Craig McNair Wilson Remembers the Adventurers Club

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

As I was researching Pleasure Island and the Adventurers Club, my good friend and Disney historian Jeff Kurtii directed me to Craig McNair Wilson who was the artistic director of an Orlando improvisational theater group known as SAK (link). Wilson was responsible for the “trunk shows” at Epcot, where actors came out with a trunk of props and costumes and recruited guests to help in their presentation. Later, Wilson was also involved with the training of the original actors who comprised the “Streetmosphere” performers at the Disney-MGM Studios.

Currently, Wilson works as a consultant specializing in creativity (Web site and blog). He was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about the origins of Pleasure Island and the Adventurers Club and here is a short excerpt of some of the information he shared with me that has never before appeared in print. Some of his insights have appeared in my previous columns about the Adventurers Club.

Wade Sampson: How did you get started at the Walt Disney World theme parks?

Craig McNair Wilson: I was artistic director at SAK theater, an improvisational theater company in Orlando that created all the street theater at Epcot. Initially we had a three-month contract just for Italy from Opening Day (October 1, 1982 through the end of the year). Our immediate popularity led to Disney “Creative Entertainment” asking if we had enough additional “Saktors” to add a troupe to the United Kingdom. Since SAK had been in existence since August 17, 1977, we had a roster of almost 60 trained street performers and had been sending SAK troupes to more than 30 Renaissance Festivals and other street fairs every year. We doubled our strength and had our UK troupe in place before Thanksgiving of EPCOT’s opening year (1982). Eventually SAK was producing five different projects in EPCOT—[in World Showcase:] Italy’s Il Teatro di Bologna (“Boloney Theatre”), UK’s Renaissance Street Theatre Co., and, in Future World: Robot Show, Mr. Intelligence (aka Miss Intelligence), and the enormously popular Gutfred & Myrtle (a senior citizen couple that were lost in Future World and got separated in line at various major attractions).

SAK remained at Epcot for eight years and produced 42,000 EPCOT shows, hundreds of convention shows and developed numerous other proposals for others, including: Disney Story Talers for the Magic Kingdom. Audiences loved it, but the Magic Kingdom management didn’t want to “copy” EPCOT. The two show we created—The Adventurers of Pinocchio and Snow White and a Couple of Dwarfs (“Budget cut!”) were picked up by the Disney Travel Company and used all over North America at big travel shows.

Sampson: How did you become involved with the Pleasure Island project?

Wilson: I became involved in the Pleasure Island project in1985 after a few meetings at EPCOT with various WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering] guys [Bob Weis, Randy Bright, Rick Rothchild]. My SAK Theatre partner, Herb Hansen, and I were invited to come out to WDI [Glendale, Calif.] for "a few days" to "take a look at some projects we’re playing with" and see if we had any ideas about “adding live actors to them.”

One of the very first questions was what it’s like to work in a Disney theme park, given our free-spirited ways. I said that park management was very rigid, formulaic, and strict! "I think their ideal theme park attraction would be an empty building (requiring no maintenance) with a turnstile and a long line."

The entire room screamed with laughter and applause. I had just stepped into a long-time tension between WDI and many of the key folks who run the parks. WDI loved us.

Sampson: What information were you given on the project?

Wilson: We were briefed on (very little other than a few early ideas existed) "Disney Studios Florida" (just a working movie studio, no attractions, but a small public behind-the-scenes-tour), Typhoon Lagoon (with no name or theme yet), and the big idea to transform the WDW Shopping Village into a restaurant and nightclub district with a few shops and one huge Disney stuff store.

The "nightclub district" got its own team:  Rick Rothchild (show producer), Chris Carradine (architect), Joe Rohde, John Kavelin (later was designer for the jazz club that became Neon Armadillo), myself and then later Tony Anselmo (designed and directed the interior effort for Mannequins), and one or two others like Tom Sherohman (voice of the Yakoose) who was an improv whiz who was the original director at the Comedy Warehouse and of course, Roger Cox, director and writer for Adventurers Club. Roger Cox was brought on to be the day-to-day show director of the Adventurers Club and he brought me in at night to work with his theatrically experienced cast on audience interaction. Roger Cox was enamored of SAK at EPCOT and what I was inventing with 'Streetmosphere' (my word) at Disney-MGM Studios. He wanted that same texture in the Adventurers Club, especially in interaction with guests. I wish I could dig back 20 years to recall all the artisans and craftsmen and women at WDI who built, designed, fabricated, remodeled, and decorated props, furnishings, and finishes for the club. It was a small army of unsung geniuses.

Sampson: Where did the concept of an island come from as the location for this nightclub district?

Wilson: One day Chris Carradine asked, "Has anyone ever been to Vancouver? Have you been to Granville Island?" I had been there and knew where Chris was going. An industrial/fishing/sailing (light manufacturing) island under a huge bridge that was being transformed into shops, theatres, restaurants, cafes, galleries, and still several boat repair and other light industry. Chris set us on a course to concoct our very own old industrial area—fallen on hard times—and do a Disney reuse, a la Ghirardelli Square here in San Francisco.

At some point we dug out an aerial photo of WDW Shopping Village and noticed a little peninsula at the far end, adjacent to the Lilly Belle restaurant and how easy it would be to make it an island. We began to riff and created the mythology and backstory of Merriweather Adam Pleasure. We all improvised it and it grew and grew. Mostly it was the minds of Carradine, Rohde, and me. Rothchild threw in a lot, too. At one point the full mythology was way too long and Marty Sklar called me into his office and asked me to rewrite it in one “voice” and make it pithy, brief, and fun. The now-famous Pleasure Island plaques were excerpted from that document: "The Final, Ultimate, Semi-Official History of Pleasure Island."

Sampson: What were the original clubs planned for Pleasure Island?

Wilson: We wanted a T.G.I Fridays (open 24 hours) where the Portobello Yacht Club is today. We presented Marty [Sklar] with a menu of 50 food, entertainment and retail ideas for Downtown Disney. There were a few Disney attractions in the mix that various teams had been playing with, including 'Do-It-Yourself-Disney' that became DisneyQuest. The list included House of Blues, T.G.I. Fridays, an old world family Italian restaurant themed after Tony’s from Lady & the Tramp, a 1940s era Hollywood Canteen (dance and supper club), All That Java (coffee amd jazz club), Villains—(a.k.a. Villains Volt) an "underground," haunted night club themed on classic Disney villains (this is before the villains shop in Disneyland), 100 Acres (a la Winnie the Pooh) night time "day care" while adults shop and dine.

A wharf-side eatery that was internationally themed. It was like Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, but the entrance was down a side street, through a metal door on a warehouse, with a single lightbulb over the door. A beat up old metal sign on the wall by the door said P.M. Imports, Ltd. The place was to be called Pablo-McNair’s Shanghai Cantina Deluxe. This would be the Adventurers Club, with food! More characters, and a floor show with house band. I still intend to build that joint, maybe here in San Francisco. The key is the waterfront... with an old Chinese junk and/or Ruskie Sub parked out back by the expansive dock (out door pub).

A 24-hour diner inspired by Orlando’s Bubble Room, but completely decorated (stuffed) with antique Disney memorabilia. From the outside it would be a classic, stainless steel American dinner with flashing neon sign. Inside, hearty dishes with the best Disneyana we could find, buy, and borrow including authentic Disney movie props. The name would have been “W. Elias.”

Sampson: So where did the concept of the Adventurers Club originate?

Wilson: It came out of our collective, shared love of the world of the pith helmet and all that circled around it. It was the place we always wanted to go, but it didn’t exist. Joe Rhode had a Sunday afternoon soirée in his backyard in Pasadena theme as “The Last Days of the Raj.” And every second Sunday for years we went to the Rose Bowl swap meet and bought stuff: rugs, masks, statues. There’s also more than a pinch of Rick’s Cafe (Casablanca).

We all went to see and experience Tamara, a live theatrical, multiroom play in Los Angeles. Tamara was a major influence in Adventurers Club. Chris Carradine and I saw the show three or four times together and a few times more with others. Ten actors; 150 in audience that was allowed to follow the character(s) of their choice throughout an Italian Villa in the late 1930s. It took place in an old Elks hall in Los Angeles. At intermission there was a buffet dinner and after the show a no-host bar, with the cast (in civilian clothes, out of character.)

Sampson: What inspired the physical design of the Adventurers Club?

Wilson: The physical design of the club grew out of Chris Carradine’s brilliant and dangerous mind. Chris explained it to me on a series of cocktail napkins, late one night in NYC. It had been Merriweather Pleasure’s house. "There are twice as many rooms as Adventurers Club guests will ever see." I recall telling Chris, at the time, "When the Adventurers Club is a huge hit, we should ad a few new rooms in a big PR blitz. New treasures, now arriving from around the globe... Adventurers Club: bigger, wilder, crazier. Kungaloosh!"

Sampson: So you always thought that the Adventurers Club would be a huge success?

Wilson:  Almost a full year before Pleasure Island opened, I stood in what is now the mask room of a concrete block shell of the Adventurers Club. There was Eisner, Rothchild, Carradine, and me.

I said, "Take this place and drop it into Midtown Manhattan, add a 200-seat restaurant—in the same theme— and when there are lines around the block in January, build and Adventurers Club in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle…"

Adventurers Club was a huge hit. Meanwhile, a stock broker in NYC—who loved all things Disney but especially Pleasure Island and Adventurers Club—built a place called Jekyll & Hyde Club (with restaurant, walk-around characters, secret entrance like Magic Castle)... and I stood in line in January to get in. They even hired away several of the actors I had trained from Streetmosphere at Disney-MGM and Adventurers Club. When I met the manager, he said, "It is based on and totally inspired by the Adventurers Club at WDW."

The Adventurers Club was like no other entertainment experience anywhere and it was never the same show twice. That was the plan and that was what happened. The club itself is a character in the show. The whole place is a huge surprise to guests. They’ve never seen, visited, or experienced anything like it. That’s why they come back, and back, and back, and…

Instead of closing it, I would expand it to include a restaurant and open it from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. We’d serve lunch and dinner and in the afternoon a hard ticketed Mystery Meal with food, cast, clues, and prizes. I always wished there was a deck, pier and boat launch to do Adventurers Cruises on Lake Buena Vista, every hour on the half hour. Short, 30-minute cruises with a special on board bar, snacks and a high-seas adventure (mini show that is only performed on the boat—the SS Merriweather). The Adventurers Club gift shop with adventure gear and souvenirs: passport to get stamped through out the club, boat, etc… pith helmets, khaki jacket with emblem, canvas adventure bags, totes, rucksacks, etc. (some of the gear that was in the original “Avigators” shop when PI opened). I still have my great leather bag from there.

Sampson: Was it intentional that the Adventurer’s Club logo resembled the True-Life Adventures logo?

Wilson: It may be a small tribute, an homage. The Graphic Design department at WDI liked to "reference" other images to give clues. It’s a way of 'quoting' something that is visual and thereby giving first time visitors a hint as to what’s up.

Sampson: Where did the character names originate?

Wilson: I recall brainstorming a raft of character names for the live show club members. As I recall, some of the names on the Membership Plaque were the rejects or potential future characters. At one point we thought each actor would have their own character name.

Hathaway Browne was in my original script, but named Hamilton Beach. Things change. I think we discussed using our own real life initials for several characters, but decided not to limit ourselves. Some may have sneaked in their mother’s maiden name, but none ring a bell other wise. Madame Zenobia was initially the hostess of the Magic Club that became the jazz club that became the country/western club.

Sampson: Outside the Adventurers Club, why are there three ape skulls and three human skulls on poles?

Wilson: The county building code limit on displaying skulls outdoors in Florida is six.

Sampson: Of course, I should have realized. It is so obvious. Thank you for sharing your memories.