For many around the world, a Disney vacation is the the stuff of dreams. However, often travel is prohibitive, and many can’t make their way to Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, or Shanghai. What if there was a way to bring a Disney park to them? For a (nearly) full-fledged theme park to travel around the world, spreading Disney’s brand of themed entertainment?
Impossible, you say? Well, in actuality it almost happened. This is the story of the S.S Disney, the traveling theme park that almost was.
To understand where the concept of the S.S. Disney came from, you have to understand what was going on in the Walt Disney Company in the early 1990s. The late 80s marked a major resurgence for the company, as new executive leadership in Michael Eisner end Frank Wells had changed the company’s fortunes around completely after a major down period. Films like Oliver and Company, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and finally The Little Mermaid launched the Disney Renaissance. Meanwhile, the theme parks received a jolt thanks to Eisner’s propensity to invest in modern pop culture (Captain EO and Videopolis, for example), well-known franchises (Star Tours), and big budget E-Ticket attractions (Splash Mountain), all of which culminated in the 1989 opening of the Disney/MGM Studios theme park.
As the 90s began, Michael Eisner (flying high on the company’s success) announced his ambitious plans for the so-called “Disney Decade.” These ambitious plans have become legendary among Disney fans due both to the announced projects that were completed (Disneyland Paris, a second gate in California) as well as the countless rides and attractions that never saw the light of day thanks to issues we’ll get to in a bit. Suffice to say, when the plans were first announced, it felt like the Walt Disney Company could do anything… including build a moving theme park on an oil tanker.
The genesis of the S.S. Disney plan began with then-chairman of Disneyland International Jim Cora. During the early 1990s, Cora was tasked with exploring ways to grow Disney-themed entertainment beyond the physical park locations (another goal of the Disney Decade). One evening, Cora attended a fundraising dinner party with a high-ranking U.S. Navy Admiral. The Admiral jokingly suggested to Cora that he could “spare” Disney an aircraft carrier which the company could build a theme park on. While the comment was made in jest, it sparked an idea in Cora’s mind: What if Disney could build a floating theme park that could move from city to city around the world?
Cora brought his idea to Imagineering, which led to Imagineer Mark Hickson (who had experience working with ships) being brought on to the project. Hickson spoke to Disney And More about how he joined the project in 2011:
Later he called me about the aircraft carrier idea. I told him that it would be more feasible to build it on another kind of ship, like a cruise liner, cargo ship, or oil tanker. If I remember correctly he then met with Michael Eisner, and they agreed to ask Marty Sklar at WDI to do a study [on the] feasibility on this unique idea. That’s how everything started. Since I was the only one that had extensive shipbuilding experience I was charged to be the project manager and technical director for the project. I worked with some really fantastic concept architects, show designers, script writers, concept artists and model makers and over the course of nine months we put together the floating theme park concept.
Over the next nine months, the Imagineering team came up with a design that would turn an oil tanker into an 18-attraction theme park that could accommodate 10,000 guests a day in two windows of 5,000. The “park” would have included several preexisting Disney attractions throughout the ship including versions of It’s a Small World (the facade of which would hide the ship’s bridge and pilot house), Star Tours, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Muppet Vision 3D, Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups, and Roger Rabbit’s Toontown Spin, and a ferris wheel. Of note, water-based attractions like Small World and the Submarine Voyage would instead use omnimover ride systems.
In addition to these preexisting attractions, new attractions were actively planned to debut on the ship, including dark rides themed to Aladdin and The Little Mermaid as well as a full-scale roller coaster in the bowels of the ship themed to Indiana Jones. The ship would also feature a glass enclosed hub, character meet and greet locations, and several Quick and Table Service restaurants. Guests would board the ship through an entranceway built out of “themed shipping containers” which featured ticket booths and shopping and dining locations similar to a mini-Main Street U.S.A.
Logistically, the plans for the S.S. Disney’s itinerary were nearly as complex as the design. In preparation for the ship’s arrival, a large local workforce would be hired and go through two weeks of intense training. They would serve as half of the park’s Cast Members, while the other half of the Cast was made up of permanent Cast Members would would travel around the world with the S.S. Disney. Said permanent Cast would live on a passenger ship that followed the tanker to each of its ports of call. In addition, a fireworks barge would also travel with the ships, launching a nightly display similar to the nighttime spectaculars seen at other Disney Parks.
The miniature fleet of three ships would travel around the world, stopping at ports in famous cities including those located in Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. The ships would dock for 3-4 months at a time, before departing for their next port of call. The company, not wanting to oversaturate the market (or completely cut off tourism to the more traditional style Disney parks from the area), would schedule the ship to visit each area rarely, likely once every 4-6 years.
Like many projects that were part of the “Disney Decade”, there are two major reasons why the S.S. Disney project didn’t move forward. First came the initial financial failure of EuroDisney. The bloodbath endured by the expensive, heavily-detailed park scared Eisner and Disney’s management off of risky, high investment projects. These issues were only exacerbated by the tragic 1994 death of Frank Wells, which shattered Eisner.
While the S.S. Disney never came to be, elements of the plan were used in DisneyQuest (another attempt at regional entertainment from Disney) and on the ships of the Disney Cruise Line.
Would you have liked to visit the S.S. Disney is it came to your city, or would you have preferred to visit the original Disney Parks? Let us know in the comments below.