I love the Disney theme parks. I love the smell of Splash Mountain’s water and Rome burning. I love the taste of a turkey leg and a Dole Whip. I love the musical ambiance of Hello, Dolly! And The Music Man as I stroll up Main Street U.S.A. I love the feel of wind whipping my face as Test Track whips me around at 65 miles per hour. And I especially love the sight of a massive and iconic structure celebrating all we have come to see at Disney.
…And I love to see them fail.
Let me put it this way: theme park rides are like celebrities to me. And the ones at Disney are equivalent to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Downey Jr., Laurence Olivier, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney. Some legendary, some established, and some definitely newer, but still deserving of their reputation in their own right. And like celebrities, nothing is more scandalous than seeing them take a big ol’ slice of humble pie. I’m not TMZ, gobbling up every misstep and ugly photo like candy, though. I don’t care if a ride goes down or if a ride gets closed due to business concerns. And more importantly, I want Disney to learn from their mistakes.
This top ten list isn’t me shaming Disney Imagineering. It’s me wanting to share interesting stories from the past sixty-plus years of Disney theme park history. As such, I’ll provide context to these incidents, as well as my perspective on how the whole thing could have been handled better. So with that in mind, let’s turn back the clock and see where things went wrong and why.
I’m not going to discuss ride closures, though. If you have a beef with Disney over the loss of River Country, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the Country Bear Jamboree, Horizons, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Discovery Island, I get it. These are the more quantifiable examples where Disney did something and it had a negative outcome.
10. Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama! (Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World)
The history: When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, it was given a warm reception by the public. It was fully immersive, well themed, and still takes great care of its animals. I talked about the history of Dinoland U.S.A. in my Dinosaur review, but one of the major downsides was the area had little in the way for kids. The Boneyard, a massive playground and dig pit, still exists, but the raison d’être was the E-ticket Countdown to Extinction. Beyond those two, there were the Cretaceous Trails (literally walking trails so you could gawk at plants similar to those when the dinos were around), Dinosaur Jubilee (a walk-through fossil exhibit in a tent), and the Jungle Book (later Tarzan and currently Finding Nemo) musical stage show. Dinoland U.S.A. needed help.
As a direct result of both not really having much for kids and the park as a whole not having that many rides in general, it was decided to open a more kid-friendly area next door to the now-renamed Dinosaur. Budgets were constricted heavily due to Eisner’s frugality (You’re gonna see his name a lot on this list: get comfortable) and anticipation in later down the line, they’d build Beastly Kingdomme (which is another issue I have, but I railed against that enough).
The backstory is that here in Digg county, several dinosaur bones were found, and the Dino Institute (The Dinosaur ride’s theme) moved in. Most all small businesses nearby sold themselves to the Institue…except gas station owners Chester and Hester. True blue Americans, they decided to capitalize on the dinosaur bone discovery in the area and build a roadside carnival across from their establishment. The result is Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama, home of the Primeval Whirl, Triceratop Spin, and a slew of pay-to -play carnival games. Dino-Rama opened in 2001.
What happened: While online talk has been pretty minimal, Dino-Rama definitely does not adhere to the intricate and rich theming like the rest of the park. The asphalt is made to look like a repaved parking lot. The Fossil Fun Games are expensive and the plush prizes are often cheaply made and not even dinosaur or Disney related (Usually sharks, octopuses, fish, sea serpents, or bears). The two rides are basically a Dumbo spinner and a wild mouse coaster with ugly, intentionally-cheap-looking aesthetics. The ultimate problem is the lack of logical irony: it was made to look and feel cheap, so they made it look and feel cheap to make fun of just how cheap it is. It’s like it’s trying to be meta but pretending it’s not being transparently lazy. I look down at the cracked yellow lines under my feet there and can’t help but wonder if this was done with intent or just laziness and a tight budget. They might as well have made a playground out of cardboard boxes and claimed it was left over from when Chester and Hester ordered the roller coaster parts.
What could have fixed it: I’m not saying the cheapness of the area can’t work, you just have to be smart about how it’s executed. When it’s a smattering of unrecognizable 2-D cartoon dino cutouts, full of gags about them being dead, it doesn’t feel like Disney. Especially when it’s in the same park as Harambe, Pandora, and Anandapur. The simplest idea is to copy Hollywood Studios and theme it to Toy Story, specifically Rex and Trixie, and even the Battlesaurs from Toy Story that Time Forgot. David Ganssle suggested Gravity Falls replace it, taking advantage of the “tourist trap” vibe Chester and Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures (the gift shop that inspired the area, which uses vintage dinosaur toys, old movie posters and diagrams, and even auto repair tools to cheaply adapt to the dinosaur venture they endorse).
Early in Dinoland’s development, a second roller coaster was conceived, called the Excavator. The idea was the land was to have a section made to look like an archeological dig site, sort of an expansion of the Boneyard. While devoid of an IP, it would have blended well thematically, especially if they worked the “playful interns” angle that’s being used at the nearby Restaurantosaurus.
But two years ago, a rumor circulated that Dinosaur was going to be replaced by an Indiana Jones ride, like the one in California. I remember I really leaned into that idea, particularly if they reformed all of Dinoland U.S.A. into South America, not unlike the Africa or Asia sections of the park. I thought, why not? Use Pixar’s Up and The Three Caballeros as IP’s to use. But what could they do with a tawdry area like Dino-Rama? Simple: Make it Kuzcotopia from The Emperor’s New Groove. If you recall, Kuzcotopia was Emperor Kuzco’s “ultimate summer getaway, complete with water slide”. Using any of these IP’s would significantly boost appeal, even for those who are so done with Disney using IP’s left and right for its attractions.
9. Hong Kong Disneyland
The history: First there was Disneyland in Anaheim. Then came the Magic Kingdom in Florida. Then Tokyo Disneyland. Then Disneyland Paris. Disney continued to expand its empire across the globe, and soon it set its sights on China, home to one of the world’s biggest economies and over a billion potential consumers. The park opened in 2005, but it has repeatedly underperformed and there’s multiple reasons why.
What happened: The city of Hong Kong approached the Walt Disney Company and suggested a Disney theme park be built to help boost their sluggish economy. Disney agreed, but problems started almost right away when the company suggested building another Chinese Disney park in mainland China, a prospect that angered Hong Kong officials, worried that a Disney park in Beijing or Shanghai was going to draw tourism away from the island. Unfortunately, Disney kept bringing up the notion all throughout development of the park, and eventually Disney did open the Shanghai park, a mere 11 years after Hong Kong’s opening.
Several other issues plagued construction and development. During the dredging of the bay, several WWII-era underwater bombs were found. Said dredging also killed a lot of fish and upset the the local fishing economy. The tourism industry tanked after the attacks on 9/11, since people were afraid to fly. The SARS epidemic of 2003 drew concern to the outbreak epicenter of Hong Kong. Disney planned on using environmentally unfriendly shark fin soup until activists caught wind of this and forced Disney to remove it from its menus. Over 40 stray dogs were removed from the site and subsequently euthanized. Reports came out that Disney was operating sweatshops on the mainland with underpaid workers. A food poisoning outbreak also happened not long after opening. All these issues came to light before the park even had its grand opening, and all of these soured the taste of potential visitors. A month after opening, a cast member publicly threatened to kill himself atop Space Mountain, further inciting public relation nightmares for the new park.
But arguably the biggest issue was the stringent budget. This was late into Eisner’s tenure, and after the failures of EuroDisneyland, California Adventure, and Walt Disney Studios in Paris, Eisner had no desire to spend more than absolutely necessary. As a result, Hong Kong Disney was built on the cheap, with the smallest acreage of any other Disney park, the smallest castle, originally only having four lands (Main Street U.S.A., Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland), and only having nine real rides. While having a small park may have been a good financial plan, it caused overcrowding during a preview day and an even worse instance of it during Chinese New Year in 2006 discouraged future visitors. Long story short, Disney could not catch a break.
What could have fixed it: Not much, sadly. Even if Eisner eased up on the purse strings, it couldn’t change all the other issues that basically amounted to bad luck and bad PR. None of it was for lack of trying.
Since it opened, the park has seen some impressive expansion, such as Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch, and Mystic Point land openings, with two more on the way: one based on Frozen and one based on Marvel. Hong Kong has received several new attractions since, with arguably the best known and best beloved Mystic Manor, a trackless ride that shows just what can happen when the proper funds can be applied to a great concept.
However, Shanghai’s opening has taken some of the wind out of Hong Kong’s sails since 2016, being made with a much bigger budget and attention to detail. Only time will tell if they’ll make it out okay in the long run.
8. The Florida studio (Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World)
The history: I talked about this in The Magic of Disney Animation: A Tribute, so you can look it up there if you’re truly curious about much of the details. Basically, Universal Studios announced their plan to open a second movie-based theme park in Florida, not too far from Walt Disney World. Coincidentally, Michael Eisner announced he was doing the very same thing, and even managed to get Disney-MGM Studios (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) to open a year before Universal Studios Florida.
What happened: Universal already had an established movie studio tour in Hollywood, built on an actual studio lot that had been used to make decades’ worth of films. But because Orlando had no established film industry, they recreated the rides and shows from the park, but left out the studio tour. Instead, they built Nickelodeon Studios, home to several live action game shows and animated programs.
Disney saw this as an opportunity to get a leg up on the competition and sought to establish their own studio, complete with soundstages for film and TV production, an animation studio, and several large props ripe for tourist gawking. On one hand, They filmed the Mickey Mouse Club there, had the Golden Girls house, and even had the spaceship from Flight of the Navigator there. But on the 2-hour tour, as much as Disney wanted to boast the park as an actual production studio, they soon found what a hassle it was. Noisy tourists often delayed production, leaving the soundstages empty. Flying actors and crew to and from California was expensive. Florida’s tax incentives weren’t that great. The soundstages were also located in the middle of the park, making access to them difficult. Ultimately, by the time Disney-MGM Studios celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1999, filming had groaned to a complete halt.
What could have fixed it: It’s hard to say, really. If they were truly serious about making Florida Hollywood East, there ought to have been greater emphasis on the company’s part to localize the workforce. But I’m not sure either way Disney was or wasn’t interested in the film production as more than just a gimmick for their new theme park. If they did, they might have better oriented the soundstages to the park boundaries, so access to them might have been easier, and minimized the tours.
It was never a bad thing they didn’t have the established legacy Universal did with all their sets to tour, through. I feel Disney saw themselves at a disadvantage because of that. But the display of all the old props and set pieces were more than enough for guests for 25 years, long after the tour was truncated from two hours to twenty minutes.
7. The Enchanted Tiki Room – Under New Management! (Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World)
The history: The Enchanted Tiki Room has been delighting guests since 1963, as the first official Disney attraction to use audio-animatronics. Much like so many other attractions, it was replicated in Walt Disney World as an opening day attraction, named Tropical Serenade. The show, if you haven’t seen it, features several tropical birds singing in a Polynesian-themed room. It’s not terribly flashy or exciting, but it was created at a time when Americans were tickled pink about Hawai’i becoming part of the United States.
Michael Eisner understood the importance of appealing to younger generations and the power of synergy with Disney. Since two of the nineties’ biggest hit movies featured colorful talking birds, he decided to incorporate Zazu from The Lion King and Iago from Aladdin into the show, but not just as cameos, no. They were now the Tiki Room’s new owners. Shenanigans ensue.
What happened: If I could sum up Under New Management in one word, it’s “disrespectful”. Me, personally, I find the show outrageously dull and uneventful, but I respect it. But Under New Management? It treated the previous show like how birds treat a freshly washed Mercedes.
The show’s opening number, “In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room”, written by the Sherman brothers, gets interrupted by the screeching of Gilbert Gottfried. In addition to announcing his new ownership, he demands the show get hip or the audience would disappear, singing a sardonic parody of “Friend Like Me”. Alas, Iago’s attitude does not sit well with Uh O’a, the Tiki goddess of destruction. Then the birds sing some “cool” songs that impress Iago, who got KFC’d by Uh O’a. The entire premise was dedicated to putting down the previous incarnation as being lame and outdated. You can guess how the purists felt about that.
The attraction opened in 1998, and ran for thirteen years until the attraction caught on fire in 2011. While no one was hurt, the Iago animatronic was damaged so badly they decided to revert it back its original version, this time calling The Enchanted Tiki Room.
What could have fixed it: If they laid off mocking the original, it might have been at best, a passable experience. But instead, they chose to be nasty to its predecessor. The only good thing that came out of it was it gave the show a three act structure, rather than a dull procession of songs.
But if they really want to upgrade the attraction today, Disney has since released two movies set in the Pacific isles: Lilo & Stitch and Moana. Both feature some great music that better encapsulate the spirit of Polynesia. One problem I have with the show is…well, it’s too white. I mean, it’s definitely indicative of an era when Americans thought it was all just so cute, what with their little guitar thingies and the colorful shirts and grass skirts and coconut bras and funny names like “Waikiki”. I know it’s Adventureland, not World Showcase, so cultural accuracy isn’t too paramount here, but it’d be nice. For more detail in this, check out this video by Youtuber TricksterBelle.
And I know I’m stretching my powers of armchair imagineering here. I mean, those movies came out after 1998. But what if they used the Jungle Book vultures? Sure, they’re not colorful or from the Polynesian islands, but they were inspired by the Beatles, right? Beatles-inspired birds singing oceanic songs? That sounds pretty cool. I’m just saying.
6. Sitich’s Great Escape! (Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World)
The history: After Flight to the Moon and Mission to Mars closed at Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland, the third attraction was geared at older audiences: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. The attraction, opening in 1995, was a truly intense experience, with guests locked in place while a massive, carnivorous alien touches, breathes, and even drools on unsuspecting guests. The terrifying nature of the show brought about both love and disgust from guests for seven years.
With the release of Lilo & Stitch in 2002, Disney lost their minds. It was their first real hit animated movie since Tarzan three years prior. Plus, Stitch was one of the very few Disney characters who was known for being dangerous, gross, rebellious, and yet still endearing. ExtraTERRORestrial had complaints up the wazoo for years from angry parents that the ride with the word “terror” in all caps was too scary for kids. So when Experiment 626 came onto the scene, it seemed like a perfect solution: it’d still keep the scary aspect for adults while having adorable little Stitch to appeal to kids. What could go wrong?
Aside from, you know, celebrating its opening day by TP’ing Cinderella Castle. That sure didn’t ruin anyone’s once-in-a-lifetime photos of their Disney trip, no sir.
What happened: Put simply, the opposite of what was supposed to happen, happened. Since opening in 2003, kids remained too scared of the ride that plunged them in the dark and creepily assaulted by unseen hands, even if it was Stitch. Adults were turned off by the cutesy Disney cartoon character in what was supposed to be a genuinely intense experience. While the previous alien creeped around like a predator hunting for its next victim, Stitch bounced on the shoulder harnesses (which already could be painful for some) whispered creepy things in people’s ears like “Did you miss me?”, and of course, belch chili dog breath in guests’ faces (Disney did have a commercial at one point describing it as “Disney’s most *belch* experience”. Cute.).
It quickly garnered the reputation as Disney’s worst attraction, and even though it slowly shuttered to a close in 2018, it still remained open much longer than its predecessor, which now has become a beloved cult classic.
What could have fixed it: Not much, really. With Stitch, you can’t really have your cake and eat it, too. The character himself just barely skirts between disgusting and adorable, but at the parks, that combo just doesn’t really work. He works best as a rabble rouser, causing mischief, because that creates conflict, ergo, a story to be told. But if you retain Stitch’s grosser qualities – remember, he can pick his nose with his tongue and eat his boogers – that can be very off-putting to the average theme park patron, even if they like him. I like Stitch, but I don’t want him to do the things to me he did in the ride.
Should they have kept ExtraTERRORestrial? I don’t know. Disney worked hard to make a quality, legitimately scary ride in the heart of the Magic Kingdom, and they succeeded, whether you clutch your pearls over that sort of thing or not. I know I don’t care for scary rides, so I never experienced it. But there had to have been some happy medium between something so divisive and something so transparently terrible.
5. Superstar Limo (Disney’s California Adventure, Disneyland Resort)
The history: When Eisner decided to go forth in making a sister park to Disneyland celebrating California, he had an idea for a ride: a fast-paced limo ride where guests were being pursued by paparazzi through the streets of Hollywood. As I pointed out in my Tower of Terror review, Eisner LOVED Hollywood culture. Now, the difference between us and him is we, the public, love Hollywood for its glitz and glamour, the heyday of when famous stars would strut down Mullholland Drive in their finest, the realization of the American dream of being rich and famous, and the veneer of perfection. Eisner loved Hollywood business, with its culture of agents and managers, the elite rubbing elbows with each other, and the flashy intensity of its consumerist aesthetic. So the idea of guests getting caught in the glare of the paparazzi’s cameras, on their way to hurry to a movie premiere at the Chinese theater to sign their “standard rich and famous” contract, was something that appealed to primarily Eisner. It’s worth noting Eisner’s current production company, the Tornate Company, is producing Netflix’s Bojack Horseman.
What happened: August 30th, 1997. Princess Diana of Wales died in a car crash while fleeing paparazzi. The princess was a much beloved figure internationally, and her death was shocking and horrendous, considering it was in relation to the parasitic trend of an opportunist industry already known for having little regard for human decency. Paparazzi went from being mere nuisances to potential murderers in their callous pursuit of exploitation. As of that date, Disney imagineering knew they had a big, big problem, and they were too far along to just abandon it.
Even when Eisner kind of distanced himself from his own idea, the ride, now called Superstar Limo, the imagineers did what they could to defang any potential controversy. The opening day attraction had the story that guests were the newest star of Hollywood, as indicated by an entirely unappealing, stereotypically skeezy Hollywood agent puppet. The purple limo vehicles slowly inched through tacky cutouts of various L.A. locales, with a booming narrator announcing every sight and celebrity. Mini, limited-articulation animatronics of various celebrities that wouldn’t date the attraction AT ALL (Regis Philbin! Drew Carey! Tim Allen! Antonio Banderas! Cher! Cindy Crawford!) dotted the ride track.
Needless to say, the ride closed less than a year after opening and was replaced by Monsters, Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue!. Several of the celebrity animatronics were repurposed into CDA agents on the ride, and the ride’s purple limousines were turned into Monstropolis taxis.
What could have fixed it: Due almost entirely to Diana’s untimely death, there was just no salvaging the project. But a similar ride does exist that bears a passing resemblance to the original concept: Rock n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which was finished two years before California Adventure opened with Superstar Limo. In that one, you’re still in a limo racing through L.A. and enjoying the tacky neon, but there’s no paparazzi to be seen. So why didn’t they just make that? If I had to guess, it just came down to money. California Adventure was made with such a crappy budget I’m surprised only one climbable tractor was considered an attraction.
But again, Eisner seemed to forget we like Hollywood for very different reasons. We want to see the Chinese Theater, the Hollywood sign, and the Walk of Fame. We don’t want to see Venice Beach in hot pink and leopard print, much less in cartoony cutouts…as a Disney ride!
4. DisneyQuest (Downtown Disney, Walt Disney World)
The history: If you want to point a finger at anyone who caused Disney’s overzealous desire to grow, expand, and dominate, it’d have to be at Michael Eisner. It was he who presided over Disney in the eighties and nineties, banking on the strong economy and consumerist culture. Among his other pursuits was to expand Disney entertainment beyond the theme parks. He opened a brand new division in 1996 called Disney Regional Entertainment, which sought to place Disney-branded fun to cities all across America.
The nineties were the era of video games and a wacky concept called virtual reality (What? We also thought pogs and Tamagotchis were cool. Cut us some slack for wanting to be immersed in Mario 64, even if it meant investing in a Virtual Boy!). So Disney decided to be “kewl” and “get jiggy with it” in making a massive, five story indoor arcade in Downtown Disney’s West Side district. At the time, it was groundbreaking, and Eisner had plans to open ones in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The one in the Windy City opened in 1999…
What happened: …And closed in 2001 due to low attendance. The planned DisneyQuest for Philadelphia never got past the “Giant, unsightly hole in a dirt lot” phase.
Both locations were expensive at $34 in Chicago per person and $48 at Downtown Disney. That’s nearly fifty dollars to basically what amounted to was, at best, three hours of entertainment. Never mind some of the games were exhausting physically, like Virtual Jungle Cruise, Ride the Comix, and Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam. Despite strong attendance at first, the arcade had limited rerideability, and it showed in the declining numbers. After the Chicago location shut down, the WDW location stayed open until 2017. However, over time, the attraction stagnated, and received few to no upgrades.
What could have fixed it: There’s nothing wrong with opening and operating something as nutty as a virtual reality arcade…but it requires commitment of the highest caliber. In theme park rides, significant technology breakthroughs come around about every five years or so. With video games, it’s practically yearly. In order to remain relevant, they should have really committed to maintaining and updating its catalogue. Even though the virtual reality gimmick was dead by 2000, the arcade idea could still work, but it required oodles of dinero that they just weren’t willing to invest. Even by its closure in 2017, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride still had 64-bit graphics, angular polygons, and glitchy mechanics.
I don’t think updating it to stay technologically modern was going to happen, though. It just would have been way too expensive for something doesn’t generate that much revenue.
3. Journey Into Your Imagination (Epcot, Walt Disney World)
The history: Imagineer Tony Baxter had an attraction planned as far back as the seventies for an unbuilt area for Disneyland called Discovery Bay. The ride featured Professor Marvel and his pet dragon as they explored the cosmos for imagination. The idea evolved into Journey into Imagination, an Epcot attraction that opened less than six months after the park opened in 1982. In the ride, the kindly Dreamfinder and his Figment of imagination showed off room after room of gorgeous art and nifty special effects to showcase the wonder and beauty of imagination. It became a crowd favorite for more than fifteen years.
What happened: Kodak was the ride’s sponsor since day one, but even as early as the nineties, their hold onto the number one name in photography was slipping. You might recall my discussion on Epcot’s ride sponsorship model in my Mickey and Goofy Explore the Universe of Energy review, and why that just wasn’t sustainable. Well, Kodak just couldn’t keep paying Disney for a 12-minute ride. But Kodak was a sponsor for Disney parks, a beautiful match made in heaven between tourism and photography. Disney didn’t want to lose them.
So as a compromise, the ride was reduced by 40% and Dreamfinder and Figment were removed and renamed Journey into Your Imagination. For whatever reason, the ride was now adapted to fit the theming of next door’s Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, making it the Imagination Institute, starring Eric Idle as Dr. Nigel Channing. In the ride’s open house, he escorted guests through the building, but only after scanning visitors’ heads and deducing we are without imagination (“As you can see, there’s not much going on up there, Imagination-wise.” Smoo you, Channing). Gone were the days of color and fanciful imagery, only to be replaced the laboratory aesthetic with some optical illusions. Fans were not pleased.
But here’s where it gets weird: Both Eisner and Kodak executives hated the new ride. So much so that Eisner demanded the ride be fixed. Sadly, this did not mean restoring the ride back to its former glory, the full twelve minutes or Dreamfinder. It meant bringing back Figment…sort of. In the original, Figment was an adorable, charming, childlike personality, voiced by Billy Barty. In the new version – Journey into Your Imagination closed almost exactly two years after it opened, and the 2002 ride is now called Journey into Your Imagination with Figment. Oy. – Figment was turned into a flippant imp voiced by the Great Gonzo himself, Dave Goelz. The version that stands today is the same one from 2002, complete with short wait times year round and LOTS of Figment merchandise. Worse still, most of the ride track and other areas that were walled off after the 1999 overhaul were simply abandoned.
What could have fixed it: I get why Disney tried so hard to retain Kodak’s sponsorship, even though it ended in 2010. I dislike the sponsorship model as a whole, but I get it. What I don’t get is why they had to make the drastic changes for the 1999 version. From what I can tell, Kodak’s funding was so paltry that Disney couldn’t afford the costly and outdated effects. Fair enough, I suppose, but at the cost of Dreamfinder? And Figment? And the decor to look like an underground S.H.I.E.L.D. Lab?
This attraction has been constantly rumored to be on the chopping block for years now. But I worry above all we’ll never get to see Dreamfinder or OG Figment again. So many cool things can be done with today’s technology. Now that’s unimaginative.
2. Rocket Rods (Disneyland, Disneyland Resort)
The history: The WEDway Peoplemover dates back to the sixties, an adaptation of the Ford Magic Skyway ride Walt developed for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Designed to be the future of transportation, the Peoplemover slowly escorted guests around Tomorrowland from a second-story perspective, weaving in and through the land’s attractions.
In the early nineties, Eisner planned to renovate Tomorrowland to combat the age-old issue: how do you keep Tomorrowland from becoming Todayland as time keeps moving forward? The project, called Tomorrowland 2055, was going revitalize the area from the ground up.
What happened: If you guessed money, you’re right again, champ! Extremely limited funds halted most all upgrades, save for turning Peoplemover into Rocket Rods and painting the land gold and copper, replicating the H. G. Wells and Jules Verne-inspired Discoveryland in Disneyland Paris. It was a very underwhelming makeover.
Rocket Rods opened in 1998, and was a very different experience. The cone-shaped dragsters would pop a wheelie as they’d peel out at 35 miles per hour, and race around the track above the heads of park patrons. Well, “race” is a strong word. The Peoplemover has a winding track that weaves throughout Tomorrowland, and because they simply retrofitted the cars to the existing track, the speedy cars had to slow way, way down to safely take on the turns. So riders were constantly zipping along, then slowing to a crawl, then zip along, then crawl, lather, rinse repeat. This was bad already, but this caused the tires of the vehicles to wear down much faster than anticipated, on top of the plethora of maintenance issues, causing a ton of downtime and subsequent evacuations. The ride shut down in 2000, with Disney promising it would reopen the following spring. By April, Disney finally admitted the ride was closed for good.
Today, the tracks still stand, and the ride entrance is currently the home to Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters. Now, why don’t they just repurpose the tracks? Sadly, the Peoplemover tracks were not reworked to handle the faster cars, and they caused undue stresses and fractures on the structures. So why not tear down the track, or at the very least, fix the them? Well, because the tracks are so interwoven throughout Tomorrowland’s other attractions, it’d take far too much time and money, especially considering how central they are to Tomorrowland’s infrastructure.
What could have fixed it: There’s no mincing words on this one: they done messed up bad. It’s one thing to make a bad replacement of a fan favorite, but it’s another to destroy any hope of repairing it, however small, in the future. At least River Country at Fort Wilderness is tucked away and out of sight, but the Peoplemover track lingers above every guest’s head as they make their way to Space Mountain.
The fact of the matter is, even if they wanted to completely move onto something different from the Peoplemover, there’s no reason they couldn’t alter the cars or the theming. But instead, they failed some basic engineering assessments and berthed Disney’s worst foe: unnecessary expense.
1. EuroDisneyland/Disneyland Paris
The history: You probably noticed all of these fails I listed only happened between the late eighties to the mid-aughts. I’m not saying bad park development decisions didn’t occur outside those parameters, but a lot of questionable decisions were made under the gaze of then-president Michael Eisner, who ran the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005. The funny thing is, if Eisner left around 1994, he would have been hailed as a hero, the man who saved Disney from bankruptcy and gave us the animation renaissance, a slew of great live action movies, and lots of awesome theme park attractions. But right around the mid-nineties, something happened, and his decisions became more and more concerning.
Eisner wasn’t responsible for deciding to build a French Disney park. That catalyst came right after the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, which was a resounding success. No wonder right afterward, Jim Cora and Dick Nunis immediately began scouting for European regions to put a Disney park. France was ultimately decided upon for its flat land and central location in the continent. By this point, Eisner was in and the problems began.
What happened: There seemed to be a disconnect between the Disney company and french culture almost right away. The policies at the Disney park that are familiar to us – no alcohol, including wine, and the strict grooming standards – were met with fierce resistance. Eisner insisted his meetings were to be conducted in english. The name “Euro Disney” turned off a lot of natives, who viewed the prefix as a word most commonly associated with business and commerce, not a fantasy theme park in an exotic locale (It would change to Disneyland Paris in 2002). The conditions were so upsetting to the cast members who started there that roughly 3,000 of them quit by the following month after the park opened.
But Disney’s biggest obstacle came in the form of the public’s reaction. Disney signed the deal with the French government before announcing it to the public. This meant they were in it deep and well past the point of no return when they made their intentions known the French citizens, only for them to reply in anger and disgust. Aside from the complaints one would expect from such an announcement (traffic, urban blight, noise complaints, etc.), but a massive backlash largely focused on their resentment toward cultural imperialism, and that the American consumerist attitude would invade France. The opponents were plentiful and vocal, from farmers upset over recent policies in the area to French intellectuals who found Disney’s tactics distasteful. One French director, Ariane Mnouchkine, famously called the idea “a cultural Chernobyl”.
But this did extremely little to dampen Disney’s spirits. Even before the park opened, plans were suggested to build multiple gates, including an Epcot and a movie studio park. When opening day neared, Disney was so confident the park was going to be successful they had radio broadcasts actually encourage visitors to not all come on opening day (Last thing they wanted was a Black Sunday 2.0). I’m going to let you guess how opening day turned out.
If you guessed that Disney expected 500,000 people to show up, but they fell short of that prediction, you guessed right! They actually only got less than 25,000. For those of you good with math, that’s less than 5% of the projected estimate. However, it should be noted that bad press and overconfident radio announcements weren’t the only problems: there was a worker’s strike on the railway from Paris, plus the economic recession that hit in August of 1992 probably hindered a lot of travel plans.
But once the park opened and everyone saw just beautiful the park was and how lovely Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant was, they’d come, right? Sadly, attendance stayed pretty low for a few years, incurring enough losses for Eisner to openly admit that anything was possible…including closure. However, that changed when Disney fast tracked development of Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune, which opened in 1995. That was enough to salvage the park’s abysmal financial standing for a while.
Still, despite its better financial health and its place as the number one travel destination in Europe (Yes, surpassing even the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower), Disneyland Paris still continues to be on shaky ground. So much so in 2018, Iger announced a 2€ million plan to add lands themed to Frozen, Marvel, and Star Wars because oversaturation, what’s that?
What could have fixed it: I guess since it all worked out in the end, kinda sorta, what’s there to say?
They still had some missteps along the way, that much is undeniable. But the biggest reason Disneyland Paris made number one on this list is because it entirely altered the course of the Walt Disney company, and in particular Eisner’s practices and subsequently, his reputation. Right around this time is when we lost Michael Eisner, the Hero of Disney, and gained Michael Eisner, the Cheapskate of Disney. Around this time, he also presided over the Disney’s America debacle in Virginia, his close friend and COO Frank Wells dying in a helicopter crash, and an unhealthy power struggle between himself and Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Was Disneyland Paris’ failure the sole cause of Eisner’s decade of being cheap and thrifty? Of course not, but that latter decade of his tenure is characterized by his no longer having an appetite for big, expensive projects. WestCot, DisneySea (Not the one in Tokyo), Tomorrowland 2055, Beastly Kingdomme, and Disney’s America were scrapped entirely, while Walt Disney Studios, Disney’s California Adventure, and Hong Kong Disneyland were built cheaply to maximize profits.
Today, Bob Iger is similarly vilified for his desire to desire to exploit the company’s assets, but the need to be as stingy is clearly much less prominent than it was with Eisner. I mean, say what you want about Pandora at Animal Kingdom, but could you imagine if Eisner were in charge of the invoices? Yikes.
So those are my top picks for failed theme park decisions. What did Disney do to tick you off? Let me know!
Now, who wants to see a real life Kuzcotopia? I know I do. Special thanks to Yesterworld and Defunctland YouTube channels for so much research!