The overwhelming success of Disney Animation’s movie “Frozen” has led many theme park fans to wonder why no big ride yet? Many ask why the only attraction at Disney’s parks so far is a meet-and-greet.
To understand that, we have to step into the Walt Disney Imagineering time machine and dial it back to 1987. Back then, Randy Bright had me working with a team of Imagineers on developing concepts for Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The team included Mark Rhodes, Kevin Rafferty, and an animation artist who had recently transferred over from Disney animation, Joe Lanzisero.
Joe arranged for the team to go to a trailer located in the Imagineering parking lot. That trailer housed directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who developed the classic animated movie, “The Little Mermaid.” The pair took us through the storyboards, and we were impressed and very excited about the film and its potential as the basis for a brand new ride.
The four of us went to lunch off the lot, and ideas immediately started to flow onto the restaurant’s napkins. Within a few days, Joe developed some great artwork while Mark and Kevin developed the ride’s storyline. We also reasoned there was enough there to turn it all into a mini-land within Disneyland. I pulled some site planned out and pointed to the area that held the old Motor Boat Cruise. We went down to Disneyland the next day and were convinced it would work.
We developed a rough site plan for what we then called “Little Mermaid Village,” an area that would look like Prince Eric’s castle and village, housing a dark ride. The village would also include some smaller attractions similar to Dumbo and Mad Tea Party but using “The Little Mermaid” characters.
Also planned were some specialty shops, a small, fast food location, and, inside Prince Eric’s castle, a fine dining restaurant on the order of the Blue Bayou. (This should all sound eerily familiar to anyone who has visited Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland. Ideas never die at Walt Disney Imagineering.)
I worked with the estimating department to pull together a cost for the whole project, and less than a month later, we pitched it to Walt Disney Imagineering management. Had they approved it that day, it would have been almost three years before it could be completed. All we had were some concept drawings, rough storylines, and a basic site plan. There would have to be further design development, permits, construction drawings, and more.
But they shut us down. Why? Well, let’s face it; at the time, Disney Animation wasn’t known for coming out with big moneymaking hits and didn’t want us spending money on what might be a flop. There was also some concern over potential unknown costs from the impacts of shortening the monorail and getting rid of the Fantasyland Autopia.
If approved, could we have had it there by the time the movie opened? I doubt it, but I think we could have had it done within a year of the film’s opening. But by the time the film did open and became a smash hit, we were all working on other major projects, including creating Disney-MGM Studios.
Back to the present day, we see a similar situation. Disney Animation has had some recent successes, but the fairy tale movies have not been overwhelming blockbusters lately. While I am confident there are ideas for some big “Frozen” ride-type of attraction floating around at Imagineering; I am also sure there was a similar fear of committing to spend a lot of money on any ideas based on a movie that was not yet proven. Just imagine if Disney had started construction on a major attraction based on “The Lone Ranger” to open when the movie hit theaters.
So to get something in the parks quickly, Disney designed the “Frozen” meet and greets, which, judging by their long lines, fills the bill right away for moms, dads, and their kids.
Disney can still develop a bigger attraction or even land-based on the hit movie. I would bet they’re thinking about that right now. It’d be an arctic blast to actually walk through Elsa’s ice castle or sled into summer with Olaf.
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Mark Eades is a former Imagineer and Orange County Register reporter, now offering his thoughts and stories to Inside the Magic from decades of Disney experience.