In early 2000, Jim Hill undertook a three-part article for his website in an effort to chronicle the Western River Expedition's tumultuous history. It ended up as a ten-part article which, as you'll see below, easily accomplished that goal. And while Jim acknowledges that Widen Your World did the first webpage on the WRE, rest assured that his essay not only exceeded mine both in scope and detail, but that it is likely to remain - given that the artists most closely associated with the project are now deceased - the definitive account.
On Saturday May 20th, 1,400 Disneyland fans will gather in New Orleans Square to take part in the special ticketed "Celebrating the Pirates of the Caribbean" event. These folks will have paid $85 apiece for the privilege of paying tribute to what many call the greatest theme park ride ever created.
As part of the evening's festivities, these guests can attend a panel discussion featuring many of the folks who helped create this legendary attraction. These Imagineers are sure to reveal many never- before- told tales about the creation of the original "Pirates" (which -- even though it's 33 years old -- still regularly tops guest satisfaction surveys as the most popular ride in all of Disneyland).
While the stories these old timers will tell about "Pirates" are sure to be intriguing, it is a shame that the folks at Disneyland's Special Events office won't allow these veteran Imagineers to take questions from the audience. Imagine what sort of queries these guys would get from such a hardcore group of Disneyana fans.
Questions like: "Why is that you guys never made a ride that topped 'Pirates'?"
If master Imagineer (and chief concept design of "Pirates") Marc Davis were still alive, I know how he'd answer that question.
"We *DID* design a ride that topped 'Pirates.' But those $@%$&?#! in Burbank never let us build the thing."
What would Marc have been talking about?
"Western River Expedition."
Just that name is enough to drive Disneyana fans of a certain age off the deep end. First they'll tell you about the model they saw 'way back in the '70s while touring the post-show area of "The Walt Disney Story" at WDW's Magic Kingdom. Then they'll gibber about the amazing production paintings they saw for this proposed attraction and how they dreamed of someday getting the chance to ride the thing.
Normally, Disney doesn't like the public to see concept art from "Western River Expedition" (WRE). Afterwards, these folks tend to ask questions that the current Mouse management team just finds difficult to answer. Questions like "How come something that looks this good never made it off the drawing board?"
But -- last month -- as part of the "Tribute to Marc Davis" that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, the Imagineering Research Center did display some of Davis's marvelous concept paintings for this proposed attraction. And -- as people stood around in the Grand Lobby, marveling what may well be Marc's best work -- that same old question was heard again.
How come something that looks this good never made it off the drawing board?
It's a long sad story, folks. Full of artists working at the top of their form, only to be undercut by guys who only cared about the bottom line.
Well, this time, we're not talking about the Walt Disney Company in the year 2000. This story starts 'way back in the Spring of 1967 ... Six months after Walt Disney had died ... Just weeks after Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" had first opened to the public.
It should have been a time for celebrating. After all, the last attraction that Walt Disney had personally supervised was proving to a huge hit with the public. Record crowds were daily pouring through the gates at Disneyland, eager to set sail on "Pirates of the Caribbean."
But -- back at WED -- the Imagineers were worried about other pirates. Corporate raiders, to be exact. Huge companies like General Electric, Gulf & Western and Litton Industries, who were supposedly circling the company like hungry sharks. Eager to make a deal should Roy decide to put Walt Disney Productions up for sale.
That may seem like a pretty laughable scenario now. But -- back in the Spring of 1967 -- this sort of talk was rampant at Walt Disney Productions. For it was well known that Roy had been actively trying to retire when Walt suddenly passed away in December 1966. The scuttlebutt around Burbank was that the elder Disney was still thinking of packing it in and selling the whole company off to the highest bidder.
Again, given what we know now in the year 2000, it's hard to imagine that Roy would ever think of selling off Walt Disney Productions. But -- in 1967 -- the elder Disney *DID* seriously consider an offer from Westinghouse to acquire the company. Word of the proposed deal somehow got out to Disney Productions employees ... and panic quickly swept throughout the company.
Since folks feared for their very jobs, they were eager -- desperate even -- for some indication from Roy that Walt Disney Productions was not in fact up for sale. But the elder Disney -- who was typically a very private person -- became almost a recluse while he mourned for his brother. For weeks, he'd stay away from the studio -- preferring the seclusion of his Toluca Lake home. Since no one knew for sure what Roy's future plans for the company might be, wild rumors regularly began racing through the company.
Of all the divisions of Walt Disney Productions, WED probably had it the worst in this situation. For work on Imagineering's next big project -- Disney World -- had virtually ground to a halt following in the wake of Walt's death. No one at WED knew for certain when -- or if -- work would ever get underway again on the Florida project.
Since many of the Imagineers' jobs depended on Disney World going forward, lots of folks at WED spent hours on the phone that spring. They'd call their friends back in Burbank several times a day, eager for any new information about Roy and the Westinghouse deal.
Every hour, it seemed like there was a different story coming out of Disney corporate headquarters. Scary scenarios like "Westinghouse only wants to run the studio and Disneyland. If the deal does go through, the Florida project's dead as a doornail." Or "I hear Roy's sick now too. He'll never live long enough to complete Disney World." Or -- worst of all -- "Well, of course Roy doesn't want to go forward with the Florida project. The one guy who actually knew how to build the thing is dead!"
It was a scary, scary time to be an Imagineer. Which makes Marc Davis's behavior in the Spring of 1967 all the more admirable. Other folks at WED filled their days with fear and gossip.
Marc just worked.
Rather than give into the terror that was paralyzing so many other Imagineers, Davis just came in every day, sat at his desk and drew. He worked up scenes for Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion." And -- when Marc temporarily ran out of ideas for the "Mansion" project -- he switched over to making character sketches for the Bear band show Walt had hoped to build for the Mineral King, CA. ski area project.
And -- after he ran through all of his ideas for these projects -- Marc toyed with ways he could improve Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean."
Why look for ways to improve an attraction that was already a huge hit with the public? Marc wasn't entirely happy with the way "Pirates" had turned out. Why for? Well, that Anaheim favorite ended up looking the way today because Disney's "Pirates" ride was originally supposed to be a walk-through attraction.
Strange but true, folks. Then known as "The Rogues Gallery," this walk- through attraction was supposed to have been the centerpiece of Disneyland's newest "land," New Orleans Square. Intriguingly, this pirate themed show -- as originally designed -- would have been presented below ground, in a huge basement-like area below the streets and shops of New Orleans Square.
Guests would have entered "Rogues Gallery" by walking down a steep set of stairs. Once they were below ground, a Disneyland hostess would have lead the tour group past various gruesome set pieces while spieling a humorous narration for the show.
Using a live tour guide to lead guests through a Disney theme park attraction might sound a little strange today. But -- in 1961-62 -- WED had yet to develop a continuously moving ride system like the omni-mover. So the walking tour approach seemed to the only way the Imagineers could move large numbers of people through atmospheric, story-driven attractions like "The Rogues Gallery." (A similar walking tour scenario had already been mapped out that other soon-to-be-opened Disneyland attraction, "The Haunted Mansion.")
The Imagineers were confident that the walking tour approach would work with their "Rogues Gallery" show. Walt wasn't so sure. He worried that – what with Disneyland's ever increasing attendance – there was no way a walk- through version of "Rogues Gallery" could be able to handle the huge number of visitors who would daily try to experience Disney's new pirate show. So Walt ordered construction stopped on New Orleans Square while he and his Imagineers figured out a way to solve "Rogues Gallery" 's capacity problem.
Now please keep in mind that Disney had already poured $3 million dollars into New Orleans Square when he called a halt to construction in late 1961. All work at the site stopped. That foundation hole stood empty -- its structural steel rusting -- for the next three years.
But Walt had faith that his Imagineers would eventually find a way to fix "Rogues Gallery" 's capacity problem. And -- a year or so later -- they actually did.
What ended up saving Walt's pirates was a ride system that WED had originally designed for a much kinder, gentler attraction: "it's a small world." This revolutionary system – which quickly and quietly moved hundreds of guests an hour through a show building by using flat bottomed boats that were gently pushed along a ride track via a clever system of water jets and conveyor belts -- had worked out great at the 1964 New York World's Fair. It seemed the perfect solution to Disneyland's pirate show problems.
This new ride system solved "Rogues Gallery" 's capacity concerns as well as neatly fit into the waterfront theming of Disneyland's latest "land." The only downside of using this water- based system was that there was no way the attraction would now fit into New Orleans Square's basement area it had originally been designed for.
So Marc and the Imagineers had to map out a whole new floor plan for Disneyland's Pirate attraction. They eventually decided to build "Rogues Gallery" show building (which -- by now -- had been renamed "Pirates of the Caribbean") outside the berm. This meant that the basement area under New Orleans Square was now just transitional space -- though which boatloads of guests would have to be moved from the show's first floor entrance area down to the attraction's watery track (and -- once their ride was through -- back up to the unload area).
What made this doubly difficult was that -- since most of the money for "Pirates" had already been budgeted for the AA figures to be featured in the scenes presented in the main show building -- there was virtually no money left to theme the basement area under New Orleans Square. So Marc and his Imagineers had to come up with an affordable way to redress this space.
Eventually, Marc came up with the idea of turning the New Orleans Square basement area into an eerie set of pirate caves -- where the bleached bones of some rascally rogues would be found scattered among mounds of ill-gotten treasure. Walt loved this concept because 1) it set the stage beautifully for the attraction that followed and 2) it was a smart, affordable way to retheme the basement area.
But -- even though guests and his Imagineers repeatedly praised Marc for his design work for "Pirates of the Caribbean's" haunted cavern sequences -- Davis was never entirely happy with the way WED had handled the basement area under New Orleans Square. He thought it was all too obvious that Disney was just vamping in that section of the attraction, killing time 'til the real ride got underway.
Marc vowed that -- if he ever got the chance to do another ride like "Pirates" again -- he'd finally do it right then. This time, there'd be no last minute changes in ride systems or attraction layout. Right from the start, the show building would be large enough to contain the entire attraction. There'd be no more busting through the berm just to have enough room to tell the story correctly.
Marc was eager to take another chance to create at a show the size and scale of Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean." He had learned a lot about what did and did not work with AA figures while staging the scenes for this New Orleans Square attraction. Given how well the more ambitious figures in the ride had been received (Disneyland guests just raved about the lifelike movements of the auctioneer in the "Win a Wench" sequence), Davis wanted to push the envelope of audio animatronics even further. He wanted to see what the wizards of WED could really do if they set their minds to it.
Then -- in August of 1967 -- Davis got his chance. Roy finally came out of his period of mourning and let the rank and file at Walt Disney Productions know that he was *NOT* selling the firm to Westinghouse or any other corporate suitors. In fact, the elder Disney seemed fiercely determined to keep intact the company that he and his brother had worked for decades to build up.
More importantly, Roy announced that Walt Disney Productions would be going forward with his brother's ambitious plans for the company's Florida land holdings. But -- from this point forward -- the project would no longer be called Disney World. In tribute to his deceased partner, the Florida project would now be called Walt Disney World.
This news thrilled the folks at WED. Particularly when Roy asked the Imagineers to come up with concepts for rides for the Florida park that would top anything Disney currently had in Anaheim.
That was exactly what Marc wanted to hear. For he had an idea for a great new attraction ...
OUR STORY SO FAR: Master Imagineer Marc Davis was hoping to build on the lessons WED had learned while creating Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean." But -- for a while there in 1967 -- it looked like the Imagineers wouldn't get the chance to build any new attractions, as Roy O. Disney toyed with the idea of selling the company off to the Westinghouse Corporation.
Eventually, Roy came to his senses and declared that Walt Disney Productions was not for sale. He also announced that the company *WOULD* be going forward with Walt's greatest dream: the Florida project.
Roy then put the word out to WED that he wanted Disney World to have attractions that would top anything that could be found at Disneyland. Marc was thrilled to hear this, for he had an idea for a brand new ride that he felt was sure would surpass "Pirates."
Well, maybe "brand new" isn't the right word.
After all, the attraction that Marc was thinking about had originally been proposed for a theme park Walt Disney Productions had toyed with building in St Louis in early 1963. "Walt Disney's Riverboat Square" would have been the name of the park. And -- had this project actually gone forward -- it would have America's first indoor theme park.
But -- after months of drawn out negotiations with the St. Louis city fathers -- Disney ultimately decided to take a pass on "Riverboat Square." Why? Well, WED could never quite work out how to cram an entire theme park full of rides, shows and attractions under one roof. (Though -- 16 years later -- Imagineers working on Tokyo Disneyland did consult Disney's St. Louis plans as they tried to figure out how to put a roof on top of that park's "Main Street USA / International Bazaar" area.)
Plus a rude remark allegedly made by beer baron August A. Busch, Sr. (At a dinner party attended by Walt, Busch supposedly said that "Any man who builds an amusement park in St. Louis that doesn't serve beer is a fool.") reportedly got back to Walt. Immediately after this, Disney lost his enthusiasm for building an indoor theme park along the waterfront in St. Louis.
A coincidence? I don't think so.
Instead, Walt turned his attention toward the challenges of the 1964 New York Worlds' Fair as well as the wide open opportunities to be found in Florida. All those ideas for attractions for "Riverboat Square" got tucked away in some drawer at WED. Abandoned. Forgotten.
Except for one.
Marc was one of the new guys at WED (This was a just a year or so after Davis had left Feature animation to come work full-time as an Imagineer) when work was getting underway on "Riverboat Square." Since the parcel of land the proposed park was supposed to be built on bordered the Mississippi, Walt asked the Imagineers to come up with lots of ideas for water-based rides. Attractions that built on the history and the heritage of this most American of rivers.
Combing history and water, Davis suggested that the Imagineers design a boat-based attraction that recreated Lewis and Clark's historic journey to the Pacific Ocean. Marc pointed out that a ride based on this trek would give Disney plenty of opportunities to thrill guests at the St. Louis park. As their boat chugged along the ride track, guests could menaced by Indians or have close encounters with wild animals.
Walt -- who had a great love and appreciation for American history -- immediately sparked to Marc's suggestion. He asked Davis to flesh his idea for a "Lewis & Clark River Expedition" ride, work up some drawings that illustrated possible scenarios for the attraction. Marc spent several days in 1963 doing just that. He worked up scenes where guests floated by moose grazing at the water's edge and watched black bear hunt for fish.
Disney liked what Marc had worked up enough to add this ride to a list of possible attractions that the Mouse might build at "Riverboat Square." Though Walt could never decide what he wanted to call Davis's proposed attraction. Should it be the "Lewis & Clark River Expedition" ride or just "Western River Expedition?"
That point became moot when Disney decided *NOT* to go forward with the St. Louis project. Davis was disappointed when he heard "Riverboat Square" wasn't going to happen. He had really been looking forward to fleshing out his ideas for a river adventure ride.
But -- since he worked at WED in the early 1960s -- Marc didn't have time to mourn his abandoned attraction. He was far too busy working on rides and shows that were actually being built. Classic attractions like "it's a small world," "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," "The Carousel of Progress," "Ford's Magic Skyway" as well as "the Enchanted Tiki Room." Marc had a hand in the creation of all of these. It was a pretty heady time to be working at WED.
But that was then. Now it was the Fall of 1967. And Marc had been asked to come up with some new ride concepts for Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Dick Irvine, then the chief executive in charge of WED, had some interesting ideas about which attractions should be installed at WDW's theme park. Knowing that Walt wouldn't have played it safe, Irvine decided that he wouldn't either. Rather than make the Orlando park a slavish copy of the Anaheim original, Dick felt that Florida's Magic Kingdom should have a liberal mix of old and new shows.
So -- while Irvine did "borrow" many key concepts (i.e.: the castle, the hub, Main Street U.S.A., Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland) as well as several signature attractions (i.e.: "The Jungle Cruise," "The Enchanted Tiki Room," most of "Fantasyland" 's dark rides plus Tom Sawyer's Island) for his Florida theme park from Disneyland -- he also insisted that his Imagineers come up with several new rides and shows that would only be built at WDW's Magic Kingdom.
By doing this, Irvine thought that WDW could have the best of both worlds. There'd be just enough familiar about Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom that the 90 million people who already visited Disneyland would feel right at home when they visited the new park. But these very same folks would still feel compelled to fly down to Florida, just so they could check out all the amazing new attractions the Imagineers had put together just for Disney's Orlando operation.
It was a delicate balancing act, deciding which Disneyland attractions should be recreated at Walt Disney World and which should remain in Anaheim.
Take -- for example -- Tomorrowland's "Submarine Voyage." While this "journey through liquid space" had been a favorite with Anaheim visitors since the attraction opened in 1959, many Imagineers felt that the ride really hadn't aged well. Its blunt gray subs seemed landlocked in the 1950s, which didn't fit at all with the sleek new stylings of Disneyland's recently revamped Tomorrowland.
Still, people loved Disney's sub ride. So how did the Imagineers bring this popular attraction to Florida but still keep it from aging as quickly as Disneyland's version of the ride had? Simple. Make the subs an attraction for WDW's Fantasyland. Here, the boats would be themed to look like Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Now every guest could have a chance to voyage "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea." Just by making a change in a location and doing a bit of retheming, a potentially troubled attraction now becomes timeless entertainment. (At least until WDW management thought that "20K" had become too expensive to operate and quietly shut down this beloved attraction in September 1994. What a swell bunch of guys, huh? But I digress ... )
Given how much Disneyland's guests enjoyed the original "Pirates of the Caribbean," today it must seem like the Imagineers had no choice but to bring this hugely popular attraction to Walt Disney World. Not so fast, kiddies. There were weeks of heated debate at WED about whether this Anaheim favorite really belonged in Orlando.
Why for? Because the state of Florida -- which is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the really-for-real Caribbean -- was already inundated with pirates. Much of the earliest recorded history for the state deals with the rogues who reportedly plied the waters around the area. Florida has football teams that were named after pirates (The Tampa Bay Buccaneers) as well as annual street parties that celebrated the salty old sots (Tampa's Gasperilla Festival).
You get the idea now? Pirates are no big deal to the residents of Florida. They were something you'd hear about your whole life when you live in the Sunshine State. Pirates were just not something Floridians get all that excited about.
This last bit of news really worried the Imagineers. For here they had a show that was thrilling guests at Disneyland that sounded like it really might bomb with Florida residents were it to be built at Walt Disney World. Given how much it was going to cost to recreate "Pirates of the Caribbean" in Florida (and given how much Disney was depending on Florida residents to boost attendance levels at WDW), WED wasn't willing to take the chance.
But here's the Catch 22, kids: Even though Floridians were bored by real pirates, they'd still expect Walt Disney World to have an elaborate attraction just like Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean." This meant that the Imagineers had to come up with a ride that was just like "Pirates" that didn't feature pirates ...
What was WED to do?
"Not to worry," said Marc. "Do you remember that Lewis and Clark thing I dreamed up for St. Louis ..."
NEXT THURSDAY: Take a trip over, under and through Big Thunder Mesa as the D-I-G conjures up all three attractions that supposed to built as part of the "Western River Expedition" project.
NEXT FRIDAY: The good news is: It's the greatest attraction WED has ever designed - The bad news is: We've decided not to built it.
OR: How can a Disney theme park attraction be too good for its own good?
OUR STORY SO FAR: Roy Disney had officially put the word out. He wanted the Imagineers to come with attractions for Walt Disney World that would blow the doors off of anything the company has built in Disneyland. Master Imagineer Marc Davis was glad to hear this, for -- having just completed the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- he was eager to build on the lessons he'd learned while working on that attraction.
What particularly delighted Marc was that he wasn't being asked to recreate "Pirates" for WDW. At the time, WED head Richard Irvine and the other Imagineers thought that -- since pirates had already played such a huge part in Florida state history -- an attraction featuring these rascally rogues wouldn't exactly appeal to the residents of the Sunshine State.
What Irvine was looking for was a ride just like "Pirates" that didn't have any pirates in it. Luckily, Marc remembered an attraction that the Mouse had almost built as part of an aborted waterfront Disney theme park project in St. Louis.
This "Lewis and Clark River Expedition" ride had all the elements necessary -- a water-based show that took guests past scenes set in the American West -- for an attraction that could potentially top Disneyland's "Pirates of Caribbean" attraction.
In fact, were this "Western River" ride done correctly, it could possibly push the Disney theme park experience to a whole new level. Now all Marc had to do was sell his idea to Roy and Dick.
Marc's sales pitch was
simple: "I want this attraction to be the best thing we've ever done."
That meant using all the knowledge WED had acquired on guest flow and ride systems while working on "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "it's a small world." Everything the Imagineers had learned about audio animatronics while programming "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" and "The Carousel of Progress." All the secrets that the wizards at WED had learned about staging shows with humor and music on "The Enchanted Tiki Room." Plus the cutting edge special effects that the Imagineers were planning on using in Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion."
Chief among the break-throughs Davis wanted "WRE" to make was in its use of audio animatronics. Marc had personally programmed many of the AA figures featured in Disneyland's "Pirates" attraction. As a result, he was intimately aware of what sort of performances he could get out of Disney's robots, how much more these figures were capable of.
Marc wanted to use this knowledge of AA figures -- along with every other every skill and discipline that Imagineering had at its disposal -- to create the most ambitious theme park attraction that Walt Disney Productions had ever done. If "Pirates" was the Mouse's equivalent of the Mercury space program (When the U.S. first successfully put a man into orbit), "Western River" was Disney's Apollo program. This time, WED was shooting for the Moon.
Marc's ambitious plan initially dazzled Roy and Dick. But -- being the hardened professionals that they were -- they immediately tried to find the flaws in Davis's grand design.
They quickly pointed out that an attraction this large would have to be housed in an enormous show building. Any building that large would be hard to hide as well as eat up a lot of valuable real estate within WDW's Magic Kingdom.
"Not a problem," said Marc. He proposed that the giant "WRE" building not be looked on as a liability but more as a theming opportunity. What if the exterior of the show building were dressed so that it looked like one of those tabletop mountains -- better known as mesas -- that were found in the American southwest? Wouldn't a massive mesa make a great addition to Frontierland's skyline?
Dick then pointed out that -- if the "WRE" show building were really to be built that large -- the Imagineers would be forced to reroute the Walt Disney World railroad around the structure. "Not so," said Marc. Davis suggested that WDW's steam trains actually be routed *THROUGH* the building so that they could play a part of the show.
Roy was awestruck by the size of the proposed "WRE" show building. "Won't you be able to see this thing from all over the west side of the park?"
Marc tried to sell that as a virtue of the attraction. "We'll make the top of the building open to the public. Maybe throw an Indian village up there or something. People will climb up all the way to the top just to take in the view."
Dick then pointed out that -- were Disney to go forward with this attraction -- the company would have to cut back on other rides that they had already in the works for WDW. Chief among these was "Space Mountain," an indoor roller coaster that WED had slated for construction in Florida. Many of the Imagineers felt that WDW desperately needed a thrill ride similar to Disneyland's Matterhorn. "Space Mountain" appeared to be a nice variation on that idea.
But Marc had an answer to that too. "What if we were to incorporate a thrill ride into the 'Western River' project? Maybe have a runaway mine train that rolled across the top of the mesa as well as down along the sides of the show building?"
Roy and Dick were just staggered by the scope of Davis's proposal. The way Marc had mapped it out, "Western River" wouldn't just be a new attraction. Were Walt Disney Productions actually to build the thing according to Davis's plan, it would be like adding a whole new land to WDW's Magic Kingdom.
Roy and Dick had their doubts. But it was Marc's next statement that clinched the deal. "I just want to make a show that would have made Walt proud."
That was all that Roy wanted to hear. He immediately gave his okay for Davis to begin developing his "Western River Expedition" attraction idea.
What follows is a reconstruction of Marc Davis' overall site plans for Big Thunder Mesa, the massive show building that was to have housed "Western River Expedition." Had construction actually gone forward on this attraction, visitors would have entered this WDW expansion area by walking along the shore of the Rivers of America at the western-most edge of Frontierland.
At just about where the "Briar Patch" shop at WDW's "Splash Mountain" attraction now stands, a four story tall mesa would have risen up out of the ground. Here, guests would have had a couple of options.
If they followed the scenic trail up to the top of Big Thunder Mesa, they could visit the Pueblo Village. Here, they could explore recreations of native American dwellings or shop for crafts like Navajo blankets and jewelry. Every hour or so, they have watched Indian dance troupes perform in the center of the village. Or they could just take in the breathtaking view of the Magic Kingdom from the top of the mesa.
Were the visitors to follow the road that ran alongside the mesa next to the Rivers of America, they would have found themselves in the middle of the Big Thunder Mesa silver mining operation. Climbing the steps up to a rickety old train platform, they could have then boarded ore cars for what was supposed to be a scenic tour of the old mine.
This mine train ride would have started out peacefully enough, with a wheezy old johnny engine slowly pulling the guests through dark caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. But -- once the train got back out into the sunshine and tried to make it up a particularly steep hill -- something unfortunate would happen.
At this point in the ride, the ore cars full of WDW visitors would have inexplicably become uncoupled from the johnny engine up front. Quickly rolling back downhill, the ore cars would have picked up speed and suddenly burst into a previously closed off section of the mine. This part of the ride would be the thrill portion of the attraction -- as participants rode backwards through several hundred yards of dark tunnels full of quick twists and turns.
The finale of this ore car ride would have come when visitors -- who had been warned earlier about the bottomless pit that lay at the heart of Big Thunder Mesa's mining operation -- only escaped certain death thanks to the quick thinking of the miner who had been running the johnny engine. This crusty old character would throw an emergency brake just before the ore cars plunged into the abyss. He would then reattach the johnny engine to the ore cars and pulled the guests back to the relative safety of the ride's unload area.
(Yes, you're right. This *DOES* sound like a much more ambitious version of Disney's "Big Thunder Mountain" railway. We'll get to that part of the story eventually. Try not to get ahead of the rest of the class.)
Or people could have wandered into the mouth of a giant cave that they'd find at ground level at the center of Big Thunder Mesa. Walking under a large wooden sign that read "Western River Expedition," these visitors would have found themselves entering the queue area of the attraction, which would have been marked off by clever use of sculpted stone and split rail fencing.
Well inside the show building, people would have exited the man-made cavern -- only to find themselves supposedly outdoors again just before dusk. This large interior room -- which would have served as the ride's load / unload area -- would be designed and lit so that it would appear to be a small canyon open to the early evening sky. Looking up toward the ceiling they would see stars peeking through the purple twilight.
Visitors would then walk across a natural land bridge that would take them over a swiftly moving river that ran through this small canyon. On the other side of the river, they would board wooden launches that would take them downstream for a twilight boat trip through the desert.
But what awaited passengers around that next bend in the river? Here, they would have encountered the attraction's narrator: Hoot Gibson, an affable old owl. Hoot would have welcomed these WDW visitors to the "Western River Expedition," then done the standard safety spiel. "You can't be too careful around here," Hoot would say, "Strange things have been known to happen in these parts." (Yeah, like owls that talk!)
The first strange thing that guests would have noticed was that their boat had begun gliding *UP* a waterfall. Hoot reappears in a tree halfway up the waterfall and talks about how the clouds in the night-time sky remind him of the old west.
Sure enough, the clouds that are projected on the ceiling do vaguely resemble cowboys, cactuses and long horn steers. Hoot goes on to say "Wouldn't it be great if there was a way we could actually get back to the old West? You know, I can almost hear those old cowpokes singing around the campfire now."
The visitors would now hear someone playing a guitar. As their boat crested the top of the waterfall, they would see an audio animatronic cowboy on horseback strumming a six-string. He would serenade riders with the opening verse of the "Western River Expedition" song, a comical country western ditty they'd hear throughout their journey through this attraction. What made this introductory scene of the ride particularly funny is -- just across the river -- a trio of long horn cattle would poke their heads through a split rail fence and moo along in three part harmony with the singing cowboy.
As the boat continued along, riders would pass a chuckwagon -- where other AA cowboys would pick up the song's refrain. As they headed downriver, they'd also glimpse rattlesnakes, road runners, coyotes and jack rabbits who'd chirp, cheep or howl along in time with the music.
Hoot reappears in a tree alongside the river, warning the passengers to be on their guard. While the desert may seem beautiful at sunset, it can be a pretty dangerous place too. To re-enforce this image, two vultures would sit in a tree on the opposite side of the river. Below them lays the bleached bones of a dead steer. The vultures' heads turn to track the boat -- and its passengers -- as they head downriver.
"Watch out for banditos," Hoot says. Sure enough, around the very next bend in the river, passengers encounter a group of singing Mexican banditos as they rob a stagecoach. It's obvious that these men -- who are dressed like a mariachi band -- are bad guys, because they all wear kerchiefs to hide the lower halves of their faces. As a nice comic touch, even the bandits' horses wear masks.
Thankfully, the bandits are so busy separating the stagecoach's passengers from their valuables that they don't have the time to rob the boat passengers. But -- as they serenade the riders as they float by -- the banditos say that they hope to meet again soon.
The boat now floats under a railroad tressle bridge, where -- if the visitors time it just right -- the WDW Magic Kingdom steam train will rumble overhead just as they're passing underneath. (Folks on board the train will get a quick glimpse of the Mexican bandits sequence, which would give them a hint of the fun to be found inside the "Western River Expedition" ride.)
Off to the side, Hoot re-appears -- warning riders that they're about to enter Dry Gulch, one of the toughest town in all the Western territories. The boat now floats right through the center of town -- as a bunch of drunken cowpokes celebrate the end of their cattle drive. These guys are whooping it up all over the place.
As a rinky tink piano player pounds out a ragtime version of the "Western River Expedition" song from the porch of the "Dry Gulch Saloon," a trio of dance hall girls serenade the passers-by. Just down the street, the bank's being robbed. The WDW visitors are temporarily caught in a crossfire as their boat floats between the sheriff and the robbers, who are having a heated gun battle.
Speaking of gunplay, just a little further up the street, two steely gunfighters stand on opposite sides of the river. As the boat passes between them, these ornery characters commence a-firing.
Just at the outermost edge of town, the guest see a cowboy on horseback on top of the entrance the "Last Chance Saloon." This drunken dude happily fires his six guns in the air, as the bartender tries to shoo the man and his horse off the roof.
Across the river, a traveling salesman stands in front of his wagon -- trying to sell patent medicines to some of the locals. A few native Americans from the nearby reservation can be seen in the crowd.
As the boat floats out of town, the WDW visitors can hear Indian tom-toms pounding in the distance. Hoot re-appears in a nearby tree, warning the passengers that they're about to enter "injun country." But Hoot reassures the boat's passengers the local Indians are friendly. All that drumming is because the tribe is holding its annual rain dance tonight.
Sure enough -- as the boat comes around the next turn in the river -- the people see that the whole tribe is dancing around a bonfire. Pounding drums, hooting and hollering, these native Americans do whatever they can to appeal to the rain gods.
Well, that rain dance *ALMOST* works. There's no rain, but thunder crashes and lightening suddenly streaks across the sky. A stray lightening bolt strikes an old dead tree in the forest that now flanks the river. That tree burst into flame. That fire then quickly spreads to several other trees in the forest.
As the WDW visitors continue down river, they now found themselves floating in the middle of a raging forest fire. Individual blazing trees along the river creak ominously and lean in toward the river, threatening to fall down right on top of the boat.
In addition to the fire, the passengers now notice that the water in the river seems to moving faster and feels considerably rougher than earlier in their journey. Hoot appears in a tree alongside the river, saying that there's a safe place up ahead where the WDW visitors can get out of the boat and escape the forest fire & rough water.
But guess who's waiting for the boat to arrive once they come around that bend in the river? That's right. The Mexican bandits. Only they're not smiling and singing anymore. Leveling their guns directly at the visitors, these banditos say that they'll be happy to help them ashore ... for a price. When, of course, people seem reluctant to hand over their belongings, the lead bandit laughs and says: "Then it's over the falls for you. Adios!"
Sure enough, right up ahead, the river ends abruptly as a waterfall. The boat teeters at the top of the falls for a moment ... then zooms down toward the rocks below.
Thankfully, everyone survives their trip down the waterfall. Their boat zips briefly back out into the sunshine at the edge of the Rivers of America, before the current from the Western River gently pushes the craft back into the massive show building. A moment later, their boat has returned to the attraction's load / unload area. These WDW visitors exit their craft. Heading out of the indoor canyon, they exit the cavern -- passing the "Western River Trading Post," which would be loaded up with souvenirs to remind these guests for their musical journey through the old West.
Sounds like a lot of fun, eh?
Roy and Dick seemed to think so. Based on Marc's concept drawings, they quickly okayed the "WRE" attraction to move to the model stage. An elaborate 1 inch to 1 foot scale model of the entire interior of the attraction was built in the WED model shop in late 1969. Those who saw the massive model still say it was one of the most impressive things they'd ever seen Imagineering produce.
There was no getting around it. "Western River Expedition" was going to be the most ambitious attraction that Walt Disney Productions had ever attempted. It was going to take everything that WED had to pull this project off.
Which -- in the end -- is probably what lead to "Western River Expedition" and Big Thunder Mesa never making it off the drawing board.
The Imagineers were already stretched to the breaking point building the rest of WDW's rides and shows. There was no way that they could take on additional project this big and still have the Magic Kingdom ready to open October 1st, 1971.
So Irvine, Disney and Davis had to make a tough decision. "Western River Expedition" *WOULD* eventually be part of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. It just wouldn't be one of the attractions found in the park on opening day.
Instead, "Western River Expedition" and Big Thunder Mesa were slated to be part of WDW's "Phase One." This meant that the attraction would be built within the Florida resort's first five years of operation.
At the time, this actually seemed like a good business decision. The Magic Kingdom and the other wonders of Walt Disney World would draw visitors to the resort during its first few years of operation. Then -- in 1974 -- construction would begin on "Western River Expedition" and Big Thunder Mesa.
Under this schedule, Disney would have a huge new attraction to use to lure back visitors who'd already been to WDW. Best of all (provided -- of course -- that construction on "WRE" was completed by July 1976), Walt Disney Productions would have an all American ride to use as the centerpiece of the resort's Bicentennial celebration.
Marc was obviously disappointed that "Western River Expedition" would not be one of the attractions found at WDW's Magic Kingdom on its opening day. But he was pleased to see how heavily Disney was hyping his proposed attraction. The preview edition of the "Walt Disney World -- The Vacation Kingdom of the World" booklet pointedly mentioned Thunder Mesa as something that was "Coming Soon" to Disney's Florida resort. This same booklet even featured a picture of Marc working on the "Western River Expedition" model.
All signs pointed to "Western River Expedition" as being a done deal. A killer attraction that would soon rise up along the shores of the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. What could go wrong?
Well, for starters: On December 20, 1971, Roy Disney died. Without Roy (who had always been the strongest supporter the "Western River" project had within the Walt Disney Productions organization. Roy always seemed tickled at the idea that he was going to oversee the construction of an attraction that would surpass anything his brother, Walt, had ever come up with), the whole future of the Walt Disney World resort suddenly seemed in doubt.
Particularly high priced projects like "Western River Expedition."
MONDAY: The conclusion of Jim Hill's "Western River Expedition" series -- Learn how Card Walker literally cut the legs out from under "Big Thunder Mesa," saving the attraction's runaway mine train ride, but sending the rest of "WRE" up the creek
OUR STORY SO FAR: In 1969, Master Imagineer Marc Davis convinced Roy Disney and WED head Richard Irvine to take on the most ambitious theme park attraction Walt Disney Productions would ever attempt to produce. "Western River Expedition" -- a comical journey through the old West -- would have made use of every trick Imagineering had in its book. The ride would feature dozens of audio animatronic figures as well as eye-popping special effects. To top it all off, "WRE" would be housed in the largest show building WED had ever constructed.
"WRE" certainly was an ambitious project. Perhaps too ambitious. Due to the size and scale of this proposed Walt Disney World attraction, Roy and Richard decided to hold off on construction of the ride 'til after the first wave of WDW shows and attractions were up and running. That way -- once Florida's Magic Kingdom was completed in October 1971 -- WED would turn its full action toward turning Marc's dream into a reality.
Initially, this plan made sense to Davis. But -- in December 20, 1971 -- Roy Disney died. Then -- for months after this -- nothing that happened at Walt Disney Productions made much sense to Marc.
The Guest Relations staff at WDW's City Hall had answers for all sorts of questions:
"What is Donald Duck's middle name?" (Fauntleroy)
"Is the Swiss Family Treehouse tree real?" (Nope. It's made of steel, concrete and plastic.)
"When's the 3 o'clock parade? " ( Well ... duh)
But one question they kept hearing from Disney World visitors, Guest Relations just didn't have an answer for.
To be specific: "Where's that 'Pirates of the Caribbean' ride?"
Initially, Guest Relations told WDW guests that "Pirates of the Caribbean" was an attraction that was exclusive to the company's Anaheim park and there were no plans to add the ride to Florida's Magic Kingdom. But that answer just seemed to make people angry.
These folks would stand there in the lobby of City Hall, stammering. "But you've got a castle, just like Disneyland," they'd say. " And a Haunted Mansion. And a Skyway. And a Dumbo ride. And a Jungle Cruise. Just like in Disneyland. So how come you don't have a 'Pirates of the Caribbean' ?"
These guests would then just stand there, expecting an answer. Then it was the Guest Relations person's turn to stammer.
Of all the mistakes the Imagineers made while making Walt Disney World (And there were some doozies. EX: "The Mickey Mouse Revue" in WDW's Fantasyland was presented in a theater that sat 500. So how come its pre-show area only had room for 300 guests?), the biggest mistake they made seemed to be *NOT* building a "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction in WDW's Magic Kingdom.
At the time, it seemed to make sense that -- in a state like Florida, which had had more than its share of rascally old rogues over the years -- a ride featuring fake pirates just wouldn't have much appeal to the public. Well, someone sure forgot to tell that to the folks visiting WDW's Magic Kingdom.
When these people found out that there was no "Pirates of the Caribbean" to be found anywhere on Walt Disney World property, they'd raise holy hell. These guests filled out complaint forms and sent angry letters to Disney Corporate Headquarters. Some even made long distance phone calls to Burbank, asking to put through to "the idiot who decided not to put a 'Pirates' ride in Florida."
The Imagineers were flabbergasted by this response. I mean, they knew that Disneyland's "Pirates" was a great ride. But to have people angry -- really, really angry -- just because the attraction had *NOT* made the trip to Florida struck a lot of folks at WED as funny.
Well, one man at Walt Disney Productions wasn't laughing. And that was the company's new President, E. Cardon "Card" Walker. Walker -- who'd picked up the reins Roy Disney's death -- didn't find anything funny about people complaining about the company's theme parks.
Card had spent 33 years of his life working for Walt Disney Productions. Starting as a mail delivery boy on the lot back in 1938, Walker had steadily worked his way up the ladder 'til he became one of Walt's most trusted lieutenants. Whenever Walt had a nearly impossible task that needed to be accomplished, he always turned to Card. And damned if Walker didn't usually find a way to pull the job off.
After Walt died, Roy also came to count on Walker. Particularly in the darkest days of the Florida project, when it seemed like Walt Disney World would never be able make its announced October 1971 opening date. But Card -- through charm, threats and force of personality -- did manage to get the resort open on time. Though he stepped on a lot of toes to do so.
That's why Roy decided that Card should be his successor at Walt Disney Productions. When he was gone, Roy wanted to make sure that the company was run by someone who wasn't afraid of hard work, someone who was loyal to the Disney name. That described Card Walker to a "T."
So now Card was running the show at the Mouseworks. And Walker took his job seriously. VERY seriously. So when he heard that people were complaining about the "Pirates" ride not being part of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Card said " We're just going to have to build that attraction in Florida."
When the folks at WED heard about this, they tried to explain to Walker that they already had a "Pirates"-like attraction in the works for WDW. A big ambitious attractions with cowboys and indians that was going to be just as good -- maybe even better -- than Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean." attraction.
Walker explained that the subject wasn't open for discussion. "Pirates" would be built in Florida -- pronto.
And that's exactly what happened. A site for the new attraction was chosen next to the "Jungle Cruise" in WDW's Adventureland in the Spring of 1972 ( Mind you, this is less than six months after the Magic Kingdom opened). By that fall, the land had been cleared and footings for the massive show building was already being poured. Meanwhile -- over at Guest Relations -- the cast members were all wearing buttons that read "The Pirates are Coming! Christmas 1973!"
Meanwhile, back at WED, the Imagineers weren't exactly enthusiastic about the Florida "Pirates" project. Part of the reason was due to the quick turn-around time on the project. Since Walker insisted that the ride be up and running for the 1973 holiday season, there just wasn't time to try and improve on the existing attraction. So most scenes were just being copied verbatim from Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean."
And when I say most -- I mean "most." Sometimes referred to as the "Cliff Notes version of the attraction," WDW's "Pirates" is only 2/3rds as long as the Disneyland original. The quick construction schedule (in addition to the smallish budget) Walker had approved for the WDW "Pirates" project left the Imagineers no choice but to abbreviate some scenes in the attraction as well as eliminate other sequences from the ride entirely.
This last development angered a lot of people at WED. But no one more than Marc Davis. Here Marc had proposed building "Western River Expedition" because he wanted the Imagineers to push theme park design to the limit. But now Walker was making them churn out cheaper and smaller versions of attractions they'd already made years earlier.
What particularly galled Davis was that WED spent more time working on the entrance and exit areas of WDW's "Pirates" than on the attraction itself. Marc begged for the opportunity to try and make some improvements to the ride. After all, the Disneyland "Pirates" had been programmed 'way back in 1966. Wasn't it obvious that the Imagineers could improve on that ride's five year old programming?
WED Chief executive Richard Irvine initially rejected Davis' requests, out of concern that any changes to the plans to WDW's "Pirates" ride might drive up the cost of adding the attraction to Florida's Magic Kingdom. If that were to happen, Card Walker was sure to get angry. But -- after weeks of his complaining and campaigning -- Irvine agreed to let Marc make a few minor tweaks to WDW's "Pirates" ride.
Working with a miniscule budget, Davis tried to create a dynamic new finale for Florida's "Pirates of the Caribbean. " But -- given how flat the final product turned out -- it's obvious that Marc's heart wasn't really in his work while he was designing the "Looting the Treasury" sequence for WDW's "Pirates."
It was a grim, dark time for Davis at WED. But what else could Marc do? He *HAD TO* help the Imagineers get a version of Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" open in Florida as quickly as possible. Otherwise Card Walker could be unhappy.
And an unhappy Card Walker was capable of doing almost anything. Like pulling the plug on "Western River Expedition, " a project that Marc had devoted five years of his life to, a ride that seemed to be just months away from moving off WED's drawing boards into WDW reality.
So Marc gritted his teeth and did the best work that he could under the circumstances. Whenever things got too rough, Davis kept reminding himself: "They're going to build "Western River." They *HAVE TO* build "Western River." After all, they've already cleared the land over at the construction site. And they put a picture of the ride in the Disney World preview book. So that means it's going to happen. It *HAS TO* happen. Right?"
Who knew that trouble in the Middle East would end up derailing a show set in the Old West?
SOON: The final (I promise) chapter of the "Western River" saga. Read how first the nation's gas crisis, then a 'community of tomorrow' ended up pulling "Western River" 's plug. So why won't "WRE" stay dead?
OUR STORY SO FAR: Roy Disney personally okayed development of "Western River Expedition (WRE)," a massive new attraction for WDW's Magic Kingdom. Marc Davis -- the Imagineer who dreamed up the original concept for the ride -- wanted "WRE" to be the most ambitious theme park ride Walt Disney Productions had ever built. Those lucky enough to have seen Marc's concept drawings and / or view the model of the show say that this water based audio- animatronic extravaganza would have truly set the standard for all theme park rides to come.
Unfortunately, "Western River Expedition" was such an immense undertaking was that there was no way the Imagineers could have had the ride ready for WDW's October 1971 opening. So construction of the attraction was pushed back 'til sometime in 1973-1974.
Then -- in December 1971 -- "WRE" 's biggest supporter, Roy Disney, passed away. Roy's position at Walt Disney Productions was quickly filled by Card Walker, an executive who expected results. So when visitors began complaining that WDW's Magic Kingdom didn't have a "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, Card immediately ordered the Imagineers to develop a version of this Disneyland favorite for the Florida theme park.
This news concerned Davis and the other Imagineers working on "Western River." They worried that -- once Walt Disney World had a copy of Disneyland's "Pirate" ride -- there would be no need for WED to go forward with construction of a similar attraction in Florida.
As it turned out, Marc and the other folks had every right to worry. "Western River Expedition" *WAS* in trouble. But not for the reasons you might imagine.
Nowadays -- when Disney announces with great fanfare that they're adding a brand new attraction to one of their theme parks, then sometime later quietly pulls the plug on the project -- people look for that one big reason that the Mouse cancelled the show.
These days, it's usually the projected cost that causes the proposed project to get shut down (EX: Tomorrowland 2055). Or sometimes it's just that the Disney film that the ride would have been based on didn't do as well as the studio had hoped (EX: the 'Dick Tracy Crimestoppers" ride).
But -- in some cases -- there's just not one big reason why an attraction never makes it off the drawing board. Sometimes, unrelated circumstances combine to suddenly make it seem ill advised for the Mouse to move forward with a project.
Such was the case with "Western River Expedition." Even though this proposed WDW attraction had been announced with much fanfare and its construction site along the Rivers of America had already been cleared and prepped, this water based ride still managed to run aground.
Why for? There wasn't just one reason why "Western River " never set sail. In the Fall of 1973, three or more obstacles suddenly leaped up in the project's path. None of these -- all by itself -- was enough to stop the show. But when they combined ... Ai-yi-yi ...
The first reason that "Western River" never made it off the drawing board was the project's loss of momentum. During the early days of Walt Disney World -- when there were no shows like "Pirates of the Caribbean" to be found anywhere in Florida -- the Imagineers were determined to bring this type of attraction to WDW ASAP.
But -- once Card Walker ordered WED to put a version of "Pirates" into Florida's Magic Kingdom -- the "WRE" project lost all sense of urgency. After all, why should the Imagineers rush to add a western style "Pirates" ride to WDW's Frontierland when the "Reader's Digest" version of the Disneyland original was already up and running in Adventureland?
Sensing that the "WRE" project had lost some steam, Card Walker used this opportunity to try and talk to WED about making some cuts to the proposed attraction. Given that the projected cost of building the entire Thunder Mesa / "WRE" complex was the then astronomical amount of $60 million, Walker was anxious for the Imagineers to find ways to economize on the ride.
For example, Walker was wondering if it was really necessary for WED to sculpt a new set of heads for the AA figures to use in "Western River"? Wouldn't it be simpler -- and cheaper -- if the Imagineers just re-used the masks and molds they made for "Pirates of the Caribbean"?
When Marc Davis heard about this, he found Card's suggestion laughable. These two rides were set in two entirely different regions of the globe. There was no way that the swarthy ethnic faces that the Imagineers had sculpted for the figures in "Pirates" would look right among the all-American buttes and mesas of "Western River." So Marc flatly rejected Card's proposal.
Walker was upset by by Davis's spurring of his "WRE" cost-cutting idea. As the head of a major corporation who had to answer to his board of director and stockholders, Card didn't relish greenlighting construction of an attraction that he personally felt was unnecessarily expensive.
But -- before Card could meet again with the Imagineers to discuss other ways WED could save money on "Western River" -- a larger crisis appeared that threatened not only Walt Disney World, but the entire Disney Company. This was the Energy Crisis of 1973 / 1974.
Youngsters today might have heard about the bread lines in the 1930s. But how many know about the gas lines of the early 1970s? It's true, kids. A decision made in October 1973 by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to restrict the sales of crude oil to the West (which ended driving up the cost of oil by as much as $25 a barrel) initially caused chaos in the United States.
As a direct result of this "Energy Crisis," there were scattered brown-outs in major metropolitan areas during the Fall of '73. For a few months, gasoline was actually rationed (Depending on your license plate number, you were allowed to fill up your car on odd or even numbered days ). Things got so bad that -- to set an example for the American people -- then-President Richard M. Nixon ordered that the White House's outdoor Christmas lights display not be turned on that year.
How did the Energy Crisis effect WDW? Well, given that 70% of the tourists visiting Disney's Florida resort were supposed to arrive by car, this played hell with the theme park's attendance levels. Some reports suggest that attendance may have fallen as much as 15% at WDW during the first three months of 1974.
This news sent Walt Disney Productions stock into a tailspin. Desperate to turn this slide around, Walker knew that he had to send a message to Wall Street. He had to make a grand gesture to show the investors that Walt Disney Productions would do whatever it had to get through the Energy Crisis.
So Card instituted some deep cost cutting measures at the resort in early 1974. These included laying off a thousand WDW employees as well as postponing construction of the Persian, Thai and Venetian Resort Hotels. In addition, no work on major new attractions for the Magic Kingdom could get underway 'til the Energy Crisis had passed.
Which meant that "Western River River" and Big Thunder Mesa were now on hold.
This couldn't have happened at a worse time for Davis and his "Western River" team. For the Disney Board of Directors had become increasing conservative and cautious under Walker's leadership. And now some of these executives were voicing objections to the story and characters Davis had created for "WRE."
The first problem that these Disney executives had with "Western River Expedition" is that the attraction had a western-based story line. (A western based ride for WDW's Frontierland area? My God! What a shocking idea! What could that maniac -- Marc Davis -- have been thinking?! ) Didn't the Imagineers realize that the western was dead as an entertainment genre? There hadn't been a hit western film in years. Even television's most popular "horse opera" -- "Gunsmoke" -- was on its way to Boot Hill (After a record breaking 20 year run, this longtime CBS favorite was finally cancelled in the Spring of 1975).
One of the main reasons that the popularity of westerns waned in the earlier 1970s was that the American people no longer found amusing to watch cowboys shoot Indians. The American Indian Movement changed all that -- with its 71 day occupation of the site of the infamous Wounded Knee massacre.
That event helped sensitize the general public to the plight of Native Americans -- but also put the Imagineers and "Western River Expedition " in an awful spot.
You see, when Marc Davis had done his original character designs for "WRE," he had brutally caricatured *ALL* aspects of the western genre. So all of the ride's cowboys were lean, lanky galoots; his dance hall girls were bosomy floozies; his Mexican bandits all had huge mustaches and shiny gold teeth. And Marc's Indians ...
Do you remember Princess Tiger Lily and the Indian Chief from Disney's "Peter Pan?" Those cartoon "redskins" with their long skinny necks, huge noses and beady little eyes? Well, if you've seen the Indian characters from that film, you've pretty much seen what Marc Davis came up with for the raindance sequence in "WRE."
Now -- in today's politically correct times (where people bend over backwards in an effort not offend anyone) -- some sensitive souls might view Marc's "WRE" Indians as being racially insensitive. A more reasonable individual might point out that *ALL* of the characters Davis designed for "Western River" are broad comic caricatures. Not *JUST* the Indians.
But, back then, the Disney executives don't know from political correctness. They just knew that -- if they opened a ride at WDW that featured Indian AA figures that were as brutally caricatured as Marc intended them to be -- Native American protesters were sure to come picket the park. Which would draw a lot of media attention to the new attraction. Which was just the sort of publicity for their Florida resort that the Mouse *WASN'T* looking for.
Wouldn't it be simpler -- these Disney executives suggested -- just to ditch all this Wild West stuff and come up with a thrill ride for the park?
Marc and his "WRE" design team laughed at the executives' suggestion. I mean, they were joking, right?
It's no joke, folks. This series will continue on into next week. Sorry to keep stringing you along, but -- I promise -- the "Western River" saga *WILL* wrap up next week. Thanks again for all your patience.
NEXT TIME: Thunder Mesa falls as Thunder Mountain rises as the "Expedition" heads to Californy
OUR STORY SO FAR: If you've read Part I - V, you've already have a pretty good understanding of the history of "Western River Expedition." At least from the Marc Davis point of view. So there's no need for me to do yet another recap.
But please be aware that Imagineering is a highly collaborative place. People of all ages -- from all walks of life -- work there. And these folks don't always get along.
Imagineers often have disagreements about how certain theme park attractions should be constructed. These spirited discussions usually lead to better rides and shows for the public. But sometimes, people's feelings get hurt in the process.
Such a thing happened during the latter development phases of "Western River Expedition." An off-hand remark by a then-junior member of the Imagineering team accidentally derailed WED's grand plans for Thunder Mesa. What rose up in its place was a thrill ride that has become so popular that versions of it can be found at all four Disney resorts worldwide.
This was an attraction that made that young Imagineer's career. But -- in the process -- this thrill ride crushed another man's dream. As a result, this senior WED employee held a grudge against this younger man for over 25 years.
Not exactly a tale you'd expect to hear about two guys who work on "The Happiest Place on Earth." But it's a true story, kids. So sit back and enjoy the next exciting chapter in the never- ending "Western River Expedition" saga.
"I don't like it," said Tony Baxter.
Standing beside the model he'd been laboring over for weeks now, Baxter's comment shocked his bosses at WED. After all, who was this young kid to be passing judgment on the company's theme park plans.
Tony Baxter was part of the new breed at WED. Hired in 1970 while Walt Disney Productions was beefing up its Imagineering staff to handle the Florida project, Tony was an Orange County kid who'd practically grown up at Disneyland.
As a youngster, Baxter made so many visits to the Anaheim theme park that he memorized most of the park's original attractions. This was a skill that he'd use to amaze -- and sometimes frighten -- family and friends. After watching a Fantasyland ride vehicle enter its show building, young Tony could predict -- sometimes down to the second -- when that particular ride vehicle would exit its attraction.
While in high school, Baxter furthered his knowledge of Disneyland by becoming a cast member. Starting out in 1965 as a street sweeper at the park, Tony eventually worked his way up to ice cream scooper at the Carnation Plaza Gardens before finally moving over to Tomorrowland. There, he worked as a ride operator on "Journey Thru Inner Space."
After graduating from California State University - Long Beach with a degree in theatrical design, Baxter landed his dream job when he was hired by WED in 1970. Now Tony would no longer be just a visitor or employee at Disneyland. He was one of the folks who was entrusted with "imagineering" new rides and shows for the park. It was a job Baxter took very seriously.
Tony's enthusiasm for his initial assignments soon caught the eye of master Imagineer Claude Coats. Coats -- best known today for the superb atmospheric settings he created for Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion" -- soon became Baxter's mentor, teaching Tony all the tricks of the Imagineering trade.
Despite the great difference between their ages (Baxter was just 23, while Coats was in his 60s) and experience, Claude and Tony were began working together on Fantasyland attractions for Walt Disney World. Coats was so impressed with Baxter's attention to detail on scenery the young man designed for "Snow White's Scary Adventure" that he arranged for Tony to receive a field assignment.
And that's how Baxter ended up Orlando in the summer of 1971, telling 50 year old contractors how to sculpt rocks and reefs for that park's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." It was on this particular project that Tony learned a lot about the proper placement of props and mechanized figures on Disney theme park attraction. Put too few in one area, the guest feels cheated. Put too many and the guest gets confused, doesn't know where to look. The knowledge Baxter gained from his "20K" field installation experience came in handy a lot sooner than he thought it would.
Once Walt Disney World opened, Baxter returned to Glendale to find that -- now that the Florida project was up and running -- WED no longer needed so many Imagineers. So, as Walt Disney Productions began laying off all its new hires, Tony became terrified that his Imagineering career would be over just as it was getting started.
But Claude Coats -- who had grown fond of Baxter -- called in a few favors and got Tony a job in WED's model shop. Here, Baxter worked on models for many of WDW's proposed "Phase I" attractions. Chief among these was Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mesa.
Tony actually enjoyed working on the model for WDW's Space Mountain. Given that an elaborate marble maze he had constructed for his own amusement had helped land Tony his job at WED, Baxter got a kick out of the idea that he was actually being paid to build yet another small scale roller coaster.
But Big Thunder Mesa was another matter entirely. Having spent his first few years at WED basically as Claude Coats' apprentice, Tony had trouble adjusting to working with Marc Davis. Claude was a gentle and generous man, willing to politely take the time to listen to whatever ideas another Imagineer had to offer.
Davis -- on the other hand -- was a task master. Marc had designed each and every aspect of Big Thunder Mesa and expected its model to meet all of his exacting specifications. Any suggestions Tony would offer to improve the attraction, Marc would immediately dismiss. After all, what could this 25 year old kid know about designing theme park attractions?
It was a very frustrating time for Baxter, who -- after begging to be given some part of Thunder Mesa to do on his own -- eventually ended up with the runaway train ride. Unfortunately for Tony, Davis had envisioned this piece of the proposed Frontierland addition as the show building's secondary attraction. Meaning that he would not allow Baxter to make Thunder Mesa's train ride so entertaining that it would potentially over-shadow or out-shine "Western River Expedition."
That's maybe not the nicest thing to say about Marc Davis. But please understand that Davis was an artist, and all artists have egos. Having labored for five years to bring "Western River Expedition" to life, Marc was determined that his dream attraction wouldn't end up being upstaged by some little runaway train ride.
Even with these Davis-imposed limitations, Baxter still turned in some beautiful designs for Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride. Tony even recycled Claude Coat's designs for the "Rainbow Caverns" sequence from Disneyland's "Mine Trains Through Nature's Wonderland" to give this proposed Florida attraction a snazzy opening sequence.
But still Baxter found himself frustrated by the circumstances he was working under. Tony knew that -- if he were just given half a chance -- that he could make Big Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride into something really special. That chance came unexpectedly in the spring of 1974, when Disney Chairman Card Walker, WED head Dick Irvine and several other senior executives from Walt Disney Productions stopped by the model shop one afternoon.
This was a particularly crucial time for the "Western River" project. Walt Disney Productions was still reeling from the effects of the energy crisis. Walker had responded to the nation's fuel problems by putting all future development for the company's Florida resort -- including Thunder Mesa -- on hold.
But now gas prices had begun sliding down again. This meant that Walker could consider unfreezing future projects for Walt Disney World. But which project should the Disney CEO let thaw out, and which plans should he permanently assign to the deep freeze?
That's why Walker, Irvine and his cronies were touring WED. They were trying to decide which shows they should go forward with and which projects they should table -- permanently. With this in mind, the Disney brass walked into the WED model shop and found themselves dazzled by the Big Thunder Mesa and "Western River Expedition" models.
Anyone who ever saw these models still comments on how beautiful they were. The "Western River" model had all these richly detailed miniature versions of the ride's sets and figures. The Thunder Mesa model was a beautiful little tabletop mountain with a miniature version of Tony's runaway train ride rolling through its caves and canyons.
Impressed by all the time and effort that Baxter had obviously put into the Thunder Mesa model, Walker complimented Tony on his craftsmanship. Card was surprised when Baxter shrugged off his compliment.
"What's the matter?," Walker asked. "Don't you like the ride?"
"No," Tony replied. "I don't like it."
Baxter went on to explain what he felt were the flaws with Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride. Chief among the attraction's flaws -- in Tony's eyes, anyway -- was that the ride didn't really tell a story and the its thrill element were introduced too late in the game. Wouldn't it be better if Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride were exciting right from the get go, with suspenseful scenes all along the way that built a thrilling climax?
Tony then quickly explained how *HE* would have designed a runaway train ride for Thunder Mesa. Using all the lessons he'd learned while putting together WDW's "20,000 Leagues," Baxter spoke of atmospheric scenes like coyotes howling on high bluffs, dinosaur bones that stick out along the train's route as well as a dramatic cave-in finale.
Baxter was pleased that Card seemed entertained by his ideas for Thunder Mesa's runaway train ride. But he was floored by Walker's next suggestion. Card then asked Tony to work up some plans for his proposed attraction -- *NOT* as an extra added feature for Thunder Mesa, but as a stand-alone ride that would compete for "WRE" 's Frontierland construction site.
Walker had quickly grasped the innate appeal of Baxter's runaway train ride idea. Here was an attraction that would make an easy fit for the area's theming. It would also quickly add a new thrill ride into the park's line-up of shows and attractions (something that recent guest surveys had suggested that WDW's Magic Kingdom was lacking). More importantly, this runaway train ride could probably be built for about a third of what Marc Davis was asking for "Western River Expedition."
That alone was reason enough for Walker and Irvine to give Baxter the go- ahead to develop his runaway train ride idea as a potential replacement for "Western River Expedition."
When Davis heard about what had happened, he was livid. Here was Baxter -- the young Imagineer who was supposed to be helping Marc get his long proposed Frontierland attraction off the drawing board -- who ends up convincing Card Walker to allow him to develop a different attraction for the very construction site along WDW's Rivers of America.
Tony tried to apologize, explaining that he hadn't intentionally stolen Marc's thunder (figuratively as well as literally). But Davis could not be assuaged. For the 25 years that followed this incident, Marc held a grudge against Baxter -- insisting that the young Imagineer had deliberately undercut his "Western River" project.
Time and again, Tony tried to make it up to Marc (Davis' "America Sings" figures turn up in Baxter's "Splash Mountain" not by accident, kids. Tony was even then -- 10 years later, in 1983 -- still trying to make it up to Marc. This gesture didn't work, though. We'll cover this part of the story in greater detail in our next installment), but to no avail.
So now there are two western themed attractions competing for the exact same spot along WDW's Rivers of America. Only one can be built.
Guess what happens next, kids?
MONDAY: "Western River" finally, officially gets its plug pulled.
So why won't this proposed WDW attraction die already?
OUR STORY SO FAR: 75 years of films, TV shows and videos have taught us that all Disney stories end happily, right?
Well, not this time, kiddies.
After five years of hard work and planning, Marc Davis watched as his dream project -- "Western River Expedition," an audio animatronic extravaganza that could have been the best thing WED ever did -- slowly fell from favor.
But what could Marc do? Times had changed. Where once Disney theme park guests had gone gaga over elaborately themed attractions like "Pirates of the Caribbean," now the big draws at the park were sleek thrill rides like "Space Mountain."
So -- in spite of the fact that its construction site had already been cleared and that his proposed attraction had been heavily hyped as "Coming Soon" to WDW's Magic Kingdom -- Davis had to face facts. "Western River Expedition" wasn't going to happen. At least not in Florida.
But was there a chance that his dream attraction might find a home elsewhere? Like -- say -- that other Disney theme park in California?
For a while there, it really did seem possible.
Things just don't get much more ironic than this.
"The Walt Disney Story" opens at WDW's Magic Kingdom in April 1973. As part of the post-show area of this attraction, the Imagineers spent several thousand dollars to create an elaborate exhibit that proclaimed "Western River Expedition" as the next big thing for the Florida resort.
Meanwhile, back at corporate headquarters in Burbank, Disney Chairman Card Walker was trying to save the company several million dollars by canceling the attraction altogether.
But what could Card do? For five years now, the Mouse had been saying that "Western River Expedition" ("WRE") would be "Coming Soon" to Walt Disney World. As a result, the proposed ride had a lot of folks -- both inside and outside of the company -- who eagerly awaiting the arrival of the attraction. These people wouldn't be too pleased if Disney didn't deliver after all those years of hype.
The gas crisis had bought Card a little time. Then the emergence of Tony Baxter's plans for "Big Thunder Mountain Railway" had given Walker an affordable alternative attraction to build in WDW's Frontierland.
But what about "Western River Expedition"? Did Walker dare to just cancel the project outright? Given that Roy Disney himself had put "WRE" into development, that didn't seem like the politically savvy thing to do.
Plus -- given that Marc Davis was considered to be a genius by many at WED -- pulling the plug on this proposed attraction was almost sure to cause an uproar at Imagineering.
Card couldn't afford to get into a war with WED in late 1973 / early 1974. Walker needed to keep all of his Imagineers happy so that they help him figure out how to pull off Epcot. (Back then, Card didn't have a clue as to how to go about building Walt's future city.)
So Walker did what most every good corporate leader does when faced with a tough situation: Rather than do something that might potentially come back and bite him in the ass, Card made a decision not to decide. So the WDW's "Western River Expedition" attraction were never officially canceled. Plans for the proposed ride were just put on hold. Permanently.
Marc Davis found this situation absolutely maddening. He wasn't going to allow five years of work just to be swept under the rug by some cute corporate maneuvering by Card. So Davis did whatever he had to, to keep "Western River" alive.
The first thing Davis did was sell the folks in charge of Disneyland on the idea that "WRE" might make a nice addition to the Anaheim park. Marc must have done a pretty good job -- for, in the December 1974 issue of "Backstage" magazine (A quarterly publication produced *BY* Disneyland cast members *FOR* Disneyland cast members) -- there's an article that lists the many different attractions that were then under consideration for construction in "The Happiest Place on Earth."
Among these attractions was:
* "Space Mountain" -- an Anaheim version of the then-still-under-construction WDW thrill ride.
* "Mission to Mars" -- a redo of Disneyland's "Flight to the Moon" attraction.
* "Pinocchio's Village" -- a proposed expansion of Fantasyland, which would feature a new dark ride as well as a new restaurant location.
* "Liberty Square" -- which would have included WDW's "Hall of Presidents."
* "The UFO Show" -- which would have been staged upstairs over "America Sings." Aired with air guns, guests would have boarded cars and tried to shoot "eerie, un- human, gremlin- like targets."
(Sound like any modern day WDW Tomorrowland attractions you know? That's right. "Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin." It only took 25 years, but this unusual attraction idea did finally make it off the drawing board.)
* "Western River Expedition" -- Just like the version that had been originally been proposed for construction in Frontierland at WDW's Magic Kingdom. In Anaheim, "WRE" was being viewed as a possible replacement for the "Mine Trains through Nature's Wonderland" ride.
Unfortunately for Marc, WED also had another candidate for that valuable piece of Disneyland real estate. Which ride was this? You guess it, kids.
Tony Baxter's "Big Thunder Mountain Railway."
It's important to note here that Disneyland management didn't do this just to humor Marc Davis. They must have seriously considered adding "Western River Expedition" to the Anaheim park. For a few years in the mid-1970s, the "Disneyland Showcase" preview center actually featured a "WRE" model as well as some of Marc's concept paintings.
But -- if Card wasn't willing to spend the money to build "Western River" in Orlando -- what made Marc think that Walker would ever cough up the cash to build the same show in Anaheim? Why make all this effort when it was obvious that "WRE" wasn't ever going to happen while Card was calling the shots?
No one -- outside of Marc himself -- knew what drove Davis to be so dogged about "Western River." A lot of the older Imagineers admired Marc for his determination. (However, it should also be noted that some of the younger folks at WED thought Davis' endless attempts to get "WRE" built verged on ridiculous.)
Mind you, Marc didn't spend all of his time between 1974 - 1978 just trying to get Disneyland's version of "Western River Expedition" off the ground. He also worked up a new show for that park's "Carousel of Progress" theater: "America Sings."
This audio animatronic tribute to American popular song opened in June 1974. Intended to be the signature attraction for Disneyland's Bicentennial celebration, Marc really pulled out the stops with "America Sings" -- designing over a hundred new AA figures for the show. Thanks to Marc's intimate knowledge of what Disney's robotic figures were capable of, Davis had his "AS" characters do things no AA figures had ever done before: dance, strum electric guitars, even walk upstairs.
Marc also worked up plans for a wonderful new ride-through attraction for Disneyland's Fantasyland: "The Enchanted Snow Palace." Riding in boats similar to those featured in "it's a small world," guests would have taken a cool but colorful trip through a winter wonderland. As music from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite" echoed through the glacier- shaped show building, guests would have glimpsed lovely snow fairies, encountered horrible ice giants as well as made a trip through the chilly chambers of the Snow Queen.
Davis also worked up concepts for a new set of AA animal sequences to be added to Disneyland's "Mine Trains through Nature's Wonderland" ... until he learned that Disneyland had decided to close Anaheim's mine trains to make way for Tony Baxter's "Big Thunder Mountain Railway."
Not "Western River," mind you. But "Big Thunder Mountain."
Marc was doubly disappointed when he learned that Walker had just cut a deal with the Oriental Land Company to build another Disneyland. Davis knew that the Japanese were just wild about the American west. So he proposed to WED management that they show his "Western River Expedition" plans to the Japanese businessmen who were funding the Tokyo Bay project.
What Marc heard next broke his heart.
"Actually, what the Oriental Land guys would prefer is 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' But they don't want a special Japanese version. They say they just want an exact duplicate of the Disneyland ride."
Not a new ride. Not even an improved version of an old ride. But an exact duplicate of Disneyland's then 11 year old "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride.
Marc had had enough. For 10 years, he'd been trying to get WED and Disney Productions management to take on "Western River Expedition," a project that would have challenged the Imagineers to do their best work ever.
The Mouse wasn't interested in attractions like that. Back then, all they wanted was affordable new thrill rides for the park and / or faithful recreations of decade old attractions.
Rather than keeping fighting, Davis packed it in in 1978. Since being an Imagineer just wasn't much fun anymore, Marc retired from WED and went home.
All his wonderful concept drawings for "Western River Expedition" were filed away in the Imagineering Research Library. All the miniature Thunder Mesas were stashed on the back shelves of WED's model shop. Even the "WRE" model in the post-show area of WDW's "Walt Disney Story" was hidden away from sight.
And that should have been the end of "Western River Expedition."
But it wasn't ...
NEXT: The final chapter in this eight part saga. Learn how a great idea never really dies at WDI.
OUR STORY SO FAR: Marc Davis was tired. Tired of the excuses he kept getting as to why "Western River Expedition" (WRE) wasn't getting built. Tired of having his other new attraction ideas never make it off the drawing board. Most of all, Marc was tired of repeating himself.
So -- when Davis was asked to do yet another version of Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction for Tokyo Disneyland -- Marc decided it was time to pack it in. So Davis retired from Walt Disney Productions in 1978, preferring to work at home on two book projects: "The Bite of the Crocodile," a collection of Marc's New Guinea inspired paintings, as well as "The Anatomy of Motion," a volume that will someday be considered *THE* drawing reference book for animators.
So -- with Marc Davis, "WRE" 's biggest champion. gone -- "Western River" should have just faded away, right? With all its models packed away, its concept drawings stuffed in filing cabinets at WED, there was no reason why anyone at Imagineering should have still been talking about this dead- in- the- water, never- to- be- built ride. Right?
But they did. And they do. Even today at WDI, Marc's concept drawings for "Western River" are regularly pulled out of the files by folks at WDI and still "Oohed" and "Aahed" over. The Imagineers look to this material for inspiration (as well as for ideas to incorporate into other Disney theme park attractions. )
Which attractions? Funny you should ask...
The heads at WED should have known they were in trouble after the robbery.
After all, how many times before had someone stolen *ALL* the figurines from a scale model of a proposed attraction? One or two figurines disappearing? That was understandable. It happened all the time. (The guys working in Imagineering tend to be a sentimental lot. They're always taking home a little something to remind them of a show or attraction they've just worked on.)
But nothing on this scale had ever happened before. Folks working in the WED model shop in 1975 returned from a three day weekend to find that every figurine from the 1" to 1' "Western River Expedition" model had disappeared. Mind you, we're talking about over 100 eight inch tall, hand painted and sculpted figures. It would take thousands of dollars -- and hundreds of man hours -- to replace all these figurines.
Given the number of figures missing -- as well as the high security complex these items were stolen out of -- this was obviously an inside job. But who at WED would be nutty enough to have snagged all these "Western River" figurines? Disney security investigated the case for months, but could never find the culprit.
Years later -- in the mid 1980s -- two of these "Western River Expedition " figures (a medicine man as well as a drummer from the Indian village rain dance sequence) turned up in an auction held by the Howard Lowery gallery. Initially, there was hope that these two figures might help solve this 10 year old caper. Alas, these two "WRE" pieces had been placed in the auction from a reputable Disneyana dealer. He had purchased them from a third party who had no knowledge of the figurines' shady past .. or what might have become of the other 100+ "Western River" figures.
But this was the sort of madness that "WRE" inspired in Imagineers. If they couldn't get the actual attraction built, they'd steal pieces of the model. Or they'd quietly slip scenes from the proposed attraction into other Disney theme park shows. All out of love for Marc's designs for the attraction.
Take -- of example -- Epcot's "World of Motion" ride. Though noted Disney animator Ward Kimball had done some preliminary design work on this attraction, it quickly became obvious that Ward didn't have what it takes to be an Imagineer. So WED quietly made a call to Marc Davis in early 1980, asking him he'd be willing to unretire for a few weeks and help them get this GM sponsored ride back on track.
Davis initially said "No." He had heard that Card Walker was up to his old tricks, asking the Imagineers to recycle masks and molds from other Disney attractions so that the Mouse could save some money on the "World of Motion" AA figures. (Indeed, many of the faces used on the figures in the GM ride were painfully familiar to Marc. They were the very same masks that he had had Blaine Gibson sculpt for Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" back in 1966 -- some 14 years earlier. ) Davis wanted no part of another Disney AA attraction that would be done on the cheap.
But then the show producers of "World of Motion" took Marc to lunch. After a few drinks, these Imagineers admitted that it wasn't much fun using old faces on the new AA figures in their GM ride. So these guys decided that they wanted to pull a fast one on Card Walker. And they needed Davis' help to pull it off.
Do you remember the "Train Robbery" sequence in GM's "World of Motion?" It featured some broadly comic western characters -- masked bandits, the schoolmarm, a heroic sheriff with a tin badge on his chest -- in a setting that featured a steam train as well as the bright red rocks of the American Southwest. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
It should. It's just the Imagineers paying tribute to "Western River Expedition," with a scene created by Marc Davis himself. True, it's not really a sequence that was slated to go into the original attraction. The train scene in "World of Motion" is loosely based on similar scenes Davis had drawn up for WDW's "WRE" ride. But -- by slipping that sequence into the GM pavilion -- Marc finally moved "Western River Expedition" off the drawing board and into reality. And that felt pretty damned good.
The beauty part of this "WRE" scene being in "World of Motion" is that Card Walker never caught on to the gag. He personally okayed all the sequences that were to be featured in Epcot's GM attraction, but never recognized the train robbery scene featured in this Future World ride as something that might have been designed for "Western River Expedition."
As word began to spread around WED about the "WRE" stuff that was being slipped into "World of Motion," other Imagineers wanted to get in on the gag too. The guys putting together the "Listen to the Land" boat ride for Kraft Foods' "The Land" pavilion also decided that they wanted to put one over on Card Walker. And so they did.
Do you recall those AA buffaloes and prairie dogs featured in the "Prairie Fire" sequence early in the attraction? Did they also look vaguely familiar? They should. These robotic animals are based on designs Marc Davis originally drew up for "Western River Expedition."
Again, Card Walker never had a clue to the significance of the AA buffaloes and prairie dogs in Kraft Foods' Future World pavilion. He never heard the Imagineers snickering behind his back, secretly thrilled that another piece of Marc's dream attraction had made it off the drawing board.
Mind you, putting one over on the boss is fun. But it wasn't quite as satisfying as actually getting a full- size, really- for- real version of "Western River Expedition" would have been. So WED's "WRE" fans -- every couple of years -- would once again pull out the plans and try to sell their bosses on the idea of actually building the attraction.
Once Michael Eisner came on board at Disney Company CEO in the fall of 1984, he too got a sales pitch from WDI about building "Western River Expedition." Given how passionate the French were about the American West, the Imagineers had hoped that they be able to get Eisner to sign off on adding Big Thunder Mesa to the list of attractions that would be featured in Euro Disneyland's Frontierland area.
But -- in the end -- Eisner didn't bite. He preferred a more elaborate version of that old Tony Baxter favorite: Big Thunder Mountain Railway. Only this time around, that thrill ride was to be located in the middle of the Rivers of America -- occupying the spot that Tom Sawyer Island traditionally held in the Disney theme park landscape.
This didn't deter the Imagineers from folding bits of Marc's "WRE" plans in the company's European theme park. If you look closely, there's at least three tributes to "Western River Expedition" to be found in Euro Disneyland's Frontierland area. They are:
* The finale of "Phantom Manor." As guests go underground and find themselves moving through an actual ghost town, many of the characters and set pieces featured in this section of the ride were inspired by similar scenes that Marc designed for the "Dry Gulch" section of "Western River Expedition."
* "Thunder Mesa Mercantile Building." This Frontierland building -- which actually houses four different shops -- borrows its name from the massive show building that was to have housed the "WRE" attraction.
* "Thunder Mesa Riverboat Landing." This Frontierland landmark -- which serves as the docking area of the "Molly Brown" and the "Mark Twain" -- also gets its name from "WRE" 's proposed show building.
So -- given how enthusiastic the Imagineers remain about Marc Davis' concept drawings for "Western River Expedition" some 32 years after they were originally created -- is it wise to consider this long proposed project dead? Is "WRE" an idea that will never make it off the drawing board?
Please keep in mind the "UFO Show" mentioned in Part VII of this series. It took almost 25 years for this ride concept to be married to the right story material -- the Buzz Lightyear mythology from the "Toy Story" films -- before that proposed show finally became a reality.
Right now, the "Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin" is one of the hottest attractions to be found in the entire WDW resort. WDI is already working up plans to add this amazingly popular target practice ride to the Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris Disneylands. This "Toy Story" inspired show will also be an opening day attraction when the Hong Kong Magic Kingdom opens in 2005.
All this happened because someone in Imagineering burrowed around in the pile of old, rejected ride ideas, unearthed the concept for the "UFO Show" and thought: "I think I know a way to make this work now."
Walt Disney Imagineering vice chairman and principal creative executive Marty Sklar has said: "Good ideas never go away. They are a precious commodity, whether developed right away or not. A good idea is never forgotten. It may turn up sometime later for use in some other project, in part of in its entirety."
So maybe someday soon, an Imagineer -- looking for an idea to replace Disney Quest's "Virtual Jungle Cruise" attraction -- will come across Marc's artwork for "Western River Expedition" and say "I think I know a way to make this work."
Stranger things have happened, kids.
GUESS WHAT - this series is finally completed! Thank you for following along.
Before you hit the trail, check out a few more stories about the greatest attraction that never was !
A NOTE TO "D-I-G" READERS: You know, you'd think -- after eight long, drawn out chapters -- you people would have had enough of "Western River Expedition." (I know *I* have.) But -- judging by all the notes that keep turning up in my mailbox -- you folks still have a lot of questions about this proposed WDW attraction.
So -- before we officially say "adios" to Thunder Mesa -- I'm going to try to tie up a few loose ends.
Like: What do the "America Sings" figures being in "Splash Mountain" have to do with Tony Baxter trying to make it up to Marc Davis?
In Part VI of my "Western River" story, I mentioned the grudge that Marc Davis held toward Tony Baxter. Davis felt that Baxter had done him wrong by proposing a different attraction to be built on the "Western River Expedition" construction site.
To this day, Baxter insists that he wasn't out to deliberately undercut Marc's plans. He was just attempting to make Thunder Mesa's secondary attraction -- a runaway mine train ride -- as good as possible.
According to Tony, it was Card Walker who came up with the idea of pulling "Big Thunder Mountain Railway" out of the main Thunder Mesa show building so that it could become a stand-alone show. It was only then -- when "Big Thunder Mountain Railway" and "Western River Expedition" began being perceived as separate attractions -- that the two shows went head to head for the Frontierland "E" Ticket slot.
Of course, we all know which ride won this competition. What's not generally known outside of WDI is how personally Marc took the news that "WRE" wasn't going to be built. Davis was angry with Tony for years after this.
Okay. We've recapped that part of the story. Now it's time to touch on what Baxter did to try and make it up to Marc.
Right from the start, it's important to understand that Tony Baxter is a really nice guy. Generous with his time and talent, quick with a compliment or a kind word, Tony is highly thought of at WDI. There are Imagineers that claim that they've never heard Baxter say a bad word about anybody.
(Mind you, there are some at Imagineering who wish that Baxter *COULD* bring himself to say something negative -- particularly about Disney's California Adventure Theme Park. They believe that if Tony had challenged Paul Pressler and Barry Braverman early on about some of their creative decisions concerning DCA, Anaheim's expansion project wouldn't be in such a mess about now ... But that's a story for another time.)
ANYWAY ... Tony Baxter is a nice guy. More importantly, he *LIKES* the idea that he's thought of as a nice guy. That's why Tony was so troubled by the idea that Marc Davis was mad at him.
Here was this Disney Legend, this master of animation as well as Imagineering, that Baxter had inadvertently slighted. Tony tried apologizing to Marc in person. Davis just grumbled in reply.
As the 1970s slipped into the 1980s, Baxter became recognized as one of the modern masters of Imagineering. After helping to create Epcot's original "Journey into Imagination" attraction, Tony was the driving force behind Disneyland's New Fantasyland. Baxter then pushed Disney to forge an alliance with George Lucas, which eventually lead to "Captain EO," "Star Tours" and the "Indiana Jones Adventure." If you stumble across something good in a Disney theme park in the 1980s, chances are that Tony Baxter was somehow involved with that project.
And yet -- Tony was still bothered by how his big break had come about. By choosing Baxter's "Big Thunder Mountain Railway" over Marc's "Western River Expedition," Card Walker had kicked Tony's Imagineering career into over-drive. But -- in the process -- Marc Davis' dream (and over five years of hard work) were swept aside.
As the 1980s rolled around, Tony too had had his share of disappointment. Baxter had also dreamed up a magnificent mega-attraction for a Disney theme park -- Discovery Bay -- that Card Walker had (after years of hemming and hawing) opted not to build. So Tony now knew from experience what Marc must have gone through with "Western River." And it didn't feel very good.
So now it's 1983. And Tony Baxter is caught in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. To kill time, Tony thinks about all the stuff that's waiting for him on his desk once he finally arrives at work in Glendale.
There'll be yet another memo from Dick Nunis, president of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Nunis has been nagging Baxter for years now to come with a flume ride for the Disney theme parks. Tony's been reluctant to work on this project since A) every run- of- the- mill theme park has a flume ride, B) Disneyland and WDW's Magic Kingdom *AREN'T* run- of- the- mill theme parks, so C) Baxter has to come up with a tactful way to tell Dick Nunis that the Disney theme parks *SHOULDN'T* have flume rides.
Plus Disneyland management was looking for WED to come up with ways to lure guests back into Bear Country. It turned out that the "Country Bear Jamboree" show wasn't nearly as big a hit with Disneyland guests as it had been with WDW visitors. Without sufficient guest traffic back in this part of the Anaheim park, Bear Country's shops and restaurants weren't meeting their revenue projections.
Then there's the trouble with Tomorrowland. It's been 16 years since Disneyland last got a new Tomorrowland and that side of the park is really showing its age. Most of the shows over there are ridiculously dated and out- of -step -- particularly "America Sings."
This audio animatronic
musical extravaganza may have been popular with Disneyland guests back when it
first opened in June 1974. But -- once the hoopla surrounding America's
Bicentennial faded -- attendance levels at this Tomorrowland attraction dropped
off drastically. Nowadays, Most "AS" shows
Even so, Tony was reluctant to do anything about "America Sings" because ... Well, over the 9 year run of the show, he had grown fond of the show's 100+ figures. Baxter believes that the AA cast featured in this Tomorrowland show was some of Marc Davis' finest work.
(Tony wasn't alone in his assessment of "America Sings." Though many WDW guests still marvel at the audio animatronic Ben Franklin figure that walks upstairs in Epcot's "American Adventure," most Imagineers will tell you that Ben doesn't move half as well as the alligator Davis designed for "America Sings." Marc made that AA figure appear as if it were strolling up a set of step out of the subway while singing "See You Later, Alligator." That 1974 audio animatronic gator had a grace and a fluidity of movement that the 1982 Franklin figure never achieved.)
Plus Tony knew that -- if he were to come up with a new attraction for Disneyland's "America Sings" / "Carousel of Progress" theater -- all those great Marc Davis AA figures would end up on the WED scrap heap. Given the minor role he played in "Western River" never making it off the drawing board, Baxter wanted no part in shutting down of the *LAST* theme park attraction Marc Davis ever designed.
And yet -- sitting there in his car, trapped in traffic -- Tony felt sad. For he knew that whichever Imagineer came up with a new show idea for Disneyland's "Carousel of Progress," they'd still end up getting rid of all of Marc's AA figures. Which was a shame.
But -- given their toony style -- it was obvious that those "America Sings" AA figures didn't really belong in Tomorrowland. They'd be better suited for a show set in Frontierland or Bear Country or ...
Now, on one knows for sure what weird sort of alchemy occurred in Baxter's car that morning. Somehow Marc's "America Sings" figures got mixed up with Dick Nunis' flume ride memo and Bear Country's dipping attendance levels. But -- By the time Tony finally made it into the WED parking lot that morning -- he had the whole ride in his head. A flume ride for Bear Country that would make use of all the old "America Sings" figures.
In a way, it *WAS* an ingenious idea. By re-using the "America Sings" characters to people a flume ride for Disneyland, Baxter would create a new attraction for the Anaheim park with a cast that would rival "Pirates of the Caribbean" at virtually no cost. Best of all, Marc's great AA figures would escape being stripped for parts.
Mind you, it took another four years -- and a change of management at the Walt Disney Company -- before Baxter got permission to build "Splash Mountain." By then, Tony and his team at Imagineering had had enough time to play with the model of this proposed Critter Country attraction to include a sly homage to "Western River Expedition."
Think about it. If Thunder Mesa had actually been built, visitors -- after boarding their wooden launch -- would have floated over to the first sequence of "Western River Expedition." Here, they would have glided up a waterfall while listening to the ride's narrator, Hoot Gibson -- an audio animatronic owl -- do the standard safety spiel.
Now let's consider Disneyland's "Splash Mountain." In that attraction, guests riding in wooden logs also float over the show's first sequence -- the grist mill at the base of the mountain. But -- once they're inside the grist mill -- these same guests pass an audio animatronic owl while gliding up a waterfall.
Do that seem a touch too co-incidental to you?
And consider this ironic factoid: Had Thunder Mesa actually been built in Frontierland at WDW's Magic Kingdom, it would have risen up out of the ground right behind where the "Briar Patch" shop is currently located.
But -- if you think about it -- there *IS* a water-based ride featuring Marc Davis designed AA figures rising up behind the "Briar Patch" shop now. It may not feature the exact same cast Marc originally had in mind. But there's no denying Davis' influences on "Splash Mountain."
Think about it: The WDW train rumbles through the "Splash Mountain" show building, giving folks on the train a preview of the attraction -- which is what Marc had wanted the train to do while traveling through the "Western River Expedition" show building.
And "Splash Mountain" climaxes with guests zooming down a steep waterfall and racing toward the edge of the Rivers of America -- just like guests riding on "WRE" were supposed to do.
Now please don't think of these pieces of "Western River" turning up in "Splash Mountain" as Tony stealing ideas from Marc. That's *NOT* what Tony was doing here. Rather, he and his "Splash Mountain" design team were just trying to pay tribute to Davis' much- beloved- but- never- built Frontierland attraction.
Sure, you'd have to be a bit of a Disney dweeb to get all those obscure references to a ride that was never built. But that pretty much describes 90% of the people currently working at WDI.
Mind you, after all this hard work, it would be nice to report that Marc Davis really appreciated Tony Baxter's efforts to save his "America Sings" AA figures as well as get some of his ride ideas for "Western River Expedition" finally off the drawing board. But this isn't a Disney film, kids. This is real life.
In spite of Baxter's best efforts, Davis was furious that his "America Sings" AA figures had been ripped out of Tomorrowland's "Carousel of Progress" theater. It didn't matter to Marc that attendance had fallen away to nothing for the original "AS" show or that millions more people each year now got to see and appreciate his AA figures.
All Marc knew was that one of his attractions he designed been shut down and Tony Baxter was to blame. From the day "America Sings" closed in April 1988 until the day Davis passed away in January 2000, this elder statesman of animation continued to bad-mouth the younger Imagineer.
It's like they say, folks. No good deed goes unpunished.
By the way, before we move on with the "Western River" stories, I'd like to take a moment here to poke a hole in some Disneyland mythology: If you've ever spent any time in the queue area of "Star Tours" with a Disneyana buff, they'll invariably give you the inside scoop on the two labor droids -- G214 & G219 -- that you see in the repair bay.
As the story goes, these robots weren't originally created for "Star Tours." They're supposedly two geese AA figures that WDI decided to recycle from Tomorrowland's recently closed "America Sings" show. So the Imagineers just pulled off these animatronics' costumes and feathers off, quickly reprogrammed them and -- Presto Changeo! -- "Star Tours" has two additional droids in its repair bay. (That's reportedly why the robots are named G214 & G219. "G" stands for "goose.")
Well, that's a great story and all. Except that "Star Tours" opened on January 9, 1987 and "America Sings" didn't close 'til April 10, 1988.
So where exactly did these goose droids come from?
Of course, it's possible that the Imagineers just took two of the singing geese out of "America Sings" to use as labor droids in "Star Tours." But wouldn't you think that someone would have noticed two of the attraction's AA figures were missing?
Alright -- enough about "America Sings" and the geese ...
Several other D-I-G readers wrote in and asked about the WDW "Western River Expedition" preview display. They'd heard that there was some sort of bizarre story associated with the model.
Indeed there is! This model -- which illustrated the sequence where a cowboy on horseback got up on the roof of the town's saloon -- was a beauty. Done to 1' to 1" scale, it featured upwards of 10 different characters reacting to this silly scenario. The bartender trying to shoo the man and his mount off the roof. Three saloon girls. Other cowboys who were hooting and a- hollering.
This model -- along with a few production paintings nearby -- gave WDW guests a real taste of what "Western River Expedition" was going to be like. However, that wasn't good enough for the Imagineers. As part of their Thunder Mesa, they included an audio animatronic owl.
That's right. "Hoot Gibson," the narrator of this proposed Frontierland attraction, sat on a perch in the post show area of the "Walt Disney Story" theater. If you pressed a button near this display, this robotic owl would come to life and -- while he explained a bit about audio animatronics -- "Hoot" would also give a brief preview of "Western River Expedition."
Below, you'll find an exact transcript of the spiel "Hoot Gibson" gave to Walt Disney World guests. I personally recorded this speech during a trip to the Orlando resort in the summer of 1980. (A special thanks here to Michelle -- a.k.a. the Fabulous Disney Babe -- for transcribing this recording.)
goes as follows:
HOOT: (Snores for a moment, then wakes with a start) Woooooo! Who are you? Uh, Who am I? Why, hee hee, I'm the real Hoot Gibson, that's who. I'm the star of a brand new western show being made for Walt Disney World.
I'm what they call audio anima .. animo... animah .. Hee Hee ! You see, before my kind came along Walt Disney's Characters were strictly movie- star types. (The book on the pedestal now opens open, revealing a picture of the wise old owl from "Bambi." ) My grandpa, for example, had one of the lead roles in Bambi.
But with all due respect, he and the rest of the family were sort of flat actors. (The book turns to another page, revealing a family tree of Disney animated owls. ) Yeah, they were these flat drawings.
Well. one day Walt felt it was high time to work up some three dimensional animation. (The book turns to another page, revealing an Imagineer working on an audio animatronic figure.) It took years and years of thinkin' and tinkerin'.
First there were little bitty figures (The book turns to another page, revealing an Imagineer working on one of the toucans for "the Enchanted Tiki Room"), then full size ones (The book turns to another page, revealing the Imagineers working on the Lincoln AA figure for "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln), and finally out of all of this came a brand new kind of animation Walt called ani .. anima audio .. audio animatronics.
Today right here in Walt Disney World you see the greatest animated stars here led by the old mousetro himself, Maestro Mickey Mouse (The book turns to another page, revealing the Mickey Mouse AA figure from "The Mickey Mouse Revue").
I'll tell you something, though... It wasn't easy for any of us to break into this kind of showbiz. Why, whooood whood ever thought that even I had to start right at the bottom? (The book turns to another page, revealing Hoot Gibson in one of Marc Davis' "Western River" concept drawings.) There I was, just a rough idea on an artist's sketchpad. Hee hee hee!
Next, they made me very carefully into a tiny little model. (The book turns to another page, revealing Hoot Gibson recreated as a tiny macquette for the "WRE" scale model.) Pretty cute, huh?
Just when I figured I was good enough, they did me up full size, big as life. Hee hee! (The book turns to another page, revealing the Hoot Gibson AA figure being assembled.) Well, from the sculptor's table, I winged over to the workbench to get loaded up with all those nuts and bolts and wires, control hoses and even air hoses... You can't hoot without an air hose! Oooh hoo hoo hoo!
After that my very own makeup crew came along. Treated me just like a star out of Who's Whoooo. and finally (The audio animatronic programming console now comes to life, with all sorts of lights flashing and beeps & bips) I got my schoolin' from a mighty smart fella and his computer console.
One set of switches makes my beak a-snap. Another set of switches gets my wings to flap. They use a bunch of rotors to make my head go 'round. Put them altogether, you've got a real cool sound!
(Brief musical interlude while Hoot performs on his perch. The audio animatronic programming console quiets down and the book on the pedestal closes as the demonstration draws to a close.)
Well, that's my story, folks. I sure hope you'll come back and see me in the future at the Western River Expedition right here in Walt Disney World.
Now that you know whoooo I am, Whoooo are you?
The Hoot Gibson AA Figure now closes its eye and goes into its rest position on the pedestal, waiting for the next guest to come along, press the button and restart its demonstration program.
The Hoot AA figure and the "Western River Expedition" model were on display in the post show area of the "Walt Disney Story" from April 1973 'til the Spring of 1981. Then this area was rethemed to serve as the preview center for WDW's soon- to- be- opening second theme park, Epcot Center.
As guests exited the Epcot preview film that was playing in the "Walt Disney Story" theater, they now encountered a room full of displays hyping all the new shows and attractions top be found in the new theme park. Hoot Gibson also got into the Epcot promotional game. This AA owl had been reprogrammed by WED to serve as a spokesbird for WDW's newest theme park. Nowhere in his two minute speech did Hoot ever mention "Western River."
The same thing happened in
1988 when WDW was getting ready to open the Disney / MGM Studio Theme Park. Once
again, the post show area of the "Walt Disney Story" theater was redone as a
preview center. This time around, Hoot was reprogrammed to play a movie
directing owl. Wearing a beret and perched next to a director's chair, this AA
owl tried to convince WDW guests to return to Orlando next year to take part in
all the move-making fun that would be found at Disney / MGM.
Only the Imagineers hadn't stored that "WRE" model away. When rehabbing the "Walt Disney Story" theater back in 1981, the workman couldn't be bothered with taking down the elaborate display in the post- show area. So they just sealed the "Western River" model up in the wall -- covering up its glass front with a big sheet of fiber board.
13 years later .. Another set of workman were once again renovating the post show area of the "Walt Disney Story" theater. This time, they were making the space into a preview center for WDW's 25th anniversary celebration. So the workman pulled down some fiber board along one of the walls to find ... this long forgotten display hidden away in the wall ! Not only is the 'Western River Expedition" model still intact ... But the tiny lights in the lanterns and the windows of the model are still lit.
The workman who had sealed the display up in the wall 13 years earlier had never bothered to turn off the electricity going to the "WRE" model!
The folks who were redoing
the post- show area had no idea what they'd uncovered, so they called the
Imagineers. When WDI learned what had been unearthed at the "Walt Disney Story"
theater, they moved quickly.
WDI moved fast. The Imagineering office at WDW quickly sent over several staffers to take pictures of the "Western River" model as it had been found. Then each of the figurines and set pieces were carefully packed away in bubble wrap and sent back to WDI headquarters in Glendale, CA. Once there, I'm told that the "WRE" model was lovingly restored and reassembled. It's now on display in the Imagineering Research Library and is considered one of the true treasures of the WDI collection.
And that -- my friends -- is the last bit of trivia associated with Thunder Mesa and the proposed "Western River Expedition" ride. I want to thank you all for your patience and understanding with this series. It took a long time for all of us to get to the end of this tale. Hopefully, the wait was worth it.
In particular, I'd like to thank a few individuals for their information, insights and help on this project. These include Mike Lee of the "Widen Your World" web site (Who did the first -- and arguably the best -- story on "WRE" for the Web). I'd also like to thank James Disney of the "Southern California Coaster Club" web site for lending me his expertise on Disney's thrill rides. Dan Alexander and Marvin Mitchell also deserve kudos for their insights on "WRE" and other Disney theme park attractions.
And an extra-special "We're not worthy" goes out to Michelle AKA the Fabulous Disney Babe for coming throooough with that "Hoot Gibson" transcript.
Hope you enjoyed the tale ...
GUESS WHAT - this series is finally completed - really - honest - we mean it! Thank you for following along.
The above was reprinted with permission from Jim Hill. Please visit his website, jimhillmedia.com, for hundreds of other great and insightful articles on virtually any topic related to Disney.