Legacy Content

Jim Hill
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by Jim Hill (archives)
July 24, 2001
Jim Hill reveals the celebrity tragedy that lead to Disney's decision to deliberately neuter this once promising dark ride ... as well as the right-now-in-the-works plans that should turn Superstar Limo into a real crowd pleaser. Part 3 of 4.

If you missed it, click for Part One or Part Two of this series.

It's every Imagineer's nightmare.

You're working on a project for the parks that you know is going to stink. A show that's so creatively compromised that you keep hoping that someone higher up in the WDI food chain is finally going to see the light and -- as an act of kindness -- pull the plug on the project.

Such was the case with DCA's "Superstar Limo." After Princess Diana's death and that edict that came down and declared -- from this point forward -- that "Superstar Limo" 's ride vehicle would no longer zip through their show building, but -- rather -- poke along at a snail's pace, the Imagineers knew that there was just no way that this California Adventure attraction was ever going to work. But no one ever got around to pulling the plug on the thing.

You wanna know why? Because Disney CEO Michael Eisner thought that DCA's "Superstar Limo" dark ride was a clever idea. Loaded with gags that he -- a Hollywood insider -- really appreciated. And -- as long as Uncle Michael thought that the "Limo" ride was a clever idea -- there was just no way that anyone at WDI was ever going to pull the plug on this deeply flawed project.

Sounds weird, I know. But this is the sort of thing that happens all the time at the Walt Disney Company. One of the high ranking officials within the corporation will suddenly take an interest in a particular ride or show that's currently in production for the theme parks, or a certain TV show or motion picture that the company has in the works. This executive will begin firing off memo after memo to the production team, as the suit attempts to micro-manage the project. Which means that the lives of the people who are actually working on that particular project just got REAL interesting.

Take -- for example -- "Soaring' Over California." As this Condor Flats attraction was moving through its development phase, Walt Disney Imagineering President Paul Pressler suddenly took a real shine to the project. Paul began to think of this DCA attraction as his baby. Which is why he was forever "plussing" the show's ride film.

What do I mean by "plussing"? Well, you know that moment in "Soarin' " where you're flying over that golf course in Palm Springs and that computer generated golf ball flies straight at your head? That's Paul Pressler's idea. And -- let's be honest here, folks -- that touch does add a thrilling little moment to an already immensely entertaining attraction. So -- in this case -- Paul's decision to insert himself in the creative process was a good thing.

But then Paul insisted on "plussing" the "plus." Here's a bizarre bit of trivia for you Disneyana fans: Did you know that there's actually a Hidden Mickey on that CGI golf in the "SOC" ride film? Why for? Because Pressler knows that we Disneyana dweebs just love those hidden Mickeys. So Paul insisted that the CGI guys slap one of those all-too-familar three circle shapes on the side of that computer generated golf ball.

Okay. So -- again -- let's be honest here. Isn't it nice to see Paul Pressler -- a guy who (perhaps somewhat unfairly) has gotten the rap of being someone who doesn't really understand that it's the little things that make the Disney theme parks special -- making sure that this little extra special little touch is added to a DCA attraction ... BUT WHO'S HONESTLY GOING TO NOTICE THIS?! That CGI golf ball is only on screen for -- what? -- a 10th of a second? So what eagle eyed individual is ever going to be able to spot this miniature Mickey Mouse shape as it whizzes across the screen at 200 MPH? Maybe someone who's dropped by DCA's Baker's Field and had two too many double espressos will be able to blink fast enough to register this blipvert of an image. But -- as for the rest of us -- Fuhgeddaboudit?!

You know the real reason that that Mickey Mouse is on that golf ball? Because -- up until now -- it was an inside joke that only a few folks knew about. Which made it a secret laugh that only those in the know were ever going to get.

Not so co-incidentally, DCA's "Superstar Limo" attraction is also loaded with dozens of inside jokes that no one who works outside of Southern California and/or the entertainment industry is ever going to get. For example: That bizarre sight gag inside the Malibu / Muscle Beach section of the ride, when it appears that the hills of Malibu are simultaneously being plagued with fires and mud slides. That's real location humor. As is "I guess you had to be there" to get that joke.

But what tourist from Topeka -- the very sort of person that the Mouse hopes will fly directly into Southern California to spend the bulk of their vacation in Anaheim exploring the state's newest destination resort, the newly expanded Disneyland Resort -- is ever going to get a joke like that? What sort of palooka from Peoria is going to understand that the Bauble Room -- another SSL sight gag, though this one is featured prominently in the Rodeo Drive sequence of the ride -- is supposed to be a clever play on words, a riff on LA's oh-so-exclusive Bubble Room?

Disney used to be known for its skill in storytelling, for its ability to tell a tale well to the broadest possible audience. Now here comes an attraction that seems to run counter to that tradition. A ride that's filled with jokes that only a lucky few will ever understand.

How did this happen? Well, the folks that actually worked on developing DCA's "Superstar Limo" ride will insist that this really wasn't their fault. But -- once the decision was made that that the vehicles for this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction could no longer zip through their show building, but had to plod along at a poky pace -- WDI's hands were tied.

After all, when you're moving slowly through a dark ride, big broad gags no longer very work well. Stuff like revealing that that classical singing sensation, the Three Tenors, is actually one fat guy with three heads isn't going to play anymore. That's when they needed subtler stuff, and lots of it. The Imagineers had to load up SSL's scenes up with lot of detail in order to properly sell the attraction's now slow moving storyline.

Don't believe me? Then those of you who have ridden Disney/MGM's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, think back carefully now: Where do you find the most detail on that attraction? Not on the ride itself, where a traffic sign here and a palm tree there effectively gives riders the impression that they're whizzing along Southern California's famous freeways on their way to the LA Forum. But in this Sunset Boulevard attraction's pre- and post-show areas, where the Imagineers are busily setting the stage for the thrill ride that's about to begin and/or putting an effective tag on the tale.

Better yet, think about those two Disney theme park classics: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Both of these attractions are jam-packed with detail. Why? Because A) it's effective story telling and B) theme park guests tend to get bored if you move them slowly through an environment where there isn't a lot of interesting things to look at.

So -- to try & compensate for the new slow speed of Superstar Limo's ride vehicles -- the Imagineers began cramming this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction full of industry jokes. Gags that only a person who'd worked in the industry for years was going to get.

Someone like -- say -- Disney CEO Michael Eisner?

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