Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Disneyland's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The problem with doing the impossible is that sometimes you run out of money. That issue faced Walt Disney as the July 17, 1955 opening date of Disneyland loomed ever closer. A new concept in entertainment, something beyond a simple amusement park, was relatively virgin territory and a challenge to explore. Right up to "Black Sunday" the asphalt was still drying and the water pipes still being installed. As a consequence, there were more than a few gaps in the list of attractions.

At the time, Adventureland had only one attraction: the Jungle Cruise. It didn't warrant the kind of coverage on the premire television event Dateline: Disneyland that Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland received. A passing mention would have to suffice until a later episode, A Trip Thru Adventureland, and that land remains the only of the original five without a dedication. Frontierland and Fantasyland were, of course, well-funded and brimming over with things, from Snow White's Scary Adventure and Peter Pan's Flight to the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland and the Golden Horseshoe Saloon.

Tomorrowland was somewhere inbetween. Dateline: Disneyland featured the headline Rocket to the Moon attraction and the Rat Pack enjoying Autopia. Dr. Heinz Haber was in the Hall of Chemisty attempting, with limited success, to demonstrate the principles of atomic fisson. Unfortunately but entertainingly, the Tomorrowland segment was the one most fraught with technical difficulties. Still, despite Disney's best efforts, Tomorrowland was largely a dead space.

Solutions had to be found quickly. Monsanto funded the Hall of Chemistry, Kaiser Aluminum was kind enough to fund the Hall of Aluminum Fame, Dutch Boy Paints sponsored the Color Gallery and Crane provided the Bathroom of Tomorrow, but these corporate showrooms left much to be desired. Phantom Boats spun around a shallow slough for that first year and were gone. The Flight Circle featured remote-control planes in a contrived "test flight" environment. Space Station X-1 featured a model sattelite developed by Werner von Braun over a miniature model of the American countryside. Stopgap measures like the Monsanto House of the Future and the Viewliner railway were added in 1957 but the whole thing warranted a redo in 1959, at which time the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage and the Monorail were introduced.

One attraction introduced a few weeks after Disneyland opened and which survived the revolving door leading up to the truly massive overhaul that was the New Tomorrowland in 1967 was the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit. Occupying the space currently housing Star Tours, 20,000 Leagues was an elegantly simple idea. Remembering the splash that the film made in 1954, why not use those now-dusty sets to construct a walkthrough attraction? And so it came to pass.

A more recently-drawn schematic of the attraction.

In these early days, attractions were not included in the price of admission. 20,000 Leagues cost an "A" ticket out of the much collectable ticketbook, or 10 cents paid at the front door. A counter-clockwise path took visitors past scale models used in filming before they entered the dark confines of the Nautilus itself.

The tour took one past the wheelhouse, chart room and various cabins before landing them in the showstopping grand salon. There, the original squid animatronic could be seen through the Nautilus' viewport.

Then past pump rooms and engine rooms to the 11-foot scale model of the Nautilus flanked by Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings of Vulcania. Across from it was the grand finale: the full-size deck set, lodged in rocks to become the final resting place of the Nautilus.

The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit lasted for 11 years, leaving a strong impression on all who were able to see it. It also made for a fascinating exercise in theme design. It would have been simple enough to have created a more straightforward museum-style exhibit of the film's sets and props, but that would not have been nearly as immersive as Walt Disney was aiming for. His new idea for a theme park required that the guest feel like they are stepping into the world of his films. In this exhibit they quite literally did that, walking the same floors as James Mason and Kirk Douglas.

20,000 Leagues was one of the attractions scrapped for the New Tomorrowland of 1967. In it's place, Monsanto took up residence with their Adventures Thru Inner Space, which was itself supplanted by Star Tours. A 20,000 Leagues version of the Submarine Voyage made its way over to Walt Disney World, but the original Disneyland attraction has its strongest echo in Disneyland Paris' Mysteries of the Nautilus. That walkthrough is almost identical, save that it is comprised of replicas.

One last prop from the film and attraction does remain in Disneyland USA, however. In 1966, they were still in the process of constructing a retirement home for 999 happy haunts and this retirement home needed a good pipe organ. When you visit the Haunted Mansion and arrive at the grand ballroom, the ghostly organist is playing a dirge on what used to be Captain Nemo's instrument.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

VEx August Contest - Jim Shore's Steamboat Willie

In keeping with this month's theme of Disney and my contests' ongoing theme of getting rid of clutter that I never really wanted to begin with, our August giveaway is for an authentic Jim Shore sculpture of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie! Tell your friends and neighbours, spread it around the Disneysphere!

To enter, leave a comment to this post and ensure that I have some way to contact you via e-mail (type it out, link it in your profile, however you wish). The draw will be made on Saturday, August 27th at 12:00AM MST.

And the winner is: TK! Check your inbox for a message. To everyone, thank you for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Walt Disney's War of the Worlds

As yet, neither Disney nor anyone else has braved a serious, animated version of H.G. Wells' classic invasion story The War of the Worlds. However, Ward Kimball dabbled briefly in it during the course of the Disneyland television episode Mars and Beyond. Like the previous two installments of the Man in Space trilogy, Mars and Beyond introduced the subject of interplanetary travel by recounting fictional tales of Martian exploration. Amongst those was War of the Worlds.

Their true form.

Attacking in their tripods.

Sneezing themselves to death.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Walt Disney's From the Earth to the Moon

Unfortunately for film fans, Walt Disney's forays into the source material provided by Jules Verne ended with 1961's In Search of the Castaways. The company didn't stop there, finding ample inspiration for theme park attractions like Disneyland Paris' Space Mountain and Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island. For celluloid, however, we are limited to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Castaways.

Yet he couldn't stay away entirely. In both Man in Space and Man and the Moon, Ward Kimball went to Verne to illustrate humanity's fascination with the greater cosmos. Both of these episodes of the Disneyland television series had short, animated impressions of From the Earth to the Moon.

From Man in Space. This animated sequence
transitioned to a clip from Georges Méliès'
A Trip to the Moon.

From Man and the Moon.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Lost Ones (1961)

Most readers would, like myself, probably come around to reading Ian Cameron's 1961 novel The Lost Ones by way of it's Disney film adaptation Island at the Top of the World. In fact, the copy that I was finally able to find at a used bookstore was the 1974 reprint retitled Island at the Top of the World, decorated with the Mouse's artwork.

If so, one would be very surprised by what they read. On celluloid, Island at the Top of the World is a high Edwardian Scientific Romance in which a group of intrepid explorers in their airship - the Hyperion - track down a long-lost group of Vikings living in a lushly green and secluded valley in the high Arctic. Their original goal was to find the errant son of the trip's financier, Sir Anthony Ross, who had gone off to track down the graveyard of the whales. Coming along were the French captain of the Hyperion and his poodle, an Inuit named Oomiak and archaeologist-historian Professor Ivarsson.

Disney's version is a fun movie that doesn't quite live up to its potential. The company actually had much loftier goals for it, with far more daring ideas. The Hyperion was supposed to be, for all intents and purposes, an aerial Nautilus. Island at the Top of the World was supposed to be a new generation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unfortunately it failed at the box office in direct proportion to how far back it was scaled.

Upon reading The Lost Ones, Disney's half-measures become even more obvious as they become even more inexplicable. The first thing one notices is that the novel does not take place in 1907 like the film does. It takes place in 1960. The Lost Ones is every bit a Scientific Romance, make no mistake about that. It is filled to the brim with the romance of exploration, adventure, history and the far-flung corners of the world, with well-studied accuracy in the details and a creative concept. It is a modern-day version of a Scientific Romance, however.

The date is not the only difference. In this short, 200-page dime novel, there is no Oomiak or Ivarsson. They are replaced by the narrator, a whaler named Keith Rogers, and Professor Somerville. There is no airship, though young Donald Ross did arrive to the titular island via helicopter. The rest arrived by pontoon plane and dogsled. What they arrived to was not the verdant valley of the film, but a rocky volcanic plateau populated not by full-blooded Norsemen, but "blond eskimos". Those "blond eskimos" may or may not be a subtle joke, depending on how one takes characters with yellow hair and fair skin and names like "Freyja" and "Loki" but who speak in an Inuit dialect and call the protagonists "white men".

Cameron did go to lengths to further weaken one of the threads of the Disney film. In 1974, Disney chose the stock villain type of the superstitious, primitive shaman to torment the protagonists with his backwards taboos. Rather than nuance this caricature, Cameron actually girds it up with a discourse on how religions form by the economic exploitation of the people by the priests. Especially, the narrator says without any voice of contradiction, the superstitions of savage people like these "Eskimos". It is a trope as tedious as it is fashionable, no less so in 1961 than now.

It is easy to see why Disney chose this novel and the approach they took. Evidently they were looking for something upon which to hang their hopes of a new Vernian romance, and they found it with The Lost Ones. Like how the current Pirates of the Caribbean movie is a loose adaptation of the entirely independent Tim Powers novel On Stranger Tides, Disney saw the skeleton of a plot they wanted and took the effort to purchase the rights. One this skeleton they built up the musculature of proper Edwardian dime novel characters and fantastic inventions while enhancing the wonder and exoticism of their destination. That is all fair enough.

Why then did they scale it back instead of going all out and full bore? Money, most likely, the savings on which cost them dearly.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Matterhorn Bobsleds

As a rather large souvenir of the Swiss Alps and the first tubular steel roller-coaster ever built, the Matterhorn Bobsleds was one of the celebrated attractions added to Tomorrowland in its 1959 refurbishment. When Disneyland USA opened in 1955, Tomorrowland was piecemeal, with only two real signature attractions: Rocket to the Moon and Autopia. The remainder tended towards corporate showrooms and ill-fated temporary fixes. A major overhaul was in order, coming close with The Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage and the Monorail.

The story of the Disney empire's first great mountain began only a year before the ride's debut. In 1958, Walt Disney travelled to Switzerland to film Third Man on the Mountain. Starring Disney regular James MacArthur, who would later star in Swiss Family Robinson, and Michael Rennie, Third Man on the Mountain adapted James Ramsey Ullman's 1954 novel Banner in the Sky about the first ascent of arguably the world's most famous peak.

Sharing a bite with the actors.

Ullman chose to veil the identity of that mountain under the alias of "The Citadel", though there was no mistaking its renowned profile. This allowed the author to invent his own dramatic story deviating from the historical record of the Matterhorn's first ascent in 1865. British artist and mountaineer Edward Whymper regularly attempted the climb since 1861, fascinated by the peak that had for so long frustrated would-be conquerors. For every attempt, Whymper took for granted the received wisdom that the Italian side of the mountain - so-called the Lion Ridge - was the best route to take. His triumphal ascent opted instead for the presumed impregnable Swiss side, up Hörnli Ridge. It turned out that this route was deceptively simple and Whymper's party reached the peak at 1:40pm, July 14, 1865. Tragically, an accident upon the descent claimed the lives of four members of his party.

Third Man on the Mountain replaced Whymper with Captain John Winter, played by Rennie, but the focus of the story was one James MacArthur's Rudi Matt. A frustrated guiding hopeful, Rudi is forever trapped in the shadow of his father, who died attempting to climb the Citadel. His mother and uncle, resentful of the family practice, kept Rudi shuttered away as a hotel dishwasher until a fateful meeting with Winter awakens hereditary ambition. Still, Uncle Fritz does his best to discourage Winter from the Citadel and Rudi from being his guide, and Rudi inadvertently helps him by endangering himself through inexperience. Nevertheless, Rudi overcomes each setback in typical Disney fashion to forge ahead and learn the lessons he needs to rather than reach the goal he desires.

Walt on location.

As previously noted, MacArthur would go on to star in Swiss Family Robinson, filmed the following year. Costar Janet Munro would join him once again as the love interest and both would be directed by Third Man's Ken Annakin. Utilizing the same actors, director and ethnic heritage invites comparison between the two films, though Third Man on the Mountain has not entered the canon of most beloved Disney films.

Digressing for a moment, Third Man on the Mountain was not Disney's first cinematic visit to Switzerland. In 1955 they released a short feature entitled Switzerland as a part of the People and Places documentary series. Ken at Walt's Music has graciously provided an online copy of the soundtrack, which was a double vinyl shared with the People and Places: Samoa soundtrack (again recalling the Third Man on the Mountain/Swiss Family Robinson connection).

Click on the cover to listen.

According to James MacArthur, and evidenced by on-set photos, Walt was enchanted by Switzerland. He would appear in full garb, from Tyrolean hat to lederhosen, ready to tour the stunning Alps. This trip also provided the spark of inspiration needed to address a mounting problem spot within his Magic Kingdom.

Excavated dirt from the moat surrounding Sleeping Beauty's Castle was piled near Tomorrowland and landscaped as a green picnic spot. However, where teenagers mix with poorly lit and park-like spaces, romance is sure to happen. Solutions were being considered, including a "crazy mouse" style roller coaster or a perpetual toboggan hill with artificial snow. Neither of these would be feasible in the long run, but the ideas focused the ultimate solution. An additional concern was the newly installed support beam for the Skyway ride that traversed the park between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Any new attraction on this green patch must also cover such an unsightly practicality.

Matterhorn Bobsleds concept art.

The solution was to bring back the biggest souvenir ever obtained from Switzerland: the Matterhorn itself. At least, a 1/100 scale model housing the world's first tubular steel roller coaster, themed to an exciting bobsled run. One could be amazed that the idea went from conception to completion in well-under a year, except that this is Disneyland we are talking about and the same amazing feat was true of the whole park a few scant years before. Building an 147' mountain as well as installing a working monorail and emptying a lagoon for a fleet of "atomic" submarines was child's play.

Walt posed beside a model of the Matterhorn Bobsleds,
demonstrating its scale with Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Kismet ensured that both the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Third Man on the Mountain would premiere in 1959, the latter a few months after the former. Disney, ever the showman, once again employed his television presence to introduce the world to his new attractions. Art Linkletter was brought back to rededicate the park in Disneyland '59, Vice President Richard Nixon (attempted to) cut the ribbon for the Monorail, and members of the Sierra Club made the first ascent up the Matterhorn to the soundtrack from People and Places: Switzerland. Closing out the Matterhorn's ceremony was a semi-sensical dance number with lederhosen-clad villagers, figure skaters, and a Western hoedown for some reason.

Opening ceremonies of the Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959.

The Matterhorn's external design is a sight to behold and has remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years. As a scale model, forced perspective is used to accentuate its height, with smaller trees placed further up the slopes. At the base are two lakes that not only add an exciting splash to the finish but also act as a natural braking system for the bobsleds' final turn into the loading area. Originally the attraction was considered part of Tomorrowland, presumably for the air of adventure and exploration, but has since found a more comfortable home in Fantasyland. To an extent, the Swiss-Bavarian Alpine village theme of the 1983 Fantasyland redevelopment was based on the fact that the Matterhorn looms high above. This highly visible feature was incorporated as a priceless backdrop for the castle, Peter Pan's Flight and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The queue itself replicates a Swiss chalet, complete with yodelling and the most famous of all Disneyland's safety announcements.

The interior of the mountain left much to be desired until a 1978 refurbishment. Though the exterior was impeccably themed, the interior was an open hollow space that easily broke illusions. Two gaping holes on either side of the Matterhorn allowed for both the passage of the Skyway buckets and massive amounts of illumination. What this light exposed were the obvious girders of the mountain's internal structure, covered with only the most superficial layer of spray-on rockwork.

Recognizing this almost inconceivable lapse in judgement, the 1978 refurbishment closed off the passages that penetrated into the Matterhorn's interior. These were themed to ice caverns complete with sculpted snow and fibre-optic crystals, as well as a brand-new new character. Advertising for the reopened attraction asked "What's gotten into the Matterhorn?", and that was its very own Audio-Animatronic abominable snowman. Different sources disagree on its official name, with some calling it an Abominable Snowman and the late Virtual Magic Kingdom matching it up to the Yeti of Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest. Castmembers just nickname him Harold, or Harry for short.

The Matterhorn's resident Yeti.

Virtual Magic Matterhorn.

In 1994, Disney company vice president Frank Wells passed away in a helicopter accident after a day of skiing. An avid mountaineer, Wells fell only one Everest short of climbing the Seven Summits, or the highest peak on each of the seven continents. In honor of Wells, crates were placed throughout the Matterhorn labelled to the "Wells Expedition".

On a more lighthearted note, the Matterhorn continues to serve as the staging area for the flying Tinkerbell and Dumbo who join Disneyland's nightly fireworks extravaganzas. Accommodating them required a slight alteration to the break-room used by the daily mountaineers who ascend the peak. Yes, the urban legends of a basketball court inside the Matterhorn are true, though it is not a full court. Instead, it is comprised merely of a wooden floor and a hoop. When engaged in their proper duties, at least one of the mountaineers must play the part of Mickey Mouse for a short conquest and flag-planting on the summit.

The following series of Pana-Vue slides were amongst those sold as souvenirs at Disneyland.

The classic view of the Matterhorn
with the Submarine Voyage and Skyway.


A vertigo-inducing view of the climbers.

The abominable snow man.

Another view of the mountain from Autopia.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds endure as one of Disneyland USA's most beloved attractions. Amidst the standardization of the Disney Park's brand, the Matterhorn remains unique. Some plans attempted to copy the mountain at EPCOT for a Switzerland pavilion, but these never materialized. The world's first tubular steel roller coaster can only be found at Walt Disney's first park. It also acts as a local beacon. It was my own first sight of Disneyland from the freeway and the landmark by which I found it again from my hotel.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Tomorrowland '98 in Photos

Welcome to Tomorrowland '98.
Foreground: the Astro-Orbiter.

Detail of the Astro-Orbiter.

The dedication plaque.

To the right, Star Tours.

To the left, Rocket Rods, whose track encircled the Observatron.

The fantastic mural decorating Rocket Rods.

At the rear, Innoventions.

Details of the dimensional mural adorning Innoventions.

To the left of Innoventions, Tomorrowland Terrace and the Monorail.

Behind Innoventions, Autopia. Top: the 1998 sign. Middle: the 2005 sign.

And behind Autopia, the Disneyland Railroad.

To the right of Innoventions, Redd Rocket's Pizza Port
with its recreation of the Moonliner.

And to the left of the Pizza Port, The grand plaza with Ocean Waves
and the bronzed Space Mountain.

Most of these photos appear by permission of Jeff Keller, from his site Digital Disneyland. Be sure to stop by and check it out!