The Disney Dish with Jim Hill - Released on January 20th, 2023
Normal Open: 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 30, 2023.
ON THE SHOW TODAY
On the show today: News! And two special guest stars! It’s like an episode of Riverdale with Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall! Then in our main segment, Jim gives us the history … and future … of the Swiss Family Treehouse.
Let’s get started by bringing in the man whose self-care tip is to be more like I-95 and never stop working on yourself no matter how much other people complain. It’s Mr. Jim Hill. Jim, how’s it going?
iTunes: Thanks to new subscribers Jeremy Inmon, Danny Farroll, John Grigas, and Mitch Norris, and long-time subscribers Willie Crocker, VKoz91, Jeff Kelly, and AD Perkins. Jim, these are the Castmembers who meticulously maintain the grass-roofed buildings over at the Norway pavilion in EPCOT’s World Showcase, including Kringla Bakeri og Kafe and the Royal Sommerhus. They say the best part of the job is contributing to a culturally accurate architecture that’s also super friendly to the environment. And the biggest challenge is to keep the goats who eat the grass from falling off the roofs. And they add “Yeah, we’re talking to you, Emma Sofia.” True story.
The Disney Dish News is brought to you by Storybook Destinations, trusted travel partner of Disney Dish. For a worry-free travel experience every time, book online at storybook destinations dot com.
And speaking of food, we’d like to welcome back our first Special Guest Star for the podcast. You know her, you love her, it’s Christina Harrison from TouringPlans.com, here to talk about all the food at EPCOT’s Festival of the Arts event, going on now. Welcome back, Christina.
Our second special star on today’s show is also a returning guest. She’s a museum specialist at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and author of the new book “Mirror, Mirror For Us All: Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narratives”. Please welcome back to the show Bethanee Bemis.
Jason Schultz (@ArchivistJason on Twitter) posted a new Disneyland poll. Well, it’s new to us, but it’s actually the first Guest satisfaction poll ever done at Disneyland.
Hello Jim and Len!
Our family sadly cannot join you on the star cruiser but our trip will be in the same timeframe as yours which leads me to this question.
This is our first trip during spring break and we thought with the increased attendance at the parks it might be a good idea to explore the Animal Kingdom Lodge where we are staying. I looked up activities online and it seems a few years ago there were a ton of things to enjoy there but based on what I am seeing many of these are not currently available.
Could you give me an idea on whether some of the savanna experiences and tours would be coming back, and what activities you might know of as alternatives?
Love the show thanks for the entertainment and information!
Len says: It’s probably not posted online because the events will vary with things like occupancy and, you know, weather, but you’ll find a ton of things to do around the resort:
Even during the pandemic they were offering things to do almost every hour:
Re: the survey question from Disney asking guests to estimate the total they spent on their trip - I think you and Jim forgot that, believe it or not, there are still people in the world who pay for things with cash. And don’t forget gift cards! When I go to Disney, I pay for almost all my food and merch with cash or gift cards that are not linked to MDE, meaning Disney would have no way of tracking that spending.
Just had to send you a note because I was yelling at the podcast as you guys puzzled over why Disney doesn’t already know exactly how much everyone spends
Listening to Christina’s story about tipping at Aulani and it’s absolutely true about refusing tips 3 times.
I worked at the world of Disney at Disney Springs and the coordinator would have me be a door greeter. I love doing this position because a DJ plays most nights on the stage in front of the story and I was notorious for wearing Mickey ears and shaking what my momma gave me in front of my ECV scooter. During Christmas, as I was busting a move, a man came up and put $60 in my hand. He ran off before I could refuse it. I told my manager who was actually dumbfounded that I actually willingly reported the cash. The managers huddled together and let me use that $60 to buy toys for our Toys for Tot drive from the store. Super neat experience.
We’re going to take a quick commercial break. When we return, Jim gives us the history and future of Disney’s Swiss Family Treehouse. We’ll be right back.
Swiss Family Treehouse feature piece
Things get built at the Disney theme parks. But not always for the reasons that you might think.
Case in point: The Swiss Family Treehouse, which first opened at Disneyland Park back in November of 1962.
Now – back then – did Walt Disney Studios have a hit film that was based on Johann David Wyss’ famous adventure novel of 1812? And at that time, Walt was justly proud of this project.
Out ahead of the release of this Ken Annakin film (By the way, Ken was Walt’s go-to director in the 1950s. Annakin direct four live-action films for Disney Studios in just eight years.
• “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” in 1952
• “The Sword and the Rose” in 1953
• “Three Men on the Mountain” in 1959
• and then “Swiss Family Robinson” in 1960)
Walt talked up this project in the Company’s annual report for 1959, saying that “Swiss Family Robinson” is …
… photographed on the island of Tobago in the West Indies and that it is shaping up into such an exciting and thrilling picture that the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ shows every promise of equaling or surpassing every production our Company has ever put out.
Okay. Walt may have been overselling things a little here. But when Disney’s version of “Swiss Family Robinson” finally arrived in theaters in December of 1960, it did quite well at the box office. It was No. 4 at the box office that year, behind “Spartacus,” “Psycho,” and “Exodus.”
And one of the main reasons that this Walt Disney Productions release did so well at the box office that year was … Well, “Swiss Family Robinson” looked great. It had all of this lush shot-on-location footage (Though – to be fair here – I guess we should mention that this movie’s interiors were shot over in London at Pinewood Studios). And one of the sequences from this Disney film that people most fondly remember is that montage where the Robinsons salvage what they can of their wrecked ship, the Swallow, and then use that same material to construct this amazing treehouse on an uninhabited island off the shore of New Guinea.
By the way, the tree that appears in this Disney film is real. John Howell – who was the art director on “Swiss Family Robinson” – was out scouting locations for this movie in 1958. He had stopped work for the day and drinking with friends at a cricket match. When – out of the corner of his eye (through a gap in the fence that surrounded this cricket pitch) – John spied this beautiful Samaan tree with a huge 200 foot-wide canopy of leaves.
It's still there, by the way. If you ever want to journey to the town of Goldsborough on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
Anyway … Like I said, Disney’s movie version of “Swiss Family Robinson” comes out in December of 1960 and does quite well at the box office. And Walt then thinks “The last time that I based an attraction for Disneyland on a Ken Annakin film (Just so you know: The Matterhorn at Disneyland was largely inspired by research that the Studio did in Zermatt, Switzerland in late 1957 / early 1958 out ahead of the location shooting that was done for “Third Man on the Mountain.” Which officially got underway in June of 1958).
There’s a famous story about the origin of the Matterhorn-at-Disneyland project. Walt was over in Switzerland for the start of shooting on “Third Man on the Mountain” in 1958 and evidently really liked what he saw. So he bought a postcard of the actual Matterhorn and then mailed it to Dick Irvine (who – at that time – was the Company’s lead Imagineer). Beyond Dick’s address at WDI, Walt reportedly only wrote two words on this postcard. And those words supposedly were “Build this.”
Okay. Back now to the Spring of 1961 … “Swiss Family Robinson” has been out in theaters for about six months at this time. And – as I’ve mentioned earlier in this show – has done quite well at the box office (Fourth highest grossing film of the year domestically).
And Walt keenly remembers what happened when he last built an attraction at Disneyland that was based on a Ken Annakin film (Up until that time, 1959 was Disneyland’s greatest year attendance-wise. Largely because so many people came out to the Park that Summer to experience Disneyland’s heavily hyped brand-new attractions. Which were the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Submarine Voyage and the Monorail).
Okay … So as I just mentioned, it’s now the Spring of 1961. And attendance at Disneyland Park has actually fallen off from the previous year by 200,000 people. (You can read all about this in Walt Disney Productions’ annual report for 1961. Which was published on December 14th of that year. There’s a full scan of that annual report over on DisneyDocs.net). And Walt now wants to turn that attendance deficit around.
So what spurred Disneyland’s attendance surge in the Summer of 1959 was Walt pumping $6 million into the place for the construction of new attractions. So that’s now the plan for 1962 & 1963. Only this time around, it’ll be $7 million worth of new attractions. More to the point, since Disneyland’s 1959 expansion project was largely focused on Tomorrowland … This time around, the work will largely be focused on the other side of the Park. To be specific, Frontierland & Adventureland.
The plan here was … Well, attendance had been dropping on the Jungle River Cruise attraction (That’s what this Adventureland ride was called back in the day) because it was largely unchanged from when Disneyland Park first opened back in July of 1955 (Famous story of Walt observing a Mom pulling her kid away from the entrance of the “Jungle Cruise.” Saying words to the effect “We’ve already seen that ride. We went on it the last time we went to Disneyland.” Which is what then inspired Disney to develop the practice of plussing the attractions at his theme parks. Anyway … )
This was what led Walt to bring Marc Davis over to WED from Feature Animation in October of 1960 and effectively say “Help me make Disneyland better. Let’s look for ways to make the rides there funnier. Better staged.” This is when Marc came up with the idea for the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool and the Africa Veldt sequences for “The Jungle Cruise.” Not to mention the Trapped Safari.
Interesting story about that vignette that Marc created for “The Jungle Cruise.” It originally wasn’t supposed to be part of that ride. Guests were supposed to see it alongside the side of the tracks as they rode the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad from Main Street Station over to Frontierland. The Trapped Safari was basically supposed to be something that made Guests think “Ooh, I need to get over to Adventureland while I’m here at the Park and go check out that new, improved version of the Jungle River Cruise that everyone’s talking about.”
That was the original plan, anyway. But as soon as Walt saw Marc’s art for the Trapped Safari, he basically said “That’s too good a gag to waste on the people who are riding Disneyland’s train. That’s gotta go inside of the actual Jungle Cruise.” So – at Walt’s insistence – the Trapped Safari then became the tag gag for the African Veldt section of that Adventureland attraction.
In fact, Walt so loved this gag that – after the Africa Veldt section first opened at Disneyland Park in June of 1964 – he actually made the Imagineers go back in this portion of that Adventureland attraction and restage it. Build up the cave that was behind that pride of lions which was watching over that sleeping zebra so that the Trapped Safari would then have a stronger reveal. Would get a bigger reaction / stronger laugh largely because Guests now wouldn’t see the Trapped Safari until they then floated by the lion’s cave.
Anyway … Now what made this redo / expansion of the Jungle River Cruise complicated is that this Adventureland attraction shared a water system with the Rivers of America (Guests who were headed to Disneyland’s old Chicken Plantation Restaurant for lunch or dinner used to have to walk over a bridge in Frontierland. Under which flowed the water that traveled from the Jungle River Cruise into the Rivers of America). So if the Jungle Cruise was being drained for months so that the Imagineers could then install the Sacred Elephant Bathing Pool sequence in that Adventureland attraction (That portion of the ride would be ready for Guests to view by June of 1962) … Well, that then meant the Rivers of America had to be drained as well.
And since the Rivers of America were now going to be dry for months at a time from January of 1962 through June of that same year … Well, this is when the Imagineers decided to tackle two projects that were well below Disneyland’s waterline. Which was digging out the basement space in New Orleans Square (which was originally supposed to house the walk-thru tour version of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) as well as carving out that below-grade space over at the Haunted Mansion. Which was going to be necessary for the two elevators that would then make that attraction’s “stretching room” scenes possible.
Okay. So while this work – the digging out of the basement space for “Pirates” (above which Disneyland’s next “land,” New Orleans Square would eventually be built) as well as preliminary construction of the Haunted Mansion – was being down along the shore of the Rivers of America, over towards the entrance of Adventureland … Well, the Imagineers were reconfiguring that restaurant that faced out towards Disneyland’s Hub. They were using the temporary closure of the Jungle Cruise to revamp that operation. Carving out the space for the Tahitian Terrace as well as the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Okay. So – as you can see by all of the projects that I’ve just described – this was a hugely complex addition to the Parks with lots of moving parts. Things that interlocked. Which is why – as this redo of Adventureland & Frontierland (which then set the stage for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) was moving through its final design phase – the Imagineers were startled when Walt pointed to the very center of this incredibly ambitious $7 million construction project (the very spot where Adventureland bumped up against Frontierland) and said “Here. This is where I want you guys to build Disneyland’s version of the Swiss Family Treehouse.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. That’s the piece of land that the pipe which connects the Jungle Cruise and the Rivers of America runs through. We’d have to rip that up and then reroute that water system.”
Walt said “I don’t care. Build it.”
The Imagineers then said “But Walt. If we built a Swiss Family Treehouse in the Park … Well, that then means a steep set of stairs first going up into that tree and then a second steep set of stairs coming down out of that tree. People aren’t going to like doing all of that climbing.”
Walt said “You’re wrong. Build it.”
Imagineers continued “An attraction like that’s only going to appeal to kids. And we’ve already got Tom Sawyer Island across the way.”
Walt “ Again, you’re wrong. Build it.
So that’s what the Imagineers did. Not happily, I might add. Because the concrete foundation that supported this six ton structure had to go down some 42 feet … Well, that totally screwed up the water system that previously connected Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise to the Rivers of America.
And as for those steep sets of stairs … While work was underway on this 70-foot-tall faux tree, Walt persuaded Betty Taylor (who was playing Sue Foot Sue over at the Golden Horseshoe at that time) to come over to the Swiss Family Treehouse construction site one afternoon. Betty was wearing a dress and high heels at the time. But she & Walt put on hard hats. And then the two of them made multiple trips up & down the stairs that had already been installed in & around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Just so Walt could then be certain that this attraction’s stairways weren’t too steep. More importantly, that they’d also be safe for ladies who were wearing skirts & dressed in heels to use.
Anyway … This 70-foot-tall faux tree (with its 80 foot-wide canopy of 300,000 pink plastic leaves) opened just in time for Thanksgiving of 1962. John Mills (the male lead of Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film) was on hand for the dedication of this Adventureland attraction. FYI: He brought along his daughter, Halley (As in Halley Mills, the star of Disney’s “Pollyana” and “The Parent Trap”).
There’s this great 3-minutes-and-41-second video over on YouTube that shows Walt leading the Mills family (John, Halley & Mary Mills, John’s wife) around Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse in the Fall of 1962. You can see Disney proudly showing off the elaborate water wheel system at the heart of this Adventureland attraction, which send 200 gallons of water high up into that faux tree.
FYI: Disneyland spent $254,900 on the construction of that theme park’s version of Swiss Family Treehouse. Which the Imagineers (back then, anyway) felt was money wasted. Because no one was ever going to climb up the 68 steps that then led to the three rooms in this Adventureland attraction (The parents bedroom, the boys bedroom [up in the crow’s next] and then the common area / kitchen / dining room) and then the 69 steps back down to the ground.
This is where the Imagineers were wrong. Swiss Family Treehouse quickly became one of the more popular attractions in the Park. Back then, this Adventureland attraction was a C Ticket (35 cents apiece). And since it only took three Disneyland employees to safely staff & operate the Treehouse (i.e., one person to take tickets at the entrance, a second staffer patrolling upstairs in the tree to make sure the Guests were behaving themselves / not touching the props, and then a third Cast Member down by the exit making sure that Guests aren’t sneaking up the back stairs to experience the Swiss Family Treehouse without first surrendering a C Ticket), it also became one of the more profitable attractions in the Park.
200 people up in the tree at any one time. 1200 people an hour. Killer views of New Orleans Square construction / the Jungle Cruise ride just below.
Oh, and that only appeal to kids thing? Out of every four Guests who came through the turnstile / surrounded that 35 cent C ticket, only one was a kid under 10. The other three were adults.
To be specific here: Once construction of Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse was complete in the Fall of 1962, it only cost $21,000 to staff & operate annually. An additional $16,000 to maintain each year. In 1965, this Adventureland Attraction – even after taking those costs into consideration – still managed to turn a profit of $313,000.
Long story short: It was never a smart thing to bet against Walt. At least when it came to how popular an attraction would be with Guests (The Mickey Mouse Club Circus fiasco of the holiday season of 1955 being the exception, of course).
Sadly, the Imagineers weren’t able to base any other theme park attractions on Ken Annakin movies. “Swiss Family Robinson” was the very last film that he directed for Disney Studios.
Annakin went on to direct several very popular family films in the 1960s & 1970s, among them “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking.” And the Walt Disney Company went out of its way to recognize Ken’s contribution to the overall success of Disney Studio & the Company’s theme parks by naming him a Disney Legend in 2002.
Sadly, Ken passed away at his home in Beverly Hills back in April of 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Worth noting here that – in the late 1960s / early 1970s – when Walt Disney Animation Studios was fumbling around for an idea for a project to tackle after “The Aristocats” (That was the last animated feature that Walt Disney personally put into production / greenlit) – someone asks that classic question “What would Walt do?”
And in this case, the thinking was … Walt really liked those live-action movies that Ken Annakin directed for the Studio. Maybe we should look at those. So they then screened the very first movie that Ken directed for Disney, which was “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” from 1952. And since people in Feature Animation thought that that was a pretty solid story … Well, that’s how we wound up with Disney’s animated version of “Robin Hood” in November of 1973.
FYI: Back in April of 2020, Disney announced that it was working on a CG version of Disney’s 1973 hand-drawn version of “Robin Hood.” Which is eventually supposed to show up on Disney+. Carlos Lopez Estrada had been signed to helm this film. Kari Granlund was writing the screenplay for this “Robin Hood” reboot. And Justin Springer, who helped get “Tron: Legacy” off the ground back in 2010, would be producing.
So the Ken Annakin corona effect lives on at Disney. As does Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Which – after being renamed / rethemed as the Tarzan Treehouse in June of 1999 – will revert to being the Adventureland Treehouse later this year. With a loose retheming that then allows this Disneyland attraction to become home to characters from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Tarzan,” and “Encanto.”
That’s going to do it for the show today. You can help support our show and JimHillMedia by subscribing over at DisneyDish.Bandcamp.Com, where you’ll find exclusive shows never before heard on iTunes. And we’ve just completed a two-part series on Walt Disney’s 300+-page FBI file.
ON NEXT WEEK’S SHOW: We’ve got our hands on the first guest survey ever sent out by Disneyland, including the results. And Jim talks about the first day that Disneyland went to a 7-day-a-week schedule in 1985. You think “return to office” is controversial? Just wait.
NOTE: You can find more of Jim at JimHillMedia.com, and more of me at TouringPlans.com.
iTunes Show: We’re produced fabulously by Aaron Adams, who’s moderating Conversations with Birds, a look at the complex world of our feathered friends, including their role in ecosystems, and their epic migration journeys, on Saturday, February 18, 2023 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in beautiful, downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
While Aaron’s doing that, please go on to iTunes and rate our show and tell us what you’d like to hear next.
For Jim, this is Len, we’ll see you on the next show.