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Troubled Production / Theme Parks

Sometimes, creating a theme park attraction — or even a whole park — is no walk in the park!

Individual Attractions

  • 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-admission-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.
  • Disney’s Mission: Space was a $100 million dollar attraction at Epcot, with a joint partnership between Disney and NASA to produce a ride that would push the limits of theme park tourism like no other. Its sordid history, however, highlights the worst ramifications that can come from poor ride design.
    • The attraction was previously called Horizons, which was sponsored by General Electric and cost Disney $60 million to create. The attraction would later close following dwindling interest of it among guests – despite Disney’s best efforts to advertise the ride — and the loss of its sponsorship in the 1990s. Later, Imagineers demolished the building that once housed Horizons to make way for a new space-themed attraction inspired by a defunct Disneyland attraction called Mission to Mars. Disney began a partnership with NASA to produce what would eventually become Mission: Space, which opened on August 15, 2003.
    • The ride’s simulation of zero-gravity through a centrifuge-based design — which had to potential to make riders nauseous and claustrophobic – resulted in the placement of several cautionary signs in the queue. Disney began to offer onsite service to sick riders. In a one-year period, there were already 194 instances of paramedics having to treat guest, and Mission: Space became referred to as the “sickest” ride in Epcot (a park normally not known for thrill rides). It was also plagued with plenty of accidents, including a boy who stopped breathing during the ride and died upon its conclusion.
    • Casting a shadow over the attraction was a five-year lawsuit between Disney and Pennsylvanian company Environmental Tectonics, the latter claiming that Disney refused to pay the full amount due, prevented them from winning more work with other entertainment companies, and shared confidential details of the ride’s design with a rival vendor. Disney, however, claimed that Environmental Tectonics failed to live up to contractual commitments and made Disney pay $20 million more in producing the attraction. The lawsuit was eventually settled on January 7, 2009.
    • Eventually, it came to the point where, in May 2006 (two weeks after the ride’s second death), the ride was given a massive overhaul — there were now two versions of the attraction offered: the Green Team version drastically lowered the intensity while the Orange Team version offered the original experience unchanged. Instantly, Mission: Space became a hit amongst guests — and still is to this day — and no other fatalities have been reported.
  • 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.

Theme Parks

  • Disneyland Resort saw this happen on both of its theme parks:
    • The original Disneyland endured the opening day from hell, as this post on Cracked and this article on The History Channel's website make clear. It was so bad that Walt Disney and the park's employees referred to it as "Black Sunday".
      • Walt had rushed the park bearing his name to completion, opening it on July 17, 1955 just one year and one day after the ground was broken. Furthermore, he had its opening broadcast nationwide on ABC in a special, star-studded 90-minute live presentation hosted by actor (and future President) Ronald Reagan that featured the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Fess Parker (star of the Disney-produced ABC series Davy Crockett). Pretty much everybody around Walt, including his brother Roy, thought the park was a terrible idea that would sink the company he had built, calling it "Walt's Folly".
      • And on opening day, it seemed that all of the worst fears of Walt's critics were coming true. The ABC special didn't capture the fact that, to put it bluntly, the park wasn't finished — a number of rides were not yet ready, Tomorrowland wasn't open, the triple-digit mid-July heat caused the fresh asphalt of Main Street, USA (which had been poured that morning) to melt and absorb many a woman's high heels, a plumbers' strike meant that the water fountains didn't yet work, the shores of the Canal Boats of the World ride were overgrown with so many weeds that signs with exotic species names were put up in the area to make it look like an arboretum, and the Mark Twain riverboat was packed over capacity and took on water. Worse, while 15,000 tickets had been sold for opening day, the exact number of attendees was over 28,000 due to the proliferation of counterfeit tickets, not counting the people who just climbed over the fence and went for free. Traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway was backed up for seven miles, and concessions stands quickly ran out of food and drink. It was so bad that Walt himself invited many attendees back for a second 'opening day' for free (after the park had been finished) as an apology.
      • The next few weeks weren't much better. The stagecoach ride in Frontierland had to be closed down due to it being top-heavy and prone to rolling over, the cars on the Autopia ride were almost all wrecked by aggressive drivers, and a circus parade in Main Street, USA went haywire when a tiger and a panther broke loose and started a "furious death struggle". By the end of the year, however, the park's teething issues were worked out and the place had defied Walt's critics, reaching its millionth visitor within seven weeks, and in time it would become one of America's most iconic tourist attractions.
    • The first years of the Disneyland Resort's second theme park, Disney's California Adventure, 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 flopped due to a weak lineup for the former (bigger acts that might have done a theme park gig were already booked at state fairs and the like) and a lack of infrastructure for both. An additional pavilion themed to A Bug's Life featured nothing but more off-the-shelf rides — albeit ones that little kids could ride. 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.)
      • Highly-hyped adult-oriented restaurants like the ABC Soap Opera Bistro and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's Avalon Cove were closed simply because of a lack of visitors in the park by dinnertime. Even the musical revue Steps in Time (despite a massive Retool) and the dark ride Superstar Limo didn't last the first full year of operation, whittling down the park's weak attraction lineup further.
      • Another problem: the Disney Animated Canon was in a Dork Age at the Turn of the Millennium, so it couldn't provide a new park with hot, fresh properties to base rides, shows, and character meet and greets upon. 2002's Lilo & Stitch, their one meaningful success of this period, yielded up only a poorly received street show. (Most of the Disney parks never properly, fully capitalized upon it, in fact.) They had to resort to newer Pixar and aging Disney films that hadn't yet warranted standalone rides and shows at Disneyland Park itself to flesh out the attraction lineup (an Aladdin stage musical, the aforementioned A Bug's Life pavilion, etc.).
      • 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 the family appeal that had been lacking at the start.
  • Shanghai Disneyland, Disney's sixth theme park resort and their first in mainland China (Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005) is having its share of troubles too on the way to its June 2016 opening — itself delayed by a few months from the spring. Smog issues could be distracting for visitors from other countries. Disney had to make a lot of changes to certain sections of the park to appeal to local guests, since their characters and properties (except, perhaps, Mickey Mouse) just aren't that well-known in mainland China. And budget overruns in Shanghai were made up for by budget cuts at the American resorts in 2015-16, leading to cuts in operating hours and general upkeep and delays for new attractions and refurbishments.
  • In 1995, Geauga Lake, a small, local amusement park about forty miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, was bought out by Premier Parks, owners of a number of amusement parks across the US. Three years later, Premier Parks bought out Six Flags and rebranded itself in that company's image, and sought to redevelop many of its smaller parks into full-fledged Six Flags theme parks — and none would be more fully-fledged than Geauga Lake, which was renamed Six Flags Ohio and was envisioned, in its final form, as the largest theme park in the world. It went badly.
    • It started promisingly. Six Flags went on a spending spree at Six Flags Ohio, pouring $40 million into the park in 2000 alone, money that netted the park twenty new rides, including four rollercoasters. The former Geauga Lake had become a serious competitor in the theme park world virtually overnight, now competing alongside Kennywood, Cedar Point, King's Island, and other regional parks.
    • Nobody felt the effects of Six Flags Ohio's growth more than the park across the lake, SeaWorld Ohio, which had traditionally been the bigger of the two parks in the area and existed in a symbiotic relationship with its neighbor. However, for various reasons (local ordinances, a non-compete clause with the former Geauga Lake park, and simple spite for Six Flags), SeaWorld Ohio couldn't or wouldn't build the thrill rides that were now starting to pop up at its sister parks in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio. Attendance began to suffer as a result, leading to SeaWorld Ohio getting sold to Six Flags in 2001. Under new management, the two parks were merged into Six Flags Worlds of Adventure, a 700-acre megapark with thrill rides, a waterpark, and all of SeaWorld's old marine zoo. To this day, it was the largest single theme park in history (if one counts the Walt Disney World Resort's multiple parks as separate rather than part of one complex), and on paper, it was perhaps the ultimate theme park, a serious rival to Cedar Point (Northern Ohio's other major theme park, and typically held to be one of the best in the world)........
    • .......And it was doomed. Six Flags' overinvestment in this and other parks put them deep in the red (the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009), turning Worlds of Adventure into a financial liability despite its popularity. Furthermore, the two combined local parks simply did not have the infrastructure for the Cedar Point-sized crowds that showed up daily. By all accounts, Worlds of Adventure was hopelessly cramped, crowded, and filthy despite its massive size, and given that one of Six Flags' main selling points at the time was cheap ticket prices (a season pass cost only $50), many of the guests were rowdy teenagers and Lower Class Louts who created a bad image in the minds of locals who remembered when Geauga Lake was a small family park. Finally, while the park had previously been able to avoid direct competition with Cedar Point by virtue of its smaller size and different market, its mammoth expansion meant that it no longer had that luxury — and given the above problems, the comparisons were not flattering.
    • As such, in 2004 a financially-desperate Six Flags sold the park to Cedar Fair (owners of Cedar Point) at a firesale price. Cedar Fair sought to return the park to being a smaller family destination, restoring the Geauga Lake name and removing all of the Six Flags theming and licensed properties. Most controversially, they also closed down the marine zoo that the park inherited from SeaWorld (Cedar Fair does not do animals, period), and for two years didn't bother to put up anything in its place, leaving a slew of abandoned buildings. Only in 2006 did they do something with the former SeaWorld site... namely, turn it into a second water park, Wildwater Kingdom. It's important to note that Geauga Lake already had a water park in the form of Hurricane Hannah's (formerly Hurricane Harbor in the Six Flags days). Many fans of Geauga Lake suspected that Cedar Fair deliberately sabotaged the park so as to remove competition for their flagship at Cedar Point.
    • In 2006, Cedar Fair also bought out Paramount Parks. This resulted in them having a monopoly on all three of Ohio's major amusement parks: Cedar Point, Geauga Lake, and Kings Island near Cincinnati. This spending spree (the Paramount purchase cost $1.24 billion) left them deep in debt, and to cut costs, they targeted the faltering Geauga Lake for ride shutdowns and relocations. Over the course of 2006 and 2007, Geauga Lake was ransacked for everything from roller coasters to gift shops to food vendors. Most of the rides found new homes at other Cedar Fair properties, and some were scrapped. Eventually, it was announced at the end of the 2007 season that Geauga Lake (minus the still-successful Wildwater Kingdom water park, which remains open to this day) would be shutting down permanently after over a century of continuous seasonal operation.
  • Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina became notorious 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 three million visitors in its first year. It fell way below that number, generating only about two to three thousand guests a day. The reasons why were numerous. First, 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 reduced its appeal to children, but the addition of kiddie rides in response to this dismayed adults. The high admission prices, coupled with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, also hurt tourism and rendered few families able to afford vacations and go to the park. Finally, Hard Rock Park's location just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean put it into direct competition with Myrtle Beach's oceanside resorts (for comparison, Walt Disney chose the inland city of Orlando, Florida to build his second park precisely to avoid such competition). It wasn't long before 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, Six Flags Great America had 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.