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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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…
Today we take a look at the movies of the 1950s and 60s. Other time periods are labeled “The Golden Age of Disney Animation,” but the films of this era are so brilliant, it’s no wonder that Disneyland emerged during this same creative timeframe.
This is the fourth volume of our continuing series, but in case you missed them…
Though the movie is infused with iconic characters and a groovy jungle beat, only a lot of terribly minor stuff remains today—the usual character spots and Jungle Cruise throwaway jokes about books in the jungle.
Those cursed with remembering Mickey’s Starland may recall that characters from Tail Spin appeared in the Disney Afternoon Stage Show. And King Louie scared the crap out of me as a drummer in the Mickey Mouse Revue.
Also the Pop Century Resort has enormous fiberglass statues of Mowgli and Baloo, because nothing says “pop culture” like a giant impoverished kid in a diaper.
For the longest time, the best Jungle Book tie-in was Kaa in Disneyland’s Fantasmic. The Florida version wisely replaced him with a cobra that had about 18 seconds of screen time in Aladdin.
Jungle Book’s crowning achievement came with the opening of Animal Kingdom in 1998. Journey Into Jungle Book was the first show to play in the open-air Theater in the Wild, which is now enclosed and hosting a musical version of a movie with no songs in it.
Journey Into Jungle Book heavily emphasized the songs, but the presentation fell flat. Maybe because of the purple bear fur. It’s also possible that by 1998, audiences just weren’t interested in a long-format stage show based on a movie from 30 years ago.
Journey Into Jungle Book closed after only one year.
They promptly replaced it with rollerblading monkeys.
#18 The Sword in the Stone (1963)
They never built a classic Fantasyland dark ride based on the story of the young boy who would eventually become king of England, find the Holy Grail, and study the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the entire design motif of Disney World’s Fantasyland came from Sword in the Stone, given that the whole thing is decked out like a medieval tournament.
At any rate, the Carrousel at Disneyland is named after King Arthur, which of course has many hand-painted panels depicting the classic story of… Sleeping Beauty.
The wizard Merlin has certainly popped up everywhere. Merlin’s Magic Shop was an early tenant at the Magic Kingdom, back when the park had three magic shops.
And of course Merlin is the face of the interactive in-park game, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.
But for utter charm, the best Sword in the Stone experience is literally the Sword in the Stone. It sits in front of the Carrousel in most versions of the Magic Kingdom, and some of them still perform the Sword in the Stone ceremony, where Merlin selects volunteers to try to become king or queen of Fantasyland for a day.
Duties consist mostly of negotiating treaties with Adventureland.
In other news, Archimedes the owl appears in World of Disney’s marvelous bird mural.
#17 One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
There was a time when the Disney MGM Studios caught full-on Dalmatian fever, thanks to the live-action remake starring Glenn Close. We shall not discuss any of those efforts—neither the green-screen backlot crap they shoehorned into the Walking Tour, nor the hideous ABC Sound Studio foley junk that took over the Monster Sound Show.
The animated dogs make an appearance during Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom—a game which can’t be bothered to treat its source material with any sort of respect. And counterproductive to the film’s message, there’s the usual synthetic puppy furs sold at the various shops on property.
Speaking of which, Cruella de Vil is a much bigger deal than Pongo and the rest. She’s had her own float in parades, and anytime there’s a congregation of Disney Villains, she’s invited.
But apparently the largest scale implementation of puppy power can be found at…
—am I really going to use this? Yes, I have no choice.
The only thing tackier is Odell Beckham Jr’s right glove dipped in superglue. And if that metaphor is creatively lazy, then it has something in common with the All Star Movies Resort.
#16 Sleeping Beauty (1959)
If you can’t think of a park tie-in to Sleeping Beauty, then you probably shouldn’t call yourself a Disney fan.
Small stuff first. Florida has the blue/pink dress gag from the film lurking in the background of Castle Couture in Fantasyland. And for some inexplicable reason, Sleeping Beauty’s King Stefan had a Banquet Hall on the second floor of Cinderella Castle for many years.
The characters pop up from time to time. The three fairies are in the Main Street Electrical Parade and Aurora currently holds court at France in Epcot.
Maleficent is the real belle of the ball when it comes to this movie. She practically owns Halloweentime. Castle stage shows, Halloween fireworks voice overs, etc.
Her dragon form is ubiquitous—Massive steam punk parade floats, Lego Store sculptures, and a towering fire-breathing behemoth in the finale of Fantasmic.
But the coup de grace for Sleepy Beauty has to be the castle.
Of the six Disney castles worldwide, Sleeping Beauty gets half of them. The movie may be a bit cold compared to other princess flicks, but when the very first castle in Disney history is named after it, it must be doing something right. The Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant in Paris may be more regal, but Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle is a toy straight out of our imagination.
This is the symbol that sold the nation on the idea of Disneyland. It is such an icon for the company that for years it was featured as the logo for everything—not just theme parks, but TV shows, movies, merchandise, etc. Sleeping Beauty Castle simply is Disney.
Funny how her castle predates the movie by 4 years.
#15 Lady and the Tramp (1955)
As is the case with many movies featuring realistic animal characters, you won’t find many meet-and-greets from Lady and the Tramp. You’re more likely to get Gigantor versions of the characters at Pop Century Resort, where both Lady and Tramp appear.
You can, however, find an entire Magic Kingdom restaurant named after the film’s most minor characters. Tony, the Italian restauranteur who famously ignored his paying customers in order to serenade stray dogs, has his own Town Square cafe. It features Italian food, of course, and tasteful references to the movie.
Outside you can find a spot where the canine heroes have left their mark. Fortunately, it’s not the fire hydrant.
In Disneyland Paris, the pizzeria also has a Lady and the Tramp theme.
#14 Peter Pan (1953)
If Sleeping Beauty Castle got to be the logo for the Disneyland TV show, Tinker Bell got to be the host.
Tinker Bell is one of the all-time great Disney park characters. At castles around the world, she sets off the nightly fireworks displays with a wave of her wand and a dazzling flight from the highest tower.
And if that’s not enough, she sells merchandise by the bucketload, thanks to Pixie Hollow meet-and-greet areas and Tinker Bell’s Treasures toy shops.
Peter Pan is the perfect movie for theme parks. For the longest time Disneyland had a massive Skull Rock, alongside a full scale Captain Hook Pirate Ship and Chicken of the Sea Restaurant, which logically sold chicken dinners (actually tuna). Paris thought the idea was so good, they built their own chicken restaurant. Oh, and a Skull Rock.
On most nights, Captain Hook and Peter Pan transform the Columbia into a travelling stunt show at Disneyland’s Fantasmic while the Crocodile chases them from his own oversized barge. And Peter Pan is one of only two movies made prior to 1989 to get its own segment in Mickey’s Philharmagic.
One of the all-time great Disney MGM Studios attractions was the Back to Neverland tour at the Magic of Disney Animation, starring Robin Williams as a Lost Boy and Walter Cronkite as a pompous animation expert. If any attraction had Disney magic, that was the one.
But who are we kidding? The greatest theme park tie in from this movie is none other than Peter Pan’s Flight, the innovative Fantasyland dark ride that lets you crash a pirate ship through a window.
Florida’s version is awesome, Disneyland’s version is breathtaking, but I’ve heard that Paris’s version is truly magical.
Nothing is quite so magical as a flash picture in a dark ride.
#13 Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Just like Neverland, Wonderland seems to exist solely to provide theme parks with great source material.
If Sleeping Beauty had the iconic logo, and Tinker Bell had the iconic host duties, then Alice had the iconic Disneyland ride.
The Mad Tea Party—known everywhere simply as the Tea Cups—has been spinning around since Opening Day back in 1955. It’s a standard carnival ride from a time when Disneyland wasn’t sure just how far it could deviate from the traditional amusement park fare. But unless you’re a giant Sorcerers Hat, icons have a way of enduring and the Tea Cups have been a park staple for 60 years.
Less familiar to American audiences may be Alice’s Curious Labyrinth in Disneyland Paris, where you can re-enact the ending to The Shining inside you’re very own Alice-themed hedge maze.
But for my money, Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland ride takes the prize. It’s the only Fantasyland dark ride that goes inside and out, upstairs and down. And any ride where you’re sitting on a caterpillar is going to be top notch.
#12 Cinderella (1950)
Cinderella isn’t set on an adventurous Neverland isle, nor is it inside a zany Wonderland. Most of the action takes place in the servant’s quarters at a middle-class manor house.
Of course during a brief part of the movie, there’s also a castle.
Cinderella Castle graces both the Florida and the Tokyo versions of the Magic Kingdom, and while Sleeping Beauty’s version has charm without the large scale, Cinderella Castle gets the best of both worlds.
She has a Royal Table, a character greeting area, and a nice fairy tale hotel suite available only to contest winners and people from the royal family of Iger.
On a more crass note, there are also Bibbity Bobbity Boutiques. These are apparently very popular, though I am not the target audience for these things, and I don’t think you will see any videos of two men in their forties getting their hair done on the next WDW46 adventure.
The Cinderella universe shows up in all the expected spots. Characters, fireworks, parades, Fantasmic. The Storybookland Canal Boats includes a scene or two. Even Prince Charming gets his name on the Carrousel in Florida.
Perhaps one of the more interesting tie-ins is at the Disney Wedding Pavilion, where brides arrive in Cinderella’s very own coach, hoping to avoid a hideous transformation at midnight, reminiscent of the plot of Gremlins.
There also used to be a castle stage show called Cinderellabration, imported from Tokyo.
The less said about that, the better.
#11 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
As we cross the threshold into the 1940s, we reach the first anthology film on our list. Two stories rolled into one. The deliciously creepy Ichabod and the zany Mr. Toad.
The Headless Horseman from the Ichabod segment is a Halloween mainstay. He introduces the Boo To You parade during Walt Disney World’s hard-ticket Halloween parties, and for years terrorized hayriders at Fort Wilderness (still a Disney World bucket list item that I’ll never get to complete).
Ichabod himself used to be in the highly-lucrative “Keel Boat Souvenir” business before Ichabod’s Landing disappeared from Liberty Square. But Sleepy Hollow Refreshments has been operating for decades, serving the finest waffles on property.
The Mr. Toad segment of the same movie, however, is famous more for its ride than for the film that inspired it.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is the outlier—the most subversive Disney attraction around. Not only isn’t it afraid to kill its audience in a grisly locomotive accident, it likes to send them to hell for good measure.
The Disneyland version has a much more charming exterior, while the Florida version was saddled with the medieval tournament look. Disney World made up for it by having two separate tracks, which were slightly different Toad experiences. The Walt Disney World version famously caused a ruckus when it closed for good way back in the 1990s, but Disneyland’s version is still going strong.
Toad Hall also exists in Paris, but as a restaurant. I hear the frog legs are delicious.