The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Live-Action Adventures in Frontierland

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

When we think of film inspired attractions at Disney parks, the animated classics naturally come to mind. Iconic Magic Kingdom experiences—from Dumbo the Flying Elephant to Splash Mountain—owe a debt to the artists and storytellers who worked on the original films—Dumbo from 1941 and Song of the South from 1946.

There are, however, several attractions that connect to the live-action films produced by the Walt Disney Studios, many of which are found in the Frontierland/Liberty Square areas of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Let's take a closer look at two fondly remembered live-action films that will put us in the right frame of mind for a visit to Walt Disney World's Frontierland.

The Apple Dumpling Gang

This tagline of the movie poster for this popular 1975 comedy from Walt Disney Productions was "The Apple Dumpling Gang: Wanted for chicanery, skullduggery, tomfoolery, and habitual bungling!" This clever bit of wordplay captures the tone of this lively comedy Western that follows in the tradition of the James Garner films Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter.

The story is set in the town of Quake City, California, during the infamous gold rush era. Through an extended series of mishaps and misunderstandings, the unlikely duo of gambler Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) and the stagecoach-driving Dusty Clysdesdale (Susan Clark) find themselves stuck with three orphaned children, appealingly played by Clay O'Brien, Brad Savage, and Stacy Manning. In a series of misadventures, the children stumble upon a huge golden nugget. Suddenly, every malcontent in town wants to adopt the three parentless children.

With the help of the bungling duo of would-be bandits Theodore (Don Knotts) and Amos (Tim Conway), Donovan and Dusty try to procure a good home for the children. Throw in a revenge-seeking gunslinger, a helpful curmudgeon of a sheriff, several chase scenes—one involving a mine car and one involving a hook and ladder—lots of slapstick, and a healthy dose of heart and you have all the necessary ingredients for a successful family film. While the film does include many scenes with its capable "grown-up" stars, it also includes many sequences focusing exclusively on children. Much like other popular Disney films such as The Parent Trap, it is this focus on the kids and the adults that makes the film appealing to a wide audience.

As is typical of most Disney live-action films, the sets and scenery are wonderfully detailed and authentic. The town of Quake City was created on the Disney backlot, using the same Western Street featured in many classic Disney films, including Texas John Slaughter and Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus. The authentic sets capture an idealized view of the Old West, complete with a saloon, an upscale Victorian restaurant, an imposing bank, and a street complete with wooden sidewalks. Many of Frontierland's colorful storefronts echo the look of Quake City. The combination of Victorian woodwork and Western ruggedness works. Watch The Apple Dumpling Gang and then stroll the streets of Frontierland: you'll sense continuity

Another memorable set, a spooky abandoned gold mine, was created in one of the Walt Disney Studios larger sound stages. At one point in the film, the three children climb aboard a mine car for a rollicking, uncontrollable ride. Big Thunder Railroad's runaway train shares more than a striking resemblance to this film scene. [It is also my belief that the mine car sequence from The Apple Dumpling Gang and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad itself provided inspiration for the runaway mine car scene Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, but that's another story.]

The look and feel of the gold mine scenes are echoed in the design of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The queue, for instance, is filled with atmospheric details like authentic mining antiques, Southwestern plants, heavy weathered beams, and dark, winding passageways. I have little proof that there is a link between this film and this attraction, but there is an undeniably similar "feel" to both artistic expressions. One tangible bit of proof I have is an audio one. Listen closely, and you might just hear the theme music from the film that was typically played during the scenes with Amos and Theodore.

Johnny Tremain

This 1957 film, based on the Esther Forbes 1944 novel, is set during the turbulent years leading up to the American Revolutionary War. The story focuses on young Johnny Tremain, an apprentice silversmith. After a freak accident, Johnny is unable to continue his apprenticeship. Through a sequence of events including the secret of his ancestry, Johnny becomes entangled in the growing movement towards independence. He and his young friends, Rab and Cilla, become more and more involved with the Sons of Liberty, the group of rebels organizing against the British. Johnny witnesses and participates in historical events such as the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's Ride, and the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

While none of the plot elements of this film are referenced in the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square, the look and feel of the film's sets and stunning Peter Ellenshaw matte paintings are wonderfully realized in the design of Liberty Square's buildings. From the façade of the Hall of Presidents to the Riverboat Landing, authentic-looking architecture transports visitors to the Colonial Era. Little details like the window glass and flower boxes at the Liberty Tree Tavern echo Colonial Williamsburg to great effect. The interior spaces of these buildings—particularly the cozy nooks and crannies, thick woodwork, low ceilings, and the period specific bric-a-brac of the Liberty Tree Tavern—help guests forget that they are dining in a theme park.

Huge, established trees surround this area, particularly behind in current Christmas Shoppe. This landscaping detail—and the welcome shade it provides—reinforce the theme and adds authenticity to the location. The huge Liberty Tree, hung with 13 lanterns to represent the original 13 colonies, is a destination in and of itself. When the Fife and Drum Corps performs in the square, the music never fails to lift spirits and reinforce that out-of-fashion sense of American pride and patriotism that was very much in style when Liberty Square opened in 1971, just five years before America's Bicentennial Celebration.

While most of Johnny Tremain's contributions to Liberty Square are subtle and mostly atmospheric, there are two direct references to the film. The first is visual. The sign above the Silversmith Shop reads "Johnny Tremain, Proprietor." Musically, "The Liberty Tree" song is heard instrumentally as background music throughout Liberty Square and is often performed live by the marching band.

Disney details

While these little connections to much loved Disney films may go completely unnoticed by many guests, they are very satisfying to countless Disney fans. It's a tribute to Walt Disney's talented team of filmmakers that so many of the films produced by Walt Disney Productions are of such high quality that they continue to entertain new generations as well as inspire Imagineers as they design and build Walt Disney parks.