This is part one of the first of an occasional series of stories that I'll call Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda, in which I look at Disney attractions that were designed but never built.
For our series debut, we look at the Imagineering process behind the intriguing and fabled Dragon Tower attraction, originally slated for Disney's Animal Kingdom's planned Beastlie Kingdomme land. My thanks go to the generosity of former Imagineer Paul Torrigino (Art Director for Dragon Tower) in our special question-and-answer session. Mark
Getting involved in Beastlie Kingdomme
I'd known Joe Rohde, Animal Kingdom's Executive Designer, since the early 1980s; we both worked in the Tujunga production facility in California. He worked in props and I was in figure finishing. We all had such a good time back then. Then all the projects finished and most everyone there got laid off, but Joe and I stayed on. He went to the model shop and I stayed in figure finishing at that point.
Later we both ended up in the model shop. It was kind of a talent pool back then and each of us would work on any project that needed us; there was John Horny, Chris Tietz, John Stone, Kent Elofson, Julie Swenson, I think Davey Feiten just started. Lots more. Old Jack Fergus was still there, as was Harriet Burns. People like Sam McKim, Claude Coats, Ken Anderson and others since long gone were still around.
Anyway, Joe did some concept sketches for the new Epcot Norway pavilion and I designed the ride, so we worked together at that point.
In the late 1980s to early 1990s I was on the Euro Disneyland project in France, and when I came back to California Joe picked me up to work on his Animal Kingdom projectit was 1992. The project was a whole new concept with Joe at the center of it all. I thought he was a genius to get the whole thing going.
While I'm thinking of it, I think they spelled the land Beastlie Kingdomme. Writer Kevin Brown came up with the spelling and I remember he insisted on the two Ms. He's an expert on medieval lore.
The day I started on the project, I remember Tom Sze handed me a pencil scale sketch on tracing paper showing a layout with a dragon figure in a huge room, and a plan of the same room with some rough dimensions and said something like Here's all we've got for the Dragon ridetalk to Joe. So there wasn't much to go on, except for a concept Joe had in his head. I think there were a couple of rough color storyboard illustrations also that Joe did.
Also they had some rough conceptual calculations of potential THRC (Theoretical Hourly Ride Capacity) numbers and some square footage calculations thrown out there, but not really based on anything, just like a placeholder in the overall park plan. Most of the park was at that early concept stage.
The other main players on Beastlie Kingdomme were Ann Malmlund (overall land producer), Kevin Brown, (writer), Steve Tatum (writer), Maggie Parr (Unicorn Maze designer), and Kent Elofson (Fantasia Gardens designer).
Developing the attraction
The process was, I'd talk to Joe and get his ideas on what he wanted for various aspects of the attraction and then go away for a few days and come back with lots of sketches and ideas, we weeded out the ones he liked best, and then I'd take those and develop them further. Writer Kevin Brown was also involved in this process. I'd make storyboards, and color illustrations and then periodically we'd present to Marty Sklar, the head of Walt Disney Imagineering, and then Michael Eisner, and we'd keep what they liked best or get rid of elements they didn't like.
This process went on for two years. The end result was pretty fabulous I think. I did hundreds of layouts, character designs, vehicle designs and architectural illustrations. I think the biggest challenge of the whole process was getting something just the way Joe wanted it, he had something to say about everything, no detail escaped him. It was great work; I loved that early design concept stage because you could try out all kinds of crazy wonderful ideas. I think it was the best time I had in all my years working there, a real dream project.
The story of the attraction
The basic story of the attraction was that there was a great evil fairy tale dragon that ravaged this medieval castle long ago and he still lived deep inside the castle, in the huge treasure chamber, guarding the treasure. There was a band of bats that also were in the castle, and they wanted to get the treasure from the dragon, so they armed themselves with all kinds of old weaponry and other things they found there and went on a mission to attack the dragon.
I remember working quite a lot on the story at thetime (what little there was of it) and all kinds of logic and analytical questions would come up in meetings like What would the bats need the treasure for anyway? ButI liked to keep it rather simple and not try to make too much sense out of the whole thing, or over explain too much of it, itwas all just for fun anyway. I thought the visuals were the most important partthe experience. In retrospect, I think so many of the attractions we produced over the years could have used a lot less of an elaborate story explanation and more plain old theatrics and spectacle.
My favorite part
I liked the whole thing. Everything was designed in a heavy stylized way, with lots of angled walls and dramatic spaces. The bats were very Marc Davis kind of funny creatures, and we had all kinds of gags for them, they were really cute and they were going to be traditional animatronics. The dragon itself was loosely based on the old Peter Kermode dragon sculpture he did for the Tokyo castle walk-through, but this dragon was a lot more evil, and he wore all kinds of treasure-like jewelry.
Valerie Edwards did the maquette for the dragon, it turned out fabulous; I'm sure it's still there in the sculpture shop. The ride was a suspended coaster, and the vehicle design was a half-melted cauldron hanging from the feet of a bat character. The castle itself was an immense ruin, topped off by a crooked tower. There were all kinds of great spaces in the queue, with animated bat characters, lots of medieval theming and evidence of past battles between knights and the dragon.
One other thing I'll mention, one of my favoritesoutside at the side of the castle in another part of the land, we had a restaurant on a lake and the whole little area was based on mythical sea creatures, I think it was called Loch Ness Landing, (Karen Armitage did the final interior restaurant design) and anyway, in the lagoon we were going to have the Loch Ness monster appear (to the distant sound of bagpipes) from time to time. First you would hear a strange sound from the water, then bubbling would start, then you'd see the humps of the back of the creature surfacing, then finally the giant head would rise up out of the water and gaze at all the people on shore. What a photo spot!
I made a bunch of conceptual renderings and little sculptures for it and then Gene Wiskerson sculpted the creature in a bigger scale a couple of times to get it just the way Joe wanted it. I was really disappointed we didn't get to do it; I think it would have been great.
The shelving of the attraction
We were pretty far along with the design when they canned it in 1994. We had working drawings, the sets were mostly drawn up (Lisa Stein was the show set person for the tower) and we had scale models of most of it. I built models of the entire queue line area in 1-inch scale and we had a model of the dragon chamber and dragon. We had a little model of the ride vehicle and we also did a full-size study vehicle mock-up with George McGinnis.
For the exterior, we had a huge scale model of the entire Beastlie Kingdomme land, with all the rides for it, and it took up the entire shop floor of the old MAPO (Manufacturing and Production Organization) building. It was maybe 80 percent finished when they shut the project down. It was all made on platforms, and you had to crawl on top of it to work on it. There was some great stuff on it, Fantasia Gardens, the Unicorn Maze, Mother Goose's shop, etc. I remember Ann Malmlund doing a terrific job on the Mother Goose shop, like right out a fairy tale.
Oh, and there was a bridge from the main area going over to the dragon tower, and we called it Billy Goat Bridge and near it we were going to have three beautiful French goats in a nice little area. We had all kinds of charming little touches like that all over the land. I remember after they shelved it, I watched the guys crate up all the pieces, very sad. They probably still have it all in a warehouse somewhere.
Aside from that, the main overall model of Animal Kingdom was in the main Imagineering model shop at the time, and Beastlie Kingdomme was represented on it, very detailed. I remember Gene Wiskerson sculpted the dragon tower model for that based on my renderings.
I'm not sure who the ride vehicle vendor was, we had a few engineers on the project who did the vendor interface at that point. They would work with us on vehicle measurements, clearances, speed, capacity, and all kinds of other calculations.
On why Beastlie Kingdomme was kept in the WDW 25th anniversary book Since the World Began, published in 1996
Joe had hopes to do Beastlie Kingdomme after the park opened, so that's why he made every effort to keep it in everyone's mind. I don't know exactly when they gave up on it or why but I'm sure it had something to do about the scope of it; it was a huge expensive land, almost a park itself.
[Note: The image of the entire Beastlie Kingdomme land at the bottom of page 171 of the book is a painting that Paul did giving the layout of the planned land. Mark]
Similarities between Dragon Tower and Islands of Adventure's Dueling Dragons coaster
I don't what similarities there are between our Dragon Tower ride and the Islands of Adventure Dueling Dragons ride because I've never seen it. But I can tell you that there were definitely a few people (I won't say who) who worked closely with us who went over to Universal soon after our project got shelved. Either they were let go, or they left for a better offer. I have no idea if they used any of our concepts or not.
I remember the whole project was canned in January of 1994. I remember the date because when Joe told us, the building was still shaking for a few days right after the big quake of that year.
After that, Joe put Ann and me on the Dinosaur land for AK, I got 'CTX' or 'Dinosaur' and Ann got the rest of the land.
What a great story. Next time, we wrap up our story by traveling through this fabulous attraction, and you can make up your own mind about the Dragon Tower.