Troubled Production: Theme Parks
Sometimes, creating a theme park attraction — or even a whole park — is no walk in the park!
- Captain EO, the first attraction at the Disney Theme Parks launched under the Michael Eisner/Jeffrey Katzenberg regime at the Walt Disney Company, quickly got out of hand. To summarize those articles: The company's famed Imagineers weren't happy that outside creators and companies were contributing so much to it, and it was greenlit on a premise rather than a full-fledged script. The three weeks of principal photography under Francis Ford Coppola were followed up with six months of second unit work — that both Coppola and executive producer George Lucas moved on to other projects by that time didn't help — partially to address story problems in a film that was only 17 minutes long! And the final cost was easily as big as, or bigger than, many feature films of the era. Yahoo! put together a brief oral history of the whole business here that also discusses such problems as Shelley Duvall dropping out of the role of the villainess due to claustrophobia and Jackson almost having his weak speaking voiced redubbed by another actor.
- Light Magic was the highly-hyped 1997 successor to Disneyland's long-running Main Street Electrical Parade — and, along with the early years of California Adventure (see below) became a symbol of everything wrong with the penny-pinching Dork Age of Paul Pressler's tenure as Disneyland president.
- The Florida counterpart Magic Kingdom had successfully updated the concept of a nighttime parade with light-up floats a few years prior with Spectromagic, which was content with updating the technology and featured characters. Light Magic tried to reinvent the wheel by comparison: Two sets of identical stages were wheeled into position and remained stationary for what was mostly a Riverdance-inspired show that climaxed with the surrounding buildings lighting up alongside the floats. Unfortunately, the new technology was extremely buggy; notoriously an effect with a wire-mounted, flying sparkler representing Tinkerbell nearly started a fire and had to be scrapped when it proved unworkable.
- Rather than delay the special, extra-admssion-required premiere performance of the show for the park's annual passholders, which predated the start of regular performances by less than two weeks, Pressler told the assembled crowd that they were really seeing a dress rehearsal of the show...and it looked it with the many mishaps that followed. Refunds ensued.
- Regular performances weren't quite so unfortunate, but the bad buzz the disastrous premiere generated only worsened. The "streetacular" concept, which left audience members only seeing one float for most of the show, was a comedown from the traditional procession of a parade. Attempts at Audience Participation with a set of unique pixie characters intended as the show's breakout stars failed when children ran away screaming from them, owing to Uncanny Valley masks that reminded some adults of burn victims. The show lasted less than four months (opening Memorial Day weekend, closing Labor Day weekend) and was pulled for a promised Retool that never materialized. Disneyland would not have a true nighttime parade again until the park's 60th anniversary in 2015, when the Paint the Night Parade debuted.
- The Smiler roller coaster at Alton Towers was responsible for a multitude of various accidents right from the beginning. As if to foreshadow of all of the problems to come afterwards, during the coaster's preview event, 16 people were stranded on the ride, dangling at a steep angle. Four days later, the ride was closed after it stalled during a test run, and a week later closed again with a computer malfunction. The following month, a metal bolt fell off and closed the coaster again, resulting in a rescue of 48 people on the ride. Then, in 2013, cracks were found at the surface of the coaster and the wheels fell off and hit four people, leading to two more closings. In April 2014, over a dozen people got stranded on the ride, and a year later, two carriages crashed into one another, resulting in injuries. Needless to say, Alton Towers was smart enough to remove the branding of The Smiler in 2015 after all of this.
- The first years of Disney's California Adventure theme park were rife with troubles.
- At the time, the Disney Theme Parks (aside from those in Japan) were prone to penny-pinching by higher-ups. Upon its opening in early 2001, this sister park to Disneyland primarily consisted of "off-the-shelf" rides (roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, etc.) with little of Disney's legendary theming, a few imports from the Florida parks, and corporate-sponsored exhibits and walkthroughs on winemaking, construction machinery, etc. Worse, many of the off-the-shelf rides had height restrictions, giving little kids virtually nothing to enjoy. Longtime Disney park fans, well-aware of much more elaborate concepts for a second park (such as a West Coast version of Walt Disney World's famed Epcot) that were scrapped in favor of this project, were key to the bad online buzz California Adventure received in advance of its opening.
- Disney went into damage control mode upon poor public response — which only got worse after the 9/11 attacks crippled tourism — with a series of quick "fixes". Attempts at a summer concert series and a Christmas-season fireworks show (LuminAria) on Paradise Bay were crippled by a lack of infrastructure. An additional pavillion themed to A Bugs Life went up but featured nothing but more off-the-shelf rides — albeit ones that little kids could ride. Controversially, Disneyland's much-loved Main Street Electrical Parade was revived here, to the disgust of fans who'd patronized it in its much-merchandised "final year" next door (which, remember, was succeeded by the aforementioned Light Magic debacle). Even the addition of the popular Florida ride The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was greeted with yawns. (It's telling that, to date, only one of the charter California Adventure attractions — Soarin' Over California — has been exported to other Disney resorts; elements of the Disney Animation exhibit were also duplicated in Florida.)
- In the meantime, highly-hyped adult-oriented restaurants ABC Soap Opera Bistro and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's Avalon Cove were closed, owing to a lack of visitors in the park by dinnertime. Even the musical revue Steps in Time and the dark ride Superstar Limo didn't last the first full year of operation, cutting into the park's already weak attraction lineup.
- Eventually changes in management at Disney's theme park division paved the way for a massive, five-year overhaul of the park that brought it up to the standards expected of the world's most famous theme park operator, with attractions like World of Color and Cars Land providing fun-for-the-whole-family appeal.
- Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina got the notoriety for lasting a mere 150 days before it closed its doors.
- After being in an executive position at SeaWorld San Diego for while, Jon Binkowski decided to split and make his own company, Renaissance Entertainment. One of his most popular operations was an ice-skating theater in Myrtle Beach near the defunct Waccamaw Factory Shoppes mall. This got the attention of entrepreneur George Bishop, who wanted to turn both the theater and the mall into an entertainment complex called Fantasy Harbour. This innovative yet incredibly ambitious project was planned to have four separate themed areas to represent each of the four seasons. Bishop paid money to improve the mall's infrastructure, but sadly he passed away before construction had even begun. The torch was then passed to Binkowski and financer Steven Goodwin.
- Binkowski postulated that giving the theme park a brand name would attract more people as opposed to a generic approach with typical carnival rides. A relationship between Renaissance Entertainment and Hard Rock International (the two had been together on prior projects like Universal’s CityWalk and the Hard Rock Café restaurant chain) allowed him to get the Hard Rock license with ease. The Fantasy Harbor project was dropped, and work on Hard Rock Park began in the early 2000s. Some of the attractions included a “British Invasion”-themed area, a dark ride based off of The Moody Blues’ 1967 song Nights in White Satin, and a Led Zeppelin roller coaster.
- To meet investor expectations, the park had to draw 3 million visitors in its first year. It fell way below that number, generating only about 2,000 guests a day. The reason why ended up because of a few factors: The park cut back on its operation hours little by little, to the point where it was closing early enough to rule out the nightly fireworks shows. The Hard Rock license drew away plenty of children, but likewise the addition of kiddie rides in response to this dismayed adults. The high admission prices, coupled with the economic conditions in 2008, also rendered few families able to afford vacations and go to the park. The owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy... which was later changed to Chapter 7 liquidation.
- In February 2009, a private group named FPI MB Entertainment bought the park and by April had completely re-themed it as Freestyle Music Park. Even this effort wasn’t without problems. The people behind Hard Rock Park sued for copyright infringement, claiming that FPI had done little to re-theme the park to differentiate it from its former state and feared that they did so to piggyback off Hard Rock’s intellectual property without paying royalties. The park still opened in May 23, 2009, but despite improved operation hours and admission prices, it closed for good in fall 2009. Several advertisers and advisors had been suing the park for millions of dollars, which, needless to say, ended any hopes of resurrecting what was once Hard Rock Park.
- Old Chicago, which was hybrid of a shopping mall and an amusement park in Bolingbrook, Illinois, fell victim to this. You can find more information here and here.
- A visit to Knott's Berry Farm was designer Robert Brindle's inspiration for the mall, who envisioned a year-round open indoor facility with amusement rides. After two years of development, the mall opened publicly in June 17, 1975. However, at the time, construction on the mall was still incomplete, with a lot of exposed electrical wiring. Because of this, the mall owners were told that they would not be able to open on their scheduled June 26 opening date. This resulted in a last minute rush to complete the mall and pass inspection in order to open in time. The hasty construction led to more problems a month later, including a fire in a trash compactor and a malfunction of the mall's sprinkler system, which shut the entire mall down for six hours. During a circus, acrobat Jimmy Troy also fell to his death.
- No more than six months after it opened, the mall was already facing bankruptcy due to millions of dollars in construction overruns. Brindle ended up being removed as general manager, and Clyde Farman, who had invested in the project, was put into the role by the Illinois Central Railroad. To make matters worse, Marriot's Great America (now Six Flags Great America) opened in 1976, and was drawing people away from the mall. Locally, the mall failed to attract people because its smaller shops and boutiques (rather than traditional department stores) were undesirable to many. The Illinois Central Railroad took control in 1977, spending over $8 million to add new attractions, and rescheduling the mall's hours of operation.
- 1979 saw more fires hit the mall, including a fire at the Old Chicago Tobacco Company (with no sprinklers in the area) and a prematurely ignited Fourth of July fireworks display, which injured two people. The mall ended up shutting down in March 1980, with the rides being sold away. Despite multiple attempts to salvage the original Old Chicago building, structural damage and constant vandalism killed that opportunity, and it would end up being demolished in spring of 1986. However, years later the concept of an amusement park within a mall would be incorporated more successfully at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota and West Edmonton in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
- The early years of Universal Studios Florida were rough sailing.
- With Universal's theme park in Hollywood a success, a second park in Orlando was announced to much fanfare... but the king of the Orlando-area family attractions, the Walt Disney World Resort, was well aware of the potential competition and beat them to the punch by launching its own working studio/theme park equivalent, Disney-MGM Studios, in the summer of 1989. Furthermore, Disney-MGM's flagship ride upon opening was a studio backlot tour, forcing Universal to cancel their own plans to bring the Hollywood tram tour to Orlando lest they open themselves up to charges of plagiarism. (Ironically, many elements of Disney-MGM's backlot tour were eerily similar to plans that Universal had come up with for their own planned tram tour.) Delays piled up during construction, forcing Universal to miss its planned late 1989 opening date.
- When the park finally opened on June 7, 1990, Universal's most highly-hyped rides — Kongfrontation, JAWS, Earthquake, and E.T. Adventure — were all prone to frequent breakdowns and technical malfunctions. On opening day, over a thousand disgruntled guests received either refunds or free tickets for another visit, and the following day, the park simply gave everybody who purchased a ticket a voucher for another one at a later date.
- JAWS especially was a nightmare to keep running. Reportedly, Steven Spielberg and his family were among those trapped on the ride when it broke down on opening day. It had to be closed and rebuilt from scratch just two and a half months after the park opened, with Universal and Ride & Show Engineering, the company that they hired to build the ride, suing each other over the debacle; Universal accused R&SE of shoddy design and workmanship, while R&SE accused Universal of rushing them to open the ride before they could fix its design flaws. JAWS wouldn't reopen until 1993, leaving a whole chunk of the park dormant. (In that, funnily enough, JAWS had a lot in common with the film it was based on.)
- It wouldn't be until Back to the Future: The Ride opened in 1991 that the park had something that could truly compete with Disney's nearby offerings, which had (and continue to have, most of the time) a reputation for rarely breaking down, beginning a long, slow ascent for the Universal complex to its current position as Disney's one true rival.