Michael Eisner and the Lost Cliffs of California

In 1996, Disney CEO Michael Eisner conceived of a new type of vacation.

It was based on his own childhood memories of Camp Keewaydin, his wife’s love for the creepy hamlet of Chappauqua, NY, and other playgrounds of the rich and famous. And so a corner of Walt Disney World was set aside for this new enrichment program.

They called it the Disney Institute.

Situated on 40 acres of prime resort territory, the Institute consisted of a series of bungalows along a picturesque lagoon.

Nestled among the lush green “thinking gardens” and serene gazebos were facilities of every kind. Kitchen classrooms, Performance theaters, Art studios, and…

A rock-climbing wall.

rock_originalmap

Seen here in this weathered map rescued from the Peruvian jungles. That spidery icon in the middle is the ancient Mayan symbol for “Tourists Looking Silly.”

Of all the disparate elements in this one-of-a-kind vacation destination, the rock climbing wall was the pinnacle of the Institute experience. Forget mom’s all-day wine class/drinking excuse, and dad’s overwrought attempt to bring Streetcar to life on the stage. Here was the one offering that seemed to jibe with Disney’s adventurous outlook on life.

Predictably, they trotted out pictures at every opportunity. And it looks like they had a favorite model.

Predictably, they trotted out pictures at every opportunity. And it looks like they had a favorite model.

A brief perusal of the marketing materials of the time reveals nary a one that does not feature some stock photo of this towering slab of unscalable rock. It was rumored to be a cliff out of its element. A monolith to human brilliance.

rock_2001

Early Disney Promotional Material

This rock wall was so incredible, Disney took the time to carve out a literal segment of a California mountain, just so they could mold the perfect rock-scaling experience. Or at least someone in Imagineering told Michael Eisner that’s what they did.

This Newsweek article is indicative of the literature of the time, which plays up Disney's attention to detail about this breathtakingly-rendered fake rock. No word yet on the fate of the sand-sculpting pit.

This Newsweek article is indicative of the literature of the time, which plays up Disney’s attention to detail about this breathtakingly-rendered fake rock. Parkeology is also intrigued on just how state-of-the-art you can get with sand.

Then the state-of-the-art sands of time erased it from existence.

In 2015, Parkeology in conjunction with the Society of Budget Sherpas mounted an expedition into the wilderness of Lake Buena Vista in an effort to discover the remains of this hallowed tower.

It’s exact location is unknown. But ancient maps of the Disney Institute place it on the Northeast corner of Willow Lake, in a plot of open wilderness between the resort and Lake Buena Vista Drive.

Today, this land houses the Carousel complex, a series of hotel rooms and amenities. And an additional man-made lake, not shown on the map above.

And according to Google Maps, an intriguing vacation hotspot known as the "BBQ Grill Area"

Google Maps also shows an intriguing vacation hotspot known as the “BBQ Grill Area”

The open wilderness from the days of the Institute has vanished, and with it the Lost Cliffs of California. There is no sign either of the amphitheater that used to stand in this spot. All we have is an odd, flat berm that blocks the view of the road from the hotel.

Thinking that the berm might hold the ruined bleachers of the amphitheater, like an old Roman Coliseum, Parkeology summited the hill. What we found on the other side will shock you.

Shade.

Shade.

A few candidates stand out as potential sources of the lost cliff’s location. This “Thinking Garden” is unusually square, dotted with angelic statues, reminiscent of an ancient cemetery.

Ponder life, death, and your FastPass+ Selections at the Thinking Garden!

Ponder life, death, and your FastPass+ Selections at the Thinking Garden!

Stranger still is this Carousel gazebo, listed on the map as a barbecue area, in spite of only a single pathetic, rusted grill apparatus. The two-dimensional cut-out horses circling the gazebo outnumber the barbecuing tools 4 to 1. Parkeology attempted to mount these horses to see if they would lead us to the secret rock wall, but the horses are unfortunately stationary and we found the two-dimensional saddles to be extremely uncomfortable.

Nearby is a quiet fountain, whispering like the ghosts of the past.

Climb the rock... climb the rock... Only there will you achieve enlightenment.

Climb the rock… climb the rock… Only there will you achieve enlightenment.

It seems that the lost cliffs of California have vanished, crumbled into dust like the mudslides of their homeland.

Or more likely, the structure sank into that retention pond like the lost city of Atlantis.

But as Parkeology made its way around the Carousel area, we could not help but notice the strange chunks of rocks that dotted every cluster of shrubs and marked every twist and turn of the sidewalk.

rock_fragments

These rocks are oddly flat on many sides, with notches resembling intentional hand holds. Presumably they are decorative, excavated from the site of the hotel, but they are very different from the fossilized corral often turned up in the Florida beds.

Could these fragments of hand-cut rock be the last remaining pieces of the lost cliffs of California? Or is it merely coincidence? You be the judge.

It is strange that the highest concentration of these flattering slabs exists mainly in the area around the Carousel buildings. As one moves deeper into the resort, into the more historical district, the granite slabs begin to disappear.

The indigenous Floridian rock, found closer to the main buildings--Proof that nobody in California would ever think to model a section of Floridian cliff for a rock-climbing wall.

The indigenous Floridian rock, found closer to the main buildings–Proof that nobody in California would ever think to model a section of Floridian cliff for a rock-climbing wall.

Perhaps underneath one of these solemn chunks of hardened matter, a belay line is still anchored to the core, or a plastic foothold is still chiseled into the side, waiting for the day when the rock will turn over and all will be made known.

But until then, we have only our memories of a bygone era. A time when man could dream of a vacation to touch the sky… and scale the Cliffs of California to make it happen.


If you would like to receive Parkeology updates via email, please sign up for our email list! We also invite you to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter.

And Shane would personally love it if you checked out his thrilling pirate adventure novel Johnny Shipwreck. Available for Amazon Kindle!  (formerly titled The Raiders of Castillo del Mar).

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Listen and You’ll Hear a Very Special Park Valentine

Theirs was a love that stood the tests of time…

In honor of Valentine’s Day weekend, it is only fitting that we honor the greatest love story in theme park history.

It’s the story of one man’s passion—dare I say hunger—for his most special love. Never before or since have the parks dared to express such adult emotions on such a gripping stage. Here is a man’s heart laid bare, the notes etched on his spirit now translated to a music of such fervent energy, we cannot help but bask in its powerful graces.

This Disney love story is deeper, more primal, than those chaste princess moments involving first kisses. It knows that love causes us to positively ache—

An endurable pain if that love is returned…

A mortal rending of our souls if that love is unrequited.

We are given only a fleeting glimpse into this forlorn tale. We don’t know if it had a happy ending or not. All we know is that to this man, his true love was the very center of his universe.

I am speaking, of course, of vocalist John Joyce, and his ageless love ballad to that one great transferrable, indestructible property of physical objects in space.

I am speaking, of course, of Energy.

Listen to that heartbeat and you will agree that there is not even a hint of irony. That is a romantic poem straight from the fortress of a man’s most secret emotions. This is not some jokey little ditty designed to teach people about computers.

That is a love song, my friends. Pure and simple.

That the singer is madly in love with something that can be quantified in scalar expressions involving mass, the speed of light, and something called joules is beside the point.

The man is in love, and he wants the whole world to know it.

They lyrics could not be more clear. Even if it it is not possible in this physical universe, he knows that she has so many wonders to show him, both far and near. And she will share her secrets when he’s ready.

And he means to make himself ready. Oh yes. Anything to be held in her embrace for all time.

And without her… why, he will turn this small EPCOT Center preshow into a bloodbath of tragic proportions. For there simply is no living without Energy, and this Romeo would rather poison himself on the alter of bizarre physical science obsessions, than see his Joule-iet taken away from him.

She makes his world go ’round.

I don’t know what happened to these star-crossed lovers. Maybe they ran off to Vegas and got hitched. Maybe her rapper boyfriend MC-Squared got jealous and killed them both. Or maybe she just had a thing for Bill Nye and ditched him.

All we know is that this love song has disappeared and the strange and beautiful tale of John Joyce and Energy has faded into history.

Energy You Make the World Go 'RoundI prefer to think that everything turned out all right. That they figured out how to unlock the power of the stars–fusion power–and it gives them lots of choices for the world ahead. Or for Double Jeopardy.

Because on some days, when the setting sun paints the Florida sky in dazzling shades of heartfire, you can still hear this haunting melody drifting in the background music near Spaceship Earth…

She makes the world go ’round… She makes the world go ’round…


If you would like to receive Parkeology updates via email, please sign up for our email list! We also invite you to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter.

And Shane would personally love it if you checked out his thrilling pirate adventure novel Johnny Shipwreck. Available for Amazon Kindle!  (formerly titled The Raiders of Castillo del Mar).

 

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