Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lake Buena Vista's Lost Crescent City

"What If" in Disney theme park developments is never really a very fun place to explore. What tends to get the lion's share of attention is lost areas and attractions like Thunder Mesa, or Fire Mountain, WESTcot, or the long-delayed Indiana Jones Adventure in Florida (and yes, it was real).

Walt Disney World has a second history of abandoned hotel concepts. By far the most famous of these is the long-deferred Asian Hotel, which never did materialize on its rectangular plot of land...

Recognizing, however, that the public will always prefer to stay within the "Vacation Kingdom" site, the Company will soon begin architectural work on the third theme resort, the 500-room Asian Hotel. Construction is planned for 1974, with the formal opening date to take place that year. (1972 Annual Report)
 ...and its' sister hotel concepts, the Venetian and the Persian, appear to have never come half as close to actual realization.

Or we can talk about Cypress Point Lodge, which eventually evolved into Wilderness Lodge and was planned for the same plot of land (incidentally the original Campground site). Progress City, USA has already covered Cypress Point very well.

Other planned developments exist in only frustratingly vague details. The northern end of Fort Wilderness has always been called "Settlement" despite having no buildings beyond Pioneer Hall and the Trading Post, but there were plans for a fully-realized Western township of shopping and dining as early as 1972....

 ....And for a lodge-like traditional hotel as early as 1971!

There are currently plans for a Vacation Club property at Fort Wilderness, making a traditional hotel expansion of the Campground possibly the longest-delayed concept in all of Walt Disney World that still has a chance of getting built... going on four decades now.

One thing for which I never had any leads worth tracking down was the second concept for Phase 2 of the successful Walt Disney World Village. In the mid 70's there was a very real and very probable concept for expanding Lake Buena Vista with monorails, Peoplemovers, and an urban mass transit station linking Walt Disney World with planned state transit from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach.

This would be concurrent with an expansion of the Village past the Empress Lilly, then the westward terminus of the complex, along with an office plaza of thirteen buildings (of which only one was actually built, the SunBank building) and a complex of condominiums and spaces for small businesses.

 Had all this gone forward, the result would have been, allowing for changing taste, a more or less successful realization of Walt Disney's EPCOT city. The problem is that Disney had branded the whole thing Lake Buena Vista and it looked nothing like that Herb Ryman painting everyone in the state of Florida had seen back in 1967.

This quote, from Orlando Magazine in 1982 and brilliantly written by Edward L. Prizer, captures Disney's EPCOT dilemma, and their response to it, perfectly:
"I kept thinking about what Dick Nunis had said that afternoon on the promenade at World Showcase:

"We are still haunted by a painting." Mr. Nunis, who is responsible for all of Disney's theme parks and resorts, was talking about the rendering you see on these pages. He was talking about the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow as it was first depicted to the public: a city under a vast dome [ed: we now know this is incorrect] with rings extending outward: shopping areas, offices, apartments, homes.

What did Walt Disney say?

His words were vague and open to many interpretations: " experimental prototype community that will always be in a state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future, where people will actually live a life they can't find anywhere else today. Everything in EPCOT will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who will work, live, and play here..."

On the promenade that day, Dick Nunis told me:

"It was really just a case of Walt saying, "Herbie, draw me something I can talk about..""
Lake Buena Vista's full realization  ended up being delayed in early 1976 as Disney made a commitment to move forward on what was then known as the EPCOT Theme Center and World Showcase projects, which resulted in a massive effort all across the country and around the world, with a new base on Washington DC, as Disney went about getting into bed with multinational corporations and international governments. Disney was, at the time, still very much an intimate family-run business with a single satellite in Florida. This was probably the most complex and ambitious project that the company ever had or would ever embark on.

When the dust settled in 1982, Disney was in a precarious financial situation. The final result of this huge effort was EPCOT Center, a massively expensive World's Fair which was a bigger success with the public than the press. The Studio division had hardly released a successful film in years and corporate raiders were starting to close in. Disney was in a more conservative mood than they had been six years earlier and the Lake Buena Vista project still sat incomplete.

In mid 1982, ideas began to swirl about a new direction for the Village's expansion. How about something reliable, something Disney had already tested, like... New Orleans? New Orleans Square at Disneyland is still the most beautiful area of that park, and even if they had let the opportunity to duplicate that success in Florida slip by in 1971, the presence of a huge Mississippi riverboat on the outskirts of the Village proved too great a temptation to allow it to slip by again.

For years, the only empirical proof I had that this idea was an actual possibility was a snippet of this May 1982 interview with Nunis:
“But what [Walt Disney] really wanted to do [in Florida] was develop an area where all types of corporations, governments, and academia could come together to really try and solve some of the problems that exist in the world today. We started with the recreation area, and then began the community, which is Walt Disney World Village, and now we’re building the center … Epcot Center, and we’re going to connect it all with the monorail system. […] In addition, we have some dreams for the Walt Disney World Village. From the Empress Lilly, we’re going into a New Orleans street, and you’ll walk right into a beautiful New Orleans hotel.”
 This was the sole tantalizing clue at the end of a cold trail. Thankfully, luck was on my side, and years later I have happened upon a number of renderings of the Lake Buena Vista New Orleans Square.

These are extremely poor quality, probably third generation photocopies, and I've done my best to make them viewable with digital manipulation. This is why they are in sepia instead of black and white, as I've found it makes them much easier to appreciate.

So, for the first time, let's take a stroll down Nunis' New Orleans street as it was conceived over thirty years ago.

This is the entrance area, and the Empress Lilly and her original circular drop-off area is still visible there in the back. In the extreme foreground the natural water line and water taxi dock is apparent. This heavily forested area would make use of Florida's natural resources - chiefly, being swampy and very heavily vegetated. Those who know Walt Disney World well will recognize this as the area which was later carved up and paved over for Pleasure Island.

On the extreme right is the northernmost verandas of what appears to have been called the "Garden Restaurant":

Probably aptly named, this restaurant overlooking the Village Lagoon would have been quite the showplace. This would have been the facade on the lagoon side, and here's another view, probably as seen approaching it from the Empress Lilly side:

Continuing along the waterfront, the outskirts of the city come into view. This is labeled "Cafe Orleans" and probably would have been a duplicate of Disneyand's wonderful informal cafe:

Shops along the bottom floor of all the buildings:

In the center of the activity, the Royale Circle:

And yes, that is the facade of the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean back there. No points for guessing what's inside:

Up above the streets, here's a view of the proposed accommodations on Level Two:

Yes, that's right, WED was prepared to recycle Dorthea Redmond's Disney family suite designs into actual guest accommodations in Florida.

Probably near the back of the complex, guests could explore the Rue Royale and Crafts Alley:

And the tantalizing prospect of the Preservation Hall Jazz Lounge:

Remember that this was an era when Disney was very successfully booking top-flight jazz acts to appear in the lounge of the Village Restaurant, a gambit which was so successful that they had to institute a cover charge to deter music students from around the state from descending en masse. This New Orleans area was cleverly conceived to take advantage of the Empress Lilly, the popular jazz acts, the natural Florida environment and lake, and introduce some traditional, identifiably "Disney" texture and atmosphere into a complex which was often cited for lacking it - the Village.

Sometimes, things never happen for good reasons. EPCOT's Space Pavilion would have been a hugely costly undertaking even by that park's standards and I don't think I need to elaborate on why EPCOT's Israel pavilion never materialized. Cypress Point Lodge would have been vastly inferior to Wilderness Lodge, and so in that way we can say that the project evolved into something better. The only thing we can say the New Orleans area evolved into is the Dixie Landings / Port Orleans hotels in 1992, which is such an obvious downgrade that we run the risk of undervaluing what is good about those resorts as they were built.

I admit that I've got nothing on this one. The space was partially used for Pleasure Island, an Eisnerian attempt to compete with Orlando-area nightclub district Church Street Station, and the rest of the area eventually became West Side, which, if it can be believed, is even uglier than Pleasure Island.

But Lake Buena Vista's New Orleans area is such an obviously good idea that I'm amazed it never made it off the drawing board, at least in part. Pleasure Island had burned itself out in less than a decade; had this area been built it would be one of the major "crown jewels" of the Florida property.

Pleasure Island, West Side, and what was once the Village are currently being eyed for a large redevelopment project. I don't know about you, but I'd readily give four Pleasure Islands for something with the taste, elegance, and classic appeal of these long-dead expansion plans, from the very tail end of the era when Disney's themed design efforts didn't come with ten-year expiration dates.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Three Jungle Cruise Mysteries

Photo Credit: Ryan Rewasiewicz via ImagineeringDisney
 (This post is an addendum to The Jungle Cruise: The Early Years, which has been updated to link to this new information)

Some people spend all their time finding ways to cure ailments or finding new atoms or researching their ancestors. Me, I just came off a multi-year quest devoted to a staircase near the Jungle Cruise boathouse. That's just how I roll.

Remember the mysterious Jungle Cruise steps I spoke about at such great length last summer? I may finally have all of the information in place to answer with some accuracy this longstanding Jungle Cruise mystery. So to refresh your memory, here's a photo of the steps barely visible at the back of this photo, which rose to the Jungle Cruise's second story near the load point:

The question is whether or not this second level of the queue building was either intended for or, moreover, actually used for guest queue. This is our first mystery.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's look closely at that rear staircase. The absolute best view we have of it unfortunately comes to us from a 1974 Walt Disney World souvenir film, which is ironic in that this particular architectural feature didn't even make it into 1974, having been removed during the 1973 queue rebuild concurrent with Pirates of the Caribbean's construction. This footage was likely shot in 1971 and 1972 as part of the rushes for "The Magic of Walt Disney World". Here it is, visible to the left:

Yes, so, I've proved again and again that the stairs existed. But these steps aren't the only lingering Jungle Cruise mystery: check out this home movie from December, 1972. Once again it's 8mm so the quality isn't so hot, but it provides, amongst other things, a very good overview of something I previously hadn't been able to find: a view of the front of the Jungle Cruise entrance complex prior to 1973.

And here is a reverse view of the area where the photographer was standing from a 1972 paperback souvenir guide:

See the shadows on the ground at the bottom left? Those are shadows of the drumming Tiki Gods seen above. The lady in the red plaid blouse in the upper film frames is probably standing about where the person all in red is standing in the bottom promotional image. Those Tikis Gods are our second mystery.

This 1972 home movie demonstrates two things I had previously not suspected: that the entire front section of the Jungle Cruise queue was added in 1973 and that the original sloped entryway to the Jungle Cruise courtyard from the western approach was dramatically wider, with a far gentler slope, than the current "staircase" arrangement:

Hat tip to EpcotExplorer
Here's a map showing what was added in 1973. The original building is in blue, and the additions in red:

So what we're looking at is a 100% increase in queue space over the estimated requirements of 1971. The revelation that the northernmost section is "new" changes the assumptions we can make about why the arrangement of the courtyard changed and, especially, that longstanding question about why and when the "drumming tikis" migrated West; up the hill to their current location. From the photos above it's pretty easy to estimate how the Tikis were initially situated in the direct center of a pretty open courtyard with a wide, long ramp:

The tikis would of course been placed in such a way to cause as minor a traffic disturbance as possible, but you can only push them around in the above simulation so much and still it's obvious to see how the mere construction of the forward-facing queue extension required not only the reconstruction of the hill into more compact steps but pushed the tikis out of the already-crowded courtyard in 1973.

Until additional evidence appears, this is the most logical answer to our second mystery: the Tikis moved because the forward-facing part of the Jungle Cruise queue expansion and the new narrower, steeper steps which replaced the original gradual slope would have required them to be moved anyway and it made more sense to get them out of a congested courtyard.

Today the courtyard is very close to something like this:

Let's take a second look at that 8mm composite:

Besides the very interesting original signs, this shows something even better. Remember that this is December 1972, at the peak of the busy season. Walt Disney World has been open for 14 months and a new round of construction is sweeping the park to bring air conditioned shade structures to such popular attractions as Haunted Mansion and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

That sea of humanity outside the Jungle Cruise? That's the line for Adventureland's only E-Ticket attraction. The line is so huge it's spilled out beyond the official boundaries of the queue and is filling part of the courtyard. Yet there's clearly nobody in the upstairs part of the queue! And my longstanding question bites the dust. If Disney isn't using that space for queue with a line like this, then they never did. That upstairs section was purely decorative and the stairs were removed because they were in the way of perfectly good queuing space.

Just for, you know, fun, here's two other Magic Kingdom E-Ticket press photos with opening year out-of-control lines visible:

And everyone had fun in the sun that day
So that is a lot of questions that 4-second little clip of home movies answered. But wait, it resolved a third question!

In the months leading up to pre-opening, WED promoted the Jungle Cruise heavily in local publications such as Orlando-land and The Orlando Sentinel, and they tended to circulate a press blurb that was pretty standardized and even ended up, in part, in the Tropical Serenade pre-show. You can read the whole thing at Widen Your World, but here's a relevant snippet:
"Amid all the excitement, there are the sounds of the jungle animals, including the noisy but unseen claw and fang combat of two ferocious jungle cats.  Nearby, natives rise from the undergrowth, threatening with spears poised, while back around the last bend painted warriors continue the ritual of their ceremonial dances near burning skulls, swaying to the mysterious throbbing of tribal drums."
That description is pretty accurate except for the burning skulls. Yet Marc Davis' concept art of the Jungle Cruise, art which was otherwise realized very faithfully for this ride, included clusters of skulls impaled on spears and set ablaze:

The fact that this single detail is apparently missing draws attention to itself. Were there ever burning skulls in the Jungle Cruise?

It's pretty hard to see exactly clearly, so I'll let the grainy film footage speak for itself:

That looks like a regular torch to me. Pretty hard to tell if there was ever a skull component to it. Wait, I'll bet the promotional Pana-Vue slides will help us out:

Case closed!

This article was updated September 15, 2013