What is the deal with Disney theme parks and trying to incorporate a circus into a distinctly Disney experience?
When Walt produced the short-lived Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland (November 25, 1955 through September 7, 1956), his team quickly realized that guests did not come to Disneyland to see a circus.
They could see a circus anywhere, especially with all the touring "mud shows" still popular at the time, in addition to the "The Greatest Show on Earth," the traveling Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus that began performing much more comfortable indoor extravaganzas in 1957.
Even more, Walt and his team learned the challenges of dealing not only with wild animals but with circus performers who were quite a different kind of performer with quite a different kind of lifestyle.
When Michael Eisner came on board the Disney Company in 1984 as CEO, he was looking for ways to increase attendance at Disneyland, in particular during the off-season.
He introduced a special limited time event at the park, "Circus Fantasy."
This promotion ran from January 25 to March 9 in 1986 and was so popular that it appeared again in 1987 and 1988. It also generated some new merchandise that was quickly scooped up by Disney guests.
Completely ignoring the individual themed areas of the park, the circus took over Disneyland entirely, from a high wire act going from the Emporium to the Walt Disney Story building, a motorcycle act that would drive up a wire attached to the Matterhorn, a man that was shot out of a cannon over the Rivers of America to Tom Sawyer’s Island, a circus stage show at Videopolis, and clowns performing at Carnation Plaza.
As the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, there was a colorful "Circus On Parade" twice a day.
I distinctly remember going to Disneyland in 1988 and being enthralled up close by the "Globe of Death," where two motorcycles raced around the cage-like iron sphere, barely missing each other in the spot where the Partners statue is today.
For Eisner, "Circus Fantasy" was a revelation. The special event was not only well-received by the guests, but it drove a significant increase in attendance and revenue.
With the ending of the Walt Disney World 15th Anniversary Celebration in October 1987, Epcot Center was desperately in need of increased attendance and revenue. So instead of transferring the "Circus theme" (as it was known at the time) to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot would host a circus special event that would last a year.
The original idea was for an "international," not "intergalactic" circus. In particular, European circuses have been highly respected for decades, so the thought was to tie in the circus with the international flavor of World Showcase.
Ideas were pitched to have acts scattered all around the promenade like the different locations at Disneyland. One proposal was to have circular platforms ("circus rings") in the lagoon and would be viewed from around the promenade with World Showcase Plaza being a prime viewing location.
Budget factors involving bringing in overseas talent as well as the costs of building new areas to showcase the acts had Disney looking at other less pricey possibilities.
It was suggested that placing a temporary stage on the CommuniCore Fountain would be a less expensive way of having a defined viewing area.
The approximately 100-foot-long, 18-foot-high oval stage was built over the fountain. Several layers of flooring were supported by 74,000 pounds of steel.
"Only the fountain's spouting jets will be turned off, so water will still cascade down the sides of the stage," said Forrest Bahruth, Senior Show Director in charge of the circus. "Steel cables will converge high above the stage to create a circus-tent atmosphere."
The area was dubbed the "spacearena" in publicity and included the Wheel of Destiny on the roof top of Communicore West and swaypoles on the roof top of Communicore East.
It never occurred to anyone that constantly looking up and overhead at different locations was not necessarily a pleasant experience for guests, and that a performer standing center stage on the fountain stage could not be easily seen.
Of course, the fountain was not designed for such an adjustment, and it resulted in significant damage to the fountain, especially with the daily antics of the heavy elephants on it—and that damage was still clearly in evidence 20 years later, especially in the area underneath the fountain where the pumps and other equipment are located.
Disney dress rehearsals for outdoor shows are done very late in the evening and early morning hours after guests have exited the park and some maintenance has been done. This procedure couldn’t be done for this show because of visibility issues, among other things, including some contract issues with the performers.
Those contracts for specialty acts ran into many challenges, including delaying the taking of the major publicity shots with Spaceship Earth in the background for two to three days. Disney performers in full costume sat and were paid for all that time until the circus performer contracts were signed.
A mini-gym had to be created in the small tunnel under Future World East for performers to work out and stay in shape.
Reportedly, because there was no full rehearsal with everyone, the first show for the guests on October 1, 1987 lasted over an hour rather than the announced 25 minutes, and so things were immediately cut.
What was the concept for the event?
In the past, I have only excerpted from Disney press releases if there is an interesting fact or a terrific statement from someone involved in the project.
However, since there has been so very little written about the 1987 Epcot Center Daredevil Spectacular, I think it is important to share with readers the original two page general press release from 1987.
It includes many facts and a glimpse of what the concept was intended to be. Unfortunately, reality and budget quickly downsized those grandiose ideas.
As you read the following paragraphs, remember that "Circus Fantasy" at Disneyland featured elephants, the Wheel of Destiny, trapeze artists, a tightrope walker and a Skycycle and all of these same acts were the core of Epcot’s event.
"With a ‘center ring’ 400 feet in diameter and a ‘big top’ of sparkling steel cables that stretches nearly 200 feet into the sky, Epcot Center’s eight-ring spectacular will serve up intergalactic thrills as big as all outer space four times a day, starting in October.
"The outdoor entertainment extravaganza will take place in, around and above CommuniCore, the massive central plaza of Epcot’s Future World. With Mickey Mouse as a space-traveling ringmaster and an international cast of spine-tingling acts, the 25-minute-long show will quicken the pulse of Walt Disney World guests every day of the week.
"Still in its design and early booking stages, the eight-ring will be a ‘cosmic thrill show’, like no circus in the universe, says show director Forrest Bahruth. Its core will be a large, circular stage which appears to float on the waters of the CommuniCore Fountain beneath it—yet is strong enough to support the half-dozen enormous interplanetary animals which fill it at the opening of each show.
"Show plans call for these creatures, each weighing several thousand pounds, to appear as distant evolutionary cousins of Earthly elephants. Heavy fur and other unusual ‘wrinkles’ in their appearance hint at a home planet many light years away. In the plan, they ‘charge’ onto the center stage at the beginning of each show accompanied by a group of stellar musicians as well as a dozen fellow space travelers—six roustabouts fresh from working the circus rings of Saturn and six female acrobats who are equally at ease swing on a star as they are on a trapeze.
"The eight-ring spectacular will be a show of many venues. Bahruth promises action will bounce among its eight stages ‘like a pinball machine’. So while the action on the center stage is still cranking at top speed, audience attention suddenly will be drawn to the roof of nearby CommuniCore West. There, several daredevils are defying gravity on what Earthlings sometimes call a ‘Wheel of Destiny’—though many will think it bears an uncanny resemblance to a space station.
"Quickly, the focus can return to center stage, where acrobats are performing a dizzying web-clinging act. Then, faster than the speed of sound, audience attention is drawn to the roof of CommuniCore East where the ‘Gee!’ factor is increased as a space explorer atop a 90-foot-high swaypole attempts to reach the skies without the aid of a rocket. His dramatic ‘atmospheric re-entry’ in turn signals the start of a center-stage trapeze performance.
"Then a true sky-walker, for example, would take the eyes of the audience even higher: A center ‘tent’ pole behind the stage is designed to rise 187 feet, the same height as Spaceship Earth, the well-known symbol of Epcot Center.
"Eighteen glittering steel cables will stretch from the pole to the ground, creating a big-top feeling. Another cable will reach from the top of the pole to the top of Spaceship Earth—and it’s this precarious aerial avenue that intrepid gentleman will traverse—while the bands of those below perspire all the more in response to his terrifying feat.
"Another similarly precarious cable path will run diagonally from the front of center stage to the top of Spaceship Earth. Balanced carefully atop space-style motorcycles, two more aerial daredevils will ride to the top of the world on this slender steel thread to provide a rip-roaring finale to the greatest show in the sky."
Wow! Disney Legal would never permit today such incredible ballyhoo that was typical of Disney press releases in the 1980s. Of course, many of the things described or promised in this release did not happen… or, at least, did not happen the way they were breathtakingly detailed in this document.
This was just one of several similar press releases trying to generate excitement for this special promotion.
Another press release declared, "In the eight-ring "spacearena" above CommuniCore, an interstellar cast will tingle your spin, shatter your senses and pound your pulse. Marvel at the sight of Mutant Prehistoric Pachyderms! Stare awestruck as Space Cyclists race toward Spaceship Earth high above you suspended on a wire!
"Question your own eyes as a Sincotron climbs the heights of a space probe needle! It’s a thrill a minute with Aquilons from Alpha Centauri, Amazites, Archturian Power Drones and Web Women displaying strength and beauty on Archturian Vines. It’s a once-in-a-millennium epic extravaganza!"
Yet another Disney press release described an "Astrobat on a space needle" (an acrobat on a sway pole) and "an interplanetary mechanic who ‘repairs’ a wildly orbiting space station by fearlessly climbing about it as it hurtles through the atmosphere" (referring to the traditional Wheel of Destiny act performed by legendary Karl Winn).
None of this nomenclature hoopla intrigued or excited audiences, who may actually have been confused by these terms because no money was spent on any artistic changes to the basic equipment or the costumes worn by the performers.
The "space cycles," trapeze equipment, sway poles and even the elephant performing area were exactly what an audience would see at a circus or a carnival. There was no space "overlay."
Almost immediately, cuts were made to the show.
Mickey Mouse was no longer the ringmaster, and all other costumed characters planned for the extravaganza like Goofy and Pluto were also quickly pulled from the show to save time and money.
Actually as early as September 27, 1987, the Orlando Sentinel newspaper announced that "Mickey Mouse will share master-of-ceremonies duties with ‘Commander Starcirc’, a new character portrayed by an actor whom Bahruth described as a '’Tom Selleck-type body builder'’ and "the epitome of a cartoon hero," with a voice like Darth Vader.
''‘Commander Starcirc’ will introduce the creatively titled circus acts, beginning with the ‘Mutant Prehistoric Pachyderms with Archtrurian Amazites and the Male Power Drones’—the Cristiani elephants joined by dancers and acrobatic bodybuilders in Conan the Barbarian-type costumes."
For the actual show itself, an offstage announcer described Commander StarCirc (eg. Star Circus) as "the commander of a space transport who has brought all of the intergalactic stars and daredevils from the distant reaches of the universe…the master of the rings of space…"
It didn’t take long to discover that the bodybuilder who matched the physical description who was hired for the role was completely incapable of handling the speil and the pacing needed to move the show along. Walt Disney World Creative Entertainment pulled from its "usual suspects" for a thinner, more lively, upbeat Commander who did the standard Disney emcee performance.
The famous Cristiani Elephants (Carey, Babe, Shirley, and Emma) were each in their 40s and had been performing together for close to 35 years. The act’s trainer and owner was Carin Mortensen, whose father and mother started the act and maintained it until they retired around 1977. Mortensen (a seventh-generation circus performer) and her husband Peter continued the act along with their then thirteen year old son.
At the time, Mortensen told the press that the bigest challenge for her would be living in one place for a full year: "This is the first time in my whole life I’ve lived in one place for so long."
Actually, the Epcot Daredevil Circus Spectacular only limped on for roughly five months even, though it had been announced as a year-long event. The tightrope walker, whether because of popularity or contract, continued for several weeks after the show officially closed.
The biggest challenge for Mortensen was what Disney wanted the elephants to do. Originally, they were to be dressed as "mutant prehistoric pachyderms from the steaming jungles of a little-known planet in the Archturian Cosmos." As changes continued to be made, they were identified as "a troupe of elephant-like Martian Mastodons."
The elephant’s costumes, which were in the process of being made, were a decision made by Disney before they had contracted with the elephant act. It never occurred to Disney that, in general, animals do not like physical additions or unfamiliar areas. It can take up to a year or more to train an animal to accept anything new as part of its act, like a costume addition.
In order to make them look "futuristic," additional hair and accoutrements were to be put on the elephants, who did not care for these irritating new things—especially in the hot Florida sun. I have never seen a photo or a video where the elephants wore what was proposed.
They were walked out to the stage from the area between Canada and United Kingdom where World Showplace is today. The cast members found that a major difficulty was trying to temporarily clear the promenade from guests who were either oblivious or unimpressed by real elephants walking so close behind them.
One of those cast members is my good friend Brad Anderson, who later received well-deserved recognition in Epcot Guest Relations as the original coordinator of both the "UnDiscovered Future World" and "Epcot Segway" tours. He is the fellow who did the training of new guides, updated material for the tours, helped create the special pins, oversaw the advertising material, and more.
As Brad told me, the promenade pathway from the United Kingdom holding area to the CommuniCore Fountain presented another problem. The sewer caps from the United Kingdom area to Future World had been painted a different color than the color of the promenade, making them easier to locate and adding a nice change to the color pattern.
The elephants didn’t like these differently colored sewer caps and were suspicious of them, so that they would sometimes just stop rather than walk over them. Fortunately, once the problem was determined, the sewer caps were repainted the same color as the promenade.
After many changes, the show finally included performances by the Cristiani Elephants, Jay Cochrane (who walked a steel thread 180 feet above Odyssey Lagoon), the Winn Family Troupe (not "Wynn" as it is sometimes stated even in Disney press releases) on the three swaypoles (originally it was performer Gary Sladek on the swaypole) and cycles, and the Flying Rodriquez Family double-trapeze act on the fountain stage.
The live music was supplied the by talented 14-piece Future Corps band composed of brass players and percussionists who had appeared as a group in the park since the opening of Epcot. Unfortunately, like so many other wonderful entertainment offerings, this well-loved and talented group was disbanded by the Disney Company shortly after the turn of the new century.
To help publicize all of this nonsense, on the December 25, 1987 "Very Merry Christmas Parade" televised on ABC, the irrepressible Regis Philbin dressed in sequins as a ringmaster appeared in a four-minute segment of "The Greatest Show In Space" as it was described.
Ironically, Eisner was indeed correct that a limited special event would generate attendance, income, and new merchandise for Epcot. However, it was the Flower and Garden Festival and later the Food and Wine Festival that did so.
People were not interested in visiting a Disney park to catch a glimpse of a circus, especially since just a short drive on US 27, just east of Interstate 4 in Polk County, would take visitors to Circus World from 1973 to 1986 (until it was sold and reopened as Boardwalk and Baseball in 1987, an amusement venue based on a turn-of-the-century seaside boardwalk).
In the 1980s, Admiral Joe "Can Do" Fowler said in an interviewer about the experience of a circus at Disneyland: "That was the first time that we learned this lesson. People came to Disneyland to see Disneyland."
The often-forgotten C.V. Wood (Disneyland’s original vice-president and general manager with a huge involvement in the building and opening of the park) was a bit more blunt when he told Walt Disney: "A circus always plays by itself. A guy comes to Disneyland to stay around and see what you’ve got. He’s not going to spend those hours at a damn circus!"
While there are many factors why the Epcot Center Daredevil Circus Spectacular in 1987 was not a success, the primary reason was that guests did not come to Epcot to see a circus—and so this event has gone on to become a colorful and cautionary anecdote in Epcot history.