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Getting Just the Right Voices for Hunchback’s Gargoyles Proved to be a Pretty Gruesome Go

Yep. We’re raiding the JHM archives again. This time around, it’s a story from April 2000 that details all the trouble Disney Feature Animation had when it was casting Victor, Hugo, and Laverne … or should I say Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn?

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Gargoyles in Hunchback of Notre Dame

How tough can it be to do the voicework for the comic relief in a Disney animated film?

I mean, what do you do? You show up at the studio, schmooze with the director, say a few jokes, take an hour for lunch, do a few more jokes, break for tea, do another couple of jokes, then — ooops — it’s time to go home. The hardest part of the job would seem to be that long walk out to the mailbox, where you have to pick up that oversized check.

At least that’s what people seem to think happens when actors are hired to do voices for Disney films.

The reality of the job is considerably different — particularly when you’re working on a film that’s in trouble.

Cyndi Lauper – Voice of Gargoyle Quinn

Think of poor Cyndi Lauper.

All her life, this colorful pop star had wanted to be in an animated film for Disney. Whenever she went to one of the studio’s film openings or attended a Disneyland press event with her family, Lauper would badger company executives, repeatedly telling them “I want to do a cartoon with you guys.” The executives all assured Cyndi that they knew about her interest. They promised Lauper that — once the right project came along — she would be the first person that the Mouse would call.

Cyndi pestered the Mouse for years until in late 1993, that phone call she’d been waiting for finally came. Disney was just beginning development of a musical cartoon version of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The folks over at Feature Animation were wondering whether Lauper would be interesting in being a part of the project.

Would she?

Lauper practically flew over to Burbank, so eager was she to find out what the Mouse had in store for her.

On the drive over, Cyndi wondered: “They couldn’t be thinking of me for the voice of Esmerelda … could they?”

Ah … actually, no. Disney wanted Lauper to audition to be the voice of one of Quasimodo’s made-of-stone friends: Quinn, a gargoyle.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Cyndi was somewhat taken aback by this request. I mean, she knew that her voice and her looks were … somewhat unconventional. But to be considered the perfect person to portray an ugly stone statue didn’t seem like much of a compliment to Lauper.

But Cyndi — who still dreamed of achieved screen immortality as a character in a Disney animated film — shrugged off the perceived insult and threw herself into the audition process. She did a reading with Disney’s casting department, then met with the film’s directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. They liked the energy and humor Lauper brought to the part.

A week later, Cyndi was hired.

Finding Sidekicks – Why “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Added Gargoyles

Now keep in mind that Ms. Lauper was brought on board fairly early during “Hunchaback”‘s production. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore and Kevin Kline hadn’t even been hired at this point. At the time, Wise and Trousdale still weren’t quite sure how they were doing with the film. Given how serious the original Victor Hugo novel was, they knew that a new film version would need considerable comic relief — particularly if they wanted to make the project palatable to modern audiences. But what sort of jokes should they do to lighten this somber story? And where?

Wise and Trousdale felt that one of the keys to making “Hunchback” work as animation was to give Quasimodo some silly sidekicks.

These characters would have to serve two purposes:

1) Give the Hunchback someone to talk with and confide in while he was locked away in his bell tower, and — more importantly —

2) Make Quasimodo seem more lovable.

A person with loyal, funny sidekicks has got to be lovable, right?

Hoping to find the right ingredients, the “Hunchback” development team spent a few months tossing around sidekick ideas for the hunchback.

Birds and Disney Princess Films

One concept was to have Quasi befriended all of the birds that lived up in the rafters of the cathedral with him. Just like in Cinderella, his little feathered friends would have helped the hunchback through his day — doing little chores for him, cheering him up, cheering him on. You get the idea.

But — because this same bird friend idea had already been so thoroughly played out in Disney’s 1950 animated feature, “Cinderella” — Wise and Trousdale opted not to go forward with this story idea (though you can still see a hint of this character development in Quasi’s interaction with the fledgling pigeon at the beginning of the film).

Bells and Talking Objects

Then the directors toyed with the idea of having Quasi actually be friends with the bells in the tower; this was something that Hugo himself had touched on in the original novel. He had the hunchback name many of the bells in the belfry — little Sophia, Jean Marie, Anne Marie, Louise Marie and Big Marie — as well as converse with the bells. So it didn’t seem like too much of a leap for the filmmakers to have the bells talking back to Quasi.

But — again — Wise and Trousdale weren’t all that anxious to repeat something that had already been in done in a Disney film. As the directors of “Beauty and the Beast,” these guys had already made a candelabra, a mantleclock, and a teapot talk. So turning a 10 ton bell into Quasi’s close intimate friend didn’t seem like that much of a challenge to them.

Gargoyles

So that left the gargoyles — those strange stone statues that lined the parapets of Notre Dame. Wise and Trousdale liked the idea of giving Quasi some misfit gargoyles — statues so ugly that the stonemason didn’t dare put them out on display — to hang out with. The directors and their “Hunchback” development team knocked around a few ideas and came away with some unique names and personalities for these proposed gargoyle characters. They were:

Chaney

The big fat stupid one. Think of Pumbaa, only carved in stone.

Laughton

The haughty, stiff, proper one. A Felix Ungar frieze.

Quinn

The young, kind-hearted nurturing one. (This was the character Disney had hired Lauper to do the voice for.)

Hugo, Laverne, and Victor Gargoyles
Credit: Disney

Tribute to the Original(s) “Hunchback”

Okay … I know. You’re probably already saying to yourself: “But Jim. Those aren’t the names I remember from Disney’s animated ‘Hunchback’ movie. Weren’t the gargoyles called Victor, Hugo and Laverne?”

Yes they were … eventually.

But — when Disney’s “Hunchback” project started out — Kirk and Trousdale wanted to call the movie’s gargoyle characters Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn.

Why?

Well, if things had worked out the way Kirk and Gary had intended, these character’s names would have made a great in-joke as well as paid tribute to three great actors who already had strong ties to this story.

How so? Well, Lon Chaney starred in the first version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a silent movie Universal Studio produced in 1923.

Charles Laughton appeared in the first sound version of “Hunchback,” a black and white film that RKO Studios produced in 1939.

Anthony Quinn made the first color film version of “Hunchback,” which Allied Artists released in 1957.

Chaney. Laughton. Quinn. Get it now?

Wise and Trousdale thought that — by using these names — they’d come up with a really clever way to pay tribute to these actors who had already done such a superb job portraying Victor Hugo’s tragic hero.

Unfortunately, Disney’s legal department thought otherwise.

Disney Legal and Naming the Gargoyles

The Mouse’s lawyers were worried that Chaney and Laughton’s heirs might be offended by this gesture and decide to sue the studio. They were particularly concerned about Anthony Quinn — who is very much alive and had a reputation for suing folks at the drop of a hat — coming after the company with an army of attorneys.

So Disney’s lawyers told the “Hunchback” development team that there was no way that they’d be allowed to name their gargoyle characters after any actors — living or dead. But Kirk and Trousdale were really reluctant to give up on this gag / tribute. So, for a short time, the “Hunchback” gargoyle characters were called Lon, Charles and Anthony. Surely Disney’s legal department wouldn’t have a problem if the development team named the characters by using only the first names of the actors who’d played Quasimodo?

They could. They did. Disney’s legal department said “No” again. Which left the production team with three gargoyles to name.

Victor, Hugo, and Laverne – “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Gargoyle Sidekicks

The Victor and Hugo idea came very quickly. After all, the names paid tribute to the author of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” More to the point, he was a dead guy — so Hugo wasn’t around to try and sue Disney. The legal department LOVED this idea.

But what to call that third gargoyle? Wise and Trousdale pondered over this one for a while. As written, the character was a female as well as being a member of a trio. The name they came up with had to fit the character. More importantly, it had to be funny.

Finally, Kirk was the one who came up with the solution. He recalled the Andrew Sisters, a legendary musical trio from the 1940s — best known for their performance of the “Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy of Company B.”

And what were the sisters’ names? Patty, Maxine and Laverne. Laverne seemed like the funniest name of the three, so that’s how Cyndi Lauper’s character became known as Laverne.

Only now … it wasn’t so certain that Lauper’s character was going to stay Lauper’s character.

Troubles Voicing the Gargoyles – Laverne and Hugo

Cyndi was doing wonderful work in her recording sessions. Good, clear, sharp professional stuff. The problem was that the script — as originally written — wasn’t working. The way Lauper was portraying the character of Laverne sounded like a contemporary of Quasimodo. Someone his own age, who understood his need to get out of the bell tower and explore that great, big world “Out There.”

The trouble was that Cyndi’s youthful voice sounded too youthful. Instead of coming across as a friend who was offering Quasi wise counsel, this earlier version of Laverne sounded like some young kid urging Quasimodo to bust out of the belfry and go party. Take a walk on the wild side. Which was not how Wise and Trousdale wanted Laverne to sound, because — in the original version of the script — this was the sort of stuff Hugo was telling Quasi.

As you might have guessed, Wise and Trousdale were having script trouble with their short fat gargoyle too. They had hired veteran sitcom performer Sam McMurray — best known for his work on “The Tracey Ullman Show” — to voice Hugo. And Sam was doing a great job with Hugo as the character was written then: sort of a stone version of John Belushi’s Bluto character from the 1978 comedy, “Animal House.” A big gross funny guy.

But perhaps too gross. As test versions of Disney’s “Hunchback” were assembled — using images off of the pre-production storyboards as well as audio from those early recording sessions — it became obvious that the gargoyle trio just wasn’t jelling.

Charles Kimbrough’s work as Victor seemed right on the money. Kimbrough gave his gargoyle character the same prissy air he brought to his stuffy newscaster character, Jim Dial, on the CBS sitcom, “Murphy Brown.” This was exactly what Wise and Trousdale wanted. But there was something obviously wrong with Hugo and Laverne.

Fixing the Script

So the “Hunchback” development team reworked the script, then called Lauper and McMurray back to do some additional recording sessions. When the tapes from these sessions didn’t work out either, Kirk and Gary made another stab at fixing the script, then called Cyndi and Sam back in again to have another stab at the material.

When the tapes from these sessions fell flat as well, Wise and Trousdale had to face facts. The problem wasn’t the material. They’d just hired the wrong actors to perform their script.

Replacing Lauper & McMurray

It was now obvious that Lauper and McMurray needed to be replaced. While nobody likes to make phone calls like this, Gary and Kirk personally called Cyndi and Sam to let them know that they were off the project. Wise and Trousdale apologized profusely, explaining to Lauper and McMurray that they’d both done fine work. It was just that the characters of Laverne and Hugo — as originally written — weren’t working. Disney wanted to see if getting a fresh start on the characters, bringing in some new actors to portray these parts, might be able to get “Hunchback” back on track.

McMurray took this sad bit of news stoically, like the industry veteran that he is. But Lauper was heartbroken. She had pursued a part in a Disney animated film for nearly a decade. And Cyndi had been on board “Hunchback” almost from the project’s inception — long before Hulce, Moore, or Kline had been hired. Now she was out of the movie. Her dream job gone. Needless to say, Lauper took her dismissal very badly.

Wise and Trousdale felt awful about dashing Cyndi’s hopes for animation immortality. But they also had a film that was in production that was in serious trouble. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. So they put the memory of Lauper’s tears behind them and tried to figure out how to fix Hugo and Laverne.

Based on the early test footage, it was fairly obvious that one of Wise and Trousdale’s biggest problems is that they’d just gone too far with Hugo. The fat obnoxious gargoyle was just coming across as too gross for audiences to warm up to. When recasting Hugo, Gary and Kirk needed to find someone who was gifted at playing annoying but amusing characters that still managed to hold audience’s sympathies. But who had talent enough to pull that amazing feat off?

Jason Alexander as Hugo

Luckily, they didn’t have to look much further than the “Must See TV” line-up Thursday nights on NBC. There was Jason Alexander — playing his heart out as the neurotic but still somewhat loveable George Costanzo on “Seinfeld.” Here clearly was the man who could pull off Hugo, having already walked that thin line between amusing and annoying for five seasons of television.

When Alexander got the call to come out to Burbank and audition, he was thrilled. Just like Cyndi, Jason had been trying for years to land a part in a Disney animated film. Previously, he had tried out for the roles of Lefou and Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” as well as Timon and Pumbaa in “The Lion King.” But the closest that Alexander had come to making his toon dreams come true was landing the role of the comic villain, Abis Mal, in the 1994 direct-to-video sequel to “Aladdin,” “The Return of Jafar.”

Hugo is Jason Alexander

But here … finally … was his big break. So Jason zoomed over to Disney Feature Animation and wowed Wise and Trousdale with his audition. Alexander immediately got Hugo, figuring out — almost instinctively — how far he could take the character without making him too obnoxious. With Jason voicing this grubby little gargoyle, Hugo finally worked. Funny but feisty, Alexander’s gargoyle contrasted beautifully with Kimbrough’s tight, prissy portrayal of Victor. These two characters could now be counted on to produce huge laughs for the movie.

So now what do Gary and Kirk do with Laverne?

Finding the Voice for Laverne

It should be noted here that — at this point in the production — Wise and Trousdale were under tremendous pressure to cut the third gargoyle out of the picture. Given how well Victor and Hugo were now working, Laverne suddenly seemed unnecessary. A third wheel, if you will. Dropping that character would have saved the film a lot of money, as well as freeing up a lot more screen time for the two other gargoyles to cavort.

But Gary and Kirk felt Laverne was crucial to the film.

Hugo kept urging Quasi to take a chance, go for the gusto.

Victor was the voice of prudence and caution.

Wise and Trousdale knew that their lead character needed someone in the middle, someone with the common touch who’d tell Quasi just to listen to his heart.

So “Hunchback” Head of Story Will Finn took a stab at rethinking Laverne. Working with Trousdale, they re-imagined the female gargoyle not so much as a nurturing contemporary of Quasi but as a wise if somewhat crazy old grandmother. “The sort of woman who had a million cats and sat out on her front porch, cradling a shotgun” was how Gary liked to describe her.

This new version of Laverne looked to be just what Wise and Trousdale were looking for. Still funny, but obviously different enough from Victor and Hugo. Plus this rethink of the character — playing her as more of a favorite old aunt of Quasi — allowed Laverne to deliver that common sense advice that the lonely young hunchback so desperately needed to hear.

Having finally fixed this troubled character, Gary and Kirk were saddled with an even bigger problem: Who do they find to portray this cranky but kind-hearted old gargoyle?

Mary Wickes as Laverne

It was just about this time that the sequel to Disney’s 1992 hit, “Sister Act” — “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” — was hitting theaters. And there in a supporting role as feisty old Sister Mary Lazarus was veteran character actress Mary Wickes.

If ever you could call someone an old show business trouper, it was Mary Wickes.

Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Her career started ‘way back in the 1940s, when Wickes played second banana to Abbott and Costello in their 1941 Universal Studios comedy, “Hold that Ghost.” For the next five decades, Wickes never stopped working. She did TV with Lucille Ball, sketch comedy with Bob Hope, movie musicals with Bing Crosby, Broadway, commercials. You name it. Mary Wickes did it.

As soon as Disney Feature Animation’s casting office pointed out Wickes to Wise and Trousdale, they knew that this might finally be the person who could pull off Laverne. Wickes’ reedy mid-western voice along with her crack comic timing might just be the combination Gary and Kirk were looking for to make their third gargoyle work.

Wickes came in for her audition in early 1993. While basically a novice at feature animation, having a little voice work for TV animation in the early 1990s, Mary still nailed the part. Wickes brought to Laverne everything Wise and Trousdale had hoped she would: the humor, the heart, as well as a real sense of wisdom.

As soon as they heard Wickes’ audition tape, Gary and Kirk offered her the part. Being the old show business hand that she was, Mary was happy to just to be working. In spite of being well over 80 years old at the time, Wickes never let her age slow her down. Mary was on time to every session and gave 100% every time she was behind the mike.

Gargoyles Complete – Adding Comic Relief

Now with Alexander and Wickes on board, the gargoyle scenes in “Hunchback” finally started firing on all four cylinders. Here was the humor and the heart that Wise and Trousdale had been looking for all those months. Finally these early crucial scenes in the film — where Quasi revealed his longing to leave the bell tower and journey “Out There” into the world — began to play properly.

In fact, the Victor, Hugo and Laverne sequences began working so well that — late in production, as “Hunchback” hit a trouble spot — Wise and Trousdale turned to the gargoyles to help bail them out.

Okay. Remember the film? The trouble spot comes up well into the third act of the film. Frollo is burning down Paris in his desperate search for Esmerelda. Phoebus has been shot in the back with an arrow for defying an order from the crazed cleric. Esmerelda ends up rescuing the wounded soldier from a watery grave. Meanwhile, Quasi sit high in his belltower, wringing his hands as he rings his bells, wondering if he’ll ever see the beautiful gypsy girl alive again.

Sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it?

If ever a film needed to be lightened up for a while, it was Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” at this particular point in the plot. So Wise and Trousdale turned their gaze back on their comic relief and thought: “Maybe it’s time to give these guys a song.”

So they asked composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwarz to come up with a comic number for the gargoyles to sing to Quasi, as they tried to buck up their pal’s spirits as well as distract him — at least for a moment — away from his concerns for Esmerelda’s safety. Schwarz then came up with the idea that — in Hugo, Victor and Laverne’s eyes — the hunchback was a pretty fine looking fellow.

Out of that notion came the showstopper, “A Guy Like You,” one of the wildest, funniest numbers ever to be presented in a Disney animated film. Not since Ward Kimball’s eye-popping work in the title tune from the studio’s 1944 “The Three Caballeros” has a musical number featured so many gags. That song did just what it was supposed to: diverted Quasi’s attention — as well as the audience’s — from all the troubles in the film for a few minutes.

This song made the movie all the more heart wrenching when Esmerelda showed up — just moments later — with the injured Phoebus in tow. As the gypsy girl revealed her love for the wounded soldier, our hearts immediately went out to Quasimodo. Just seconds earlier, his friends had been assuring the hunchback that Esmerelda had to love him. Now here was the truth, slapping him in the face. It was brutal but still masterful storytelling by Wise and Trousdale. You’d have to had a heart of stone to not have been moved by that scene.

Wickes Last Performance

Sadly, “A Guy Like You” would turn out to be the very last thing Mary Wickes worked on. In October 1995, just weeks after recording the song, Wickes passed away quietly in her sleep.

Wickes’ death saddened the “Hunchback” production team, but also left them with a bit of a problem. Prior to her untimely passing, Mary had recorded almost everything that Disney needed to finish the film. But there were still a few additional pick-up lines Wise and Trousdale needed recorded to finish up Laverne’s speaking part as well as a couple of lines from “A Guy Like You” that the directors wanted smoothed over. But — with Wickes gone — how were they ever going to get this additional dialogue recorded?

Jane Withers – Mary Wickes Sound-alike

Since there was obviously no way to replace a talent like Mary Wickes, Disney began searching for a Mary Wickes sound-alike. Happily, the Mouse found one in former child star Jane Withers. Withers — best known these days for her work as Josephine the Plumber, the spokesperson for Comet Cleanser — is a gifted mimic. More to the point, she was a lifelong friend of Mary Wickes. So she could do a killer impression of Wickes’ reedy twang without even trying.

Withers was glad to help Disney out of its predicament, both for the opportunity to work as well as sort of pay tribute to her longtime friend. Jane came in quietly and quickly recorded the few little snippets of things Wise and Trousdale needed to finish up Laverne’s role in “Hunchback.” Withers was so good at doing Wickes that it’s damn near impossible to tell which actress did which part in the movie.

With that … the gargoyle portions of “Hunchback” were completed. The finished film was released in the summer of 1996. While not a huge hit like “The Lion King,” Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” got respectful reviews and did okay at the box office.

Michael Eisner Creates “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Stage Version

But one guy really fell in love with this movie: Disney chairman Michael Eisner. “Hunchback” is — hands down — Eisner’s favorite film among all the animated cartoons that Disney Studio has created in the 15 years he’s been running the company. Michael liked this movie so much that he asked Disney Theatrical Production to create a stage version of the show.

Under the direction of noted Broadway playwright / director James Lapine, a stage version of Disney’s “Hunchback” was produced last year. But not in New York. Instead, this live stage version of the movie musical had its world premiere in the summer of 1999 in Berlin. (Why Berlin? Because — of all the countries in all the world — the one place where Disney’s animated version of “Hunchback” was a true blockbuster at the box office was Germany. So — when it came time to roll out the live stage version of the show — Berlin seemed like the obvious place to go.)

The live stage version of Disney’s “Der Glockner Von Notre Dame” proved to be very popular with German audiences. It played to mostly sold out houses at the Musical Theater Berlin for three years before finally closing in June 2002.

TV Movie Version – Return of Cyndi Lauper?

And — even as you read this — Neal Meron and Craig Zadan of Storyline Entertainment are prepping a live action TV movie version of Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (which is expected to air on ABC during the 2003 – 2004 television season). And since Neal and Craig are reportedly right in the middle of casting their version of “Hunchback,” I was kind of hoping that they’d give Cyndi Lauper a chance to audition for the role of Laverne.

I mean, come on. Fair’s fair. Given all the heartbreak Lauper went through during the production of the animated version of “Hunchback,” it only stands to reason that Cyndi at least deserves a shot at playing a gargoyle in the TV movie version of “Hunchback.”

I mean, it isn’t starring in a Disney animated cartoon. But it’s close.

Jim Hill

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

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

Film & Movies

“Indiana Jones and the Search for Indiana Jones”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casting a Comedian for Indiana Jones

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

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

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

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

Casting Indiana Jones – Jeff or Tom

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

  • Jeff Bridges
  • and Tom Selleck

Jeff Bridges as Indiana Jones

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

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

Credit: Indiewire.com

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

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

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

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

Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payback from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” Trash Talk

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

Harrison Ford Comes to Rescue “Indiana Jones”

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

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

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

Credit: EW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before “Star Wars” was “Star Wars”

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

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

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

Tom Selleck After “Indiana Jones”

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

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

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

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

Could Tom Selleck Work with Indiana Jones?

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

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

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

Jim Hill

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

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

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Will Metro Ever Get Made?

First came “Cars” in June of 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off

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

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

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

“Metro” – The World Below Cars

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

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

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

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

So who knows?

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

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

Time will tell.

Jim Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Did Disneyland Start Opening 7-Days a Week?

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

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

Early Disneyland Operations – Ticket Books and Ticket Booths

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

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

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

Disney Parks Getting Too Expensive

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

Walt Fixes “Expensive” Impression

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

Lightning Lane – Raising Prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disneyland Parking Closing on Mondays & Tuesdays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making it Right for the Disneyland Hotel

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

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

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

Extending the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel

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

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

Credit: Ultraswank.net

Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel

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

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

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

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

Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings

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

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

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

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

Walley World Shooting Locations

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

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

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

Jim Hill

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

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