For nearly 40 years now, it's been a key component of a Central Florida vacation. That –
for one night – you take a break from the theme parks and then head indoors
to enjoy a bit of dinner theater.
Of course, the real pioneer of this Orlando entertainment
tradition is the Hoop Dee Doo Revue. Which has been entertaining WDW Guests
(appropriately enough) in Pioneer Hall at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort &
Campground since the Summer of 1974.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
For the longest time, Hoop Dee Doo was really the only game
in town. Disney pretty much had a lock on the Central Florida dinner theater market
until British entrepreneur Robert Earl came to Orlando in the early 1980s.
Mind you, this was before Earl had made his fortune founding
the Planet Hollywood and Earl of Sandwich restaurant chains. Back then, Robert
was just a guy who was looking to take a concept that had proven to be highly
lucrative for him in London (i.e. "Shakespeare's Tavern," an
entertainment-based restaurant where performers playing comic versions of great
characters from English literature regularly wandered through a highly-themed
dining hall and then entertained the patrons with bawdy songs & ribald
stories) and then bring it to the world. Disney World, to be precise.
Please note the never-built theater complex towards the back of this
piece of concept art. This is where Robert Earl hoped to stage his
family-friendly version of "Shakespeare's Tavern" at Epcot's UK
pavilion. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
In the early 1980s, Earl met Disney World executives about
possibly adding a more family-friendly version of "Shakespeare's Tavern" to
Epcot's UK Pavilion. So that WDW Guests would then have something new to
experience as they wandered around World Showcase.
Unfortunately, Disney's then-management team (this was prior
to Michael Eisner coming on board as the Mouse House's Big Cheese in September
of 1984) said "Thanks but no thanks." That Walt Disney World already had a dinner
theater experience and it was the Hoop Dee Doo Revue. More to the point, that
if Mickey was going to develop any shows for the WDW Resort, that they'd then do
so in-house via the Imagineers.
Gone but not forgotten
But Robert Earl was not to be deterred. Having received the
brush-off from Mouse House management, he just found financing elsewhere and
then went off & built his dinner theater experiences outside of Disney
World property. By the late 1980s, Earl had three of these businesses up and
running in & around Orlando: Fort Liberty along 192 and King Henry's Feast
& Mardi Gras out on I-Drive.
And given how successful these three dinner theaters were,
dozens of other restauranteurs then tried to replicate what Robert & Disney
were doing. Often with little or no lasting success. How many of you remember
unique dining / entertainment experiences like the American Gladiators Live! Or
the Fortune Feast Game Show and Dinner?
Another favorite that faded fast
Florida can be kind of a tough market for dinner theater. Just ask the
folks who financed Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show. That $28
million complex opened with great fanfare in
June 2003 only to then quickly & quietly close its doors in January 2008. Reportedly done in by a
tough-for-tourists-to-reach location over by the Orlando Premium Outlets Mall.
These days, the dinner theater shows that continue to thrive
in and around Orlando … Well, they do so not just because these entertainment
enterprises are all easy-to-get-to locations. But also because – year in &
year out – these dinner theater shows give Central Florida visitors great value
for their tourism dollar. Delivering fine food and a fun family-entertainment
experience at a very affordable price.
A castle in Kissimmee. Photo by Jim Hill
First up is the Medieval Times Dinner
Tournament. Which has been entertaining tourists at this highly themed location
in Kissimmee since 1983. Once you cross the moat, you'll find yourself back in
the 11th century. Where you'll then enjoy a four-course meal as you
watch knights do battle inside of an immense area. Where – while dressed in
authentic suits of armor – they'll joust at full tilt while riding beautiful
Now please keep in mind that the story that Medieval Times
Dinner Tournament is telling is set in a time before the invention of utensils.
Which means that you'll be eating your herb-roasted chicken and/or barbeque
spare ribs with your hands. But given how tasty the food is at this particular
dinner theater, I don't imagine that you'll mind licking your fingers in order
to clean them off.
Photo by Jim Hill
Next up is Arabian Nights,
which initially arrived on the scene in Central Florida back in March of
1998. This dinner show is an equestrian extravaganza with over 50 talented
horses prancing around inside of a 90,000 square foot stadium. As you dine on prime rib or
lasagna, you'll be treated to a 22-act production. Where Arabians, Andalusian,
Lipizans, Palominos, Quarter Horses, Belgians and Percherons go through their
paces. Doing tricks and stunts that are sure to dazzle everyone seated in this
1001-seat venue. (1001? Arabian Nights? Get it?)
Anyway … If you and/or any of your family members are real
horse fans, then you ought to yourself to come by Arabian Nights an hour or so
prior to showtime. That way, you'll then get the chance to enter the Great Hall
early and do a meet-n-greet with some of the four-legged stars of this popular
dinner theater experience.
Photo by Jim Hill
Of course, if you prefer swordplay to horseplay, then you
need to set sail for the Pirate's
Dinner Adventure. Now this particular Orlando area dinner theater opened
back in May of 1996, long before Disney began making its super-popular "Pirates
of the Caribbean" movies. So while you won't find anyone like Captain Jack
Sparrow out here on I-Drive, you're sure to enjoy a full evening of
family-friendly fun, food and interactive entertainment.
And when I say "interactive," I mean interactive. The climax
of the Pirate's Dinner Adventure show comes with the younger members of the
audience are recruited to come battle these buccaneers. So be sure and have
your cameras ready when these new members of the British Navy make their
appearance and get ready to storm the ship.
Photo by Jim Hill
What's that you say? Real pirates weren't family-friendly.
These rogues drank rum while they hung out with loose women and then told ribald stories & sang bawdy
songs (Hmmn. That sounds familiar for some reason). Recognizing that there
might be some visitors to Orlando who'd then be in the market for a more risqué
dinner theater experience, the folks behind Pirate's Dinner Adventure just
opened an adults-only, after-hours establishment known as the Treasure
You get the idea that this dinner show is not intended for
kids when – as you walk through the door – you're immediately handed a flagon
Tavern's signature drink. Which is rum punch. Then Gretta (i.e. the
tavern's outrageous barmaid) serves as your host for a two-hour long
experience. Which will feature live music, all kinds of comedy plus daring
Photo by Jim Hill
And did I mention the food? We're talking a fresh garden salad,
slow roasted prime rib, opera cake, and a full liquor bar. Which will hopefully
make it that much easier to get in the true pirate spirit for an hour or two.
If you prefer thinking to drinking … Then there's another
International Drive establishment that you have to check out. And that's Sleuths
Mystery Dinner Show. This is (after Hoop Dee Doo Revue, of course) the
Orlando area's oldest dinner theater experience. Since 1980, both locals and
tourists have been trying to solve these hilarious who-dun-its. Which – given
that you actually witness the murder and then get to interrogate all of the
suspects – sort of redefines the idea of "interactive."
Photo by Jim Hill
Mind you, the menu always stays the same at Sleuths Mystery
Dinner Show (i.e. succulent Cornish game hen, thick slabs of prime rib and/or a
vegetarian option). But the mysteries keep changing. There are currently 13
different crime-laden comic scenarios that this talented cast of performers plays
out. So depending on which night you come through the door, you could find
yourself in the middle of a wedding that goes horribly wrong, a celebrity roast
which takes a homicidal turn, even a high society pre-fox-hunt banquet where
it's the hunters who suddenly become the prey.
There are – of course – other dinner theater experiences to
be found around the Orlando area. But as the Walt Disney World Resort gets
ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary, I thought that it might be fun
to take a look at some of Central Florida's other long-running shows. Which
(obviously) include Medieval
Times Dinner Tournament, Arabian Nights, Pirate's
Dinner Adventure and Sleuths
And if you're looking for tickets for any of these
long-running dinner theater experiences ( or the recently opened Treasure
Tavern Show) … Well, I think I know some folks who can help you out there.
The Road to Cars Land – Part One
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It’s the early 2000s. Things are starting to get spikey between Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs in regards to Pixar Animation Studios.
These two titans of industry are trying to hammer out a third extension of that animation studio’s production & distribution deal with the Mouse House. Their original three picture deal had been signed back in March of 1991, and then – following the enormous success of “Toy Story” in November of 1995 – was then been renegotiated & turned into a 5-picture co-production deal in February of 1997.
As far as Steve Jobs was concerned, Pixar was now within inches of meeting its contractual obligation to Disney. Which meant that was now time for these two studios to hammer out a new deal. One that would be far more lucrative for Pixar. After all, the folks up in Emeryville (They’d only just moved from Pixar’s original studio set-up in Port Richmond over to Emeryville in 2000) had already delivered six films for Disney to distribute:
- “Toy Story” (1995)
- “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
- “Toy Story 2” (1999)
- “Monsters, Inc. (2001)
- “Finding Nemo” (2003)
- “The Incredibles” (2004)
“Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” Don’t Count – Pixar’s Original Film Obligation to Disney
Not so fast, says Disney’s lawyers. “Toy Story” was produced outside of that 5 picture co-production deal that was signed back in February in 1997. So it then couldn’t be counted as one of the five films that Pixar was contractually obligated to deliver to Disney.
More to the point, because “Toy Story 2” was a sequel to the original “Toy Story” movie from 1995 (and was originally supposed to be a Disney Home Premiere, rather than a theatrical release. Disney only decided that “Toy Story 2” would be released to theaters a year or so out from completion of that production. Which caused an awful lot of angst up in Emeryville) … Well, that film also couldn’t be counted towards those 5 co-productions that Pixar was now contractually obligated to deliver to Disney.
Which made Steve Jobs furious.
Steve Jobs had every right to be angry – given how many movie tickets had been sold to “Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” (the first film in this series earned $244 million at the worldwide box office. While the second film in this series effectively doubled the first “Toy Story” ‘s box office take, pulling in $487 million at the worldwide box office), it just made Jobs crazy that a film franchise which had already pull in three quarters of a billion dollars at the worldwide box office didn’t count towards Pixar’s 5 picture co-production deal. Never mind the hundreds of millions of merchandising-related dollars that Disney had also pulled in from the sales of “Toy Story” -related toys.
Anyway … As far as Disney was concerned, factoring in the whole the-first-“Toy-Story”-doesn’t-count-towards-that-five-picture-deal-because-it-was-produced-before-this-co-production-deal-was-signed and “Toy-Story-2”-doesn’t-count-towards-that-five-picture-co-production-deal-either-because-it’s-a-sequel-to-the-original-“Toy-Story” thing … Well, Disney’s lawyers insisted that – to date – Pixar had only delivered four of the five movies it was under contract to deliver to the Mouse House.
- “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
- “Monsters, Inc. (2001)
- “Finding Nemo” (2003)
- “The Incredibles” (2004)
Early Talks of “Toy Story 3” – Will It Count ?!
Now where this gets interesting is that – in the middle of this negotiation in the early 2000s – Pixar actually approached Disney with an idea for “Toy Story 3.” Which they then wanted to produce as the fifth and final film Pixar was contractually obligated to deliver to Disney as part of that co-production deal they’d signed with the Mouse House back in February of 1997.
Now remember that the first two “Toy Story” movies had already earned three quarters of a billion at the worldwide box office. So it was a gimme that a third “Toy Story” film would sell lots & lots of movie tickets as well. Not to mention all of the fees that Disney would collect from toy manufacturers for those officially licensed “Toy Story” toys.
And – just in case you’re wondering – Disney wasn’t wrong. When “Toy Story 3” was finally released to theaters in June of 2010, it would go on to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office all by itself. Never mind about all of the officially licensed toy money.
But here’s the thing: Pixar will only make “Toy Story 3” IF Disney agrees that this sequel then counts as the fifth and final film that this Emeryville-based operation is still under contract to deliver to the Mouse House. And Michael Eisner – when he hears about this – digs in his heels and says “You know that’s not the deal. Sequels don’t count towards your 5-picture contractual obligation to us. If you opt to produce ‘Toy Story 3,’ you’re still going to need to deliver another movie to Disney after that in order to honor the terms of that contract.”
Which makes Jobs furious. Here he was offering Disney yet another sequel to “Toy Story” that – as I mentioned earlier – would eventually go on to earn over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office … And here was Michael Eisner saying “Nope. That doesn’t count towards completion of our 5-picture co-production deal. You’re still going to owe us another movie after you deliver ‘Toy Story 3.’ “
Which is when Jobs decides to play hardball. He says “Okay then. No ‘Toy Story 3.’ “
To which Eisner responds “Okay then. No ‘Toy Story 3.’ Let’s make that cars movie instead.”
“The Yellow Car” – Origin Story to “Cars”
Which now brings us to “Cars.” Or – as this proposed animated feature was known back then (when work first began on the development of this Pixar project back in 1998) – “The Yellow Car.” Now – given what’s going on in California right now (You did see where that State is looking to ban the sales of new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by 2035?) – the original storyline that Pixar had put together for “The Yellow Car” was kind of interesting. It dealt with a tiny little electric car – which had just arrived from overseas – trying to make a new life for itself in the American southwest. Where it was then surrounded by all of these gas-guzzling 4-wheelers and long-haul trucks.
That storyline might have had a chance today. But back in the late 1990s / early 2000s, the story notes that Disney kept sending Pixar were more along the lines of “Is there any way we can change that scrappy immigrant into … Say, a young race car who’s on the cusp of his first big professional win?”
And that note reportedly came from Michael Eisner himself. Who – even though he had said “No” to Pixar making “Toy Story 3” because of that whole contractual-obligation thing – still thought that he had a huge winner for Disney in “Cars.” And that was because – back in the late 1960s – Michael had had a front row seat when Mattel’s Hot Wheels first arrived on the scene.
Michael Eisner & Hot Wheels
You gotta remember that Michael Eisner started out in television. To be specific, he had two brief stints at NBC & CBS in the mid-1960s before he then got hired ABC. Where – in 1968 — Eisner was named that network’s director of program development for the East Coast. Which meant that Michael was then largely responsible for what aired on ABC on Saturday morning.
And around this very same time (May of 1968), Mattel introduced Hot Wheels. Which was this new toy line of scale model cars. The first 16 Hot Wheels hit the market that year and were supported by this massive television advertising campaign (with the bulk of that commercial time which was supposed to support the launch of this new toy line — of course — being purchased on shows that would air on Saturday mornings. Which is when kids would be guaranteed to be watching TV).
So taking into account where Michael Eisner was working at that time, he was obviously keenly aware of what an enormous success the “Hot Wheels” toy line had been for Mattel. So – some 35 years later – when Pixar effectively told Eisner “You can’t have ‘Toy Story 3.’ You’ll now have to settle for ‘The Yellow Car’ instead,” Michael’s response was “Okay. Disney will temporarily shut down its ‘Toy Story’ gold mine and now go and open a ‘Cars’ -themed platinum mine instead.”
Now please note that I used the word “temporarily” there. That was because Disney’s lawyers believed that they owned the Pixar-produced characters from the original agreement.
Pixar Breaks Away from Disney – Disney Creates Circle 7 Studios
In January of 2004 – Steve Jobs announced that he was breaking off negotiations with The Walt Disney Company and upon delivery of “Cars” – which would be released to theaters in June of 2006 – Pixar was finally free & clear of its obligations to the Mouse House. Which is why they now open negotiations with other studios in Hollywood seeking a new production / distribution partner.
Once Pixar formally broke off negotiations with Disney, The Walt Disney Company announced that it would be starting Circle 7 Studios (named for the street that this brand-new animation studio was located on. Which is Circle 7 Drive in Glendale, CA. Which is where KABC, the Los Angeles-based ABC affiliate is located. “And what is the KABC logo?,” you ask. A 7 – for Channel 7 – with a circle around it)
… And at Circle 7 Studios, Disney intended to produce its own sequels to “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Because – under the terms of those production & distribution deals, later co-production deals that Pixar had signed with Disney back in 1991 and then 1997 respectively – the Mouse felt that they owned this Pixar-produced characters & storylines outright and could then do whatever they wanted with them.
That whole Circle 7 Studios was a nightmare for the folks at Pixar. Though – it’s worth noting here – the people at Disney who did work on those “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” sequels did do some decent work.
Original “Toy Story 3” Plot
The storyline for Disney’s version of “Toy Story 3” (which had Buzz Lightyear getting recalled to the factory that originally made him in Japan, and then the Andy’s Room gang shipping themselves via FedEx to that very same factory in an effort to save Buzz from being dismantled) had its charms.
“Monsters, Inc.” Sequel – “Lost in Scaradice”
I’d argue that the storyline for Disney’s version of “Monsters, Inc.” (which was to have been entitled “Lost in Scaradice”) would have made for a far better film than the one that Pixar themselves produced in June of 2013. Which was “Monsters University.”
But we’re not here to talk about “Lost in Scaradice.” We’re here to talk about “Cars.”
“Cars” – Michael Eisner’s Decision Creates Billions with New Franchise
“Cars” finally got released to theaters in June of 2006 and then went on earn $461 million at the worldwide box office.
Which – admittedly – wasn’t the over-a-billion that “Toy Story 3” would earn at the worldwide box office just four years later in June of 2010. But then when you factor in the $11 BILLION in sales of officially licensed “Cars” toys (And that was just in the first two years after “Cars” was released to theaters) … Well, like I said earlier, Disney had just temporarily traded its “Toy Story” -themed gold mine for a “Cars” -themed platinum mine.
Important to stress here: Michael Eisner’s “Hot Wheels” -related hunch proved to be correct. Him deciding to make Pixar produce “Cars” rather than opting to greenlight production of Toy Story 3” created a whole new, extremely lucrative franchise for The Walt Disney Company. Which is paying off even today.
For example, Over on Disney+ the very day that this Bandcamp Exclusive show went live (September 8, 2022), a brand new original animated series – “Cars on the Road” – starring Mater & Lightning McQueen debuts. Nine episode detailing what happens on a road trip when Lightning & Mater drive back East to attend Mater’s sister’s wedding. Can’t wait to see what Mater’s sister looks like.
Bob Iger Helps Disney Reclaim Pixar
Eisner doesn’t often get credit for the success of cars. But that’s largely because Michael Eisner is no longer the CEO of The Walt Disney Company. He stepped down in September of 2005. Now Bob Iger is called the shots at the Mouse House. And he’s determined to do whatever he has to in order to repair the Company’s working relationship with Pixar. Up to & including buying that animation studio in January of 2006 for $7.4 billion and then making Steve Jobs the Company’s largest individual shareholder. For a time, Steve owned 7% of that Company.
And when you lay out that kind of cash … Well, of course, you’re looking for a quick return on your investment. Which is Iger then turned to the Imagineers and said “I want a lot of Pixar-related stuff in the Disney Parks as quickly as possible.”
“Cars” Attractions in Disney Parks
And the Imagineers took the orders they were getting from Disney’s new CEO very seriously. Which is why – a year to the day after “Cars” first opened in theaters (June 9, 2006) – Cars Race Rally opened at Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris (on June 9, 2007).
Cars Race Rally at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris
Mind you, Cars Race Rally wasn’t the most elaborate or ambitious attraction to ever be installed at a Disney theme park. Located in the Toon Studios section of Walt Disney Studios Park, this flat ride was a reimagining of Zamperla’s Demolition Derby. Only in this case, this ride’s vehicles that have been rethemed to look as though they were part of the ”Cars” universe.
Radiator Springs Announcement for Disney California Adventure
But just four months after Cars Race Rally would open at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris (on October 17, 2007, to be exact), The Walt Disney Company announced its $1.1 billion redo of Disney California Adventure. This 5-year-long project be capped off by the creation of a 12-acre area that would basically recreate Radiator Springs in all its glory at the very center of this theme park. Which – it was hoped – would then give Southern Californians a compelling new reason to go visit the Disneyland Resort’s second gate.
Mind you, the irony here is – if you look back at the original plans for Disney’s California Adventure (back when this theme park was first announced back in July of 1996), Disneyland’s second gate was supposed to have had an area that celebrated California Car Culture. A place that would have allowed DCA visitors to experience firsthand street racing or the joy of cruising along Route 66 or just the fun of sitting in a classic car from the 1950s outside of a neon-laden drive-in restaurant. Where you could then have had your fast food order brought right to your vehicle by a car hop who was wearing roller skates.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? So how did we go from an area at DCA that was supposed to have celebrated California’s car culture to a land that then recreated Radiator Springs from Pixar’s original “Cars” movie? We’ll get to that on the second installment of this new Bandcamp Exclusive series, “The Road to Cars Land.”
The Closing of Walt Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
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I need help from a Disney World employee. To be specific, someone who used to work at the Magic Kingdom back in the late 1980s / early 1990s.
The reason I’m asking for help is that there used to be this one-page newsletter that that theme park printed & distributed weekly to Cast Members who worked JUST at the Magic Kingdom.
Walt Disney World Cast Member Newsletter Request
I want to stress that this newsletter was different from the Eyes & Ears – which (back then, anyway) was a weekly newspaper (not a newsletter) that the Resort then printed & distributed to ALL Cast Members who worked on property.
This publication – which might have been called Kingdom Cast (Sorry. It’s been almost 30 years now. I’m old after all and I’m now blanking this newsletter’s name) – was typically printed on different colored paper stock every week.
I just need some help here when it comes to recalling the specific name of this newsletter which was primarily intended for Disney World employees who worked at the Magic Kingdom.
Magic Kingdom Newsletter – August 1994
Anyway … I was living down in Orlando at this time. Where I was trying to make a living writing about The Walt Disney Company. Which was challenging in those pre-Internet days. On the upside, I had lots of friends who worked at the Resort at the time. Who would then slip me copies of all sorts of in-house publications. Which then allowed me to stay on top of what was actually going on on-property.
Anywho … In late August of 1994, I got sent a copy of this particular Magic-Kingdom-only newsletter. Which included a brief item (That I’m recalling from memory now) that said …
… any & all Cast Members who had worked at “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” over the past 23 years are invited to come by this Fantasyland attraction on the night of Monday, September 5th. We’d like to get together as many current & former 20K employees as possible for a group photo in front of that attraction’s marquee. This image will then be used to commemorate the closing of this Disney World favorite.
This item in that newsletter then went on to say that – after the Magic Kingdom had officially closed for the night – all WDW Cast Members were then welcome to come by the Subs and get in one last ride before “20,000 Leagues” closed for good.
So I immediately realized that this was huge, huge news.
Disney World is closing the Subs at the Magic Kingdom.
And since I was friendly with Leslie Doolittle, the reporter who was wrote the “On Tourism” column for the Orlando Sentinel, I give Leslie a call and read her this item straight out of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter verbatim. Which Ms. Doolittle then reports in her very next “On Tourism” column. Which then prompts WDW officials to lose their minds.
Initially senior management at the Resort flat-out denies that this Opening Day attraction is actually closing and they demand that the Sentinel immediately print a full retraction. After I provide Ms. Doolittle with a physical copy of this Magic Kingdom employee newsletter and she then shares that with WDW’s PR team … Well, the Resort’s senior management then changes its tune.
They now say … Well, yes. “20,000 Leagues” WILL be closing on September 5, 1994. But what was published in that Magic Kingdom employee newsletter was incorrect. This Fantasyland favorite is NOT closing permanently. But – rather –- 20K will be going down for a lengthy rehab. A REALLY lengthy rehab. The longest ever in this ride’s history.
Maintenance Issues with WDW’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
To explain: Anyone who loved this WDW attraction back in the day will talk about how frustrating it would be back then to visit the Magic Kingdom and then find that “20,000 Leagues” was down for maintenance … again.
Between the harsh Florida sun bleaching the color out of the fake coral & all those plastic fish (which is why – every year – the lagoon had to be drained & dried so these items could then be repainted) not to mention all of the mechanical challenges associated with keeping that fleet of 14 diesel-powered Subs up & running … “20K” was an operational nightmare.
Not to mention being a huge money suck when it came to the Magic Kingdom’s annual operating budget.
So what Disney World senior management said – on the heels of that Orlando Sentinel story — was that “20K” was now closing for a top-to-bottom overhaul. This would be a two year-long project. But the good news was work would be completed in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration. Which was supposed to begin in October of 1996.
Which – I have to tell you – wasn’t the truth at all.
That Magic Kingdom employee only newsletter had actually gotten everything right. Disney World’s “20,000 Leagues” ride WAS closing for good on September 4, 1994. But not for the reason you might think.
Euro Disney Financial Troubles
Euro Disney had opened back in April of 1992. The park itself did well, attendance-wise. Not so much when it came to those 6 on-site hotels. Weighed down by enormous debt, Eisner actually talked about closing the place down in December of 1993 unless a new financial arrangement could be worked out with the 30+ banks that had originally funded construction of this $4.4 billion resort. A deal was reached in the late Winter / early Spring of 1994. But one of the conditions of this deal is that The Walt Disney Company would suspend the collection of any royalty payments that the Company was due from the Euro Disney Project from 1994 through 1998.
This new agreement / financial restructuring may have saved Euro Disney (which then got rebranded / relaunched as the Disneyland Paris Resort). But it also choked off a huge revenue stream at The Walt Disney Company. Which is why word then came down from on high that ALL divisions at the Mouse House now needed to tighten their belts. Economize.
And down at Walt Disney World … Well, managers then saw this edict as an opportunity to finally pull the plug on the Magic Kingdom’s expensive-to-maintain / difficult-to-operate “20,000 Leagues” ride. And the beauty part was … This wasn’t their fault. They were just following Corporate’s orders.
Fan Backlash for “20,000 Leagues” Closing Announcement
What Walt Disney World senior management hadn’t anticipated was – on the heels of Leslie Doolittle’s story about how “20K” would be closing – that the Resort would then be flooded with letters begging Magic Kingdom managers to change their minds. Save this opening day attraction.
Which – again – brings us back to that “The-Subs-will-be-back-up-and-running-by-1996-just-in-time-for-WDW’s-25th-anniversary” story. Which – I’ll again remind you – just wasn’t true. This was a lie that the Company quickly put out there to deflect & divert from what quickly had become a PR nightmare for the Magic Kingdom.
Michael Ovitz – Save or Close “20k Leagues”
So okay. We now jump ahead to August of 1995. Which is when Michael Ovitz – previously the head of CAA and once rumored to be the most powerful man in Hollywood – becomes the President of The Walt Disney Company. Michael Eisner hires Ovitz to be his new second-in-command (Following the tragic death of Frank Wells back in April of 1994).
And Ovitz … He wants to hit the ground running. Prove to Eisner that he’s now going to be an extremely valuable member of the Disney team.
So picture this. It’s now September of 1995. And Michael Ovitz – because he wants to learn about every aspect of The Walt Disney Company – is now on a familiarization tour of the entire corporation. And one of his very first stops is The Walt Disney World Resort.
And Michael (Ovitz, not Eisner) is a very data-driven guy. And he knows about the now-thousands of letters & phone calls that the Walt Disney World Resort has received about “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Which – again (remember) – WDW managers have been saying publicly is only temporarily closed. At this point, they’re still insisting that that this Opening Day Attraction will be back up & running in time for WDW’s 25th anniversary. Which is supposed to start on October 1, 1996.
So Ovitz – once he arrives on WDW property says – “Hey, I’ve heard about the Magic Kingdom’s 20K problem. And I’d like to personally check out that ride while I’m down here in Florida. Maybe once I see it, I can then make some recommendations. Perhaps help speed along the funding you need to get that ride up & running again.”
And seeing as Michael Ovitz is the newly installed second-in-command at the Mouse House, WDW senior management – after they hear this request – says “Sure. Absolutely. We’d love to do that, Mr. Ovitz. We’ll come by your hotel first thing tomorrow morning and take you straight over to the Magic Kingdom before that park opens to the public. That way, you can see for yourself the challenges that we’re now facing with bringing this Fantasyland ride back up online in time for Disney World’s 25th anniversary celebration. We’d LOVE to hear your recommendations.”
Which is why — the following morning at 7 a.m. — Mike Ovitz found himself standing in the queue at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” as a sub that was loudly belching smoke came rumbling up to the dock. The Disney Company’s brand-new President then climbed down the stairs and found a quarter inch of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. When Mike pointed this out, a WDW ops staffer said “Well, you have to understand that a lot of our subs are over 20 years old, Mr. Ovitz. So many of them have developed small pinhole leaks over time.”
The sub then lurched away from the dock and took Ovitz & the ops crew on a somewhat jerky trip around the “20K” ride track, with the attraction’s soundtrack barely audible through the ship’s crackling loudspeakers.
As you might imagine, once the boat pulled up to the dock, Michael quickly climbed out of the mildewed interior. He then turned to WDW’s ops staff and then asked what it would cost to bring “20K” back online. Ovitz was then quoted a number that was reportedly more than the Resort was planning on spending on its entire year-long 25th anniversary celebration.
Ovitz knew that a redo of the Subs that was going to be that expensive would be a non-started with Eisner. Especially at that time in the Company’s history, where – on the heels of the Euro Disney debt reorg and Disney deferring any royalty payments they were supposed to take out of that Resort ‘til 1998 – word was coming down from on high to every division at Disney to economize & cut back.
Ovitz wanted to show Eisner that – as The Walt Disney Company’s new president – that he could make the tough calls. So after hearing how much it would supposedly now cost the WDW Resort to bring the Subs back online, Ovitz then supposedy said “Well, maybe we’d just better cancel this rehab project and close 20K for good.” And those WDW managers standing with Ovitz in the Subs Load / Unload area then said “Oh, no. Really? Are you sure?”
Not Reopening by Summer – 20,000 Leagues “Delayed”
Which is why – in the early part of 1996. Just a few months after Michael Ovitz visited the Walt Disney World Resort on that fam trip — Bruce Laval, who was (at that time, anyway) the Resort’s Vice President for Operations – did an interview with the Sentinel. Where Bruce told Leslie Doolittle that …
“We were originally pursuing a short-term strategy with 20K. Something would have then allowed us to reopen the Subs with minor enhancements. But we found that there was no way we could accomplish that by this Summer.”
Now please note that what Bruce is saying in early 1996 is very different from what the Resort had been putting out back in the Fall of 1994. Back then, the Magic Kingdom was going to shut down “20K” for a nearly two-year-long, top-to-bottom redo so that this Fantasyland attraction could then be part of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration looking bigger & better from ever. But come April of 1996, that story has significantly changed. The Park was now looking to re-open the Subs with “minor enhancements.” But even that would be impossible for the Resort to now pull off by the Summer of 1996.
Which bring us to what Laval next told the Sentinel:
“We are abandoning those plans for the Subs and are now exploring other long term options.”
So would it surprise you to learn that – in the middle of all the hoopla associated with the officially launch of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration in October of 1996 – Disney World’s PR very quietly realizes the news that 20K is now closed permanently. That – on the recommendation of Michael Ovitz, the president of The Walt Disney Company — the Magic Kingdom is now abandoning any plans to rehab / revitalize that attraction.
Poor Guest Experience for Michael Ovitz
You wanna know the kicker to this story. Those WDW managers – when they brought Michael Ovitz into the Magic Kingdom early that September morning back in 1995 – had totally sandbagged the new president of The Walt Disney Company.
To make sure that Ovitz had the worst possible ride experience that morning …
Well, out of the fleet of 14 subs that had been built for this Fantasyland attraction, those managers deliberately picked the one that was in the worst possible shape.
They then recruited a veteran ride operator and quietly gave this Cast Member the expressed instructions to “Give Ovitz the roughest ride possible.”
Then – to seal the deal — they threw a couple of buckets of water down into the bottom of that Sub to simulate a pinhole leak.
And all of this was done to give Ovitz the impression that WDW’s subs were now beyond salvaging.
The real irony here is that Michael Ovitz, the man who made the permanent closure of the Subs at WDW’s Magic Kingdom possible because he fell for the elaborate ruse that those Disney World managers staged back in September of 1995 … wasn’t all that long-lived at the Mouse House.
Eisner fired Ovitz in December of 1996 (just 15 months after he’d taken the job) largely because Eisner felt that Ovitz just wasn’t a good fit at Disney.
I have to tell you that WDW managers were thrilled that Ovitz was on the job at Disney for as long as he was. For – in September of 1995 — he made it possible to do what they couldn’t. Which was close the Subs for good. Which then left that huge chunk of Fantasyland open for redevelopment.
Mind you, it would take nearly another 13 years (from when the WDW Resort finally officially announced that the Subs at the Magic Kingdom were closed in October of 1996 ‘til the first D23 Expo back in September of 2009. Which was when the WDW Resort officially confirmed that the long-rumored expansion of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland section was in the works) before that redevelopment effort would then move forward. But as anyone who’s been watching the construction of “TRON Lightcycle Run” limp along at the Magic Kingdom these past five years, things move slowly these days at the Magic Kingdom.
And – speaking of the Magic Kingdom – if anyone who worked at that theme park back in the late 1980s / early 1990s could please get back to me about that newsletter-for-Cast-Members-who-worked-specifically-at-that-Park (I’m 90% certain this weekly newsletter was called Kingdom Cast. But – again – I could be wrong), I’d really appreciate it.
Original Disneyland Lessee: Van Camp Seafood and The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
Listen to the Article
Since we’ve gotten such strong reaction to previous “Disney Dishes” where Len & I talked about original Disneyland lessees like Swift Meats (who sponsored the Red Wagon Inn at the Park, which was the precursor to Disneyland’s Plaza Inn Restaurants) and Monsanto (who sponsor the Hall of Chemistry AND the House of the Future), I thought that we’d take a moment to shine a spotlight on another company that helped make up the original 48 lessees at Disneyland.
Original Disneyland Lessees
When Disneyland first opened in July of 1955 – the Park had 48 lessees. A number of those were short-lived outfits like Hollywood Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop and the BlueBird Shoes for Children Shop that came & went within the first few years that Disneyland was operational. By 1966 / 1967, the number of lessees that the Park had had shrunk down by nearly a third. To 33, to be exact.
That’s an interesting number – 33.
Seems significant for some reason. Can’t place why, though.
Van Camp Seafood Company
Some 67 years ago (August 29, 1955, to be exact), the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (the quick service restaurant that Van Camp Seafood sponsored at the Park) first opened for business.
Kind of appropriate that Van Camp Seafood came to sponsor a restaurant at Disneyland. After all, this fish canning company actually got its start some 95 miles to the south of Anaheim in San Diego, California back in May of 1914 – founded by Frank Van Camp & his son Gilbert.
And as for that “Chicken of the Sea” thing … That was a bit of branding Van Camp embraced back in 1930. You see, the type of tuna that they initially specialized in canning (i.e., white albacore) was acclaimed for its mild flavor & color.
“Tastes like chicken” = “Chicken of the Sea.”
By 1952, Van Camp Seafood further refined their brand by introducing the Company’s icon: Catalina the Mermaid.
Interesting side note: If Catalina the Mermaid looks kind of familiar to all you Trekkies out there … Well, there’s a good reason for that. Grace Lee Whitney – who played Yeoman Rand on the original “Star Trek” television series – was actually the inspiration for Van Camp Seafood’s corporate icon.
Peter Pan & Mermaid Lagoon
We jump ahead now to February of 1953, which is when Walt Disney Studios releases its feature-length animated version of “Peter Pan” (which is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”). This animated feature includes a scene where Peter takes Wendy Darling to Mermaid Lagoon. Where those mermaids then try to drown Wendy. I guess Catalina hangs out with a rough crowd.
Jump ahead to 1954. Walt is looking to lock in sponsors for his new family fun park. And Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan” is still very front of mind. Which is why – when Disney representatives reach out to Van Camp Seafoods to ask if this fish canning company would be willing to sponsor some sort of attraction at Disneyland – Frank & his son Gilbert are interested.
The Van Camps do have some conditions, though. As part of whatever their Company sponsors at Disneyland, this shop, restaurant or attraction has to prominently feature Catalina the Mermaid, the Chicken of the Sea icon.
The folks at Disney go away for a bit to ponder this proposition … and then eventually come back with a proposal for the Van Camp family. What about a restaurant that’s also an attraction? As in: The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant.
The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant
This massive structure – we’re talking 79 feet long and 80 feet tall (That includes the ship’s three masts. Which were each 60 feet tall) – was to be a recreation of the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook’s ship from Disney’s animated version of “Peter Pan.” Guests would have the opportunity to board this vessel and explore the upper deck. Below decks, there’d be a quick service restaurant that only served food items that could be made with Van Camp Seafood products. We’re talking:
- A Tuna Sandwich
- A Tuna Burger
- A Tuna Pie served in a Pastry Shell
- A Tuna Boat Salad
- A Tuna Clipper Salad (a clipper is a slightly bigger boat)
- Shrimp Cocktail (Van Camp Seafood also sold canned shrimp)
- and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream (which must have had a little tuna in it)
Reminds me of that Monty Python bit. “It’s only got some spam in it. Spam, spam, spam, span, baked beans & spam.”)
Frank & Gilbert Van Camp loved this idea. Even so, it took a while to Van Cap Seafood & Walt Disney Productions to negotiate the final contract. Not to mention draw up the construction blueprints for this Fantasyland restaurant / attraction. I’ve seen a set of these blueprints that Fred Stoos (he was one of the original construction coordinators on the Disneyland project) drew up that are dated May 7, 1955.
Building the Jolly Roger
That’s basically 10 weeks before Disneyland first opens to the public. So as soon as those blueprints were signed off on, they immediately began building the Jolly Roger out behind the park’s lumber mill. Which – after the Park was completed – this building would then become the Main Street Opera House.
The ship itself was built out of Douglas Fir. And as for this pirate ship’s trim, that was genuine mahogany which had been shipped in from Honduras.
Now remember that condition that Frank & Gilbert Van Camp insisted upon? That Disneyland’s Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant had to feature their company’s icon – Catalina the Mermaid – in some way?
Catalina the Mermaid – Figurehead
Disney honored this sponsorship condition by making Catalina the Jolly Roger’s figurehead. Chris Mueller (who sculpted all of the animals that Guests saw on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the giant squid in Disney Studio’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” film. In addition to creating “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for Universal Pictures’ 1954 film of the same name) not only created that beautiful 6-foot-tall piece, Mueller also sculpted an enormous piece for this ship’s stern. Which replicated the way Catalina the Mermaid was depicted on each can of “Chicken of the Sea” tuna. With Catalina seated atop her shell throne which is then borne on the back of a giant sea turtle. Beautiful piece.
The Flying Jolly Roger
Remember how this pirate ship restaurant was quickly being built backstage at Disneyland out behind that park’s lumber mill? When it came time for this building to finally be moved into place over in Fantasyland … Well, remember how the Jolly Roger flew in Disneyland’s animated version of “Peter Pan” ? This structure flew as well. It was lifted by a construction crane over all of those still-under-construction Tomorrowland buildings and then dropped into place behind the Park’s Mad Tea Party flat ride.
Painting and Camera Tricks
The only problem was … The night before that “Dateline: Disneyland” special aired live on ABC, Walt realized that he was running out of time & money. And the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (while it was now in its proper place in the Park) was still unpainted. And if the Van Camp family saw the restaurant / attraction that they’d paid for show up on live television looking like that, Frank & Gilbert would be furious.
Walt’s solution to this not-enough-time / not-enough-money problem was kind of ingenious. He only had his painters paint the side of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant that faced into the Park (i.e. the side that would appear on camera). Walt then had a bunch of Disney Studios employees placed on deck. When the cameras came on, these folks rushed to the rail and then wave frantically towards the camera. That way, no one would notice that the props or rigging on this ship weren’t in place either.
This trick worked. The Jolly Roger looked great on camera. And just so you know: It would take another six weeks of hard work after the “Dateline: Disneyland” TV special aired before the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was finally ready to serve food / begin entertaining Disneyland Guests.
Popularity and Expansion of The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship
This eatery became so popular with Disneyland Guests that … Well, after Walt finally wrestled ABC’s partial ownership of the Park away from that broadcast company in June of 1960 (He had to pay that company $7.5 million for its one third ownership of the Park) … One of the very first thing Disney did was to create a secondary seating area for this Fantasyland eatery.
Here’s how that expansion project was described in the October – November 1960 issue of the “Disneylander” (i.e., the park’s employee newsletter back then):
This article’s headline read: “Pirate Ship To Have New And Exotic Setting”
And here’s a quote from this piece:
“By the time you read this, you’ll be aware that the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship is closed for extensive rehab. It is scheduled to reopen about December 15th. Isolated by craggy cliffs covered with lush tropical foliage will be ‘Pirate’s Cove,’ where the Park’s well known Pirate Ship resides at anchor. WED designers have included in their plans the familiar landmark of Skull Rock from the Peter Pan story with three waterfalls cascading from rocky heights.”
Construction of Pirate’s Cove & Skull Rock actually took a little longer than expected. This Fantasyland addition wouldn’t open ‘til just before Christmas. December 23, 1960, to be exact.
Van Camp Seafood Partnership
The folks at Van Camp Seafood initially seemed very pleased with their association with Disneyland Park. They renewed their original sponsorship agreement with the Park in 1962 for another seven year-long lease. Unfortunately, in 1963, Frank & Gilbert sold their fish canning company to Ralston Purina. And when the sponsorship contract for the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant came up for renewal in 1969, Ralston Purina opted out.
Captain Hook’s Galley
Disneyland management responded to this loss of sponsor by changing the name of this Fantasyland restaurant from The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant to Captain Hook’s Galley. They also made minor tweaks to the ship’s figurehead and the giant stern piece so that the mermaids there no longer looked just like Catalina, Chicken of the Sea’s corporate icon.
Moving to New Fantasyland
We now jump ahead to the Fall of 1981. Work has just begun on Disneyland’s New Fantasyland. Which – when this side of the Park re-opens in the Summer of 1983 – will feature all-new versions of Disneyland’s classic dark rides like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” & “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” featuring then-state-of-the-art effects like fiber optics & digital sound.
Among the changes that are in the works for this side of the Park is that the ship that houses Captain Hook’s Galley is once again going to be lifted by a crane. Only this time, it’s going to lifted over a 100 feet or so that this full-sized pirate ship could then became the finale of Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride. The canal boats – after floating by all of those miniaturized recreations of settings from famous Disney films – would now find themselves, in the final moments of this ride, right alongside of the Jolly Roger.
The Imagineers thinking here was … Well, Disneyland’s Storybook Land Canal Boats ride starts off with a big moment (the canal boat you’re riding in gets swallowed up by Monstro the whale from “Pinocchio”). It should then have a similarly big moment at the moment at the end. Besides – by moving the structure that previously housed Captain Hook’s Galley from the centerbackmost portion of Fantasyland over to the eastern edge of this land at Disneyland – this then opened some very valuable real estate right in the middle of one of the more popular / most crowded corners of the Park.
So okay. So once this part of the Imagineers’ plans for a new Fantasyland at Disneyland was signed off on by Park Management … Phase One of Operation “The Jolly Roger Flies Again” was to first gently pry Chris Mueller’s now 26-year-old mermaid sculptures off of the bow & the stern of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant and then take them backstage to be restored. Then the pirate ship would be hoisted into its new location at the edge of Small World Plaza. Whereupon the load / unload area for the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride would be expanded to create a brand-new lagoon space that this pirate ship could be anchored in.
Just so you know: I’ve never been able to confirm that Skull Rock was to have then be recreated in this new location. The insinuation here was that – once both phases of the New Fantasyland project were complete (Phase One was to be ready for the Late Spring of 1983. While Phase Two – which involved the revamped version of the “Alice in Wonderland” dark ride, the relocation of Disneyland’s “Mad Tea Party” dark ride and the Mad Hatter’s Hat Shop – would open in the Spring of 1984) — the Imagineers would then attempt to ram through the creation of a second version of Skull Rock. Which would then help hide where the maintenance dock for the Storybook Land Canal Boats would be taken every night.
I have also been told that the below-decks area (which was initially supposed to be closed off to Guests once the Jolly Roger was flown into its new location of the Eastern edge of Small World Plaza) was to have then been completely renovated. And that – for the Summer of 1985 (Just in time for Disneyland’s 30th birthday celebration) what had previously been a quick service restaurant would then be turned into a pirate-themed juice bar. Which was kind of a cool idea.
Problems with the Move & Demolition of the Jolly Roger
This was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, after those two mermaid pieces were carefully pried off of the bow & the stern of Captain Hook’s Galley, the forklift that was taking both of these pieces backstage made a sudden stop. The mermaid pieces then fell off and shattered to smithereens.
Worse that that: When the New Fantasyland construction crew went to go arrange the harnesses that were necessary to hoist this 26-year-old pirate ship high in the air over to its new location, they then discovered that the old Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant (which — remember – had originally built out of Douglas Fir outside of Disneyland’s old lumber mill and then been trimmed with genuine Honduran mahogany) was now riddled with termites. Long story short: This structure would have immediately crumbled into pieces as soon as that construction crane starts to pull on those harnesses.
As a direct result, the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant was left at anchor right where it was until a demolition team could come along and pull this ship-shaped structure down. While they were at it, this demolition team also destroyed one of Disneyland’s favorite photo spots (Skull Island Cove). In its place today, you’ll now find Disneyland’s relocated Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.
Which – of course – makes us OG Disneyland fans sad. I mean, that’s something that Walt put in place and then plussed. But it’s worth noting that the Jolly Roger — as well as Pirate Cove & Skull Rock — do live on. Only at a different Disney theme park.
Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris
When the Imagineers opted to build Adventure Isle at Disneyland Paris in the early 1990s, they included a full-sized pirate ship that was then placed at anchor in front of a large-ish version of Skull Rock. And inside of this pirate ship, you’ll find yet another Captain Hook’s Galley. This one’s a counter-service restaurant, though. Not a pirate-themed juice bar.
Disneyland Tuna Burger and Fruit Tart with Whipped Cream
Just so you know: If you’re a Disneyland completist and wonder what it was like to actually dine at the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant, if you Google “Disneyland Tuna Burger,” you can find a number of recipes online that will then allow you to replicate this signature item from the menu of this now-gone-for-nearly-40-years restaurant.
Me personally, given that whole everything-served-here-must-make-use-of-items-that-Van-Camp-Seafood-makes-or-sells condition, I still have to wonder just how much tuna there was in that one dessert item the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant sold. Which was the fruit tart with whipped cream.
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