Film & Movies
What was the original screenplay for Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” movie like?
Thanks to loyal JHM reader, MrTheFrog, here's the first detailed description of Walt Disney Pictures' much anticipated November 2003 release. Just be warned, foolish mortals … there be spoilers ahead!
Hey gang! Jim Hill here. You know, one of the things that I really love about the Internet is that — every so often — something truly wonderful pops up in your e-mail. Three weeks ago, it was all that “Project Gemini” stuff. And just this past weekend, I received a wonderful gift from a MrTheFrog. It seems that a friend of his works in the industry. Which is how MrTheFrog managed to get ahold of a copy of the script of Walt Disney Pictures’ much anticipated November 2003 release, “The Haunted Mansion.” Which he then — quite kindly, I might add — offered to describe this screenplay in great detail for JHM readers.
I know that film fans have expressed much concern about this project. The Disneyana community seems particularly concerned about Disney’s decision to cast Eddie (“The Adventures of Pluto Nash”) Murphy as the lead in this picture. And … let’s be honest here … that somewhat silly, rather cheesy looking “Haunted Mansion” teaser trailer that the Mouse released to theaters last month didn’t exactly help the situation.
Still, it’s hard to really judge a motion picture based on the few tidbits that leak out while the project’s still in production. That’s why MrTheFrog’s upcoming script description is such a gift. For the first time anywhere, you’re going to get to read a really detailed description of the characters you’ll encounter in this movie. Plus you’ll get definitive information about what parts of the much beloved theme park attraction turn up in the “Haunted Mansion” movie.
A word of caution: there are spoilers ahead! If — come November — you really want to walk into your local multiplex without knowing in advance every twist and turn of this film’s plot (Well, maybe not every twist. Because he really doesn’t want to ruin the entire “Haunted Mansion” movie for everyone, MrTheFrog has held back a few crucial plot points. For which we should be grateful … I guess), now might be a good time to stop reading this particular column.
Also, the copy of the “Haunted Mansion” screenplay that MrTheFrog is reviewing today is a fairly early draft. One from ‘way back in January of 2002. Given that production didn’t actually begin on this picture ’til January 7, 2003, that means that the Mouse (not to mention “Haunted Mansion” director Rob Minkoff) had plenty of time to massage this script.
Which may not have actually been a good thing. Why? Because as you read this review, you’ll find that MrTheFrog really liked the original version of the “Haunted Mansion” screenplay. He goes out of his way to praise David Berenbaum’s efforts to stay true to the film’s source material (I.E. the “Haunted Mansion” theme park attraction). How — by building on real pieces of the ride’s mythology (MrTheFrog repeatedly has kind words for all the research that Mr. Berenbaum put into this project) — David managed to produce a very entertaining screenplay. A solid script that could serve as a pretty good blueprint for a fairly entertaining film.
But then … well, this is where MrTheFrog’s upcoming column gets kind of depressing. You see, this is the section where he addresses all the stories that he’s heard to date about the version of Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” movie that’s being shot right now. And that — if we’re to go by Jennifer Tilly’s recent comments to “TV Guide” — it’s pretty obvious that Mr. Berenbaum’s carefully researched, respectful-of-the-original-attraction screenplay has been joked up and hoked up.
So I guess what I’m saying is that the script review that follows is kind of a mixed bag. You’ll hear all about this truly cool “Haunted Mansion” screenplay that Disney evidently lost confidence in. Which is why (I guess) the studio felt it was necessary to punch this script up by adding kooky krazy touches like a mouthy Madam Leota who gets carried around like a bowling ball.
Hearing about stuff like this (as well as Tilly’s claim that the Imagineers are making plans to change the classic “Haunted Mansion” theme park attractions so that it better reflects the forthcoming film) doesn’t exactly fill my heart with joy. But then I remember that WDFA vets like Rob Minkoff and Don Hahn are riding herd on this project. So I hold out hope that all these “improvements” may actually improve the picture.
Anyway … if you’re a “foolish mortal” and want to know quite a bit about Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” movie months before you head out to the multiplex, read on. If you’re prefer to be surprised when you stop by your local cinema in November, stop reading now.
Okay. You can’t say that I didn’t warn you …
Hi everyone, I’m a longtime reader of Jim Hill’s work, and about six months ago I moved out to L.A. to work. A few days ago, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the script for “Disney’s The Haunted Mansion.” It’s an early version, dated January 11, 2002. I’ll get to the description in a second, but first, let me start off by saying that I had much fear about this project for a number of reasons…
1. “The Country Bears”: Disney’s “re-imagining” of the classic theme park characters left a lot to be desired. It left out some of the most popular bears, instead deciding to tell the story of some of the background characters. Big mistake. (BTW, a little known fact: Did you know that Big Al sang a version of the ever popular “Blood on the Saddle” as an opening act for the Bears’ big finale? Supposedly it was filmed, but didn’t make it into the final cut.) Though the bears themselves were beautifully created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, all the technology in the world wasn’t gonna save this movie. A badly written script is a badly written script.
2. Disney’s writers-in-residence program: It’s this program that spawned “The Country Bears”, and where David Berenbaum wrote “The Haunted Mansion” script. From what I understand, the writers are paid a salary to come up with scripts based on the Disney attractions. I’ve been told, that since they already work for the mouse and are receiving a salary, that the company doesn’t have to buy the scripts from them, and as a result get off dirt cheap. If you ask me, that’s not much motivation to rack your brain, trying to turn a 50 year old ride into a cohesive story.
3. Eddie Murphy: The moment I heard that he was starring in this film, I considered it dead in the water. Not that he’s a bad actor. He’s actually one of my favorite actor/comedians out there. But was he really an appropriate star for a film based on Disneyland’s most popular attraction?
4. Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota: This really scared me, and not in a good way … I mean come on.
Anyway, I sat down to read this early version of the script expecting to be scared, horrified, even terrified by how they were going to destroy a classic. You’ll be happy to know that I was very pleasantly surprised.
Here’s the set-up:
The film begins in the New Orleans town of “Liberty”. In a pristine old mansion, a soon-to-be bride, sits in her room, penning a letter to her one true love. Her dress sits on the bed beside her. As she finishes, she wipes away the tears, rises, sprinkles some powder into a glass of wine, and drinks from it. A moment later, the nobleman she was to marry, rushes into the room to find her dead on the floor. Jump ahead to the present.
Eddie Murphy plays Jim Evers, a workaholic attorney. Obsessed with getting ahead, he has very little time for his wife Sara, or his two children Megan and Michael. He is in line for a huge promotion, but in order to seal the deal, he has to meet with the head of his company. And one thing the big boss is very fond of is the idea of “family.” So in the interest of making a good impression, Jim drags his family, kicking and screaming, to meet him, in his big house, behind a big iron gate, on top of a big hill. And what is his name? Master Edward Gracey.
Once inside, the members of the Evers family are trapped in the house, and separated from one another. Through a series of events Jim is lead to a séance room where he meets Madame Leota, a cryptic fortune teller whose head is inside a crystal ball, played by Jennifer Tilly. She tells him the tragic tale of the bride, and explains to him that he and his family are doomed to forever join the 999 happy haunts, unless they can set the bride free by the 13th hour.
Along the way, they meet an interesting (and familiar) cast of characters, including:
– An old caretaker (played by Don Knotts), and his skin-n-bones dog. – Phineas Pock: a plump ghost with a top hat – Ezra: a tall thin skeletal ghost with a long coat and derby – Gus: a short ghost with a long bushy beard, and a ball and chain around his leg. – And of course, Master Gracey.
The writer David Berenbaum did a wonderful job with this story, leaving no stone unturned. From the floating candelabra, to the portraits with the wandering eyes, this is a writer who did his homework, and he has an absolute masterpiece to show for it. This is THE definitive Haunted Mansion movie. I’ve been a Disney fan for 28 years now, as well as a former cast member. And I’ve been to both WDW and Disneyland hundreds of times, so needless to say, I’m very critical. But all that kept running through my head as I read this was “Wow. WOW!” As it stands now, it’s completely 100% faithful to the ride. If this is done right, it could possibly be the best live-action Disney film since Walt’s time. I kid you not. This has the potential to be a huge, HUGE hit for them.
I think what I liked so much is, this is not a kiddy movie. There are lots of parts that are very intense, and disturbing. I have a hard time believing they’ll get a PG rating out of it (probably PG-13). Eddie Murphy is perfectly cast in this role. His comic relief is much needed for the dark grim story that they tell. And Don Knotts … need I say more? Now Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota … well, if done like the script, she’ll have a relatively small, but important role. And she’ll be fine, as long as she doesn’t joke it up …
… which leads us to the second part of this story. If you remember, back at the beginning of this article, I stated that the script I read, is dated January 11, 2002. That’s right, 2002, over a year ago. And as expected some things are going to change. How much will change? I don’t know. But let’s look at a few quotes from some people involved with the film:
In a recent TV Guide article, Jennifer Tilly had the following to say: “When you go into the ride [at Disney], there’s a gypsy fortune teller’s head in a crystal ball, saying, ‘Go back, Go back!’ You know, Madame Leota. That’s gonna be me! I’m Eddie Murphy’s sidekick in the movie. He carries my head around, and I get bossy with him. I have lots of hair, I’m a smart ass, and I’m very cryptic. I know all, I see all … if the movie’s really successful, Disney’s gonna revamp the ride and I’ll be the head in the ball at the beginning of it! They’re gonna totally update it.”
Well I can tell you that in the version I read, she is far from a sidekick. At no time does she get “bossy,” or is she a “smart ass,” and not once does Eddie carry her head around with him. His son does for one scene, but never Eddie. So if this is true, then some things have changed. They may have toned things down to make it more family friendly.
In another interview, Director Rob Minkoff said “It will actually have more of an inflection on the ride than the ride will have an inflection on the movie” and later added “There will be special effects but no character animation so there will be a lot of ghost effects but no character ghosts, not like Casper. I think there was some thought originally that there might be.”
Now this kinda scares me simply because, the script I read, and the ride are so similar that it would make his first statement absolutely false … unless a lot has been changed. And regarding the “no character ghosts”, I’m not quite sure how to take that. My assumption is that he means the ghosts will be played by humans with enhanced make-up and special effects, rather than being animated. Though looking at the Internet Movie Database, I only see “Little Ghost” listed (possibly Gus), as well as “Queen Ghost”. Which brings up another question: Who the heck is ‘Queen Ghost’? There was no Queen Ghost in the script. Is it a fancy name for the ghost of the bride? Is it a new character completely?
And why do all the descriptions of the film say: “When a workaholic visits a haunted house with his family during a job interview, he meets a ghost that teaches him a lesson about the importance of the family that he has neglected.” The key word there is “a ghost”. There was no definitive ghost in this script. There were many, each with their own role to play. But there was not one, that was really any more special than the other, unless they’re talking about Madame Leota. So, again, characters may have been cut, things may have changed.
But on a more positive note, Marsha Thomason, who plays Eddie’s wife, said in a February 2003 interview “We’ve got the singing heads. We’ve got the whole mausoleum. We’ve got Madame Leota. Jennifer Tilly is playing Madame Leota. There’s a whole lot of the Disney ride in the movie. It’s fab!”
So who knows? The version I read didn’t have the singing busts, but they’d be a welcome addition. And according to her, it’s a lot like the ride. So I guess the only thing we could do is wait until November when it’s released. But in the meantime, let me leave you with this small excerpt from the script. The set-up is Eddie Murphy’s character, Jim Evers, is in an octagonal room, admiring the paintings on the wall:
“Jim walks to leave, but can’t find the door. He turns confused … Jim looks around in confusion. Jim turns to the window … or where the window used to be. No window. He turns to leave, but now there’s no door. He looks around, but there’s definitely no door. No windows and no doors–“
Film & Movies
Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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:
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:
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:
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.
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 …
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 DisneyDocs.net). 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.
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.
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:
“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.
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
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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