Most of us when we go to the movies are there to actually watch the movie.
I mean, I like cup holders and adolescent groping as much as the next guy. But if I’m going to spend the yearly wage of a Nike factory worker to sit in a darkened room for two hours, I want to watch Tom Cruise possibly fall to his death from a dumb plane stunt. Not the idiot in Row 5 texting his mother.
Same deal at the parks. When the lights go down and the butterfly curtain flaps away, our eyes are glued to the fantastic theme park performances on stage or screen.
Unless we’ve been there a hundred times.
We’ve written more tips than Cosmo about ways to spice up your ridemaking. But shows are trouble. Rather than an ever-changing three-dimensional vista of pillaging pirates, it’s often the same static bench in the same faux aquarium, listening to the same turtle factoids in the same phony Australian accent.
But what if I told you crazy fans that there are secret shows hidden in plain sight?
Great theme park performances that 99% of the audience never sees?
Animatronic actors pouring their entire soul into their role for nary a scrap of recognition?
I’m not talking an occasional unnoticed sight gag. These are full-length on-stage theme park performances that run non-stop throughout the day. These guys are emoting their hearts out, with more stage-time than the stars of the show.
And you never noticed them, you godless heathen.
To find them, you have to look in a place you never would have guessed.
You have to watch the audience.
It’s a surreal situation, like reading Moby Dick from the point of view of the whale. But if you have the fortitude, you can step through the looking glass and watch other characters watch the show.
The Country Bear Jamboree
You all know Blood on the Saddle, the Bear Band Serenade and the rest of the classic show. You can sing all the carols from the Christmas version and may even quote the skunk’s lines from Vacation Hoedown.
But do you know who gets the first lines and the last lines in the show?
Yeah. It’s that terrific troupe of talking taxidermy. Melvin, Max, and Buff.
And since they’ve got nowhere to hide, they have to watch the show. Again. And again. And again.
Which means while Henry is off adolescently groping Teddi Berra in the attic, Melvin, Max, and Buff are listening to the same corny numbers they’ve been hearing since 1971.
Sometimes they nod along in time to the music. Sometimes they roll their eyes. Sometimes they even whisper to each other. Oh, and Max hides a chuckle at the antics at multiple points in the show.
Try it next time. Try watching the entire Country Bears show while staring at the right wall.
Not only will you creep out everyone around you, but you’ll also see an entirely new Magic Kingdom show that you never knew existed.
Muppet Vision 3-D
MuppetVision 3-D is that rare exception to the rule, where the jokes come fast and furious and the sight gags are rewarding even on the tenth viewing.
But if you are one of those people whose gaze habitually gravitates to the fluffy chickens roaming through the Muppet Labs foyer at the beginning of the film, you’ve probably seen the movie enough times to try this.
Just like Melvin, Max, and Buff, Waldorf and Statler have minor roles in the main show. And just like in Country Bears, they get the opening and closing lines.
But for the most part, they are there to watch.
If anything, their theme park performance is even more fascinating than Melvin, Max, and Buff. Statler’s mouth is forever falling open in abject shock at the hijinks on display. Both of them spend so much time ducking and rattling from all the shenanigans, you’d think stuff really was flying off the screen.
In a brilliant instance of animated puppetry, Waldorf and Statler will actually turn to face the theater when Waldo, the Spirit of 3-D, flies in close – as if that zany creature was actually hovering over people’s heads.
Speaking of which, watch them bob their head with every bounce as Waldo plays pogo on top of the audience. Or wince in time with Beaker whenever the MuppetVision paddlewheel cracks him in the skull.
And sometimes they simply can’t help looking at each other in horror at what they are being subjected to.
It’s an entire show unto itself.
I was surprised at how engaging this is for a long-timer. It takes some discipline to remain focused on these peripheral theme park performances, when everything from the music stings to the lighting cues is geared to focus your attention on the stage.
It would be great if someone skilled at low-light videography would just set up a tripod and put the entire performance of Melvin, Max, Buff, Waldorf, and Statler up on youtube.
But until that happens, you’ll just have to go to the parks and try it yourself.
It really is like discovering a completely new show.
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.
I’m just old enough to remember when “Tomorrow” meant peoplemovers, wrap-around movie screens, and acres of vanilla buildings.
The people of Tomorrow just didn’t have time for decorating, what with flying to Mars every other day.
Now we live in a Stitched up Tomorrowland, where all the goodie 1970s futurism has been Monstered out of existence by a slew of animated Lightyears. Twenty years ago, Tom Morrow moved out and George Lucas aliens moved in.
New Tomorrowland, they called it.
Probably the worst thing about WDW46 was being called “middle-aged” by seemingly every news organization in the country. In my mind, middle-aged means a hair piece, an alcohol problem, and some kind of manufactured crisis involving a red sports car.
But no, really it means you spend too much time at Walt Disney World hunting down memories from your past, like the remnants of If You Had Wings.
You remember this one, right? A TV commercial for Eastern Airlines masquerading as a dark ride. Walt Dated World has a great introduction for you novices, but Widen Your World has a truly epic breakdown—even taking its name from the attraction’s lyrics.
The basic gimmick was that you rode past flat projection screens that were cleverly integrated into three dimensional sets. Waterfalls in Jamaica, flower boats in Mexico, straw markets in the Caribbean…
In other words, it was exactly like El Rio del Tiempo in Epcot—right down to the annoying theme song.
Your Omnimover would pan past these locales and you would think to yourself: If I had wings, I could totally fly to all these exotic locations. Wait a minute! Why do I need wings when I have Eastern Airlines?
Eventually Eastern lost its wings and Delta re-imagined the ride as Dreamflight (Wait a minute! Delta also has wings!). Then a certain double-chinned space ranger moved in and the ride lost all of its crass commercialism.
Now with the power of middle-aged nostalgia, we can recapture some of that bygone era. Hiding in Tomorrowland are three things that can jolt you back to a time when projected seagulls and haunting melodies introduced one of the quirkiest Disney attractions ever.
Listen to the Theme Song … Without Leaving the Park!
Someone over at Disney—probably Buddy Baker’s grandson—has an appreciation for the past. Even though If You Had Wings has been gone for almost 30 years, an instrumental version of the repetitive theme song can still be heard in the background music loop for Tomorrowland.
There are some real gems in the Tomorrowland background loop and If You Had Wings is one of them. Now is the Time from the original WDW incarnation of Carousel of Progress also makes an appearance.
The loop plays everywhere, but I’m most aware of it when sitting at a quiet table in Cosmic Ray’s, enjoying a quality Grade C Mostly-Beef burger served to me by a high school kid who does not know if there are any more napkins.
Unmask the Airplanes in Disguise
I have only one clear memory of If You Had Wings.
It was sort of a recurring motif. Most rooms would have a flock of three or four basic white gull shapes that would fly over a wall in the background, to give the static sets a more kinetic feeling.
When Delta Dreamflight took over, I remember a silhouette of a flying plane instead of the gulls. There were also airplanes in If You Had Wings (almost as if the attraction was sponsored by an airline). The plane was not animated at all. It was like a slide projector on a turntable, which would pan the wall to give the illusion of flying.
If you ride Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin today, you will not see gulls or airplanes. However, in the very last room right before you exit the ride, you will encounter a scene with Zurg caught in a claw.
Pay attention and you’ll see a very bizarre projection of Buzz riding in one of the ride vehicles. It will zip over the background.
I have no way of proving this, but it is such a weird detail and very static—exactly like those airplanes. I feel in my heart that this is one of the very same If You Had Wings airplane effects. Or maybe it’s just a nod to the past.
The view of Buzz is just one room—essentially the second room of targets, with the volcano in the background. When you’re riding Buzz Lightyear, you can usually visualize the PeopleMover track (hint: any time you are going in a straight line with a low ceiling, you are directly under the track).
However, when If You Had Wings was in operation, the WEDWay PeopleMover looked in on the ride in three separate locations, finishing up just before the “Speed Tunnel” scene (which is now the “You Won’t Score Points By Shooting at Bad CGI Renderings” scene).
The best part is that the windows into those other locations still exist and are plainly visible from the PeopleMover today. Yes, with glass and everything. The tunnel is still dark and the windows are blacked out, but there’s enough ambient light to spot them if you’re looking for them.
Yes, only a parkeologist would get nostalgic about something as obscure as a dark window. But you have to admit, those windows are a piece of history.