In honor of the primetime return of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire on ABC, I pulled this video out of our archive featuring an attraction that once existed at (then) Disney’s California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort, as well as the (then) Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida.
It's hard to explain the success of a primetime game show that happened in 1999 to media viewers today. There was no streaming, no DVR. At best, we could set a VCR timer to record something if we were going to miss it. That’s why we had the term, “appointment television.” We had to set time aside to view the program, and then go talk about it around water coolers at work or in the halls and classrooms (depending on how old you were) the next day. When it first debuted, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was definitely “appointment television.” Hosted by Regis Philbin, the show was a phenomenon. It spawned trademark phrases like “Is that your final answer?” or “Can I use a life-line?”
The show was simple at its premise. Ten contestants would answer a question as fast as they can, and the fastest would move on and sit in the “hot seat,” with Regis asking 15 multiple choice questions that stood between the contestant and one million dollars. They had three life-lines: “Ask the Audience” where the audience would be polled on what they thought the right answer was, “50/50” which would eliminate two wrong answers from their four choices, and “Phone-A-Friend” which thanks to “Our Friends at AT&T,” would connect the contestant to a friend or family member back home that would have 30 seconds to assist with answering the question. After each bracket of 5 questions they’d reach a point where they were going to walk away with a guaranteed minimum amount of money, all the way up to the top tier, the million dollar prize.
While all this was going on in New York, there was a bit of a situation at the new sister park of the original Disneyland over in California. Disney’s California Adventure opened in February of 2001 to mediocre (at best) reviews, and even worse, low attendance. Executives and Imagineers were sent to the drawing boards to come up with new things to add to the park, and a new soundstage in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot that could host a live version of the hit game show seemed like a “good-enough” idea and with that, Stage 17 was built. Located between Superstar Limo and MuppetVision 3-D and on the other side of the monorail tracks, Stage 17 would house Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: Play It!
A near identical experience would also make its way over to Disney-MGM Studios in Florida but would have the advantage of going into an existing, but unused soundstage at that park. The Florida version of the attraction opened in April of 2001, while the California version opened on September 14th, 2001.
As you’ll see in the video, the game play in the parks was essentially the same but different enough. The entire audience would participate in the fastest finger question, with an audience member coming down. The audience would then continue to play along, with the highest scoring audience member replacing the current contestant should they lose. The lifelines were almost the same as well. 50/50 and Ask-the-Audience were exactly as they played out on the show. Phone-a-friend was replaced by “Phone-a-complete-stranger” which rang a prop phone placed outside the show’s theater in the hopes that a passing guest would answer it and be able to assist with getting the right answer. Each show was different, and repeat guests (like Annual Passholders) could view the show as many times as they wanted, though if they made it to the “hot seat” they weren’t allowed to again for 30 days, 365 days if they actually won the big prize. As for Cast Members, they weren’t allowed to play at all. If one were selected to be in the show for actual prizes, they’d have to acknowledge that they were a cast member and politely back out from play.
There were no cash prizes, but the players played for points. When the game originally opened, the million-point prize was a trip to New York City to see a taping of the real Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Players won highly coveted pins (that are now commonplace on eBay) with each point tier, with a hat being offered at the 1,000 point level, a polo shirt at the 32,000 level, and a leather jacket with the grand 1,000,000 point prize. After the popularity of the show waned while the attraction still existed, the million-dollar prize became a 3-night cruise aboard the Disney Cruise Line to Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island.
The word “immersive” gets tossed around a lot these days in the theme park world. Some say creating an environment with no preconceived notion of what that might be, say a nautical seabase or a club full of eccentric explorers, and convincing strangers who walked in the door that they were in another place and time would be “immersive.” Today, the thought of immersion seems to be “if it looks like that on screen, lets have them walk through it physically.” With that thought in mind, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: Play It arguably could have been one of the first fully-immersive attractions of this generation, long before any Potters or Skywalkers. The attraction was so authentic that tapings of the actual show took place in the attraction for special events.
The attraction had a very temporary feel and that nature of the new attraction was very evident though. By the time the attraction opened, the novelty of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire had been diluted, airing twice a week on ABC before ending its run in June of 2002, and being syndicated into daily programming (think Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune) in September of 2002.
The attraction, which now seemed to celebrate a mundane daily show that might be playing in the background while one got ready for work instead of the national craze that people made a point to watch that inspired it closed almost three years after it opened in August of 2004 with the Florida version lasting a bit longer, closing in 2006.
Since the closure of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: Play It!, Stage 17 at Disney’s California Adventure has been used for special events, character meet and greets, seasonal offerings, and even rented out for private use like wedding receptions and corporate events, but has not hosted another major attraction. The soundstage that occupied the Disney-MGM Studios version of the attraction would later house the Florida version of Toy Story Midway Mania.