Back in the mid-1980s when Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew) decided he was unhappy with the company’s direction, he brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Wells served as President and CEO from 1984 to 1994. Wells died in a tragic accident, and Michael Eisner was Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005.
Eisner and Wells had big plans for Disney in the 1990s, and they laid out these plans in an Employee Annual Report at the beginning of the decade. The plans included new hotels, attractions, a new park, and a huge expansion at Disneyland. Today our focus is on the largest themed resort in the world – Walt Disney World.
Here’s what Eisner and Wells had planned.
In Magic Kingdom, One Man’s Dream was supposed to open in 1992. The movie, shown at the Tomorrowland Theatre, was a hit in Tokyo Disneyland for four years, and it would now come to Disney World to honor 65 years of Disney magic. This attraction did become a reality, but not until 2001 and in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. However, the One Man’s Dream video hasn’t been shown since October 2015 when it was “temporarily” replaced with a sequence of movie sneak peaks.
Splash Mountain opened earlier than Eisner predicted. He said it would open to guests in 1993, but the soft opening was in July of 1992, and the grand opening was just a few months later in October. I have to say that I’m pretty happy this one is real!
The Little Mermaid attraction, which would be a “magical, musical ride” was set to open in 1994. However, this attraction was delayed – for two decades. Instead of an attraction, Imagineers created Journey of the Little Mermaid at the Studios. Much later, as part of the New Fantasyland expansion in 2012, we finally got the attraction Eisner promised.
He also said a new Circle-Vision 360 show presenting the “wonders and cultures of the Western civilization” would open in the same year and would feature sophisticated audio-animatronics. Although this technology is used in Epcot‘s World Showcase at O Canada! and Reflections of China, it never debuted in Magic Kingdom as promised.
Finally, Eisner promised a makeover of Tomorrowland fit for the 21st Century that would open in 1996. The theme would be an “intergalactic space port for arriving aliens” with two new attractions: Alien Encounter and Piectu’s Fantastic Intergalactic Revue. ExtraTERRORextrial Alien Encounter fulfilled this promise when it opened in 1995. The Revue was supposed to be a musical variety show with audio-animatronics. Was Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café the result of this plan?
Epcot Center opened not long before Eisner took the helm, but he wanted to make Epcot more relevant for the present and the future. He said that, by 1992, Spaceship Earth, The Land, Horizons, Journey Into Imagination, World of Motion, Universe Of Energy, and Communicore would be sponsored by great American Corporations.
Although some of these locations do have corporate sponsors, many of them don’t and some don’t even exist anymore. CommuniCore was closed and redesigned as Innoventions in 1994, and World of Motion was at the brink of closure when GM sales slumped in 1992. They began doing one year contracts, but the ride was completely redesigned and rethemed as Test Track, which opened in 2012.
Although General Electric sponsored Horizons, the contract ended in 1993 and the pavilion closed permanently in 1999 after some reopenings and reclosings.
Eisner also promised a new 3D Musical Movie by George Lucas and Walt Disney Studios would open in 1994. Captain EO was the result of this project, and George Lucas, known for his Star Wars saga, was the executive producer. Michael Jackson played the lead role. Although the attraction ran from 1986 to 1997 and then again from 2010 to 2015 (as Captain EO Tribute), it never received an update.
Journeys in Space was supposed to open in Future World during the Disney Decade, but Eisner never gave a date. The thrilling space travel ride with exciting special effects never came to fruition… unless it survives as Mission: Space?
There were also supposed to be two countries added to World Showcase. The Soviet Union was said to open in 1999 with beautiful USSR architecture, and Switzerland would come with an exciting new attraction: The Matterhorn Bobsleds. Walt loved to vacation in Switzerland, and when he saw how beautiful Europe’s 10th most famous mountain was in person, he called on his Imagineers to create a replica in Disneyland. Now, Eisner wanted to bring it to WDW guests. Neither of these showcases ever opened nor did any of the other rumored countries.
Disney-MGM Studios opened under Eisner’s watch in 1989 and it wasn’t renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios until 2008. He had big plans for this park!
Honey I Shrunk the Kids was already under construction when Eisner addressed the Disney Employees with his Disney Decade dream, and it did indeed open as planned on December 17th, 1990. Although it closed on April 2, 2016 as part of the reimagining of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it had a great run. The larger than life play area delighted guests for years with its huge blades of grass, monstrous insects, and giant sprinklers.
Eisner also wanted to hold Disney Channel Auditions in the park. Guests could not only watch auditions take place, but they could try out in front of some of the most popular Disney Channel sets too! Winners would be shown on the Disney Channel, and some of the outstanding talents could be invited to participate in future productions. The auditions would be witnessed by an actual TV director who would pick a winner. Although this dream never happened, at least under Eisner’s leadership, The American Idol Experience created a similar opportunity between 2009 and 2014.
Muppet Vision 3D was also already in production when Eisner introduced his plan, and it opened as scheduled in 1991. The show combines 3D technology with live special effects and audio-animatronic figures. It has run for 25 years and isn’t showing any signs of going anywhere even as most of Hollywood Studios is shut down for refurbishment.
The Muppet Movie Ride, scheduled to open in 1993, never happened though. This “misguided tour through movie history” was probably too much like The Great Movie Ride, which was too popular to replace.
Eisner also wanted to build a beautiful Sunset Blvd with “past, present, and future landmarks.” He said it would take half of the decade to build, and it finally did open in July 1994. However, Sunset Blvd didn’t turn out quite as he had planned. Eisner pictured Roger Rabbit from the popular movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be a mainstay with a toontown trolley and other attractions, shops, and restaurants following this theme. Baby Herman’s Runaway Baby Buggy, an attraction themed after the recently created Disney Short called Tummy Trouble would also take guests on a wild ride through toontown. Instead, this area was much more… sophisticated… and the main focal point was Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (1994) with Rock n Rollercoaster (1999) located next door.
Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers was supposed to be an action-packed adventure ride following the storyline of the expected box office hit Dick Tracy. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t a success and legal issues prevented the studio from making a sequel, so the whole idea was abandoned.
Mickey’s Movieland would replicate Hyperion Avenue and the Disney Studios lot. The movie would bring Disney history to life and allow guests a hands-on movie making experience with real movie equipment. This sounds like a really cool experience, but it also never happened.
Eisner also promised new and unusual dining for Disney-MGM Studios along with streetmosphere performers and new shops. Since he was never very specific about this, we can’t be sure whether his plans actually happened, but we can say that Disney’s Hollywood Studios has some of the best and most unique dining in all of Disney World.
Fourth Theme Park
Again, Eisner didn’t make any specific claims, but he did say that Disney was working to design and build a new theme park with construction beginning by the end of the decade.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened under Eisner’s leadership two years before construction was even scheduled to begin. When he dedicated the park, he said “Welcome to the kingdom of animals… a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.” He also said that Animal Kingdom would be the kingdom of “real, ancient, and imagined” animals “ruled by lions, Dinosaurs, and dragons.”
Although a fourth park did open under Eisner’s watch, it was not the park it was meant to be. The original concept featured imagined animals at its core along with the real and ancient animals, and this plan can still be seen in the Animal Kingdom sign at the front of the park.
Soon, this dream will become a reality when Pandora: Land of Avatar opens along with Rivers of Light. It’s going to be spectacular, but it happens nearly three decades after Eisner predicted.
Disney World Resort was also set to receive some major expansions. In addition to the two resorts already under construction, Disney’s Port Orleans Resort (May 1991) and Dixie Landings (July 1992), seven new moderate or deluxe hotels were scheduled to be built “as demand warrants” adding 4800 rooms to the resort. This initiative began in 1985 and was set to be completed by 1995. Between 1985 and 1990, when Eisner presented his plan, seven hotels were already completed and two were under construction.
Along with a new Boardwalk- themed entertainment district, Disney’s Boardwalk Inn would also open its doors to guests in 1996, two years after Eisner hoped. The Atlantic City and Coney Island-themed resort near Epcot’s International Gateway.
The Boardwalk was supposed to feature three dinner shows including Under the Sea, a 900-seat indoor aquatic dinner show with The Little Mermaid and Sebastian, and Family Reunion, a Live Action Role Play show seating 300 guests where the cast members would sit with the guests and make them part of the show. Disney Magic was tentatively planned as part of an expansion phase and would be a dinner show combining character dining with magic. None of these dinner shows became a reality even though the Boardwalk Resort is still very popular after 20 years.
Disney’s Mediterranean Resort would have opened up 1000 deluxe rooms along the Seven Seas Lagoon along with 45,000 square feet of convention space. The Greek Isles themed hotel would have also been on the monorail loop. I’m pretty disappointed that this resort isn’t a reality!
Fort Wilderness Lodge welcomed guests for the first time on May 28, 1994. Eisner said that this lodge would have 100 full-service rooms, but it turns out that it has 729 standard rooms with a few suites. That’s okay with me though because it is a beautiful place and should be available to as many people as possible! Eisner also wanted to open Fort Wilderness Junction, a 600-room hotel themed like a Wild West Town as a second phase of expansion. Perhaps since the Lodge is more like a hotel, Fort Wilderness Junction wasn’t necessary.
Kingdom Suites Hotel at Disney’s Contemporary Resort was supposed to include up to 75 luxury suites. Although this never happened, Bay Lake Tower did open in 2009 and are the most expensive Disney Vacation Club rooms on property.
Speaking of the Disney Vacation Club, this members-only program didn’t exist until Eisner set it in motion. Memberships became available in 1991 and were being sold for the Walt Disney World Resort that was being built at Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. The first DVC Resort is now known as Old Key West Resort. It opened on December 20, 1991. It wasn’t until 2007 that the DVC added another resort at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Resort Villas, and by 2009, Bay Lake Tower and the Treehouse Villas at Disney’s Saratoga Springs opened too. More DVC rooms opened in succession with a new set of rooms promised at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge soon.
If Eisner’s plan played out, there would have been 26 resorts on property and 21,000 rooms by 1995. Although most of his proposals didn’t happen or happened differently, there are 25 resort hotels in Disney World right now with a total of 30,469 rooms.
Not Happily Ever After
Though some of Eisner’s plans not only became a reality but were also successful, many of them didn’t even make it to the drawing board. We can look back now and say, “That’s similar to Eisner’s idea”, but that doesn’t mean that his plan is what was used. So why were so many of his projects cut back or cancelled?
Disney had a rough go in the 1990s. Euro Disney, renamed Disneyland Paris, opened in 1992 with a slew of financial issues. Eisner came to Disney bright eyed with big dreams, but when Euro Disney faced so many problems, he scaled back many of his ideas for fear of financial ruin.
Another very difficult issue that the Disney Company had to face was the death of beloved President and CEO, Frank Wells in a tragic helicopter crash in 1994. If you look back on many of the successful parts of Eisner and Wells’ plans, many of them happened before this terrible event. It seems that Eisner just wasn’t the same vibrant leader without his trusty sidekick with him.
After Wells’ death, Eisner did not appoint Jeffrey Katzenberg as Wells’ replacement, and Katzenberg left to create DreamWorks.
Soon, Roy E. Disney, who lobbied for Eisner and Wells to join Disney in the first place, refused to vote for Eisner’s continued relationship with Disney, and Eisner finally resigned amidst much turmoil in the company in 2005.
Our Disney World vacations and memories certainly would have been different if some of these very exciting plans had come to fruition, and I’m disappointed that some of them never happened, but Disney is headed in a great direction today with new attractions opening and good things happening. It’s safe to say that no CEO will be as uninhibited when it comes to making plans in the future.
Do you remember the Disney Decade?