Jim Hill answers even more of
your Disney related questions. This time around, it’s three about
the sea. As in: Where exactly is Walt Disney World’s first wave
machine located, what’s the deal with that missing shark scene in
“The Little Mermaid” and – finally – a follow-up on yesterday’s
controversial “Finding Nemo” story.
Estelle E. from Cobleskill, N.Y. writes to say:
You seem to know a lot about the early days
at Walt Disney World. So maybe you can answer this question: When
my husband and I first vacationed at the resort back in the fall
of 1971, I distinctly recall seeing men on surf boards riding the
waves off shore of the Polynesian Hotel. But that was the only
time – in my 50 plus visits to WDW – that I ever saw anything like
that out on Seven Seas Lagoon.
Did I really see this, Jim? Did people
really used to surf out on Seven Seas Lagoon? Or did all that
Orlando humidity cause my brains to fry?
Nope, you’re not suffering FBS (Fried Brain
Syndrome), Estelle. You really did see surfers out on Seven Seas
Lagoon. You see, backin the early 1970s, there actually was a
fully functioning wave machine hidden out under those seemingly
ornamental islands just off shore of Walt Disney World’s
Polynesian Beach Resort. The idea was that – in order to recreate
the authentic look & feel of a real South Seas resort – the
Polynesian needed to have gentle waves slapping against the sandy
shore right outside the hotel.
So – as Seven Seas Lagoon was being carved out
of the cypress swamps right next door to Bay Lake -- the
Imagineers had this wave machine installed 50 yards off shore of
where the Polynesian was going to be built. Of course, the beauty
of this particular wave machine is that it could be adjusted. Push
one button and you get soft, gentle waves lapping against the
shore. Push another button and you get perfect curls for surfing.
The downside of this set-up is that the
Imagineers forgot to factor in the effect that waves actually have
on the shore. As in erosion. Which means that the folks at the
Poly found that – if they ran that wave machine for too long – it
actually had a pretty detrimental effect on the hotel’s beach
Which is why – starting in the Winter of 1971 /
1972 – the people at the Polynesian began cutting back on the
number of hours that they’d run their wave machine each day.
Eventually – to cut back on the cost of regularly having to repair
the hotel’s beach – they stopped running the machine entirely.
But WDW Vice President Dick Nunis just loved
the Polynesian’s wave machine. He’s the one who probably hired
those kids that you saw riding those surf boards, Estelle. Nunis
dreamed of actually staging surfing competitions out there on
Seven Seas Lagoon. Which was why Dick was heartbroken when he
learned that the Imagineers couldn’t figure out a way to fix WDW’s
wave machine. As in make the thing run without totally trashing
the Poly’s soft, sandy beach area.
Of course, given that this wave machine was
installed while Seven Seas Lagoon was being built, there was just
no way to remove that machinery without first draining the lake.
Which – given that the Walt Disney World resort is open 365 days a
year – this isn’t ever going to happen. Which is why WDW’s
original wave machine remains in place, rusting away under those
ornamental islands just off shore of Disney’s Polynesian Beach
Of course, Dick Nunis never forgot about his
dream of staging surf contests at Walt Disney World. So when the
Imagineers began hatching their plans to build a second water park
at the Orlando resort – Typhoon Lagoon – in the mid-1980s, Nunis
insisted that WDI include a wave machine as a key component in
that park. Which is one of the reasons that that water park was
such a huge hit when it opened in 1989.
So – long story short, Estelle – No, you
weren’t hallucinating. You really did see people riding the curls
out on the water next to WDW’s Polynesian Resort Hotel. They just
didn’t do it for very long.
Next, Ariel’s-Twin-Sister wrote in to say:
I absolutely lo-o-o-ove your site & all
the great behind-the-scenes stories that you tell about the Walt
Disney Company. I particularly enjoyed your recent column about
the original opening for “Beauty and the Beast.” So I was
wondering … Do you have any stories about any scenes that got cut
from MY favorite film, “The Little Mermaid”?
Actually, Ariel’s-Twin-Sister, I do. By that I
mean, not a story about a whole scene that got cut out of that
film. But – rather -- a pretty funny gag that was set up in the
final version of “The Little Mermaid” that never got paid off.
Which gag am I talking about? Well, do you
recall Ariel’s introductory scene in “The Little Mermaid”? The one
where she and Scuttle going searching through the wreck of a ship
for human artifacts, only to be attacked by a great white shark.
That shark’s name (at least according to the
film’s original screenplay) was Glut. And – according to the first
draft of that script – in his desperate desire to consume Ariel
& Flounder as he surges through the ship, the shark swallows a
lot of things. Including a French horn. Then the two friends
escape only because Glut gets his head caught in the rope end of
an anchor. But not before Glut makes one, final snap at Flounder.
That was a funny but pretty exciting sequence,
wasn’t it? But – upon reflection – doesn’t Glut’s moment in the
movie seem like an awfully large introduction for a character that
you never see again? Well – as it turns out – “The Little Mermaid”
‘s writers / directors John Musker & Ron Clements HAD intended
on bringing Glut back. More importantly, giving the character a
really spectacular send-off later on in the movie.
How so? Well, do you remember “The Little
Mermaid” ‘s action packed finale? The part that begins when Eric
sets sail on his wedding barge with the magically disguised
Ursula. Ariel is left alone on the dock, as the sun begins to set.
Triton’s daughter is heartbroken. But her animal friends refuse to
Sebastian uses his claw to cut a rope that’s
securing a barrel to the dock. The crab then tells Ariel to grab
onto the barrel while Flounder (who’s taking hold of the part of
the rope that’s still secured to the barrel) tows her out to the
wedding barge. Sebastian then orders Scuttle to do whatever he has
to delay the ceremony.
That’s pretty much how you remember this scene
from the movie, isn’t it? Well, what’s missing from the final
version of this sequence in “The Little Mermaid” is that – just
before Ariel & Flounder reach the wedding barge – Glut spies
them again, out in the open ocean. So the Great White swims up
underneath them and throws open his enormous jaws when …
Ariel & Flounder reach the boat. The Little
Mermaid is able to clamber up the side of the ship just as
Flounder spies Glut. The terrified little fish then crams the
barrel into the Great White’s gaping maw. As Glut bites down on
the wooden container, the camera zooms in to reveal the “Gun
Powder” label that’s pasted to the side of the barrel.
Cut to the deck of the wedding barge. Prince
Eric & Ursula’s ceremony is interrupted as the ship is rocked
by an enormous off-screen explosion. Tons of water now rain down
on everyone standing on deck. After a slight pause, a battered
French horn falls out of the sky – landing right at Ursula’s feet.
Pretty funny, huh? So why didn’t this gag make
it into the final, finished version of “The Little Mermaid”? To be
honest, time and money played an important part in Glut’s return
getting cut. As the movie entered its final phase of production
and Disney’s animators were rushing to finish up the project,
Musker & Clements began actively looking for things to cut.
Little bits of things that they could cut to speed up production,
simplify the picture. Stuff that they could drop without hurting
Everyone at WDFA agreed that Glut’s return was
a great gag. But not absolutely essential to the telling of the
“Little Mermaid” ‘s story. Which is why this joke eventually ended
up on the cutting room floor.
Of course, once I learned about this joke
getting cut, I found that I can’t watch this part of “The Little
Mermaid” – the sequence where Flounder is busting his butt to tow
Ariel out to the wedding barge -- without thinking “Gee, wouldn’t
it be nice if that great Glut joke that Ron’n’John had set up
actually finally got paid off?”
Hmmn. I wonder if someone should let the folks
who are working on the IMAX version of “The Little Mermaid” about
this scene? I don’t know if the folks at Disney would actually
dare to call the upcoming Platinum Collection DVD a “Special
Edition” if all the animators did was finally fold in the pay-off
for a gag that got set up ‘way back in 1989 … But still … It’s
worth a thought.
Anyway … And – finally – following up on
yesterday’s “Is Disney trying to torpedo ‘Nemo’?” story, BobbyV
from Vail wrote to say:
Mr. Hill –
It was bad enough last year when you
suddenly switched sides on the California Adventure issue and
became one of DCA’s staunchest apologist. But now you’re going to
start carrying water for Pixar too? Please!?
Did it ever occur to you that those test
scores that this supposed Disney insider source has allegedly been
leaking to entertainment & financial reporters might be right?
Maybe “Finding Nemo” really is a mediocre movie. That teaser
trailer for the film that Pixar put in front of my “Monsters,
Inc.” DVD certainly was a snore. All those talking fish just left
me cold. (Cold. Fish. Get it?)
Steve Jobs is a big boy, Jim. He doesn’t
need your help, Hill. Let him fight his own fights, okay?
Bobby V –
Look, I honestly understand that it’s possible
that Pixar could produce a mediocre movie. After all, just taking
the law of averages into account, someday it’s gotta happen. Not
every film can be a “Toy Story II” or “Monsters, Inc.” sized hit.
Someday, one of that studio’s productions isn’t going to connect
with a mainstream audience. Pixar’s going to burp out a clinker.
I just don’t think that “Finding Nemo” is going
to be that film. I mean – based on what I’ve been hearing about
“Finding Nemo” – this picture does evidently have some problems.
Chief among these is that children seem to be somewhat put off by
Albert Brooks’ vocal performance. Adults are said to love Brooks’
work as Marlin, the film’s fretful father fish. But kids are said
to be having trouble warming up to the film’s central character –
thanks mostly to the edgy, anxious spin that Albert has put on
most of his dialogue.
But -- on the flip side -- Ellen DeGeneres is
reportedly getting high marks from audience members of all ages
for her vocal performance as Dory, the Regal Blue Tang with memory
problems. DeGeneres’ work here supposedly adds tons of fun to the
film, as does William Dafoe & Stephen Root’s performances as
fish that Nemo encounters when he’s trapped in that fish tank in
the dentist’s office.
But what really drives this film is Marlin’s
quest to find his son, Nemo. Hence the film’s title, “Finding
Nemo.” But if Brooks’ vocal performance in the part that actually
drives the movie’s action is actively turning off kids … That’s
going to be a problem. For Pixar (the company that’s making the
movie) as well as Disney (the corporation’s that gotta distribute
this supposedly flawed film).
Now – before we got any further here – it’s
important to recognize the role that test screenings play in the
film making process. For they allow the movie makers to really see
what an audience thinks of their picture. To get some good, solid
feedback on what things need to be tightened and/or reworked.
It’s also important to remember – six months
prior to its release – “Monsters, Inc.” was also getting somewhat
iffy scores during its test screenings from kids. But that was
mostly because of the film’s scary opening sequence. Which is what
prompted Pixar to go back & rework that particular scene,
folding in lots of additional physical stuff to happen to poor Mr.
Bile (“My friends called me Phlegm”). Once those gags were in
place (and kids could see – right from the get-go – that
“Monsters, Inc.” was supposed to be a fun flick), the test scores
for that film shot right up.
Unfortunately, “Finding Nemo” ‘s reported
problems don’t really lend themselves to this sort of quick fix.
Making Marlin more kid friendly would supposedly involve making
dozens of changes – both large & small – to the almost
finished film. And give that the picture’s May 2003 release date
is already locked in, there really isn’t enough time at this point
to make too many changes.
So Pixar may have no choice but to stick with
“Finding Nemo” as it is and hope that the test audiences were
wrong, hoping against hope that the general public will embrace
Albert Brooks’ somewhat anxious take on Marlin. There’s still time
to make some changes. Just not a whole lot of changes.
And – just for the record, BobbyV – regarding
yesterday’s story: I’m not out to carry water for Pixar. I’m not
trying to fight Steve Jobs’ fights for him. I wasn’t trying to
brush over the fact that “Finding Nemo” supposedly got some low
test scores during its recent test screening. My problem was with
that Team Disney – Burbank exec who reportedly has been going out
of his way to spread the bad news about those low test scores far
I know, I know, BobbyV. The most important word
in “Show Business” is “Business.” And Disney has long been known
for playing hardball. So – if deliberately leaking info to the
financial & entertainment press about how “Finding Nemo” was
supposedly not exactly winning over test audiences can be played
to Mickey’s advantage – Well, all’s fair in love & war, I
It just seems (at least to me) like such a
strange, passive - aggressive negotiating ploy. Similar to
Mickey’s decision to sign that deal with Vanguard Animation right
in the middle of the Walt Disney Company’s attempt to arrange an
extension of its five picture deal with Pixar. What is Jobs (Or –
for that matter – Lasseter) supposed to think after the Mouse
makes a move like that?
Okay. So maybe this is all the action of a
single individual who just has an axe with the “Cal Arts Mafia.”
But – given how systemically this “ ‘Finding Nemo’ is testing
poorly” story appears to have been distributed – I can’t help but
think that there’s something more significant going on behind the
But – what the hey – I could be wrong. After
all, Hollywood is a town that loves to build people up, then tear
them down. And Pixar HAS had a rather long run of box office
successes. Perhaps professional jealousy IS helping to speed the “
‘Finding Nemo’ got lousy scores at its recent test screening”
story along. Maybe industry insiders are just taking great
pleasure with the idea that Pixar may finally be in for its first
Of course, one of the reasons that Lasseter
& Co. opted to set up their studio ‘way up around San
Francisco was so that they could avoid just this sort of Hollywood
bullshit. It’s just too bad that – in today’s world of
teleconferencing, e-mail & instantaneous communication – being
hundreds of miles away from Tinsel Town doesn’t make you immune to
the gossip anymore. Nowadays, the bullshit comes to you
So my apologies to those of you who thought
that yesterday’s piece was more gossip than news. I did make
repeated attempts to get someone who was “in the know” to go on
the record about this story. But – surprise, surprise – no one out
there wanted to the first one to officially pissed off the Mouse
and/or Pixar. So all those folks I talked with over the past 10
days insisted that their comments to me be used as deep background
or as strictly off the record stuff.
So that’s all I’m going to say about this
particular story for now. Mind you, I will continue to monitor the
whole “Finding Nemo” / Disney & Pixar negotiation situation.
As this story continues to develop, I hope that I’ll get the
chance to revisit it. I just hope that – next time around –
someone “in the loop” will be brave enough to go on the record and
reveal what’s really going on.
That’s it for now, kids. Have a great weekend,
okay? We’ll talk again on Monday.