that a brand-new production of “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” may soon be mounted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Of course, that all depends on how well Disney’s new live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” – the one starring Halle Bailey & Melissa McCarthy – does at the box office when it’s released to theaters later this month.
“Macy’s New York Christmas”
Let’s now look at perhaps the seasonal show which had the shortest run at this WDW theme park. And that’s “Macy’s New York Christmas.”
This all keyed off of the Company looking for ways to … Well, not only to celebrate Goofy’s 60th birthday but also raise awareness for “Goof Troop” (i.e., that then-new animated series which had just joined the “Disney Afternoon” programming block in syndication on September 5th of that same year). Which is why Disney cut a deal with the Macy’s Parade Studio to craft a 65-foot-tall inflatable version of this cartoon character which would be dressed as Santa Claus. Which would then make an appearance in the 66th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Which would march through the streets of NYC & be televised nationally on November 26, 1992.
As part of Disney’s deal with Macy’s, the Company got the rights to (after the Thanksgiving Day Parade was over, of course) bring that Santa Goofy balloon down to Florida. Where – along with four other balloons which had been featured in that year’s parade (i.e., Kermit the Frog, Betty Boop, Snuggle the fabric softener Bear and Humpty Dumpty) – these inflatables would then tethered to the tops of buildings down in Disney-MGM’s backlot. Which Guests could then view as they strolled through the Streets of America from December 5, 1992 – January 3, 1992.
And given that I’ve been lucky enough to befriend some folks who work in Macy’s Parade Studio, I can now tell you that this idea – keeping 5 of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons inflated for a full month (rather than for just the few hours it typically takes to pre-inflate these things, then send them aloft in time for their televised trip down Broadway, then get these ginormous balloons un-inflated & packed up for their trip back to Hoboken, NJ. Which is where – until 2011 — the actual physical Parade Studio was located in an old Tootsie Roll factory) – absolutely terrified the folks who worked at Macy’s.
Why? Because those Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons are rather fragile creatures. More to the point, helium – the gas that’s used to inflate these things – rapidly expands when exposed to heat. So the fear here was keeping these 5 balloons inflated for a full month in the Florida sun was going to eventually leave these things in tatters.
Luckily, Santa Goofy & his pals came through their 29-day-long stint at Disney-MGM unscathed. And while this was a one-and-done seasonal extravaganza as far as the Disney Parks was concerned, Universal just loved this idea. Which is why – starting in 2002 – the Macy’s Holiday Parade (later Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s) began seasonally rolling through Universal Studios Florida.
“Aladdin’s Royal Caravan”
As we continue our look back at rides, shows & attractions that we can no longer see at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s take a look at “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan,” a hugely popular parade that debuted at this theme park back on December 21, 1992. Which was one month after the animated feature that inspired “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” first debuted in theaters.
To be honest, WDW Entertainment had never ever done this before. Based a parade for the Parks on a single film. Much less a specific sequence from a Walt Disney Animation Studios production. But the “Prince Ali” number from this Ron Clements / John Musker movie was such a high point from this soon-to-be Oscar-winning film that it felt … Well, almost like a no-brainer to use this Howard Ashman & Alan Menken number as the jumping-off point for “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan.”
Mind you, because Robin Williams’ Genie character appears in so many different disguises in this part of the “Aladdin” movie that WDW Entertainment then felt free to have multiple versions of this character make appearances in “Royal Caravan.” First there was the Drum Major Genie who started off the parade, followed by the 32-foot-tall inflatable version of this character. Directly behind this super-sized Genie was a version of this character in the bathtub. Who was then followed by a Genie who had been split into his upper & lower half.
This five-unit parade – which featured those infamous golden camels (Watch out! They spit!) – may not have been the longest thing to roll through the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But WDW visitors just loved “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan.” So much so that this WDW Entertainment-designed affair (which was only supposed to run for a year) got its run at this theme park extended through August of 1995.
In fact, “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” was so popular with folks who visited the Mouse’s theme parks in Florida that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided that Disneyland needed a clone of this parade. This second version of “Aladdin’s Royal Caravan” was then rushed into production and managed to debut in Anaheim by April 2, 1993.
“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action”
“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action” – kind of redefines “short-lived.”
For those of you who don’t remember “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” this was a Jim Carrey comedy that was released to theaters back in February of 1994. This Tom Shadyac movie did well enough at the box office that Warner Bros. quickly greenlit a sequel, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – When Nature Calls.”
To help promote this sequel (which arrived in theaters on November 5, 1995), Warner Bros. cut a deal with Disney to have a live stunt show featuring the Ace Ventura character presented 5 times daily on Disney-MGM’s “Streets of America.” It was hoped that this stunt show would then help raise awareness of “When Nature Calls” and maybe convince a few visitors to WDW’s third theme park to then go see this “Ace Ventura” sequel at the AMC Pleasure Island (i.e., that movie theater which is now known as the AMC Dine-In Disney Springs 24).
This “Live in Action” stunt show mainly consisted of a Disney cast member dressed as Ace Ventura climbing up & down various facades found on the “Streets of America.” Sometimes Ace would attempt to capture a giant spider that had gotten loose. Other times this Pet Detective would enlist Guests help in finding a rare albino bat (which kids would eventually find hanging from one of these buildings’ fire escape. After shouting a few of the catch-phrases for these Jim Carrey movies (EX: “Do NOT go in there!), Ace would then pose for pictures & sign some autographs.
Though “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – When Nature Calls” did significantly better at the box office than the first “Ace Ventura” did (i.e., selling $212 million worth of tickets versus the $107 million purchased for the first film), Carrey, Morgan Creek Productions & Warner Bros. opted not to make a third “Ace Ventura” film for theatrical release.
And as for this stunt show, with the start of the New Year in 1996, Disney-MGM quietly pulled the plug on “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – Live in Action.” Here’s hoping that WDW Entertainment found some good homes for that giant spider & albino bat.
“The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights“
We now arrive at the seasonal attraction that most longtime WDW fans will cite as the thing they miss most of all, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
This holiday favorite … Well, it grew out of a request that Breezy Osborne made to her Dad back in 1986. She asked Jennings (a successful Arkansas businessman) if they could please cover their Little Rock home with Christmas lights.
Daddy honored Breezy’s request. And with every passing year, Jennings added even more Christmas lights. Until – by 1993 – the Osborne family home was lit up by more than 3 million bulbs. Which turned this annual holiday display into a genuine tourist attraction in Little Rock. Not to mention really annoying Jenning’s neighbors.
As you might expect, this matter eventually wound up in court. When the Arkansas Supreme Court shut down this seasonal display in 1995, the Entertainment team at Walt Disney World reached out to the Osborne family and offered up Residential Street as a possible new home for those 3 million+ bulbs.
Mind you, it took four full-sized Mayflower moving vans to haul all those Christmas lights from Little Rock down to Orlando. It then took Disney technicians two weeks to untangle those thousands of strings of bulbs. But by November 22, 1995, Residential Street was all lit up. And WDW suddenly found itself with a new seasonal favorite.
Over time (and to better handle the crowds that came out every year to see this holiday display), the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights eventually moved from Residential Street over to the Streets of America. And that’s where they stayed until WDW finally decided to pull the plug on this Christmas tradition on January 3, 2016 so that DHS’ backlot area could then be torn down. Which would then allow construction of the Florida version of “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” to get underway.
Just so you know: Every so often, WDW officials revisit the idea of reviving the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. There’s even been talk of building an entire faux neighborhood on property so that people could then drive through every holiday season and view this Christmas display just as Breezy & Jennings originally intended. But to date, The Walt Disney Company has yet to put that plan in motion.
“Toy Story Parade”
I’d like to now offer up a story about one of my personal favorite, which was the Toy Story Parade.
I was living down in Orlando when this parade originally debuted at WDW’s third theme park. Not only that, but the day that the “Toy Story Parade” debuted at Disney-MGM (i.e., November 22, 1995) … Well, I started my morning over at the AMC Pleasure Island. Where I caught the very first screening of “Toy Story,” Pixar’s first full-length animated feature.
That screening began at 11 a.m. Given that this John Lasseter film was only one hour and 17 minutes long, I was able to walk out of that screening of “Toy Story,” climb into my trusty Geo Metro and then drive over to Disney-MGM. Where I was then able to gain entrance to that theme park just in time to catch the very first presentation of the “Toy Story Parade.” Which stepped off at 1 p.m. at Crossroads of the World and then rolled up Hollywood Boulevard.
Given that Disney had never done this before (i.e., have a parade that keyed off of a specific film debut at one of the Company’s theme parks day & date with that very same movie’s arrival in theaters), I have to tell you that it was genuinely surreal to see the “Toy Story” characters
And I have to tell you it was genuinely surreal to see all of these Pixar character suddenly writ large. The “Toy Story Parade” started off with the Green Army Men manning the marquee float. Next came Hamm & Mr. Potato on top of a pile of over-sized board games. After that came Buzz atop of his “Star Command” box surrounded by Little Green Aliens. Bringing up the rear was Woody & Rex. And inbetween these four floats were walk-around versions of Bo Peep & Slinky Dog. Not to mention a Barrel O’ Monkeys.
One especially strong memory of that day was the woman who was standing next to me as the “Toy Story Parade” made its inaugural trip through Disney-MGM. And all she kept saying was “Where’s Mickey? I don’t know who any of these characters are.” And as soon as all those floats & performers cleared Crossroads of the World, this woman marched straight into Guest Relations and then complained loudly about how … Well, a parade at a Disney park should feature Disney characters. Not these weird Pixar characters from some movie that no one’s ever seen.
Mind you, everyone knows who Buzz & Woody are now. And what with “Toy Story 5” already in the works … Who knows? Maybe Disney’s Hollywood Studios will host an all-new “Toy Story Parade” in the not-too-distant future
As we continue our look back at rides, shows & attractions that used to be up & running at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), how many of you recall the Backlot Theater?
This immense performance venue (it had seating for 1500 Guests) originally came online on May 23, 1993 (30 years ago this week). The Backlot Theater was built as a replacement for the Theater of the Stars, that inspired-by-the-Hollywood-Bowl complex that used to be located just off of Hollywood Bowl at this theme park.
The two live stage shows that most Guests saw in the Backlot Theater keyed off of two animated features that Disney released in the mid-1990s. First came “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” a stage version of this Academy Award-winning film. This 28-minute-long retelling of Disney’s “Pocahontas” movie (which – FYI – began presenting performances at Disney-MGM on the exact same day that the animated feature version of this film first opened in theaters. Which was June 23, 1995) featured a 28-foot-tall version of Grandmother Willow. Not to mention a cast of 30 singers & dancers.
“The Spirit of Pocahontas” had a relatively short run at WDW’s third theme park. This stage show closed on February 24, 1996 to make way for an even more elaborate production. Which was “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure.”
Just like with “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” the “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” was a stage version of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ most recent (at that time, anyway) theatrical release. It opened on June 21, 1996 (again the very same day that the animated “Hunchback” opened in movie theaters nationwide) and then settled in for a good long run. The very last presentation of “Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” wouldn’t happen ‘til over 6 years later. On September 28, 2002 to be exact.
FYI: If you have memories of sweating through performances of “The Spirit of Pocahontas” and/or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure,” there’s a reason for that. The Backlot Theater was an open-air theater. The stage itself was undercover, which protected the actors from that changeable Central Florida weather. But not the audience.
Mind you, once the “Hunchback” stage show ended in its run in 2002, the Imagineers transformed this Streets of America area performance venue into a totally enclosed theater with air conditioning. It would then be redubbed the Premier Theater and eventually become home to the first iteration of the “For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-along” show.
“Super Soap Weekend”
Let’s take a look at one of the more popular fan events to ever be presented at this theme park. And that’s Super Soap Weekend.
This event actually dates back to August of 1995. Which is when The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be acquiring ABC / Cap Cities for $19 billion (That’s $37 billion in 2023 dollars).
Mind you, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner actually started his career at the Alphabet network. He quickly rose through the ranks. And – by 1971 – Michael was the vice president of daytime programming at ABC. Which meant that Eisner helped get two of that television network’s long running soap operas – “One Life to Live” & “All My Children” – up out of the ground.
So is it any wonder that – after The Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities in February of 1996 — one of the very first things that Michael Eisner did was order that Disney-MGM stage an in-park event that then celebrated the Alphabet Network’s daytime dramas.
And just eight months later (On October 19 – 20th, to be exact), the very first Super Soap Weekend was staged at WDW’s third theme park. And while Disney had hoped this event would be popular, they were stunned when people began lining up outside MGM’s gates at 3 a.m. Just so they could then be sure to get the autograph of their favorite soap star.
Since Nancy was (and still is) a huge ABC Daytime fan, she & I attended all but one of the Super Soap Weekends. And when I say that I “attended,” what I mean is that I got Nancy to Disney-MGM first thing in the morning and then collected her late at night after that day’s festivities had wrapped.
Sadly, Disney-MGM staged its last Super Soap Weekend in November of 2008. But we still have a pile of those black & white 5 & 7s that ABC gave away for free of Nancy’s favorite daytime performers. She still looks back on those times with much fondness.
“Star Wars Weekends”
As we continue our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), let’s talk about an annual event that eventually led to a whole new land at this theme park. And that’s Star Wars Weekends.
It was an outside event that actually made the Mouse decide to take a flyer on this four / sometimes five weekend-long event. And that was George Lucas’ decision to release the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. When “A New Hope” opening in theaters on January 31, 1997, then “The Empire Strikes Back” following Episode 4 into your local multiplex just three weeks later on February 21st.
In fact, the Special Editions of Episode 4 & 5 did so well at the box office that Lucas (along with 20th Century Fox) opted to push back the release date of the Special Edition of “Return of the Jedi” by a full week (from March 7, 1997 to March 14th of that same year). Just so “The Empire Strikes Back” would then have even more time to sell tickets to Star Wars fans.
And when Disney Parks learned in 1996 that George Lucas was readying the “Special Editions” for theatrical release in the first quarter of 1997 … Well, they saw an opportunity to piggyback on all of the promotion that Lucas & 20th Century Fox would obviously be doing in order to convince moviegoers that they really needed to see these spruced-up version of “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
Which is why they scheduled their own month-long Star Wars-related event to kick off on Friday, February 21st. Which was just as the Special Edition of “The Empire Strikes Back” was arriving in theaters. Using Disney-MGM’s “Star Tours” (Not to mention the full-sized Imperial Walker & Ewok Village that the Imagineers built just outside the entrance of this motion-based simulator attraction) as the center pole for this 5-week-long event … Well, they invited the stars of the original Star Wars trilogy (We’re talking people like …
- David Prowse AKA Darth Vader
- Kenny Baker AKA R2D2
- Anthony Daniels AKA C3P0
- Peter Mayhew AKA Chewbacca
- Jeremy Bullock AKA Boba Fett
- And Warwick Davis AKA Wicket the Ewok)
… to take part in daily motorcades, not to mention meet-n-greets and autograph sessions with Star Wars fans.
The first Star Wars Weekends (which ends on March 23, 1997. Which as just as the Special Edition of “The Return of the Jedi” was ending its theatrical run) was so hugely successful that – when “The Phantom Menace” premiered in theaters in May of 1999 and did boffo box office – the Mouse announced that Star Wars Weekends would be returning to Disney-MGM.
As it did (with a year off in 2002) for the next 15 years. Disney’s Hollywood Studios only discontinued Star Wars Weekends after the 2015 edition so that work could then begin on this theme park’s “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” land.
“Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show”
Let’s talk about another really short-live show at this theme park. Which was the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show.
Now when it came to the original iteration of Disney-MGM Studios, the Imagineers always knew that this theme park came up short when it came to one particular film genre. And that was horror.
Oh, sure. There was Disney-MGM’s “Monster Sound Show” (but that wasn’t really about horror. But – rather – how sound effects are added to films in post-production). Likewise the mummy’s tomb scene in “The Great Movie Ride” (but that wasn’t really about horror either. It was mostly an extension of that ride-thru attraction’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequence).
Mind you, the Imagineers developed a few horror-themed attractions for Disney-MGM. There was Soundstage 13, which was supposed to be home to this theme park’s “Hotel Mel” ride (Believe it or not, Mel Brooks was actually supposed to be the host of this ride-thru show that spoofed horror. Which – over time – mutated in this theme park’s signature attraction, “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”). There was also the “Creatures Choice Awards,” which was supposed to mix Hollywood’s love of awards shows in with a salute to the horror genre. And this show – if it had ever built – was supposed to climax with Godzilla literally bringing down the house as he arrived to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award.
But because the Disney Parks like to be considered family-friendly … Well, it wasn’t ‘til R.L. Stines’ best-selling series of scary tales for young adults (not to mention the “Goosebumps” TV series that spun off from that set of books) came along in the mid-1990s that the Imagineers thought they finally had a horror-themed property that would then work for Disney-MGM Studio theme park.
So the Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show was built towards the back of the Streets of America (kind of where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stage show / meet-n-greet had been located at this same theme park back in the late 1980s). It opened in early October of 1997 (just in time for Halloween) and featured popular Goosebumps characters like Slappy the ventriloquist doll, Prince Khor-Ru the Mummy, Curly the Skeleton and Cuddles the Giant Hamster.
Mind you, the Mouse had to pay R.L. Stine (not to mention the producers of the “Goosebumps” television series) for the rights to use these characters in a theme park setting. And when the “Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show” didn’t prove to be as popular with visitors to Disney-MGM as the Company had originally hoped … Well, they opted not to renew this deal.
Which is why – after one last Halloween presentation – the “Goosebumps Horrorland Fright Show” closed on November 1, 1998.
was an attraction at Disney’s MGM Studios in Walt Disney World and ran from October 8, 1997, to November 1, 1. 998.
It’s now time to talk about “Doug Live!,” the short-lived musical based on that Emmy-nominated animated series.
This show arrived at Disney-MGM in kind of a convoluted way. By the Spring of 1998, “Superstar Television” (which was an opening day attraction at this theme park) was showing its age. WDW’s Entertainment team had tried to freshen up this celebration of network TV by folding in new vignettes that were pulled from recent Touchstone Television-produced hits like “Home Improvement” & “Empty Nest.” But in the end (largely because return visitors to Disney-MGM were now regularly passing this audience participation show by), they knew it was now time to develop a “Superstar Television” replacement.
On a parallel track, in 1996, Disney acquired Jumbo Studios (i.e., the animation production company that made “Doug.” Which was that popular animated series which debuted on Nickelodeon back in August of 1991). As a direct result of this acquisition, the Mouse now had the rights to produce three additional seasons of “Doug.” Which – to differentiate this new set of shows from the ones that Jumbo had originally produced for Nickelodeon – would now be rebranded as Disney’s “Doug.”
And since Disney prides itself on being a synergy machine (And also because there was a belief out there in the mid-to-late 1990s that Disney-MGM didn’t have enough stuff that appealed to pre-teens), a “Doug” musical was put in development for this theme park. The goal going into this project was to create a show that could be presented at least 5 times a day. Getting as many Guests as possible in & out of this 1000-seat venue over the course of a typical operating day.
To be honest, “Doug Live!” didn’t live all that long. This musical was presented inside of Disney-MGM’s old “Superstar Television” from September 26, 1998 through May 12, 1999. So this show only got an eight month-long run.
That said, fans of the “Doug” TV shows (both the four seasons that ran on Nickelodeon AND the three seasons produced by Disney. Not to mention “Doug’s 1st Movie,” which was released theatrically in March of 1999) still talk about the great job that the human performer who played Porkchop (That’s Doug’s dog) did in this stage show.
“ABC Sound Studio: Sounds Dangerous!”
Let’s now talk about all of the auditory excitement that Guests got to experience whenever they dropped by this theme park’s ABC Sound Studio. Which is where the “Sounds Dangerous!” show was presented.
Of course, this Echo Lake-adjacent complex used to be home to Disney-MGM’s “Monster Sound Show.” But when attendance began dropping for this opening day attraction in the mid-1990s … Well, WDW first tried to turn this situation around by launching a new show in this space back in July of 1997 that was deliberately aimed at a pre-teen audience.
Unfortunately, the “One Saturday Morning” show (which keyed off of how ABC promoted its Saturday morning line-up back in the mid-to-late 1990s) didn’t appeal to adults. Which is why WDW Entertainment halted this presentation after just 19 months and then turned to Drew Carey for help.
At that time, Carey was the star of two hit shows on ABC (i.e., “The Drew Carey Show” and “Whose Line is it Anyway”). More to the point, Drew just loved the Disney theme parks. So much so that — when he wasn’t busy taping his two shows for the Alphabet Network — Carey could often be found at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
Anyway … In late 1998, the Imagineers reached to Drew and said “We were thinking about building an attraction for the Parks around you.” And as the story goes, Carey said “Yes!” before the folks at 1401 Flower Street could even explain to him what this new show for Disney-MGM was supposed to be about.
“Sounds Dangerous!” made use of that binaural technology which used to be showcased in the post-show portion of “The Monster Sound Show.” How many of you remember taking a seat in one of those darkened booths, putting on a set of headphones and then getting a haircut in 3D sound?
The Drew Carey version of this 3D sound show involved sitting in a dark theater for 12 minutes and then getting menaced by scary sounding things like stampeding elephants & killer bees. Which (I’ll admit) doesn’t sound like much fun. But Carey’s likability as a performer coupled with the Imagineers’ ingenuous of binaural technology made “Sounds Dangerous!” a fun way to spend part of your day at Disney-MGM.
This revamped attraction was a regular offering at this theme park through early 2009. After that point, “Sounds Dangerous!” then became a seasonal offering at Disney-MGM (which meant that it was only open to Guests when this theme parks was at its absolute busiest and then needed the additional capacity). By May of 2011, this starring-Drew-Carey show closed for good. Only to then be replaced in November of 2015 by “Star Wars: The Path of the Jedi.”
“Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage”
Let’s take a look at an interactive stage show that parents with preschoolers used to flock to. And that’s “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage.”
The inspiration for this theme park attraction was – of course – the “Bear in the Big Blue House” TV series. That show debuted as part of the Disney Channel’s Playhouse Disney programming block back in October of 1997. And this Shadow Projects / Jim Henson Television co-production was so popular that four seasons of this Emmy Award-winning series were eventually produced.
And Disney being Disney … Well, when you have a successful TV show, you then immediately look for ways to bring that IP into your theme park which celebrates film & television. Which is – of course – Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Now where this gets interesting is how Disney decided to bring “Bear in the Big Blue House” into WDW’s third theme park. Given that – if the Park opted to build a brand-new structure to house this stage show – it would have been a year or more before toddlers finally got the chance to hang out with Bear, Tutter, Ojo & Treelo. And who knew if this TV program would even still be popular with preschoolers by then?
This is why – in order to fast-track this project – managers at Disney-MGM opted to shut down that theme park’s Soundstage Restaurant on November 14, 1998. They then transformed the dining area of this breakfast buffet / quick service venue into a performance space. Which then threw open its doors just seven months later on June 7, 1999.
What WDW managers especially loved about “Bear in the Big Blue House: Live on Stage” was … Well, because preschoolers’ attention spans are short, they were then allowed to keep the running time of this interactive stage show extremely short as well. We’re talking just a 15 minute-long run time. Which meant that this theme park could then load a brand-new audience into Soundstage 5 every 30 minutes.
And when that 7-foot-tall bear came out onstage, those toddlers would react like they were in the presence of Elvis. They’d scream. They’d cry. They’d clap.
Mind you, to broaden the appeal of this Disney-MGM offering, “Bear in the Blue House: Live on Stage” was shut down in August of 2001 for retooling. Some two months later, “Playhouse Disney – Live on Stage!” debuted inside of Soundstage 5. And in addition to Bear, this now-20 minute-long interactive experience featured appearances by characters from other popular Disney Junior shows like “Rolie Polie Olie,” “Stanley” and “The Book of Pooh.”
FYI: The “Bear in the Big Blue House” TV series became available for streaming on Disney+ in October of last year. And there has been a lot of talk lately about the Company possibly reviving this hugely popular program for preschoolers. So stay tuned.
We’re in the home stretch now in regards to rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) that are no longer with us. And perhaps the most controversial item to ever be built at this theme park had to be the Sorcerer’s Hat. Which was that 122-foot-tall structure built at the top of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theater.
Mind you, that’s not where the Imagineers originally wanted to this structure to be built. The thinking – early on, anyway – was that the Sorcerer’s Hat should be built down by Disney-MGM’s entrance. To be specific, just off to the right of where Guests enter this theme park after they get off the boat from Epcot.
What’s more, WDI’s original design for the Sorcerer’s Hat (which was supposed to be the focal point of Walt Disney World’s “100 Years of Magic” celebration in 2001) was so much larger. So large in fact that the Mickey ears which jutted out to either side of this super-sized conical wizard’s cap were supposed to have been a pair of full-sized Ferris Wheels that Guests could have then ridden. Not only that, but the rectangular building which was to have served as the base of this fanciful structure … Well, that’s where the “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” exhibit was originally supposed to be housed.
Unfortunately, as time went by, the Company’s plan for WDW’s 15-month-long “100 Years of Magic” celebration got far less ambitious and far more economical. This is why – instead of building a brand-new structure to house “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” out towards the main entrance to this theme park – that Disneyana exhibition eventually got shoehorned into the old Post-Production portion of Disney-MGM’s backstage walking tour.
And as for the Sorcerer’s Hat … This 156-ton structure then became part of the hot new fad that WDW Resort was really leaning into at that time. Which was pin trading. This is why that 60,000 square foot space at the base of the Hat got turned into a pin shop.
The Sorcerer’s Hat opened on October 1, 2001. And for the next 13+ years, it blocked Guests’ view of the Chinese Theater. Thankfully, on January 7, 2015, demolition of the Hat began. And by February 25th of that same year, the 91 panels that made up this structure were all cleared away. Which was quite the hat trick.
“Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade”
Let’s take a look at a parade that rolled through this theme park for over 6 years in the early 2000s. And that’s “Disney Stars and Motor Cars.”
In the early, early days of Disney-MGM (we’re talking the late 1980s / early 1990s here), there was a daily “Star of the Day” motorcade at this theme park. Some veteran of film or television would first climb into the back of a convertible and roll up Hollywood Boulevard as they waved to the Guests gathered on the sidewalk. After that, this celebrity would then take part in a handprint ceremony out in front of the Chinese Theater.
WDW Entertainment remembered how popular that daily motorcade had been with visitors to Disney-MGM. Which is why – when the Company was readying a year-long celebration of Walt Disney’s birth (i.e., That resort’s “100 Years of Magic” celebration. Which kicked off on October 1, 2001) – these folks wondered: Could we maybe replicate that event? Only instead of having some aging actor in a convertible roll up Hollywood Boulevard, how about we create a daily motorcade for the Studios that then treats the Disney & Pixar characters like the stars that they are?
And that was the jumping-off point for the development of “Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade.” With the basic idea here being mixing classic Hollywood (which is why all of the vehicles that the characters ride in were deliberately crafted to look vintage) with Disney & Pixar’s latest & greatest. In fact, right from the get-go, that was one of the main creative conceits of this new daily parade at Disney-MGM. That the grand marshall of that day’s presentation of “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” would always be the lead character of whatever Disney or Pixar film just happened to be out in theaters at that same time.
Which is why – over the six+ year run of “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” – Guests got to see Chicken Little, Remy from “Ratatouille” & Giselle from “Enchanted” – serve as this parade’s grand marshall.
Anyway … This parade concept proved to be so sturdy / so popular with Guests that, after “Disney Stars & Motor Cars” ended its run in Florida, this parade was then packed up & shipped off to France. Where – in April of 2009 – it then began rolling through Disney-MGM’s sister park. Which is Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris.
Which begs the question: When “Disney Stars and Motor Cars” made its Parisian debut, was it now just a rolling used car lot?
“American Idol Experience”
There’s only a handful of stories left to share in this series about now-defunct rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). So now let’s talk about a show that – to be blunt – was kind of snake-bit during its 5-year-long run at this theme park. And that’s the “American Idol Experience.”
Okay. To understand how Disney-MGM wound up with an “American Idol” -themed show, we first have to talk about “American Idol,” the TV show. Which debuted on Fox in June of 2002 and quickly became this white-hot phenomenon.
Meanwhile, at Disney-MGM, the Imagineers were genuinely struggling when it came to fill that theme park’s 1000-seat “Superstar Television” theater. We’ve talked previously in this series about one show that was staged in this space. And that was “Doug Live!,” the 30 minute-long musical which ran in this theater from March of 1999 – May of 2001. Then there was the “Get Happy … with ABC” show, which debuted in this space on July 1, 2002 and was then gone by October 5th of that same year.
The theater that previously housed “Superstar Television” then stood empty for more than 5 years until – in February of 2008 – it was revealed that a live performance attraction based on the then-hugely popular Fox reality series would open at Disney-MGM in just one year’s time.
Ah, but what no one at the Mouse House foresaw was – over the next 364 days – “American Idol” ‘s formerly stellar ratings on Fox would then begin to slip. So by the time the “American Idol Experience” opened at Disney-MGM on February 14, 2009, this brand-new attraction at that theme park was now based on a show that was rapidly losing its previously devoted audience.
So few people attended performances of the “American Idol Experience” that – by June of 2014 – WDW managers suddenly announced that this audience participation show would be shuttering in early January of 2015. Later that same Summer, things got so dire at Disney-MGM that this theme park actually pushed forward the closing of this attraction by a full 5 months and then pulled the plug on the place on August 30, 2014.
What was especially galling to the Imagineers is that – just prior to the opening of Disney-MGM’s “American Idol Experience” back in 2009 — they had spent millions overhauling the interior of the “Superstar Television” theater so that it then looked exactly like the set of this Fox TV show. Only to have this expensive-to-mount show barely eek out a 5-year-long run. But the upside is … The very next show to be staged in this space (i.e., “For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration,” which opened in the now-renamed Hyperion Theater on June 17, 2015) has proven to be hugely popular with Guests. Barring a seven month-long shutdown in 2020 due to the pandemic, this show has been presented continuously in this theater – sometimes as often as 10 times a day.
“Journey Into Narnia: Creating The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”
It’s now time to discuss Disney’s attempt to launch a “Chronicles of Narnia” film series. Which then lead to two attractions at DHS.
If we’re being completely honest here, it was the success of the first two “Harry Potter” movies (i.e., 2001’s “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and 2002’s “Chamber of Secrets”) that spurred executives at the Mouse House to seek out another book series which featured magic that could then be turned into a film franchise.
With this idea in mind, Disney announced in March of 2004 that it would be partnering with Walden Media to produce “The Chronicles of Narnia.” This series of live-action adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novels would kick off with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Which would arrive in theaters just in time for the 2005 holiday season.
And – of course (because the Mouse prides itself on synergy) – Disney’s Hollywood Studios would help promote this just-getting-underway film series. Which is why – on December 9, 2005 (i.e., the very same day that Disney’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” first opened in theaters – “Journey into Narnia: Creating The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” threw open its doors at this theme park.
This walk-thru exhibit (which was set up inside of Soundstage Four) started with Guests stepping through a super-sized wardrobe. Once inside, people found themselves wandering around a frosty (You can thank Disney-MGM’s cooling plant for that), snow-filled forest. Where – after watching a few clips from this Andrew Adamson movie and then being addressed by a cast member dressed as the White Witch – Guests were then funneled in a second part of this building. Which is where props & costumes from the “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” movie were displayed.
The first “Chronicles of Narnia” film did well enough at the box office that Disney & Walden Media produced a sequel (i.e., “Prince Caspian,” which arrived in theaters in May of 2008). Disney-MGM used that movie as an excuse to update its “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” walk-thru with props & costumes from the second film in the “Chronicles” series.
Unfortunately, “Prince Caspian” seriously under-performed. So much so that Disney opted out of making a third “Chronicles of Narnia” movie with Walden Media. That said, Disney’s Hollywood Studios let its “Prince Caspian” walk-thru limp along ‘til September 10, 2011. That’s when Soundstage 4 was transformed into the attraction which we’ll talk about tomorrow.
“The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow”
We now officially bring our look back at long-gone rides, shows & attractions at Disney-MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) to a close by talking about one of the more misbegotten things to ever be foisted on the theme park going public. And that’s “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Now you have to understand that – when this 13-minute-long show opened inside of Soundstage 4 – it had been a year and a half since the last “Pirates” movie (i.e., “On Stranger Tides”) had opened in theaters. So this project wasn’t done to help promote that movie. But – rather – to help keep this film franchise front-of-mind with WDW visitors until the Studios finally got around to making “Pirates 5.” Which wouldn’t happen for another six years.
Now where this gets weird is that – in spite of the fact that Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies were filled with exciting action scenes and sometimes bawdy humor – “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow” was written to appeal to a very young audience. We’re talking 5 & 6-year-olds, tops. Which is why there was a talking skull in this show that kept encouraging audience members to do things like roar back at the Kraken and stomp their feet (which then scared away a menacing mermaid). Not to mention periodically scream “Arr!”
Mind you, Imagineering persuaded Johnny Depp himself to come back and play Captain Jack Sparrow in this short-lived show. He was inserted into the proceedings through the use of hi-def digital projection. It was a fun moment in the show. But (if we’re being completely honest here) not enough to redeem “The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow.”
Given how many adult Guests complained about this “Pirates of the Caribbean” show being mostly for little kids, DHS managers quickly realized that they had seriously miscalculated with “The Legend of Jack Sparrow.” Which is why it was shuttered in early November of 2014, less than two years after this “Pirates”-for-pre-schoolers show had first opened.
And what went next into Soundstage 4? Nothing. This entire structure at the Studios was torn down so that WDI could then create an entrance for an entirely new land for DHS. Which was “Toy Story Land.” Which opened at this theme park in late June of 2018.
The Closing of Walt Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
I need help from a Disney World employee. To be specific, someone who used to work at the Magic Kingdom back in the late 1980s / early 1990s.
The reason I’m asking for help is that there used to be this one-page newsletter that that theme park printed & distributed weekly to Cast Members who worked JUST at the Magic Kingdom.
Walt Disney World Cast Member Newsletter Request
I want to stress that this newsletter was different from the Eyes & Ears – which (back then, anyway) was a weekly newspaper (not a newsletter) that the Resort then printed & distributed to ALL Cast Members who worked on property.
This publication – which might have been called Kingdom Cast (Sorry. It’s been almost 30 years now. I’m old after all and I’m now blanking this newsletter’s name) – was typically printed on different colored paper stock every week.
I just need some help here when it comes to recalling the specific name of this newsletter which was primarily intended for Disney World employees who worked at the Magic Kingdom.
Magic Kingdom Newsletter – August 1994
Anyway … I was living down in Orlando at this time. Where I was trying to make a living writing about The Walt Disney Company. Which was challenging in those pre-Internet days. On the upside, I had lots of friends who worked at the Resort at the time. Who would then slip me copies of all sorts of in-house publications. Which then allowed me to stay on top of what was actually going on on-property.
Anywho … In late August of 1994, I got sent a copy of this particular Magic-Kingdom-only newsletter. Which included a brief item (That I’m recalling from memory now) that said …
… any & all Cast Members who had worked at “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” over the past 23 years are invited to come by this Fantasyland attraction on the night of Monday, September 5th. We’d like to get together as many current & former 20K employees as possible for a group photo in front of that attraction’s marquee. This image will then be used to commemorate the closing of this Disney World favorite.
This item in that newsletter then went on to say that – after the Magic Kingdom had officially closed for the night – all WDW Cast Members were then welcome to come by the Subs and get in one last ride before “20,000 Leagues” closed for good.
So I immediately realized that this was huge, huge news.
Disney World is closing the Subs at the Magic Kingdom.
And since I was friendly with Leslie Doolittle, the reporter who was wrote the “On Tourism” column for the Orlando Sentinel, I give Leslie a call and read her this item straight out of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter verbatim. Which Ms. Doolittle then reports in her very next “On Tourism” column. Which then prompts WDW officials to lose their minds.
Initially senior management at the Resort flat-out denies that this Opening Day attraction is actually closing and they demand that the Sentinel immediately print a full retraction. After I provide Ms. Doolittle with a physical copy of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter and she then shares that with WDW’s PR team … Well, the Resort’s senior management then changes its tune.
They now say … Well, yes. “20,000 Leagues” WILL be closing on September 5, 1994. But what was published in that Magic Kingdom employee newsletter was incorrect. This Fantasyland favorite is NOT closing permanently. But – rather –- 20K will be going down for a lengthy rehab. A REALLY lengthy rehab. The longest ever in this ride’s history.
Maintenance Issues with WDW’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
To explain: Anyone who loved this WDW attraction back in the day will talk about how frustrating it would be back then to visit the Magic Kingdom and then find that “20,000 Leagues” was down for maintenance … again.
Between the harsh Florida sun bleaching the color out of the fake coral & all those plastic fish (which is why – every year – the lagoon had to be drained & dried so these items could then be repainted) not to mention all of the mechanical challenges associated with keeping that fleet of 14 diesel-powered Subs up & running … “20K” was an operational nightmare.
Not to mention being a huge money suck when it came to the Magic Kingdom’s annual operating budget.
So what Disney World senior management said – on the heels of that Orlando Sentinel story — was that “20K” was now closing for a top-to-bottom overhaul. This would be a two year-long project. But the good news was work would be completed in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration. Which was supposed to begin in October of 1996.
Which – I have to tell you – wasn’t the truth at all.
That Magic Kingdom employee only newsletter had actually gotten everything right. Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues” ride WAS closing for good on September 4, 1994. But not for the reason you might think.
Euro Disney Financial Troubles
Euro Disney had opened back in April of 1992. The park itself did well, attendance-wise. Not so much when it came to those 6 on-site hotels. Weighed down by enormous debt, Eisner actually talked about closing the place down in December of 1993 unless a new financial arrangement could be worked out with the 30+ banks that had originally funded construction of this $4.4 billion resort. A deal was reached in the late Winter / early Spring of 1994. But one of the conditions of this deal is that The Walt Disney Company would suspend the collection of any royalty payments that the Company was due from the Euro Disney Project from 1994 through 1998.
This new agreement / financial restructuring may have saved Euro Disney (which then got rebranded / relaunched as the Disneyland Paris Resort). But it also choked off a huge revenue stream at The Walt Disney Company. Which is why word then came down from on high that ALL divisions at the Mouse House now needed to tighten their belts. Economize.
And down at Walt Disney World … Well, managers then saw this edict as an opportunity to finally pull the plug on the Magic Kingdom’s expensive-to-maintain / difficult-to-operate “20,000 Leagues” ride. And the beauty part was … This wasn’t their fault. They were just following Corporate’s orders.
Fan Backlash for “20,000 Leagues” Closing Announcement
What Walt Disney World senior management hadn’t anticipated was – on the heels of Leslie Doolittle’s story about how “20K” would be closing – that the Resort would then be flooded with letters begging Magic Kingdom managers to change their minds. Save this opening day attraction.
Which – again – brings us back to that “The-Subs-will-be-back-up-and-running-by-1996-just-in-time-for-WDW’s-25th-anniversary” story. Which – I’ll again remind you – just wasn’t true. This was a lie that the Company quickly put out there to deflect & divert from what quickly had become a PR nightmare for the Magic Kingdom.
Michael Ovitz – Save or Close “20k Leagues”
So okay. We now jump ahead to August of 1995. Which is when Michael Ovitz – previously the head of CAA and once rumored to be the most powerful man in Hollywood – becomes the President of The Walt Disney Company. Michael Eisner hires Ovitz to be his new second-in-command (Following the tragic death of Frank Wells back in April of 1994).
And Ovitz … He wants to hit the ground running. Prove to Eisner that he’s now going to be an extremely valuable member of the Disney team.
So picture this. It’s now September of 1995. And Michael Ovitz – because he wants to learn about every aspect of The Walt Disney Company – is now on a familiarization tour of the entire corporation. And one of his very first stops is The Walt Disney World Resort.
And Michael (Ovitz, not Eisner) is a very data-driven guy. And he knows about the now-thousands of letters & phone calls that the Walt Disney World Resort has received about “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Which – again (remember) – WDW managers have been saying publicly is only temporarily closed. At this point, they’re still insisting that that this Opening Day Attraction will be back up & running in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary. Which is supposed to start on October 1, 1996.
So Ovitz – once he arrives on WDW property says – “Hey, I’ve heard about the Magic Kingdom’s 20K problem. And I’d like to personally check out that ride while I’m down here in Florida. Maybe once I see it, I can then make some recommendations. Perhaps help speed along the funding you need to get that ride up & running again.”
And seeing as Michael Ovitz is the newly installed second-in-command at the Mouse House, WDW senior management – after they hear this request – says “Sure. Absolutely. We’d love to do that, Mr. Ovitz. We’ll come by your hotel first thing tomorrow morning and take you straight over to the Magic Kingdom before that park opens to the public. That way, you can see for yourself the challenges that we’re now facing with bringing this Fantasyland ride back up online in time for Disney World’s 25th anniversary celebration. We’d LOVE to hear your recommendations.”
Which is why — the following morning at 7 a.m. — Mike Ovitz found himself standing in the queue at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” as a sub that was loudly belching smoke came rumbling up to the dock. The Disney Company’s brand-new President then climbed down the stairs and found a quarter inch of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. When Mike pointed this out, a WDW ops staffer said “Well, you have to understand that a lot of our subs are over 20 years old, Mr. Ovitz. So many of them have developed small pinhole leaks over time.”
The sub then lurched away from the dock and took Ovitz & the ops crew on a somewhat jerky trip around the “20K” ride track, with the attraction’s soundtrack barely audible through the ship’s crackling loudspeakers.
As you might imagine, once the boat pulled up to the dock, Michael quickly climbed out of the mildewed interior. He then turned to WDW’s ops staff and then asked what it would cost to bring “20K” back online. Ovitz was then quoted a number that was reportedly more than the Resort was planning on spending on its entire year-long 25th anniversary celebration.
Ovitz knew that a redo of the Subs that was going to be that expensive would be a non-started with Eisner. Especially at that time in the Company’s history, where – on the heels of the Euro Disney debt reorg and Disney deferring any royalty payments they were supposed to take out of that Resort ‘til 1998 – word was coming down from on high to every division at Disney to economize & cut back.
Ovitz wanted to show Eisner that – as The Walt Disney Company’s new president – that he could make the tough calls. So after hearing how much it would supposedly now cost the WDW Resort to bring the Subs back online, Ovitz then supposedy said “Well, maybe we’d just better cancel this rehab project and close 20K for good.” And those WDW managers standing with Ovitz in the Subs Load / Unload area then said “Oh, no. Really? Are you sure?”
Not Reopening by Summer – 20,000 Leagues “Delayed”
Which is why – in the early part of 1996. Just a few months after Michael Ovitz visited the Walt Disney World Resort on that fam trip — Bruce Laval, who was (at that time, anyway) the Resort’s Vice President for Operations – did an interview with the Sentinel. Where Bruce told Leslie Doolittle that …
“We were originally pursuing a short-term strategy with 20K. Something would have then allowed us to reopen the Subs with minor enhancements. But we found that there was no way we could accomplish that by this Summer.”
Now please note that what Bruce is saying in early 1996 is very different from what the Resort had been putting out back in the Fall of 1994. Back then, the Magic Kingdom was going to shut down “20K” for a nearly two-year-long, top-to-bottom redo so that this Fantasyland attraction could then be part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration looking bigger & better from ever. But come April of 1996, that story has significantly changed. The Park was now looking to re-open the Subs with “minor enhancements.” But even that would be impossible for the Resort to now pull off by the Summer of 1996.
Which bring us to what Laval next told the Sentinel:
“We are abandoning those plans for the Subs and are now exploring other long term options.”
So would it surprise you to learn that – in the middle of all the hoopla associated with the officially launch of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration in October of 1996 – Disney World’s PR very quietly realizes the news that 20K is now closed permanently. That – on the recommendation of Michael Ovitz, the president of The Walt Disney Company — the Magic Kingdom is now abandoning any plans to rehab / revitalize that attraction.
Poor Guest Experience for Michael Ovitz
You wanna know the kicker to this story. Those WDW managers – when they brought Michael Ovitz into the Magic Kingdom early that September morning back in 1995 – had totally sandbagged the new president of The Walt Disney Company.
To make sure that Ovitz had the worst possible ride experience that morning …
Well, out of the fleet of 14 subs that had been built for this Fantasyland attraction, those managers deliberately picked the one that was in the worst possible shape.
They then recruited a veteran ride operator and quietly gave this Cast Member the expressed instructions to “Give Ovitz the roughest ride possible.”
Then – to seal the deal — they threw a couple of buckets of water down into the bottom of that Sub to simulate a pinhole leak.
And all of this was done to give Ovitz the impression that WDW’s subs were now beyond salvaging.
The real irony here is that Michael Ovitz, the man who made the permanent closure of the Subs at WDW’s Magic Kingdom possible because he fell for the elaborate ruse that those Disney World managers staged back in September of 1995 … wasn’t all that long-lived at the Mouse House.
Eisner fired Ovitz in December of 1996 (just 15 months after he’d taken the job) largely because Eisner felt that Ovitz just wasn’t a good fit at Disney.
I have to tell you that WDW managers were thrilled that Ovitz was on the job at Disney for as long as he was. For – in September of 1995 — he made it possible to do what they couldn’t. Which was close the Subs for good. Which then left that huge chunk of Fantasyland open for redevelopment.
Mind you, it would take nearly another 13 years (from when the WDW Resort finally officially announced that the Subs at the Magic Kingdom were closed in October of 1996 ‘til the first D23 Expo back in September of 2009. Which was when the WDW Resort officially confirmed that the long-rumored expansion of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland section was in the works) before that redevelopment effort would then move forward. But as anyone who’s been watching the construction of “TRON Lightcycle Run” limp along at the Magic Kingdom these past five years, things move slowly these days at the Magic Kingdom.
And – speaking of the Magic Kingdom – if anyone who worked at that theme park back in the late 1980s / early 1990s could please get back to me about that newsletter-for-Cast-Members-who-worked-specifically-at-that-Park (I’m 90% certain this weekly newsletter was called Kingdom Cast. But – again – I could be wrong), I’d really appreciate it.
Original Disneyland Lessee: Van Camp Seafood and The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
Since we’ve gotten such strong reaction to previous “Disney Dishes” where Len & I talked about original Disneyland lessees like Swift Meats (who sponsored the Red Wagon Inn at the Park, which was the precursor to Disneyland’s Plaza Inn Restaurants) and Monsanto (who sponsor the Hall of Chemistry AND the House of the Future), I thought that we’d take a moment to shine a spotlight on another company that helped make up the original 48 lessees at Disneyland.
Original Disneyland Lessees
When Disneyland first opened in July of 1955 – the Park had 48 lessees. A number of those were short-lived outfits like Hollywood Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop and the BlueBird Shoes for Children Shop that came & went within the first few years that Disneyland was operational. By 1966 / 1967, the number of lessees that the Park had had shrunk down by nearly a third. To 33, to be exact.
That’s an interesting number – 33.
Seems significant for some reason. Can’t place why, though.
Van Camp Seafood Company
Some 67 years ago (August 29, 1955, to be exact), the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (the quick service restaurant that Van Camp Seafood sponsored at the Park) first opened for business.
Kind of appropriate that Van Camp Seafood came to sponsor a restaurant at Disneyland. After all, this fish canning company actually got its start some 95 miles to the south of Anaheim in San Diego, California back in May of 1914 – founded by Frank Van Camp & his son Gilbert.
And as for that “Chicken of the Sea” thing … That was a bit of branding Van Camp embraced back in 1930. You see, the type of tuna that they initially specialized in canning (i.e., white albacore) was acclaimed for its mild flavor & color.
“Tastes like chicken” = “Chicken of the Sea.”
By 1952, Van Camp Seafood further refined their brand by introducing the Company’s icon: Catalina the Mermaid.
Interesting side note: If Catalina the Mermaid looks kind of familiar to all you Trekkies out there … Well, there’s a good reason for that. Grace Lee Whitney – who played Yeoman Rand on the original “Star Trek” television series – was actually the inspiration for Van Camp Seafood’s corporate icon.
Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon
We jump ahead now to February of 1953, which is when Walt Disney Studios releases its feature-length animated version of “Peter Pan” (which is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”). This animated feature includes a scene where Peter takes Wendy Darling to Mermaid Lagoon. Where those mermaids then try to drown Wendy. I guess Catalina hangs out with a rough crowd.
Jump ahead to 1954. Walt is looking to lock in sponsors for his new family fun park. And Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan” is still very front of mind. Which is why – when Disney representatives reach out to Van Camp Seafoods to ask if this fish canning company would be willing to sponsor some sort of attraction at Disneyland – Frank & his son Gilbert are interested.
The Van Camps do have some conditions, though. As part of whatever their Company sponsors at Disneyland, this shop, restaurant or attraction has to prominently feature Catalina the Mermaid, the Chicken of the Sea icon.
The folks at Disney go away for a bit to ponder this proposition … and then eventually come back with a proposal for the Van Camp family. What about a restaurant that’s also an attraction? As in: The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant.
The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
This massive structure – we’re talking 79 feet long and 80 feet tall (That includes the ship’s three masts. Which were each 60 feet tall) – was to be a recreation of the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook’s ship from Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan.” Guests would have the opportunity to board this vessel and explore the upper deck. Below decks, there’d be a quick service restaurant that only served food items that could be made with Van Camp Seafood products. We’re talking:
- A Tuna Sandwich
- A Tuna Burger
- A Tuna Pie served in a Pastry Shell
- A Tuna Boat Salad
- A Tuna Clipper Salad (a clipper is a slightly bigger boat)
- Shrimp Cocktail (Van Camp Seafood also sold canned shrimp)
- and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream (which must have had a little tuna in it)
Reminds me of that Monty Python bit. “It’s only got some spam in it. Spam, spam, spam, span, baked beans & spam.”)
Frank & Gilbert Van Camp loved this idea. Even so, it took a while to Van Cap Seafood & Walt Disney Productions to negotiate the final contract. Not to mention draw up the construction blueprints for this Fantasyland restaurant / attraction. I’ve seen a set of these blueprints that Fred Stoos (he was one of the original construction coordinators on the Disneyland project) drew up that are dated May 7, 1955.
Building the Jolly Roger
That’s basically 10 weeks before Disneyland first opens to the public. So as soon as those blueprints were signed off on, they immediately began building the Jolly Roger out behind the park’s lumber mill. Which – after the Park was completed – this building would then become the Main Street Opera House.
The ship itself was built out of Douglas Fir. And as for this pirate ship’s trim, that was genuine mahogany which had been shipped in from Honduras.
Now remember that condition that Frank & Gilbert Van Camp insisted upon? That Disneyland’s Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant had to feature their company’s icon – Catalina the Mermaid – in some way?
Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead
Disney honored this sponsorship condition by making Catalina the Jolly Roger’s figurehead. Chris Mueller (who sculpted all of the animals that Guests saw on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the giant squid in Disney Studio’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” film. In addition to creating “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for Universal Pictures’ 1954 film of the same name) not only created that beautiful 6-foot-tall piece, Mueller also sculpted an enormous piece for this ship’s stern. Which replicated the way Catalina the Mermaid was depicted on each can of “Chicken of the Sea” tuna. With Catalina seated atop her shell throne which is then borne on the back of a giant sea turtle. Beautiful piece.
The Flying Jolly Roger
Remember how this pirate ship restaurant was quickly being built backstage at Disneyland out behind that park’s lumber mill? When it came time for this building to finally be moved into place over in Fantasyland … Well, remember how the Jolly Roger flew in Disneyland’s animated version of “Peter Pan” ? This structure flew as well. It was lifted by a construction crane over all of those still-under-construction Tomorrowland buildings and then dropped into place behind the Park’s Mad Tea Party flat ride.
Painting and Camera Tricks
The only problem was … The night before that “Dateline: Disneyland” special aired live on ABC, Walt realized that he was running out of time & money. And the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (while it was now in its proper place in the Park) was still unpainted. And if the Van Camp family saw the restaurant / attraction that they’d paid for show up on live television looking like that, Frank & Gilbert would be furious.
Walt’s solution to this not-enough-time / not-enough-money problem was kind of ingenious. He only had his painters paint the side of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant that faced into the Park (i.e. the side that would appear on camera). Walt then had a bunch of Disney Studios employees placed on deck. When the cameras came on, these folks rushed to the rail and then wave frantically towards the camera. That way, no one would notice that the props or rigging on this ship weren’t in place either.
This trick worked. The Jolly Roger looked great on camera. And just so you know: It would take another six weeks of hard work after the “Dateline: Disneyland” TV special aired before the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was finally ready to serve food / begin entertaining Disneyland Guests.
Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship
This eatery became so popular with Disneyland Guests that … Well, after Walt finally wrestled ABC’s partial ownership of the Park away from that broadcast company in June of 1960 (He had to pay that company $7.5 million for its one third ownership of the Park) … One of the very first thing Disney did was to create a secondary seating area for this Fantasyland eatery.
Here’s how that expansion project was described in the October – November 1960 issue of the “Disneylander” (i.e., the park’s employee newsletter back then):
This article’s headline read: “Pirate Ship To Have New And Exotic Setting”
And here’s a quote from this piece:
“By the time you read this, you’ll be aware that the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship is closed for extensive rehab. It is scheduled to reopen about December 15th. Isolated by craggy cliffs covered with lush tropical foliage will be ‘Pirate’s Cove,’ where the Park’s well known Pirate Ship resides at anchor. WED designers have included in their plans the familiar landmark of Skull Rock from the Peter Pan story with three waterfalls cascading from rocky heights.”
Construction of Pirate’s Cove & Skull Rock actually took a little longer than expected. This Fantasyland addition wouldn’t open ‘til just before Christmas. December 23, 1960, to be exact.
Van Camp Seafood Partnership
The folks at Van Camp Seafood initially seemed very pleased with their association with Disneyland Park. They renewed their original sponsorship agreement with the Park in 1962 for another seven year-long lease. Unfortunately, in 1963, Frank & Gilbert sold their fish canning company to Ralston Purina. And when the sponsorship contract for the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant came up for renewal in 1969, Ralston Purina opted out.
Captain Hook’s Galley
Disneyland management responded to this loss of sponsor by changing the name of this Fantasyland restaurant from The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant to Captain Hook’s Galley. They also made minor tweaks to the ship’s figurehead and the giant stern piece so that the mermaids there no longer looked just like Catalina, Chicken of the Sea’s corporate icon.
Moving to New Fantasyland
We now jump ahead to the Fall of 1981. Work has just begun on Disneyland’s New Fantasyland. Which – when this side of the Park re-opens in the Summer of 1983 – will feature all-new versions of Disneyland’s classic dark rides like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” & “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” featuring then-state-of-the-art effects like fiber optics & digital sound.
Among the changes that are in the works for this side of the Park is that the ship that houses Captain Hook’s Galley is once again going to be lifted by a crane. Only this time, it’s going to lifted over a 100 feet or so that this full-sized pirate ship could then became the finale of Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride. The canal boats – after floating by all of those miniaturized recreations of settings from famous Disney films – would now find themselves, in the final moments of this ride, right alongside of the Jolly Roger.
The Imagineers thinking here was … Well, Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride starts off with a big moment (the canal boat you’re riding in gets swallowed up by Monstro the whale from “Pinocchio”). It should then have a similarly big moment at the moment at the end. Besides – by moving the structure that previously housed Captain Hook’s Galley from the centerbackmost portion of Fantasyland over to the eastern edge of this land at Disneyland – this then opened some very valuable real estate right in the middle of one of the more popular / most crowded corners of the Park.
So okay. So once this part of the Imagineers’ plans for a new Fantasyland at Disneyland was signed off on by Park Management … Phase One of Operation “The Jolly Roger Flies Again” was to first gently pry Chris Mueller’s now 26-year-old mermaid sculptures off of the bow & the stern of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant and then take them backstage to be restored. Then the pirate ship would be hoisted into its new location at the edge of Small World Plaza. Whereupon the load / unload area for the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride would be expanded to create a brand-new lagoon space that this pirate ship could be anchored in.
Just so you know: I’ve never been able to confirm that Skull Rock was to have then be recreated in this new location. The insinuation here was that – once both phases of the New Fantasyland project were complete (Phase One was to be ready for the Late Spring of 1983. While Phase Two – which involved the revamped version of the “Alice in Wonderland” dark ride, the relocation of Disneyland’s “Mad Tea Party” dark ride and the Mad Hatter’s Hat Shop – would open in the Spring of 1984) — the Imagineers would then attempt to ram through the creation of a second version of Skull Rock. Which would then help hide where the maintenance dock for the Storybook Land Canal Boats would be taken every night.
I have also been told that the below-decks area (which was initially supposed to be closed off to Guests once the Jolly Roger was flown into its new location of the Eastern edge of Small World Plaza) was to have then been completely renovated. And that – for the Summer of 1985 (Just in time for Disneyland’s 30th birthday celebration) what had previously been a quick service restaurant would then be turned into a pirate-themed juice bar. Which was kind of a cool idea.
Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger
This was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, after those two mermaid pieces were carefully pried off of the bow & the stern of Captain Hook’s Galley, the forklift that was taking both of these pieces backstage made a sudden stop. The mermaid pieces then fell off and shattered to smithereens.
Worse that that: When the New Fantasyland construction crew went to go arrange the harnesses that were necessary to hoist this 26-year-old pirate ship high in the air over to its new location, they then discovered that the old Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (which — remember – had originally built out of Douglas Fir outside of Disneyland’s old lumber mill and then been trimmed with genuine Honduran mahogany) was now riddled with termites. Long story short: This structure would have immediately crumbled into pieces as soon as that construction crane starts to pull on those harnesses.
As a direct result, the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was left at anchor right where it was until a demolition team could come along and pull this ship-shaped structure down. While they were at it, this demolition team also destroyed one of Disneyland’s favorite photo spots (Skull Island Cove). In its place today, you’ll now find Disneyland’s relocated Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.
Which – of course – makes us OG Disneyland fans sad. I mean, that’s something that Walt put in place and then plussed. But it’s worth noting that the Jolly Roger — as well as Pirate Cove & Skull Rock — do live on. Only at a different Disney theme park.
Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris
When the Imagineers opted to build Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris in the early 1990s, they included a full-sized pirate ship that was then placed at anchor in front of a large-ish version of Skull Rock. And inside of this pirate ship, you’ll find yet another Captain Hook’s Galley. This one’s a counter-service restaurant, though. Not a pirate-themed juice bar.
Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream
Just so you know: If you’re a Disneyland completist and wonder what it was like to actually dine at the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant, if you Google “Disneyland Tuna Burger,” you can find a number of recipes online that will then allow you to replicate this signature item from the menu of this now-gone-for-nearly-40-years restaurant.
Me personally, given that whole everything-served-here-must-make-use-of-items-that-Van-Camp-Seafood-makes-or-sells condition, I still have to wonder just how much tuna there was in that one dessert item the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant sold. Which was the fruit tart with whipped cream.
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