WED Design of an Early Human Animatronic – mid-1960s

Walt Disney and Riverfront Square
Part 5  –  Slow Progress
By Todd James Pierce

For much of 1963, Walt’s designers focused their attention on the New York World’s Fair, where they would create attractions and displays to fill four massive pavilions.  As the construction manager of Disneyland recalls: Walt “had never built great rides like those he put in the World’s Fair.”  These rides were all indoor attractions—most larger than any Walt had previously constructed for Disneyland.  Moreover, these attractions relied heavily on new technology Walt was developing to synchronize movement with sound, mechanical figures he called “Audio-Animatronics.”  The first major presentation of Audio-Animatronics opened that same summer at Disneyland, a relatively simple application of the technology, with birds performing songs.  But Walt believed that this same technology, once enhanced and refined, could produce wondrous shows for the Fair, including an “almost-human mechanized Abraham Lincoln.”  He hoped that, by 1964, the mechanized Lincoln would appear so lifelike that an audience would feel as though they had seen the President in person.
      Though the CCRC had established the historic St. Louis theme for Riverfront Square, the Fair demonstrated new ways to recreate this historic setting.  For Disneyland, Walt had relied heavily on the influence of film and TV to create the visual landscape for his park.  Frontierland wasn’t so much a recreation of the Wild West as it was a recreation of the Wild West as presented in popular film.  Adventureland was modeled on exotic films set in remote locations—African Queen, in particular.  But while working with the Fair, Walt saw how countries, states and cities were using these same cinematic techniques of set design and propping to recreate regional locales.  During the summer of 1963, the State of Hawaii finalized plans to create a beach luau.  Florida, the kitsch and art deco of Miami.  Most notably, New Orleans, its famous French Quarter.  Through an outdoor walk-through pavilion named “Bourbon Street,” the city of New Orleans would present ten restaurants, a can-can theater, a voodoo shop, and a jazz club.
     Walt brought some of these concepts back to Riverfront Square.
     During the fall of 1963, many of the early Riverfront ideas fell away.  Gone was the Art of Animation exhibit.  Gone, too, an actual, working steamboat on the Mississippi.  In their place, Walt created a historic indoor space themed much in the style of World’s Fair pavilions.  But the indoor space of Riverfront Square didn’t just hold one historic setting: it now held two.
      Half of the six-hundred-foot Riverfront building would be staged and dressed to represent old St. Louis (specifically St. Louis at the turn of the century) and the other half, old New Orleans (specifically New Orleans before the Civil War).  The New Orleans section would incorporate a French Quarter street—similar to the one presently being designed for the World’s Fair—and would feature restaurants, shops and even a can-can show.  The backdrop for the New Orleans area would incorporate a miniature diorama of the city’s port with the Mississippi River extending into the horizon line of the painted background. 
     As for rides and attractions Walt and his team imagined for the New Orleans section, only a few existed—but these were substantial.
     A Bayou Boat Ride would take guests out into the swamp, through a maze of artificial cypress trees, and then down a waterfall, into the lower basement.  Already Disney engineers understood that they could create a massive show floor (with sixty-foot ceilings) in a second basement, as they could dig down 112-feet before hitting bedrock.  Down in the basement, guests would travel through the cavernous world of the bayou before rising once again to an upper floor to disembark.  This idea, later, would form a portion of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, but in 1963, this ride held no pirates, only the natural scenery and wildlife of Louisiana. 
     The pirates, however, were in a separate attraction: a walk-through ship that would feature Jean Lafitte and other scallywags. 
     The actual steamboat, once slotted for the river, was replaced with an indoor, simulated steamboat, designed as a restaurant and situated in an indoor pond—a concept strikingly similar to the CCRC’s Gilded Cage cinema.
     The final proposed attraction for this section of Riverfront Square was a Haunted House.  For nearly 10 years, Walt had developed a Haunted House for Disneyland—an attraction originally arranged as a walk-through exhibit.  By 1963 Walt had already built the exterior of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland (though the ride wouldn’t open until 1969), so the St. Louis Haunted House appears to be patterned after the then-current plans for the California walk-through attraction, complete with the “stretching rooms.”
      The St. Louis portions of Riverfront Square, however, were far less developed.
      The area itself would feature the architecture of the turn-of-the-century city, including a diorama of a St. Louis street leading down to the Mississippi River, with the suggestion that this river eventually connected to the one presented in the New Orleans section of the park.  But in terms of rides and attractions there was only one developed concept—the Circlevision theater.
      The Circlevision theater would present a wrap-around, 360-degree film of St. Louis culture, as well as a cinematic trip down river.  Helicopter shots would give a bird’s eye view of the city—with perhaps even a shot taken as a chopper cut a path through the finished Arch.  Similar to the Disneyland venue, guests would stand—or lean against handrails—as they viewed the 15-minute presentation.  The film itself would tell “the story of St. Louis” and showcase the cultural beauty of the city. 
     But that wasn’t the only film project Walt was considering for the St. Louis park.  In a separate theater, Walt was contemplating an attraction loosely based on one that he had wanted to build at Disneyland.  For years, Walt had explored a show that would have depicted the early history of America through the perspective and voices of American presidents.  In 1963, this attraction was called One Nation Under God, which would use—among other elements—a new film format he called Circarama 200.  Unlike Circlevision, Circarama 200 would only present a 200-degree screen that partially enclosed a seated audience—five screens instead of the nine necessary to create a full circle.   The width of the film would narrow and expand during the presentation—at times using all five screens, at times three, and occasionally just one for intimate, dramatic effect. 
     In the 1963 version of this unbuilt Disneyland attraction, One Nation Under God would present the history of American freedom, from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War, with key moments re-enacted on the screen.  The wrap-around presentation would allow the army of the North, situated on one side of the screen to launch a cannonball directly at the Southern Army opposite them.  “After the Circarama showing,” Disney-designer Wathel Rogers once explained, “a curtain will close, then open again to reveal the Hall of Presidents.”
     The Circarama 200 show at Riverfront Square, however, wouldn’t focus on early American history.  Instead it would focus on the history of St. Louis—though what historic events the film should depict was open for discussion.  Perhaps the film would recreate famous moments in the city’s history: the 1904 St. Louis Fair, the flight of Charles Lindberg, the journey of Lewis and Clark.  Or perhaps the film would use the stories and characters of Mark Twain to illustrate nineteenth-century life along the Mississippi.
      The Audubon Room—with its presentation of North American birds—remained a possibility, as did The Lewis and Clark Adventure, though now Walt no longer thought of it as a water attraction.
        Park planners recall Walt’s enthusiasm to somehow incorporate Audio-Animatronic figures into Riverfront Square, but how those figures would be used had not yet been decided.  Already, Walt was interested in creating more complex human figures—like Lincoln—capable of realistic movements and speech.
     Likewise Walt wanted to adapt the dark rides of Fantasyland (such as Peter Pan Flight) to a St. Louis theme, but this, too, was something his team had not yet explored.  At this time, there was no plan to use the animated Disney characters anywhere in Riverfront Square.  This, most likely, was an artistic decision to heighten the illusion that guests were strolling through old St. Louis and old New Orleans.  The only exception was the possible use of Davy Crockett—who was a historic figure and not a Disney-creation.  Specifically Walt was considering a play area—like Tom Sawyer Island—where children could wander through Davy Crockett’s caves.
      But as plans for Riverfront Square increased—especially with the use of Audio-Animatronic technology—so did costs. 
      In the initial ERA study, Bill Stevenson assumed that the city and the CCRC would build a series of freestanding buildings, all of which would be leased out to individual businesses.  For the second ERA study, Buzz Price assumed that the city and the CCRC would build the shell building and offer the facility to Disney at a friendly rate.  The question now—with the show costs increasing—how large an investment would the city and the CCRC need to make in Riverfront Square to create a technologically-sophisticated theme park in St. Louis?
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Click HERE for the sixth part in the Riverfront Series, which includes…information that suggests the most famous Riverfront Square story—that planning was halted over booze—is wrong.  Post up your comments below. –TJP

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