Imagine you are building a theme park. Yes, that does take some doing.
But going even further:
Here are two choices for you to make:
Would you prefer:
A. More and faster and scarier roller coasters; or B: More rides based on popular movies?
Actually, both A and B are common themes for Universal Studios Orlando ticket and Disney World ticket buyers. And Busch Gardens Tampa ticket buyers, LEGOLAND tickets….etc…or just about everywhere for theme park-goers.
But let’s consider those parks and rides that were NOT BUILT.
So why look at parks that in common with “never never land” never happened?
A good question.
A glance at what might have been…for one reason.
And what you might have missed and still be missing, for another.
And maybe even what might happen in the future…when you consider that many proposals that did not get built had ideas and concepts that you’re currently seeing…even if you don’t always know it.
You never know what’s next
Actually, Disney’s most famous park that never existed was influenced by at least one movie and a popular TV series.
Attribute its sad ending mainly to America’s founding father’s practices or principles:
Or what people thought of it.
But while the park’s inspiration might have come from the minor and not-very-influential Disney movie Pocahontas, there’s a lot more to the story of what happened to it.
The 1995 film was part of what was termed a “Disney Renaissance,” a resurgence of the Walt Disney Company’s feature animation program that stretched through the late 1990s.
But the proposed park’s downfall was even more prompted by a television series seen by millions more: Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS series “The Civil War.”
To understand some of this, you have to go back to the early 1990s.
Those were the days when Disneyland Paris was opened as a global tourist destination.
It’s largely forgotten today…But Euro Disney was at first a flop.
Disney was doing fine until then.
Euro Disney termed violent
The park was compared to potential nuclear disaster sites.
And its vary American cultural orientation was blasted by European critics.
One called it an “American act of unprecedented violence” towards Europe.
Disney officials were high not on any substance but on the growth of its planned theme parks.
There were going to be many.
Pointing to the success of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, and others, an avalanche of new parks were outlined.
Fifty of them.
That’s why they termed it the “Disney Decade.”
Near this time, then CEO Michael Eisner was looking for other parks. But noting the Paris failure, the idea was to build smaller, more compact areas.
When Disney officials visited Colonial Williamsburg, they came up with the idea for “Disney’s America.”
It would be based on children. And America.
What better representatives of Disney could they conjure up?
A perfect fit…or so they thought
Pocahontas would be proud of it.
The company bought a 3,000-acre site in Prince William County, Virginia. It’s nearness to the nation’s capital was a critical factor.
There would be high speed thrill rides with historically American themes.
These were mainly thrill and/or coaster rides with serious themes.
The park was to include a ride through a blast furnace. And virtual reality Revolutionary War battles, in which visitors would have had a chance to fire muskets.
There would also be nightly recreations of the Civil War battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, the first duel between ironclad ships.
One headline in the Washington Post said:
“Disney Says Va. Park Will Be Serious Fun.”
But within days of its announcement, the park faced serious opposition.
Bob Weis, a senior vice president and the park’s creative director, said, to a room full of reporters:
“How can you do a park on America and not talk about slavery? This park will deal with the highs and lows . . . We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave, and what it was like to escape through the Underground Railroad."
That was trouble.
Opponents began pointing out that the site was near famous Civil War battle sites and dozens of historical districts.
The perception: a park about slavery
But slavery dominated the park’s public image.
Eisner himself in his autobiography began to complain that he kept reading how Disney was doing a park about slavery.
A founder of the Black History Action Coalition organized a boycott:
“We don't think that it is a historically dignified or accurate portrayal, or suitable fare for an amusement park.”
The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers, quoted Eisner’s response: “We're not going to put people in chains.”
He was quoted as being particularly concerned about little souvenir slave ships being sold in shops, which was never planned.
Historians joined the fight to oppose the park.
Prominent newspaper and TV columnist George Will called Michael Eisner a “Hollywood vulgarian” and suggested that he should follow the example of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and “surrender.”
That is what happened.
The New York Times wrote:
“The Walt Disney Company announced last night that it had abandoned its chosen site in Northern Virginia for a sprawling American history theme park, a project that was reviled by historians and environmentalists and hotly debated at local planning boards as well as the United States Senate.”
When it comes to coasters, one of the most famous of the unbuilt attractions in Orlando was Thunder Mesa/Western River Expedition.
Its story became something of a legend.
Why did it become a legend?
Legendary because others followed it
Various reasons, including Walt’s famous statement that “Disneyland will never be completed as long as there’s imagination left in the world.”
While it never came to be a reality in itself, the evolution and influence of the design itself was reworked into other rides.
Disney guests today are often unaware they are on rides that incorporated many ideas from the intense five years of design and planning for Thunder.
Many concepts today are not obvious but are re-worked versions of what might have been.
The planned ride seemed a sure thing, everyone thought.
Coming to Frontierland.
So much so that that a postcard of it was released to the media.
Also, an Audio-Animatronic owl talked about it in the famous showings of the “Walt Disney Story” film.
Not only that, but it was shown in coming park guides, guides and maps.
Elements of it were used in the “Big Thunder” Mountain.
Thunder was planned in place of “Pirates of the Caribbean” at Orlando version of Disney World.
Disney executives apparently felt that attraction was not attractive to guests for one reason or another…perhaps because it was so familiar in California or because there were real pirates at one time operating out of nearby Tampa Bay area, where there to remains a festival-fueled celebration to this day.
This was to take its place.
It featured the latest in advanced technology.
Historical accounts tell us Marc Davies, a famous Imagineer, proposed a bigger and better wild west themed version of pirates.
Davis’s goal was to create something “like” Pirates of the Caribbean,” yet completely different.
The idea: design it as a boat ride and make greater use of audio-animatronics.
The story would also have to be different.
Davis’ challenge was to culminate everything Imagineering had learned and roll it into what became known as Big Thunder Mesa.
A key element was a rocky backdrop feature called “Thunder Mesa Mountain.”
That would be the backdrop for a runaway mine-train ride. Outlined in theory at least as the first roller coaster in the park.
Largest of its kind
It was planned to be one of the largest of its kind at that time. Almost three times larger than Splash Mountain.
It was also budgeted for being the most technologically complex and most costly attractions to have ever been built.
The ride was five years in the making for concept, large scale models, and a story and characters.
All developed in great details.
Riders would experience walking trails, Indian villages and mule rides through the Mesa Mountains. One of its then innovative thrills was a backwards ride portion.
For part of the ride, guests would pass through wilderness scenes, a stagecoach robbery and encounter local cowboy characters. Guests would find the climax of their journey by escaping stagecoach bandits down a flume style drop.
Construction was set to be completed within five years of opening of the Magic Kingdom park.
So what happened?
Many reasons have been cited.
One of the most compelling was public reaction.
They expected the popular “Pirates.”
There were many complaints.
This apparently convinced Disney to decide on a “Pirates” ride to open in1973, two years after the Orlando park opened.
That shifted money earmarked for the Thunder Mesa ride.
Then, the US economy had something of a downturn in the mid-1970s.
Thunder was postponed in part because of its enormous cost.
Then, construction began in the late 1970s on “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.”
That was a stand-alone revamp of the Mesa mine train project.
Imagineer Davies was said to have led a lonely campaign to finish the Thunder Mesa ride. But EPCOT also drew funds away from the project.
In typical Disney fashion of utilizing partially conceived concepts, Big Thunder Mountain’s western themes were included in that ride. But other ideas also were carried out in other coasters and rides.
And Splash Mountain, while themed to “Song of the South” eventually included many elements of the Thunder Mountain ride.
Other elements of it are visible today such as Frontierland’s fictional town: Thunder Mesa.
Proving Walt Disney was right, a lot of theme parks didn’t come off because their own “Imagineers” were not both dreamers and doers.
A lot of uncompleted parks and rides were left out because the follow through was not complete.
Perhaps in part because of Disney’s success but also in part due to its year-round easy-living weather, many of these parks were in Florida.
The best-known in Orlando was a good example of why visitors should not believe a new park until they see it.
A British theme park
It even had a preview center near Kissimmee built in the early 1980s.
Its expensive buildings were imported from Great Britain.
A grocery store tycoon, Lewis Cartier, was behind the project that included theme park coasters and rides.
It was abandoned and turned into several single-family home building projects in the 1980s.
Another Orlando project should have had some real thrilling rides, though it was also designed as a hurricane research center.
Rides would have simulated giant storms. Or hurricanes.
Attention: Coaster fans
The group said it had the right plans. And the money.
It would include 70 acres of thrill rides.
What could go wrong?
Neighbors in the nearby single-family communities that included the Tangelo Park section of Orlando complained about noise and traffic. They fought the plans.
In 1994, Country fiddler Daniels and Florida stockbroker Michael Vandiver were at a Las Vegas rodeo when they got the idea of developing a rodeo arena back home in Florida.
Soon the project grew into a huge complex offering a full arena, concert venues, hotels, golf courses, and a western themed theme park on 1,954 acres.
A popular Daniel’s song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was part of a planned 3D show.
Unfortunately, the devil in the details was a lack of funding.
The park was to open in 1997. But it never made it.
In Miami, huge billboards for years advertised a new theme park called “Interama.”
Disney inspired another doomed park
A permanent international exhibition park was planned.
The inspiration for it was taken both from past World’s Fairs and the new Disneyland in California.
It would be a theme park, but unlike other similar projects, it was hoped that the governments of the various countries would contribute to its building. Similar to how world’s fairs operate.
South Florida congressmen got involved in setting aside land and funds for the development.
That’s when the huge signs went up in the 1960s and 70s.
South and Central American nations were reluctant to provide funds.
So private financing was highly sought after….for years…and more years.
The signs stayed.
The state of Florida in 1985 finally sold the land to expand a state college.
So instead of a permanent world fair with roller coasters and rides, the site became part of the campus for Florida International University’s Bay Vista extension.
Another ill-rated South Florida park combined movies and rides.
Wayne’s World a movie-ride park that sputtered
It was known irreverently as “Wayne’s World.”
The development was to have included a theme park, a waterpark, sports stadiums, and more on over 2,400 acres
Named after Blockbuster owner H. Wayne Huizenga, founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based home rental movie company.
Home rental movies?
We all know what happened to that business.
Not enough dreamers and doers. ###