What do The Rocketeer, Captain America, and Indiana Jones have in common? Probably more than you think! In this video we attempt to uncover why The Rocketeer has become such an endearing cult-classic, where its inspiration comes from, how the concept of retrofuturism impacted its enduring popularity, and how it has unexpectedly influenced cinema to this very day…over 30 years after its initial release!
Category: Disney History
Mickey’s Christmas Carol- A Holiday Retrospective
An Unappreciated Disney Classic (Robin Hood-1973)
Here’s an in-depth look at a truly underrated movie. What makes Robin Hood defy the odds?
The Origin of Mickey Mouse (and What it Means to Me)
There’s something incredibly special about Mickey Mouse. Even 90 years after his debut, he’s still making people smile all over the world. But why is Mickey Mouse so special? This is a peculiar question, because I don’t think people ask it very often…or even think about for that matter. For a lot of people, he just is. Today, I think that it’s kind of easy to take this cartoon character for granted and miss the spirit which made him popular in the first place.
Today, I wanted to explain what Mickey Mouse means to me. I wanted to talk about why Mickey Mouse is my hero…
As I was growing up, I knew that I loved animation. I was already interested in movies, but there was something unique about the hand-drawn films of Disney’s heyday that captured my attention. There was an intangible charm that set them apart from most of the live-action movies that I had seen. Animation was the playground where anything was possible.
And of course, you couldn’t be a fan of animation without at least hearing the name Mickey Mouse. He was an icon; his face was everywhere.
So, as a small child who didn’t understand how films were made, I think I took Mickey for granted and just assumed that he went with cartoons the same way that peanut butter went with jelly. But as I got older, and began to study the film industry in earnest, I began to realize that Mickey Mouse represented so much more. And in order to understand why, we have to go back to his creation.
The story of Mickey Mouse’s inception is a long one, so I’ll try to keep this recap brief for context. The most important thing about his creation was that Mickey Mouse was born out of desperation. He was created during one of the lowest points in Walt Disney’s life. In fact, Mickey Mouse’s creation was a direct result of Walt Disney losing everything. During the 1920’s, in the early days of his animation career, and before his name would become synonymous with high-quality animation, Walt produced cartoons for established industry leaders. But it was hard work for very little return and Walt was having trouble making ends meet. Still, ever the perfectionist, Walt strove for greatness and a standard of quality that made his competitors balk. But in this season of pushing for the best product possible he may have done too well. first truly successful creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was popular enough to run a series that Walt’s Distributor, Charles Mintz, coveted. But Walt Disney poured every cent the company had back into his cartoons to make them better. In addition, he spent as much time and talent as was possible on improving the quality of the animation which slowed production and limited the amount of cartoons that Mintz could cash in on.
Of course, this didn’t sit too well with Mintz’s avarice. Mintz, who still retained the right to distribute Oswald and therefore could make his own cartoons (despite Walt having been the one who created the character) decided that he didn’t want Walt’s quality control. He believed that he could pump out cartoons twice as fast and make double the profits on low-quality animation. He believed Walt to be unnecessary to his own chars and swindled Oswald out from under Disney’s nose. And if that wasn’t enough, Mintz then proceeded to bribe most of Walt Disney’s top animators into leaving him. Effectively, the entire studio, save for a few loyalists who believed in Walt’s standard of quality, abandoned Walt to work on Oswald for Charles Mintz.
Even after working years for what little he had, Walt had lost everything.
Walt Disney, along with his wife Lillian, claimed that on the train ride home from this heartbreaking and potentially career-ending event, he refused to give up hope. No matter how bleak everything looked, Walt was determined to survive. So, with no creative assets to his name, Walt decided to try and create one more character to make new cartoons with. In his desperation, he sketched out a little mouse, and although the design would end up changing significantly thanks to the collaboration of a genius animator named Ub Iwerks (one of the few employees that remained loyal during the Mintz fallout) the spirit of the character was created. Mickey Mouse had been born. And without knowing it, Walt Disney created the most recognizable and popular cartoon character of all time. And he had done it during a time when everyone thought he would fail. That fateful day, Disney proved Mintz wrong. He proved that the Disney touch was crucial to his cartoon character’s success!
The rest is history…and that’s the point.
Mickey’s history, and what it represents, is what is most important about him. What makes Mickey Mouse so special isn’t his popularity, or even his bankability (although he has both in spades), but rather what he meant to Walt Disney himself. For Disney, Mickey Mouse represented perseverance. Mickey was proof that hard work, perseverance, and quality were the keys to success. He represented Disney’s own humble beginnings, and this was something that Walt Disney never forgot.
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing-that it was all started by a mouse.”
Walt would say this years later, recalling the humble start of his artistic legacy. It remained a lesson for Disney to never forget how he had started out with nothing, and that he had a responsibility to treat whatever he earned with respect. To remember that he was no better than anyone else, and that what he had was a blessing.
Ironically, Mickey Mouse came to eventually represent that very thing; an average, humble, everyday citizen who could do something extraordinary if he put his mind to it. And knowing the history behind it all, there’s no way that this could have been a coincidence. Walt put his very identity into this little mouse, because he had risked everything on him, and as a result Mickey became Walt’s alter ego, literally and figuratively. Walt even voiced Mickey for several years in his classic cartoons; turning Mickey into who Walt Disney wanted to be.
Mickey is special because he reminds us of what it means to persevere; to never give up on your dreams. Without Mickey, Disney would have never found success, and because many consider Disney to be the pioneer of modern animation, the art form itself might not have become the prevalent and memorable industry that we recognize it as today. Mickey changed the way we look at animation and shaped The Disney Company into what it would one-day become.
So, when I look at Mickey Mouse, I cannot help but be full of gratitude for what he’s done for the movies that I love. When I see him, I’m reminded of what animation means to me, and why I love film in the first place. Filmmaking inspires me to live out my dreams and to never give up on them. It pushes me to tell stories that impact the world and invites me to bring a smile to faces everywhere. Mickey Mouse is simply a physical reminder of this love, and for that, I owe him my undying respect.
So, when I go to a Disney Park and see the statue with Walt Disney holding Mickey’s tiny hand in his, gesturing to a world of imagination, I must thank them both for being brave enough to follow their dreams… and in turn inspiring me to do the same. Mickey Mouse is more than just an iconic face. He’s the representative of a legacy that spans generations, and reminds dreamers everywhere, that they can do anything that they set their minds to. It shows them, like Walt Disney said, that “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Swinging Wake: The History of The Haunted Mansion Part 2
Read Part 1 HERE!
The year is 1966. A thrilling adventure on the high seas has just been added to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. But there is something else that grabs the attention of guests in the area. Something new and mysterious. Wide-eyed children look through a pair of wrought-iron gates at a strange building…an opulent mansion. No one knows what will be inside, and the only hint of what’s to come is a sign that reads:
“Notice! All ghosts and restless spirits. Post lifetime leases are now available in this Haunted Mansion”
It’s followed by a description of the mansion’s offerings for retired haunts and ends with the phrase:
“For reservations send resume of past experience to: Ghost Relations Dept., Disneyland. Please! Do not apply in person.”
This sign is all guests know about the inside of the Haunted Mansion and would be the only bit of knowledge they’d receive about the attraction for several years. expectations were rising. This mysterious attraction captured the imagination of Disneyland guests from all over the world and the anticipation rose to new heights.
Fast-forward to early 1969…All who visited Disneyland were eagerly awaiting the future attraction; none of them even realizing the development nightmare that had been going on behind the scenes for nearly half a decade.
They could have never known that in 1964 work on the mansion (which had already been in development for 10 years) came to a screeching halt when Walt Disney diverted all of his attention to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Everyone who was anyone at Disneyland was sent to work on the extensive lineup of attractions that would debut at the fair, and no one was left to work on any of the ongoing home-projects at Disneyland. The Haunted Mansion would have to wait for a little longer.
However, fate was on the Haunted Mansion’s side, because the World’s Fair actually provided several technological breakthroughs that effectively solved many of the future storytelling problems for the Mansion, allowing development to flow more smoothly than it ever had before.
You see, before the World’s Fair, the story that the Imagineers could tell In the Haunted Mansion was limited by the technology of the times. The World’s Fair provided an unprecedented stroke of luck that greatly broadened the borders of what they could accomplish and opened up previously unimagined horizons. The first of these lucky breakthroughs, and arguably the most famous, was the “perfection” of Disney’s Audio Animatronic technology; which had first debuted in the Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963. With the technological innovation of the photo-realistic Mr. Lincoln at the World’s Fair, it was finally possible to populate the Mansion with a believable cast of characters in various stages of movement, rather than in static scenes, allowing the story to be told in a much more efficient manner.
The second breakthrough, and probably the most important for the future of the Mansion, was the advent of the Omnimover Ride System. This ingenious vehicle design was an evolution of the PeopleMover system developed for the Ford’s Magic Skyway attraction at the World’s Fair. In essence, this system was a chain of individual swiveling vehicles that ran on a hidden track underneath the ground moving at a constant speed, so that passengers could be unloaded and loaded in an efficient manner and at consistent rate.
The reason why this second innovation proved such a game-changer was the fact that, up until that point, the Haunted Mansion was supposed to be walkthrough exhibit. The Omnimover system allowed the attraction to become a continuous ride-through experience; raising its hourly capacity tremendously. It also allowed Imagineers to control what riders would see, by preplanning the track layout and the programming the individual cars to swivel or turn on cue. They effectively controlled the audience’s view of the story and special effects in the same way a camera would for a feature film. The Haunted Mansion was slowly becoming like a real-life movie that you could step into.
Now with the technology to tell an effective story, Disney simply needed storytellers that could execute those technological tools correctly. Luckily, after the World’s Fair ended, two of Walt’s greatest storytellers were now available for the mansion. Marc Davis, known for his brilliant animation of Cinderella, Maleficent, Cruella De Vil, Tinker Bell, and many more famous Disney characters, was brought onto the project for character and scenario design. After his concepts for Pirates of the Caribbean proved so crucial to its success, Walt Disney wanted him to help guide the new haunted masterpiece they were building. At the same time, Claude Coats, a Disney background painter who was known for designing many of Fantasyland’s famous storybook rides and providing the layout for Pirates of the Caribbean, was brought in for his familiarity with the spookier aspects of fairy tales.
However, there was one problem with this dynamic duo; both had completely different ideas for what the Haunted Mansion’s tone should be. Marc wanted the mansion to be funny and lighthearted, believing that a real haunted house would be too scary for a family establishment like Disneyland. On the other hand, Claude Coats believed that you shouldn’t even make a “haunted house” attraction in the first place without making it scary. The two conflicting ideologies became a bit of a problem, so much so that Walt was forced to bring in a third party to reconcile the two of them.
Xavier ‘X’ Atencio was an animator at the studio in whom Walt saw something very special. Even though Atencio had never written a script before, Walt thought he would be good at it, and had him assigned as the lead writer on Pirates of the Caribbean only a few years prior. Walt’s insight would prove prophetic as that ride became what many consider to be the greatest ride in theme park history, and Atencio’s lyrics for “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me” would be sung around the world; remembered by thousands of people to this very day! Walt thought Atencio might be able to pull it off again with the Haunted Mansion.
Again, Walt Disney was right! Atencio managed to somehow juggle Claude Coats dark tones with Marc Davis’s silly characters and create a script that balanced the macabre with the satirical. After a few drafts, a final story focusing on that “retirement home for happy haunts” was approved. This final draft would tie together separate side-stories based on Marc Davis’s unforgettable characters under a singularly sinister roof from Claude Coat’s designs. Finally, the Haunted Mansion had the story it deserved, and although Walt never got to see the finished product due to his untimely passing in late 1966, the ride would have made him proud. The Haunted Mansion opened to critical acclaim in 1969…the rest is history.
We tip our hat to an attraction that’s been entertaining and spooking guests for half a century. Just make sure the ghosts don’t follow you home!
It may have taken over 15 years to create, but it was worth it! And with 999 happy haunts to visit, you’ll want to hurry back again and again! After all, there’s room for a thousand… Any volunteers?
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Welcome, Foolish Mortals: The History of the Haunted Mansion
It had been sitting, seemingly abandoned, for years…
The mysterious building in the far corner of New Orleans Square towered above the land in opulent style, causing all guests to wonder at what could be taking place inside it. But they would not wonder for long. Finally, the mansion’s gates were opening, and its secrets were available to the public. Even though its visionary founder, Walt Disney, had been gone for 3 years, the Imagineers were still able to finish the dream. The long-awaited happy haunts were assembling for a swinging wake.
But how did the Haunted Mansion get its start? What made it become one of the most famous attractions in theme park history? The answer to that question is found in the mansion’s origin, way back in time; at the beginning. The very beginning…
In 1951 Walt Disney began brainstorming what would become one of his most important achievements: a Disney theme park. Walt had been frustrated with local parks where kids and adults had so little that they could do together, so he made up his mind to create a theme park where families could do everything together. At the time, this concept was referred to as Mickey Mouse Park and would be located across the street from the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California.
This was where the idea for the Haunted Mansion was born.
Legendary artist Harper Goff was called upon to conceptualize ideas for concepts that might be found in the park. One of these concepts, was a drawing of a graveyard path, leading to a crumbling Victorian mansion off on a distant hill. This would be the first ever mention of a haunted house attraction for a Disney park.
Eventually, the concept for Mickey Mouse Park grew into something much more than a small diversion, and it became abundantly clear that the 11-acre lot across from Disney’s Burbank studio would not be enough space to contain the rapidly growing plans for Walt’s theme park idea. So, a new location was found in Anaheim, and the park was renamed Disneyland.
However, during this time, there were so many concepts for the new park, that they could not all make the final cut. Many ideas were inevitably put on hold, and when the park opened in 1955, many of the attractions that had been created for Disneyland were set aside for future expansions. Harper Goff’s haunting concepts happened to be one of these delayed ideas. Luckily, Disneyland became a smash hit, and many of the delayed concepts were resurrected to accommodate the public’s seemingly never-ending appetite for themed Disney entertainment.
In 1957, Walt brought out the haunted house concept as a possible element of an upcoming expansion to Disneyland. He was planning on opening a brand-new land on the far corner of Frontierland, and he needed new attractions for the area. It would be called New Orleans Square, and would also be home to plundering pirates…but that’s a story we’ll cover later. Walt went live on BBC stating that he planned on building a “retirement home” for happy haunts who no longer had a place to live because their original homes had been destroyed over time.
“The nature of being a ghost is that they have to perform, and therefore they need an audience.”-Walt Disney
The haunted house would be a premier New Orleans Square attraction, and Disney had something extra special in mind for its debut. Being the master storytellers that they were, Disneyland’s “Imagineers” wanted to craft an immersive experience. None of them were content with throwing together a bunch of haphazard spooky carnival ideas and calling it a day. Walt especially wanted a real story, something to provide consistency and quality; elevating his haunted house above the generic ones you’d find at the town fair. To this end, he tasked Imagineer Ken Anderson with brainstorming a story and a possible layout for the haunted attraction.
Ken Anderson had been a Disney animator for many classic films, and he had also previously worked on Fantasyland’s famous “dark-rides”, (like Snow White’s Scary Adventures). And although the Fantasyland rides weren’t meant to be too scary, he knew a thing or two about playful spookiness…and he also knew how to tell a good story. Walt was famous for family entertainment, and it was almost certain that he wanted the haunted house to be much more lighthearted than other haunted attractions found across the country; making Ken Anderson a logical choice for lead designer.
Still, early concepts for the ride tended towards the scarier side of things, and although some ideas stuck, the story would go through several unused iterations before Walt Disney would even begin considering construction. We’ll cover these unused concepts in a future article, but it’s important to know that they ranged anywhere from a concept based on an evil sea captain and his unsuspecting bride, to an idea revolving around an entire family dying mysterious and sudden deaths. There was even a concept based on a never-ending ghostly wedding feast! You can see why Disney didn’t want to use some of these creepier concepts for his family park!
But since he had announced it already, Walt couldn’t delay the project for too long. He had to come up with something concrete to show the public. At the same time, he strove for quality and never wanted to rush anything. So he came up with a clever compromise.
They would begin construction on the facade that guests would see when they visited the park, but take more time to perfect the attraction behind the scenes. So, even though the inside of the mansion was facing major story delays and roadblocks, the outside would soon come along rather nicely. In 1958, Ken Anderson had drafted a pencil sketch inspired by a Victorian-era antebellum mansion. The drawing had a decaying, run-down, and creepy look, which artist Sam McKim made into an official display painting. Walt liked the look of the house, but not the state of repair that it was in. He didn’t want a ramshackle, rotting house to be a visual blight in his pristine and clean Disneyland. So, he told his Imagineers to make the outside look nicer, saying:
“We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside.”
At around the same time, Walt brought on Imagineers Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump to design the special effects that would be placed into the ride. Both Gracey and Crump had made a name for themselves at Disney for their technical wizardry and mastery of imaginative special effects. Walt had them spend a huge amount of time perfecting the tricks that would sell the story of a ghostly retirement home. They tinkered away, day and night, crafting the greatest illusions and special effects of their entire careers. In fact, the special effects created by Gracey and Crump for the Haunted Mansion deserve their own article, but suffice it to say that they were so numerous and well-made, that they earned the pair a prestigious new title: “Illusioneers”! This is a nickname which is still used today for Disney special effects artists!
Despite these breakthroughs, the development of the story was not going well. To the untrained eye, it would have seemed like everything was coming together nicely, but in actuality the project was dangerously behind schedule, and the attempts to come up with a satisfying story had so far met with disaster. The Haunted Mansion was slowly dying, and it would take more than a nice façade or state-of-the-art special effects to save it…
Read Part 2 HERE!
Childhood Innocence: The History of It’s A Small World
The Year was 1966, and Walt Disney smiled cheerfully as a crowd gathered in the far corner of his magical kingdom known as Disneyland. It was a beautiful day for a Grand Opening, and Walt was pulling out all the stops to make sure this would be one to remember. There were celebrities, balloons, fanfare, family, friends, and a whole crew of cameramen gathered around a little “canal” leading into a charming looking building; a façade that would put a smile on anyone’s face. The crowd cheered and clapped as little children representing countries from around the world each poured a bottle of water shipped from their country into the man-made river. The balloons were released into the air. Walt Disney smiled even wider as his boat drifted down the river into the building and disappeared as he waved to the crowd.
It was a celebration the little ride deserved, because it was one of Walt’s favorites. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Or you at least have the tune stuck in your head! It’s a Small World, after all!
It seems impossible, but Small World has only grown more popular since that day in 1966. It seems daunting that, more than 50 years after its debut in Disneyland, it’s still entertaining the young, and the young at heart, who ride it. But what’s even more astounding is the origin of the happy singing dolls; which goes back even further than that special day at Disneyland.
In 1963, Walt Disney was called up by Hollywood friend Joan Crawford with a very interesting proposition. Crawford was the widow of Pepsi’s former president Alfred Steele, and she was desperately looking for an attraction for Pepsi to sponsor at the already famous upcoming World’s Fair in New York. Pepsi was on a deadline and time was running short. Joan Crawford believed Walt Disney, who was already working on four other attractions for the fair, was the only one who could create a worthy attraction for the Pepsi brand on such short notice. It would be a tribute to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), but other than that, Pepsi had no idea what it would look like.
Walt, who already happened to have an idea lined up, jumped at the chance to get funding for another of his wild ideas. With only 11 months to prepare the attraction, far less time than any other thing he had contributed to the fair so far, Walt immediate jumped at the task. He wanted to make something truly special; something that would touch the hearts of millions and bring a smile to their faces. It would be a little boat ride with children from around the world in adorable doll form called “Children of the World”.
Truth be told, Walt wanted a change of face from what he saw in the rest of the world. It was the time of the Cold War. Tensions were high, and a possible nuclear war loomed on the horizon. Culture was changing, and unrest was breaking out all over the country. Walt was sick and tired of the fear which clouded the atmosphere and aimed to make this new attraction a ray of sunshine to the anxious public; a symbol for the World’s Fair and its idealistic look at the future.
So, Walt brought on board the happiest crew of “Imagineers” that had ever set sail on a Disney voyage. Walt put his favorite artist, a Disney color stylist and children’s illustrator named Mary Blair, in charge of most of the project. With Mary’s unique style helming the design of the attraction, other talented artists had clear direction on where to go. The husband and wife team of Marc and Alice Davis were immediately set to work on designing the iconic look of the dancing dolls and breathing personality into them; Marc imagined the characters, while Alice lovingly clothed them in fashion of her own design. A younger Imagineer named Rolly Crump, who had repeatedly impressed Walt with his very unique creative style, was given the task of designing the Doll’s toys and accessories, as well as the kinetic “Tower of the Four Winds” which would anchor the outside of the ride and draw attention to it. Lastly, master modeler Blaine Gibson sculpted out the physical dolls under Walt’s direct supervision. Strangely enough, every single one of these Imagineers, save for Mary Blair, would eventually work together again on Disneyland’s great masterpiece Pirates of the Caribbean; and most of them would contribute to the Haunted Mansion too!
The result of this all-star team of Imagineers was nothing short of magical, as the ride exceeded all of Walt’s expectations. But it was the music of the ride that would elevate it from a great ride, to one of Walt’s favorites. The Sherman Brothers of Mary Poppins fame were inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to write a song of hope to go with the ride. They specifically made it as catchy and simple as they possibly could, so that it could be translated easily and sung in multiple languages. At first, they wrote it as a slow Ballad, but on prompting from Walt for something more upbeat and cheerful, they sped up the tempo. The resulting song “It’s a Small World” moved Walt so much that he decided to change the name of the entire ride in honor of it, and it was subsequently moved to the World’s Fair in 1964.
Despite its extremely short production time, the now renamed It’s a Small World was a huge hit, becoming one of the most popular attractions at the fair. But it wasn’t only children who were flocking to it. There was something deeply innocent about the ride which spoke to the hearts of downtrodden adults everywhere. Whether they were 9 or 99, Small World made them think of a simpler time when the threat of nuclear missiles wasn’t at their doorstep. It gave them hope that maybe the world would one day be at peace again. It’s a Small World seemed to reach out and speak to the child in everyone.
Even today, the original Small World continues to entertain and delight children of all ages with its message of hope and unity. And with versions at Disney parks all around the world, it’s continuing to bring smiles to faces everywhere…Just like it did to Walt over 50 years ago.
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The Wild History of Splash Mountain!
Legends of the Magic Series:
Part 1: A Rocky Origin
The year was 1983. The Disney Parks seemed to be changing every day, and the designers of these shifting magical environments were faced with some rather daunting tasks. In fact, up-and-coming Imagineer Tony Baxter had a major problem on his hands. Tony had been thrust into a unbelievable career, the likes of which he could have never imagined. He was thrown into the spotlight with the massive success of his design work on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1979. Now other Imagineers were looking to him for leadership. They needed someone to lead them into a new era of Disney Parks. If you would have told Tony Baxter that he would become one of the most successful Disney artists of all time when he was first hired as an ice cream scooper in 1965, he would have thought you were crazy.
Nevertheless, here he was, with dozens of people looking to him to fix all the park’s problems. Unfortunately, during the year of 1983, there happened to be some very specific problems at Disneyland. The first problem was that The Disney Company was about to have a change in leadership, and that change seemed to be going in a very different direction from the company’s past. The Disney Company was looking to widen its audience beyond just families, children, and animation. As a result, Disneyland executives were getting more and more interested in thrill rides, something that Disneyland was sorely lacking compared to other theme parks. It was a tall order, and after the success of Big Thunder (which just so happened to be a thrill ride) they had immediately turned to Tony Baxter to lead the charge on another similar experience.
The second problem that was facing Disneyland at that time was a changing of the creative guard. The original Imagineers (Disneyland designers/builders/engineers etc.) were retiring, and a second generation was in the process of discovering their place in the parks. These new Imagineers were attempting to honor tradition, while simultaneously trying to forge a new creative path. That was a very fine line for them to walk, especially when the the company leadership was so set on changing direction with the end-goal of thrill. As a result, some of the old attractions that were seen by the new management as “outdated”, (all of which were rides overseen by the original Imagineers) would have to permanently close to make way for the new ones. Or at the very least, they needed to be heavily refurbished. This caused distress for the new Imagineers who still wanted to honor the work of their predecessors. None of them wanted to tear down the work that they respected so much.
The third problem, while comparatively trivial to the aforementioned issues, would prove absolutely crucial to the future of these situations. A section of Disneyland known as Bear Country was facing a major attendance deficit. Unfortunately, there was no Galaxy’s Edge at the time to draw in crowds to that corner of Disneyland, and the area was cut off from the rest of the park. The land’s location at the far corner of the park, tucked away behind New Orleans Square, with no other path leading in or out, caused dwindling interest and low attendance. Few guests wandered past the haunted mansion into Bear Country’s single entrance. The area was often virtually deserted. Naturally, Disneyland was desperately looking for a way to boost the area’s draw to guests.
All of these problems and artistic dilemmas were placed on Tony Baxter’s shoulders. In fact, they constantly on his mind for some time, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of any way to solve them. There was just too many variables to consider, and he was being drained creatively by all of the other projects that management seemed to want to throw at him. He was at a loss for what to do. That was, until one fateful day when Tony happened to be daydreaming in California’s rush hour traffic. Tony suddenly received an unexpected and brilliant epiphany; he could solve all three problems at the same time! His brain bursting with imagination, Tony Baxter rushed straight to his boss, unable to keep the idea to himself. In a legendary pitch, Tony Baxter explained his idea to Disney executives, in almost exact detail. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far more than anyone else had come up with up to that point.
His idea, called Zip-A-Dee River Run (later changed to Splash Mountain when the ride’s production was green-lit in 1984), would be an old-school log flume thrill ride, fulfilling the desire of the Disney executives to draw in teenage crowds. However, this log flume wouldn’t be just any thrill ride! It would be a highly-themed and immersive ride that would take the amusement park staple of a log flume to the next level. But How would they do that, you ask?
To understand that, we must first go back in time to 1946 and the release of a live-action/animated hybrid film called Song of the South. Disney may have had the best intentions in mind when they made Song of the South, and had never meant to offend anyone, but even good intentions couldn’t save the PR disaster that it turned out to be. Due to several crucial writing mistakes, as well as sheer ignorance, they created what soon became a very controversial film. Ashamed of their mistake, The Disney Company would never release the film on home video in the United States (for more information on the troubled history of Song of the South, we recommend reading the excellent book “Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South” by Jim Korkis.) He goes a lot deeper into this topic than we could ever do in a blog. Despite the nightmare it would one day become, it was virtually unknown to the Disneyland public at large during the 80s. However, when he was younger, Tony Baxter happened see Song of the South in theaters, and he chose this obscure film as the property to base the ride on.
Tony Baxter was convinced that most of the animated sequences featured memorable, cute characters that could be extrapolated from the more controversial aspects of the source material and planted into a different story. At the time, pre-social media, few people had actually heard of Song of the South, and they thought it was prime time to completely redo the IP. If they removed the controversial aspects of Song of the South, and focused on the cute animated characters by building a new story out of the cartoon “cat and mouse” chase sequences in the film, it would be a perfect themed ride for Bear Country (later changed to Critter Country for Splash Mountain’s debut). At the time, executives were convinced that a majority of Disneyland guests would not be familiar with Song of the South or would not have seen the movie. They reasoned that guests would assume that it was an original property and that they could retool the characters as Disneyland mascots instead of references to Song of the South. Still, this was mostly wishful thinking, and a bit of a shortsighted decision on the part of the executives. Because of the birth of the internet and social media over the following years, more and more people “rediscovered” Song of the South. The characters continued to gain controversy over the years, and the connection to the film, however small, would eventually effect the future of the ride in a big way… more on that later.
The Imagineers were back in their element solving difficult problems. By pure luck, Song of the South’s animated critters happened to be designed by legendary first-generation Imagineer Marc Davis who also just so happened to have been the designer for the soon to be extinct attraction America Sings. America Sings was an outdated stage show featuring a huge cast of Audio-Animatronic animals. Because of this amazing twist of fate, the imagineers could simply reuse most of America Sing’s cast as characters in Splash Mountain because they looked like they belonged in the same world! So, besides a reskinning of two Animatronics into Brer Fox and Brer Bear, the rest of the America Sings animals were simply reprogrammed to synchronize with the new show and moved over to Splash Mountain!
But even after all these creative solutions, there were still some rather large obstacles that the Imagineering team needed to overcome. After all, building a Disney attraction is no easy task. After 4 years in production, Splash Mountain had risen well over its budget at a cost of over $75 Million and would continue to rise in cost to an estimated $85 million by the time of its official debut; which is more than the entire Disneyland park cost in 1955, even adjusted for inflation!
As a result, during the year of 1988, Imagineers were looking for a way to save some money on the tail end of this construction behemoth. It was at that moment that the Imagineers were thanking their lucky stars that they already had the foresight to reuse assets from America Sings to reduce cost early on. Tony Baxter realized that this decision to recycle the audio-animatronics from America Sings saved the company millions and was the only thing that kept the ride afloat financially. If it wasn’t for that foresight, the ride would never have been green-lit, or it would have been cancelled halfway through construction!
Finally, after five years in development, including 80 hours of reprogramming for every single Animatronic, and an additional three months to rewire them, Splash Mountain opened to the Imagineer’s great relief on July 17th, 1989; the 34th anniversary of Disneyland! The ride was an instant success and soon spawned beautifully redesigned copies at Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.
Part 3-The Reimagining:
Although it’s a fan favorite around the world, it’s controversial film roots have finally caught up with it. After careful consideration, the Imagineers were faced with a brand new problem: retooling Splash Mountain for a new generation. They wanted to fix their mistakes and reimagine the log flume concept with a new theme that wasn’t connected to Song of the South. And with Disneyland’s Splash Mountain situated right between New Orleans Square and Critter Country, a new idea was sparked in the creative team behind this project. It would make sense to choose a new IP that was firmly placed in both worlds. Hence the decision to utilize the Princess and the Frog…a film that has deep roots in New Orleans, and a wonderful connection to the lovable animals found in Critter Country! This solution fit perfectly into the story of the two neighboring lands and seemed meant to be! This decision would redeem Splash Mountain in the eyes of the more socially aware public and reimagine this thrilling experience for a new generation. And although many people are understandably sad to see the classic attraction disappear, especially when it spawned so many of their nostalgic childhood memories, the creativity of the Imagineers continues to live on in its future. And if Mission Breakout at California Adventure is anything to go by, the re-theme could be amazing! It just goes to show that any problem, no matter how daunting, can be solved if we’re willing to put in the imagination and hard work! Who knows, maybe your next big idea will come during rush-hour traffic too!
Which version of Splash Mountain is your favorite?
How Captain America Was Almost Erased From Marvel History (The Surprising History of Captain America)
Captain America is easily one of the greatest and most recognizable comic book characters of all time. He is pretty much featured in every ‘top superheroes’ list and is often sited as one of Marvel’s flagship heroes, alongside the likes of Spider-Man, Thor, and Wolverine. Now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America is more popular than ever, constantly toe-to-toe with Iron Man as the franchise’s most iconic character.
But, did you know that this almost never happened? Did you know that Captain America almost never existed in the Marvel Universe? For those of you who don’t know, we must go back in time to explain. We must go back to 1940, when Marvel Comics went by a different name; Timely Comics.
During this time, the comic publishing house that would one day become one of the industry’s forerunners, was nothing more than a small company trying to keep afloat amidst the explosion of DC’s (known as National Comics at the time) superhero characters. Realizing that superheroes were the future of comics, writer Joe Simon decided to create a character of his own for Timely. The character, inspired by Simon’s disgust over the Nazi agenda and America’s lack of involvement in combating them, was created with artist Jack Kirby in 1940 as a political statement. Thus, a superhero legend was born in the form of Captain America.
Captain America was an instant success, with his first issue selling almost 1 million copies; a monumental feat for comics at the time. There was something about the character which instantly connected with the public. Perhaps the connection came from Cap’s bravery, self-sacrifice, loyalty, humility, or even his relatable origins as a weakling with a big heart. No matter the reason, people couldn’t seem to get enough of him. Captain America quickly became Timely Comic’s most popular character, and even rivaled some of the biggest heroes from other publishers during the era.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and with the end of WW2 the popularity of Captain America began to wane. The writers of Captain America didn’t know what to do with the extremely patriotic Captain without the black-and-white evils of the Hitler to function as a backdrop. It was clear that they could not continue writing Captain America the same way. However, instead of keeping the character’s personality and integrity, they made the mistake of using him as branding tool to sell their stranger and less-marketable comics. As a result, the character suffered even more and was eventually dropped.
The character stayed in limbo from 1949-1953 where he went largely ignored by Timely Comics, which was renamed Atlas Comics in 1950. In 1953 Atlas tried to revive many of its forgotten superhero titles and Captain America was first on the list to receive the new treatment. Atlas had the idea to not only revive the characters, but to also rebrand them, with Captain America now called “Commie Smasher” and being pitted against any ‘anti-American’ enemy that Atlas could imagine; often changing Cap’s personality to fit their more cynical stories. The result of this change in Cap’s morals and integrity was disastrous. Fans rejected the revival, and this version of the character didn’t last a year before being cancelled.
This was a major blow to the character, and Captain America seemed as if he would never rise to popularity again. It seemed as if Captain America would die a very slow and painful death as he slowly vanished from the public eye. Years passed, and although Cap never technically disappeared from Atlas entirely, he seemed to be constantly ignored.
Captain America almost disappeared forever. In fact, it looked as if comics would never see the good Captain’s return.
However, by 1961 two things would happen that would change the comic book industry forever. The first was cosmetic. After going through years of branding turmoil, leadership changes, and financial hardships, the company finally permanently renamed itself as Marvel Comics, the moniker that would eventually go down in history as one of the biggest names in comics. The second thing was much more tangible; the debut of Stan Lee’s ‘Fantastic Four’ which marked the first major step in Lee’s rapid rise as the comic industry’s biggest name. It also rebooted Marvel’s in-story universe; tying it all into a single interconnected continuity. The combination of the company’s attempt to rebrand itself, Stan Lee’s revival of superhero comics, and a firm new direction for its publications, all made the time ripe for a triumphant return.
In 1964, after 10 years of obscurity and neglect, Captain America finally made his triumphant return in 1964’s Avengers #4. Stan Lee had insisted on the return of the icon that he grew up with, and personally championed the retcon (meaning retroactive continuity) that changed Captain America’s history to fit the new emerging canon of superheroes in the 60’s. Firstly, gone were the embarrassing Captain Americas of the 50’s, which were revealed to be imposters that took over for the real Captain America. Secondly, it was soon revealed that, although Captain America had been thought dead since 1945, he was instead hidden beneath the ice of the North Atlantic Ocean, frozen in an ageless state; waiting to be revived. His emergence from this ‘suspended animation’ in Avengers #4 was an instant success. The rest is history.
Finally, the person writing Captain America’s story was someone who cared about the character’s personality and rich history. It certainly showed, as Captain America quickly gained the status of Marvel’s moral center; the character that fans could count on to do the right thing, no matter the cost. He’s someone to aspire to, and we all want to be like him. Even after his 75-plus years of existence, Captain America still challenges us to be the best that we can be, and to consider our fellow man over ourselves. He remains one of the most beloved comic characters of all time. So, it’s astounding to think that he was almost erased from comics forever! Could you imagine if he never existed in the Marvel Universe that we know and love today? We certainly can’t!
Let us know what you think makes Captain America so popular!