Neil Engel was the show producer for Superstar Limo and the ABC Soap Opera Bistro at Disney’s California Adventure. Engel was also project set designer for Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Paris and Splash Mountain at Tokyo Disneyland and he was the ride producer for Jurassic Park – The Ride at Universal Studios. On February 6th Engel talked to LaughingPlace.com about the Hollywood Backlot Pictures district in general and Superstar Limo and the ABC Soap Opera Bistro in particular.
LaughingPlace.com: Can you tell me about the Hollywood Pictures Backlot District?
Neil Engel: Sure. The Hollywood Pictures Backlot is Disney’s take on a contemporary Hollywood which is kind of a new one for us. Classically, you see a lot of people talking about Hollywood in terms of the golden age. Everyone does 40s Hollywood. But like the rest of the park here, this is contemporary, so what we wanted to do was create a Hollywood that is up to date. It does pays tribute to the classic architecture of Hollywood because it’s still there. But the attitude is very much more in step with, like, E! and Entertainment Weekly and Entertainment Tonight. It’s really supposed to be very much about today and very much about you. You being a part of Hollywood, walking in it, being part of the thrills, being part of the fame, because classically, the typical guest is an observer of Hollywood and the Hollywood glamour. This time we wanted you to be part of the glamour.
LP: Can you talk a how it is similar and/or different to the Hollywood of Disney-MGM Studios.
NE: It’s hard because I didn’t spend a lot of time down there in Florida so I’m not really too familiar with it. But I think, kind of what I was mentioning, is that this take on Hollywood is kind of two-fold in that it is contemporary and it’s supposed to be very hip. But also, that if you look down the center line it’s all complete until you start looking at it obliquely and stuff starts to fall apart just like the movie set. Again, our version of Hollywood is – it’s kind of a veneer. It’s like this is Hollywood, but it’s all just like Hollywood is. Set up individual shots that are for a very specific perspective and the minute you start to get off axis it starts to become a little bit of an anomaly which is kind of neat because a lot of people like to see what’s on the other side of a set.
LP: Are there any famous Hollywood landmarks people should be on the look for there?
NE: Oh gosh, we’ve got references to a lot of classic architecture in Hollywood like Crossroads to the World, the Pantages Theater, The Max Factor building, as well as typical sound stages and of course the Los Angeles theater. The front of the Hyperion Theater is a reference to a theater that’s still down there in downtown.
LP: Speaking of the Hyperion can you tell us about that theater a little bit?
NE: I can tell you about it from a design standpoint. I’m not real familiar with the show inside. What we wanted to do was create sort of a sound stage being dressed out to become a set. So when you walk in, again, it’s almost like you see “oh my gosh this is like this really super ornate looking interior.” It’s very baroque looking interior with lots of drapes. Then you look at it again and it’s like you go these are just indications and you can almost see through them, in fact they’re perforated, did you know that?
LP: No, I didn’t know that.
NE: Yeah, they’re perforated because we wanted to make them very friendly to sound proofing. So apparently perforated metal surfaces are much better for sound attenuation than big heavy planer surfaces, so if you look at them they’re actually perforated. But you know, we wanted it to be a comfortable theater. It’s really a first of its kind for Disney which is an indoor, light controlled auditorium. Very comfortable for the Entertainment Division’s kind of entertainment.
LP: The Disney Animation Courtyard is something everyone is talking about. On the surface it looks like it’s not that complicated, but I suspect it is more complicated than it looks.
NE: It really is (laughs). But you know that’s the hallmark of Disney in that we go to a lot of pains to make something look very simple, just like an athlete. You say he makes it look so simple but there’s really nothing simple to it. It’s really a marvel of synchronization and visual harmony and I think there’s a lot of ways you could have pulled that off, but I think what makes it Disney is that we do spend that kind of time to be sure that the colors are going from warm to cold very softly and the music is working with it very completely and we go from one world to another with a strong contrast in-between so that again, it’s not just this sort of jarring – we didn’t want it to be a jarring thing. We want you to go in and appreciate animation, appreciate the art of animation, but also to be a very friendly place where you can just sit down and watch it for 20 minutes, a lot of people are doing that.
LP: Many times I’ve done that.
NE: Which is funny because when we were laying these spaces out we said, well, this is kind of like the holding area where they kind of wait for the shows to come up and people are just spending whole afternoon in there. It’s great.
LP: In your bio it says you worked on Super Star Limo?
NE: Super Star Limo was my show and ABC Soap Opera Bistro.
LP: Can you talk about Limo a little bit?
NE: Limo is a Disney turn on Hollywood, again the hip, contemporary Hollywood, that was really designed to be a show for the whole family. When you look around DCA, one of the things that we wanted to include in it was something that had its roots in classic Disney, black light rides, color and kind of a crazy driving of a pretty, pretty car is a hallmark of a lot of our shows. So we said how can we do that and still be contemporary and still be Hollywood? So what Super Star Limo is is a chance for the whole family to experience the inside of Hollywood. What is it like for you to be the star? For you to experience the 15 minutes of fame everyone supposedly gets according to Andy Warhol – all in 3 1/2 minutes? So what it is, is our pastiche on Hollywood and in a sense we overloaded it with lots of scenery, and lots of visual gags because you’re driving through a city and a city by its very nature is oh my God what’s that, oh my God what’s that, you know? So it’s really supposed to be kind of like in your face and oh, I’d have to ride that ten times to really see what’s really going on. It was really on purpose that way.
LP: What is the technology of Joan Rivers and the agent? Are they puppets?
NE: Yeah, they’re puppets. We worked with this team of puppet designers and makers and it actually takes four people each to run each one of those. We wanted to keep them very similar in look to our caricature profiles inside the ride so we kept that same sort of caricaturized, kind of Hollywood goony kind of feel.
LP: Soap Opera Bistro – can you talk about that a little bit?
NE: Soap Opera Bistro is a really fun project. It’s funny, this building, that it was about 99 percent designed and we thought, “gosh we got to put something in there. What is it going to be?” And we knew we wanted this to be a restaurant and when we were going into the design on this it was just about the time that ABC and Disney were getting together. And television is such a big part of Hollywood and we said, there are so many good things about ABC and – you’ve been to lots of theme restaurants. And a lot of them have that sort of I saw it once, it was really great but why would I want to go again? So we really took that into consideration this time.
One of the ways we did that is we arrived on ABC daytime properties because they don’t have reruns. They make 360 shows a year and also because they have a very interesting fan base, crazy people that are just nuts in love with soaps and also because it’s very different and we keep it alive because every time you visit, we’ve got people up to date on everything that’s going on in the soaps. The host and hostess are always trying out for a role on the soaps. They desperately want to be an “under five” which is under five lines. They want to be an under five some day. We’re going to have a lot of celebrity visits. Port Charles and General Hospital are taped right here in Los Angeles so we expect to have them come visit and make a surprise – can you imagine sitting there and having your lunch and everything and hear, “I’m going on break now, your next waiter is going to be bringing you your dessert” and maybe Luke Spencer comes and brings you your dessert? Can you imagine what a fan would do? They’d go nuts. So that’s why we’re really looking forward to it because unlike a lot of theme restaurants, we have a chance to really keep this alive, exciting and always something different when you visit.
LP: Is there anything in particular, maybe a little detail or something, that’s really your favorite part of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot District?
NE: That’s a good question. Let’s see. I think what I like about Hollywood Pictures Backlot is that it really – I think all the lands in this park are going to expand. We have things on the board for all of them. But what I like about Hollywood is that it really has got something for everyone to start. The Muppets are immensely popular. Animation is the hallmark of Disney. The Limo ride is great for little kids and parents with kids who want to see what it’s like to be a star. The Hyperion Show is going to be a great song and dance fantasy. As a start, it’s a really well rounded land and I think as it expands, and it undoubtedly will, it’s just going to become a real hot bed of excitement and up to date, contemporary stuff.
I think also that what this park is all about, not just our land but all of them, is about contemporary, is about now. It’s not a period piece where when you go in like you go under the train station at Disneyland it’s like I’m back in time. This is now. This is today. So in that respect we’ll have entertainment that is really up to date. We’ll have new shows that bring it up to date and that’s a challenge of course as well as fun. It’s not like looking in history books and saying what was real hot in 1910. You’re going what’s hip now? I think it really keeps it alive and has a chance to keep it be a real item.
LP: Do you think because the park is set in the “right now” it will be changed even more frequently than other Disney theme parks?
NE: Ya know, that’s a good question. I think that this park, because of its contemporary nature, is really going to want that. I think – like the parade, have you seen the parade? It’s real contemporary. It’s real now. I think that is a challenge because that means you’ve got to keep it hip, you’ve got to keep it going. Everyone that’s been associated with the park from the beginning, and that’s over five years now – well I’ve been with it for five years now, some people have been with it for seven – everyone seems really committed to it. It’s funny because most of us, we finish a job and go on and work on something else. But it’s like all the producers associated with the park are saying what’s going on now? What do they like? What do they think is fun? Should we give them more of that? It’s really unique. It’s not like 1910 is 1910 and there’s nothing I can do about it.
LP: Do you keep up on reaction from the previews to your two shows?
NE: Oh absolutely. In fact, I don’t think it’s any different from any show that anyone opens. We design for the people that are here, plunking down their money to see Disney, and despite the fact that we’ve had a lot of preview audiences, that really begins on Thursday (the grand opening on February 8th). That’s when we get to see the real people that are coming here to see what this whole park is about. Everything gets looked at. We look at it very carefully to see what’s really working, what needs work and I think you’ll see a lot of little tweaking here and there because every park needs it because when you start a new one there are so many unknowns, the people dynamics. It’s like I was telling you about the Animation Courtyard.
I think that also helps you drive what this land needs now is a “blank.” What that’s land needs now is a “blank.” Because it’s all on its own. These shows are here now. It’s really time to give it some careful thought because it’s not another Magic Kingdom. It’s its own identity. I think, so far, the California theme has just turned to to be really fun and exciting. When you stroll through here and listen to music you watch the people singing along with the Mommas an the Poppas and stuff. It’s like it just happens. It starts like a musical in a Broadway show. It just draws you in. California is about trends and hip settings and everything.
LP: Have you gotten positive feedback from your shows?
NE: I’ve actually gotten a lot of positive feedback about both of them. There are some things I’m sure we’ll be working on to make certain things clearer and certain things easier to hear and more things easier to see, but it’s all valuable input and we really welcome it. And it’s really exciting to see that there are so many people that are interested. Like when you work on a show for as long as we do on these shows, we get to the end and say “I wonder if anyone is going to even care.” Then you go “Wow! They noticed that’s really cool.”
LP: Did you feel any pressure because you were doing the one traditional dark ride in the park?
NE: Pressure? I would say yes and no in that of course you’ve got this bastion of material that people have loved for millions and millions of years and then you’re going I’m going to start there and then I’m going to go (he makes a sound indicating he’s going completely off the board)…. so yeah, you’re going out on a limb but with any new show you’re doing that because that’s what’s exciting. If we were just copying the same things over and over, I mean that’s why attractions are all kind of one of a kind and you learn things from them and you find, wow, that really went over so much bigger than we thought or ya know, I thought this would go over bigger than it did. It’s really a great experience to get to be with the show from the beginning to the end and then see how it’s going. Thinking hey, this really works, what about this, maybe we should try something like this now. I think you should stick around. I’m sure there are people that are going to be here every day for the next 30 to 60 days and that’s great because they’ll start to see the things you don’t see until you’ve been there three or four times.
LP: Are there any specific future plans for Hollywood you can mention at all?
NE: Nothing in particular that I can mention but I can tell you that what I have seen up on the drawing boards up at WDI is really exciting. Stuff that you will not want to miss, trust me.
Doobie is the co-owner of LaughingPlace.com having founded the website with his wife Rebekah in 1999. He became a “hardcore” Disney fan in 1995. His favorite Disney film is Snow White and his all-time favorite attraction is the PeopleMover. Having lived near both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, he’s visited them literally thousands of times.