The Magic of DISNEYLAND: Memories

“The greatest thing about DISNEYLAND
is that its magic stays with you forever.”
When we think about DISNEYLAND, the bigger attractions  typically come to mind first. But if you really think about your favorite memories of the park, they’re often the smaller things. And often times those memories can come flooding back at the most random of moments, triggering that magical feeling all over again. That happened to me at a special DISNEYLAND event honoring the lives of Wally Boag and Betty Taylor. I remembered the time when Miss Betty Taylor announced to the entire Golden Horseshoe that she had a crush on me.

Wha?!? It all happened back when I was a tween and Ms. Taylor was in the final years of her legendary run at the Golden Horseshoe. My parents had made reservations for us to have a nice lunch at the Golden Horseshoe and enjoy the show. They had previously attended the show by themselves and felt that my sister and I would like it too. As we made our way into the legendary Golden Horseshoe, my parents insisted that we choose a table close to the stage but off to the right. As we enjoyed lunch and the show began, I became engrossed in the show. As it turned out, we *did* like it. While I had already developed an interest in all things Disney by this time and had discovered that I shared a birthday with Walt Disney (though I was born after he had passed away) I didn’t know much about the Golden Horseshoe or the glamorous woman who had been personally chosen by Walt Disney and was one of his favorite singers. 

As the show continued, Miss Taylor told us that there was a young man in the audience who had caught her eye.  The other performers asked her who she had her eye on. I innocently looked around. Suddenly the spotlight was trained on me. “Him!” she announced. It was at this point that I realized that I had been setup by my parents. As I started to blush and nervously laugh, the other performers told Miss Taylor that I wasn’t interested in her and claimed that I had my eye on someone else. Who could that person be? Another spotlight shone on a young lady sitting at an adjacent table who also began to blush. Noble in defeat, Miss Taylor insisted that the “bartenders” help me out and they came out into the audience and pushed our chairs together while she sang to us. After what probably seemed like a lifetime, we were pushed back to our respective tables. By this time, we were still nervously laughing and glad that Miss Taylor was now looking for someone else…

The incident became a fond family legend that was often remembered at family get-togethers when the subject of DISNEYLAND came up. A picture of the encounter does exist but is probably in a box of old photos. While I never completely forgot about the incident, seeing archival footage of a different, random performance of the show at the special event brought it all flooding back. For a fleeting moment, I was part of the show and in the presence of a true Disney legend. While my tween-age self was probably a little embarrassed at the time, that show has now become a treasured memory that I’ll never forget. 

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Disney Deep Dive: “Oh look. Another glorious morning. Makes me sick!”

Due to a colossal scheduling blunder, Hocus Pocus was dead on arrival at the box office, never finding a theatrical audience. It seemed like the Sanderson Sisters were felled by the only power stronger than theirs- Hollywood’s. But it would have been premature to completely count them out.

The picture’s pre-mature release and subsequent failure allowed Disney to rush the film to videocassette just in time for Halloween. The videocassette was a huge seller, allowing the studio to more or less break even. The film became a steady ratings performer on The Disney Channel during its many Halloween season airings. The successful videocassette sales allowed the company to keep it in print, making it a reliable catalog title. The big push for the film however, would come in 2001 when The Walt Disney Company purchased the Fox Family Channel, renaming it ABC Family. Fox Family had a tradition of airing nothing but Halloween themed films for the 13 days before Halloween. Disney continued this tradition, adding its films into the mix, including Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus exploded in popularity. When the Halloween promotion was expanded to 31 days, the film gained even more exposure and fans. A deluxe DVD and Blu-Ray was released, selling a ton of copies. Hocus Pocus had overcome its initial failure and become a hugely profitable film. Fans were now clamoring for sequels, merchandise and more Hocus Pocus everything. Disney, of course, obliged.

Hocus Pocus the T-Shirts

Hocus Pocus the giftware collection.

The movie has even inspired Halloween season shows at Disney Parks around the world, performing to excited, standing room only crowds.

So the little film that didn’t really get a chance its first time around is now, if you’ll pardon the expression, Big Business. Which all goes to show that even the Sanderson Sisters eventually got their happy ending.

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Disney Deep Dive: “Aren’t you broads a little old to be trick or treating?”

The powers that be at Disney could finally breathe a sigh of relief; Bette Midler’s final contracturally obligated film role had wrapped ahead of time and under budget. The relief was shortlived, however, when the company realized that it had two Halloween themed movies on deck for a 1993 release- Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas. When it became obvious that The Lion King would not be completed in time for its original Thanksgiving Holiday 1993 release date, the company flirted with the idea of releasing the stop motion animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas in the Thanksgiving Holiday slot (after all, while the film is about the pumpkin king, it does take place at Christmas) and giving Halloween over to Hocus Pocus. It seemed like a great idea.

But this was Hollywood, and while Disney has often played by its own rules instead of following Hollywood tradition, it was still made up of people who had rather large egos. And then Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had one of the biggest egos around. He had taken much credit for Disney’s animated resurgence, taking an active role in the production of each release. He’d had little involvement with The Nightmare Before Christmas and feared that its quirky and macabre storyline would not produce the large box office grosses his animated pictures received. The first big decision made was to remove the Disney name from The Nightmare Before Christmas since the picture was seen as being too “scary” and “adult”. Of course, that didn’t mean that the film couldn’t be released over Thanksgiving. The studio, however, decided that releasing the film on The Lion King’s previous release date would still tie the film to Disney Animation, which they wanted to avoid. So The Nightmare Before Christmas got the Halloween release date.

That left Hocus Pocus without a home. The company decided to release its Halloween themed film in the middle of summer as counter programming to Jurassic Park. The project that had been plucked from the relative obscurity of The Disney Channel was doomed to failure by the same company that had been so excited about it just a year before. The film was largely ignored and was destined to fade into obscurity. But this wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the Sanderson Sisters- not by a long shot. These evil sisters would be saved from the depths of the Disney vault by their fervent fans.

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Disney Deep Dive: “Amuck, Amuck, Amuck!”

Filming of Hocus Pocus began at the end of 1992. A few people at Disney feared that the shoot might be a tough one because of Bette Midler’s reputation. The plan was to do the bulk of shooting at Disney’s Burbank lot with a two week “vacation” to film exteriors in Salem, Massachusetts. 
Despite Disney’s worries about a rough shoot, things went relatively smoothly. Bette Midler was on her best behavior and stated that the production was a dream. She had the time of her life on the set and looked forward to work each day.

Even more amazingly, the film came in under budget and on time- a rarity in Hollywood. The film’s quick pace of production might have actually put the proverbial nail in the film’s coffin. 

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Disney Deep Dive: She Put A Spell On You

The script that would eventually become Hocus Pocus arrived at Walt Disney Pictures in 1984. Originally called Disney’s Halloween House, it was supposed to star Cloris Leachman as head witch Winifred Sanderson. After Disney’s upheaval in 1984, the project was shelved. When Bette Midler signed onto the film in 1992, the project finally gained some steam.

After the three main witches were cast, producers began searching for the main boy who would propel the action forward. Originally, they wanted Leonardo DiCaprio. Leonardo had already signed onto What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Omri Katz was signed instead.

Directing duties were given to an odd choice- Kenny Ortega. Ortega had been just a choreographer, crafting memorable dance scenes in such films as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dirty Dancing. By 1992 he had only directed one film- Disney’s live action musical Newsies- and that was mainly due to the fact that he had experience as a choreographer. Newsies was far from a hit, so it was a surprise that Disney would entrust him with another film. Even stranger, he would not be choreographing any of the dance scenes in the film.

With the major players in place, production on Hocus Pocus began on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank in late 1992. They were hoping to get the picture completed in time for Halloween 1993.

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Disney Deep Dive: “Hocus Pocus”

When Michael Eisner arrived at Walt Disney Productions in 1984, he wanted to send a signal to Hollywood that the stodgy, risk averse management that he was replacing was now being filled with younger, hipper rebels who would return the company to its risk taking younger days with Walt Disney at the helm. This surprised many people who saw Walt Disney as being quite traditional and far from a hip rebel. Eisner’s belief was true, however. Walt Disney had constantly pushed the envelope. The only difference was that by the 1980’s, the rest of the world had caught up with Mr. Disney and his company had done little to stay ahead.

Mr. Eisner had therefore pushed the narrative that the company under his leadership was a leader in synergy and promotion. If you wanted to reach the family audience, you had to take your project to Disney. Which made the fates of two Halloween themed films in 1993 strange happenings indeed. How could the company of Michael Eisner get the promotion of two films so wrong? We covered one of the films last week- The Nightmare Before Christmas had been released under Disney’s adult film brand, then unceremoniously dumped into theaters. It would take several years and the hard work of its fans for the company to finally see the error of its ways. Hocus Pocus would need a similar dose of magic to get to the same point.

Bette Midler was in much the same situation as Walt Disney Productions in 1984. While Disney’s problems had been caused by the company’s unwillingness to take many risks or innovate, Bette’s downfall had come because of her notoriously bad attitude behind the scenes. Many in Hollywood refused to work with her. When Disney started up Touchstone Pictures, it wanted to signal to Hollywood that it was willing to make films with adult subject matter as long as the price was right. For Bette, this was a godsend. She quickly signed up with Touchstone, promising to behave herself if she was given the chance. The result were some of the most successful films of the 1980’s- Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People and Beaches. As Bette’s star began to climb again, however, some old habits feared their ugly heads.

As Bette’s contract with Disney came to a close, the company was getting exceedingly less excited to work with her. Their misgivings about her came to a head when she unceremoniously left the film Sister Act, forcing the company to recast her at the last minute. Her replacement, Whoopi Goldberg, made the film a blockbuster hit. The film that Bette had made instead for another studio- For the Boys-  was a huge box office disappointment. Bette still owed one film to Disney, however, so they presented several projects to her, one of which was Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus originally began life as a possible Disney Channel original film. The Disney Channel was transitioning from a premium channel into a basic channel and had begun ramping up its original film catalog. The script, however, was snagged by Walt Disney Pictures who thought it could make a big budget hit. Bette Midler, who was reportedly trying to salvage her reputation around town at the time, lept at the chance to take on the role. Kathy Najimy, who had originally taken her role in Sister Act to work alongside Bette Midler, jumped at the chance to finally work with her.

Sarah Jessica Parker was cast as the third Sanderson sister partly due to her singing abilities. She had also been cast in Touchstone’s Ed Wood, so it was an easy choice for the studio. With such a star studded cast, the film was sure to have easy success, right? Stay Tuned!

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Disney Deep Dive: Just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it.

Disney had brought its prodigal son back to produce whatever he wanted. When he decided to produce a stop motion film, Disney was overjoyed that maybe this could be a way for it to bridge the gap between Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney Pictures chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had even publicly stated that he hoped the film could help lift the studio’s stodgy reputation.

At practically the last minute, however, the company got cold feet. This film was too macabre. Too stark. Too scary. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy before it, the film was sent to theaters with the more adult Touchstone Pictures brand on it. An odd choice, considering that the company had already regretted doing that to WFRR. By 1993, Roger Rabbit had already been welcomed into Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom with his very own attraction. Jack Skellington would be similarly exiled. 

Without the Disney name, the studio put minimal effort behind promoting the film. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving Weekend release, the film would premiere days before Halloween with a muddled promotional push. Early trailers referred to the film as being from Walt Disney Pictures, but viewers looking for the latest Disney film were greeted with the Touchstone logo. The shift in marketing allowed some toy licensees to drop out while others hastily covered the Disney logo with Touchstone Pictures stickers on the packaging.

The film would be a modest success, but wouldn’t be a Lion King sized success. The merchandise would fail to find very many buyers and the film would soon make its way to the Disney vault, destined to become just a trivia question. Disney might have had little faith in the picture, but its fans wouldn’t let it just disappear. The film gained a massive fan community in the years after its release. By 1998, dolls based on the character Sally that had languished on clearance shelves in early 1994 were fetching $800 on eBay. Disney obviously took notice. Small amounts of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise were produced for Disney Theme Parks and were eagerly snapped up. Licensees lined up to produce even more merchandise for sale. Most films sell the bulk of their merchandise during their initial release. Jack and the gang were selling 20 times more merchandise than they did in 1993 seven years after the film came out.

Disney would make up for lost time. In 2001, Jack Skellington would take over DISNEYLAND’s Haunted Mansion for both the Halloween and Christmas seasons. Despite the huge drop in tourism that year, Jack’s takeover would be a huge success. Florida’s Magic Kingdom ordered its own version and The Magic Kingdom at the Tokyo Disney Resort wanted one too, but initially had to wait. When Florida canceled the overlay, Tokyo eagerly jumped at the chance to add a little madness to its Haunted Mansion. Both seasonal overlays have become cherished additions.

Who could have guessed that the little project that Disney originally rejected would become such a huge phenomenon. Jack and his crew might not have succeeded in stealing Christmas, but they did succeed in stealing the hearts of their millions of fans.

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