Discovering Discovery Bayby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Imagineer Tony Baxter said, "Of all the Disney Park projects that have not been realized during my years as an Imagineer, Discovery Bay stands out as the most intriguing. It was to be a place in time, a Victorian approach to science that occurred in the late 1800s. It would have been the location where Jules Verne or H.G. Wells would have set their stories."
In 1976, it was announced that Disneyland would include a new land representing a nineteenth century Barbary Coast San Francisco bridging the thematic gap between Fantasyland and Frontierland. In fact the two lands would be physically connected by a sky-balloon attraction similar to the Skyway called Professor Marvel's Balloon Ascent.
It would have been located in the northern part of Frontierland now occupied by Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. It would answer the question about what happened to all the gold that was taken out by the miners from Big Thunder Mountain.
They didn't just recklessly spend the wealth in the city of Rainbow Ridge at the saloon and other establishments. Once the earthquake reclaimed the mountain's treasure, the miners who struck the mother lode packed up their wagons and fortune and continued to follow the Gold Rush to the west coast.
The majority of the gold was used to fund a remarkable harbor area called Discovery Bay near San Francisco. It wasn't just a historical recreation like much of the original Frontierland but an area that balanced reality and fantasy. It would be an alternative universe Victorian era location featuring astounding architecture, cultural melding, lush botanical gardens and technological marvels.
This location was an international coastal city for explorers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, and scientists living and working in a golden, seaside port of crystalline towers, Steampunk technology, hot air balloons, gadgets, and timeless wonder.
Imagineer Tony Baxter created an entire mythology and many interesting inter-related characters. He was teamed with Imagineer Harper Goff to come up with some imaginative concept designs.
When discussing Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a 1992 issue of Disney News printed the previously unknown story of Jason Chandler who was the founder of Discovery Bay:
"The highly imaginative tale includes the legend of a young inventor, named Jason Chandler, who lived in a town called International Village during the peak gold rush years in the Big Thunder region-circa 1849.
"According to the chronicles, the young inventor devised a drilling machine with the capability of boring into the very heart of Big Thunder Mountain. There, the veins of gold ran so deep, it was rumored they could produce a mother lode that would bring a man enough wealth to last a hundred lifetimes and more.
"But a cave-in occurred on Big Thunder, burying 26 miners alive. They would have drawn their last breath then and there, had it not been for the inventor and his drilling machine. He burrowed down into the Earth's core, rescuing the miners from certain death.
"It should have been a moment of joy and celebration, but as the men scrambled to the arms of safety, a massive earthquake shook the ground and a cavernous maw opened up, swallowing the inventor and his machine whole.
"The miners, as well as the citizens of the village, struggled day and night against the mountain, trying to dig the young man from his living tomb. But they never saw him, or another nugget of gold, again. Big Thunder had taken its vengeance not only on the miners, but on their wealth as well. The mountain had gone bust, and it became just a matter of time before only ghosts resided there."
Jason Chandler survived the incident and actually dug himself to safety with his machine, but realizing that his inventions might be easily abused he chose to "disappear." He established a new home on the California coast near San Francisco called Discovery Bay.
He decided to fund research for any inventor whose odd ideas had been turned down by everyone else. Today, Chandler is included in the Disney theme park mythology of S.E.A. (Society of Explorers and Adventurers) as one of its founders.
The reason for the creation of this intricate new land was not just to add something new to Disneyland. Frontierland was dying.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, movie theaters and television schedules were filled to overflowing with stories of "cowboys and Indians" of the Old West that were highly popular with audiences. However, two decades later, guests' attention had shifted to outer space and spacemen and tales of the Old West had lost much of the massive popularity that they previously had.
Frontierland's only remaining attraction (other than the water craft on the Rivers of America and the Disneyland Railroad) was an original that Walt had created called the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland. It had been a huge hit when it was first introduced in 1960 as an "E Ticket" attraction but attendance on it had significantly dropped and it had been demoted to "D Ticket" status and suffered escalating maintenance costs.
When he was barely twenty-five years old, Imagineer Tony Baxter was given the opportunity to "save" Frontierland. He was a rising star of the second generation of Imagineers and was being mentored by Disney Legend Claude Coats, responsible for so many of the classic Disneyland attractions.
In fact, Baxter's first major assignment was working under the supervision of Coats to install the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction in 1971 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom but to make it more like the Jules Verne inspired Disney live action movie.
At the same time, Imagineer Marc Davis was developing the Thunder Mesa section for WDW's Frontierland. The massive structure would have included several sections including a river ride attraction similar to Pirates of the Caribbean called Western River Expedition and a runaway mine train. Disney management at the time considered the imaginative concept too expensive.
Baxter proposed the idea of a separate Old West runaway railroad roller coaster attraction and was given approval in 1973 to develop it to enhance both Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Frontierlands.
It evolved into the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad that opened at Disneyland in 1979 after being delayed first for the building of Pirates in WDW and then later for the building of Space Mountain at WDW and Disneyland.
Baxter pitched the idea of using the attraction as the springboard for a whole new section of Disneyland's Frontierland.
Baxter was especially inspired by the Disney live action film Island at the Top of the World (1974) set in 1907 that had Jules Verne elements including the Hyperion airship that was a colorful dirigible with an enclosed gondola that took the adventurers to the Arctic where they found a lost Viking colony. It seemed reminiscent of Verne's technically advanced Albatross airship from his novel Master of the World.
Disney writer Jim Hill shared the Imagineering memo that detailed this new land:
Themed expansion Area for Disneyland
October 12, 1976
Along the Rivers of America in the northern portion of Frontierland lies Discovery Bay. Having as its roots in a "San Francisco of the 1850-1880s," the theme area would bring to life a time and place that climaxed an age of discovery and expansion.
Discovery Bay would reflect the influx of opportunists, dreamers and adventurers that poured into this cultural melting pot after the discovery of gold. The railroad link with the East had brought with it the beginnings of culture and luxury, and the area was now earning its reputation as a "city of myths and eccentricities."
With these parameters established, a Western port city would be a logical and exciting addition to Frontierland.
Such a debarkation point would be a natural for many of our exciting show concepts, as well as some exciting new ones. The flexibility of this once-only-place in time can best be demonstrated through brief sketches of some attraction possibilities.
The area would fan out around a bay inlet from the Rivers of America. Standing on a rock outcropping, the old lighthouse keynotes the styling for this age of mechanical marvels. Here the Columbia would dock, as well as several "set piece" crafts, giving a feeling of international adventure to this frontier port.
Along the docks would be a traditional Chinatown. This version would recreate a Chinese settlement in the days of the Western Frontier, with its exotic food dishes, merchandise, and an unusual attraction called the Fireworks Factory. Here guests could test their marksmanship -- bursting skyrockets, pinwheels, and various firecrackers as they move through a whimsical assembly line.
In another corner, a group of opportunists have set up shop. Among the promises and allures offered are those of a French aerial explorer. He promises brave adventurers a trip aboard a fantastic flying machine to an Island of paradise located at the Top of the World.
With this set-up, we could effectively integrate a very exciting show that has been difficult to fit into the logic of the Park's existing realms. This "Island at the Top of the World" adventure and several others are not really fairy tales for Fantasyland, nor backwoods frontier adventures. But they do date from the late 19th Century, and could use the Discovery Bay location as a debarkation point for adventure.
Another example, the motion picture "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" has its beginning in exactly this type of place. Perhaps a new version of the old Disneyland attraction could be developed. Guests might view the workings of the Nautilus and Nemo's secrets, before dining in an undersea Grand Salon.
A time machine or "dimensional" adventure also works nicely with this 19th Century port, so often the period of time depicted in the writings of Verne and Wells.
Returning now to the streets of Discovery Bay, the facades might include elaborate gaming halls with crystal chandeliers and plush interiors, while the shop windows could reflect the runaway inflation of the golden economy (eggs - $18 a dozen, Room & Board - $100 a day) -- a parody on today's economic situation. Actual shops might include "The Model Works" featuring Disney oriented scale reproductions, and a scientific supplies office.
At the other end of town would be the Railroad Station and the site of Discovery Bay's most unusual attractions. Dominating this area is The Tower, a wild structure that takes guests down a dizzy spiral and into a giant magnetic structure where the forces of magnetism are demonstrated in a most exciting manner.
Also a part of this sector is the great Western Balloon Ascent and Professor Marvel's Gallery, a fascinating visit with the foremost collector of the exotic, weird and whimsical from all over the world.
The cornerstone of this development would be the completion of Big Thunder Railroad. This will allow access to the new area and provide a glimpse of the gold rush fever that paved the way to the land of adventurers and dreamers -- Discovery Bay, Frontierland.
A 1/20th scale model was built of Discovery Bay and displayed in Disneyland's Town Square in the former Wurlitzer Music Hall building that housed from 1973 to 1989 an exhibit entitled Disneyland Presents a Preview of Coming Attractions.
The Walt Disney Company was so excited at one point that they asked Baxter to explore if Discovery Bay could be expanded into an entirely separate theme park gate to be located next to Disneyland. That would have included area outside the berm as well that would have been accessed through some sort of subway. Those plans were later abandoned.
The Discovery Bay adventure would begin along the waters of the Rivers of America.
Along a rocky outcropping, a tall, oddly distinctive Lighthouse beckoned visitors to explore.
Nearby, the classic Sailing Ship Columbia would be docked at its own dock that was full of crates and nets (a cleverly disguised children's play area) with a gang plank leading up to the ship's deck for exploration of the exhibits on its different levels.
Along the water's edge, would be the Chinatown district where Chinese immigrants have settled and built a wharf with restaurants featuring culinary creations from Asia and some shops.
In Chinatown was the Fireworks Factory attraction. Early drafts of Discovery Bay call it a shooting gallery along the lines of Frontierland's existing one with guests "shooting fireworks." Later versions show it as an interactive dark ride as guests in a vehicle on a conveyor belt launch pinwheels, sparklers, and firecrackers while moving along the factory's assembly line.
Ascending down a spiral staircase at the water's edge, guests entered into the half-submerged two hundred foot long Nautilus submarine of Captain Nemo for a walkthrough of the film's most famous scenes including a run-in with the menacing squid. According to the Imagineering back story, Chandler met with seaman Ned Land and with his help located and salvaged the Nautilus from its watery grave where they rebuilt it.
Guests aboard the Nautilus would also find the blueprints for the fantastic power structures that would power Discovery Bay. A simulator ride through Nemo's nautical world called Captain Nemo's Adventure would also be available.
The Nautilus would be home to a luxurious full service restaurant in the submarine's Grand Salon where Nemo's pipe organ would serenade diners as they were surrounded by the plush aesthetic of wrought iron, velvet, and rivets and iron works while they gazed out massive viewing windows at an underwater world.
Towering over the inland area would be a great prismatic glass tower housing a botanical garden all set into the base of a distant, craggy mountain peak. The buildings would look like a lavishly decorated Victorian high society port with elaborate dance hall exteriors, plush chaise lounges, crystal chandeliers, and more that all disguised actual merchandise locations selling artisan crafts, scientific supplies and more.
On a grassy hill just outside of town would be Professor Marvel's Western Balloon Ascent, a Skyway style attraction with guests suspended below hot air balloons to lift up and over Discovery Bay for flights to the nearby Dumbo's Circusland addition that would have been built concurrently with Discovery Bay. It was to be located in roughly the area where the Fantasyland Theater stands. Only the Pinocchio attraction survives from that proposal.
Professor Marvel's Gallery of Wonders was inspired by Imagineer Rolly Crump's never-built Museum of the Weird. It would be housed in a revolving theater (similar to the Carousel of Progress) and would star an inventor and explorer named Professor Marvel who would introduce his menagerie of unbelievable animals, experiments, and inventions during the musical journey.
It would have been reminiscent of a circus sideshow tent or a Victorian fair exhibit. Marvel's most astounding find was his pet green dragon, which faithfully sits on his shoulder as he recounts the magical journeys he's had and shares with the guests the curios and oddities he has collected in his travels.
The big visual icon of the land would have been the massive Hyperion airship docked in a hangar at the river's edge ready to fly off on an E Ticket adventure. The show would have been themed to the movie The Island at the Top of the World and would provide guests "a trip aboard a fantastic flying machine to an Island of paradise located at the Top of the World."
It would have been an early simulator attraction that included extensive use of special effects film footage from the original movie to match the movements of the vehicle.
According to Baxter, The Aurora Borealis would guide the craft to the Polar Ice Cap. During the voyage, turbulent storms cause the dirigible to lower altitude and showcase polar bears and migratory whales. Then the Hyperion maneuvers into a delicate ice labyrinth where the whales attack just like in the movie.
Attempting to escape, the airship crashes through the ice and into the lost island of Astragard, with mystical creatures who are still very much alive. A violent Arctic storm finale necessitates a quick journey back to Discovery Bay. A scripted narration by Peter Renaday would accompany the attraction.
Beyond the Hyperion hangar stood a towering, dormant volcanic mountain with bubbling waterfalls to hide the show building for an attraction called Lost River Rapids. It was also called The Voyage Thru Time.
It would have been based on a proposal by Claude Coats for an attraction that would have connected the Contemporary Resort at WDW with Tomorrowland (much like the Grand Canyon Diorama at Disneyland). It would have been an indoor/outdoor river ride where through time travel technology based on an H.G. Wells concept, guests would have confronted aggressive audio-animatronics dinosaurs putting guests in prehistoric peril in a jungle landscape.
There were already plans in place for expansion once the area opened. The Spark Gap Coaster would have been a family-sized compact coaster much like the later Gadget's Go Coaster or Goofy's Barnstormer that wrapped around tremendous gold towers pulsing with Tesla coil electrical sparks.
In addition would be The Tower that was a roller coaster car being drawn up a spiral lift hill "via magnetism" before a "reversed magnetic polarity" sent it freefalling backwards down a new path through a corkscrew.
Island at the Top of the World (1974) did not perform well either critically or financially. While that failure alone did not seal the fate of Discovery Bay, it certainly contributed to the reluctance to continue with the new land.
Baxter commented, "Executives in Disney management were so skittish that instead of saying 'We did a bad Jules Verne movie', they thought 'Well, people just aren't interested in Jules Verne'. We were banking on the movie but it was an unsuccessful film. We would have been on the leading edge of the entire Steampunk phenomena."
In addition, finances and other resources were being shifted to building Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland so it was easy for this expensive project to disappear without notice.
For another two decades, the Walt Disney Company tried to find something to occupy that prime spot of land other than the Big Thunder Ranch Barbeque. Rumors persisted that Discovery Bay might still be built on those acres. Finally, it became the location for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
In 2014 at D23's Destination Disney, Baxter spent forty-five minutes talking about Discovery Bay and showed restored 35mm footage of the pilot episode of Discovery Bay Chronicles narrated and starring Peter Renaday. The proposed television series was meant to build anticipation about the new land in much the same way the weekly Disney television show did for Disneyland by conveying the stories of the new land.
"I think it would still make a great mini-series with all the characters like a steam punk Avengers," smiled Baxter. "A lot of what we planned is out there but you really have to look for it."
Nothing is ever truly "lost" at Imagineering and some of the ideas for Discovery Bay later appeared elsewhere. For Disneyland Paris, Baxter reformatted Tomorrowland into the world of Jules Verne called Discoveryland and featuring the full-sized Nautilus (with a dining experience) and the Hyperion airship in its hangar.
For Tokyo DisneySea, the Mysterious Island section is themed for Jules Verne's work and includes ideas from Discovery Bay. Fortress Explorations even has a docked sailing ship on the lagoon with a "playground" of crates and boxes just like in Discovery Bay's plans.
Baxter said, "We have seen some of the Discovery Bay elements come to life in Paris and Tokyo, but I would still love to see the original concept come to life at Disneyland."
Professor Marvel and his pet dragon were transformed into Dreamfinder and Figment for Epcot's Journey Into Imagination pavilion. The Fireworks Factory was transformed into a restaurant at Pleasure Island in Florida. Discovery Bay was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.) with new attention given to Jason Chandler.
The single thing of the Discovery Bay project to survive was Big Thunder Mountain which became the signature attraction of Frontierland. It opened in 1979 almost exactly when Discovery Bay including Big Thunder was meant to be completed and usher an exciting new land into the Park.