Kenversations: Splash Mountain Turns 20. I Miss its Show Producer, Bruce Gordon
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Months later, a couple of us even got to go on a walk-around with Bruce and some other Imagineers as they went through Tomorrowland, making plans for what was supposed to be the impending renovation. We got to do this on school time, because it was considered educational and we wanted to be Imagineers. Notice that in autographing this page of Disney News for us, Tony Baxter wrote “See you in Tomorrowland 92”. The Tomorrowland project was pushed back as Mickey’s Toontown, and then Indiana Jones became the priorities, and then of course a different concept was finally executed in 1998, with decidedly mixed results.
I’d come across Bruce walking through the park while I was in as a guest or working, I’d see him at book signings - especially when he was the author doing the signing, and when he facilitated for cast members a chance to meet with the Sherman Brothers. When, as a dutiful cast member, I showed up for a crowd test at the under-construction Innoventions, there he was. We attended one or two of the same midnight “first” film screenings at the Big Newport – that was the closest I ever got to hanging out with him away from Disneyland. Heck, I never saw in-person any of his great presentations with fellow Imagineer and co-author David Mumford to the NFFC. It was up to Bruce to give David Mumford a good memorial when David was taken from us too soon. That memorial, I was able to make.
Nothing could top that moment in time where Bruce showed off his attraction – Splash Mountain - to us, the wide-eyed teens who couldn’t have been more appreciative. But Bruce wasn’t just the Show Producer for Splash Mountain, and wasn’t just someone who wrote the new song lyrics for the attraction. A significant contribution by Bruce was not creative, but rather his advocacy of the project.
As the story goes – printed in the Disney News article and reinforced elsewhere - Tony Baxter had come up with the basic idea while navigating notorious Los Angeles area traffic in the summer of 1983. Dick Nunis, the executive overseeing Disney theme parks and resorts at the time, had been asking for a log flume, possibly something on the level of Pirates of the Caribbean and with some more thrills. This would build on the momentum created by Space Mountain in 1977 and Big Thunder Mountain in 1979. One of the concepts Disney had been working on with George Lucas called for the replacement of America Sings. I seem to remember learning that it was Star Tours – but it is possible that it was a concept that was never realized.
There were all of those audio-animatronics figures and other equipment in America Sings that was going to be trashed unless it could be put to some other productive use. For the most part, Disney hadn’t discovered the benefit of auctioning attraction elements off to collectors back then. Tony realized they could be adapted to a log flume attraction based on “Song of the South”.
He got together with Bruce Gordon, John Stone, and a bunch of other talented people and worked through the concept. Among other things such as storyboards, a scale model was built.
Bruce Gordon believed in the project and kept pushing for it. He got other people excited about it.
As legend has it, Eisner, new to Disney as of September 1984, was taking a look around to see what the Imagineers were working on, and one of his sons ran into the model of Splash Mountain. His son’s interest in the model helped convince Eisner it would be a good thing to build.
By the time it was determined that a project to replace American Sings was not going ahead or was going to be placed elsewhere, Splash Mountain already had momentum. Due to comments of a respected retired Imagineer whose shoes I am not worthy to shine, but who was not involved with Splash Mountain, some sources report that the America Sings animatronics were raided for Splash Mountain due to cost overruns. That would make the story told in the Disney News article a “backstory” to put in generously, or a “cover up” if you aren’t so generous. But I think this is a misunderstanding. Here are the facts:
- In Disneyland: The Nickel Tour by Bruce Gordon and David Mumford, it says that Splash Mountain was the first Disneyland project greenlit by CEO Michael Eisner and COO Frank Wells after they joined Disney in September 1984.
- Collin Campbell painted an illustration of the finale of Splash Mountain, complete with some of the figures from America Sings in 1985. This image can be found in multiple places, including in The Art of Disneyland by Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon, on page 69.
- Two AA figures were removed from America Sings, redressed, and used in the waiting area for Star Tours, which was finished in late 1986. This is somewhat of an indication that American Sings was on the way out.
- Splash Mountain didn’t start construction until spring of 1987. Presumably the basics of the design were finished by then, including the scene design and what characters would be in the attraction.
- America Sings closed in April of 1988. For many years before that, it did not have a sponsor.
- Most, if not all, of the cost overruns with Splash Mountain had to do with construction, manufacturing, and installation issues. For example, an entire set of logs (ride vehicles) were scrapped and replaced before the attraction opened (click here for that story). These issues were faced in late 1988/early 1989, many months after America Sings closed down.
I’ll let you decide if it is more reasonable to believe that the America Sings figures were a part of the project from the beginning, or if they were only included, and thus America Sings closed, because Splash Mountain went over budget.