By Craig Leask

In the 1950’s Walt Disney had a dream to construct the ultimate amusement park, populated with unique rides and attractions in a clean, family friendly environment. To finance this dream, he created a weekly television program entitled Walt Disney’s Disneyland (1954–58) which launched on ABC on March 29, 1954. In a unique marketing scheme, the show plugged the upcoming park introducing each episode as a component of the proposed “lands” being created within the park: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland.  Shows such as Davy Crockett (1954–1955) were introduced as a tie in to Frontierland, the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) tied into Adventureland, etc.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland in Anaheim, California opened. Naturally, many of the shows and movies featured on Disney’s weekly program were represented in the park: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949); The Mad Hatters Tea Party (spinning cups) from Alice In Wonderland (1951); Peter Pan’s Flight from Peter Pan (1953); and Snow White’s Scary Adventures from Show White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to name a few of the many tie-ins to Walt’s television series and theatrical films.

When Michael Eisner took the reins of The Walt Disney Company in September 1984 he had a new vision, in a sense reversing Walt’s original approach. Eisner’s vision was to market the existing rides of the Disney parks by developing movies which promoted them rather than the other way around. Some of these movies became immensely successful (Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003) and others were dismal failures (Tomorrowland in 2015). In chronological order, the following explores those movies and the rides they were designed to promote.

Tower of Terror (1997)

The Attraction:  When Disney-MGM Studios opened in Orlando in 1989, the Studio Tour as the anchor attraction – it was quickly determined that the tour did not provide the draw they needed to pull in the crowds. They required a major attraction, a thrill ride like The Haunted Mansion or a Space Mountain in the main park in order to boost attendance.  To fill this gap, Disney Imagineers landed on developing a simple “drop ride” which could be found in most amusement parks.  But in typical Disney fashion, they created a back story and detailed theme to the ride: encasing the experience in a long-abandoned and storied hotel in which guests had mysteriously disappeared in 1939. Once the architectural and prop details were right and the back story complete, Disney Imagineers next addressed the functionality of the ride. Basic drop rides did just that – it elevated passengers then “dropped” them in a controlled fall designed to excite and thrill. Disney added randomizing to their attraction – not only would the passengers raise and drop, they would also go left, right, forward and back in ever changing patterns to ensure no two ride experiences were the same. This new experience was called “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”.

The original attraction opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando in July 1994. The success of the attraction allowed for the construction of similar versions of the attraction to Disney parks in California (2004), Japan (2006), and Paris (2007). The California version of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror closed in January 2017 to make way for Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! in support of their recent acquisition of the Marvel characters.

The Film: I am the first to admit that I am a Disney fanatic and a lover of anything to do with haunted houses. Tower of Terror (even though a made for TV movie, airing originally on The Wonderful World of Disney) fulfilled both of these passions and is actually one of Disney’s better ride to film adaptations. Surprisingly, this was the first of the series of Disney movies to have been based upon an existing ride and the only one to be developed for television.

First broadcast on October 26, 1997 to take advantage of the Halloween market and starring Steve Guttenberg, Melora Hardin and Kirsten Dunst, the film’s story centers around the investigation of the mysterious 1939 disappearance of 5 people (including Sally Shine a beloved child actress) from an elevator at the now rumored haunted, Hollywood Tower Hotel.

For the film, the production team utilized the exterior of the Disney attraction making Tower of Terror one of the few films to have been shot in the park. In typical Disney fashion, this light film is cheesy fun for those of any age who enjoy classic Disney films and harmless plot lines.

Dinosaur (2000)

The Attraction: I have to be honest here in revealing that I never had the opportunity to experience this attraction, and now I know why – when Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 this ride, called Countdown to Extinction, was one of the only two actual rides in this land, which pre-dated my visits. It was a wild ride which sent guests meandering on an off-road adventure throughout a steaming primeval jungle. The ride followed a storyline which centered on a race against the clock as an asteroid barrel towards earth and destroys the last Iguanodon.

The Film: In 2000 – two years after Animal Kingdom opened – Disney released the film Dionsaur on the big screen. This was a project CEO Michael Eisner was very involved in, incorporating CGI dinosaurs with live action backgrounds resulting in a visually stunning film. Despite push back from directors Eric Leighton and Ralph Zondag, Eisner insisted the film feature talking dinosaurs to make it more commercially viable. The result was an awkward blend of superb visuals with very realistic dinosaurs, which was completely undermined by the fact that they spoke.

Although the film has been largely forgotten, it fared OK at the box office, making a worldwide gross of $350 million on its $127 million budget.

Mission to Mars (2000)

The Attraction: The ride Rocket to the Moon opened at both Disneyland (1955) and Walt Disney World (1965) as an anchor to Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland was designed to represent the future – that being 1986, when park Imagineers determined that passenger service to the moon would be in existence and a common occurrence. On the ride, passengers could get a preview of what an experience would be like aboard a Rocket to the Moon. An early simulator ride in which guests could experience the trip through circular screens in the floor, ceiling and circumference, which displayed their voyage from Anaheim to encircle the moon.

By 1972, NASA had launched real-life manned missions to the moon which immediately made Disney’s rides look dated, especially as Tomorrowland had been dedicated to being scientifically advanced. As a result, in 1975 the ride was re-imagined as Mission to Mars, re-using the same building and format with the addition of seat vibrations to add to the experience on the trip to the “red planet.”

In 1992 the ride closed at Disneyland, to be re-purposed as a pizza restaurant. At Disney World, Mission to Mars was converted into a horror attraction in partnership with George Lucas called Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. For the conversion, Disney opted for a low budget alteration of the existing ride, simply outfitting existing seats with special effects, surround sound and adding a “teleportation tube” to the center of the theatre.

The Film: The 2000 movie Mission to Mars was based on the ride at both Disneyland and Disney World which had already been closed in both locations. The movie doesn’t actually mimic the ride, which was no more than a sight seeing trip to Mars. Instead, director Brian De Palma took the concept from the ride and infused an awkward storyline which attempted to explore the beginning of humankind. Critics praised the films visuals but trashed the story and dialogue. 

Mission to Mars had a hefty $100 million budget and a coveted late spring release, which the studio had attached high hopes for large returns. Unfortunately worldwide receipts totaled an unimpressive $111 million.

The Country Bears (2002)

The Attraction:  In 1964 Walt Disney announced plans for the construction of a modern Alpine ski resort to be located in the valleys of Mineral King, a scenic area, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was a revolutionary plan calling for a year-round resort providing recreation and leisure activities to people of all ages.

For this new resort Walt asked Marc Davis (lead designer and animator of the lead characters for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Peter Pan (1953) among many other well-known Disney characters) to design an attraction to entertain visitors. This concept was to be a character-infused singalong attraction based upon a turn of the century old saloon show … but populated solely by bear bands and singers.

Development of the Mineral King resort ground to a halt in 1978 when Congress appropriated the 16,200 acres slated for the development and amalgamated the land into the neighboring Sequoia National Park, which preserved the valley forever from development. However, the Bear show concept Marc Davis had developed was retained and was incorporated into the then under-construction Disney World project in Orlando and debuted with 24 Audio Animatronic entertainers as one of the opening day attractions as “The Country Bear Jamboree”. The success of the attraction led to its eventual incorporation into the original Disneyland California and then Tokyo Disneyland where it opened in 1983.

The Country Bear Jamboree closed in Disneyland on September 9, 2001, with the real estate reconfigured to host “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” attraction, which opened in 2003. This replacement to “The Country Bear Jamboree” never became the success the executives had hoped for. Orlando’s Magic Kingdom and Tokyo’s Disneyland both still host the Country Bear Jamboree and it remains a fan favorite.

The Film:  The Country Bears is a movie based on “The Country Bear Jamboree” attraction in the Disney parks. Although loosely based on the ride, the film lacked the ability to develop the characters as they appeared in the parks attraction. There was also a tired and well used plot centered around rounding up a bear band to save their condemned home theatre from demolition. Aside from the lack of character development, for some reason decisions were made to not include any of the familiar music an audience would recognize from the park attraction. The final nail in the coffin for the film was the limited budget which did not allow for a proper technological presentation of the characters. Instead, the bear characters were people wearing bear suits, developed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, which made the characters appear more creepy and awkward than endearing.

The film was a financial failure, making only $18 million worldwide from its $35 million budget.

Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

The Attraction: On March 18, 1967 Pirates of the Caribbean opened in Disneyland California and was Walt Disney’s masterpiece. Initially designed as the cornerstone of the New Orleans area of the California park, the ride’s success has made it a staple in all Disney parks, save for Hong Kong Disneyland. The designers of the 17-minute-long floating ride mastered the art of storytelling, taking passengers on a beautifully atmospheric voyage through humorous, character filled sets accompanied by the “Yo Ho, A Pirates Life For Me” theme song developed for the ride by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio – just try to get that one out of your head following the ride. Although the original ride, which contains 53 audio-animatronic animals and 75 audio-animatronic pirates, was designed by Claude Coats and Marc Davis, design and construction was overseen by Walt himself. Unfortunately, Walt didn’t live to see the attraction open, having died of lung cancer three months prior.

The Film(s): On July 9, 2003, the epic two-and-a-half hour Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl debuted. Creating a back story to the theme park attraction, the adventure included some of the iconic scenes featured in the ride as an easy tie in. From the first entrance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow to the closing credits, the film is a complex, entertaining movie with great location scenery, detailed sets, humor and incredible effects involving cursed pirates as they move from light to shadow. The action is well staged and highly entertaining, never feeling staged or forced. The success of the film (grossing $654,264,015 worldwide on a $140,000,000 budget) led to the development and release of four sequels: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006); Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007);  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011); and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017).  The total gross to date of the franchise amounts to $4.5 Billion. Needless to say, this kind of revenue cannot be ignored. As a result, there is a sixth installment in the works, tentatively identified as: “Untitled Pirates of the Caribbean Project”. The release date for this next installment has not been publicized at time of writing.

The success of the franchise has led to studio execs adding animatronic versions of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow into the Pirates of the Caribbean rides in all the company’s theme parks.

Haunted Mansion (2003)

The Attraction: Disney’s Haunted Mansion has become a staple in all of the Disney parks, but the one that started it all is located in Disneyland, California. The exterior of the New Orleans style manor house was completed in 1963, and, although Walt Disney himself had overseen the design and construction of the ride’s exterior 6 years earlier, upon his death in 1966, there was no real plan for what the ride was to contain on the inside. The eventual ride is the result of the conflicting ideas of two Disney Imagineers – Claude Coats and Marc Davis. Coats favored the a moody, atmospheric setting of a traditional haunted house which became the first half of the ride and Davis favored more of a comical character filled experience which became the second half of the ride.

There were a lot of drawings and plans created in the planning stages of the ride’s design starting with and then abandoning a back story. Eventually a great number of the original concepts (The Ghost Host, the hanging man, the bride, the hitchhiking ghosts, etc.) were incorporated into the final version which opened in 1969. The Haunted Mansion was the first major project undertaken after Walt Disney’s death.

The Film: Disney’s Haunted Mansion is one of the most classic of any of the Disney rides and, like Pirates of the Caribbean, should have been given a proper film in the same spirit of the attraction. Unfortunately, what was produced was a film that fails to capture the spirit of the ride it is based upon, even while including so many of the original iconic characters including Madame Leota and the singing busts.

The movie begins with a very encouraging opening credit sequence, starting with the Disney castle logo dissolving into the Gracey mansion in its bayou. To the Mark Mancina composed mysterious score, the mansion doors open to reveal floating objects appearing and disappearing into and out of an eerie mist as the opening credits begin and a wordless pictorial of the mansion’s dark backstory is laid out. The viewer cannot be anything but enticed! Unfortunately, the movie quickly goes south as soon as the human characters are introduced.

I must start by stating my bias against Eddie Murphy. I don’t like him and feel his range is limited to playing “Eddie Murphy”. His involvement in the film does taint my opinion.

The sets are intricately designed (and were even featured in Architectural Digest), the costuming is fantastically detailed, and the special effects are well executed. The Haunted Mansion, however, took an amazing premise and opportunity and remixed the plot and back story to create a family friendly comedy that wasn’t funny and a frightening movie that isn’t scary.

The Haunted Mansion did make its investment back making a $180 million return on the initial $90 million investment, but never received the anticipated returns Disney had anticipated. Ultimately, this is a good thing. Otherwise, like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow figure being installed in The Pirates of the Caribbean rides, Disney visitors worldwide could have been forced to endure animatronic Eddie Murphy figures – complete with three-piece suit, tie, briefcase and stupid grin.

Tomorrowland (2015)

The Attraction: Tomorrowland was one of the five themed lands of Disneyland when the first park opened in 1955, As mentioned earlier, when Tomorrowland was designed in the 1950s, Disney Imagineers made a sincere attempt to predict what the world would look like in the then distant 1986.

Over its first decade Tomorrowland was a great success as, among other marvels, the land included the “Monsanto House of the Future”. A spectacular concept home which featured such unheard-of marvels as: picture phones, remote-control televisions, and a microwave oven, features many guests had only read about. The original Tomorrowland truly showcased that “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”, as the land’s theme song (Written Robert and Richard Sherman) promises.

In 1967, a newly conceived Tomorrowland debuted showcasing the glossy, optimistic “world on the move” theme, which was directly influenced by Disney’s learnings from his involvement in the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. In the years since, each park’s Tomorrowland has digressed into catch-all’s to showcase and promote recent acquisitions and new movie releases: Toy Story (1995); Monsters Inc. (2001); Finding Nemo (2003), etc.

The Film: In 2014, trailers for Tomorrowland started showing in theaters. These teasers developed excitement portraying what appeared to be a new and original Disney story. This time not focusing on a single ride, but on an entire land in the Magic Kingdom. Aside from featuring an idealized version of the future, Tomorowland ties back to Disney with scenes from the 1964 world’s fair, audio-animatronics and the Sherman brother’s song “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”.

The first 60 minutes or so of Tomorrowland is not a bad experience. It is original and fun with believable characters and intriguing locations. However, once the main characters arrive in Tommorowland, situations become confusing. This is where evil villain Nix (Hugh Laurie) is introduced but his motivations remain unclear. It is at this point where writer/director Brad Bird – The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol (2011) – and co-writer Damon Lindelof seem to have lost interest in the plot. Instead they focus on the CGI spectacle of this future world, leaving the movie’s story to more or less fizzle out, losing the enchantment it was building in the first half of the film. I am sure an unnecessary proportion of the $190 million budget went to securing George Clooney, yet I am not sure why he was asked to take part in the film and, honestly, why he agreed to it. His name wasn’t required to sell the movie and the part he plays (Frank Walker), could easily have been carried off by a lesser actor.

The film attained a worldwide gross of $210 million – ultimately losing the company between $120 and $140 million.

Coming Soon (… or not)

Naturally, the $4.5 billion global box office receipts to date from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is motivation enough for the Walt Disney Company to continue to explore film projects based upon the various rides and attraction in their global reaching parks. It is this motivation which forms the basis of several projects either rumored or in development. As for the most part release dates have not been confirmed, the following projects are being presented in no particular order.

Jungle Cruise

The Attraction: The Jungle Cruise opened in California’s Disneyland in 1955, featuring lifelike audio-animatronic animals situated along a jungle riverbank. The attraction was and continues to be a hit with visitors and was an early example of the unlimited vision of the Disney corporation and what could be brought to life. The popularity of the ride has ensured The Jungle Cruise is an integral part of the guest experience at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland, all receiving continual upgrades and iterative refinements.

The Film:  Not much information has been released about this movie other than a hint at the plot (a private riverboat is hired to take a group on a rescue voyage through a jungle filled with wild animals, with the hint of a supernatural element, all based on the Disney theme park ride) and the announcement of Duane (“The Rock”) Johnson and Emily Blunt leading the cast. Currently in-production, the Jungle Cruise movie promises an action packed, “Indiana Jones” styled adventure film, set in the 1930’s.

Big Thunder Mountain

The Attraction: The Big Thunder Mountain attraction opened in Disneyland in 1979, followed by a version of the ride in Disney World. The ride was intended to be the anchor to a new Western-themed update to Frontierland. The addition of this latest attraction was in an effort to inexpensively boost the Frontierland persona as pop culture had clearly evolved from a world centered around The Lone Ranger. The “thrill ride” was seen as the savior to many of the parks limitations as the world changed.

Under the marquee of “the wildest ride in the wilderness”, The Big Thunder Mountain is a 1850’s runaway gold mine train traversing through red peaked canyons, waterfalls and falling boulders.

The Film: In 2013, Disney ordered the development of a pilot episode for a TV series to be based on The Big Thunder Mountain attraction, which unfortunately was subsequently cancelled with no explanation given. For Disneyland Paris, a heavily detailed backstory was created, involving a haunting love story centered around the town of Thunder Mesa. This is rumored to be the basis for a future movie, but no further details have been released nor confirmed.

The Haunted Mansion

The Attraction:  As mentioned above, The Haunted Mansion has been a staple in all Disney parks and in each park and thankfully, the experience has remained largely unchanged since first opening – you just cannot mess with perfection.

The Film: In 2010 at San Diego Comic Con, Disney announced a reworking of the Haunted Mansion was in the works being written and produced by Guillermo del Toro. This new version promised to be scary and yet fun. The screenplay for this new adaptation was submitted in 2012, with rumors surrounding participating actors still underway in 2015. Since then, conversations and rumors have ceased. At this point, Del Toro’s revised, gritty retelling of the Haunted Mansion tale is in limbo, but all agree that the Disney ride really does deserve a legitimate and proper retelling.

Leave a comment