Monday, May 07, 2012

The Twenty-Year-Long Nightmare

A crocodile swims in an Anaheim parking lot, 1991.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of a little nighttime show that ignited a long tradition of "water and fire spectaculars" at the Disney parks around the world.  Back in 1992 I was a young theatrical designer beginning my fourth year in the Disneyland Entertainment-Art Department, building scale models for full-sized stage sets and parade floats.  Among my particular specialties were miniatures and puppets, and prior to Fantasmic!, I had designed three-dimensional elements for several Disneyland projects, including the "Party Gras" Parade (1990).  It was a fun place to work, surrounded by talented people who became my friends.  I had a lot of wide-eyed enthusiasm back then, and learned how to fabricate all kinds of neat stuff just by doing my job.  My career in the Disneyland Ent-Art Dept lasted eleven years.

Art Director Tom Butsch and a young model builder in 1991.
Fantasmic! was designed by Tom Butsch, one of the nicest art directors I've ever had the pleasure to work with.  Tom is a mild-mannered guy from Minnesota, who had designed for live theater and TV sitcoms, such as "Different Strokes," before coming to Disney in 1988.  He storyboarded the whole show - multiple permutations of it - with gouache and colored-pencil on big black boards.  Many of his original drawings were published in promotional materials and magazine articles when the show was first being advertised.

He was once a little green ball of plastilina...

During this time, I led a group of model makers at the off-site Entertainment-Art Warehouse on Olive Street, a mile northeast of Disneyland in the historic Anaheim Colony neighborhood (Oh, the stories I could tell about that place... Great, great memories.)  The first models I built were the barge/puppets for Ursula and the Crocodile.  Vladimir Petrov, Jackie Gonzales, Rich Collins and I made a multitude of other miniature pieces, including various fire-breathing dragons (more on that later this week...)

Ideas for an outdoor show on Frontierland's riverfront actually began in the late 1980s including, I recall, a Haunted Mansion-themed "River Haunt"with ghosts rising from the mansion and appearing to fly over to the island, a la "Night On Bald Mountain."  That evolved into a short-lived concept called "Fantasia Live!"consisting of projected film clips on three enormous movie screens accompanied by an orchestra on a floating stage.  In the above photo (taken at a seminar for art students), one of the earliest renderings, by artist Scott Sinclair, shows the tip of Tom Sawyer's Island engulfed by a trio of "drive-in movie" type screens.  It wasn't until an outside French company came up with a method for projecting film onto water mist, that things began to fall into place.  For a year, production went forward under the title "Imagination" until it was determined that the word could not be trademarked.  Director Barnette Ricci suggested a made-up word "fantasmic" - which sounded silly to us designers at first - but the new name stuck.  Nevertheless, the show's musical soundtrack still begins with "Imagination" sung on the recording.

Fantasmic! (don't forget that exclamation point!) was originally expected to run for five years.  Now, even at twenty years, the show still seems to me like a "new thing" at Disneyland.  Or maybe I'm just in denial.

With the legendary Tom Butsch at his retirement lunch, October 2011.
More fantasmic memories coming this week, if I have time to get them posted. Stay tuned.


Ms. Dee said...

Oh my gosh, this is amazing! My love for Fantasmic! is perhaps bordering a little on crazy... there's a home movie from when it first came out and I was like 7, and you can hear me pretty much losing my mind at the end when all of the characters on the Mark Twain are waving. I had the cassette tape of the soundtrack and used to act the whole thing out in my room, haha. I still almost cry every time I hear the BOOM of the canon and the lights come up on the ship... even after hearing it twice a night while I worked on Pirates. And I seriously HAVE to watch it every time I visit the park (or else!), where I still obnoxiously dance and sing along to everything and probably annoy a lot of people. So yeah, I love everything about Fantasmic! for sure. It's so weird to realize it's been twenty years... I agree, it does still seem like kind of a "new" thing. Thank you so much for sharing all of this! Can't wait to see more if you get around to it. ;)

Kevin Kidney said...

Great comment, Ms. Dee! I love hearing the recollections and impressions of others. Sometimes a project you've worked on becomes so familiar and close to you, it's hard to see it with any objectivity. Thanks for sharing your stories.

trouble said...

Hi Kevin! It sounds like you're feeling much better. Thank you so much for the background information on Fantasmic!. It truly is a show for all ages. Every time I see it, I enjoy it more and more. Are you going to be at the 20th Anniversary events this month?

mydisneycollection said...

I would LOVE to read an entire book on the history of Fantasmic!

thepicklebarrel said...

i love that you fellas kept up the great WED tradition of ties and short sleeve shirts!

Anonymous said...

wow Kevin!
SO inspiring post, thanks for share!

sajohns5 said...

I'm with Ms. Dee on this one. I was also 7 when this show debuted and remember just being completely awestruck when I saw it. My dad recorded the entire thing and that VHS got a lot of play time at home! I was just at Disneyland about a week ago, and was standing at New Orleans Square station when the music started and I got a little misty eyed. That show really knows how to pull on my nostalgia heart strings. I can't believe it's been 20 years!

GypsyGeisha said...

Hi Kevin! I love your Blog! Will you be attending the Fantasmic events this month? I met you during the Soundsational event, and would love to see you again:)

olegc said...

Kevin - You're not in denial. As many avid fans before me probably have said - Disney music and show spectaculars never get dull. The music is the key for me - and the visuals solidify that. Thanks for sharing your stories and looking forward to the next post. I saw you at the Fullerton Train Days but you were visiting with Bob, Jody, and others and I decided to stay mum. You would not know me anyway - but I have several of your pieces. Love the work - and thanks.

Emily said...

Another girl who witnessed Fantasmic at the some ages as above girls. It truly captured my heart and imagination, and still does. I remember eating a clam chowder bread bowl while watching it for the first or second time very vividly. Thanks for all your great work!

Ken said...

My favorite night-time Disneyland extravaganza! My best fiend, Amy, saw it early on, before I did. She hurriedly sent me a postcard all about it while she was still there. Her over-excited handwriting led me to believe it was called Fantasinic!, which I thought that quite strange. When she got back home, she brought me a t-shirt and told me the correct name. When we got to see the show together for the first time, we held hands and were teary-eyed through it all. Such a wonderful experience!

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Ben Churchill said...

Thanks for the articles about Fantasmic! Kevin!

I was just listening to the soundtrack this morning on the way to work.

There are so many memories attached to this show. I was there for the grand opening summer in 1992 and I definitely remember all of the marketing surrounding it. I still have the maps with the "coming soon" advertising, and then the full covers once the show was running.

I still think it's the pinnacle of Disney theme park entertainment, even 20 year later. So much about it just clicked.

Disneyland's version is also so much more special, because of it's location and the way it just "appears" on the river at night. None of the other versions have that benefit.

I've seen the show so many times over the years, and it never gets old. It does really seem like a "new thing", as you put it. It does help that they freshen it up periodically (the new dragon is amazing, and it's neat to see that it's what was originally planned).

Thanks for all your hard work on the show behind the scenes, and for blogging about it now.

Mary Jo said...

I remember when Fantasmic! first came out in 1992. My kids were 3 and 4 at the time. My daughter (now 25) knows the whole show by heart, and acts it out every time we watch it.

In 1998, my family came out from Spain, and my little cousin was just turning 13. None of them spoke any English. We watched Fantasmic from the Riverbelle Terrace, and I'll always remember when the show ended, my little cousin, Blanca, turned to me with her eyes shining and a huge smile on her face, and exclaimed, "Que guay!" very enthusiastically. That translate to "How cool!" But the look on her face - she was totally enchanted by the show.

I have so many memories of watching Fantasmic! with first-time visitors, and their total enjoyment of the show. The crocodile and Ursula are big parts. Thank you for creating them.