Top Ten “Wait, that was a thing?”’s from Walt Disney World

A few years ago, I did a podcast episode of What’s the Attraction? where my buddy SurferClock and I did this exact top ten list. However, in the years since, I’ve found a few more entries that really made me scratch my head. If you’re interested in that list, particularly in audio form with my buddy, click here for part one of the two-part episode.

The theme park industry, not unlike TV or movie industries, require cross promotion. Sometimes that means having to make deals with other properties and studios in order to garner attention from those who would otherwise not be their target audience.

I mean, we all thought it was weird that Disney tagged James Cameron to put Avatar in Animal Kingdom, right?

But saddle up and strap in, kids, because sometimes Disney really, really turned the dial up to an 11 when it came to bizarre shows and events, particularly in the nineties, when extreme was in, gnarly, and radical!

You might notice eight of these entries happened at Disney-MGM Studios, the park whose identity hinged on being a real studio, kinda like that one other studio park a half hour’s drive north. Not that there was any coincidence, of course. But this park, as hackneyed as it felt at times, had two other purposes: it could use virtually any independent property Eisner wanted to without worrying about clashing themes, and could use its atmosphere to hype up any upcoming project in the works…’cuz its a studio! Eh? Eh??

Still, some of these choices are just so nutty, they often just came and disappeared rather quietly, and are rarely discussed except in various blogs or YouTube videos that exclusively want to get the clicks based on bizarreness alone. So let’s take a look at some of the weirdest, most esoteric events and shows at the most magical place on Earth that make you go:

“Wait…that was a thing?”

10. Dick Tracy: Diamond Double Cross (Disney-MGM Studios, 1990-1991)

Ever see when someone or something try so very, very hard to make something happen, and it just…you know, doesn’t? Like New Coke? Or James Cameron’s Avatar? You know, when the hype train is there, and you can’t ignore its advertising, but then, it just kinda stops existing? Dick Tracy had a strong opening weekend, but the studio ended up losing a net amount of $57 million in the end. If you asked anyone to this day if they’ve seen the movie, chances are very few are going to know what you’re talking about. (Wait, is it even on Disney+??)

Madonna, who starred as the sultry Breathless Mahoney in the movie, used her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour to market the movie. A Nintendo game was released. Toys were made, for McDonald’s Happy Meals and store shelves. A ride was planned for Disney-MGM Studios, Dick Tracy’s Crime Stoppers, but obviously, that never came to be. Warren Beatty, the film’s star and director, spent over twenty years fighting legal issues that tied up the property, desperate to get a sequel made, despite Disney’s refusal after the failure of the film.

Still, the park was appropriately themed (a sort of mishmash of the Hollywood we’ve all idolized it to be from its heyday of the 30’s and 40’s, and Dick Tracy clearly had a similar aesthetic), and it had a purpose to promote and upsell whatever new film would be coming to theaters. So, why not include an exciting action show starring the yellow-coat-wearing detective?

At the Theater of the Stars (Currently the home to Beauty and the Beast-Live on Stage!), the plot centered around Big Boy Caprice (played by Not Al Pacino) stealing a huge diamond for Breathless (Not Madonna), and Dick Tracy (Not…you get the idea) is summoned to hunt down the bad guys and blah blah blah.

The movie wasn’t necessarily a musical in the traditional sense, but it did have several songs peppering it’s soundtrack. Some were brought to the stage, particularly “Sooner or Later”, Madonna’s signature tune, plus several more to further embellish on the 40’s musical motif they wanted to promote at the park. The costumes and masks were made to look similar to the movie’s, but often looked cheap and unrealistic. Compare Pacino’s makeup to the guy in the teal coat in the above photo:

The show ran through February of 1991, and closed for nine months in preparation for a much more successful Disney musical. Beauty and the Beast premiered November 22nd, the same day as the Disney-MGM Studio stage show. Obviously, when it came to promoting its properties, it just made far more sense to stage the actual musical nominated for Best Picture, never mind the box office grosses, which were on both ends of the spectrum. Today, Dick Tracy is hardly more than an odd curiosity in the Disney canon, and the only reference to the movie in the park today is the handprints left by Warren Beatty and Charlie Korsmo (The Kid), placed front and center in front of the former Great Movie Ride, soon to be Mickey’s Runaway Railway.

Which leads me to the next item on this list…

9. Star Today (Disney-MGM Studios, 1989-1999)

Disney wanted to establish legitimacy in Disney-MGM Studios, considering it couldn’t hold a candle to Universal’s established history as a movie set for decades. And, like a lame freshman trying to establish themselves, they believed the best way to do this was to throw a huge party and invite all the cool kids. That was basically the strategy behind Star Today, or sometimes called Star of the Day.

Its origins could be traced back to the opening of the park, where the stops were pulled out to demonstrate the grandeur of a Hollywood gala. The who’s who of the day, like Bette Midler, Leonard Nimoy, Lauren Bacall, Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Rick Moranis, Betty White, Audrey Hepburn, and George Lucas all partook in the opening day parade, cruising in open-air limos up Hollywood Boulevard, and commemorated their presence by placing handprints in cement. These handprints would soon decorate the entryway to the Great Movie Ride, and many more would for the ground outside the aforementioned Theater of the Stars.

On May first, opening day itself, Annette Funicello was the first official Star Today celebrity visit, and the tradition continued for quite a few years. Every three to four days, Disney promised an ample opportunity for visitors to stumble upon these stars, and they’d do pretty much anything from holding a panel, to guest appearing on rides, to talking to guests, and yes, riding in a limo up Hollywood Boulevard and laying their handprints in cement. As time went on, the celebrity star power grew dimmer as, well, they kinda ran out of stars to use. But the handprint ceremony continued until May of 1999, when Michael J. Fox was the last to do so. To this day, assuming they aren’t removed for Mickey’s Runaway Railway, you can still find handprints for Jim Henson and pal Kermit, Robin Williams and Alan Alda (Both of whom imprinted their noses, too), The Golden Girls (Minus Bea Arthur), Pat Morita, Bob Hope, Dick van Dyke, Tom Cruise, Angela Lansbury, Billy Joel, Samuel L Jackson, Harrison Ford, Paul Ruebens (As Pee-wee Herman), David Copperfield, Chevy Chase, John Ritter, Judy Garland’s Red ruby slippers, Michael Jackson, and Roger Rabbit, plus several more younger generations may have to Google. Arguably the one with the best story is Hepburns’, because the starlet of the 50s and 60s had never had her handprints taken before. When the real Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood heard they apparently goofed, they asked for her to deign the honor, to which she said no, and thus, only here can you find her handprints.

Nowadays, if you see a celebrity at the Disney parks, and a ride or area isn’t opening, chances are they’re wearing a ball cap and sunglasses while being backdoored onto rides to avoid the spotlight for a day to ride Pirates of the Caribbean. But it’s fascinating to recall a time where Disney tried so very hard to get people to like them by getting as much celebrities as they could.

Screwy, ballyhooey indeed.

8. Power Rangers (Disney-MGM Studios, 2005-2010)

I was not a fan of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers when I was a kid. I loved my Ninja Turtles, but the series about the color-coded teenaged warriors who fought monsters was just too silly for me. (Wait a minute…). In any case, long before they’d try to corner the market on what teenage boys were into with Star Wars or Marvel, in 2001, Disney bought the Power Rangers from Haim Saban and wasted little time in putting their shows on their own networks.

But for five years, Disney brought the Power Rangers to participate in the Stars and Motor Cars parade, as well as meet-and-greets in Streets of America, Near the Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show. What makes this interesting is the franchise evolved season to season, with different characters, different motifs, and different series titles, and this was shown in the characters there. It wasn’t unusual to stumble upon a ranger from Dino Thunder standing alongside ones from S.P.D., or Mystic Force, or Operation Overdrive.

By 2010, the popularity of the franchise had long since waned since the glory years of the mid-nineties, and Disney failed to revitalize the series. As a result, they sold the rights back to Saban, and by August of that year, the teens with attitude were no longer part of the park. Perhaps if Disney had invested in them when they were going strong fighting Rita Repulsa, or even when the 2017 movie needed some hype, but they handled it in arguably the worst in-between period one could have imagined.

7. Daredevil Circus Sepctacular (Epcot, 1987)

Disney park fans love to argue what does and what doesn’t belong at Epcot. In the first two years, no characters, not even Mickey himself, was allowed at the park, as a means to differentiate from the Magic Kingdom. Over time, characters continued to gradually infiltrate Epcot, from The Lion King to The Three Caballeros to Finding Nemo to Frozen to Guardians of the Galaxy to Ratatouille. But if you asked anyone if a circus belonged at Epcot, chances are you’d get a pretty emphatic, universal “No!”, complete with a quizzical look. But…yeah, that happened. Complete with real elephants.

Implementing circuses at the Disney parks go as far back as a temporary land in Disneyland in 1955 through 1956, where the idea faltered pretty quickly (The thinking then was people go to Disneyland for a lot of reasons, but not to see a circus.). Eisner did it again in the mid-eighties to a much greater degree of success, hoping to boost off-season attendance. And with Walt Disney World’s 15 anniversary waning, the Florida park needed something to keep guests coming back. Epcot, desperately needing crowds, was designated as the prime location, and in going with World Showcase, would feature a European flavor, embracing a sense of respectability that was different from the tried-and-true American circuses like we see in Dumbo. However, budget cuts reduced the scale of the show to one stage, behind Spaceship Earth, retrofitted from the Fountain of Nations. In an instant, the show went from a European theme to an intergalactic theme, and you can already see where things might have started going a bit off the rails.

Disney issued several press releases where they promised plenty of high-flying thrills, most of which never happened, due to performer contracts, budgets cuts, or both. Mickey was cut as the show’s ringleader. Guests were not thrilled about staring upward into the Florida sun. The elephants were not happy with their “Martian mastodon” costumes, and often rebelled walking through the park when the sewer caps were a different color than the pavement. The space motif was relatively nonexistent. What was promised a year-long ceremony lasted a measly five months.

A lot could have salvaged this project, but it’s equally possible such an endeavor was doomed from the start. Too much ambition, not enough money, and poor planning often bankrupt those with fewer resources than Disney. Still, it might have been fascinating to see how they might have pulled it off had they planned it out just a little bit better.

6. Doug Live! (Disney-MGM Studios, 1999-2001)

As a Millennial, I grew up in an era where Nickelodeon was the zenith of kid’s televised entertainment, and the heart of said zenith was the NickToons. The pioneers of this era were Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, and Doug. However…I don’t think anyone really liked Doug. Sure, I watched it, but I watched it for the same reason I think everyone else did: I had nothing better to do for the next thirty minutes. Doug, created by Jim Jinkins, starred the titular dweeb going through middle school, where his biggest struggles were “What if I got a bad grade?”, “What’s everyone gonna think of me if I do something silly?”, or “Gosh, what if Patty Mayonnaise doesn’t like me?” The only real hook the show had was having literally colorful characters and Doug’s penchant for fantasizing as if he were on Scrubs or Family Guy.

After the show ended on Nick, Disney bought Jinkins’ studio, Jumbo Pictures, and Disney picked up the series, now titled Brand Spankin’ New Doug in 1996. Like Dick Tracy, Disney clearly thought the show had staying power. Even if they didn’t have a theatrical performance show at the park for two years, would you have doubted me when you remember they gave the franchise a theatrical release and literally titled it Doug’s First Movie? As if to imply they were confident more were on the way?

What is there to say about Doug Live? Doug wants to ask Patty to go to a Beets concert with him, gets nervous, Roger Klotz steals the moment and Patty accepts Roger’s invite. Doug fantasizes about being his superhero alter ego, Quailman, and gets an empowering lesson about believing in oneself before he goes to the concert with buddy Skeeter, and after Roger makes a fool of himself, Patty asks Doug to walk her home. While the show featured volunteers in minor roles (Par for the course at the park), it had very little going for it. It closed in 2001 to make way for The American Idol Experience, and later, the Frozen Sing-Along.

Even if you liked Doug, I think most of us can agree that a show that relied so heavily on the “Slice of Life” template didn’t have much of a shot at being a hit in a park that was all about action. I mean, if given the choice between watching a dweeby sweater-vest-wearing middle schooler wilt over his love life versus Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, the Great Movie Ride, Magic of Disney Animation, Studio Backlot Tour, or Muppet*Vision 3D, I know what I’d choose. Heck, even next door’s Sounds Dangerous Starring Drew Carey, a show literally that was in no way a visual show, managed to last 11 years longer. If they really wanted to bank on a television series as a stage show at Disney-MGM, they would have had better luck with something that had a little more action like Darkwing Duck or Gargoyles or…

5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Disney-MGM Studios, 1990-1995)

Yeah! Wait, what?

Yes, apparently even the heroes in a half shell took time out of their pizza-eating, Shredder-stopping, concert performing schedules to party at the fledgling park. Now the why is obvious: a deal with Mirage in order to cross promote the park and try to get the attention of kids to make Disney World look cool. But I’m more confused about the “which”.

See, if the turtles here were similar to the ones seen in the 1990 movie, that’d make sense. They could have promoted the movie that came out at that time, plus Jim Henson, whose studio made the incredible costumes for the movie, was in negotiations with the company to use his Muppets at the time. However, as you can tell by even the above image, these aren’t those, but the stars of the 1987 animated series, produced by Fred Wolf and aired in CBS. The only thing I can think of that might have tied them to the park was The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, based also on a CBS show…that didn’t open until 1994. So…(Shrug!)

People love to rip on the Coming Out of Their Shells Tour they did back in…(Checks notes.)…also 1990. Huh. And yes, it was bad, but while the one at the park wasn’t perfect, it was much more loyal to its source material, right down to the turtles cruising down Streets of America in their party van with April belting out the TV show’s beloved theme song. The turtles would then do meet-and-greets and sign autographs, much to the joy of several kids who watched the series back then.

Unlike the Power Rangers, Disney used these guys at just the right time, and definitely struck while the iron was hot. Not bad for a property that had to produce the 1990 film independently because no studio would touch it. Yes, not even Disney.

That’s Hollywood for ya, baby.

4. Dinosaurs Live! (Disney-MGM Studios, 1991-1992)

Speaking of Henson, his beloved Muppets weren’t the only creations of his to strut their stuff at MGM. I’ve gone on a tangent before this show, and I stand by what I said about it being one of the best series the early nineties had to offer.

It was Walt Disney World’s 20th anniversary celebration, and in the daily parade, one of their floats featured a “family of the day”, which put a visiting family on display. However, the family wasn’t anyone who came in through the turnstiles: it was Earl, Fran, Robbie, Charlene, Baby, and Ethyl.

Unlike their ill-fated trip to Wesaysoland in the “Variations of a Theme Park” episode (In and of itself a parody of Disney theme parks), the Sinclairs have a grand time at the park, and their brief (We’re talking four minutes brief) show in front the Great Movie Ride would celebrate them being the family of the day, and then segue into dancers performing “Walk the Dinosaur” before exiting. It wasn’t especially involved, but it’s a lot more than I would have expected. After all, Dinosaurs lasted its minimum requirement of 65 episodes, and was cancelled primarily due to the insane costs of production. (For the record, most of the main characters required three actors: one for the body, one for the face mechanics, and the voice actor.)

Still a better use of dinosaurs at Disney World than Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama.

3. Magical World of Barbie (Epcot 1993-1995)

Barbie perpetuates a negative body image on young girls and enforces archaic and dangerous beauty standards. There, I said it. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s proceed to Barbie Girl in her Barbie World…Showcase.

At the time, Mattel was sponsoring It’s a Small World, and the doll’s 35th anniversary was on the horizon. Unlike the other entries on this list, the synergy wasn’t one-sided. Mattel produced a special “Birthday Barbie” in 1994 to celebrate the occasion, and for a cent more (Yes, really. A single penny.), you could get a video cassette of Barbie Birthday Party at Walt Disney World Epcot ’94. The video basically showed two girls embracing the various cultures of Epcot’s World Showcase pavilions as they celebrate Barbie, who was declared a “Friendship Ambassador”.

Then there’s the show at Epcot, at the American Gardens theater at the American Adventure pavilion. Short on substance but chock full of fluff, Barbie and her friends travelled to various regions like Africa, Australia, and France, but doing little more than going on safaris and getting involved in a fashion show. Say nothing of her massive pink limousine she used to pose up against when she, Ken, and Skipper did their meet-and-greets.

At least when Disney used Mr. Potato Head at the parks, they utilized his main inherent quality of detachable pieces to have guests make their own handmade Mr. Potato Head with various Disney theming (Mouse ears, Goofy hat, Fastpass in hand, etc.). Barbie had little to nothing else going for her beyond being a fashion plate. I’m sure when the show ended in May of 1995, there were several disappointed fans, plus a few executives facepalming when they saw a hyper-successful movie about toys launch six months later they could have cross-promoted. Ah well, at least she showed up in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3.

2. Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show (Disney-MGM Studios, 1997-1998)

Fun fact: R. L. Stine, author of the beloved book series, loves Disney. No joke. So when Disney approached him about putting his popular books in their own show at Walt Disney World, he happily obliged.

You could point to any of Eisner’s endeavors to and claim he tried so hard to draw the teenage boy crowd and no one would doubt you. From Tower of Terror to ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, Power Rangers to TMNT, it was usually pretty transparent when they strove to get that elusive demographic interested in Disney theme parks. And I would say by far the most obvious was when they brought in one of the highest-grossing book series of all time, Goosebumps. The young adult novels were stories of horror and mystery that were excessively popular for kids through the nineties, back when “gross” was cool.

Set in Streets of America, the show revolves around the magician Amaz-O. After calling forth some young volunteers, he loses them during an act, only to find Slappy the ventriloquist dummy has kidnapped them and he announces his plans to make the audience his slaves. He had employed the services of Curly the skeleton, Cuddles the hamster, and Khor-Ru the mummy as muscle, but it takes some clever thinking on Amaz-O’s part to triumph over the demented puppet.

At least Goosebumps, as creepy as they were, were geared toward kids and young teens, and they had this show in a park that featured the Tower of Terror and Star Wars. Sadly, by the time the show arrived in the park, the original series had already ended, and Stine had jumped over to his less-successful run, Goosebumps Series 2000. Perhaps if Disney ever set about doing their own Halloween Horror Night-type tradition at Hollywood Studios, perhaps Slappy and the gang could return, given the revival the series has endured in recent years.

1. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: Live in Action (Disney-MGM Studios, 1995-1996)

Jim Carrey. Nowadays, people best know him as the anti-vaxxer political cartoonist/painter who sometimes does some dramatic acting. But what kids today may not know is that at one point in time, the Canadian actor was one of the funniest men of the nineties. Hyperactive, rubber-faced, and a massive ham to boot, Carrey gave us such gems as Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, Batman Forever, Bruce Almighty, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Liar Liar, The Cable Guy, Me, Myself, and Irene, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. In 1995, a sequel to the popular Ace Ventura film, subtitled When Nature Calls, was released, and Disney got in on this, with a show that ran five times a day and featured zip lining, rappelling, and rope swinging as the famous pet detective would chase down a giant spider.

At least Goosebumps, TMNT, Barbie, and Power Rangers were geared toward kids and teens. At least Doug, Dinosaurs, and Dick Tracy were Disney properties. At least Star Today and the Circus worked with the theming of their respective parks. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: Live in Action! had none of these qualities. Especially when you consider how often Carrey’s humor often was laced with sexual innuendos and cheeky punchlines. I mean…the big twist of the first movie was that the antagonist turned out to be one of them icky transgender people! (It was a…different…time?)

Information on this show is scant, but Walt Dated World has an article describing Ace (Played by Not Jim Carrey) chasing after a giant spider (or in some cases, Shikaka, the giant white bat from the movie), and he’d perform all sorts of acrobatic stunts as he pursued the elusive creature on top of the Streets of America edifices. The actor, naturally, channeled the popular catchphrases we all knew and echoed back then (“All righty then!, “Spank you very much!”, and yes, even “Do NOT…go in there!”). There were even backdrops so you could pose in for photo ops: one with him and a crocodile in a river, and the famous family chimp grooming scene.

This one is truly baffling. Ace was never a Disney or MGM property (Morgan Creek productions and distributed by Warner Brothers), nor was it thematically appropriate (The New York-style area was in no way tied to the film’s primary setting, the fictional African country of Nibia.), and like I said, its humor was not exactly appropriate for all ages. Still, I guess it’s not all that surprising, considering what we just covered at Disney-MGM throughout the nineties.

***************************

So there you have it. Ten weird events and promotions at Walt Disney World you either had no idea were a thing or did know were a thing and totally forgot they were a thing. Any I missed? Hit me up if you think I missed something like –

Wait…that was a thing, too?!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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