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We owe this snazzy new version of “King Kong” to … Michael Eisner?!

Strange but true, folks. Jim Hill explains how the Walt Disney Company’s former CEO initially helped get that 1976 remake of “Kong” underway, then inadvertantly helped make Peter Jackson’s remake into a better motion picture



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It’s often been said that success has many fathers.

Well, if that’s really the case, one can’t help but wonder if former Disney CEO Michael Eisner feels like a proud papa as he looks upon this new version of “King Kong.” After all, this Peter Jackson-directed remake has been greeted with great acclaim. And — given this Universal Pictures release is almost certain to do huge at the box office this holiday season — Michael must be getting some satisfaction out of the success of this motion picture.

What’s that you say? “Why would the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company be getting any satisfaction out of the success of a Universal Studios film?” Well, this version of “King Kong” probably wouldn’t have even been produced if it weren’t for the actions of Michael Eisner.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s remember that one of Peter Jackson’s chief motivations for making this new version of “King Kong” was that he wanted to erase all memory of the first remake of this classic motion picture. You know, that train wreck of a motion picture that Paramount Pictures released back in 1976?

And just who was the guy who originally came up with the idea of Paramount producing this initial “Kong” remake? You guessed it. Michael Eisner.

As the story is told in Ray Morton’s excellent new book, “King Kong: The History of a Film Icon — From Fray Wray to Peter Jackson,” Michael (who was still an ABC executive at the time) initially got this idea of remaking “King Kong” back in December of 1974 after catching the original Merian C. Cooper movie on late night TV. So he pitched the idea of redoing “Kong” to his friend, Barry Diller. Who was then the chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures.

Diller initially seemed indifferent to Eisner’s idea. Which is why Michael then walked across the street and pitched his idea for a “King Kong” remake to Sidney Sheinberg. Who was then the chief operating officer of MCA-Universal Pictures.

Now what Eisner didn’t know was that Universal Pictures was finishing up post production on “Jaws.” And given that this Steven Spielberg film was expected to do really well when it was finally released to theaters in June 1975, Universal was already on the lookout for some sort of monster-based horror movie to serve as a follow-up to this project.

So when Michael suggested remaking “King Kong” to Sidney, Sheinberg immediately jumped on the idea. I mean, here was the perfect project to follow-up “Jaws.” Not to mention that this new version of “Kong” could be the very next Universal Pictures production to make use of Sensurround, that bold new in-theater sound system that literally had movie-goers shaking in their seats.

This is why Sidney immediately put a “King Kong” remake on Universal’s production fast track. Sheinberg

quickly contacted RKO-General (I.E. The studio that produced the original film) and offered them $200,000 plus 5% of the net profits to remake “Kong.” Sidney also hired noted screenwriter Bo Goldman (Best known for his work on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“) to produce a screenplay for the motion picture.

Of course, what Sheinberg didn’t know was that — back over at Paramount — Barry Diller was beginning to warm to Michael Eisner’s idea of remaking “King Kong.” Diller then contacted colorful independent producer Dino De Laurentis and asked him if he’d been interested in bringing the big ape back to the big screen.

Dino immediately jumped at Barry’s suggestion. So — while Paramount Pictures also began pursuing the remake rights to “King Kong” — De Laurentis quickly hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who was then best known as the screenwriter of “Papillon” and “Three Days of the Condor“) to produce a script for this motion picture.

So here you have two major motion picture studios quickly gearing up to produce big budget remakes of “King Kong.” With both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures planning on releasing this movie during the 1976 holiday season.

So (as you might have already guessed) when Universal officials found out that Paramount Pictures execs had gone behind their backs and snagged the “Kong” remake rights from RKO … Well, that’s when the lawsuits began flying.

It took numerous trips to Los Angeles Superior Court to finally sort out all the details. With Universal Studios trumpeting about how their “The Legend of King Kong” would obviously be the superior motion picture. A full-color remake that would retain much of the charm of the original “King Kong” (I.E. The story would still be set in the 1930s, all the monsters featured in the film would still be created by using stop motion animation, etc.) with the added plus of Sensurround.

Whereas Paramount Pictures … Well, Dino De Laurentis had fallen in love with the idea of doing a modern day version of “King Kong” (Which was why the very first version of the film’s screenplay that Semple turned out was entitled “Kong ’76”). Which meant that — when Kong finally got loose in Manhattan — he wouldn’t automatically head for the Empire State Building. But — rather — NYC’s newest, tallest structure: The World Trade Center.

As you can see by this teaser poster that Dino had created …

… In Paramount’s proposed version of “King Kong,” the giant ape was to have straddled the two towers as he battled jet fighters. However, by the time the finished version of this John Gulliermin film hit theaters in December of 1976 … Well, as you can see, the studio made a few adjustments to “King Kong” ‘s poster …

… dropping most of the jets that had originally been pictured on the poster in favor of helicopters. Which Paramount studio execs felt would make for a fairer fight.

Anyway … Getting back to Paramount Pictures’ proposed “King Kong” remake: Dino wanted this fantasy film to be loaded with realism. So it would be shot on location in modern day Manhattan. And stupid little stop motion puppets simply wouldn’t do for Mr. De Laurentis. Which is why the flamboyant Italian producer ordered that a 42-foot-tall mechanical version of the monster be created. So that a full-sized version of Kong could be seen interacting in real time with actors in this film.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. The fact of the matter is that — in spite of the $1.7 million that was spent on the creation of this “Big Kong” figure — the giant robotic ape never really worked properly. Which is why it was only used in a handful of shots in the finished film.

As for the rest of the shots in that picture that feature King Kong … They were performed by noted make-up effects artist Rick Baker. Who worked for hours in front of miniature sets while he sweated inside of a King Kong suit that featured five interchangable heads.

Anywho … Getting back to all the legal posturing: Dino trumpeted that Paramount’s film would be called “King King: The Legend Reborn.” And that — in order to get the jump on Universal’s “The Legend of King Kong” — that his production would begin shooting on January 15, 1976. To which Universal execs responded: “Well, we’ve already hired Joseph Sargent to direct our version of ‘King Kong.’ And we’re going to start shooting on January 5, 1976.”

So — as the suits and the counter-suits continued to fly — this literally became a game of chicken between two major Hollywood studios. All because Michael Eisner had pitched his idea for a “King Kong” remake to both Barry Diller & Sidney Sheinberg.

In Eisner’s defense, it should be noted here that Michael didn’t approach both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures with his “King Kong” remake idea out of any form of malice. But — rather — because Eisner just thought that this was a really great concept for a brand-new motion picture. Which is why he pitched his “King Kong” remake idea to any studio exec that would listen.

But in the end, it was Barry Diller who ultimately ordered Dino De Laurentis to stop with all the silly lawsuits and find a way to settle with Universal Pictures. (“Why did Barry order Dino to do this?,” you query. Well, it seems that Paramount & Universal were actually partners in the Cinema International Corporation, which was a European film distribution company. And Diller was reluctant to bring suit against a corporation that his studio was already doing business with).

Which is why — in the end — Paramount & Universal eventually came to a mutually beneficial agreement concerning “King Kong.” In return for a share of Paramount’s profits on this John Guillermin film, Universal would let Joseph Sargent go and shut down production of its own “The Legend of King Kong.”

However, as part of this agreement with Paramount, Universal Studios retained the right to use the King Kong character as part of an attraction that could be added to its Hollywood tram tour. And — indeed, some ten years later — Disney Legend Bob Gurr led a team of designers & engineers to create a 30-foot-tall Kong figure that would regularly menace tourists as they explored USH‘s backlot. Four years later, a “Kongfrontation” ride became one of the signature attractions of Universal Studios Florida when that theme park first opened back in May of 1990. (Sadly, this USF attraction closed in September of 2002 to make way for that theme park’s “Revenge of the Mummy” ride.)

And one of the other aspects of Universal’s peace accord with Paramount Pictures is that MCA retained the right to make its own “King Kong” movie further on down the line.

Anyhow … Paramount’s “King Kong” (which wound up costing that studio over $23 million to produce, making “Kong” the most expensive motion picture that Paramount had produced up until that time) sold $90 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which meant that this Dino De Laurentis production wasn’t quite the blockbuster that Paramount Pictures had been looking for.

In fact, Charles Bludhorn — the then-chairman of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf & Western — was said to be have been sorely disappointed with the box office performance of John Guillermin’s “King Kong.” Bludhorn reportedly openly disparged the film in front of the company’s shareholders while attending Gulf & Western’s annual meeting in the spring of 1977.

Of course, one of the other people who was said to be sorely disappointed with Paramount’s “King Kong” was director Peter Jackson. Who had fallen in love with the Merian C. Cooper version of the film when he was just eight years old. And — from that day forward — Jackson had dreamed of shooting his very own version of “King Kong.” Both as a tribute to Cooper and Willis O’Brien (I.E. The stop motion master who got Kong to move in the first film) as well as in an effort to erase all memories of that god-awful 1976 remake.

Speaking of Paramount’s version of “King Kong” … Given the universally poor reviews that this picture recieved back in 1976, it’s easy to understand why this John Guillermin film is rarely shown nowadays. Of course, when you factor in the whole filmed-on-location-at-the-World-Trade-Center aspect of the production …

… it’s easy to understand why the 1976 version of “King Kong” hasn’t been seen recently.

Anyway … Getting back to the Peter Jackson-based portion of this story. Back in 1995, Jackson directed and co-wrote the Michael J. Fox horror comedy, “The Frighteners” for Universal Studios. Universal execs were so enthusiastic about the work that Peter had done on this motion picture that they asked him: “What other motion picture would you like to make for our studio? How about a remake of ‘The Creature of the Black Lagoon‘?”

Jackson politely demurred. Insisting that there was only one motion picture that he really wanted to remake. And that was Merian C. Cooper’s “King Kong.”

Of course, Universal executives were thrilled to hear Peter’s comments. Given that the studio had been sitting on those “King Kong” remake rights since 1976. And now finally here was a filmmaker with the passion and the talent to actually make this picture happen.

Mind you, Jackson wasn’t interested in shooting Bo Goldman’s old script. Which is why he and his longtime collaborator Fran Walsh hammered together an entirely new “King Kong” screenplay. Which — while it was very respectful of the original Merian C. Cooper film (I.E. The movie’s story was still set in the 1930s, it would still end with Kong at the top of the Empire State building battling biplanes, etc.) — the script still featured lots of new sequences that were obviously inspired by hit films of the 1980s & 1990s (EX: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” & “Jurassic Park“).

The screenplay that Jackson & Walsh turned in absolutely thrilled Universal executives. Here finally was a version of “King Kong” ” that was sure to connect with modern moviegoers. The only problem was — with the picture’s trio of attacking tyranosaurs and that herd of stampeding apatosaurs — this was sure to be one motion picture that would be prohibitively expensive to produce. Early internal estimates suggested that it could cost Universal Pictures as much as $200 million to bring Peter Jackson’s vision of “King Kong” to the big screen.

Add to this the fact that — when “The Frighteners” finally rolled into theaters in July 1996 — this Michael J. Fox film didn’t do all that well. “The Frighteners” pulled in a mere $16 million during its domestic release. Which meant that this Peter Jackson motion picture didn’t even come close to cover its promotion & production costs.

Now add to this the fact that Sony Pictures had just announced its plans to produce its own big budget version of that classic Japanese monster movie, “Godzilla.” And the news that Michael Eisner had just greenlit Disney’s planned remake of Merian C. Cooper’s other giant ape movie, “Mighty Joe Young.” And you can understand why Universal executives might suddenly get cold feet.

I mean, here was Peter Jackson, a director whose first working-within-the-studio-system film had seriously under-performed at the box office. And yet he wanted Universal Studios to commit $200 million to a remake of “King Kong.” A film classic that hadn’t performed all that well the last time it got remade.

So — given these circumstances — is it any wonder that (in spite of the eight months of pre-production that Jackson and his wizards at Weta had already put into “King Kong”) that Universal execs finally pulled the plug on this project in January of 1997.

As you might understand, given his love of the original film, Peter was absolutely devastated to lose what he thought would be his one-and-only chance to produce a new version of “King Kong.” Still, as one of Jackson’s dream project dies, another film fantasy that this director had been hoping for decades that he’d get the chance to produce came into being: “The Lord of the Rings.”

Of course, I don’t need to tell you folks about the crucial role that Michael Eisner played in the creation of that Academy Award winning trio of films. How the head of the Walt Disney Company first insisted that Peter Jackson try & tell all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy in two films, rather than three. Then how Michael — concerned about the high costs of producing these motion pictures — abruptly pulled the plug on this Miramax Pictures production. Which left Jackson scrambling to find a studio that would actually fund his vision for these films.

Which — luckily — led Peter to New Line Studios. A company that actually had executives who were bold enough to embrace Jackson’s vision. Who were willing to pony up $300 million to see if there actually was an audience out there for a big screen version of the “Lord of the Rings” book.

So — as you can see — from 1974 on forward, Michael Eisner has been a factor in the “King Kong” saga. First as the guy who initially proposed that this classic motion picture be remade, then as the studio exec who — by inadvertently delaying Peter Jackson’s first attempt to get “King Kong” remade — helped us get the film that’s now being screened at multiplexes all around the world.

Now some people might wonder why Michael Eisner feels such a kinship to a character like King Kong. But — me personally — I can’t help but notice that there’s a bit of a resemblance between these two entertainment industry giants.

Anyway … Let me wrap things up here by mentioning two other weird little bends to this story. When asked if he was bitter that he didn’t actually get a chance to remake “King Kong” back in 1997, Peter Jackson said “No.” That — while the cancellation of that production may have seemed to be a huge blow back then — it actually turned out to be a blessing. You see, the years that he spent working on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy made Jackson made a better director. More to the point, CG technology has now greatly improved. Which allowed Peter to bring much more of his original vision to the big screen.

(FYI: Remember how Universal Studios execs shut down production of Jackson’s “King Kong” back in January of 1997 because that version of the film was projected to cost $200 million. Care to guess how much the 2005 version of “Kong” cost? Would you believe $207 million?)

Getting back to the differences between the 1997 and 2005 version of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” … The intervening years also gave Peter the chance to review the screenplay that he and Fran Walsh had originally written. Which made Jackson realize that the scope of his “King Kong” film needed to be tightened. That there was really no room for prologues set during World War I with flying aces who played baseball high over the trenches. That — in order for this picture to play to modern moviegoers — that film’s title character had to be someone that audiences could really relate to.

Well, as those of you who have already seen the new version of “King Kong” know, Peter Jackson succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. This new Universal Pictures release is really a landmark motion picture. It’s actually no faint praise to say that Jackson’s “King Kong” is almost as good as Cooper’s original. If you haven’t seen it yet, go check out this movie ASAP. You’ll be glad you did.

Also … Just to demonstrate how everything in Hollywood seems to work in cycles and/or circles: Do you remember the project that Universal Studios execs originally offered Peter Jackson as a possible follow-up to “The Frighteners”? That’s right. A big screen remake of that 1954 horror classic, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Well, Universal Studios just announced that they’re finally going forward with production of a “Black Lagoon” remake. And guess who they just hired to helm this picture? Michael Eisner’s son, Breck Eisner.

And — to add to the irony of this whole situation — one of the main reasons that Breck actually got this job wasn’t because of Daddy’s connections (Eisner’s son is already quite an accomplished director. Earlier this year, he earned some great reviews for “Sahara.” The big screen version of Clive Cussler’s best seller that Breck directed for Paramount Pictures). But — rather — because Universal Studios was looking for another monster movie to follow-up what they thought would be the smashing success of “King Kong.”

So — as you can see — it’s 1975 all over again, folks. With the execs at Universal looking for a film that would be a worthy follow-up to “Jaws.”

Anywho … That’s the protracted version of the impact that Michael Eisner had on the production of two “King Kong” remakes. Which I hope you found somewhat entertaining.

Your thoughts?

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

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Film & Movies

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



Will Metro Ever Get Made?
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First came “Cars” in June of 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off

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

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

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

“Metro” – The World Below Cars

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

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

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

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

So who knows?

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

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

Time will tell.

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Film & Movies

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).


Magic Kingdom Golf Course at Disneyland Hotel

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

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

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

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

Additional Disneyland Hotel Expansion and Offerings

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

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

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

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

Walley World Shooting Locations

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

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

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

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Film & Movies

“Build It” – How the Swiss Family Treehouse Ended up in Disneyland



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Things get built at the Disney Theme Parks – but not always for the reasons that you might think.

Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.

Swiss Family Robinson – 1960 Disney Film

Back then, Walt Disney Studios just had a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812. And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.

Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s), Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that Swiss Family Robinson is …

… photographed on the island of Tobago in the West Indies and that it is shaping up into such an exciting and thrilling picture that the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ shows every promise of equaling or surpassing every production our Company has ever put out.

Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here.

But when Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”

And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, Swiss Family Robinson looked great.

It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). One of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.

The Swiss Family. Robinson Tree was Real

By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.

It’s still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.

Success at the Movies – Helping Disneyland Attendance

Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of Swiss Family Robinson comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically).  Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Matterhorn Bobsleds inspired by Third Man on the Mountain). 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions – which included the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland

The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for Third Man on the Mountain – which officially got underway in June of 1958).

There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on Third Man on the Mountain in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So be bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard.

And those words supposedly were “Build this.”

It’s now the Spring of 1961 and attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.

So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions (Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, & Monorail). So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.

Adventureland Upgrades

Attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955.

There’s a famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” This is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks.

This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.

How the Trapped Safari Vignette Ended Up in “The Jungle Cruise”

Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”

That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.

In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.

Draining Jungle River Cruise and Rivers of America

Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America).

If the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction, that meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.

Drained Jungle Cruise – Credit:

The Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline – which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.

While this work was being done along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.

As you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts.

This redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said:

“Here. This is where I want you guys to build Disneyland’s version of the Swiss Family Treehouse.”

“Build It” – Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland

It wasn’t that easy.

The Imagineers explained “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”

Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”

The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”

Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”

Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”

Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.

So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.

Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse Construction (1962) – Credit:

And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.

The Opening of Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland

This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Halley (As in Halley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).

There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Halley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.

How Much Did it Cost to Build the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland?

Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.

This is where the Imagineers were wrong.

Don’t Bet Against Walt – Success of Swiss Family Treehouse

Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.

200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.

Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.

To be specific here:  Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.

Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).

Ken Annakin – Film Director

Disney Legend Ken Annakin – Credit: D23

Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.

Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.

Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”

And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.

New Robin Hood on Disney+?

Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. An  Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.

So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney.

So does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 412”, published on January 30, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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