On an alternate earth, Walt Disney World guests are taking in the thrills of Thunder Mesa, braving the Beastly Kingdom, marveling at Villains Mountain, and staying the night at Disney's Persian Resort. Want to join them? This is your guidebook to the theme park that Disney never built.
In this unique, extensively researched book, Christopher Smith discusses the many attractions, shows, and resorts that were planned for Walt Disney World, from opening day to the present day, but that exist only in the minds of Imagineers.
You'll find old "favorites" such as Thunder Mesa and Beastly Kingdom, as well as those lost to the pixie dust of time, like Dick Tracy's Crime Stoppers, the Enchanted Snow Palace, and Buffalo Junction. Smith looks at the politics and internal struggles behind the decision to shelve each concept, and imagines what guests might have experienced.
Every park at Walt Disney World—Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios—has its hidden cache of "lost" attractions. They're all here, along with the many resort hotels that Disney intended to build, but didn't.
Put aside those guidebooks of the Walt Disney World that is, and come to a vacation kingdom that you can visit only if you find the second star to the right and then keep straight on till morning.
The Happiest Definitions on Earth
Part I: The Magic Kingdom
Chapter 1: Thunder Mesa
Chapter 2: Lost Fantasyland Dark Rides
Chapter 3: The Enchanted Snow Palace
Chapter 4: Fire Mountain and Villains Mountain
Chapter 5: Alien Attractions
Part II: Epcot
Chapter 6: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow
Chapter 7: The World Showcase That Never Was
Chapter 8: Epcot Entertainment Pavilion
Chapter 9: Lost World Showcase Attractions
Part III: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Chapter 10: Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood
Chapter 11: Mickey’s Movieland
Chapter 12: Dick Tracy’s Crime Stoppers
Chapter 13: Muppet Studios
Chapter 14: David Copperfield’s Magic Underground
Part IV: Disney's Animal Kingdom
Chapter 15: Beastly Kingdom
Chapter 16: Animal Kingdom Icons
Chapter 17: The Excavator
Part V: Resorts
Chapter 18: Lost Resorts
Chapter 19: Cypress Point Lodge and Buffalo Junction
Chapter 20: Pop Century: The Legendary Years
Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain are three of the most popular attractions in all of Walt Disney World. Each of these classic Disney experiences is synonymous with the Most Magical Place on Earth, and it is hard to imagine a Magic Kingdom without one of them, much less all three.
But what if I told you that on the Magic Kingdom’s opening day, October 1, 1971, none of these fan favorites were even on the drawing board? Instead, the creative minds at Disney developed plans for a monumental concept known as Thunder Mesa that would have literally towered over Frontierland and forever changed the landscape of the world’s most popular theme park. Set within the massive walls of an enormous Monument Valley mountain range, Thunder Mesa would have included perhaps the most popular attraction in all of Walt Disney World: an Old West version of Pirates of the Caribbean, with cowboys and bandits entertaining guests in lieu of rowdy buccaneers.
Have you (or more likely your children) been swept into an icy frenzy following the release of the 2013 Disney animated feature film Frozen and the introduction of such beloved characters as Anna, Elsa, Olaf, Sven, and Kristoff? What if I told you that four decades prior to the release of that film, one of Disney’s most brilliant minds worked tirelessly to develop plans for a beautiful Enchanted Snow Palace that would have been located in the heart of Fantasyland and based upon the same Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that inspired Frozen?
Do you enjoy strolling around Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon and experiencing the dining, shopping, shows, and cultural experiences that are beautifully displayed in each of the eleven World Showcase pavilions? What if I told you that in 1990, the Disney company announced plans for a new Soviet Union Pavilion that would have included a version of Moscow’s Red Square and an enormous replica of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, complete with ornate onion domes, serving as the pavilion’s dramatic centerpiece?
Thunder Mesa, the Enchanted Snow Palace, and the Soviet Union Pavilion are just three examples at the tip of a creative iceberg of fascinating ideas and plans that never made it off of the drawing boards and into the Walt Disney World parks.
For more than five decades, Disney’s most trusted Imagineers (the artists, architects, animators, engineers, designers, mechanics, and musicians that create the magic found throughout the parks) have invested thousands of hours thinking, sketching, designing, and testing attractions, shows, hotels, restaurants, and shops for the Walt Disney World Resort. Today, guests from around the world have the privilege of enjoying many of these concepts as they were actually constructed and placed into operation. However, unbeknownst to most Walt Disney World guests, there is also a long list of attractions, hotels, restaurants, and entire theme park lands that Disney’s most creative minds poured their hearts and souls into developing but which never came to be.
But if an idea never actually made it into the parks, it must not have been that good in the first place—right? Nothing could be further from the truth. If completed, many of these concepts would have been jaw dropping, groundbreaking, and, dare I say it, better than many of the headliner experiences present in Walt Disney World today. However, due to a number of factors including excessive cost, politics, lack of technological capabilities, and old-fashioned bad timing, these ideas never saw the light of day. While some concepts never made it past the so-called “Blue Sky” phase of initial brainstorming and conceptualization, others were literally on the doorstep of being constructed.
Although it would be almost impossible to discuss every theme park concept dreamed up by Disney Imagineers that never made it into the parks, what follows is a collection of stories about the most significant, compelling, and downright fun ideas that you won’t find in Walt Disney World today. In these stories, I will share the history and details of these wonderful ideas, why they were never developed, and where their remnants can be found in the Disney parks today.
So why write a book about the Walt Disney World that never was? A true understanding of the history of Walt Disney World must begin with the ideas that never came to be because, in many cases, those ideas morphed, changed, and evolved into the experiences that guests enjoy today. In addition, a recurring theme of Walt Disney Imagineering is that good ideas don’t die. Therefore, an understanding of concepts that never came to be just might be a preview of things that are still to come.
It is also important to remember the wonderful work of Imagineers like Marc Davis, Claude Coats, and Harper Goff, whose contributions to the development of Disneyland and Walt Disney World are undeniable. We honor these brilliant artists not only by enjoying the attractions that they helped to create (such as the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Jungle Cruise), but also by remembering the unrealized concepts into which they put blood, sweat, and tears.
But who am I kidding? The most important reason why I wrote this book is because it was a lot of fun! What is more exciting for a Walt Disney World fan (other than actually riding attractions) than strolling through the parks, playing armchair Imagineer, and thinking about what could have been if these exciting ideas had actually made it into the parks? In other words, as a die-hard Walt Disney World fan, I wrote a book that I wanted to read, and I certainly hope that you agree.
This is a book about fire mountains and dragon towers, Persian resorts and animal carousels, progress cities and bullet trains, Mary Poppins and the Headless Horseman, Dick Tracy and Roger Rabbit. It is a book about grand ideas and legacies remembered. This is a book about the Walt Disney World that never was.
Christopher E. Smith is a corporate attorney practicing law in Huntsville, Alabama. He is also a lucky husband, a proud father, and a blessed son. Chris took his first trip to Walt Disney World in 1984, at the age of 7. He has been back dozens of times with his own family, and likes to imagine what might have been.
Imagine the skyline of the Magic Kingdom with two additional mountains, one "erupting" in volcanic splendor, and the other home to Disney villains. It almost happened.
The Imagineers who worked on the Fire Mountain concept wanted to stay loyal to the Jules Verne theming reflected in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They developed plans for an innovative roller-coaster thrill attraction set inside a massive show building that would be themed as a smoking volcano. The volcano itself would have been enormous and dramatic, dominating the skyline of Fantasyland behind Cinderella Castle.
While a roller coaster set within another “mountain” may sound simple and repetitive given the mountains that already existed in the Magic Kingdom (Space, Splash, and Big Thunder), the Fire Mountain ride experience would have been revolutionary. The attraction would start just as many other attractions in Disney World did, with guests boarding ride vehicles with the track that actually moved the vehicles lying underneath. However, halfway through the attraction when the volcano was just about to erupt, Fire Mountain would transform into a “flying” coaster, with the coaster track now above guests’ heads while glowing hot lava from the volcano’s eruption poured beneath them. After escaping the mountain’s fiery fury, the attraction would return to its initial form prior to the end of the attraction, with the coaster track again below the ride vehicles.
In order for the Fire Mountain concept to be viable, Disney needed an intellectual property franchise to associate with it. Imagineers found what they believed to be the perfect movie tie-in when they discovered that the Disney studio was developing an animated film that had submarines, adventurers, exotic locations, and most importantly, a large volcano: Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Atlantis was released in 2001, and was created using traditional animation techniques at a time when computer-generated animation was taking the industry by storm. The film tells the story of a young linguist and cartographer, Milo James Thatch, who finds a sacred book that turns out to be a map to the lost city of Atlantis. The film starred Michael J. Fox as Thatch, with James Garner, Jim Varney, and Leonard Nimoy lending voice talents for other characters.
Rumors about the addition of Fire Mountain were rampant in the late 1990s. In 1998, the Orlando Business Journal published an article about the increased prevalence of thrill rides in Disney World entitled “Guests Get Their Thrills from Local Theme Parks.” In regard to Fire Mountain, it stated:
Speculation is circulating about the next mountain at the Magic Kingdom—Fire Mountain. It would replace 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which closed several years ago, and would feature a theme based on an upcoming Disney movie, Atlantis.
Guests would feel like they were flying through the roller coaster as they make their way through Lava Lake and through the mountain. For the flying experience, guests would lie down facing the ground and would be suspended throughout the ride.
As Disney executives weighed the feasibility of Fire Mountain, some worried that an attraction themed as a volcano would be out of place in Fantasyland. Balancing this concern with the true excitement of the executives about the project, the Imagineers eventually decided that Fire Mountain would be a better fit thematically in Adventureland. They considered adding Fire Mountain between Pirates of the Caribbean in Adventureland and Splash Mountain in Frontierland or, alternatively, between Pirates and the Jungle Cruise. The mountain itself would have been visible from all corners of Adventureland and, perhaps most visually stunning, from the Polynesian Resort on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon.
While the Fire Mountain attraction would have been revolutionary, the hefty price tag associated with developing an intricately themed mountain and new innovative ride technology was a large hurdle to overcome. Because of these concerns, the conceptual plans for Fire Mountain morphed into a simpler flying coaster with no “switch” incorporated in the ride system.
While one group of Imagineers was hard at work on Fire Mountain, a different group worked to develop plans for another stunning Mountain attraction, this one devoted to the realm of Disney villains. A villain’s concept may seem like a strange addition to the fairytale theming of Fantasyland, but Disney executives were well aware that villains were extremely popular with theme park guests. Toys, shirts, and other merchandise featuring Maleficent, Captain Hook, Jafar, and other Disney villains were flying off the shelves, and the executives believed that customer demand existed for a villains-based attraction.
The attraction’s exterior would have drawn inspiration from “Night on Bald Mountain,” a segment in the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia. In this segment, the sinister demon Chernabog calls upon an ominous variety of ghosts, skeletons, spirits, and other demons to join an evil ceremony. The spooky spirits dance as Chernabog orchestrates from high above the rocky peaks of Bald Mountain. This ghostly gathering only ends when church bells ring and a choir begins to sing in the town at the base of the mountain. Due to this inspiration, Imagineers even considered calling the attraction Bald Mountain.
Villains Mountain would have been a log-flume experience reminiscent of Splash Mountain. Instead of focusing on one or two villains, the attraction would be themed as a salute to all Disney villains, who had gathered deep in the mountain in an effort to take over the Magic Kingdom.
Guests would board boats similar to Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and It’s a Small World and float through a series of tableaus featuring a variety of Disney villains. At the climax, they would come face to face with the signature villain from Sleeping Beauty, the evil fairy Maleficent, before falling down a steep, adrenaline-pumping plunge to the base of the mountain.
Imagineers anticipated that Villains Mountain would occupy a similar footprint in Fantasyland as its predecessor, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, plans for the concept continued to morph and evolve. At one point, Disney even considered adding a Villains Village, an entirely new sub-area in Fantasyland devoted to the bad guys and girls from Disney animated films. It would have included numerous shops and villain character encounters set along a cobblestone street, with Villains Mountain looming ominously in the background as the area’s marquee centerpiece.
Disney executives and Imagineers were excited about the potential of both Fire Mountain and Villains Mountain. Choosing between them would be difficult. As such, Disney management made the smartest decision they could: they punted to the chairman and CEO of the Disney company, Michael Eisner. To Eisner’s credit, he recognized the brilliance of both ideas. In fact, he liked Fire Mountain and Villains Mountain so much that he wanted to add both attractions to the Magic Kingdom!
Disney executives felt so strongly about the villain concept that they considered, in lieu of an entirely separate land in the Magic Kingdom, developing a standalone theme park dedicated to Disney villains. As a result, they did not want to place a marque villains attraction in the Magic Kingdom when it could be best used in a separate park. The Villains Mountain concept was therefore temporarily shelved until the company could decide exactly what it wanted to do. Unfortunately, to this point, Disney has not moved forward with a standalone villains theme park or land. Therefore, the Villains Mountain concept remains on the shelves at Walt Disney Imagineering waiting for its time to come, assuming it ever does.
Imagineers also planned on moving forward with Fire Mountain in Adventureland, but the momentum for that addition also slowed and was eventually shelved altogether. While we don’t know for sure why that occurred, the significant expense required to construct the attraction combined with the disappointment of Atlantis at the box office no doubt played a large part in Fire Mountain’s demise. Atlantis grossed over $180 million worldwide, but Disney still considered that number a disappointment given the large budget for the film and Disney’s high pre-release expectations.
Continued in "The Walt Disney World That Never Was"!
Roger Rabbit in Hollywood Studios? Sure thing! Except, well, Spielberg...
Based on the theme and time period of the Roger Rabbit film, which matched perfectly with the theme and time period of Disney-MGM Studios, Roger Rabbit seemed to be a tailor-made fit for the park. Imagineers began developing numerous concepts and ideas that would bring Roger and his co-stars into an entirely separate theme park land known as Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood (although there were several different iterations of that name).
In terms of geographic layout, different versions of Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood included both the entire length of the current Sunset Boulevard to a smaller location at the far end of Sunset Boulevard where the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is now located. The area would have replicated the wild and zany atmosphere of the film with gags, jokes, and tons of slapstick humor. An actual working Red Car Trolley would have transported guests down Sunset Boulevard and deposited them at a re-creation of the fictional Maroon Studios.
One of the things that makes Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood so exciting to think about, and yet so disappointing that it never came to fruition, is that the area would have featured not one, not two, but three actual attractions. A 1990 New York Times article described the general plans for the Roger Rabbit expansion in Disney-MGM Studios:
According to plans for the theme park announced recently, the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? made by a Disney subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures, will serve as the source for an area called Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood [to] be built in the mid-1990s. This will be a kind of Toontown, where—as in the movie—only cartoon characters may live. Visitors will meet the movie’s eponymous cartoon hero, ride a Toontown trolley rocked by flight simulators, hop into Benny the cartoon cab, and careen in oversized Baby Herman’s baby buggy through a Toontown hospital.
The starring attraction for Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood would have been Baby Herman’s Runaway Baby Buggy Ride, a dark-ride concept similar to those used in several Fantasyland attractions. The attraction would have drawn inspiration from Tummy Trouble, a Roger Rabbit short film created in 1989. While the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the actual attraction would have been an innovative and exciting guest experience.
In both Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Tummy Trouble, Baby Herman is featured as the gruff, foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking baby perhaps best known for the quote “the whole thing stinks like yesterday’s diapers.”
The backstory of the attraction would have guests visiting the fictional Maroon Studios. While standing in line for a tour of the newest Roger Rabbit cartoon, Tummy Trouble, guests would pass by the trailer of Baby Herman himself. After Baby Herman refuses to film a dangerous scene, a desperate director enlists the help of guests to fill in for the Toontown star. Guests would then load into their ride vehicles, enormous over-sized baby buggies.
During their journey, guests would have taken a harrowing journey through the interior of Toontown Hospital. In the process, they would go down stairs, make hairpin turns, jump over beds and the patients laying in them, and generally get into the type of crazy hijinks that one would expect in the world of Roger Rabbit.
Disney Imagineers also conceptualized a motion-based simulator attraction known as the Toontown Trolley. Think of this as a wacky version of Star Tours (the existing Star Wars-themed simulator attraction in Disney’s Hollywood Studios), only with more screens and heavy theming showing the hijinks of Roger himself. One of the more exciting possibilities for this attraction was that Roger was rumored to be the actual “driver” of the Trolley, taking guests on a mad-capped tour of Toontown.
Finally, Disney planned another dark-ride concept known as the Benny the Cab Ride, based on the gruff yellow taxicab of the same name. Guests would have ridden, as you might have guessed, in taxicabs through a series of adventures featuring Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, and the notorious weasels.
In addition to this wide range of attraction offerings, Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood would have also featured an authentic re-creation of the Terminal Bar from the film, complete with appearances by numerous “toons” that would have provided the area with a fun dining location.
Plans for Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood progressed to the point where Disney advertised the coming land in a variety of marketing materials. In 1991, Disney aired Walt Disney World Past, Present and Future, a television tribute in celebration of Walt Disney World’s twentieth birthday. In that show, actor John Lithgow references a variety of projects currently underway in Disney World. He specifically mentions Sunset Boulevard, then under construction, and noted that “you’ll be able to take a wild trip on the Toontown Transit, a runway bus that hurdles through the cartoon streets of Toontown.”
Despite the clear connection between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and despite the promising initial plans created by Imagineers, Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood never came to be. The ultimate reason for that failure most likely originated with a disagreement between Disney and Michael Eisner on one side and Amblin Entertainment and Steven Spielberg on the other.
Following the enormous success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, rumors of a sequel began almost immediately. While those rumors unfortunately never resulted in an actual full-length feature film, three short films based on the Roger Rabbit characters were developed. The first, Tummy Trouble, was released as an introductory short for the 1989 Disney live-action film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The success of Tummy Trouble was credited with having a significant positive impact on the box office revenues of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Disney and Amblin developed a second theatrical short entitled Roller Coaster Rabbit. Based on the success of Tummy Trouble, and the corresponding increase in box office sales for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, both Disney and Spielberg had eyes on the second Roger Rabbit short to push two different feature films. Although it now seems like an odd combination, Spielberg wanted Roller Coaster Rabbit to be released with Arachnophobia (1990), a spine-chilling thriller based on deadly spiders. Arachnophobia was, not surprisingly, an Amblin Entertainment film. Disney, on the other hand, wanted Roller Coaster Rabbit released with its newest live-action film for which it had expended substantial capital, Dick Tracy (1990).
Ultimately, Roller Coaster Rabbit was released with Dick Tracy. This move created an enormous rift between Amblin and Disney and, more specifically, Spielberg and Eisner. Although a third Roger Rabbit short film, Trail Mix-Up, was created and released with the 1993 Disney film A Far Off Place, the fractured relationship between Disney and Amblin was never the same. For purposes of Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood, this created a significant problem because the approval of both Amblin and Disney was needed in order to move the project forward. Although there is no definitive answer as to why plans for Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood were ultimately scrapped, one can only imagine that the creative disagreement between Eisner and Spielberg played a significant role.
Notwithstanding these corporate and individual disagreements, it still might seem strange that Disney would walk away from an intellectual property franchise that was such a perfect thematic fit for its new park and almost guaranteed to generate significant revenues. One can only imagine that the massive success of the Disney animated films that followed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? played a large part in this decision. A potentially long, drawn-out, and expensive legal battle with Amblin and Spielberg probably seemed unnecessary now that the Disney animation renaissance was well underway, with a wide variety of films and characters available for Disney Imagineers to use that would not require any profit sharing with Amblin Entrainment. As a result, what had seemed only months before like such a sure-fire concept for Walt Disney World evaporated altogether (although no “dip” was involved).
Continued in "The Walt Disney World That Never Was"!