More Untold Tales of Captain EO

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

One thing that bothers me is that there is so much misinformation about Disney history on the Internet and in public tours from supposedly knowledgeable sources. For instance, for a time the Pentagon had a tour where the guides gleefully shared that Walt Disney was dishonorably discharged from the military. In truth, Walt never served in any branch of the military (he was a volunteer with the American Red Cross after World War I) so he couldn't be discharged dishonorably or even honorably.

Diane Disney Miller recently wrote to me about the Petrified Tree Stump that is on the Rivers of America riverbank in Frontierland at Disneyland. For those not familiar with the story, back in July 1956, Walt and his wife Lillian were touring around the mountains of Colorado, near Pike's Peak, and stopped in at Pike's Petrified Forest, an area still in private hands so trees were for sale. Walt picked out a 5-ton, 10-foot high stump. Jokingly, he said he was giving the tree to Lilly as a gift for their 31st anniversary on July 13, 1956. She reportedly decided the gift was better for Disneyland. It took quite some time to dig up the tree and ship it to Anaheim, so it wasn't actually installed until July 13, 1957—their next anniversary. At the same time, a representative of Pike's Petrified Forest offered to sell the entire forest to Walt for Disneyland and, through Bill Cottrell, Walt politely refused.

Diane wrote:

"Evidently the Disneyland tour guides take the gag that he'd given it to his wife for a 31st anniversary gift seriously. Sometimes a gag can be misleading. In one of the biographies of my dad, that incident is cited as an example of dad's supposed self-centeredness. He gave his wife a petrified tree stump for an anniversary gift! Mr. Todd Pierce [who is researching a book on early Disneyland] was puzzled, because he had looked up the records of the sale of the stump, and saw that it was delivered directly to Disneyland, not to our home, as the tour guides tell it. I welcomed the opportunity to set him straight, and he got it. I make a point in our museum of exhibiting some the small thoughtful gifts he did give mother and us … the beautiful little antique bracelets he gave his daughters, an antique necklace of mothers' (which WAS a sacrifice. I loved wearing it). Several of the perfume bottles I'd saved."

The problem is that a story that sounds good is hard to kill. Walt was never frozen after he died, but cremated. No matter how much thoughtful and accurate articles that has been written over the years to prove that Walt was never frozen never seems to prevent that urban myth from still popping up.

Here is a good site debunking the notion of Walt and cryogenics (link).

I am even more disturbed when I am misleading or wrong, because I have tried to build up a level of trust for the stuff I write.

When I wrote about Zorro at Disneyland (link), I wrote that if you wanted to see color film footage of “Zorro Days,” do not look at the Treasures set, but search out a DVD titled "The Original Disneyland—The 1950s from Window to the Magic" (and you can still purchase that terrific DVD at link). Well, there are a few seconds of color film footage of Zorro at Disneyland on the Treasures discs supplied from home movies of the son of Guy Williams. It isn't much, and there is much more on "The Original Disneyland-The 1950s" and, fortunately, a MousePlanet reader pointed out my mistake—and I was wrong to indicate there was none on the Treasures disc even if it was so brief it didn't register immediately in my memory.

When I am wrong or misleading, I will do my best to make those corrections quickly and very visibly. However, sometimes, despite my research (I go to several sources to cross-check information even from original sources I trust and have been accurate in the past), the true story is sometimes just not fully available either because the participants no longer exist or there is no official documentation. (It costs money to store documentation, which is why so much of it has been tossed out over the years.)

When it comes to Disney, there is always more to the story, especially since documentation of projects is often very casual or non-existent and sometimes paperwork is misleading. For instance, someone may be officially listed as the producer but the real work was actually done by someone else. Sometimes, when someone leaves the Disney Company, their contribution to a project is minimized or erased.

In fact, Captain EO is a wonderful example of people trying to build their own little empires (often by overstating their contribution or pointing an accusatory finger at someone else) and, as a result, it got out of control. When I mentioned that Captain EO was a troubled production, I didn't fully appreciate how troubled it was and one of the reasons again was too many chiefs not listening to the common sense of others and the lack of necessary pre-planning.

I was quite flattered when a former Imagineer, who was involved in the Captain EO project, wrote to me after reading my previous column on that project (link) that "a lot of what you wrote was pretty darned accurate" but that there was, as I suspected, even more to the story so I went back and dug a little deeper and through some reliable sources came up with some additional insights.

The Disney Company lectures its cast members who work in the parks to never mention attendance figures or money issues to guests. However, that has never prevented guests or reporters from making some pretty accurate guesses about these figures. For years, people have estimated that the final budget for Captain EO was around $17 million dollars with some estimates going as high as $30 million, based on information from some people who worked on the production or in the business and knew what things cost. It has always been assumed that the true cost would never be known.

As an exclusive for MousePlanet readers, here is the actual cost of Captain EO: $23.7 million dollars. How do we know that figure is accurate? Because that is how much money was transferred to the project code by the studio when all was said and done. For accounting reasons, when WDI does a project, those charges are collected and transferred into a project code. The project is then "sold" to the park so it can be capitalized on favorable terms.

Now $23.7 million dollars was quite a chunk of money, especially in the mid-1980s and especially when the vice president of finance came up with an incredibly detailed original budget for the project that came in at only $10 million dollars.

Why did the project run almost $14 million over budget? Certainly, the talent and technology was expensive (although that was supposedly addressed in the original budget) but the real cause was that the project went into production without a firm story (in fact, Michael Jackson would come in each day with different versions of the songs). This was one of the first examples of a park project where "everybody had to approve everything" whether they knew anything about that aspect or not.

At the time, George Lucas was working on Star Tours, which Michael Eisner kept insisting be called Star Rides because he liked the word "ride" right up until the attraction opened. I had always heard that Star Tours was running behind schedule because of the technology and Lucas' notorious need for perfection. I recently learned from sources that worked on the attraction that it was ready to go on time, but the opening was purposely delayed so as not to detract from Captain EO's debut. In those days, the plan was that the Star Tours film would be updated every three years with eventually a different experience in each module.

Interestingly, Lucas was assured that he would be involved in all the new projects for Disneyland's Tomorrowland, making it a non-Disney universe like the proposal of a space craft crashing into the Carousel of Progress theater with the passengers on the ship performing a show. Needless to say, some Imagineers were not pleased with Lucas being given this opportunity.

Disney was also trying to woo Michael Jackson and invited him out to meet with the Imagineers at their Tujunga facility where the Imagineers had prepared a mock-up of a dark ride attraction that would feature Jackson. Supposedly, it was to be in 3-D. One of the Imagineers recalled that shaking hands with Jackson was like shaking a "limp, dead fish." Jackson liked the mock-up, but didn't want to be involved in a ride attraction. There were also discussions about a 3-D film that would be housed in the Carousel of Progress building and that caught his interest.

There were indeed three proposals for the film, and both Jackson and Disney agreed that they liked the idea of Captain EO the best. Part of the problem was the proposal itself. It was one page, barely four paragraphs, but as one Imagineer described it, it was pretty close to the final idea that "Jackson and his space crew would magically transform the ugly people.” There was only a general mention of EO's crew and an unnamed queen.

Why was this proposal a problem? Precisely because it was just a quick proposal, not even what might be considered a treatment in the film business, and WDI was tasked with coming up with a budget estimate, which is one of the reasons the original estimate was $10 million despite some dissenting voices. WDI realized it didn't have any show director on the staff that could really handle this innovative project so there was a short list of outside directors.

At least one Imagineer suggested John Landis, based on that director's success with Jackson in the video "Thriller." However, the final decision makers opposed that suggestion supposedly for budgetary reasons, including the fear that they wouldn't be able to "control" Landis and he would go over budget. The whole discussion became moot when Lucas decided that Francis Ford Coppola would direct.

WDI believed that even though Coppola was the director of record that Lucas himself would step in and do most of the directing. That didn't happen as Lucas was not on the set a lot and was getting frustrated at the typical Disney politics surrounding the project. Lucas had become used to working independently and not being answerable to others after his Star Wars success.

There was indeed three weeks of principal photography with Coppola at the helm but when he left the Second Unit spent nearly six months trying to fill in holes in the story to make the entire thing work with additional filming. It was not just to add in special effects, but to fix the story. One Imagineer described the raw footage of the three weeks shooting to be "a mess." To make matters worse, there were three moments in the film where it was out of sync: two audio moments and one instance of 3-D. It took WDI a week to verify that the projectors were fine by running myriad technical tests and more to prove that the problems were in the finished film itself. Those problems, by the way, were supposedly never fixed.

While there is still debate whether Michael Jackson showed up for the official premiere, he did indeed pop in to watch the "test" shows at Disneyland. Since he had taken to wearing the surgical mask, he was often easy to spot by guests. When that became an issue, Jackson sought sanctuary in the projection booth to watch the film and the reactions from the audience. As expected, the show opened to long lines of crowds but it became apparent that there was no significant repeat business, nor did it generate a desire from the guests to buy related merchandise.

One of the things Lucas learned from the experience was that he should probably do theme park projects on his own. To assemble a team, he made very attractive offers to some of the Imagineers. Most of these Imagineers could not accept the offer, because Frank Wells had recently instituted the practice of doing contracts for members of the WDI team and there was a "no-compete" clause for the length of the contract if anyone decided to bail out of their contract early.

Some WDI folks also learned from this experience. When Muppet Vision 3-D came up, before a budget was estimated, a full storyboard was completed … but not just a typical storyboard. The storyboard also showed what the 3-D effects would look like from the side view. The final budget estimate was $8 million dollars and the project came in for a $1 million less, despite changes (originally Jim Henson wanted it to be the Bean Bunny Show) and additions (like a last minute enhancement of the "changing theater wall" at the end of the show). In fact, the money that was "saved" was used to enhance the final project with re-shoots and special effects including adding in the section where the CGI Waldo transforms into Mickey Mouse. (CGI was fairly expensive in those technologically pre-historic times.) As the show opened, it was still a good $100,000 below its original budget.

It was even proposed that Muppet Vision 3-D open at Disneyland in the Main Street Opera House at the same time as its premiere in Florida at the Disney MGM Studios. However, one Imagineer was concerned that the ending didn't look like Disneyland and needed to be re-filmed. He was informed that contractually they weren't allowed to change the film and, in addition, that scene was not shot in Florida as suspected but on the old town backlot at the Disney Studios.

The story of the making of Muppet Vision 3-D is deserving of an entire column and I am only mentioning it here to demonstrate that Captain EO could have been a better film and cost less money. Certainly Muppet Vision 3-D has been inspirational in other similar projects that have been developed over the years, while Captain EO became a trivial anecdote.