There’s always a point in every major news story, be it politics, sports, local news, what have you, where a single off-hand quote or bizarre side effect can turn a relatively entertaining but otherwise unremarkable event into a time-bending “where were you when…” historical milestone. Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech or Bill Clinton’s “I did not…” anti-speech comes to mind when pondering eventual falls from grace. Vin Scully’s “I don’t believe what I just saw” turned an LA Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson World Series home run into an eminently playable verse run forever through video players until the end of time (or at least until the end of video players). And of course, phrases like “That’s one small step for man…” speak for themselves, and ensure immortality almost before the sentence is even finished.
Some don't even need sentences AT ALL
So it is with great reverence and glee that I recount the infamous “year in review” segment of the 8th annual THEA Awards, held in 2001. The THEA awards were still relatively new and committee organizers were still trying to figure out a suitable format. In vogue at the time was to have a celebrity host, similar to the Oscars, who would provide some star power to the event and would, politically speaking, be incapable of choosing sides because said celebrity would have little to nothing to do with that year’s award recipients (also see: every Oscar host in history). Whether the affordable celebrity pool was too shallow to jump into or because he was just that nice of a guy, Tom Wilson was the host of several of the early THEA award presentations. Tom Wilson is of course, best known as Biff from Back to the Future (and, might I add, Coach Fredricks on Freaks and Geeks). If you’ve seen Tom Wilson in informal settings, he’s quite the funnyman. And not really someone you want to be holding a microphone when political niceties are on your Greatest Hits list. Especially since the event was held in Spring 2001, a few months after Disney’s California Adventure had opened to less than rave reviews.
As Tom was delivering his presentation for the Men in Black: Alien Attack segment, he burst an emotional dam that had been years in the making. After trading back and forth looks between the pretty pictures on the overhead screen and his notes, Tom looked at the audience and uttered the now immortal lines:
“At the end of the attraction, Will Smith ‘zaps’ you so you won’t remember anything that happened in the past five minutes. Disney, of course, is looking to install the same finale for Superstar Limo.”
Yep. Wow. Yes! On point. Devastating. As the best comedians would tell you, comedy gold is spun when reality gets hit directly in the face with a pie. I might have just made that up, but the point is comedy can have some devastating satirical consequences.
There were entire rows of Disney bigwigs in the audience, not just because Disney is a themed industry giant but because Tony Baxter would receive a lifetime achievement award from THEA later that night. Though the Disney contingent laughed uproariously through the roasting of Universal’s Islands of Adventure the previous year, as you can imagine, they were stone cold silent after that line. It was reported that then-Disney Attractions (now Disney Parks and Resorts) Chairman Paul Pressler and many of his cohorts left the ceremony before Tony’s award speech. After the ceremony was over, Marty Sklar ripped the THEA organizers a new one, reminding them of how much money Disney “donates” to the THEA organization every year. As you can imagine, certain things would eventually be changed within the organization.
Upon departure, Tom Wilson was quoted as saying,
"Hasta La Bye Bye"
But Tom’s point became the “I Have a Dream” speech moment of the cultural themed entertainment industry zeitgeist at the time. If you set your memory wayback machines to 2001, you’ll recall that Disney was still the undefeated, untouchable champion at the time, the George Washington crossed with Michael Jordan perfect paragon of themed entertainment. Disney had an amazing decade-long track record of near perfection from 1984-1995 (Euro Disney notwithstanding, hence the “near” perfection), when it seemed like everything the Mouse touched was turned to pure gold (Tower of Terror, Splash Mountain, Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Wilderness Lodge, the Disney Stores, on and on and on). Though Disney’s creative perfection would start to turn sour after the 1992 Euro Disney fiasco, and start to turn rotten after Frank Wells’ death in 1994, the mainstream media and Disneyfiles alike were more than willing to give Disney the benefit of the doubt.
And who could blame them? While the creative juices continued to erode somewhat (CommunCore turned into Innoventions, World of Motion turned into Test Track, Tiki Room: Under New Management, Journey Into Your Imagination, Agrifuture Tomorrowland, etc.) they sometimes made up for it with some continually inspired products (Boardwalk Inn and Villas, Disney Cruiseline, Kilimanjaro Safaris). But those “in the know” knew the branches were starting to creak. Paul Pressler took over Disneyland and became the theme park equivalent of Fuhrer Eric Cartman. Pressler’s omnipresent and unrelenting cost-cutting mandates were so ludicrous they literally bordered on parody. Yet Disney had so many years of goodwill that the aforementioned “questionable” creative decisions were given as mulligans from the mainstream, a simple chink in the armor but no more.
Seriously, if you think the Disney fan community is off its rocker nowadays, you should have been there in the AOL Dial-up, alt.disneyland newsgroup days when MousePlanet, DisBoards, and MouseInfo were the only games in town. You could sort through pages of discussions and articles before finding one legitimately negative comment, which would be ultimately derided with the same “get out of my pool” attitude we see today (“if you hate it so much, WHY DO YOU GO?!?!?!?”).
Good. If you don't go, MORE FASTPASSES FOR ME!!!!
Into this mix comes Disney’s California Adventure, the theme park equivalent of New Coke or the Edsel. And still, aside from MousePlanet, you couldn’t find one critique or concern about the new park. So when Tom Wilson breaks the dam, it really breaks. Because the theme park insiders knew the branches at Disney were creaking, and were about to fall. Now, they could LAUGH ALL NIGHT ABOUT IT. The mainstream finally caught up. And during the following few months, legitimate media organizations like the LA Times would pan the new park and wonder why Disney’s budgets had suddenly been shrunk by Wayne Szalinski’s new-fangled machine. And this turning of the tide would eventually lead to Roy Disney’s angry resignation, and then Save Disney, and then Bob Iger and John Lasseter and Steve Jobs. And Superstar Limo was right there in the middle of everything.
Superstar Limo was sort of like a theme park equivalent of a hurricane. Just get out of the way and hold on for dear life. There’s nothing you can do about it. It will just keep coming, no matter what you do. If I could describe it using as few words as possible, it was the theme park equivalent of this:
Superstar Limo is so famous (or infamous) because throughout its design process, it literally got worse and worse, dealing with different creative objectives every few months, and just turned out to be a monstrosity upon delivery, like a demon baby you’d see in an Exorcist rip-off (probably with its twin babies, Under New Management and Journey Into Your Imagination). Superstar Limo’s claim to fame was that it LITERALLY lowered the guest “overall satisfaction” scores on Disney Research surveys. This is one of those strange but true facts that have to be seen to be believed. During my time at Disney, I had access to the Research archives (mostly just reports once you get too far back), and the satisfaction scores literally did rise noticeably after SSL closed for good on January 11th, 2002 (when there was no other significant change to boost scores otherwise). The joke around the Cast Member water cooler was that Superstar Limo literally lowered guests’ IQ points.
One of these days Disney will learn its lesson
Obviously, the ride itself wasn’t that bad. Honestly, many people made it out to be a spawn of some two-tongued beast of the abyss, but really it was just a ride with too many hands in the pot that also ran out of money. But it’s just one of those funny “cursed attraction” stories that makes you raise your eyebrows and say, “Of course this can’t be real life, but then again…”
Sigh. God damn you, Epcot '94
The biggest knock against SSL, aside from the “designed by committee” story writing and artistic design, was the mega-DCA budget cuts that hammered the park after Pressler and Eisner decided to slash the original $2.1 billion Disneyland expansion budget (down from an original $3.2 billion for the Westcot expansion) by a full third, down to the eventual $1.4 billion that the resort expansion was greenlit with. Unfortunately, this budget cut came after the park had already been fully planned and designed, so the original park attractions had to either be cut or redesigned altogether (save for Soarin Over California, barely any of the attractions that opened with the park in 2001 were similar to the concepts presented in 1997/98 when the park went through its initial design phase). The budget cuts hit SSL hard in many respects, but most devastating of all was the fact that the full sets and moving figures planned for the attraction had to be turned into cardboard cutouts and simple painted flats with blacklights. Thus, a less-than-inspired attraction was turned into a less-than-inspired attraction with no budget, and the rest is history.
So, if you haven’t seen it, take a gander for yourself below, and try to ask yourself two things: A) Why God, Why?, and B) What…what exactly were they thinking? Who wrote this? It will make the viewing experience much more penetrating. At the very least, it should keep you awake for a minute. Take a look:
Okay, first of all, I’m retracting the spawn of Satan joke from earlier and FIRMLY switching it to imply the spawn of Satan is THAT ANIMATED JOAN RIVERS. I mean, WOW. I had seen it many times before, but it somehow gets worse every time. It’s like watching the last season of Lost or the entire 120 minutes of Attack of the Clones. I need a shower and an exorcism.
In the Beginning
Now, what it really intriguing to me is, what were we originally supposed to see? After all, this is an article about Disney attractions never built, so I’m most curious about what was left out of this Hindenberg, rather than what was put in.
The $3.2 billion Westcot expansion was put on ice following the Euro Disney disaster. Budgets across the Attractions division had to be severely cut to help Disney recoup its then-$3 billion debt to the banks for Euro Disney. So, Westcot was going to be rethought as more “cost productive” (read: cheaper). Initially, Disney tried to just produce a smaller-scale Westcot with a smaller budget, but when Paul Pressler was moved from the President of the Disney Stores to President of Disneyland, he and his team did not like the overly-ambitious nature of the Epcot/Westcot idea (where the Future World/Ventureport areas would have to be updated every few years to stay ahead of future and current trends), so Eisner convened the now-infamous 1995 Aspen summit to discuss possible ideas for Disneyland’s eventual second gate., with a smaller $2.1 billion budget.
The leading candidates at the time were a version of Disney MGM-Studios (a park the executives loved due to its “cost effective” nature) as well as a resurrected Disney’s America. Dozens of ideas were discussed. Eventually, the executives hit upon the idea of combining Disney MGM-Studios, Disney’s America, and an old-school California beach pier-side amusement park into one park, under the umbrella theme of “California.” The thinking was, while Disneyland primarily attracted a local population, a second gate in Anaheim would need to attract a multi-day, tourist visitor base in order to succeed (as well as fill up the expensive new Grand Californian Hotel). In an inspired “why go to the Kennedy Space Center when you can ride Mission: Space” moment, the Disney executives decided to combine the best touristy portions of California into one park in an attempt to siphon off tourists who would normally go to Hollywood, Universal Studios, Napa Valley, Venice Beach, etc. but decide to be lazy and stay one more day at Disneyland instead. Of course, what they forgot is that Disney’s version of California should at least attempt to be even a fraction as interesting as the real California, but that’s a story for another time. (Perhaps…maybe…we’ll get a deeper backstory on this in a future article?)
One of the areas of the new proposed “Disney’s California Adventure” was the “Hollywood Pictures Backlot,” a mini version of Disney-MGM Studios that would (in theory) steal clicks from Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as other Hollywood-type attractions in Southern California. While the original HPB concepts were quite in flux, most of the original concepts for the area were direct lifts from MGM Studios. Among those discussed were the Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror, MuppetVision, Superstar Television (which was, back in the day, one of Michael Eisner’s favorite attractions, which is why Superstar Television shows up in practically every Disney-MGM Studios spinoff), a grand theater similar to Disneyland’s old Fantasyland Theater (which hosted the original Beauty & the Beast stage show that was the inspiration for the Broadway show), a 50s Prime Time Café, as well as an animation exhibit to cash in on the then-still-uber-popular animation public groundswell after the animation division’s string of unprecedented successes.
The one original idea that made it out of the primordial Blue Sky stage was a fantastic, careening, out of control dark ride in the Mr. Toad mold that took guests on a wild limousine ride through Hollywood. It was going to be one interesting show, since WDI was just coming off their finished work on Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, and were looking for the next Fantasyland-esque dark ride to push the envelope a little further. Unfortunately, DCA’s budgets prevented them from creating anything too revolutionary, but Imagineer John Horny and his group really came up with a lightning-fast, snappy dark ride that would have been a heck of a lot of fun to ride.
The original Superstar Limo had guests entering through a recreation of the mega-UFO-looking “Theme Building” that houses the “Encounters” restaurant at LAX (the earliest designs of the attraction actually had a restaurant at the top of the structure similar to the Encounters restaurant, but this idea did not last as long as it should have). The queue area, like in the eventual final version of SSL, would queue up in a recreation of LAX, full of as many industry puns as possible (Eisner loved the Hollywood industry puns…he was obsessed with them, by all accounts). Eventually, guests would load up in their stretch limos (with the Grouper Cast Members asking, “how many in your entourage?”) and off we go.
Michael Eisner would then appear in the little video screen embedded in each cab (similar to what we would eventually see on Test Track) and outline the plot: he has a mega-movie contract waiting for you at the Chinese Theater. He promises you’ll be Hollywood’s next big thing…as long as you get to the Chinese Theater NOW…and as long as you don’t do anything to damage your reputation on the way. As the screen cuts out, your Limo driver says, “Gotta get to the Chinese Theater in a hurry? I know a shortcut!” while squealing the tires into Scene 2. The Disney gods, on cue, appropriately press the “And Then Something Goes Horribly Wrong!” button as you find out your limo driver makes RX-24 the Unstable Pilot Droid look like Mister Rogers.
As you can imagine, the rest of the ride is a mad dash through famous Hollywood locations as you try to blur through Hollywood faster than a Jamaican bobsled team. A major recurring scene in the ride would involve a swarm of paparazzi popping out behind the scenery at the end of each major scene, causing your limo driver to burn rubber into a new location. Eventually, the chaos you create Toad-ing your way through LA (also of note, there would have been NO Paper-Mache celebrities along the ride) gets you on the cover of the National Inquirer (which is cleverly shown to you at the end of the ride as your on-ride photo opportunity), and Michael Eisner withdraws his million-dollar offer to you, muttering a “better luck next time, kid” as he looks for more daycare centers to sue and dogs to kick (but let’s be realistic, there’s no way Eisner ever intended to give you that contract anyway. By the time you got there he probably would’ve already given it to Michael Ovitz). The obligatory exit gift shop would have then been presented in a full recreation of the Chinese Theater lobby, a la Great Movie Ride. Unfortunately, an animatronic Michael Eisner would not be there for you to throw churros at.
While the original Superstar Limo would never have broken any barriers, it surely would have been a must-see when visiting DCA 1.0. At the time, the Imagineers were starving to create another “bus-bar”-era dark ride after so many (The Little Mermaid, Baby Herman’s Baby Buggy, plus the 23 dark rides planned for Epcot pavilions that never happened…that may not be an exact number) had been cancelled. In addition, John Horny was one of those crazy colorful lunatics that Disney loved to have on its staff back in the day (I’m looking at you, Joe Lanzisero), and I’m confident he would have made SSL into an absolute ball in the Roger Rabbit style. According to sources, John packed the ride with gag after gag after gag, so many that they all would have been impossible to see on first viewing. This was definitely an attraction that would have required multiple clicks. This is one of the things I miss about Disney from the 90s: back then, Disney was in such an “expand button” mode that it had no time to put every attraction into the grater and squeeze an Imagineer’s individual creativity out, like they do today. Just like Pixar movies historically reflect the tone and individual creativity of each movie’s respective director, Disney attractions back in the day carried the creative stamp of the show producer. SSL would have been a John Horny production through and through, with little to no executive tampering or “One Disney” cheese grating to make it JUST LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE. Ah, the old days. Without the cheese.
Some other interesting notes about the original SSL:
1 Mr. Toad was the obvious inspiration for SSL from a layout, tone, and basic plot standpoint, so John Horny and his crew actually entertained the idea of carrying the original elements of Disneyland’s Mr. Toad, specifically, John wanted SSL to be half dark ride, half roller coaster. While the ride itself may not have gone up and down on a tubular steel track, there certainly would have been legitimate banked turns when the limo’s tires squealed to avoid the paparazzi. That’s pretty sweet!
2 Your on-ride photo would literally have been packaged with the full front page of the National Enquirer your limo is featured in.
3 Everyone make fun of Michael Eisner’s male-pattern baldness!
4 In a “chicken or the egg” originality question, given the initial timeline of California Adventure’s inception, it’s very possible that John Horny’s Superstar Limo directly influenced the plot of Rock n’ Rollercoaster, which was put into production at a later date,
5 In a weird, who-knows-if-this-will-work, “hey-let’s-make-guests-put-on-baby-bonnets-during-Baby-Herman’s-Baby-Buggy-Ride” type of inspiration, as you made your way into the gift shop at the unload, the Merchandise Cast Members were going to LITERALLY treat you like a famous movie star. They were actually going to fawn over you and pretend to take pictures and get your autograph and everything. While this is a little over the “please take a step back” creepy line, I do miss when Disney was actually willing to try new things.
So that was the original Superstar Limo. I don’t know about you, but I would have been super-excited to ride it again and again. Of course, I’m also the guy who likes to continually ride Grandma Gertie’s Gobbler Getaway at Holiday World and Olympia, Harmony, and Gabby’s “It’s About the Milk” Tour at Hershey Park for the sheer entertainment value. Yep, I’m “eccentric.”
So obviously, this was not the ride we got when February 2001 roles around. In fact, the only real similarity is that you’re in a Limo riding through Hollywood to get to the Chinese Theater. The tone, plot, story, throughline, everything else is wildly different. So what exactly happened in the intervening years between the original concept and the final lack of product? After all, a “C-Plus Ticket” dark ride would not have broken the bank when it came to budget crunch time, so what was the problem?
As I’m sure most of you reading this know by now, the major blow to the attraction was the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Princess Di’s death was an international tragedy, and evidence suggested her limo driver crashed the car while trying to avoid the paparazzi. As you can imagine, suddenly a crazed limo driver speeding through LA to avoid the paparazzi wasn’t funny any more. And even worse, from a legal and PR perspective, Disney executives thought that the mere mention of such an attraction would be in very poor taste and unload a ton of negative press when Disney was accused of insensitivity. So, the mad-dash limo ride through Hollywood was out.
The problem was, what do you replace it with? Plenty of concepts were discussed. Tower of Terror would have been too expensive, as would the Great Movie Ride. Superstar Television was waning in popularity in Florida, and getting stale.
And SSL had a few things going for it, from an executive perspective, that kept it in greenlight status. First, Michael Eisner loved the concept. He loved the LA setting and the countless in-jokes that only he and Hollywood insiders would understand (ladies and gentlemen, Michael “Populist” Eisner). And when the Big Cheese grabs ahold of an idea (I’m looking at you, Disney Institute) he is NOT letting go. Second, SSL was a relatively inexpensive C-Plus Ticket experience. As the budget for DCA would start to tumble into an Orwellian memory hole, DCA had to get as much bang for the buck as it could muster. So cheap experiences like SSL would be Broadway and Park Place in Paul Pressler’s Monopoly: Anaheim edition.
In the President Pressler Edition, you can even move landmarks
around to impossible locations!
But now, SSL could not be a wacky Mr. Toad experience any longer (I often wonder why someone just didn’t go with the “why don’t we just take out the paparazzi angle” idea…I guess the executives just didn’t want to deal with any suggestions of insensitivity). So now, by executive mandate, SSL had to plod along at a speed less than the 3 feet per second average of similar Disneyland rides such as Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. So basically it will tread through molasses like the old Pirate Ride at Cedar Point. And would be about as entertaining.
So now John and his team had a big problem on their hands, because the layout and construction of the ride would have to be drastically changed. For those of you theme park design wannabees out there, you’ll know that the spatial and scene layout for a ride that moves fast (like Mr. Toad or Rock n’ Rollercoaster) demands a much smaller level of subtlety than do rides that move slower (like Pirates or Mansion). On faster rides, the human eye simply cannot pick up on slow movement or the gradual unfolding of scenes as the ride vehicle whizzes by. If the Doom Buggies in the Haunted Mansion were replaced with Mr. Toad’s automobiles, you would not be able to understand 90% of the pointed actions in each scene. Faster rides require more broad actions (like a guy giving a thumbs up to indicate he’s happy) rather than soliloquies from Richard II. On the other hand, slower moving omnimover-type attractions require a subtler hand and greater attention to detail. Since the car moves slower through the show scene, the eye will be able to study the action and atmosphere. This allows expert storytellers to create series of actions for their characters, such as the auction scene in Pirates. This idea also extends to the entire concept of the attraction. Would you, as show producer, decide to put a roller coaster-type ride through a pirate bayou a la Pirates? Or inside Horizons? It wouldn’t make any sense to do so, since the very concept of these attractions demands slow animatronic show scenes to deliver its story (so for those of you future Imagineers who are still dreaming of that Pirates of the Caribbean/Giga Coaster hybrid, maybe you should wait to submit your resume until after you turn sixteen). You could also think about it another way…what if you put a Mr. Toad-type ride inside the Haunted Mansion? You’d have to change the show scenes, wouldn’t you? They would have to change either into a “Haunted Pretzel” type of scary ride (like Snow White’s Scary Adventures) or a “Laff in the Dark” sort of funny spookfest. But either way, it would no longer be the Haunted Mansion.
The SSL team was convinced that SSL would not be as successful as one would hope. The entire concept and plot of the attraction (get to the Chinese Theater quick!) was created to showcase a fast-moving ride. It would be like placing an omnimover inside the Matterhorn…it would be pretty boring unless you added LOTS of singing and dancing yeti’s! (Wow was that a tangent). The Imagineers asked the execs to scrap the ride, or at least re-think the concept, but for the reasons given above, Eisner and his team insisted that SSL be included in DCA’s opening day starting lineup. So, the Imagineers were in between Dumb and Dumber.
John’s team did the best they could with the concept. But of course, by switching from a fast-moving ride (where the visceral thrills would more than make up for the relatively minimally-detailed sets) to a slow-moving ride, SSL would demand more craftsmanship in the set design and scene planning, as well as adding many more sophisticated animatronics. And this meant that the attraction’s budget would have to go way up. Uh oh. As DCA’s budget continued to decline, this did not sit well with Pressler and Eisner.
As DCA construction was moving along and land was cleared for the individual attractions, Disney creative teams were still looking for ideas to replace SSL with. In 1998/99, one team suggested they replace SSL with a California version of Rock n’ Rollercoaster. That idea was nixed pretty quick…not only would RnRC cost almost twice as much as SSL, but it would also cannibalize the impact of the California Screamin’, the other major looping roller coaster in the park. Disney was also worried that DCA would be labeled a “thrill park” and keep away the adults Disney wanted to visit Wolfgang Puck’s Avalon Cove, the Golden Vine Winery, and the ABC Soap Opera Bistro (for those of you keeping score at home, “Restaurants available at any Disney park themed to the Muppets”: 0. “Restaurants available at any Disney park named ABC Soap Opera Bistro”: 1). So whatever lucky band was going to have the opportunity to do the West Coast version of The Shocker (preliminary designs suggest Van Halen was the frontrunner) was out of luck.
A little later, an Imagineering team was challenged with creating an attraction based on Disney’s hit movie for 1998, Armageddon. Since the movie was directed by Michael Bay, there was about a 3:1 Explosion to Line of Dialogue ratio, so the only viable attraction adaptations of Armageddon were in the Universal Studios “special effects demonstration” mode, similar to attractions such as Backdraft and Twister. Such an attraction was proposed for DCA, and nearly got the greenlight at multiple stages (even as a possible successor to Who Wants to be a Millionaire – Play It! As late as 2003), but again, the budget was just too high to replace SSL.
And speaking of the budget, around this time the budget for DCA Phase 1 continued to drop, from the original $2.1 billion down to the eventual $1.4 billion. So, SSL’s need for sophisticated animatronics and more detailed show scenes was simply not on the radar. What should have been an attraction budgeted at $50-60 million (to do it right) remained firmly in the $35 million range, with most of that figure being used for the infrastructure of the ride mechanism, power lines, queue areas, etc. The Imagineers saw the writing on the wall, and knew they had an attraction that no one was going to find interesting. There would just be nothing to see (again, a direct comparison to Cedar Point’s Pirate Ride).
So what were they to do? The project, mandated by Eisner and the execs, had to move forward, yet the attraction was not going to be very interesting because there wasn’t going to be very much to see. Imagine if World of Motion had been built for about 1/5th the budget. I mean, what would even be in the building but a bunch of cardboard flats for scenery and blacklighting?
So the Disney creative teams hit upon a last-gasp effort: since there would be very little in the way of interest or excitement in the show scenes of SSL as what was being presented, why not borrow a page from the Great Movie Ride’s book and puncture the scenes with celebrity figures? As the creative team observed, “celebrity spotting” was a favorite touristy pastime in the Los Angeles area, so why not bring it into SSL? This could give a little extra kick to the interest level of the attractions, as the ride could turn into a pseudo “find the celebrity” game. The Imagineers were desperately trying to make the ride even the least bit appealing at the time, so they went ahead with it.
Of course, they couldn’t possibly have full animatronic figures, given the budget. The figures would have to be what was dubbed “minimatronic” figures with very limited motion, basically six-foot versions of the Small World dolls. And of course there was no way they could sign A-List talent like Jack Nicholson or Shaquille O’Neal to appear in the attraction, so the list of available celebrities were limited to those who would sign with Disney to use their likeness for a bargain basement price, ie celebrities who were already under contract at Disney and had to do whatever Eisner told them to do (Drew Carey, Tim Allen, Regis Philben, etc.).
So, what started out as a fun zip through Hollywood turned into an attraction that puzzled visitors as to why it was even there to begin with. With obviously so little effort put into the attraction, for a first time rider it’s just perplexing to ride after walking across the Esplanade after experiencing Pirates, Mansion, and Splash Mountain.
All in all, the ride did have some excellent side effects:
1 The on-ride photo taken at the end of the ride unanimously replaced the old Journey Into Imagination on-ride photo experience in the “how many puzzled faces can we place in one photo” category. Guests would be legitimately laughing at how weird their faces looked after experiencing a bit of Paul Pressler brilliance. In another hilariously short-sighted move by Disney, despite the fact that these comedic photos were quite in demand, Disney never actually sold on-ride photos to guests while the ride was in operation. Seriously, it’s no wonder pundits commented at the time that Disney couldn’t even take advantage of the Second Coming given the opportunity.
2 The “three rows of six” ride vehicle layout allowed for a greater dark ride capacity, which was used for the eventual Winnie the Pooh attraction that opened in Critter Country in 2003. In addition, the on-ride video screen placed inside the ride vehicles was a Cro-Magnon forebear to similar attraction in-vehicle video experiences like the Judi Dench version of Spaceship Earth.
3 The exit gift shop had some of THE BEST merchandise available in any theme park gift store at the time. Seriously, this was the real sweet spot time for Paul Pressler-era theme park merchandising. At the time, Paul kept moving armies of executives from the Disney Stores into Disneyland, with ALL OF THEM focusing on merchandising as their number one priority. SSL’s gift shop was quite impressive, with little miniature Oscars, mugs and T-Shirts with “The Next Big Thing” emblazoned on them. If anyone could put half as much effort into Space Mountain or Big Thunder merchandise as they did into Superstar Limo merchandise, there would be a lot more happy Disney fans in the world.
So that’s the backstory of Superstar Limo in a nutshell. It really comes down to a compromised vision that couldn’t get out of its own way, a sort of Faustian bargain with the Eisnerian devil. Congratulations, the CEO loves your attraction! The bad news, it looks like…this.
The Land Before Time, Part 17
But we’re not done yet! Part of what makes the history of Superstar Limo so interesting is that it has a series of sequels. Really, for a while, it was like the Land Before Time series. It Just. Wouldn’t. Die.
Disney’s California Adventure finally opened in 2001, and we can all, to this day, still hear the crickets chirping. For reasons that should have been obvious, Disney’s version of New Coke sputters out of the starting gate before puttering to an abysmal first year. Initially, executives were quick to blame every conceivable factor but the entertainment makeup of the park itself as reasons for the paltry numbers, everything from the weather to the economy. Yet, as we all know by now, Disneyland, the Grand Californian Hotel, and Downtown Disney were smash hits right out of the gate. It would take until the end of summer 2001 for Disney to finally admit that DCA was a real problem, to the point that it was literally dragging the Disneyland Resort’s profit margins down, sort of like that scene in every action movie when the hero is on a cliff or plane or anywhere high and is holding on to the heroine as she’s about to fall to her death. On the bright side, the first few months of DCA did give us this legendary gem, starting at the 23:30 mark:
Yes, that’s Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood (as Disney Security Cast Members) accidentally showing Richard Kind and Barry Bostwick around California Adventure in their search for Michael Eisner, with cameos by John Lasseter (51:00) and practically the entire history of ABC soap opera contract players.
Top 3 moments of the “Let’s Get This Over With” California Adventure tour:
3 Richard Kind being totally species-ist and using reptilian slurs on Mushu (35:30)
2 Colin Mochrie being perplexed as to why Richard and Barry are not riding Golden Zephyr and Orange Stinger (56:23), shortly followed by Brad losing Richard and Barry because he bought too many lollipops
1 Patrick Warburton totally bullying the two guest stars into riding Soarin over
California (starting 39:11, “We’re not going to have a problem here, are we?”). Along with, let’s be realistic, EVERY WORD THAT PATRICK WARBURTON SAYS, especially “Soarin Over California” and “Condor Flats”…And “Big Cheese”
Anyway, upon DCA’s inaugural year, the guest surveys come in…less than satisfactory. And by far, the attraction that’s at the bottom of the list is Superstar Limo. The Disney execs might have loved it to begin with, but the numbers don’t lie, so Disney had to justify why it was producing $35 million attractions that had less than zero interest from visitors of ANY demographic (which is really, really tough, let me tell you). The first step, of course, was to fire the top Imagineers that got stuck making the attraction (Disney politics, everybody!)
The summer of 2001 was one of the major turning points of DCA’s history. During this time, the Parks and Resorts executives decided to accelerate DCA’s Phase II due to the abysmal numbers of the first two quarters of DCA’s operation. During this time, plans were greenlighted to begin development of A Bug’s Land, Who Wants to be a Millionaire– Play It!, The Power of Blast! (Later the Aladdin Musical), the resurgence of the Electrical Parade, and Tower of Terror. One of the plans they also had was to try to inject some life into SSL.
Putting a Dress on a Pig
Two of the big criticisms that DCA received on initial guest surveys was, first, that the park was not “family friendly” enough (read: had nothing for kids to do), and second, did not have enough Disney characters. This lead to Disney planning child and character-friendly attractions such as A Bug’s Land, Playhouse Disney, the Aladdin Musical, etc. The execs also felt they could help SSL by including some Disney characters. Strangely, there was a major push in 2001 to re-create Superstar Limo as “Goofy’s Superstar Limo.” In this version, the limo driver would be replaced by Goofy, and the minimatronic celebrities would be replaced by the Fab Five and other Disney characters. The execs hoped this would directly address the “DCA has nothing for kids and no characters” criticisms.
The strange thing about Goofy’s Superstar Limo was that it was going to be filled with more than 100 Disney character figures taken from the Disney Stores. At the time, the Disney Stores were going through one of their seventeen re-designs, which involved the removal of many large Disney character figures. These figures would then be moved into Superstar Limo to star in a “Toonier” version of Hollywood.
The original plan was to get Goofy’s Superstar Limo up and running by Fall 2001, in time to coincide with the opening of WWTBAM and the Goofy’s Beach Party Bash stage show located across from SSL in a sort of “re-imagining” of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area (this is what Paul Pressler calls a “re-imagining”). In fact, tests were actually done inside the attraction after-hours during the summer, with the Imagineers doing lighting tests on the Disney Store figures to see how they would look under different shades of blacklight.
However, there were a few too many bugs in the system, and the Imagineers reported back that the new attraction would probably be ready for Spring Break 2002, but not before. Goofy’s Superstar Limo was still a go at the time, but the timetable was pushed back. And then, September 11th happened, and many of Disney’s plans had to be scrapped. 9/11 really cut into the tourism business throughout the country through the rest of 2001 and most of 2002, and Disney cut back even more on its project budgets. So, Goofy was once again put on hold.
Ah Yes, let's not forget the fateful Speedway Incident of '93
So, here’s where it gets really weird. SSL closed (turned out to be for the final time) after the operating day of January 10th, 2002. The attraction wasn’t even in operation for a full year. At the time, Disney claimed that there were “unplanned stresses” in the ride system that necessitated its closure. We’re not sure if that’s true or not, but one does have to wonder that…given the time of the closure (right after the Christmas season), Disney just wanted to close the attraction so it would not have to pay for daily maintenance and labor on an attraction that arguably brought overall guest satisfaction scores down? We’ll probably never know.
During this time, WDI took advantage of SSL’s closure to have the SSL ride track act as a mule track for the upcoming Winnie the Pooh attraction at Disneyland, which would debut in Spring 2003. At the time, Pooh was of major importance to Disneyland, since it (sadly, literally) was the only brand new ride/attraction added to the park since Indiana Jones in 1995 (since Rocket Rods lasted for about three and a half seconds), and Disneyland did not have another attraction planned to debut for several years afterward. While Disney had to pour money into DCA to get it back on track during the post-9/11 recession, Winnie the Pooh was going to have a lot of weight rested on its shoulders, and was expected for these reasons to be in very high demand (remember, at the time Disney also thought it would at least be as popular as the WDW version). Ergo, Disney could not afford to have any technical glitches with the new ride.
So they used SSL as a test for Pooh. The Pooh ride vehicles were modeled after the SSL vehicles and tested on the SSL track for the first few months of 2002. Disney committed to have SSL fixed and ready to come back up for Spring Break.
However, around this time, Disney had just settled a lawsuit (in a HUGE out of court settlement) with the Zucker family (for those of you who know your Disneyland legal history, that’s the family whose son got stuck underneath a Roger Rabbit vehicle, which is why there are now doors and lap-bars on every conceivable vehicle Disney has, even the surrey bikes that ride around the Boardwalk Villas). Disney legal demanded that the Safety and Operations departments look over every attractions to see if more seatbelts, doors, etc. could be added. So, the SSL opening was delayed yet again as doors and lap bars (or belts…stories differ) were added onto the painfully slow-moving vehicles. The SSL opening was pushed back to Summer 2002.
Days of Swine and Limos
The next Frankenstein phase of SSL involved not Goofy, but Miss Piggy. As Disney was negotiating with the German company EM.TV to fully purchase the Jim Henson Company, plans were made by the Imagineers to turn Superstar Limo into “Miss Piggy’s Superstar Limo.” I’m sure you can guess the makeup of this attraction, as instead of celebrities or Disney characters your limo would drive by scenes of Muppet characters in a Muppetized version of Hollywood as you head to the premier of a movie starring Miss Piggy. This idea was gaining traction, since the execs wanted SSL up and running (since it would be silly to just keep a $35 million attraction closed when it was perfectly capable of opening at any time, especially in a theme park that was getting criticized for not having enough attractions in the first place), they also did not want to open SSL in its current form, since it had literally zero fanbase outside Michael Eisner’s personal office. Unfortunately, there was an opposing faction of Disney execs who argued that the Muppets were simply not popular any more and would not drive the popularity of the attraction enough to justify the millions of dollars needed to update SSL.
Will This Ever End?!?!?
So, as of Summer 2002, the score is: re-open ride: 1, Miss Piggy: 0. As if this saga couldn’t get any weirder, someone, somewhere, at some point in late 2002, then hit upon the idea to take advantage of the latest Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. by incorporating (no pun intended) the Pixar characters into the ride. Except it wasn’t anything like the Mike and Sully to the Rescue experience we see today. Instead, it would be a “Mike and Sully and Boo Visit Hollywood” themed attraction (yeah, I know…WHAT?!). The idea, of course, was to keep costs down as SSL gets renovated. This idea had the added benefit that alluded Miss Piggy’s Superstar Limo that 1) It was based on a Disney-produced hit movie and 2) It would show John Lasster and Steve Jobs that Disney was trying to play nice with Pixar, since around this time the new round of Disney/Pixar contract negotiations were starting. But, again…it would have been the world’s cheapest overlay, in the range of about $14 million to redo the entire attraction. So, SSL’s opening was delayed once again to prepare for the inclusion of Mike and Sulley.
Which, of course, never came. Initial plans and budgets of the attraction were being drafted just as Winnie the Pooh opened in 2003. The reviews were, shall we say, tepid at best. National news organizations decreed the attraction a real yawn-fest, a pale imitation of what Disney was used to showing to the public. After the DCA disaster, the media was no longer willing to give Disney the benefit of the doubt. They were starting to be very, very honest. Suddenly, the super-cheap Mike and Sully Do Hollywood makeover does not look as appealing as it did, given the tepid response of an attraction that also has popular characters in it. Mike and Sully didn’t seem like a slam-dunk any more, and therefore Disney was very hesitant to spend the $14 million necessary to complete the attraction. So, go back to you home Superstar Limo, the ice cream truck didn’t come again today.
In late 2003, Cynthia Harris (Paul Pressler’s right hand girl) was replaced as Disneyland President by Matt Ouimet, who was appalled by the horrid condition the Disneyland Resort was in. Matt felt that the upcoming 50th Anniversary (Summer 2005) celebration was a huge moment in Disneyland history and had to be done right. Unfortunately, he had a huge mess to clean up after the disastrous reign of Prince Paul and Princess Cynthia.
Initially (since he had worked in Florida for several years before coming to Disneyland), Matt wanted to tear down the unused Millionaire, SSL, and Hollywood and Dine buildings in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area and finally build the West Coast version of the very popular Rock n’ Rollercoaster. But again, unfortunately, Matt could not get the budget approval, since he was determined to spend so much money in cleaning up the resort and providing some new experiences for Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary (in addition, DCA was about to open the $100 million Tower of Terror, and no one was in the mood to spend another $60-80 million on RnRC). So, Matt was stuck with the empty SSL building. An Operations Committee was convened to discuss what to do with SSL as the 50th approached. Eventually, it was decided that SSL would again come back for Tower of Terror’s opening in May 2004. There were several convincing reasons to do so, each of them somehow more bizarre than the last.
First, obviously, the execs expected Tower of Terror to be a huge draw in Hollywood Pictures Backlot. SSL would add some much-needed ride capacity in a soon-to-be popular area of the park, and would also give moms and little kids something to do while dad and the bigger kids waited in line for Tower of Terror. Secondly, Roy Disney had just angrily quit the company and started his “Save Disney” campaign to point out every single thing that Michael Eisner had screwed up. By opening SSL, Disney could pretend to make a good-faith effort that it was trying to maximize its assets. A closed $35 million attraction would be low-hanging fruit for Roy and his friends. Lastly, the Disney creative teams actually WANTED the ride to be opened and fail. By their reasoning, Matt and his Vice Presidents could then see just what a disaster the ride was. Unlike Paul Pressler, Matt would gladly shell out a few million dollars to fix a dud of an attraction and at least get the show back on the road.
And then…they changed their minds. Again. For the last time. Matt and his team decided that opening SSL would just cost more than what it would make back. They threw cold water on their faces and realized that no one wanted to go on SSL, regardless of how popular Tower of Terror was. And so, Superstar Limo was removed from the DCA maps, once and for all.
As we all know, Disney finally replaced Superstar Limo with Mike and Sully to the Rescue, using the same vehicles, queue, and track layout as SSL but creating an entirely different attraction experience (though bizarrely, in one of those “we can use America Sings figures in Splash Mountain” moments, Imagineers took the SSL minimatronic celebrity figures, threw yellow plastic on top of them, and recast them throughout the new attraction as members of the CDA. We’ll never be rid of Robo-Cher, will we?). I’ll detail some more specifics of Mike and Sully in a later article that discussed post-Pressler DCA in more detail. I can pretend it’s for thematic purposes, but mostly it’s because my fingers are about to fall off from typing.
So that’s it. That’s the Saga of Superstar Limo. If you’re somehow still reading this, I promise the rest of these articles won’t be as absurdly long. But SSL is just so special, in so many different ways. I loved Superstar Limo as a concept, just because it reminded me of all the bad “What drugs were they on when they thought this up” moments that you see at cheap insubstantial dark rides at amusement parks around the country, the ones where the construction paper is peeling off the wall to the point where the sun is leaking in from the outside to spoil whatever the effect was that was intended…unless the effect was several seconds of uninterrupted laughter, in which case the effect was pulled off flawlessly. I’m talking about all the Scooby Doo’s Haunted Castles and Gobbler Getaways and Hershey Park Reese’s Pieces Xtreme Elimination Challenges and all the others (like the CEDAR POINT PIRATE RIDE) that make our trip to the park unintentionally hilarious. You're right there on Mount Rushmore, Superstar Limo. Even though 95% of Southern California wishes you never existed. Thank you for providing so much intrigue and head-shaking. Seriously, it’s better than a spy novel, but with more Miss Piggy. And you provide such good material for Tom Wilson.
And since you, dear reader, somehow made it through all this way, here is your prize for making it this far. I’m sure you can guess what it is. You're welcome. You deserve it.
Send Jeff a line at HamGamgee@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @Parkscopejeff.