I had experienced true convergence. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of my obsessions. Star Wars was coming to Disneyland. I was in high school and completely consumed by all things Disney and George Lucas when I first heard about Star Tours, a new Star Wars-themed attraction slated to open at Disneyland in January of 1987. Disney’s fabled Imagineers would be joining creative forces with the Maker himself to finally give the residents of our mundane galaxy the chance to blast off with R2-D2 and launch our own assault on the Death Star? I thought my head was about to explode just like that doomed battle station. No pun intended, but how could the stars have aligned so perfectly?
It was an exciting time to be a Disney fan in general. Just a few years earlier, Walt Disney Productions had narrowly avoided a hostile takeover, a potentially catastrophic event that would have seen the company broken up and sold for parts. Roy E. Disney, the son of company co-founder Roy O. Disney and Walt’s nephew, led the army of white knights that beat back the corporate raiders and installed a new management “dream team” consisting of Paramount’s Michael Eisner and Frank Wells from Warner Bros as chairman and CEO and president, respectively. Michael and Frank immediately set about waking this sleeping creative giant and infusing the company with new life across all its divisions, including WED Enterprises, the group of artists, designers and engineers Walt had assembled to dream, create, design and build Disneyland and all the subsequent theme parks and resorts.
WED’s headquarters in Glendale, California, was among Michael’s first stops on a whirlwind tour of his new kingdom shortly after taking office in September of 1984. The Imagineers, led by Marty Sklar, who had been hired by Walt Disney himself straight out of UCLA in 1955, pulled out all the stops and put every model, maquette, painting and sketch they had for proposed projects on display for their new boss. To put it mildly, Michael was like a kid in a candy store and wanted one of everything. Luckily he had Frank Wells on hand to keep him from bankrupting their recently rescued company by writing a check for all of the amazing things the Imagineers were chomping at the bit to build. But how was the new keeper of the kingdom ever going to choose which attraction to build first?
In this case, the longstanding creative and practical considerations of the art of Imagineering helped guide the decision-making process. Blockbuster attractions like the proposed log flume ride based on Song of the South (soon to become Splash Mountain) would take time — years, in fact — to fully design and build, but Michael and Frank wanted to make new magic at Disneyland and Walt Disney World immediately. For Disneyland they quickly commissioned Videopolis, a high-tech dance club they hoped would appeal to the notoriously fickle and often anti-Disney teen audience. The executive team also discovered that Imagineering’s film-based attractions had a much shorter turnaround time than man-made mountains and other bricks-and-mortar behemoths, months instead of years in some cases. That could work.
In addition to dynamic decision-making and new ways of thinking about Disney’s core businesses, Michael and Frank brought their industry connections and raw star power to Disney for the first time since Walt himself had roamed the halls. One of the first superstars Michael brought to WED was Michael Jackson, and there was no bigger star on the planet in the years following the release of his signature album, Thriller. A longtime Disney devotee himself, Michael expressed interest in starring in an Imagineering project, but only if a filmmaker of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg’s caliber was involved. The stars, both literal and figurative, were beginning to align.
That same fateful fall Michael Eisner had taken another show business friend on a tour of WED Enterprises to see if he could be enticed to do a Disney theme park project: George Lucas, for whom he had greenlit Raiders of the Lost Ark a few years earlier at Paramount. Much like Michael Jackson, George had been a diehard Disney fan his entire life. In fact, George’s father had taken the Lucas clan on a road trip down to Anaheim from their home in Modesto to see Disneyland on the second day it was open to the public, beginning a family tradition that made a significant impact on the young George and his burgeoning imagination. And by the mid-1980s, George Lucas and best friend Steven Spielberg were widely considered to be the Walt Disneys of their day, another reason Michael was anxious to bring them into the fold.
It wasn’t George’s first date with Disney. Months earlier he had actually met with former CEO Ron Miller, Diane Disney’s husband and Walt’s son-in-law, about bringing the Star Wars galaxy to the Disney parks. Ron attempted to sell the visionary filmmaker on a Star Wars attraction that would employ state-of-the-art flight simulation technology from a British company called Rediffusion Simulation. George had actually heard of Rediffusion and was interested in partnering them with his visual effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to create some sort of new flight simulation experience, ironically not one necessarily based on Star Wars. George was intrigued by Ron’s proposal, but wasn’t quite ready to commit.
And now George found himself browsing the world’s most elaborate candy store with Michael Eisner. Michael’s enthusiasm was infectious, and George quickly found himself drawn to the innovative indoor Star Wars-themed rollercoaster that some of the Imagineers had been quietly developing. But the interactive Star Wars coaster — more on that in a book in a few years — posed an even greater challenge than Splash Mountain. It would likely take as many as five years to pioneer the required ride system and build the attraction in Disney parks around the world. Michael then steered George back to the Imagineers’ flight simulator concepts and the notion of using that nascent technology to tell a Star Wars story, just like Ron Miller had once proposed. Like the best Disney attractions it represented the perfect marriage between story and technology. And, as an added bonus would take much less time to design and build than a coaster, giving the Disney parks the much-needed shot in the arm that Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had been seeking.
All in all it was a productive visit. George Lucas signed on to produce Captain EO, a 3D musical starring Michael Jackson and directed by his longtime friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola. He also agreed bring Star Wars to life in the Disney theme parks. As the attraction poster would one day proclaim, now the adventure would be real for the very first time, and Lucasfilm Ltd. and the Walt Disney Company would begin a collaboration that would have a significant impact on both entities in the decades to come.
To be continued…
Jason Surrell is an author, screenwriter, and senior show writer at Walt Disney Imagineering. Follow him on Twitter at @2Manhattans.