Walt Disney World Chronicles: American Adventure

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the August 4, 2015 Issue #828 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.

American AdventureWalt Disney had a great fascination and love for American history and often had impromptu discussions around the dinner table with his family about the Constitution and America. But he was frustrated by his wife's lack of interest in history and public affairs. It's even been reported that at the breakfast table one day Walt read aloud part of the Constitution and Lilly responded, "Isn't it wonderful that Lincoln wrote that all by himself?" Walt just stared at her silently.

Walt received many awards during his lifetime for his devotion to sharing American history, including one from the American Legion "for dramatizing to old and young alike the unique heritage of America."

When Disneyland opened, Walt told reporter Hedda Hopper that, "There's an American theme behind the whole park. I believe in emphasizing the story of what made America great and what will keep it great."

In 1957, Walt planned an addition to Disneyland to be called Liberty Street that would be themed to the Revolutionary War period like his then recently released theatrical live-action film "Johnny Tremain."

Walt had planned that there would be a show called "One Nation Under God," which would tell the history of the United States and spotlight electro-mechanical figures representing all the Presidents of the United States up to that time. It would have incorporated five motion picture projectors, stereophonic sounds and even "smells" like the odor of gunpowder in battle.

Walt wanted an immersive "magic theater" experience to tell the story of the history of America. However, the technology of the time was unable to match Walt's vision.

In 1971, Walt's dream of a Hall of Presidents was realized with the opening of Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom. In 1982, his plan for a massive magic theater with film and special effects came to fruition with the opening of the American Adventure at Epcot.

"The American Adventure was a show that was conceived from the earliest phases of Epcot Center as a mainstay in the project," stated Show Writer and Producer (and lyricist for the "Golden Dreams" song) Randy Bright in 1982. "The only problem was we didn't realize how difficult it would be to achieve. It's easy to pontificate and say in a quick line or two that it's going to be an inspiring show about America. That's the easy part. Now, how you achieve that and get down in the trenches and make it occur not only wasn't easy, it was a nightmare."

Over the years of development, two different high-powered Hollywood producers pitched concepts, including one that would have had the entire pavilion looking like the top-third of the Statue of Liberty, one of the reasons that idea was recycled into the final scene of the existing show.

"One designer decided that the American Adventure should be a happy, fun ride through with Audio-Animatronics vignettes of characters singing patriotic American songs as you go through," Bright continued. "Our design philosophy at that point in time was to tell something very salient, very germane to the process of what is America, and we didn't think something that was exclusively couched in music would give the entire picture from that standpoint. So that went away."

It was also considered to tell the story using the characters of American folklore, like Paul Bunyan.

"We cheerfully weeded out where we went down the wrong path," he said. "We said [that it] should not be a ride-through because you really can't tell important information in a linear fashion that makes sense with a ride-through."

The show recounts 350 years because the Imagineers chose to begin the show not with the Revolutionary War but with the arrival of the Pilgrims.

The show consists of 17 different scenes, most of which needed to take place at center stage. Disney designers came up with a 65' x 35' x 14' moving wagon weighing 350,000 pounds that rumbles nearly silently under the stage and the audience. Ten different sets are mounted on this wagon, and at the appropriate time, the wagon moves into a position that allows the proper set to rise onto stage level.

In addition, there are six stationary sets, four on one side, two on the other, which rise by themselves or together with a set on the wagon. Support pilings driven nearly 300 feet into the ground provide a structurally sound foundation for the wagon and the rest of the building.

Because of the wagon pit's low ceiling, and the height of some of the sets, Imagineers designed telescopic lifts so that the outer frame of the set stays in place, while a frame inside the outer one rises into place a little higher. Another frame comes up from within the intermediate one, adding even more height.

Garments, wigs and any other accessories had to stay clear of the lifts and hydraulics when appearing and disappearing from the stage. Offstage positioning became an important issue as in the case of the feathers adorning Chief Joseph's costume so that items were not damaged or got caught in the mechanics as they moved.

As described in the 1977 Walt Disney Productions annual report, originally the American Adventure show at Epcot was to feature three hosts. Ben Franklin would represent the 18th Century (1700s), Mark Twain would be the commentator for the 19th Century (1800s) and finally Will Rogers would be the spokesman for the 20th Century (1900s).

"One of the most difficult tasks was selecting the characters," remembered Bright. "We chose Ben Franklin because we didn't think anybody could be a more lucid spokesperson for the Revolutionary War period of time than the great father of everything from wit to invention to articulation of the American experience. We thought he could bring humor into this. Ben Franklin had it all wrapped up.

"The best spokesman for the 19th Century… we looked at a number of people but ultimately said the one who seemed to be enduring was certainly Mark Twain.

"I can't tell you what we went through with the 20th Century when we said, 'Who is going to be the spokesman for the 20th Century?' In the earlier phases somebody said, 'Will Rogers, of course.' We took that idea to a college class of about 150 students of political science, about five of whom knew who Will Rogers was, sadly enough. So we learned something there: that we better bring somebody more contemporary into that (role)."

"The closer we got to today, the more controversial things became," recalled Bright. "Everybody had their idea of who that person should be and we probably went through about 300 names, not one of which could you get five people at our table to agree on as the spokesperson for the 20th Century. We're just too close to that period of time. If you flashed forward to a hundred years from now, I think historians would be able to give us a figure to put in (that role)."

American AdventureNewsman Walter Cronkite was one of the top contenders for the role. Briefly, it was considered using Walt Disney as the spokesman for the 20th Century since he had lived through most of it. Eventually it was decided to just have two spokesmen.

After all of the time and effort put into the Will Rogers figure, the Imagineers shoehorned the character into the Great Depression scene. The voice was supplied by Rogers' son, who often did professional impersonations of his late father.

Talented voice actor Dallas McKennon was brought in to record the voice of Ben Franklin. Over the decades he provided many voices for Disney animated films, including some of the dogs in both "Lady and the Tramp" and "101 Dalmatians," and attractions, including the Old Prospector safety spiel for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Zeke in Country Bear Jamboree.

John Anderson supplied the voice of Mark Twain. Anderson had a long career as a working actor in both film and television, including four different roles in the original Twilight Zone television series, as well as performing as President Lincoln three times for various projects.

Herb Ryman did the concept art for the three spokesmen and sculptor Blaine Gibson created the final figures.

Perhaps one of the most moving moments in the show is the short film "Two Brothers," which chronicles the lives of two siblings who joined opposite sides during the Civil War — one wore blue and one wore gray.

The two brothers in the photos are actually Imagineers John Olson and Jeff Burke. Their scenes were shot on the backlot of the Disney Studio in Burbank, which had been transformed into different time periods for other live action films over the years.

The New Orleans train station at Disneyland is also used as a location in the scene of the returning coffin. The song is not an original Disney creation, but was written in 1951 by Irving Gordon.

For the show, the vocals were provided by Ali Olmo, who co-wrote (with Danny Jacob) the song "Aloha E, Komo Mai" used in the "Lilo and Stitch" television series and the movie "Leroy and Stitch."

Would Walt have loved the American Adventure and that a Disney theme park was finally fulfilling his vision to share the history of the United States?

In 1982 at the dedication ceremonies for Epcot Center, Diane Disney Miller, Walt's oldest daughter, in a private interview for cast members said, "He would have loved it. Standing in the American Adventure and that wonderful vocal group singing there, all of a sudden I got this image of Dad.

"He was a great sentimentalist. He would watch the flag lowering at Disneyland every evening they (Walt and Lillian) were down there and tears would ripple down his cheeks.

"I got this image of him standing there listening to the group with tears coming down his cheeks. And I know he would be there doing that."

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

Jim also writes occasionally for the AllEars® Guest Blog, contributing entries under the heading of "Jim's Attic."



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, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by 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.


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.