In a vault deep beneath Main Street, U.S.A., under princess lock and skeleton key, Disney keeps its big, forbidden book of secrets. This isn't that book. But it's probably the closest we'll ever get to the tales that Disney doesn't tell about your favorite theme park attractions.
For most guests at a Disney theme park, it's enough to know when the park opens, where the rides are, and how long it'll take to get on those rides.
But that's not you, is it? You're not a low-information guest.
You know that a Disney attraction doesn't just pop up in a park one day, no questions asked. There's a method to the magic, a plan for making all that pixie dust happen, a high-stakes, high-thrills narrative available—once upon a time—to insiders only. Now it's demystified for one and all.
Put down that FastPass. You won't need it. You're in the right queue for E-ticket adventures behind the scenes at the Jungle Cruise, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Tower of Terror, and many more. Boarding now...
Disney Demystified! When the mystery ends, the magic really begins!
Chapter 1: The Disneyland Debacle
Chapter 2: The World-Famous Jungle Cruise
Chapter 3: Walt Builds a Monorail
Chapter 4: A Pirate’s Life for Us
Chapter 5: Disney Dominates the 1964 World’s Fair
Chapter 6: The Sordid History of the Haunted Mansion
Chapter 7: Disney Heads East: The Mysterious Project X
Chapter 8: Walt Disney World without Walt Disney
Chapter 9: Space Mountain: Disney Conquers Its Final Frontier
Chapter 10: Twilight of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Why does the public continue to revere Walt Disney? I maintain that the explanation is simple. While unquestionably an architect of 20th century pop culture, he was something more. Today, we call visionaries like him by a simple name: content creator. During the 1920s when he started to make his mark, no such term existed and wouldn’t for another 80 years. That’s just how far ahead of his time that Walt was.
After a failed attempt to fight for his country in World War I, Walt spent time driving ambulances in France. He was 16. When World War I ended, he tried to make his mark as an illustrator, becoming co-owner of Disney Commercial Artists alongside lifelong friend, Ub Iwerks.
These two original Imagineers watched with frustration as their first business failed. Still, their talent was unmistakable. Emboldened by feedback from other professionals and confident in a new style of illustration known as cel animation, Walt left his life behind and moved to Hollywood. All of this happened by his 22nd birthday. Truly, he lived his life ahead of the curve.
Disney fanatics are familiar with the story of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I won’t belabor the point other than to note that when Walt was 26, he created a character for Universal that became instantly popular. Understandably, the inventor of this property tried to garner a raise for his sweat of brow. To his surprise, the head of Universal Pictures bought out most of his fellow animators and offered him a pay cut during hardball negotiations.
If adversity builds character, then the greed of a Hollywood producer is the odd causality for the existence of The Walt Disney Company that everyone loves today. Walt suffered through an educational but informative setback wherein he learned that only the boss calls the shots in Hollywood. From that moment forward, he resolved that he would never let other tycoons of industry make his decisions for him.
Soon afterward, Walt created the character of Mickey Mouse, the most successful and recognizable cartoon character of all time. The similarities between Mickey and Oswald are unmistakable, and they aptly reflect the fiery competitive streak that Disney possessed. When someone from Universal Pictures acted as if anyone could write a great Oswald cartoon, Walt built an entirely new character. Oswald is now a footnote in history while everyone remembers the phrase that defines Walt’s legacy: “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.”
As an illustrator, Walt always targeted families as his primary demographic, starting with his cartoons and then later with his unprecedentedly successful motion picture debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even as his animated pictures changed the landscape of Hollywood, the creator of Mickey Mouse chafed at a frustration in his private life. He didn’t feel like enough quality gathering places existed for families. It was his dream to build a destination where families from all walks of life could join together and feel like a part of something bigger. Truly, the “Happiest Place on Earth” is the perfect description of this locality.
Disneyland was the first theme park. More important, it’s the only one with Walt’s direct handprint. Even as Magic Kingdom stands as the most popular destination for theme park tourists, Disneyland will always carry the direct legacy of the 20th century’s greatest content creator.
In this edition of Disney Demystified, I’ll relay stories and anecdotes about the construction of several of your favorite attractions including Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
I’ll also discuss the hilarious series of mishaps that transpired on the opening day of Disneyland, a morning when the parks overflowed with several thousand more guests than Disney had expected, leading to food and beverage shortages and plumbing chaos.
Lovers of the monorail system will enjoy the details of how this amazing architectural triumph became the signature transportation at Disneyland. And fans of Walt Disney himself will marvel at the business acumen he demonstrated as his vaunted Imagineers dominated the headlines at the historic 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Finally, I’ll reveal the amazing details surrounding Disney’s covert acquisition of land in Florida, the high-minded plans he had for creating a better tomorrow there, and how his Imagineers and brother carried on in his absence.
What follows is a timeline of Walt Disney’s legacy as the world’s first theme park operator. In reading the included stories, I hope that you’ll appreciate just how much of a visionary he was and how profoundly he still impacts society more than half a century after his death.
David Mumpower is the co-founder of the popular pop culture websites BoxOfficeProphets.com and HowWellDoYouKnow.com. His work has been cited in CNN Money, Slate, Salon, Hitfix, io9, and USA Today. He writes regularly about Disney for ThemeParkTourist.com.
Early plans for the Tower of Terror involved Mel Brooks. Now that sounds like the Twilight Zone...
A Disney dream team started the process. Involved with the earliest blueprints were Imagineer Marty Sklar, Michael Eisner, and director Mel Brooks. Why was Brooks there? That’s an odd piece of Disney folklore and Hollywood history.
Eisner’s previous career as an agent and studio boss had given him access to some of the most talented players in Hollywood. He’d developed a strong relationship with Brooks when the latter read a screenplay provided to him by one of his former assistant directors. Brooks loved this dramatic story and asked Eisner, the head of Paramount Pictures at the time, to provide the resources to make the film.
Eisner was extremely confused at this request. The world knows Brooks for his goofy comedies. The feature film he wanted to make was totally humorless. Eisner justified his reputation as a believer in talent by gambling $5 million on the project. He believed in Brooks as a content creator so much that he agreed to bankroll the film.
The title became a darling of critics and eventually earned back more than five times its budget. More importantly, it tied for the most Academy Awards nominations that year and had the film won Best Picture, Mel Brooks would have been the guy thanking the Academy. Some cynics speculate that it’s this reason why voters were reticent to laud the film. It was called The Elephant Man, and it earned eight Academy Awards nominations but won none of them, one of the worst shutouts in Oscar history.
Yes, Mel Brooks is the uncredited executive producer of The Elephant Man. Think of it as the Blazing Saddles sequel you never got.
The point is that Brooks and Eisner had a strong working relationship and healthy respect for one another. Once Eisner had established his movie studio theme park premise, he needed something to distinguish it. The CEO knew all too well that Universal Studios Florida would arrive in 1990, only a year after Disney-MGM Studios. If their attractions were better, Walt Disney World would seem damaged. The more pressing matter for Eisner on a personal level was that his legacy would be in question. His ego on this subject was a contributing factor in many of his decisions as head of Disney.
Before his career collapse, Eisner prioritized Disney-MGM Studios. It was his theme park baby. He asked Brooks to come and brainstorm with the best Imagineers still on the payroll. From the beginning, Eisner wasn’t averse to a tie-in to an intellectual property outside the Disney collective. For all its storied cinematic classics, horror wasn’t really the company’s thing. That’s something that has changed a bit since the 1980s, but it was an accurate summation at the time.
Brooks loved the idea of one of his iconic tales becoming a signature attraction at Walt Disney World. He pointed out that he had a natural fit. Young Frankenstein satisfied Disney’s goal of a gothic horror tale. It was also silly enough that it could remain child friendly. At the time, Eisner wasn’t married to the idea that Disney-MGM Studios had to cater to children. He was also savvy enough to acknowledge that burning that bridge needlessly would look like a massive miscalculation to company outsiders. History indicates that Eisner wasn’t averse to picking fights for the wrong reasons. He didn’t actively seek them out, though.
The world knows Peter Boyle primarily as the sardonic dad on Everybody Loves Raymond and for one kickass appearance as a fatalistic psychic on The X-Files. Decades before that, he played the Monster in Young Frankenstein, a thankless role in a film so popular that it’s still occasionally screened in North American cineplexes today. In an alternate universe, Boyle’s a much bigger star due to the Disney Bump, the career boost actors receive for major roles in films that anchor Disney theme park attractions.
That’s what would have happened if Castle Young Frankenstein had become a reality. Why didn’t it? Finances and egos, mostly.
Brooks worked hand in hand with Disney Imagineers to build a viable blueprint for this attraction. All parties agreed that it would stand out visually within the park, similar to other castles at the various Disney gates. This castle would have a moat that guests could only cross by a drawbridge. A Bavarian village would reside nearby. Here, the villagers would warn guests of the impending danger at the castle. Simultaneously, they would sell snacks and theme park merchandise. Hey, if someone’s about to go to their doom, why not clean out their wallets first? They won’t need money where they’re going.
Eisner adored the idea of a functional imaginary village residing at Disney-MGM Studios. That’s the type of splashy headline he sought throughout his career as corporate CEO. He only had one well-founded reservation. He just wasn’t sure Young Frankenstein resonated enough as an intellectual property. He may have underestimated the film in this regard. It earned $86.3 million in 1974, when the average movie ticket cost $1.89 (and audiences presumably had to walk 10 miles uphill in the snow to see it). That’s the equivalent of $385 million today. Young Frankenstein sold more tickets in 1974 than The Secret Life of Pets or The Jungle Book sold in 2016.
Eisner feared something beyond the lasting popularity of Young Frankenstein, though. He also worried about having to pay for the rights to this project. Had Young Frankenstein been a Disney project, Peter Boyle would have become a Disneybounding icon, I’m sure.
Continued in "Disney Demystified (Volume 1)"!
That time a pirate almost escaped from Pirates of the Caribbean and took up residence in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion...
The “foolish mortal” responsible for the original conception and overall design of Haunted Mansion was Disney animator and writer Ken Anderson. Like so many of the employees who worked side by side with Walt Disney himself, Anderson was a renaissance man at the company. He had a hand in classics such as Cinderella, Jungle Book, and Aristocats, all of feature his contributions. He also sketched drawings that would become the unofficial blueprints for eventual rides and attractions at Disneyland.
Most notable of those is Haunted Mansion, which Walt Disney personally assigned to Anderson in 1957. Disney wanted the attraction prioritized because he felt the park was lacking without it. In many ways, Anderson was perfect as the driving force behind the Haunted Mansion. He wasn’t an animator by intention but rather an architect who wound up working at Walt Disney Studio starting in 1934. Over time, he perfected his craft as an illustrator and content creator.
By the time Walt Disney tapped him on the shoulder and suggested he draw mock-ups for the ride and surrounding area, Anderson possessed a combination of architectural understanding of building design and an animator’s knowledge of how to tell a story through visuals. The dutiful employee had only recently transferred to Walt Disney Imagineering (WED) from the Animation Department, so he had one foot in both phases of business development. Equal parts showman and pragmatist, Anderson began accumulating spirits for the Disneyland’s very own haunted house.
Anderson’s attention to detail was on full display when he selected a property as a guideline for his artistic renderings. He chose a building that was already over 150 years old, the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore, Maryland, as his odd inspiration for an antebellum New Orleans plantation-style mansion. While he explicitly modeled the look from it, he adopted some of the style from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. It was symbolically fitting as the residence of the widow of gun-making legend William Wirt Winchester. Sarah Winchester herself claimed that the ghosts of all the people killed with Winchester weapons haunted her home, so the duo’s residence fit the broad-strokes outline Anderson had for Haunted Mansion.
He visited the Winchester Mystery House, which remains in operation today as a tourist attraction, and took meticulous notes about not just the house itself but also the operation of the business. These notes influenced many of his architectural decisions, as his intention was to create an attraction that could host a lot of people in a single day. In order to achieve that goal, he wanted Haunted Mansion to set new standards in the genre. The Winchester Mystery House includes a treasure trove of obscure arcana and oddities such as doors to nowhere, stairs whose path is a circle, and a séance room. All of these ideas eventually wound up as features in Haunted Mansion.
Anderson’s ideas were profound, and the seeds of them still percolate through many of the harrowing moments of the Doom Buggy experience, such as the moment in the ride when you exit the attic through the window. If you pay careful attention, you’ll notice that the shingles are different from the Haunted Mansion building itself. The explanation is that you’re reliving the horror of a character and story invented in 1957. Here’s how that’s possible.
The original backstory for the Haunted Mansion involved a happy fiancée named Priscilla whose wedding day bliss ended the moment that she unearthed the truth about her soon-to-be husband. After he warned his young betrothed to stay out of the attic, she couldn’t resist opening Pandora’s Box and entered the top floor of their decadent mansion. Hidden there were the vestiges of his days as a dread pirate fittingly named Captain Gore. Since the man had taken on a new identity to hide his treacherous past, he couldn’t risk the locals discovering that he was a murderous letch. When the sea captain realized his betrothed had found out about his past life, he threw her out the window, and she died in the fall.
To drive home the heartbreaking reversal of fortune, Anderson drew pictures of a dead woman in a wedding dress. This theme evolved into the driving force of the entire story of Haunted Mansion as an attraction. The idea is that after her death, Priscilla haunted Captain Gore until he could no longer take it. He committed suicide by hanging himself in the rafters, which explains the dead body above you at the start of the ride. You know Gore better as the Ghost Host. The concept is that the relationship between Priscilla and Captain Gore was so passionate that in death their spirits attract others.
Continued in "Disney Demystified (Volume 1)"!