Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Year of the Frog

I've been actively seeking out Walt Disney World history for around ten years now. In relative terms of the community, that makes me a little-bitty baby researcher. It's okay. Ten years sounds like a lot otherwise, but it really isn't, because it's not every day (or even every month) that something cool shows up. Probably the most significant aspect of Disney research isn't so much skill and perseverance as it is sharp observation and luck.

In 2008, Mike Lee turned me onto a Jungle Cruise mystery he'd been contemplating for a long time. I was able to put more information out there, but then out of nowhere this year the mystery was finally unraveled - twice, in rapid succession.

This is more a natural function of the internet age than anything appropriately mystical - even the most obscure facets of Walt Disney World history probably are preserved, somewhere, on some moldering obscure slide in an attic in the Midwest. The place was not obscure. Millions of people saw it in only its first two years, and they were armed with cameras, and home movie film. As more and more people have this film and these slides digitally scanned, more and more (and longer) videos are cropping up. Sometimes you get lucky. A few years ago, a snippet of film of Disneyland's infamous Hatbox Ghost materialized. That was 2011. As far as I'm concerned, 2014 is the Year of the Frog.

I've told this story before elsewhere on the site, but here we go again. At least it'll all be in the same place this time. A true Walt Disney World mystery: The Tale of the Vanishing Frogs!

In a weird way, the frogs never entirely "vanished". Always intended to accompany their significantly less impressive brethren who have managed to survive these 43 years - the giant butterflies - Marc Davis' giant frogs can still be heard  just past Inspiration Falls, although their bodies departed the place sometime around October 1973.

In the beginning, there was a concept drawing.

I've also seen versions of this where Marc wrote on the bottom "Replaces Man-Eating Plants", which at least is a tantalizing option. Now, what's interesting about the Florida Jungle Cruise is how completely faithfully WED replicated Marc's designs in the finished show:

Bottom photo: Joe Shelby

...And when it came to the giant frogs, MAPO was no slouch. The final sculpted frogs, as unearthed by Mike Lee and Dave Ensign, looked even cuter than the concept art.

So basically for about five years, we ("we" meaning the WDW internet community who cares about rubber frogs) have known that a) the frogs did indeed exist, and b) that tourists saw them, but what we didn't really have was any photos of them in situ in the park. We didn't have to wait long.

In May of this year, a mid-1972 silent reel of super 8 film appeared online, painstakingly restored by the webmaster of RetroDisneyWorld.Com. It's a beautiful watch. The colors are vivid, the shadows pop with that "Florida Summer" bright white intensity, the grain is clear and it's the next best thing to being there. Oh yeah, and the frogs are there.

It's just about three frames of footage between Inspiration Falls and the beached canoes, but there's five handsome looking frogs - two adults and three babies. Based on Mike Lee's maintenance schematic diagram, these appear to be the first cluster of frogs which appeared on the right side of the boat in the area that's currently home to a tarp and a skull on a stick.

(That squiggly thing across from the figure location is Inspiration Falls, the arrows indicate the direction the boats travel...)

It also just happens to be the spot I singled out back in 2011 as a possible frog location when I posted this 1973 Jungle Cruise refurbishment slide due to this cluster of men working on... something:

All of this was great news, but of course three frames isn't long enough to see the frogs move, just long enough to know they're there. But the Year of the Frog would not be stopped so easily. Just a few months later, thanks to a lucky eBay find by Brian Miles, a reel of 8mm footage from December 1971, showing what I can only describe as an astonishingly young Magic Kingdom, summonded the Jungle Cruise frogs yet again, for their best appearance yet:

Showing three adults and two baby frogs on a fallen log and tree stump attractively flecked with mushrooms, this frog grouping likely is the one across the river to the right:

(To anyone paying close attention at home, in this case the designation "F22" or "Figure 22" likely refers to the whole piece, ie the sculptural base plus five frogs, with each frog being designated A thru E).

Best of all, there was enough footage this time to get a taste of what these guys looked like in motion. Watch the adult frog's throat pouch inflate and the baby frog's mouth open:

As for the fate of the frogs, Park Operations VP Dick Nunis ordered them removed on the grounds of being "hokey". How these particular figures were singled out to be removed in a ride which, let's be fair, is not exactly known for realism, is unknown. I personally think they set an appropriately whimsical tone at the start of the ride which is more fantasy than reality, but what do I know. Anyway, a scene Marc Davis had designed for the end of the MK Jungle Cruise was repurposed to sit alongside the Walt Disney World Railroad, and one of the baby frogs was reutilized for this purpose:

The crocodiles are still there, but the fiberglass ambphibian has been missing for the past few years as of this writing. Let's hope it one day returns as an unlikely but still interesting remnant of early Magic Kingdom history.

Oh, and if you yourself have home movie footage of Walt Disney World, please consider getting it restored through Todd at RetroWDW's ImageWorks service. The results are beautiful and, best of all, the resulting footage will appear online and add to the growing treasure trove of material. The Jungle Cruise frogs are cool, but they're just one of hordes of early WDW mysteries which can be resolved. Thanks to international renown, a colorful local fanbase and a cadre of researchers who got started in the 1980s, Disneyland in California is very well documented and the reference material is only growing by the day. When the production team behind the recent Disney film Saving Mr. Banks wanted to re-create the look of Disneyland in the 60s, they went to fan sites like Daveland and Stuff From the Park to draw material. Walt Disney World's past is still clouded in time. So if you have the material, do your part. We can build a visual and textual history to rival any other. There may be another Year of the Frog waiting, collecting dust in your own house.