Walt Disney World Chronicles: Skyleidoscope

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the April 4, 2017 Issue #915 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.


Skyleidoscope at EpcotIn the Storybook Circus area in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, one of the signs for the children's roller coaster there proclaims: "Storybook Circus presents The Barnstormer: An Acrobatic Skyleidoscope with Goofy." This is a purposeful reference to a show performed 30 years ago at Epcot.

The actual Skyleidoscope debuted in Epcot in September 1985. It was an approximately 15-minute show on the World Showcase Lagoon billed as "an aerial spectacle" that "transforms the 45-acre World Showcase Lagoon into a colorful fantasy-land of purple dragons, exploding gumdrops, and whimsical flying machines." Disney's promotional material said the show turned "ultra-light seaplanes and kits, jet skiers and speedboats, sailboats and airlifted saucers into purple-winged dragons, jet-powered sea shells, dragonfly-patrol planes and hang glider toys."

That description was only the tip of the iceberg for this colorful daytime spectacular that also included a bevy of dancers, musicians, singers and actors.

It is difficult to do a large-scale entertainment event, like a parade, at Epcot. It is such a huge space that the event needs to be equally huge to be seen clearly from different locations around the staging area. That is one of the reasons the nighttime fireworks show remains so popular -- it accomplishes that goal. Over the years, attempts have been made to create an equally impressive daytime show. Skyleidoscope was one of those early attempts.

It was Gary Paben who came up with the show's premise: Dreamfinder was being prevented from filling the sky with rainbows because of an evil force, dragons on the lagoon that shot fire out of their nostrils. The forces of good on both sea and air would rally to the Dreamfinder's cause and defeat the dragons.

Dreamfinder and his little dragon Figment were the mascots of Epcot Center, which had been open barely three years at the time. They appeared in the attraction Journey Into Imagination and also as "walk-around" costumed characters. So, it was natural that the new show would showcase them.

To tell the story, it was decided that Dreamfinder was going to fly in a huge blimp, painting the sky in an array of colorful rainbows. Paben wanted a Jules Verne-styled blimp with paddles and gears on it. (The blimp had to be cut from the show because the Florida winds made it difficult to launch and maintain the craft. In fact, some days because of the wind factor, the entire show would go down.) As the story progressed, Dreamfinder would be interrupted in his cheerful pursuit by the evil dragons known as "Ma and Pa" and their 10 purplish "Dragonettes," who stirred up the lagoon to disrupt the show. (According to the narration the dragons were from the "black lagoon.") The two sides did battle on the surface of the lagoon with sailboats, powerboats and hovercraft fitted into various colorful creatures until Dreamfinder triumphed over evil, accompanied by music, fireworks and a V-formation of brightly colored ultralight aircraft ("World Showcase Airforce") trailing streams of different colored smoke to create the effect of a rainbow.

Disney's SkyleidoscopeOriginally the show was to be titled "Magical Rainbows," and John Debney, Paben and Steve Skorija wrote a song with that title that was used in the final version. Disney Marketing, however, felt the name Skyleidoscope ("a kaleidoscope of color filling the sky") was stronger.

The September 1985 issue of Walt Disney World News called Skyleidoscope "a gala extravaganza of sea and sky wrapped in a kaleidoscope of magical rainbows made from silk, smoke, and sparkle. Set to a marvelous musical symphony, the 15-minute extravaganza features 60 flying, whirling, sailing objects of imagination and 80 aero-mariners.

"Dreamfinder, the famous character from Epcot Center's Journey into Imagination, directs his whimsical navy and air force from an 85 foot airship. Together they try to build magical rainbows but are thwarted by the invasion of winged dragons in the lagoon below.

"Calling on an entire fleet of candy-striped para-sails, speedy sea scooters, colorful sailboats and sea planes, Dreamfinder commands an exciting battle of fireworks and frenzy, until the monstrous dragons turn into harmless dragonflies. Only then can Dreamfinder create rainbows so breathtaking that only seeing is believing."

Originally, the show was just meant to run on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but it was later expanded to Saturday through Wednesday and then every day during busy holiday periods. It packed the area around the World Showcase Lagoon much as the IllumiNations fireworks nighttime display does today. Ron Logan, executive vice president of WDW Entertainment at the time, told me, "Skyleidoscope was (President of the Disney Company) Frank Wells' favorite show. He used to come out to the control booth about 30 minutes prior to show time and take a nap in the warm Florida sun until the show started. Frank must have seen Skyleidoscope at least 15 times."

The show was so popular that it ran until 1987, when a plane crash killed a pilot on a practice flight roughly an hour before a scheduled show.

Roughly a mile-and-a-half from the World Showcase Lagoon, located on the land that now contains the Art of Animation resort, was the Epcot Center Ultralight Flightpark. It was a private-use ultralight airport, privately owned by the Walt Disney World Company. It was only used to launch aircraft for Skyleidoscope and later in 1991 for another show called Surprise in the Skies.

Disney's SkyleidoscopeOn Saturday, August 1, 1987, at around 1:15 p.m., pilot Rick Harper, 27, of Winter Garden, was pronounced dead on arrival at Orlando Regional Medical Center-Sand Lake shortly after his ultralight plane crashed during a practice session for the Skyleidoscope show. No other planes were involved and no other casualties were reported. Dave Herbst, a spokesman for Walt Disney World at the time, told the Orlando Sentinel that Harper had worked for Disney for less than a year, and several other pilots were also practicing for their Skyleidoscope show when the crash occurred. The afternoon show was canceled and future shows were suspended until the cause of the crash could be determined.

According to the investigation results released August 4, 1987, a bracket connecting the right wing to the fuselage of the ultralight plane broke, apparently in flight, before the craft crashed. Ron Bird, air safety investigator for the National Transportation and Safety Board, said to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper they believed the wing-attach shackle broke while the plane was in the air because the ultralight could not have taken off otherwise. He said pilots and aircraft maintenance staff on the ground told investigators they heard a loud crack or bang as the plane flew at a height of just 500 to 1,000 feet during practice for the aerial show. The bracket failure caused the wing to fold back against the fuselage and the plane went into a spinning nosedive, crashing 150 yards from the Disney airfield. Bird said that the engine was working normally and there was no evidence of any other faults in the plane. Safety board officials in Washington ultimately determined the faulty bracket was indeed the cause of the crash. Further investigation confirmed that the plane's wing had folded back against the fuselage, causing the craft to go into a nosedive. Harper parachuted out, but the chute caught on the folded wing.

Since the accident occurred in a backstage area, guests were unaware of the incident until they heard the news the next day. It was, unfortunately, witnessed by cast members working at the hangar at the location.

Disney quietly closed the "wild aero-nautical show" in the fall of 1987 without an official announcement. It was tragic that the pilot lost his life in a freakish one-of-a-kind accident. It also curtailed for several years any attempt to try to create a daytime crowd-pleasing, one-of-a-kind show on the World Showcase Lagoon.

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RELATED LINKS
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Epcot Archives: Skyleidoscope

The Music of Epcot's Fountain of Nations

Jim KorkisVIDEO: Skyleidoscope Show

VIDEO: Deb Wills interviews Ron Logan,  Disney Legend and former Executive Vice President, Executive Producer, for Walt Disney Entertainment 

Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions. You can purchase them via our AllEars.Net Amazon.com store HERE. His newest book is The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion. It includes snippets of interviews with cast members who worked at Disneyland in 1955, along with additional explanatory material (including the first complete listing of every attraction, shop and restaurant that was there during the first six months) and much more.


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.