Sunday, April 26, 2020

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Play It!

Image copyright Walt Disney World Resort 2001.
It was impossible to escape Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the late 90s.

The imported British game show was an instant hit when ABC started broadcasting their version in August 1999. Millionaire found a perfect balance between its regal presentation, the charm of its host Regis Philbin, and drop-dead simple premise: answer a series of questions of progressing difficulty to win a million dollars. After a short run in the fall of '99 the show was quickly renewed and a larger show order was requested. 

Every network wanted their own prime time TV game show featuring dramatic lighting, tense music, dark backgrounds, and a personable host. Greed, Weakest Link, 21, 1 vs 100, and more attempted to cash in on the Millionaire rush. ABC ran the plane into the ground, showing Millionaire several times a week (new episodes and reruns) plus specials with celebrities and more. Viewership figures dropped and the primetime show was canceled in 2002 but a condensed half-hour version debuted for daytime syndication soon after.

In the middle of Millionaire mayhem, Walt Disney World announced an interactive stage show version of the game show will debut at Disney-MGM Studios. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Play It! opened in April 2001 in Soundstage 3 at the Studios. Disney-MGM Studios Entertainment (not WDI) faithfully recreated the New York set with the addition of several large projection screens and 600 seats. The 25-minute show largely played out like the one on TV with three major changes: 1) contestants were picked from the full audience (who had little gamepads to select A B C or D) 2) each question had a time limit to answer 3) instead of cash prizes contestants won "points" with each major milestone featuring pins, hats, jackets, and the million point prize consisting of a trip to see the show record in New York.

Less than a year into operation the show was modified in January 2002 after the primetime show was canceled: A preshow featuring Regis was canned and the grand prize was swapped with a Disney Cruise Line trip. Over its five years of operation, the show had special themed shows for ESPN the Weekend, Star Wars Celebration, and was even used as the set for the daytime TV show. In August of 2006, the show closed for what would eventually be Toy Story Midway Mania.

Now, you might be asking, "Joe why are we talking about a show from the early 2000s that hasn't operated in 14 years?" Well, it's been on my mind a lot recently; ABC has rebooted the show with Jimmy Kimmel as host and a spiffy new set, I dug up an old photo of me in the hot seat while moving, plus generally losing my mind while in quarantine. But as I remembered the attraction two very interesting things stood out to me

A small cottage industry of theme park archival footage sprung up over the years as people could digitize and upload their home videos to YouTube. Nearly every attraction, no matter how obscure, could be researched and experienced while at home. Martin's Vids, Defunctland, Expedition Theme Park, and more create "supercuts" of attractions combined with history and context to massive success. Searching for "The Magical World of Barbie Epcot", a random early 90s show from Epcot, has dozens of YouTube hits. The late 90s Disney-MGM Studios attraction based around the children's book series Goosebumps has dozens of hits. Millionaire - Play It has six videos. Six. Of those six most are either a short clip or the same final show at Disney-MGM Studios from August 2006.

While ABC did produce the American version of the show they did not own its rights. The British company Celador owned the copyright and trademarks for the attraction including, but not limited to, the music, sound effects, stage design, lighting, and rules. In fact, Celador licensed the show under strict requirements to create a consistent experience around the world; all hosts must wear Armani suits, the music must be the British show's original music, the set design had to be identical to the originals or approved, and more. As Disney did not hold the rights they enforced a VERY strict "no filming or photography" policy across the board, which means we don't have much documentation for the attraction.

This is especially weird considering the other fact of this attraction: it had a huge, rabid local fanbase.

During my family's August 2001 trip we ended up at Disney-MGM Studios to check out the Millionaire show. Once the music dropped and we played along we instantly became hooked. Soon we attended back-to-back showings, FastPassing the show, and using the Backstage Tour attraction as a way of seeing Millionaire. We weren't the only ones either, locals would swarm the attraction after work or during the weekends and binge too. Countless groups mentioned in line how they were in the hot seat several times or how they were part of a local trivia team that would visit. Every show was packed.

14 year-old Joe in the hot seat.
But how did this show develop such a fandom? Well, in its own way, the show was perfectly designed for repeat showings. Due to contest laws and to make the show as fair as possible the show staffed full-time writers to constantly create new questions for the show. Up to seven different hosts would present the show, so each visit would have a different feel or vibe. Every guest attending the show could end up in the hot seat, you'll never know when your lucky break could be. Plus, who wouldn't want to be in the middle of a taping of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

I have not seen an attraction with such a fanbase besides Bill & Ted's Halloween Adventure. Mr Toad, while vocal, didn't have the local support quite yet in 1998 and The Adventurer's Club cultivated a return base of fans but was limited by it being a bar. This was a pastime for folks and the final performance in 2006 showed that.

One of the prevailing theories on why films become cult classics is about cheap exposure. How many high profile films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s have died because they never became permanent fixtures on TV? In a similar way, attractions live and die on their reputation, their exposure, and their mythology. YouTube channels focused on theme park preservation have talked about more obscure content, more tantalizing concepts. But what about Millionaire? BLAST at Epcot or DCA? Horizons which closed in 1999? It's sad that Superstar Limo gets more recognition as being terrible than Millionaire does for being fantastic.

Millionaire died in our consciousness because of the lack of documentation, the show hype cycle, and being replaced by the popular Toy Story Midway Mania. There are countless attractions that die a quiet death, it's rare that a Disney attraction is one of them.

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