|Walt Disney at Seagram Tower, 1963|
Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 2 – After Disneyland
by Todd James Pierce
Once Walt’s park opened in Anaheim—and the kinks of the first couple years were worked out of the system—investors, community leaders, politicians, and foreign dignitaries approached Walt with the hopes that together they could build a second Disneyland. There were hundreds of suitors asking for new Disneylands, as many as 500, according to one Disney executive. “We had them from all over,” Walt once explained. “Even from all over the world. They wanted us to do one in Egypt. They wanted us to do one in Japan. They wanted us to do one in Brazil—at the capital there.”
Joe Fowler, who handled many of these requests, offered most suitors the same response: “We’re not going to build another Disneyland. We need all of our capacity to keep the one in California attractive.” But even while most offers were rejected outright, Walt did explore a few possibilities to create a second Disney-style park. It is these projects, along with the Disney efforts on the New York World’s Fair, that form the context for Riverfront Square.
By the end of the 1950s, two of the three major television networks were part-owners of cinematic amusement parks. ABC, of course, owned roughly a one-third stake in Disneyland; rival station, CBS was the joint owner of a massive park in Santa Monica, California, called Pacific Ocean Park; but NBC had no connection to an outdoor park. Add to this one more thing: by the end of the 1950s, Walt was beginning to sour on ABC—as they had cancelled the Mickey Mouse Club and also complained about Walt’s plan to reinvest most of Disneyland’s profits into park improvements. In this environment, General Sarnoff, president of NBC, arranged for a study of the Jersey Meadows, just outside of New York to demonstrate to Walt that a Disney-style park could prove successful in the Northeast, even if it was only open part of the year. Somewhat interested, Walt attended meetings at the NBC offices in Burbank. He also asked his lead economist, Buzz Prize to review NBC’s feasibility numbers.
“We did,” Buzz told me in an interview, “and boy, how it differed from Sarnoff’s big thick study saying how marvelous of an idea [a New York park] was.”
As talks were falling apart, Walt also questioned the practicality of building in an northeastern location where cold weather would prevent a Disney park from operating year-round. One of Walt’s unique, almost crazy ideas was to somehow enclose the Jersey Meadows. As Roy Disney recalls: “Walt gave the Meadows proposal a careful look, but he finally decided that there would have to be some method of controlling the weather—a vast dome or some such thing. When the financial backers looked into the cost of such an undertaking they lost their courage pretty fast.”
Another of these early projects was the Seagram Tower on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. This project was discussed early in 1963, with Walt flying to Niagara that summer to meet with Franklin Miller, mayor of the city, and business leaders, to discuss the joint-Disney-Seagram project in an observation tower beside the falls. This project, unlike Jersey Meadows, was not to be a second Disneyland—rather, the installation of a single Disneyland attraction—some piece of cinematic magic squeezed into a lower floor of the existing tower. Late in his life, Buzz Price had at least one conversation in which he explained that single attraction would be a clone of “Flight to the Moon,” the Disneyland rocketship ride that simulated space flight with the use of film. But in the past few years, as I’ve reviewed Buzz Price’s professional notes, I’ve learned that this might not have been the whole story. In Price’s own words: “A tower for all seasons for Niagara with Circlevision.” He also explained that he had completed a financial report exploring the profit potential of a 360-degree movie theater for the Seagram Tower. Yes, Circlevision.
It is possible that Walt explored more than one film-based attraction for the Niagara project. But, to me, the Circlevision project makes a lot more sense than a Flight clone.
In the early 1960s, Walt was looking at a plan to regionalize Circlevision theaters. His basic idea: to produce a series of travelogue Circlevision films—similar in tone to the seventeen People & Places films he had produced in the 1950s—and to open a handful of regional theaters that would showcase these offerings. More or less, the business model looked similar to an early Imax model, with short documentary films and a unique presentation venue. The films, themselves, would explore U.S. and world locations. By the early 1960s, Walt had produced two Circlevision travelogue films—America the Beautiful (1958), a scenic tour of America, and Italia ’61 (1961), a scenic tour of Italy—and he was in talks to produce a third: Magic of the Bells (1965), a scenic rail tour of Europe. In 1963, Walt was also engaged in some early discussions to participate in the 1967 World’s Fair in Canada, specifically Walt was looking for a sponsor to underwrite a Circlevision film about Canada—a project that would never come to fruition. But to produce a Circlevision film about the Northeast or Niagara Area would both extend an existing series and contribute to Walt’s larger idea of eventually establishing a series of Circlevision venues that could then, essentially, swap films.
But like the Jersey Meadows idea, the Seagram Tower concept never made it past early discussions.
During these same years, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Walt developed one more attraction that would help pave the way for Riverfront Square: a seven-room, traveling art exhibition called “The Art of Animation.” In 1958, this massive exhibit was first shown overseas in Europe (as part of the World’s Fair in Brussels) before coming to the U.S. The exhibit didn’t exclusively focus on Disney efforts, but rather examined how artists tried, through centuries, to present the concept of motion through static drawings. Starting with Egyptian and Grecian art, the exhibit explored how artists incorporated the “feeling” of motion into classical art. The exhibit examined Leonardo de Vinci’s presentation of the human form through multiple drawings to suggest motion before moving on to the Nineteenth Century invention of the Zoetrope and a presentation of some early rice-paper animation completed by Windsor McCay (of Gertie the Dinosaur fame). From there, the presentation narrowed to Disney efforts: “Steamboat Willie,” “Skeleton Dance,” then the features. One interesting element of this presentation was a “re-animation” of early artists’ work. For example, a film presentation offered an example of de Vinci’s drawings in motion—investigating how de Vinci might have “animated” if the camera had been invented in the late 1400s.
At an estimated cost of $200,000, the overall show featured numerous rooms of art and exhibits: roughly 100 panels, 34 movie projection systems, working models of Nineteenth Century mechanical devices designed to present the illusion of movement, and a sub-exhibit demonstrating the “steps” of modern animation (storyboard, layout, animation, etc.). The final gallery room was devoted to the most recent Disney feature, Sleeping Beauty, with rough drawings, finished cells and backgrounds.
More than any previous exhibit, “The Art of Animation” sought to place the efforts of animators alongside classical illustration, successfully blending high art with popular art. One of Walt’s longtime concerns with his amusement park was that it primarily appealed to residents of the West Coast, with their leanings toward film culture, and not the bookish East, where the Disney offerings might be viewed as folksy or unsophisticated. In 1959, “The Art of Animation” exhibited in a limited number of museums across America, with each leg of the tour lasting roughly one month. Starting in the San Francisco Museum of Art, the show also traveled to Washington DC; Hagerstown, MD; Los Angeles, CA; Dallas, TX, and Denver, CO. After the exhibition finished its US tour, it returned to Europe then ventured to Asia. With “The Art of Animation,” Walt saw that his brand of entertainment could interest (what he perceived as) more sophisticated American audiences outside of California, particularly on the Eastern seaboard. This realization, in turn, further encouraged him to explore a location (or perhaps locations) for another Disneyland.
Beyond this, these ventures east would also influence the early concepts for Riverfront Square. Riverfront Square would draw almost equally from the traditional cinematic designs of Disneyland, the blue-sky dreams of regional Circlevision theaters, strange musings over the Meadows project, and the success of the traveling “Art of Animation” exhibition.