Thursday, 1 April 2010

Discovery Bay

Through the 1970's, Disneyland was looking to reinvigorate what had become a forgotten part of the park. Walt Disney's last big project before his untimely death was New Orleans Square and its two headline attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. After the loss of the mules rides and stagecoaches, the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland was the only remaining headliner in Frontierland, and even that was becoming stale. The contest to breathe new life into the old west was on.

This gunfight at the proverbial O.K. Corral also marked, in its own way, a passing from one generation of Imagineer to the other. The contestants were Marc Davis, one of Walt's Nine Old Men and the master of character audio-animatronics, and Tony Baxter, rising star of the new order. What Davis brought to the table was the Western River Adventure: a boat ride that was to cowboys and Indians as Pirates of the Caribbean was to swashbucklers. Baxter's plan was for a complete overhaul of the land's north end named Discovery Bay.

Boarding the Mark Twain Riverboat, the park guest would pass by New Orleans Square and deep into the frontier. Making their symbolic way West, they would turn the bend in the river and come across the San Francisco-style harbour of Discovery Bay. There, they would see the usual dockside buildings and the mooring of the Sailing Ship Columbia. However, a closer look would reveal the Nautilus half-submerged in the bay and the Hyperion airship pulling out of its hangar. The Disneyland Railroad would pass along a trestle bridge past a giant, sparking Tesla Coil. Towering over it all would be Big Thunder Mountain with its runaway mine train. This would be the West Coast of Pierre Arronax, Conseil and their creator, Jules Verne.

Imagineering's model of Discovery Bay.

It was an ambitious project. The Nautilus alone would have housed up to three different attractions. One would have been a walkthrough of the ship, much like the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit that occupied Tomorrowland from 1956 to 1966, though more convincing of actually being inside Captain Nemo's vessel. The second would have been a restaurant, dining in the grand salon (though presumably without purees of unborn octopus and other such delights). The third, and most interesting given the mid-70's vintage, was a simulator ride taking visitors themselves 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Dining in the Grand Salon.

Echoing the San Francisco wharf setting, Discovery Bay would have included a "Chinatown" with oriental fast food options and an explosive version of the shooting gallery. In a tent off to the side, Professor Marvel would have demonstrated a number of curious inventions and sideshow oddities. The giant Tesla Coils - dubbed "The Tower" - would have been the framework on which a new roller coaster would have been hung. A balloon ascent would also be present.

The Tower and Prof. Marvel's Gallery.

Centrepiece of the extension would have been the ride dedicated to The Island at the Top of the World. Guests would enter the Hyperion's hangar, where they would have boarded the airship to experience what was outlined in the following Imagineering memo, as posted by Jim Hill Media:
Amid the sounds of cold engines and some obviously disturbed chickens, the balloon ascends into a blazing sunset. As the glow fades, a surrealistic lighting effect becomes prominent. The Captains begins to recount the numerous legends regarding the Aurora Borealis, but is interrupted by heavy air turbulence. The First Mate's report indicates that the safest air zone to be right at surface level.

Far below, the outline of ice formations can be seen floating on the dark waters, as the vast ship tips forward and begins to descend. Gradually, the ice flows expand in size, until the shadow of the airship can be seen against the snow banks, pursuing some apparently frightened reindeer.

The balloon continues downward until it is moving amongst the great fields of ice. It is here eye-to-eye contact is made with the animals of this frozen world.

A great field of arctic hares, a polar bear family, seals, walrus, and a snow leopard regard our presence with varying degrees of suspicion. All the while a never-ending procession of whales continues forward toward a great wall of ice. Cut into this wall is a narrow gorge through which the whales continue to pass.

The storms have hampered our planned flight above the ice wall. Therefore, progress will have to continue somewhat cautiously through this narrow channel. The ship is engulfed by the walls of ice -- but before long, the gorge opens into a large crystal labyrinth. Tinkling sounds accompany shattering ice crystals. The Captain gives the order to "Shut down engines!" Even the slightest vibration may set nature in motion. Deep within the grotto lies the seaward gate of the lost civilization of Astragard. Dominating the entrance is a temple of ice -- apparently conceived to pay homage to the great sea beasts (providers of both food and material for these ancients). Huge icicle-draped whale bones frame the eerie scene ... "The Temple of the Whales! According to Captain Brieux, it served as the seaward gate to the Island at the Top of the World ... how strange! It's now only a frozen testimonial to ... nature's ... Good Lord... !"

The Captain is interrupted by an unprovoked attack of whales leaping out of the waters below. "Start up the engines -- pull her up!" The aircraft pulls away just in time, for the commotion has caused the delicate ice crystals to shatter.

Directly ahead lie the ruins of the ancient city of Astragard. Here, amid volcanic-tempered pools, a great people once thrived -- but as the warmth failed, the surrounding ice took a firm grip on the city. The people of Astragard fled Southward, and with them came tales of fantastic beasts that lived in this land. Captain Brieux, who charted this expedition, claimed to have seen several of these creatures -- but was not able to verify his sightings. To this day, only these stone images remain as ... "Captain! The thermal gauge indicates an unusual temperate zone directly ahead."

The Captain is at a loss for words, but the report is confirmed as the Hyperion glides out over a melted ice brink and into a lush Eden-like garden, basking in the warmth of a huge volcanically-fed altar stone.

"The great Temple of Astragard -- for centuries buried and protected by a mantle of ice. The flaring of the Temple altars has once again allowed the grounds to break free to the Arctic skies."

In the Temple garden, the Hyperion discovers living creatures rivaling the most exotic creations of man's fantasies. It is not long before the temperatures on board the Hyperion begins to rise and with this comes the warning that too long a stay could cause the airship to rise up out of control and become lost above in the churning storms.

The Captain ignores the warnings and in the interest of science proceeds deeper into the Temple ruins. He is fascinated with the possibility of capturing one of these creatures.

The passengers get their first glimpse of the Temple interior -- the huge stone deities, and the flaming altars. The temperatures continue to rise. Basking in the warmth are an incredible array of life forms -- even more exotic than in the previous garden. Suddenly the Hyperion lurches upward and into a spiral.

"Keep her down! Keep her down!"

"She won't come around, Sir! She's rising fast!"

Cold air rushes into the ship as it is buffeted to and fro, finally disappearing into the clouds. The passengers are cautioned to remain seated and the airship enters the driving storm. This begins a visual and physical sequence of increased speed and buffeting activity, climaxed in the eye of a vast electrical storm. As the turbulent cloud and wind assault begins to fade, the Captain regains control of the airship and it's not long before the familiar landmarks of Discovery Bay can be seen silhouetted in the moonlight.

The passengers disembark amid the confusion of an airport arrival. They pass a news photographer who is patiently trying to pose the Captain and his newly-acquired friend ... a very strange mascot!"

Baxter was winning out in the contest behind Imagineering's doors. Western River Adventure was put to proverbial death and, not long afterwards, Marc Davis retired. Yet even Baxter would fail to see his dreams realized.

The deathknell of Discovery Bay was the failure of Island at the Top of the World at the box office. Though originally an ambitious film project itself, Island was whittled down to an effort that didn't live up to the hype set out for it. Disney pinned its hopes on it being the 20,000 Leagues of the then-modern age, and it didn't deliver. With it, Discovery Bay was shelved.

However, what is shelved at Imagineering becomes part of the zeitgeist, emerging later in various and wonderful forms. One part of Discovery Bay was built as intended - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - and became one of the park's most-loved rides. When Baxter became the chief architect of Disneyland Paris, Discovery Bay transmuted into the whole of Paris' Tomorrowland. Rechristened "Discoveryland", the walkthrough of the Nautilus was constructed and the Hyperion's hanger became a cafe. The Tower was planned but not built, yet the land more than compensated with the Vernian reimagining of Space Mountain. It also influenced Tokyo Disneysea's Port Discovery area, and Discoveryland turned around to influence the remodelling of Tomorrowland in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

According to a recent live chat with D23, Tony Baxter admitted his regrets with Discovery Bay:
Jd: Do you have a project (that you can discuss) that you consider the one that "got away" and still have hopes for someday if the timing was right?
Tony Baxter: Discovery Bay at Disneyland. And we have seen some of its elements come to life in Paris and Tokyo, but I would love to see the original concept come to life at Disneyland.

Who knows, Discovery Bay may yet emerge from river in the park for which it was originally conceived.

1 comment:

Thufer said...

I remember when there was "A Preview of Coming Attractions" on Main Street in the park. There was the miniature models for Discovery Bay. It would have been amazing!
As a lover of the park, the inability to get this LAND in the ground is truly a lost that all of us must share.