Welcome back to another edition of the Disney Dish podcast with Jim Hill. It’s me, Len Testa, and this is our show for the week of Shmursday, January 11, 2021.
ON THE SHOW TODAY
On the show today: News, listener questions, and in our main segment, Jim talks about the history of the Voyage of the Little Mermaid attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Let’s get started by bringing in the man who asks if British websites use biscuits to improve your browsing experience. It’s Mr. Jim Hill. Jim, how’s it going?
Thanks to new subscribers MEPMatthews, Anthony P, and Brian K, and long-time subscribers TiffanyB1969, KidForYYou, and Sue C (hey Sue!). Jim, these are the folks who are responsible for generating enough laughter to power Monstropolis while the Laugh Floor Comedy Club is closed. I’m told it involves old episodes of Wings, a dozen jumper cables from Sears, an entire dentist office supply of nitrous oxide. True story, Jim.
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I was just listening to the latest Disney dish show. The segment when you discussed galaxies edge timeline and the era it is set in. In the novel Thrawn Alliance by Timothy Zahn, Anakin Skywalker and Thrawn go to Black Spire outpost on Batuu to search for Padime Amidala and later Darth Vader and Thrawn return to investigate another disturbance. If Disney wants to could they go all the way back to clone wars era characters to walk around galaxies edge at different times of the day 🤷🏼♂️. Jon Favreau seems to be pulling characters like Thrawn from the novel universe.
In the Rebels series, the idea of time travel was introduced with the World Between Worlds, which allowed Ezra to interact with characters and events from the past. Introducing this idea to Galaxy's Edge would help make it "timeless" as characters/experiences from different timelines could be present with the explanation that they simply have been pulled from their timeline for a brief moment.
Todd’s Second question Do you think we’ve seen the end of parking lot trams at the parks? I’ve been in the parks and don’t see people having issues with walking the parking lots, have you?
What Disney park has the longest distance between the turnstiles and the castle?
So, here we would be talking about Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland.
I have not been to all of those parks, but after watching a video tour of Shanghai Disneyland, I'd have to guess that would be the winner here.
Magic Kingdom: 1,000 feet
Hong Kong Disneyland: 1,020
Shanghai Disneyland: 1,030
Disneyland: 1,150 feet
Disneyland Paris: 1,200 feet
Tokyo Disneyland: 1,200 feet
When we come back, Jim and I talk about the history of Voyage of the Little Mermaid. We’ll be right back.
“Voyage of the Little Mermaid”
We’re recording this show on January 7, 2021. 29 years ago today, “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” opened at Disney-MGM Studios theme park. Was supposed to run for 18 months. Wound up running ‘til March of last year. 28 years. May return yet in some form following the release of the live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” (which goes paused back in March due to COVID but is expected to resume production later this year at Pinewood Studios in London).
The story of this attraction is really the story of the early days of that theme park. Which -- when the Imagineers first began (in January of 1985) attempting to turn what had originally supposed to be EPCOT’s Entertainment pavilion into a full-blown third gate -- WDI came to the conclusion that there just wasn’t enough in Disney’s film library to build a movie-themed theme park around.
Disney needs more stories & characters for movie theme park
Real problem here was so many of Disney’s previous hit films had already been turned into rides, shows & attractions for Disneyland Park in California, WDW’s Magic Kingdom in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. The pickings -- at this point -- were pretty thin.
Disney began striking strategic licensing agreements with other studios (EX: Cut a deal with 20th Century to use Ridley Scott’s “Alien” in a theme park setting).
Biggest deal came on July 8, 1985 -- Disney announces that it has licensed the rights to use the MGM / UA library, the "MGM" name and the famed "Leo the Lion" logo. Which it will then use and is proceeding with plans to build a working film studio facility and a new, separate admission attraction at Walt Disney World to be known as the "Disney-MGM Studio Tour."
Only 200 films total. Rights that Disney thought it acquired with this deal (EX: James Bond) weren’t actually included. Disney lucky that they acquired these rights when they did.
Lucky Disney made licensing deal when they did
August 25, 1985 -- Ted Turner acquires MGM / UA film library (2,200 titles) for $1.5 billion. Became very protective of that IP after the fact. Two minute long “Wizard of Oz” scene.
May 1, 1989 -- Disney-MGM Studios opens to public. Still not enough there. Needs to expand quickly.
August 29, 1989 -- The Walt Disney Company announces that it will be acquiring Henson Associates for $150 million.
Crucial thing that people need to understand: Disney fans tend to focus on the number of rides, shows & attractions that were to be built around the Muppets for the Parks. To Michael Eisner’s way of thinking, the big “Get” here was Jim Henson’s creative services. Deal called from Jim to work exclusively for Disney for 15 years. 1990 - 2005.
Three months after Henson acquisition is announced, November 17, 1989 -- “The Little Mermaid” opens in theaters.
Could have been a “Little Mermaid” ride in Parks on same day movie opened in theaters
As early as 1988 (Mark Eades told me this story), the Imagineers were planning on doing something for the theme parks involving Ariel. Mark talked about going over to see Ron Clements & John Musker when they were working out of trailers in a parking lot in an industrial park in Glendale, seeing a work-in-progress version of “The Little Mermaid,” and then going back to WDI and proposing a “Mermaid” -themed overlay for the Motor Boat Cruise at Disneyland Park.
Summer of 1991 -- Disney Afternoon Live! event used this same idea. Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glen
November 18, 1988 -- “Oliver & Company” opens in theaters. Doesn’t do as well as the Studio had hoped. Sells $53 million worth of tickets domestically on a production budget of $31 million. “Oliver & Company” merch doesn’t sell all that well either. Word comes down from Disney Company management. “Hold off on putting ‘The Little Mermaid’ in the parks. We want to see how well this movie does at the box office before we then fully commit to building a ride, show or attraction.
November 17, 1989 -- “The Little Mermaid” opens in theaters. Rave reviews. $40 million production budget / $84 million in domestic ticket sales. Merch sales through the roof. People love Ariel / want to see more of this character.
“Little Mermaid” now is huge hit for company. Eisner’s first princess. Needs important ride.
WDI’s thinking now: Well, we can’t just do an overlay of Disneyland’s Motor Boat Cruise with plywood cutouts of Ariel & her friends now. “The Little Mermaid” is a huge hit. We need to do a really big, grand attraction. “Peter Pan Flight” -like ride-thru proposed for Euro Disneyland (due to open April of 1992).
Meanwhile, Michael Eisner reaches out to Jim Henson. Henson had reportedly been itching to see what his team could do with Disney characters like Dumbo & Pinocchio (because those would be easy to do with puppets). Michael proposed that Jim’s team develop something based on Disney’s latest hit film, “The Little Mermaid.”
Three months after this animated feature first opened in theaters, a production team is in place at LA’s Occidental Studios (one of Hollywood’s oldest production complexes, by the way. This was where Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford shot their films back in the late 1910s / early 1920s) shooting two sample episodes of “The Little Mermaid’s Island.”
“Little Mermaid’s Island” to help cash in on hit / new show to be produced at Disney/MGM
Very ambitious show for Disney Channel. Half hour-long episodes -- each featuring four songs -- that mixed live performers & Henson-designed puppets that looked exactly like the animated characters from “The Little Mermaid” movie.
Crucial to stress here: Jim Henson didn’t write, direct or produce “The Little Mermaid’s Island.” The Henson team just created the lookalike puppets of Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle, Flotsam & Jetsam. Also new characters Sandy (Flounder’s sister) and Scales the Dragon.
Plan was that -- when Disney management officially greenlit production of “The Little Mermaid’s Island” / ordering a full seasons of episodes for the Disney Channel -- production of this series would then move to Florida. Specifically to Disney-MGM Studios, where -- as Guests took that theme park’s backstage tour and looked down at those soundstages as they wandered through the production corridor -- they’d then see a live-action / puppet-based “Little Mermaid” show being shot at Disney-MGM.
Movie voice talent brought back to work on this TV show
Disney had very high hopes for “The Little Mermaid’s Island.” Which is why they persuaded much of the voice talent from the animated film:
• Buddy Hackett as Scuttle
• Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian
• Paddi Edwards as Flotsam & Jetsam
To come back and voice those characters again for this live-action / puppet-based show. Jim Cummings (who’d become the official voice of Winnie the Pooh in 1988) voiced the character of Scales the dragon. Marietta Deprima played the show’s title character. Though -- for this proposed Disney Channel program -- Ariel’s outfit was far more modest (i.e., no seashell bra).
Two test episodes of “The Little Mermaid’s Island” were shot, “Sebastian’s Birthday” & “Tell the Truth,” in March of 1990. The general consensus -- upon viewing the finished episodes -- was that they didn’t quite work for some reason. The puppets that Henson’s team had produced of Sebastian, Scuttle, Flounder, Flotsma & Jetsam all looked great. Right on model.
Ariel can’t swim or move. Impacts overall quality of show
It was Ariel that was the issue. Not Marietta Deprima’s performance, mind you. That was fine. But her mermaid tail & body suit prevented Marietta from moving around. Once Ariel was onstage, she couldn’t really move.
Jim -- it’s said -- was pretty disappointed with how the “Little Mermaid’s Island” pilot turned out. But then again, the Muppet show had to shoot two pilots -- “The Muppets Valentines Show” in 1974 & then “The Muppets: Sex & Violence” in 1975 -- before they arrived at just the right mix of characters & elements for the really-for-real “Muppet Show.” Which then wouldn’t debut in syndication ‘til September of 1976.
The thinking at this point was “let’s take another run at this ‘Little Mermaid’s Island’ show idea after we’ve figured out a better way to handle Ariel. Make it possible for that character to move around the set. Maybe even appear to swim.” That was the plan, anyway … But then on May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died.
Jim’s death / “Little Mermaid” debuts on VHS that same week
As far as WDW execs were concerned, Jim’s death couldn’t have happened at a worst time. The negotiations for Disney to acquire Henson Associates hadn’t been completed yet. Worse than that, on May 17th (i.e., the day after Jim died of bacterial pneumonia), the “Here Come the Muppets” stage show was supposed to have opened at Disney-MGM Studio theme park.
Out of respect to the Henson family, the opening of “Here Come the Muppets” was pushed back by a week (May 24th). Jim’s life was celebrated at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 21st. Well worth watching if you’ve never seen it.
All work stopped on “The Little Mermaid’s Island” as attorneys for The Walt Disney Company & Henson Associates sorted through the wreckage of this proposed acquisition. Jim hadn’t left a will. And given that the corporate headquarters of The Jim Henson Company were located in New York State … The estate taxes were going to be astronomical.
Meanwhile, literally in the five day span between when Jim Henson dies on May 16th and when his life is celebrated on May 21st, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is released on VHS on May 18th. In the first three months that this Walt Disney Home Entertainment release is available for purchase, “The Little Mermaid” sells 7.5 million copies. By the end of the year, the sales total has risen to 10 million copies, making “The Little Mermaid” the top selling VHS for all of 1990.
Henson acquisition cancelled / Little Mermaid becomes more important to Company
And speaking of the end of the year … December 13, 1990 -- Walt Disney Company breaks off talks to acquire Henson Associates.
Given the amount of money that The Walt Disney Company was making off of sales of “The Little Mermaid” VHS (and given that -- on the heels of Jim Henson’s death as well as the Company’s decision not to move forward with its acquisition of The Jim Henson Company) … Well, Disney officials had to face facts. “The Little Mermaid’s Island” TV show was now dead in the water. And if the Company was going to continue to cash in on the success of “The Little Mermaid” with some sort of TV-based spin-off, it would have to pursue other avenues.
By this point, Disney Television Animation had had considerable success with shows like “The Adventures of the Gummi Bears” (debuted on NBC in September of 1985) and “DuckTales” (debuted in syndication in September of 1987). When they offered to fast-track an animated version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” for television (which would be a prequel to the Studio’s November 1989 hit), Studio execs immediately said “Yes.”
That show -- which went into development in early 1991 and wouldn’t debut on CBS ‘til 20 months later on September 11, 1992 -- solved one of Disney’s problems (i.e., making it possible for the Company to continue to cash in on the continuing popularity of Disney’s “Little Mermaid” franchise). But there was still the matter of what to do about this character when it came to Disney’s theme parks.
Eisner hold back “Little Mermaid” ride for Euro Disneyland
Michael Eisner -- who (as of 1991, anyway) -- was still of a mind that Euro Disneyland was going to be the most beautiful (more importantly, the most successful) theme park The Walt Disney Company was still holding out to have that “Peter Pan Flight” -like “Little Mermaid” ride that the Imagineers had proposed debuting in France in 1994 (roughly two years after Euro Disneyland first opened to the public). With a second version of that same attraction opening at Disneyland Park in California in 1995 as part of that theme park’s 40th anniversary celebration (Interesting side note: This version of the “Little Mermaid” ride was supposed to be built in Mickey’s Toontown just down the street from an area that was to have recreated the Hundred Acre Woods from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh).
Meanwhile, the folks in Guest Service at Walt Disney World were logging all sorts of complaints from Guests about how they were so disappointed that -- during their visit to the Florida theme parks -- they were unable to experience a ride, show or attraction built around the Little Mermaid. Clearly there was a demand here that needed to be met.
Mind you, we’re still 5 years out from the “Little Mermaid’s Grotto” project. That elaborate meet-n-greet wouldn’t open at Disneyland Park & WDW’s Magic Kingdom ‘til 1996. So Walt Disney World’s Creative Entertainment was tasked to come up with something fast.
Need to do something different from “Beauty & the Beast: Live on Stage”
Doing a traditional stage show built around Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” was out. That was largely because Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast” was already due to open in theaters on November 22, 1991. That Broadway-style show was due to open at Disney-MGM’s Theater of the Stars on that exact same day.
So -- as far as Walt Disney World’s Creative Entertainment team was concerned -- they couldn’t produce a Broadway-style version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” for the Parks. That would be repeating themselves. They needed to do something different with this film franchise.
It was then that someone came across those two pilot episodes for “The Little Mermaid’s Island” TV show. And after watching that, the thinking was … Well, why don’t we try something with puppets?
This project then got fast-tracked. “Here Come the Muppets” was shut down on September 2, 1991 so that this theater could then turned into a more puppet-performer friendly space (which you have to admit is very ironic).
Two elaborate stage shows launched inside of one seven week period
Very, very busy time for Walt Disney World Creative Entertainment. Got “Beauty & the Beast: Live on Stage” up & running on November 22, 1991. Just six & a half weeks later, they got an equally ambitious stage show (i.e., “Voyage of the Little Mermaid”) up & running.
Real irony here: Remember how one of the main reason that the folks who ran Disney-MGM Studios were excited about the “Little Mermaid’s Island” TV show was because it was supposed to be shot in Florida? That -- while Guests were taking the backstage tour at Disney-MGM -- they were supposed to have been able to peer down from that glassed-in production corridor and see this live-action / puppet-based TV show being shot?
Finally got their show
“Sing Me a Story With Belle.” Lynsey McLeod as Belle. Tim Goodwin & Kristian Truelsen (Cast members of the Adventurers Club). Debuted September 1995 on the Disney Channel.
Only one season. 26 episodes. Ideas never die at Disney.
LEN: That’s going to do it for the Disney Dish today. Please head on over to DisneyDish.Bandcamp.Com where you’ll find exclusive shows never before heard on iTunes, including new in-park audio and never-before heard ideas that Disney came up with for Spaceship Earth pavilion back in the 1970s.
You can find more of Jim at JimHillMedia.com, and more of me at TouringPlans.com.
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For Jim, this is Len, we’ll see you on the next show.