And the All-Time Greatest Lost Mermaid Is…?

People are always coming up to us on the street. “Hey, Parkeology,” they say. “What’s your all-time favorite lost mermaid?” I’m sure you get that question too. It’s a pretty common debate. Mermaids seem to go missing from Disney parks every other year.

I think they’re expecting us to give the standard answer. The answer everyone always gives to this question. Like they have a bet with their buddy, and they’ll win $5 if we say that our favorite missing mermaid is the live mermaids that they used to have in the Submarine Voyage lagoon at Disneyland.

Live mermaids at Disneyland's Submarine Voyage Lagoon
They would give out high-fives to passing submarines.

Don’t get me wrong. That seems like a reasonable answer on the surface (get it?). Disneyland actually did have live mermaids during the 1950s and 60s. They were very cool and we have certainly spent a lot of time looking at pictures of them. But we are also Parkeology. Live costumed mermaids that swam in a theme park pool 60 years ago are way too mainstream for us.

Maybe you remember Dole Whip Ariel. She’s certainly a candidate. She appeared briefly as part of The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, when it opened at Disney California Adventure in 2011. She was directly based on a scene from the actual movie, where a group of fish spiral up around her to briefly reshape her red hair into a swirl. But it didn’t translate. Normal guests were completely befuddled by her appearance in the Under the Sea segment of the ride. She looked more like a collectible mug of soft-serve Dole Whip from the Tiki Room rather than the spunky mermaid heroine we all know and love. Less than a year after the ride opened, she was gone.

Dole Whip Ariel from The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel's Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure
She traded her voice for some hair gel.

But come on. No self-respecting fan of Disney obscura is going to choose the mother-lovin Little Mermaid as the greatest lost mermaid. That’s like choosing Mickey as your favorite cartoon mouse. It’s just lame (it has to be Roquefort, right?)

So what are we left with? The haunting mermaids that briefly appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean? No way. We can barely stomach Jack Sparrow, let alone some underwater projections from the fourth best Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which is itself the third best Disney parks movie franchise (ahead of Haunted Mansion but behind Country Bears and the Steve Guttenberg TV movie of Tower of Terror).

So, the people on the street finally ask in exasperation, just what is the all-time greatest lost mermaid?

Mermaid Tales

Let’s journey way back to 1998, to a time when Animal Kingdom was a brand new theme park, with a heavy focus on conservation and generous grants from the McDonald’s Corporation.

Back then, there was no Rafiki’s Planet Watch. Or at least, it wasn’t known by that name. it was a place called Conservation Station. Exactly the kind of edge-of-your-seat title to entice you onto a 10-minute train ride to a veterinary hospital.

The hospital theaters and the petting zoo have been part of Conservation Station since Day One, and still remain today. But other features have slowly fallen by the wayside. The Grandmother Willow Sounds of the Rainforest Booths held on the longest, before finally disappearing in 2018. Now most of the middle of Rafiki’s Planet Watch has been taken over by the Animation Academy show.

But early on in the park history, a small theater (and we’re talking tiny) used to exist in what is now the back half of the Animation Academy seating area. It was a walk in / walk out type of deal, with maybe a bench or two. This page contains a layout of Conservation Station in its early years, and you can clearly see the theater smack in the middle of the blueprint.

Its name is Shelly’s Theater.

Rub those Disney brain cells together and you will quickly recognize that this is a classic Disney pun. Shelly is the performer’s name. Can you think of a character who might be associated with shells? Maybe someone who enjoys wearing them as a bra?

Shelly is a mermaid.

And not just any mermaid. Shelly is the full-on star of a bizarre puppet show that ran at Conservation Station until 2005. The show was called Mermaid Tales. Because those Disney puns just never quit.

Shelly the Mermaid at Conservation Station in Disney's Animal Kingdom
Meet Shelly, the all-time greatest lost mermaid.

Shelly was the only puppet in the show. And unlike Ariel, she was a true little mermaid. About the size of a regular Muppet, Shelly looked like a mix between a Cabbage Patch Doll and Lady Gaga. She sort of appeared out the side of a half-wall and narrated a kid-friendly message about environmental responsibility while a video screen behind her provided helpful motion graphics.

The internet contains virtually nothing about this keystone attraction. Despite it having its own automated stage curtain, enclosed performance hall, and a “Next Show In 10 Minutes” countdown clock. Somewhere out there, there must exist Cast Members who performed as Shelly in Mermaid Tales, but to date, none of them have written an autobiography about their experience.

When the 2005 refurbishment rolled around, Shelly’s Theater was ripped out wholesale. They removed entire walls, including what would have been her stage. The back wall became glass, providing another view into the hallway below, where the animal exam rooms are.

Here’s a screengrab from a 2018 tour of Rafiki’s Planet Watch, which shows basically what it looks like today. Compare it to the blueprint and you can see, there’s nothing.

Shelly's Theater at Rafiki's Planet Watch Today
The brown carpet and glass walls essentially represent the footprint of the tiny Shelly’s Theater.

The video below comes from a 2003 walk-through of Conservation Station, and Shelly gets a bit of screen time at around the 17:30 mark. If you watch closely just before the Mermaid Tales footage begins, you can also catch a blurry glimpse of the theater entrance as the camera scans by a blue wall.

This may be all that remains of Shelly, because everyone else seems to have completely forgotten her. But for a few years there, she was the queen. And that is why she will always be our greatest lost mermaid.

The Shelly the Mermaid Animation Presentation

After posting this, we were delighted when one of the original animators of the Shelly the Mermaid video discovered this article and contacted us with some more background info. Kevin MacLean is a long-time animator at Walt Disney Disney Animation Studios. He had the privilege of working on this way back in 1997.

Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon produced the animation during the summer of ’97.  Vinton was famous for the Claymation California Raisins and the Dominos Noid. Both of which are obvious “claymation” heroes of the late 20th century.

You can now find the entire animated short that aired at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on YouTube.

Comments (15)

  1. I can’t believe I came across this article! I was an animator on the clay animated film that appears behind Shelly. We made it in the Summer of ’97 at Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon (the studio behind the Claymation California Raisins and Dominos Noid). I was 18 yrs old at the time and it was my first job in the industry. This is my first time ever seeing how it appeared at Animal Kingdom. I saved a copy of the entire animated film and uploaded it here….

    Thanks for the article!

    • This is super cool! Thanks so much for uploading the video!

  2. I remember going out to Conservation Station back at the opening of the park (all the way to just last week) but I have absolutely no recollection of this at all. I do remember doing the Grandmother Willow audio show and interacting with the animal cameras in the area but do not remember a puppet show at all.

    • It’s one of those things that was so minor, I wondered for years whether I had imagined it. Finally some diligent internet digging uncovered it again.

  3. Never saw it. Didn’t even know about it. Wouldn’t have watched it even if I had known about it. Now if it had one of those live mermaids… yeah, I still wouldn’t have watched it.

    As for the POTC movies, I really like the first one. 2 and 3 were okay. 4 sucked. Haven’t seen 5. Disney just doesn’t make movies like they used back in the, oh, I don’t know, the 70s. There are a few particular titles that come to mind from that era.

    • There was a 5?

      As I’m sure you know, the best Pirates movie has to be Blackbeard’s Ghost. But I know you’re not that strong in 70s Disney movie history…

      • So you’re going with Blackbeard’s Ghost over Peter Pan? (Btw, watched Blackbeard’s Ghost for one of our family movie nights earlier this year.) Next you’re going to tell me that the 1980 Disney classic “Midnight Madness” is not one of the most underrated movies of all time.

      • Now THIS is the Parkeology discourse I live for.

        All I remember is Blackbeard eating a hot dog.

        • Yessss! This is a Parkeology Challenge moment. Blackbeard had #timefordogs

  4. I remember this! I walked past it and took a quick peek that first year of AK. I also figured she was a very limited animatronic though, not a puppet. That might be why you can’t find any cast members who performed the show.

    • Honestly my memory of her was the same. A limited animatronic. But I found one obscure reference to her buried inside an old guide book that calls it a puppet show. And after watching the video, she actually does seem far more animated than I would expect from a throwaway animatronic. If she was in fact an animatronic, she would be worth more than Buzzy!

  5. Very neat to hear about a new corner of WDW that I truly had no idea existed! I love that this cute little piece of non-IP edutainment 90s Disney was able to survive as long as it did.

    What always fries my brain a bit with these things is knowing that it didn’t just happen, particularly what seems to be a substantial amount of original animation for the video segment. A fair amount of people put time and effort into a minor attraction at WDW and it has almost completely vanished from memory.

    Great work, as always!

    • Thank you! I know that this sort of topic is not the most mainstream thing out there, but it’s so odd and off the beaten path. That kind of topic is my favorite. I’m also pretty sure that if anyone ever searches for Shelly the Mermaid, this article will now appear first in Google, because literally no one else has written about her!

  6. First off. Your alive! After such a strong start to year was kinda sad site when dead again.

    Second wow this is some classic parkeology going on here. True lost bit of park history even I had no idea about. Hope you saved a copy of that video so Shelly can live on even when that random upload eventually dissapears for no reason as those things tend to eventually.

    And I know it’s been well over a year now. But I’d still love a post showing the best of your in home parkeology challenge event ran on twitter.

    • And may I say that we are also glad you are still alive! I know we sometimes fall into these awful lulls. It’s usually when life intervenes. But we’re back, baby! At least for this week.

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