A Mecca for Movie Buffs Opens at Disney World. THEME PARK TAKES TOURISTS BEHIND THE SCENES
THE director says ``Roll 'em!'' to the cameras, and Indiana Jones, in a rumpled safari suit and brown fedora, begins shimmying like a monkey down the thick rope to safety. Jones, played by a stuntman, hits the ground running but hasn't gone more than a few feet before huge metal spears spring up out of the ground, creating a lethal slalom course - until the director yells ``Cut''!
We are in the middle of the Epic Stunt Spectacular at the new Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, which opens todayMay 1 here in Orlando.
In an early look, I saw nine members of a preview audience don flowing Arab robes to play extras in a stunt scene battle near a desert palace. In this scene, the director coached the tourist extras: ``I need to see some fear!'' The audience laughed and clapped at the result.
As Jimmy Durante used to say, ``Everybody wants to get into da act,'' and the tourists who come to the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park should be no exception.
This park is the third and latest addition to Walt Disney World, the Mickey Mouse megalopolis that stretches for 43 miles here in the Florida savanna. It includes Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom, and draws 23 million visitors yearly. Like both of those parks, this celluloid kingdom has its own theme, which unreels in a series of shows, rides, tours, and spectaculars that are designed as a fun-spangled tribute to moviemaking.
Disney puts the price of this 135-acre movie park at $400 million, though others have estimated the cost at as much as $1 billion. Involving the audience in the action is definitely part of its formula for success.
Volunteers, some of them talented hams, march up on stage to be part of Superstar Television, an attraction that uses split-screen technology for live re-creations of classic TV programs. Volunteers, costumed and made up as the TV stars, reenact the scenes in front of TV cameras that put the volunteers in the picture on large monitors with the original stars. Two women volunteers for an ``I Love Lucy'' segment found themselves made up and dressed in candy-factory uniforms for their show. Lucille Ball's stand-in broke up the audience with assembly-line farce, stuffing her uniform with chocolates to keep up with the conveyor-belt flow. The Superstar Television shows include Johnny Carson's ``Tonight'' show and David Letterman's ``Late Night,'' ``General Hospital,'' ``Gilligan's Island,'' and ``Cheers.''
In another audience-participation show, this correspondent had the treat of reading Jean Harlowe's lines to Clark Gable in the redubbing of a ``China Seas'' scene at Soundworks, part of the Monster Sound Show.
MICHAEL EISNER, chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company, says the element of viewer involvement is key. Reached by phone at Disney's Burbank, Calif., studios, Mr. Eisner explained, ``What was very important to us was that this park be differentiated from the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. It is a unique and separate attraction....
The Magic Kingdom is complete fantasy and wonderment, and there's a lot of animatronics [animated mechanical figures]. And Epcot Center is a kind of countries-of-the-world and their ethnic presentation. ... Here [at the new theme park], we were looking toward, really, information about the process of creating these kinds of fantasies.
``The use of the guests participating as much as possible in interactive entertainment was definitely one of our strategies,'' he went on. ``Again, interactive with the whole family, which is our basic philosophy, our mission.''
If there aren't enough interactive thrills in the Epic Stunt Spectacular, you can always roll through Catastrophe Canyon on the studio backlot tour, where the special effects are up close and scary. We were moving through on what I think of as the disaster shuttle when the tidal wave hit.
Roaring down from a cliff almost directly above us came an avalanche of water - 76,000 gallons of it, or the equivalent of 10 Olympic-size swimming pools. It stopped just a few inches short of our shuttle. We screamed and gasped, and I would tell you more but my notes were washed away. There were also fires, explosions, and a perilously realistic earthquake on the track. Not advised for the faint of heart.
Another series of interactive attractions turns up in one of the big shows at the theme park, the Great Movie Ride. Audiences enter a re-creation of that Hollywood landmark, the Chinese Theater, and find themselves on a shuttle in a ``tunnel-of-love-the-flicks,'' moving through huge reenactments of scenes from famous films. The lifelike restaging of the scenes is done with Disney's ``audio animatronics,'' with humanoid robots that talk, sweat, and even roll their eyes, made to resemble film stars.
Some of the scenes were realistic and violent enough that the small children aboard were frightened. Setting off some people's alarm bells were the real smoke and fire in a Western barn-burning scene; the victim being vaporized into a skeleton in ``Raiders of the Lost Ark''; and the slimy tentacles of ``The Alien'' reaching down toward us. But there are also plenty of pleasantly nostalgic scenes: the romantic airport farewell between Bogey and Bergman in ``Casablanca''; Gene Kelly ``Singin' in the Rain''; Tarzan swinging from a vine; and the yellow brick road from ``The Wizard of Oz.''
After watching a wonderful montage of scenes from films as disparate as ``North By Northwest,'' ``Good Morning, Vietnam,'' ``The Sound of Music,'' and ``Wuthering Heights,'' you exit onto Hollywood Boulevard.
This art deco re-creation of the '30s and '40s Hollywood ambiance sets the mood for the whole theme park, with its manicured lawns, imported California palms, fragrant gardenias, roses, white ginger, and hibiscus.
In this parklike setting, the reproduced Chinese Theater, with its pagoda roof and red lacquer designs, and the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant, famous for Cobb salad and grapefruit cake, look larger and more expansive than in Hollywood.
IN addition to the shops and period eateries on Hollywood Boulevard is Sid Cahuengas's One of a Kind, a building done in early California ``craftsman'' style, where you can buy collector's items ranging from Katharine Hepburn's white silk purse embroidered with a peacock ($1,400) to a Jackie Coogan contract (framed, $40).
Close by is the teal blue Disney-MGM Studio gate, with its Mickey Mouse and lion logos. For this park is built around a working movie and television production center. ``Superboy'' and ``The Mickey Mouse Club'' have been shot on its three sound stages; ``Stella,'' starring Bette Midler, and ``The Dead Poets' Society,'' starring Robin Williams, will soon be filmed here.
The two-hour studio tour includes a look at scenery and costume departments, sound stages, and a residential street right out of ``The Stepford Wives.'' Another backlot re-creates a New York street scene, where ``forced perspective'' makes the Chrysler Building the size of a molehill.
For such fans of ``Toons'' as Eisner himself, the biggest thrill in the park is likely to be the studio's Animation Tour, which traces the process of making cartoon figures ``move'' from original story through editing.
Eisner takes no personal credit for the theme park but gives a lot of it to his creative team of ``imagineers,'' and, of course, to founding father Walt Disney.
``The fact of the matter is: The studio idea is Walt Disney's personal idea, not mine,'' Eisner says. ``He was the original creator of the idea of a studio tour, and then he had trouble in Burbank and not enough land. Instead he found a piece of land in Anaheim, in strawberry fields, and developed Disneyland,'' adds Eisner, who has Disney's original plans for a studio tour from the late '40s. ``So this studio is not my idea or current imagineers' idea. This studio really started before Disneyland. Walt Disney was a movie guy. He wasn't a park guy. And he loved taking people and showing them how animation was done. ... His idea was to make that into an attraction.''
Eisner, the $40 million man whose salary and stock options last year made his the highest-paid executive in the US, says the fact that his wealth came from Mickey Mouse ears and Donald Duck T-shirts doesn't bother him. ``I'm thrilled, frankly, that it does come from the growth of a company that really delivers fun and entertainment and good feelings rather than simply wise investments in a portfolio.''
And the future? ``Well, I think the studio is an evolving attraction. I think you've only seen the very beginning of what it will be. ... When Disneyland began, it was just 17 rides. It was just the beginning. It's never finished.''