Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Imagineering at the Movies

Walt Disney Imagineering, or WDI, is the “master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, and project management subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, responsible for the creation of the Disney theme parks and their expansion” [4]. Founded in 1952 as WED Enterprises, Walt Disney Imagineering was created by Walt Disney to help design and build his dream, Disneyland. Looking for a team of people to help build his dream, Walt looked to the most talented and creative people he knew: the artists, directors and designers from his movie studio. The first Imagineers were “a select handful of [Walt’s] studio people” [3], who had a wealth of knowledge of making magic on film. 

With such close ties between his movie studio and the design process of Disneyland, Walt used this link to promote the studio’s films in the park. Though the use of branding and promotion was not as prominent in Disneyland’s early days as it is today, opening-day guests experienced a number of attractions inspired by Disney film projects when Disneyland “opened its doors to a curious and eager public on July 17, 1955” [5]. One such attraction at Disneyland (and Walt Disney World) is the Jungle Cruise. This ride-through attraction was built to tie in with Disney’s True-Life Adventures series of documentaries, specifically the 1955 release of The African Lion. Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure films also inspired the Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland attraction. 

In finding source material for Disneyland’s original attractions, Walt Disney and the Imagineers looked into Disney’s history of animated features. Joining the Jungle Cruise, other opening-day attractions inspired by Disney films included Peter Pan Flight, Snow White’s Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (based on Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,) as well as Mad Tea Party (inspired by Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.) Throughout the history of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, countless attractions have been inspired by Disney film productions. 

There are indeed myriad attractions in Disney Parks worldwide that do not include a tie-in to a Walt Disney Pictures production. Walt Disney World’s Epcot, for example, is known for its cultural and educational attractions. With its two sections, Future World and World Showcase, Epcot features rides and shows “focusing on the major issues of science and technology, communication and the arts, and community” [4]. As Kurtti also explains, there were no costumed Disney characters at Epcot on opening day, nor were there Disney character merchandise in the stores. In essence, Epcot “was treated as its own organic, self-contained culture, with no relationship to the Magic Kingdom” [4]

Yet though the years, many of Epcot’s original attractions and pavilions have changed to incorporate content from Disney films. One striking example is The Living Seas pavilion. The Living Seas opened in 1986, and included a multimedia presentation about ocean research, a ride through a Caribbean coral reef, as well as a visitor information center dedicated to undersea research. In late 2006, the attraction underwent a major overhaul, now featuring characters from Disney•Pixar’s Finding Nemo. The added characterization to certain attractions, such as Epcot’s Mexico pavilion, has been seen as unnecessary by park purists [12]. Yet Wilson also points out that The Living Seas pavilion had seen a steady decrease in attendance in the years leading up to the inclusion of Nemo and friends. 

It is evident that the collaboration between Disney Imagineering and the Walt Disney Studios is becoming stronger, given the popularity of movie-related attractions in Disney Parks. With such a successful strategy on their hands, Disney decided to take a chance at turning one of its popular attractions into a feature film. In fact, numerous attractions have received the big-screen treatment. Yet not all film adaptations have been as successful as the attraction that inspired them. In examining the relationships between the films and attractions, numerous differences can be found. The inclusion of human characters in the attraction’s storyline is the primary factor in the film adaptation’s success.

The first Disney Imagineering creation to make the transition from attraction to feature film is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, located at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort. The ride is themed off the famous Twilight Zone television series. In fact, Disney Imagineers “went through all the Twilight Zone episodes to pick elements from the series” [9]. The overall storyline of the attraction is of the fictional Hollywood Tower Hotel being struck by lightning on October 31, 1939, when an elevator then transports its passengers to the “Twilight Zone.” Theme park guests riding this attraction become guests of the hotel, and star “in their own ‘lost’ episode” [9] of the Twilight Zone series. 

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened to the public on July 22, 1994, and has remained a park favorite ever since. What makes the attraction physically thrilling is its “velocity, acceleration and mass in motion” [11]. Weston also notes that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has “30 times the jerk and 10 times the acceleration of a normal elevator.” It is therefore not difficult to see why this attraction is a popular destination for thrill-seekers at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. With such success at the Walt Disney World Resort, three additional versions of the ride were built in Disney theme parks around the world: Disney’s California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney Studios Park at the Disneyland Paris Resort, as well as Tokyo DisneySea at the Tokyo Disney Resort. 

With such a successful attraction on their hands, Disney Imagineering and The Walt Disney Studios teamed up to bring this attraction and its story to the big screen. As this was a new concept and had not been attempted before, Disney produced Tower of Terror in a made-for-TV format, presenting it on The Wonderful World of Disney television program on ABC in October of 1997. Steve Guttenberg stars as a newspaper reporter investigating the infamous story of a 1939 child star who mysteriously disappeared. Following the back-story of the attraction, the movie opens on Halloween of 1939 in the ritzy Hollywood Tower Hotel. Five guests, including the famous child actress, disappeared in an elevator accident on their ride up to their room. Steve Guttenberg’s character, along with his niece played by Kirsten Dunst, explore the haunted hotel and discover the secrets to ultimately solve the mystery. 

The attraction itself does not include many human characters, but one of the most memorable characters is Rod Serling, who was the host of the Twilight Zone television series. Serling appears in a pre-show video sequence at the attraction, telling the story of the haunted hotel. However, due to legal issues regarding licensing of The Twilight Zone brand, the film did not include any tie-ins to the famous science-fiction television series. Without this notable character, the movie’s creative team was left to come up with its own set of characters and storyline. Audience members were presented with an original story, with few ties to the attraction’s story. Also, since much of the attraction’s success came from its physical thrill, viewers were unable to receive that same sense of adventure. Marketed as a family entertainment film with a TV-PG rating, the film adaptation of the thrill ride did not spark an interest in viewers looking for a good scare. Nonetheless, seeing as this was Disney’s first attempt at translating a popular attraction into a movie, Tower of Terror provided a large stepping-stone for future endeavors. 

The next Disney film inspired by an attraction of the same name was Disney’s Mission to Mars, released in 2000. The source for the inspiration comes from the Mission to Mars attraction, which was located in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The attraction, originally entitled Flight to the Moon, was an opening-day attraction at Disneyland in 1955. The ride made its way to Orlando for its opening in 1971 at Walt Disney World. In 1975, both East and West-coast versions of the ride changed their flight paths to Mars, given the 1969 landing of the Apollo 11 on the moon. The new show, entitled Mission to Mars, premiered on June 7, 1975. 

Both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World editions closed their doors in 1992 and 1993, respectively, to make room for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Only the Walt Disney World Resort added this ride, due to budget cuts resulting from the finances in the building of Disneyland Paris. This ride then became re-tooled to showcase the character Stitch from Walt Disney Pictures’ 2002 animated film Lilo & Stitch. The new attraction, Stitch’s Great Escape, opened in 2004. 

The film was not a box-office hit, receiving mostly negative reviews and earning only $110,983,407 in total worldwide box office sales [10]. What led to many of the negative reviews was the film’s storyline. Though the original attraction provided guests a mild physical thrill, the attraction did not include an immersive storyline as many attractions do. There were not any human characters to tell the story to guests, so little of the attraction’s story could be used for the film. Most, if not all, of the movie’s plot was original to the film. The title is perhaps the strongest link between the attraction and the movie. 

Following 2000’s Mission to Mars came the 2002 release of The Country Bears. This live-action film was based on the popular Walt Disney World attraction The Country Bear Jamboree. The attraction was originally planned in the 1960s by Walt Disney as an entertainment concept for a proposed Disney ski resort in California [2]. The attraction proved to be so popular with guests that a duplicate version was built in Disneyland, with twice the seating capacity. The show features a cast of Audio-Animatronics bears who put on a “foot-stompin’, back-slappin’, happy hoedown”[4]

Yet what the attraction lacks is a cohesive storyline with human characters. True, the bears talk and sing, but it is primarily a revue of folk songs without a storyline. The film version, The Country Bears, did not receive such rave reviews as the attraction has maintained over the years. Receiving mostly negative reviews, the film was not a commercial success. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote “the formidable technical skills in The Country Bears must not be allowed to distract from the film's terminal inanity” [1]

Perhaps if the attraction had featured a storyline with relatable characters, the film version would have been able to translate this into an entertaining screenplay. Somehow singing bears just didn’t cut it, and left audiences disappointed. Nonetheless, the attraction has remained a park favorite, though the California version of The Country Bear Jamboree has never been as popular as the Walt Disney World version, perchance due to the attraction’s location or simply audience taste [4]

The Haunted Mansion, “one of the crown jewels of the Disney theme parks”[6], was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s latest attempt at an attraction-turned-movie. The original Haunted Mansion attraction opened at Disneyland on August 9, 1969. The attraction gained such popularity that it inspired the creation of three other Haunted Mansions in Disney Magic Kingdoms around the world. 

When looking for the next potential theme park attraction to give the big-screen treatment, The Walt Disney Studios looked closely at The Haunted Mansion. “The attraction’s rich environments and memorable cast of characters made it a natural story for filmmakers—the original Imagineers—to tell” [6]. The Haunted Mansion has by far one of the most in-depth scripts, with detailed background stories written by the original Imagineers. Turning a seven-minute attraction into a feature-length film, however, required some expanding on the attraction’s story. The original attraction’s script and original source material from Walt Disney Imagineering were expanded, still incorporating many of the attraction’s most popular elements. 

Similar to the attraction, Disney’s The Haunted Mansion included a “skillful blend of comedy and horror” [6]. The attraction itself, though, is not quite thrilling. Guests sit in ‘doom buggies,’ which are small passenger carts on a track. The carts take guests on a tour of the haunted house, filled with gags and illusions involving the ghosts that fill the space. Though the dark atmosphere and scary nature of the ride may be frightening to some Disney guests, the attraction is overall quite family-friendly and farcical. 

What the movie showcased was the attraction’s comedic elements, especially with comedy A-list star Eddie Murphy in the leading role. Yet much of the attraction’s comedy comes from sight gags that don’t translate from a physical scare to an onscreen scare. The thrill of the ride – seeing the special effect ghosts in person – simply could not be recreated onscreen. Though the film was praised for its high production values, critics were not impressed with the film’s recycled jokes and “After School Special quality” acting [8]

Though the attraction is ridden with ghosts – 999, to be specific – it does not feature a cast of human characters. Guests of the ride are told the story of the former homeowners who have since died, but are offered no chance to connect with said characters. The film version, therefore, does not feature any characters directly inspired by the attraction. Though the history of the mansion’s tenants was transferred to the film’s storyline, the film’s main characters are original to the movie. 

Where Disney’s biggest success lies in transforming an attraction into a feature-length film is with Pirates of the Caribbean. The popular attraction made the voyage from the Magic Kingdom to the big screen, and ultimately inspired new additions to the original attraction. The attraction opened in 1967 at Disneyland, and featured a series of scenes with Disney’s newly acquired Audio-Animatronics technology. Guests ride boats through the indoor show building, and follow the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow and his pirate friends.

The attraction was an immediate hit, most notably for its “lovable cast of characters created by Marc Davis and brought to life by Blaine Gibson’s sculpture and the magic of Audio-Animatronics” [7]. What this attraction excels in, where other attractions may lack detail, is its storyline and cast of characters. With new technology developed for Disney’s pavilions in the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Imagineers were able to develop sophisticated characters “instead of static waxworks or simplistic figures with limited movements” [7]

With its three-dimensional storytelling and elaborate settings, “Pirates of the Caribbean quickly took its place as Disneyland’s signature attraction” [7]. The attraction then inspired duplicate versions at all other Magic Kingdom theme parks around the world. So in the spring of 2000, the Walt Disney Studios executive team began realizing the potential this attraction had as a feature film. Though they had not seen the greatest successes in the past with turning attractions into movies, the executives were enlightened to the “inherent cinematic value” [7] of the attraction by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. 

Elliott and Rossio had seen previous writing success with Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, and Shrek. When Walt Disney Studios contacted Elliott and Rossio about the possibility of screenwriting for a new pirate movie, they were presently surprised to learn that Elliott and Rossio had spent ten years of privately developing a movie based on the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. The screenwriters knew that “the film’s strength lay in the Pirates of the Caribbean name and the childhood memories people associated with it” [7]

Yet what this big-budget Hollywood idea had at its advantage was the elaborate characterizations already developed by the Disney Imagineers. So when Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean premiered in theatres in 2003, audiences were not presented with a brand-new story, lacking any relation to the attraction as many of Disney’s previous attraction-turned-movie attempts had gone. The commercial success of the award-winning film franchise can also be credited to producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer knew that audiences would not particularly like a mere onscreen recreation of the original attraction. What viewers wanted were supernatural elements, with the help of computer graphics. 

The film is most definitely not a film adaptation of the attraction’s original script. While there are numerous references to the Disneyland attraction, the film focuses on the supernatural curse described in the opening narration of the attraction. With the help of computer graphics, the film was able to portray the horror and fantasy of the curse in a realistic manner. Such technology also enabled the creative team to incorporate a sense of thrill into their storytelling; cutting-edge special effects helped the filmmakers bring the ghosts and skeletal pirates to life. 

In evaluating the success of Disney’s attractions-turned-movies, it is evident that the attractions featuring a storyline with human characters transfer more successfully to the big screen than those without such characterizations. Though the original attraction’s success may or may not be linked to such storyline elements, the film version’s success relies on such detail. Movies inspiring attractions is commonplace and typically results in popular rides or shows. Attractions inspiring movies, though, is something that Disney fans are only treated to every so often. It will be most interesting to see how Disney Imagineering and the Walt Disney Studios decide to team up in the future.


1. Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2004, by Roger Ebert
2. Walt Disney World: Then, Now, and Forever; by Bruce Gordon and Jeff Kurtti
3. Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real, by The Imagineers
4. Since the World Began, by Jeff Kurtti
5. The Little Big Book of Disney, by Monique Peterson
6. The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, by Jason Surrell
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, by Jason Surrell



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