The Exotic World of WDW Adventurers and Explorersby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As hard as it may be to believe, the Adventurers Club opened in May 1989, making last year the 30th anniversary of its opening. For those who experienced its unique entertainment, the memories are still strong and beloved.
"Kungaloosh!" was the familiar greeting at the interactive themed nightclub at Pleasure Island in Walt Disney World, which opened as one of the original clubs and quickly garnered a passionate cult-like following of Disney fans.
For the most part, the Adventurers Club continued to provide the same type of entertainment for almost two decades. It was meant to resemble a 1930s World Explorers' club decorated with many "treasures and artifacts" brought back from far-off expeditions.
Many of those artifacts were not as inanimate as they first appeared and often came to life unexpectedly throughout the evening to entertain the guests. Official club officers and members interacted with the guests the entire evening by telling stories and introducing them to the club's customs and activities.
The announced reason for having an "Open House" for new members to be allowed into the exclusive club every evening was to help pay off the lease on the building "one drink at a time" at one of the three bars in the building.
A large sign outside the entrance proclaimed: "Welcome to the Adventurers Club! You who crave danger and snicker at fear will find most agreeable company here. Thrill seekers, nomads, high-flyers and low, rovers, explorers and getters of go, from every far corner, you'll meet at this hub. The world is your oyster. The pearl is our club! Tonight!"
Situated toward the top of the winding Hill Street, the odd looking building exterior was decorated with a variety of strange surprises from a crashed plane on the front lawn to monkey skulls on spears and ancient pottery cluttering the entrance.
The logo for the Adventurers Club, a globe and compass with overlapping banners, was created by Imagineer Joe Rohde as an homage to the logo of the True Life Adventures film series made by the Disney Company in the 1950s.
The active members included Hathaway Browne (daredevil aviator and ladies' man), Otis T. Wren (club treasurer and ichthyologist), Fletcher Hodges (club curator), Pamelia Perkins (club president), Samantha Sterling (explorer), Emil Bleehall (from Sandusky, Ohio and contender for the Balderdash Cup), Graves (club butler) and the maid. Over the years, there were a variety of maids including Sugar Snapp, Kiki McGee, Gabby Normal, Beullah Belle, Gabby, Tallulah, Annelle, Yvette, and Dusty Cabinets.
The club was also home to some not-quite-human members, as well, including Fingers Zambezi (the invisible spirit who played the organ in the library); Colonel Critchlow Suchbench (club glee master and chief of club security who in actuality was a large scale puppet torso nailed to a chair in a balcony on the wall); Babylonia (the great stone goddess whose talking head was nailed on the wall over the restroom entrance); the Yakoose (half-moose and half-yak who instead of being sent to the taxidermist was mistakenly sent to the upholstery shop); Beezle (the head of a genie who floated mysteriously in a lamp in a cabinet in the Treasure Room); and Arnie and Claude (two talkative masks in the Mask Room).
The festivities each night included shows devoted to honorary member inductions, the Balderdash Cup competition, an episode of the radio cliffhanger Tales of the Adventurers, and some odd activities in the Treasure Room and Mask Room. These were the primary shows that delighted guests over the years. Other shows, especially for holidays or special events, also came and went.
Jim Steinmeyer, legendary designer of magical illusions and theatrical special effects who was working with Imagineering at the time the club was designed, told me, "I really think that the Adventurers Club is a perfect blend of two personalities: Joe Rohde and Roger Cox. You see Joe's sense of visual fun and old fashioned adventure, and you experience Roger's offbeat humor and loving evocation of these old-fashioned, bigger-than-life personalities. It was a project that fell outside of the usual Disney formula, and worried everyone before it opened. Roger was very un-Disney in his thinking and Joe was always deliberately pushing the envelope."
Larry Hitchcock, who worked on the Pleasure Island project and was responsible for bringing in Cox as the show writer concurred, "I agree Roger delivered the text, and Joe the visuals but they pushed and fulfilled each other. Roger's prose painted a picture. Joe's art suggested a story."
Steinmeyer summed up the continuing appeal of the experience, "To me, the charm of the Adventurers Club was that it was eccentric and unexpected. The humor was unpredictable and off beat. But it all seemed to make perfect sense, unto itself. That's the comfort of the Adventurers Club, really. You've gone to someone else's party. They've been throwing that party for a long time. They're experts at it. But over the years, it's taken on all of their personalities and quirks. Audiences felt they'd fallen into a rabbit hole and experienced another world."
Many celebrities attended the Adventurers Club over the years, including Bob Hope, Robin Williams, George Lucas, Neil Patrick Harris, John Lithgow, Jim Henson, Gilbert Gottfried, David Ogden Stiers, Leslie Nielsen, Liza Minelli, and a host of others.
The popular Comedy Central animated series South Park ran an episode titled "The Return of Chef" (March 22, 2006) where Chef had been brainwashed by a club called the "Super Adventurers Club" composed of explorers who molested children around the world. The interior of the club includes many items familiar to those who visited the P.I. Adventurers Club, including the Main Salon with Babylonia on the wall and the Artemision Bronze ("Zeus with a Fishing Rod"). One of the co-creators and writers of the show, Trey Parker, spent his honeymoon at Walt Disney World and visited the Adventurers Club.
The famous Jekyll & Hyde Club restaurant "for eccentric explorers and mad scientists where our guests can eat, drink and socialize among the unusual and the bizarre" in New York that closed in 2015 with its live oddball characters and animatronic props was inspired by its creator visiting the Adventurers Club.
References to the Club, which, sadly, closed its doors in September 2008, appeared in the queue at Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise attraction.
The term "Kungaloosh" survives as a dessert in Adventureland's Skipper Canteen and also as a secret drink not on the menu at Trader Sam's. At the Aulani resort in Hawaii (also designed by Rohde), a portrait of the members and a letter from Club president Pamelia Perkins hangs in Aunty's Beach House.
In real life, some of the distinctive props in the club made their way to Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Point. One of Imagineer Harper Goff's final illusions, a sinking ship in a bottle, made its way from the Adventurers Club library room to behind the bar at Trader Sam's in Disneyland.
Despite the closure of the club, the concept remained so beloved that some of the original performers recreated their characters for special Walt Disney World convention events over the years.
Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment itself tried to capture lightning in a bottle by creating a different form of a distinctly American adventurer group for conventions and special dinners that never seemed to capture the same magic, even though the group was composed of some of the same performers from the Adventurers Club. It was called PSHHAA! (Preservation of the Secret Society of Historical American Adventurers). The characters were Abigail Adams, Clementine Darling, Professor Beauregard Jackson, Edison Jersey Brown, Ace Spitfire, Bitsie and Ragtime Rags.
Their motto was: "We re-enact the stories just to say that we've been there. We charge the hill and wave the flag living history from our chair. From the wide open prairies to the purple mountains hue, we salute the eagle feather as we stuff the gobbler true. We're obsessive, faithful, loyal and with patriotic pride, we preserve our country's history but we never go outside!"
When this attempt failed, according to Imagineering, there was yet another group of fearless adventurers with somewhat tentative connections to the Adventurers Club. Formed on August 12, 1538, the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.) began attracting the attention of Disney fans in 2001 with the opening of Tokyo DisneySea. The organization began in the 1500s with the founding members being Ferdinand Magellan, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Frances Drake, Tycho Brahe, Vasco Da Gama, and Cristova Colom.
In the Fortress Explorations area, designed by Scott Chase, a type of museum of fanciful items enchants guests including a seismic recording station embedded in Mount Prometheus where S.E.A. members tracked and recorded the volcano's activities. Fortress Explorations is the home base of S.E.A and a bronze plaque near the water's edge touts: "We, the members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, herewith establish Explorers' Landing in order to promote the sharing of nautical and scientific knowledge for world exploration."
However, as the legend of S.E.A. started to expand to other Disney parks, Disney literature, under the direction of Imagineer Joe Lanzisero, seemed to indicate that the organization was actually founded in the late 1800s by Captain Mary Oceaneer, Harrison Hightower III, Dr. Albert Falls, Barnabas T. Bullion, Lord Henry Mystic, and Jason Chandler.
Captain Mary Oceaneer is a treasure-hunting heroine and world-famous oceanographer who was accompanied on her travels by her parrot companion, Salty. The Oceaneer Labs on the Disney Cruise Line, in particular the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, were supposedly inspired by Mary and her high-seas exploits to enhance the voyages for children.
Her back story is that she and her parrot found pirate treasure on and below Castaway Cay and established the first Pirate Party onboard the ship. The amazing Miss Adventures Falls attraction at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon Water Park is a notable tribute to Captain Mary. Her goal was to sail the seven seas and collect treasures from numerous ports of call to share with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, during her travels, her ship was caught in an unexpected storm and swept to Typhoon Lagoon where her deep-sea artifacts were scattered throughout the location.
In the attraction, guests see some of those unique items, as well, as the damaged hull of the ship where Mary's diving-partner, Duncan the parrot (perhaps his nickname is "Salty"?) is scanning the terrain through a telescope and interacting with riders. Nearby is Mary's diving bell with the S.E.A. motto, "Exploration Continua," and underneath is Atlantean lettering first created for the Disney animated feature film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) that states "I come in peace."
According to the Imagineering back story, Mary's ship, the RV Oceaneer Lab's maiden voyage took place on July 30, 1898 (referencing the first voyage of the Disney Magic in 1998). It served as Mary Oceaneer's floating base for her deep-sea diving excursions and treasure hunting expeditions. Artifacts line the walls of the ship's public areas. These include a golden sword found on a deep sea dive on December 5, 1901 (with her parrot Salty's custom diving suit accompanying it) to a more recent expedition to Castaway Cay that yielded a variety of buried treasures. Items relating to other members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers like Henry Mystic and Harrison Hightower III are also on display.
A scroll posted by a dagger on the wall proclaims: "Welcome to the Oceaneer Lab! I sincerely hope you enjoy the assemblage of artifacts, treasures and technologies gathered from ports of call all over the world. My top-notch crew will make your visit a memorable one. Captain Mary Oceaneer." At the bottom is a raised red seal of the S.E.A. (Society of Explorers and Adventurers)
Harrison Hightower III is represented at Tokyo DisneySea by the magnificent Hotel Hightower, Japan's version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Japanese guests were unfamiliar with the popular classic American television series so another back story had to be created.
The hotel was built by Harrison Hightower who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Imagineer Joe Rohde. Clever Disney fans might also make the connection that the final husband of Constance Hatchaway in 1877 at the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World is George Hightower, Harrison's supposed brother.
Pictures in the Hotel Hightower lobby display Harrison absconding with priceless ancient treasures from around the world much to the dismay of the local populations. On New Year's Eve in 1899 at an exclusive party to show off his ill-gotten collection, an unfortunate incident occurred with a cursed idol known as Shiriki Utundu and Harrison disappeared. Thirteen years later in 1912, the building was reopened in an attempt to preserve it, but strange things started happening to guests touring the property.
Lord Henry Mystic, the owner of Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, also toured the world, but, unlike Harrison, did not steal the treasures he collected or conned the natives. Mystic even made friends with a mischievous monkey named Albert that he saved from a giant spider in Africa. The curious Albert plays with a new acquisition, an ancient music box that grants life to the lifeless, and suddenly guests riding the attraction are in the middle of a chaotic collection that has mystically been brought to life.
The queue features black-and-white photographs on the wall showing the opening of Mystic Manor in 1896, and a group portrait of the founding members of S.E.A. dated 1899. There's also a Mystic Freight Depot Stage, the Archives Shop, and an Explorer's Club Restaurant, all connected within the same S.E.A. back story.
Dr. Albert Falls was the founder of the Jungle Navigation Company and the illustrious namesake of the Walt Disney World Jungle Cruise's Schweitzer Falls. After he died, his granddaughter Alberta Falls inherited the cargo business and transformed it into a popular tour and later added a restaurant named the Skipper's Canteen in the company's headquarters.
While most guests eat in the old Skipper's Mess Hall, behind a corridor of bookshelves is the secret meeting room of S.E.A. packed with unusual memorabilia of the members.
A careful examination of the bookshelves will provide amusement. Some books reference Disney parks ("The Eyes of Mara" by Jones, obviously a reference to Indiana Jones and the Disneyland attraction), Imagineers ("Crooning Flowers" by Sherman and Sherman referring to the Disney composers the Sherman Brothers and their songs for the Enchanted Tiki Room), in-jokes ("Friends for Dinner" by T. Sam, a reference to Trader Sam the cannibal from the Jungle Cruise attraction) as well as some books that are just silly wordplay ("Spotted Tigers" by G. Rowl) or punny amusement ("Fleas Navidad and Other Winter Insects").
The secret meeting room of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.) is behind the bookcase and is accessed by pulling on a volume of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
Here are a handful of the many delightful titles that refer to S.E.A. members:
- "In Search of the Yeti" by Harrison Hightower III. Hightower's appearance was based on Imagineer Joe Rohde, who was the artistic director for Disney's Animal Kingdom and especially Expedition Everest which features a yeti. Hightower has several different books on the shelves including "Treasures of the Animal Kingdom."
- "A Manor of Fact" by Mystic is a reference to Henry Mystic and Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland. He is also represented by other books including "Treasures from the Manor" and "Primates as Shipmates," referring to his mischievous pet monkey Albert, who causes trouble in the attraction.
- Captain Mary Oceaneer wrote "Parrots as Pets," referring to her diving companion parrot Salty. She also wrote "Charting Course," as she is an ocean traveler.
Barnabas T. Bullion is the president and founder of the Big Thunder Mining Company at Big Thunder Railroad at Walt Disney World. His glaring portrait looks suspiciously like Imagineer Tony Baxter who designed the attraction. By the way, that middle initial of Bullion's name officially stands for "Tony."
According to the official Imagineering back story:
"Barnabas T. Bullion is the founder and president of the Big Thunder Mining Company. The longtime mining magnate comes from a powerful East Coast family and considers gold to be his very birthright by virtue of his oddly appropriate name; in fact, he considers the ultimate gold strike to be his destiny. And that is why he is having so much trouble with Big Thunder Mountain.
"According to superstitious locals, Big Thunder Mountain is very protective of the gold it holds within, and the unfortunate soul who attempts to mine its riches is destined to fail. And so far that prophecy is coming to pass. The mine has been plagued by mysterious forces and natural disasters ever since. And yet the Big Thunder Mining Co. is still in operation.
"In fact, Bullion is discovering new veins of gold and digging new shafts every day, offering a closer look at the Big Thunder mining operation than ever before. But a word to the wise for anyone attempting to visit the mountain: watch out for runaway trains."
The drilling device that disturbed the spirits of the mountain was the invention of Jason Chandler, another founding member of S.E.A. Chandler was a character created by Tony Baxter for his unrealized Discovery Bay project for Disneyland and also appeared in early version of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad concepts.
According to the Spring 1992 issue of Disney News magazine:
"A young inventor circa 1849 named Jason Chandler devised a drilling machine with the capability of boring into the very heart of Big Thunder Mountain. But a cave-in occurred on Big Thunder Mountain, burying 26 miners alive.
"They would have drawn their last breath then and there, had it not been for the inventor and his laughable drilling machine. He burrowed down into the Earth's core, rescuing the miners from certain death."
Chandler then established a scientific outpost in Northern California named Discovery Bay and funded research into strange and unusual technologies and salvaging the remains of the Nautilus and continuing Captain Nemo's scientific work.
Letters in the queue of the Big Thunder attraction from Jason Chandler to Barnabas T. Bullion have him discussing the drilling machine and warning Barnabas that with all the supernatural incidents, it might be better to move mining operations away from the mountain.
S.E.A. was clearly inspired by the concept of The Adventurers Club, but veered from the Monty Python-like silliness of its members, rituals and traditions into a more semi-serious approach that has established a new world of adventure.
It has been awhile since new additions to the S.E.A. mythology have appeared in the parks and Disney fans have not embraced the mythology as eagerly as they did the quirkiness of the Adventurers Club but I suspect we haven't seen the last of this historic and fictitious organization. New discoveries await to be discovered!