Sunday, April 3, 2016

Wish Upon a Blue Sky: The Top 30 Attractions Never Built

In the early 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola’s film company, American Zoetrope, was given a film development contract by Warner Brothers to produce several lower-budget films. At the time, American Zoetrope was just getting started, and the hungry group of film hippies Coppola was in charge of were all fabulously young and unproven. Following the incredible (and surprising) success of raw, low-budget indie films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, Hollywood was beginning to give carte blanche to younger and more ambitious directors, mostly because Hollywood executives did not understand the success of these movies and wanted to young directors to understand it for them (trends are a funny thing).

"Sir, what's going on?"
"They know what they're doing, Johnson."

So Coppola’s team, comprised of such talents as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, among others, were given a towering pile of scripts to develop. One of Coppola’s favorite scripts was John Milius’s Apocalypse Now, a re-telling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War. Coppola loved the idea of the film, but was just coming off the production of The Rain People and Patton and was planning for The Godfather to be his next film, so he gave the project to his second in command…George Lucas.

All Hail Doom 

The production for Apocalypse Now was a legendarily extensive and arduous process. The script Milius wrote was comprised of ten drafts and was over a thousand pages long. Lucas planned to make the film in black and white on a shoestring budget, but even before the film’s budget skyrocketed, Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz (who also was the producer for Star Wars) spent years on the pre-production, including multiple trips to the Philippines to scout locations.  Eventually, the pre-production process just got out of control, and Lucas had to stop and instead made THX 1138American Graffiti, and of course, Star Wars. After Coppola’s success with The Godfather and The Conversation, he decided to pick up Apocalypse Now and continue the production, and the rest is history.

Apocalypse Now had such a huge production that it literally almost killed Coppola. The conditions in the Philippines were so bad, practically every member of the crew got sick, including Coppola (multiple times). A typhoon destroyed the location in 1976. Martin Sheen (who played Captain Willard, the main character) had a heart attack in 1977. Eventually, Coppola’s sheer force of will finished the film after several years and a budget that many said was the biggest in Hollywood history up to that point. Apocalypse Now was finally released in 1979 and became one of the breakthrough films in Hollywood history. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and ranked #28 on the list of The American Film Institute’s “Top 100 Movies of All Time.” But the experience really affected Coppola, to the point where his films just never reached the level of sophistication of The Godfather, Patton, Apocalypse Now, or The Conversation.

So, this brings up the intriguing question…what if George Lucas really DID direct Apocalypse Now? The questions connected to this are endless…and scary. Obviously, there would be no American Graffiti, which completely altered the landscape of teen movies in the 1970s, and possibly beyond. Would Coppola have moved on to create a few more movies on the level of The Godfather instead of the likes of Jack (though, to be fair, he did direct Captain EO, but even this work of genius doesn’t make up for…well, actually, who are we kidding)? And somehow, somewhere out there, there is an alternate universe where George Lucas directed Apocalypse Now, nearly dies, and never makes Star Wars. OH. MY. GOD.

For me, my favorite part about being a Disney fan is learning about the history of the parks. It is undoubtedly a fascinating history, starting with the Phoenix-like rebirth of the amusement park thanks to Walt. Following the creation of Disneyland (and indeed, even before), Walt and WED would conceive more attractions ideas than they had the space or constructional fortitude to build (I think we’re all thankful he never gave the go-ahead on the Monstro the Whale shoot-the-chutes ride), leading to the very first tantalizing hints of “things to come that never would,” the earliest being classic lost thematic areas like International Street and Liberty Street. After Walt’s passing, there is an entirely captivating history of political struggles, operational hazards, soaring creative victories, and crushing budget cuts. But most important of all, there is the Land of Blue Sky, where our abandoned theme park dreams still live. If any of you are time-travelers from the future with the ability to leap-frog into alternate universes, please give us a ring (your party from Saturn has arrived).

Where the Photopasses are free and the Fastpasses never run out 

Walt Disney, since he just happens to be an historical icon, inevitably attracts the rumors and gossip stories common to all celebrities. However, Walt was a magnificent dreamer in the Santa Clause/Willy Wonka mode, leading us all to ask questions like “what flavor of wallpaper will he think of next?” We’re all fascinated by Walt, and what he wanted to achieve when he developed Disneyland. Disneyland is one of the greatest ideas and businesses of the 20th Century. Not only that, but it is a world-changing landmark of the entertainment industry. And the entertainment industry, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is FAR more interesting than other industries, by definition. It’s more interesting in practically every aspect, considering not only the product, but the people involved behind the scenes. The entertainment industry uniquely combines big ideas with big egos, fierce imaginative idealism with fiscal sheets and inside politics. Learning the behind-the-scenes history of an entertainment product is like watching a stage full of opera singers try to out-belt each other: 99% of the time it ends up being cacophonous noise but that elusive 1% can turn into gold (and you’re left wondering why, probably with a big question mark appearing over your head). And what’s worse, these histories are far more engrossing than other types of history. Indeed, I have an uncountable amount of Disney Channel/Discovery Channel theme park “making of” documentaries either taped or downloaded, yet I cannot for the life of me get through 5 minutes of “Modern Marvels” or any other similar History Channel show.

And seriously TLC, didn't you used to be about learning stuff??
I just can't. 

I think everyone’s favorite part of history class, if your teacher happens to be worth anything, is the mind-blowing moment when your teacher reveals a big historical event, reveals the major coincidences that brought it about, and then tells your class how PERILOUSLY CLOSE we all came to being Communists (I dunno, somehow it always seems to lead back to Communism. Maybe my teacher was just weird). Everyone knows Ronald Reagan was shot by a crazy person in 1981. But did you know that Teddy Roosevelt was also shot? In the middle of a speech, actually. And he didn’t stop talking (he was the man). Or that Franklin Roosevelt was almost shot, except the shot missed because his would be assassin was too short to see over the crowd and ended up standing on a chair that wobbled at just the wrong moment? And what about the sandwich that caused World War I, or the cigar box that ended the Civil War? History is full of what-ifs that keep us up at night thinking (in a good way this time).

And the entertainment what-ifs are the most fun. What if James Cameron was able to create his planned “Spider-Man” movie after he made Titanic? What if George Lucas directed Apocalypse Now instead of Francis Ford Coppola? What if Michael Eisner and Steven Spielberg didn’t get into a big fight over the rights to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and ended up going forward with the sequel?

P-p-p-p-p-lllllleeeeaaase give Steven a bigger share of the merchandise revenues

We’re fascinated by what-ifs because we love the mystery. We’ve already seen Pirates of the Caribbean, but not Western River Expedition. We’ve seen Expedition Everest but not Dragon Tower. We’ve seen the Kilimanjaro “African Safari,” but not the equally-elaborate Asian Safari. It’s about what we haven’t seen. “Coming this summer!” is still interesting even if the movie ends up sucking. We still pay money to see it anyway, because we’re curious (cue “Keep Moving Forward” quote, stage left). We want to see everything about the Blue Sky phase, the most fascinating period of an attraction’s development, where everything is magic and everyone ignores budgets and everyone goes “wouldn’t that be nice?”


This nostalgic hook led me to my own Blue Sky phase in preparation for this series. I’ve always been interested in the Lost Disney Attractions. While some Blue Sky designs are somewhat trifling (the UFO bumper car ride that was supposed to replace Carousel of Progress back in the day comes to mind), there are quite a few that run from mildly intriguing (huh…Test Track was originally supposed to go 100 MPH? Gnarly!) to downright mind-blowing (wait…you’re telling me WHAT was going to be inside Discovery Mountain?!). I wanted to somehow write down a list of my favorites, mostly for my own personal and posteritial use, and just to bounce it off the internet community, until I noticed that practically everyone on the internet who has written a “Top Disney Attractions Never Built” article has tried to squeeze them all into one page, and some of them (it seems) into one paragraph. This is no way to treat Hall of Fame legends of the what-if community! A list of unbuilt Disney Attractions deserves MORE THAN A FEW PARAGRAPHS, DARN IT!

So it's time to deliver. It's time to give the internet what it deserves. Let’s have Morgan and Bartholomew set some Pirate’s Code ground rules before we get started, since it’s plainly obvious the internet can’t seem to agree on what exactly an “attraction” is. And also, there’s a few limits we’re going to restrict ourselves to, not only for the sake of brevity but mostly for the sake of everyone’s sanity. I hope you’ll agree.

#1: We’re only counting attractions as “attractions.” Seems obvious, I know. But there are some websites who think Disney’s America is an attraction. This should be avoided, in my opinion. So please start sending your hate mail now, since there will not be an entry on Discovery Bay. I know the eight of you who were waiting for that one will be pretty mad.

#2: We’re not going to include relocated or duplicated attractions. Only if an attraction has a significant design change (like, for example, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt) in contrast to the original will be included. This means you will not be seeing entries like, “what if they built Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull at Disney-MGM Studios?” or “what if they built Journey to the Center of the Earth/Mysterious Island at Animal Kingdom?” Though they certainly would be nice, we’re going to focus on attractions that are at least somewhat different than any pre-existing idea.

#3: The idea of how big an attraction can be can get tricky, so I’m going to say an “attraction” would have to be housed inside a single show building. So, Epcot pavilions like The Land would count as one attraction, whereas DISCOVERY BAY WOULD NOT. OKAY?! Okay.

#4: For the sake of argument, and so as not to waste precious column inches on banalities, I think we need at least a modicum of information available on the attraction in question. One of my favorite “what-if” attractions is the nebulous “Powers of Ten” attraction planned for the VenturePort section of Westcot. While the concept sounds cool, I could never for the life of me figure out what the attraction actually was. I think it was either a simulator or a 3-D movie, or both. But I really have no idea (for the record, “Powers of Ten” was an Adventure Through Innerspace-type of idea where you would shrink down to the size of an atom and see the universe from a microscopic lens. So…3-D movie? Simulator? Let’s take a poll)

#5: Just wanted to mention this before we get started…don’t expect a lot of Epcot pavilions included in here. Don’t get your hopes up. While I’m sure some people out there are giddy to hear about the Denmark Pavilion and the Search for the Lost Restrooms, we need to get real and admit that, from an attractions standpoint, very few of the unbuilt Epcot pavilions were very interesting. The Flying Carpet ride for the United Arab Emirates Pavilion might be the only exception. It’s okay, I’m sure the Denmark Pavilion would have served great food.

#6: A final warning: I will probably be breaking these rules at some point by the end of the piece. But I'll try not to! Some entries, however, beg for multiple attractions (though not lands) to be included. Sort of like a 2 for 1 special. Yeah, that's it!

I know there’s got to be SOME people out there who agree with me that what the internet really needs is a gigantic compendium of theme park attractions that will never see the light of day (all three of you), so it’s to them that I dedicate this series. And to you dear reader, you have no idea what’s coming. I present here to all, courtesy of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, The Top 30 Disney Attractions Never Built. 

 So join right in / sing along / with your favorite Disney songs / once you’ve learned every word / you’ll want to sing along / so follow the bouncing ball!

Send Jeff a line at, or follow him on Twitter @Parkscopejeff. Let's get those polls rolling!

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