Celebrating the American Adventureby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Around this time of year with the approach of July Fourth, I usually get a little extra patriotic and also smile about some of the nice memories I have of previous July Fourth holidays.
It is not just the fireworks. I live in Orlando close to Sea World, so I hear and can see their pyrotechnic displays every night as well as the more elaborate ones that rock my house on holidays.
What warms my heart is the fact that it was a time for my entire family to get together. Some years we had a buffet of food and drink that was only red, white and blue. Thank heavens for food coloring, but I learned that some food I loved was not so appealing in those colors.
I also like that—even more than Memorial Day or Veterans' Day—it is a time to remember all those who fought and sacrificed to keep America safe. Fortunately out here in Florida there is the Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom and especially the American Adventure at Epcot to help us all remember.
Speaking of remembering, do you remember the first description of the American Adventure?
"Three of the most eloquent spokesmen in American history, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, will lead a cast of performers 'brought to life' through the Disney Audio-Animatronics process of three-dimensional animation.
"Their message is one of optimism for the future – that in their times too, Americans dreamed of a better tomorrow – and that a nation, founded in liberty and freedom, gives its citizens the opportunity and incentive to build on the great foundations of the past." — Description of the American Adventure show from the 1977 Walt Disney Productions Annual Report
Yes, Will Rogers was supposed to share equal stage time with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Imagineer Randy Bright—who I consider one of the brightest of the second generation of Disney Imagineers—loved Will Rogers, who was a friend of Walt Disney. Before Rogers' death, Walt was talking to him about doing a feature film of Rip Van Winkle with a live action Rogers playing the main character and the rest of the characters and background being animated.
Imagineer Herb Ryman did the concept art for the three spokesmen and sculptor Blaine Gibson created the final figures. For a special exhibit at the Will Rogers Memorial, an eight gallery museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, the Walt Disney Company lent Gibson's study sculpture of Rogers.
The entrance to The American Adventure pavilion.
Both Ryman's and Gibson's work of the American Adventure trio was utilized in publicity promoting the attraction and Epcot. A huge amount of research and expense had gone into the character of Will Rogers. Pages of his quotes were gathered, reviewed, narrowed down and finally several quotes were chosen but only forty seconds of that work exists in the final show.
For Rogers, the Imagineers cleverly designed an Audio-Animatronics figure that could actually spin a rope after intensive study of real people doing so including Will Rogers Jr., who also supplied the voice for the audio-animatronics figure.
Will Rogers Jr. was the son of the late Will Rogers and even looked a good deal like his father. Besides other things, he often impersonated his father on stage and in film like The Story of Will Rogers (1952).
Bright recalled, "I can't tell you what we went through with the 20th Century when we said, 'Who is going to be the spokesman for the 20th Century?' In the earlier phases somebody said, 'Will Rogers, of course.' We took that idea to a college class of about 150 students of political science, about five of whom knew who Will Rogers was, sadly enough. So we learned something there: that we better bring somebody more contemporary into that (role).
"The closer we got to today, the more controversial things became. Everybody had their idea of who that person should be and we probably went through about 300 names, not one of which could you get five people at our table to agree on as the spokesperson for the 20th Century. We're just too close to that period of time. If you flashed forward to a hundred years from now, I think historians would be able to give us a figure to put in (that role)."
Newsman Walter Cronkite was one of the top contenders for the role. Briefly, it was considered using Walt Disney as the spokesman for the 20th Century since he had lived through most of it. Eventually it was decided to just have two spokesmen.
After all of the time and effort put into the Will Rogers figure, the Imagineers shoehorned the character into the Great Depression scene. The figure in the AA presentation uses an actual rope with a lasso loop.
The rope is weighted at the knot of the lasso to help it swing out when the rotation of the arm begins. The real trick was to achieve the right speed and movement of the wrist to create the realistic effect.
Just as with the other characters, great attention to detail was made as to what Rogers wore. The leather chaps that the Will Rogers figure wears were hand crafted by a saddlemaker.
Talented voice actor Dallas McKennon was brought in to record the voice of Ben Franklin. Over the decades he provided many voices for Disney animated films, including some of the dogs in both "Lady and the Tramp" and "101 Dalmatians," and attractions, including the Old Prospector safety spiel for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Zeke in Country Bear Jamboree.
John Anderson supplied the voice of Mark Twain. Anderson had a long career as a working actor in both film and television, including four different roles in the original Twilight Zone television series, as well as performing as President Lincoln three times for various projects.
The reason for the American Adventure was that Walt Disney had a great fascination and love for American history and often had impromptu discussions around the dinner table with his family about the Constitution and America.
Walt received many awards during his lifetime for his devotion to sharing American history, including one from the American Legion "for dramatizing to old and young alike the unique heritage of America."
In 1957, Walt planned an addition to Disneyland to be called Liberty Street that would be themed to the Revolutionary War period like his then recently released theatrical live-action film "Johnny Tremain."
Walt had planned that there would be a show called "One Nation Under God," which would tell the history of the United States and spotlight electro-mechanical figures representing all the Presidents of the United States up to that time. It would have incorporated five motion picture projectors, stereophonic sounds and even "smells" like the odor of gunpowder in battle.
Walt wanted an immersive "magic theater" experience to tell the story of the history of America. However, the technology of the time was unable to match Walt's vision.
In 1971, Walt's dream of a Hall of Presidents was realized with the opening of Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom. In 1982, his plan for a massive magic theater with film and special effects came to fruition with the opening of the American Adventure at Epcot.
"The American Adventure was a show that was conceived from the earliest phases of EPCOT Center as a mainstay in the project," stated Bright who also wrote the lyrics for the song used in the finale Golden Dream.
"The only problem was we didn't realize how difficult it would be to achieve. It's easy to pontificate and say in a quick line or two that it's going to be an inspiring show about America. That's the easy part. Now, how you achieve that and get down in the trenches and make it occur not only wasn't easy, it was a nightmare."
Over the years of development, two different high-powered Hollywood producers pitched concepts, including one that would have had the entire pavilion looking like the top-third of the Statue of Liberty, one of the reasons that idea was recycled into the final scene of the existing show.
"One designer decided that the American Adventure should be a happy, fun ride through with Audio-Animatronics vignettes of characters singing patriotic American songs as you go through," Bright continued.
"Our design philosophy at that point in time was to tell something very salient, very germane to the process of what is America, and we didn't think something that was exclusively couched in music would give the entire picture from that standpoint. So that went away."
It was also considered to tell the story using the characters of American folklore, like Paul Bunyan with concept art done by Imagineer Marc Davis.
"We cheerfully weeded out where we went down the wrong path," Bright said. "We said [that it] should not be a ride-through because you really can't tell important information in a linear fashion that makes sense with a ride-through."
The show recounts 350 years because the Imagineers chose to begin the show not with the Revolutionary War but with the arrival of the Pilgrims.
The show consists of 17 different scenes, most of which needed to take place at center stage. Disney designers came up with a 65' x 35' x 14' moving wagon weighing 350,000 pounds that rumbles nearly silently under the stage and the audience. Ten different sets are mounted on this wagon, and at the appropriate time, the wagon moves into a position that allows the proper set to rise onto stage level.
In addition, there are six stationary sets, four on one side, two on the other, which rise by themselves or together with a set on the wagon. Support pilings driven nearly 300 feet into the ground provide a structurally sound foundation for the wagon and the rest of the building.
Because of the wagon pit's low ceiling, and the height of some of the sets, Imagineers designed telescopic lifts so that the outer frame of the set stays in place, while a frame inside the outer one rises into place a little higher. Another frame comes up from within the intermediate one, adding even more height.
Garments, wigs and any other accessories had to stay clear of the lifts and hydraulics when appearing and disappearing from the stage. Offstage positioning became an important issue as in the case of the feathers adorning Chief Joseph's costume so that items were not damaged or got caught in the mechanics as they moved.
"One of the most difficult tasks was selecting the characters," remembered Bright. "We chose Ben Franklin because we didn't think anybody could be a more lucid spokesperson for the Revolutionary War period of time than the great father of everything from wit to invention to articulation of the American experience. We thought he could bring humor into this. Ben Franklin had it all wrapped up.
"The best spokesman for the 19th Century… we looked at a number of people but ultimately said the one who seemed to be enduring was certainly Mark Twain."
Show signage for The American Adventure.
Perhaps one of the most moving moments in the show is the short film "Two Brothers," which chronicles the lives of two siblings who joined opposite sides during the Civil War — one wore blue and one wore gray.
The two brothers in the photos are actually Imagineers John Olson and Jeff Burke. Their scenes were shot on the backlot of the Disney Studio in Burbank, which had been transformed into different time periods for other live action films over the years.
The New Orleans train station at Disneyland is also used as a location in the scene of the returning coffin. The song is not an original Disney creation, but was written in 1951 by Irving Gordon.
For the show, the vocals were provided by Ali Olmo, who co-wrote (with Danny Jacob) the song "Aloha E, Komo Mai" used in the "Lilo and Stitch" television series and the movie "Leroy and Stitch."
The pavilion was officially dedicated on October 11, 1982, by Disney President Card Walker and top representatives from the original sponsors, American Express and Coca-Cola. Among other reasons for those sponsorships was that Coca-Cola's primary colors were red and white and American Express was blue.
Many historical experts and sources were consulted to try to be as historically accurate as possible. These sources included Dr. Alan Yarnell (Assistant Vice Chancellor at UCLA), the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the photo libraries of The Associated Press and United Press International, as well as many others, to make the presentation as authentic as possible.
In addition to obtaining copies of Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural speech, the Imagineers contacted the Library of Congress for a copy of FDR's unusual Presidential seal to duplicate for his podium.
Other information needed for that Great Depression scene was what type of radio and microphones were used at that time, the price of gasoline and even its color. The shoes for the banjo singer in the Depression scene were found in an old condemned relief mission in downtown Los Angeles.
To duplicate the advertisements of that era, vintage architectural magazines were searched to include old-time ads for Coca-Cola (a company that began in 1886) and American Express (a company that began in 1891).
The pavilion uses forced perspective to make the five story building appear to be about two and half stories tall. Its design is based on the classic Georgian style of the late 1700s used on Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It also incorporates design elements of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and the Old State House in Boston.
Would Walt have loved the American Adventure and that a Disney theme park was finally fulfilling his vision to share the history of the United States?
In 1982 at the dedication ceremonies for EPCOT Center, Diane Disney Miller, Walt's oldest daughter, in a private interview for cast members said, "He would have loved it. Standing in the American Adventure and that wonderful vocal group singing there, all of a sudden I got this image of Dad.
"He was a great sentimentalist. He would watch the flag lowering at Disneyland every evening they (Walt and Lillian) were down there and tears would ripple down his cheeks.
"I got this image of him standing there listening to the group with tears coming down his cheeks. And I know he would be there doing that."
The flag flying over the American Adventure pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase has fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. It was this version of the flag that writer Francis Scott Key wrote about in the poem The Star Spangled Banner in 1814. The song became the national anthem in 1931 by an Act of Congress.
This version of the flag became the official flag of the United States in 1795 replacing the original thirteen stars, thirteen stripes flag adopted in 1777. The original plan was that an additional star and stripe would be added for each new state entered into the union. This remained the official U.S. flag until 1818.
It quickly became apparent that if this continued, the number of stripes would not be appealing. So, the decision was made to just add a star to the star field and keep thirteen stripes to recognize the original thirteen colonies.
By the way, the 14th and 15th stars and stripes represented the states of Kentucky and Vermont.
From the main lobby in Epcot's World Showcase, guests proceed to the American Adventure theater by going up escalators or climbing up stairs through what is referred to as the Hall of Flags (and sometimes called by Disney the Corridor of Flags). Hanging above the guests in rows of three as they make their journey to the upper floor is a collection of over forty flags that have flown over the United States over two centuries.
The Hall of Flags at The American Adventure.
A plaque states "Flags that played a vital role in the rich heritage of America's diverse beginnings. They represent the struggle for independence, famous expeditions by Americans into uncharted regions, independent territories that became states and the evolution of our own Stars and Stripes."
This collection of flags include Revolutionary War flags, Colonial flags, and even foreign flags of countries that once had claim to some sections of the land.
In July 2015, one of the flags was removed. It was the third and last official flag of the Confederate States of America. It was a white flag with a red stripe on one end and a small representation in the opposite corner of the most familiar battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia that people normally associate with the Confederate flag that is generally used in opposition to the civil rights movement.
This was a reaction to various businesses and state governments removing the battle flag as it has come under recent scrutiny as a symbol of racism.
The following is an alphabetical listing of the flags originally displayed, and their date of adoption:
- Alamo Flag – 1824
- Appomattox Courthouse Flag – 1865
- Army Commander in Chief's Flag – 1775
- Bedford Flag – 1690
- Betsy Ross Flag – 1777
- Bucks of America – 1777
- California Republic – 1846
- Centennial Flag – 1876
- Colonial Jack – 1701
- Connecticut Second Regiment – 1776
- Continental Colors – 1776
- Dutch West India Company – 1655
- The 50 Star Flag – 1960
- First Navy Flag – 1777
- Fort Moultrie Flag – 1776
- Fort Sumter Flag – 1865
- 45 Star Flag – 1896
- 48 Star Flag – 1896
- Frémont Flag – 1856
- French Ensign – 1700
- Green Mountain Boys – 1776
- Hawaiian Royal Flag – 1800
- Hayes Flag – 1860
- King George III's Flag – 1607
- Massachusetts Navy Flag – 1776
- Mexico – 1800
- Navy Commander in Chief's Flag – 1776
- New Hampshire Second Regiment – 1777
- New Sweden – 1638
- New York Third Regiment – 1777
- Old Glory – 1865
- Perry Flag – 1813
- Russian-American Company – 1700
- Spanish Bourbon Flag – 1513
- Stamp Act Protest Flag – 1774
- Star-Spangled Banner – 1795
- Stars and Bars – 1861
- Taunton Flag – 1774
- Texas Flag – 1836
- Tricolor – 1789
- The U.S. Flag – 1959
- Washington's Life Guards Flag – 1776
- Whiskey Rebellion Flag – 1794
- White Plains Flag – 1776
In 2018, an all-digital projection system, a new screen and new speakers were installed in the American Adventure that went through two other rehabs since its opening. In addition to the updating from film to digital, the show's finale returned with some notable faces from America's recent history including music composer John Williams, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and noted ballerina Misty Copeland. The iconic anthem "Golden Dream" was also re-recorded with all-new orchestration.
"Although our show is about America, taken with as much authenticity as could be researched," commented Bright, "that's not to say it is American history. It represents some of the great moments, and highlights some of the great doers, but it's also a look at the 'little people' and their contributions to a rapidly developing country, as well as some of the great achievers in history. It's a 100-yard dash capturing the spirit of the country at specific moments in time."
Itís my understanding that the Two Brothers segment has become controversial to some with their calling for its removal. The reason why is somewhat difficult to comprehend but from what I gather goes along these lines. The southern side is presented as equal to the northern side with no judgement made that the southern side was morally wrong and not jjust an equal option to the northern side. Or something to that effect if I understand the complaints correctly. So far Disney has resisted calls to remove, alter or replace this segment with one more condemning of the southern cause. Personally I find this segment moving to the point it can usually bring me to tears, but then Iím a white native born southerner so my perspective may be different .
And thank you, Jim, for another fabulous article in park history!
I'm not a native born Southerner, and this segment has been known to bring me to tears as well.
We did a tour once where we got to go backstage to see the moving wagon, and it was fascinating.