Episode two of our serial about the “Disney Decade,” in partnership with Network 1901.
As the 1980s drew to a close, the Walt Disney Company had some huge plans for the Florida property. The brand new Epcot resort area would welcome the Swan and Dolphin, Yacht and Beach Club, and Boardwalk resort hotels. The Downtown Disney area would welcome the Port Orleans and Dixie Landings hotels.
In the parks, Epcot was looking forward to the Switzerland pavilion, which would feature a replica of Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds. Disney’s Hollywood Studios was looking to expand with Mickey’s Movieland, Roger Rabbit’s Toontown, David Copperfield’s Magic Underground, and a new Dick Tracy attraction called Crimestoppers.
The 1990s were supposed to start with a big bang, but three big hurdles would soon fall into Disney’s path, and would significantly change what was actually built at Walt Disney World. In fact, these hurdles would change the entire landscape of the company at the very beginning of the Disney Decade.
With Walt Disney’s passing in 1966, one could make the argument that the torch had not yet been passed. That is until another creative genius, outside the Disney Company, came into the fold.
Jim Henson and his Muppets had, since the 1960s, given puppeteering and family entertainment new life. The Muppet Show was a 30 minute variety series that was unlike anything else on television, and Sesame Street would change the culture at PBS forever. By the late 1980s, he was venturing into films like The Dark Crystal and finding friendships in fellow creative influencers, like, Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
Eisner, the one time head of programming at ABC, always had a love for Henson. Something about Henson and his puppets brought joy to the world, whether you thought they were real, or just an extension of the actors behind them, Eisner knew that Henson’s creations were something special.
In 1989, long before Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm, Marvel, or Pixar, Eisner wanted to buyout the Muppet characters, along with Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and the rest of Jim Henson’s creations, and integrate them into the Disney organization. Henson was tired of running day to day operations and wanted to focus on the artistry of puppeteering, creating new characters and content going forward. The relationship seemed perfect, and Eisner came to terms with Henson on a deal that would make both men very happy.
With a handshake deal in place, Walt Disney Imagineering got to work on expanding the Disney/MGM Studios theme park, with plans for a Muppet themed land. After all, this was to be Eisner’s dream park, where he would get to play with his new toys. Plans called for a restaurant run by Gonzo and Rizzo, a restaurant featuring the Swedish Chef, a Muppet attraction parody of the Great Movie Ride, and a show called MuppetVision 3D.
But just as things were progressing, Jim Henson started to feel sick. He refused to see a doctor in fear of being a burden on others. He continued working, but soon began coughing up blood and having trouble breathing. When he finally went to the hospital, it was too late. His lungs failed, and Jim Henson passed away on May 16th, 1990 at the age of just 53.
Since Eisner and Henson were working off of a handshake agreement while both parties worked on a mutually beneficial agreement, the buyout never officially took place. No contract was ever signed. So the planned Muppet Studios land at Eisner’s Florida theme park came to a sudden halt and the sketches, models, and ideas became a part of the Walt Disney World that never was.
The only completed piece of work was MuppetVision 3D. After a discussion with legendary muppeteer Frank Oz about Jim’s legacy and motivations, the Henson family agreed to license the Muppet characters to Disney. MuppetVision 3D would stand as the last project Jim Henson ever completed, the culmination of a genius’ life’s work.
Merely licensing the Muppets wasn’t exactly what Eisner wanted, and he would continue to work at purchasing the Muppet characters throughout the 1990s. A goal that would eventually come to fruition in 2004.
Derailed but not broken, attendance was rising for all of the Disney theme parks around the world. The Henson deal and the expansion at the Disney/MGM studios park was only part of a Eisner’s larger vision for the theme parks.
One of those key elements was a new timeshare program. The Disney Vacation Club, or DVC, debuted in 1991 along with its first vacation club hotel, Disney’s Old Key West Resort and Spa at Walt Disney World. The idea was to expand from Disney just owning hotels near the company’s theme parks, to one-of-a-kind hotel experiences around the world. The roster of hotels would later include a Vero Beach Resort in southern Florida, the Hilton Head resort in South Carolina, and Aulani in Hawaii.
At the beginning of the Disney Decade, another large theme park venture was set into motion. Eisner wanted Disney to expand into the European market with a new resort, and several sites were considered including two in Spain, which would allow for sub-tropical weather similar to the Florida resort. While important, weather wasn’t everything and a plot of land was finally selected about 45 minutes outside of Paris. Disney estimated that the location was within a 3 hour flight for more than three hundred million people. They hoped that this location would translate into immediate success for their second international park.
Eisner and the French government signed off on a purchase of nearly 5,000 acres, and Imagineers went to work on plans for what would be called Euro Disney. The resort would open with the Disneyland park, a shopping area called Festival Disney, a total of 29 restaurants, and 7 themed hotels with a total of 5,800 rooms. The Euro Disney project was significantly larger on opening day than the Disneyland or Walt Disney World resorts at the same point in their history.
Disney hoped for 55,000 daily guests at the new theme park. But on opening day in April 1992, the parking lot was less than half full. Early reviews called Euro Disney an American invasion on French and European life. Many were put off by the American managers and the requirement to speak English at cast member meetings. There was even a major backlash on Disney’s appearance code, The Disney Look. It worked in California, Florida, and even Japan, but Parisians saw it as a way to Americanize their staff.
Another point of contention was the fact that, like the other properties, Euro Disney was a dry park. Walt was insistent that Disneyland forbid alcohol, and the Disney company followed suit in Florida. But Europe’s relationship with alcohol was much different than America’s. They once again felt as though an American rule was being forced on them despite their cultural differences.
1992 ended with a financial loss at Euro Disney. It was a major disappointment to the company, and like the loss of Jim Henson, it cut into the company’s plans for its Disney Decade. Disney hoped with the upcoming opening of the European Disney/MGM Studios park, and a recovering economy in Europe, the resort could bounce back and they could make their money back. After all, Disneyland and Walt Disney World had rocky starts, but eventually pulled through. Would Euro Disney survive? Only time would tell.
Back on the studio lot in Burbank, animators were working at full force. Just like when Walt was alive, the goal was to release one animated film a year, and due to the success of DuckTales on syndicated television, Disney took over a two hour block of afternoon television Monday-Friday. They called it Disney Afternoon. DuckTales anchored the lineup, and was joined by shows like Darkwing Duck, Goof Troop, Gummi Bears, and Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers.
After the success of The Little Mermaid. The film division went to work Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and a third film called The Rescuers Down Under, a sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers. The movie was a Disney animation first. Scenes were painted on computers rather than by hand, and many “in between” shots were filled in by computer, rather than hand drawn. As fantastic as the new innovations in the artform were, The Rescuers Down Under didn’t prove to be the follow up to The Little Mermaid Disney was hoping for, but the other movies in the pipeline would perform better than anyone expected.
Aladdin would be Disney’s next full fledged musical production. Howard Ashman pitched the film as an almost-true-to-the-book adaptation of the popular tale from One Thousand And One Nights. The Aladdin story was combined with several original songs. But Ashman’s adaptation was shelved when Beauty and the Beast, the other major film in production, needed his help.
Richard Williams, who directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit, recommended his friend Richard Purdum to direct Beauty and the Beast. Purdum, who had never worked with Disney before, offered his directorial services from England. His detachment from the film soon became evident as animators became unenthusiastic about the project. In Purdum’s version of Beauty and the Beast, a majority of the cast were upper-class and unrelatable, with dialogue that was rather dull. The enchanted characters of Beast’s castle had no voices or faces either. To make matters worse, Purdum refused to make changes to the film, and Disney became frustrated. After seeing only 20 minutes of storyboard reels with the voice cast, Jeffery Katzenburg, head of Walt Disney Feature Animation, opted to scrap it and to make Beauty and the Beast more like The Little Mermaid instead, reassigning Ashman and Menken to the film.
Starting fresh was difficult for Ashman, who had recently disclosed to his creative partner Alan Menken that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. He wanted to finish Aladdin, because he knew that as the disease worsened, he may no longer be able to work.
Production meetings, script rewrites, and song composition meetings were all moved to Ashman’s home in New York. Unlike The Little Mermaid, Ashman received hardly any backlash for the songs and story elements he added.
Despite the rush with production to get the film out in time, everyone brought their A-game to the table. Artists would fly back and forth between Burbank and New York with storyboards to get Ashman’s go ahead. Voices were recast and re-recorded, and overall enthusiasm for the movie was high. Everyone at Disney animation was so excited about their new movie that, for the first time in company history, they released an unfinished feature at the 1991 New York Film Festival. Though the unfinished work was pieced together with storyboards and rough sketches, when the credits ran, the film received a standing ovation.
Much of the production crew immediately went to visit Ashman at the hospital, touting the success that the film had in its first showing. At that time, Ashman weighed just 80 pounds, was blind, and barely had a voice. The success of the screening brought a smile to his face, and he showed the cast his Beauty and the Beast sweater. Even at the sickest he had ever been, he was enthusiastic about the work he had accomplished with his team. 4 days after the visit, Howard Ashman passed away from complications with AIDS.
Losing Ashman was a major hit to the animation department, but he had finished all of the songs for the film, allowing the team to finish production for a November release that year. As enthusiastic as everyone was, they were more motivated than ever to finish the film, and dedicate it to Howard Ashman, the man who helped right the course of Walt Disney Feature Animation. The film’s debut was a resounding success. Beauty and the Beast would go on to make four hundred and twenty five million dollars in its initial run and many papers ran the headline “Lighting Strikes Twice for Disney”. Beauty and the Beast became the most successful and impactful film the Disney company had made since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
To top it all off, the songwriting team of Menken and Ashman won an Academy Award for the song “Beauty and the Beast”, Alan Menken won for best score, and it was the first ever animated film in history to be nominated for the top prize in Hollywood, an Academy Award for Best Picture. Silence of the Lambs would go on to win that award but Disney had finally reached the top of the mountain, something even the company’s founder, the late Walt Disney, never achieved. Everyone at Walt Disney Feature Animation was proud of the work they had accomplished. They had their 2nd big hit in a short span, and the new animation Renaissance was in full swing.
The dedication at the end of the film reads “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”
On the next episode of Disney Decade, Aladdin and The Lion King continue the growth of Disney’s animation department, the company jumps head first into a new venture, sports! …and if you believe that bad things happen in threes, another death rocks the entire company and creates serious tension between the top brass.