Thursday, February 05, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part Three


Let's talk about Marc.

Whenever I've spoken to or heard from somebody who worked directly with Marc Davis, the most common way I've heard him described is "extremely serious". This seems to directly contradict his reputation as the master of zany visual comedy and weird jokes, but the description is pretty consistent. Despite the obvious levity he brought to project after project, it's clear that he thought hard about the medium he was working in.

Here's a guy who studied to be an artist in a traditional mold who was brought into Disney in the 30s due to his superior drafting skills as part of a classically trained support group behind Ham Luske, Jack Campbell, and Grim Natwick in the creation of Snow White. Snow White, the most complex, subtle animated character ever attempted at Disney at that time, started Davis off on a career path of animating leading ladies: Cinderella, Alice, Tinkerbell, and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. He had some opportunities to show some range too: Brer Rabbit, Cruella deVille, and Maleficent hint at Davis' extraordinary skill, but he largely was given technically demanding women's roles while artists like Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas cut loose with comedy characters.

In later interviews, Marc never had too much to say about his leading ladies. He had very complimentary things to say about Sleeping Beauty's effort and design, and I've often wondered if his dual role in that film (animating both Aurora and Maleficent) was a result of some kind of bargain to land a better character role. He left feature animation after his work on Chanticleer bottomed out.

excerpt from his autobiographical "A Thumbnail History of Marc Davis"
In contrast, Marc characterized his time at WED Enterprises as the part of his professional career where he was truly satisfied. He was, I believe, the first of the Imagineers to really take a critical look at what made Disneyland tick. After Walt sent him out to look at the place and gather ideas, he made it a habit: careful observation of how people acted and reacted inside the parks. The lessons learned in Enchanted Tiki Room he carried over to Country Bear Jamboree. Lessons learned in Country Bear Jamboree he carried on to America Sings. The enjoyment he took in this new medium, and level of serious thought he devoted to it, is evident in much of his work. You don't come up with powerfully communicative, funny stuff like the Trapped Safari at Jungle Cruise without putting a lot of thought into how to pull it off.

But I think what Marc really wanted was to be able to do what Claude Coats did. It was the fusion of Claude's sensibilities for atmosphere and color and Marc's sensibilities for comedy and visual communication that elevated Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. But if you really have to choose a style that makes those two attractions work, it's Claude's. Marc learned the power of a richly developed atmosphere from Claude, and Western River Expedition was his chance to put his learning to good use and do it all himself.

So despite their obvious affinity for each others' styles - Marc and Claude continued to work together, on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and again on Enchanted Snow Palace - Marc would always get a little cagey in describing Claude Coats in later years, and I think this is why. You can call it jealously if you like, but Marc wanted  to offer more than gag and character designs.

So it's interesting to examine how things Marc always said about Pirates of the Caribbean ended up being transposed in transformed ways into Western River Expedition. He praised Coats' haunted grotto in Pirates as being "very effective", so Western River has two caverns, but each one with a very different effect.

The first cavern takes the place of the "time travel" conceit from Pirates in favor of a more artful approach to drawing us into a fantasy.

Rock formations in the opening cavern suggest one Old West image after another, and as we pass each, a piece of the Western River Expedition theme begins to play one part after another until there is an entire musical piece. In this way, the Old West of the prairie, cowboys and indians, and Dry Gulch seems to come out of our own subconscious associations as we see seemingly familiar shapes in rocks. There's no need for a big pile of cursed pirate gold because Davis artfully prompts us to make the leap into fantasy ourselves.

The second cavern repeats the spooky atmosphere of the Pirate caves but this time adds all of the waterfalls which make the Disneyland caverns so memorable. I think the idea of motivating the waterfalls as being the result of a flash flood, thereby making them a direct threat to riders, is ingenious. And then there's the trip up the waterfall.

Marc always called out Walt's trip up the waterfall at the end of Pirates as an element he pointedly did not like, so what's it doing in Western River Expedition, the dream project he had total control over?

I think Marc probably noticed something about the "Up the Waterfall" scene which can still be observed in the park today, which is that people expect a big payoff for going up the waterfall. They raise their arms in anticipation of a big drop. If you read his objection to the scene again, you'll notice that his specific complaint is that guests "sit there wondering what the hell [to] do next". This is why using the trip up the waterfall to build suspense at the climax of the ride solves his stated objection. Western River Expedition cleverly uses the up-the-waterfall gag to raise suspense for a coming confrontation as our situation goes from bad to worse. He turned an (apparent) liability into an asset.

Other items from Pirates of the Caribbean got a total rethink. The idea of turning the fiery finalie into a natural disaster is an interesting one, but Davis zeroed in on the beautifully effective "swaying timbers" scene for expansion into literally an entire burning forest about to come crashing down onto the boats. Western River was as much an experiment to place every element from Pirates into its most dramatically effective order as it was a plan to "outdo" it. Perhaps they would have seemed redundant sitting next to each other in the same park at first, but I think Western River Expedition was up to enough genuinely new stuff to earn a place as a standalone piece.

Oh, and about Pirates of the Caribbean in Florida. I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that when Marc was tasked with designing a cut down version of the attraction for Magic Kingdom that the stuff he excised is the stuff that would have been most redundant with Western River Expedition. Ride up the waterfall? Gone. Slow atmospheric build to the start? Gone. Slow crawl underneath burning timbers? Gone.

If anything, the fact that the FL Pirates dispenses with all of the atmosphere building and gets us right to the meat and potatoes of the ride - the town under siege - makes even more sense considering exactly how much of Western River was supposed to be atmospheric vamping. So, yes, the pitifully small budget contributes as well, but in 1971 and 1972 when designs were underway, Western River Expedition was still officially being prepped for construction at Magic Kingdom. Davis seems to have been going out of his way to make both attractions complimentary instead of competitive. It's unfortunate that Pirates was left holding the short end of the stick in 1973, but that's what happened. I suspect we'd be having a very different discussion about this if WRE got off the ground.

In fact, nobody ever seems to mention that if Western River Expedition was Marc's first stab at reworking Pirates, and Florida Pirates of the Caribbean was his second, he went back and did it all a third time: for Tokyo Disneyland, in 1983. Tokyo's Pirates makes for very interesting direct comparisons for those who know Disneyland's well and with Marc in mind. This time he got to leave in the Blue Bayou, shortened but dramatically redesigned the haunted caves, lengthened the town sequence and the munition storehouse shootout, but dropped the trip up the waterfall.

I'm going to such lengths to point all this out because if Marc is mentioned in the fan community these days it's for one of two things: conceiving crazy character gags and for saying "[Walt Disney] didn't like the idea of telling stories in this medium. It's not a story telling medium. But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates." That's a brilliant quote, but as far as Marc is concerned that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Because the two attractions Marc had total control over, Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings have heavy on character gags but light on atmosphere, and because of that perniciously complex quote about story, Marc often gets painted as a guy against all forms of in-park storytelling, heavily lobbying for attractions full of crazy gags and characters.

Nobody ever points out that he began to push Claude Coats-style atmosphere heavier and heavier in 1969 and 1970.

The gorgeous interior of the Florida Tiki Room? That's Marc Davis. The deep, dark queues of the east coast Pirates of the Caribbean? That's Marc Davis. The fact that he designed the entirety of the Florida Jungle Cruise, which is the Jungle Cruise most devoted to atmosphere, is not widely known. In fact, the 1971 Jungle Cruise is the ride where he began to paint Coats-style scenic layouts, some of which you have seen in last week's article. Every rock and every figure in that Jungle Cruise is placed exactly where he wanted it.

Enchanted Snow Palace, too, was built on the rock of atmosphere. A shimmering symphony of Yale Gracey light effects, Buddy Baker music and eerie but beautiful atmosphere, it was intended to be an adult counterpoint to It's A Small World. Yet this was designed nearly concurrently with America Sings, which is wall to wall crazy animals. The guy had range.

And then we come to Western River Expedition. Here's a ride that's mostly atmosphere. The character gags take up only a short section in the middle. It's based on Pirates of the Caribbean yet it reorders and reemphasizes large and small things from Pirates to improve the clarity of the storytelling. Western River was Marc swinging for the fences. Yet what's largely happened to it in the popular imagination is it's become a collection of online curiosities, most of which were not intended for the ride, like:

In other words, it's been streamlined into the mainline narrative of his work at WED as the master of random gags. But if we take Marc at his word, then his ideal attraction concept, his personal baby, is a ride with a rigorously conceived dramatic arc, the best kind of theme park narrative. Marc's right: it's not a story with traditional leading characters and a dramatic denouement, but I think Western River Expedition represents one of the most carefully put together "theme park stories" ever. It's not book or film storytelling, but it is Disneyland storytelling.

This is why I've worked so hard to give a complete, correct version of the experience of the ride. Because I think understanding what it really was supposed to be is a key to understanding the way Marc thought about a medium he loved. I mean, he could have gone on after his WED Enterprises career ended and worked with independent animators like Don Bluth and Richard Williams, but he didn't. What he kept doing was designing characters and concepts for Independent Theme Parks like Circus World and designers like Gary Goddard. Disney be damned, he kept working in his chosen field.

1982 piece for Goddard Design Group

In this respect, the tragedy of the failure of Western River Expedition's development cycle is compounded. We were not just denied a great attraction, but a terrific insight into one of WED Enterprises' most engaged critical thinkers.

I hope these articles have gone some way in the direction of helping to improve the understanding about and discussion surrounding this ambitious project and its primary creator. Untangling the webs of misinformation around Thunder Mesa has been daunting but keenly personally rewarding. Western River Expedition may never get built, but in design and conception it's reams and reams of intensely valuable, brilliant thought about the possibilities of a medium that could use a few more masterpieces.

Western River Expedition Series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Thursday, January 29, 2015

All About Western River Expedition, Part Two

Okay, let's finally go inside Thunder Mesa and dig into the meat of the show. Last time we looked at a model of the Thunder Mesa complex...

Let's look at what was going on inside that thing.

Okay, now, before anyone panics don't worry, I was fooled at first too. What you're looking at is three show buildings - working from left to right I call them A, B and C - which contain the Western River Expedition boat ride. The open space in the center is where the pond, final drop, and boarding area of the canoe ride is located.

To make this easier to look at, and think about several years ago I tried to convert this 3/4 view model into a 2D layout. I made some guesses and took some liberties; this is merely a look at what it could've been like, corroborated by tiny, grainy photos of a model.

Okay, first of all let's address something that perhaps some of you noticed in the last post, which is that none of these models are a perfect match for our blueprint foundation I posted back in the first part:

To begin with, on this blueprint the train track goes straight through the building but appears to slightly curve in all of the models I've been able to find. Secondly, there's a whole section of building on the other side of the train track not accounted for on that blueprint:

You can see it in that interior model, the Walt Disney World Railroad bisecting the two parts of the building.

To me that looks like a ride-through diorama. Not a Grand Canyon-style one; this seems to be based on the seasons. We can see open fields, lightning strikes, a forest and waterfall or stream, and a snow covered landscape.

Mike Cozart informs me (in the comments for this very blog post - thanks Mike!) that this diorama had a number of Davis gags designed for it and which are sometimes misrepresented online as Nature's Wonderland gags - the forest was likely intended to be full of comic bears in the Nature's Wonderland style.

It's also possible this is where the long-gestating idea, championed by Dick Nunis, of the Railroad going through a snowstorm originated. Regardless, it's the sort of thing the east coast railroad has always needed and never has had.

Okay, enough preliminaries. Let's go inside and ride Western River Expedition!


Western River Expedition was to be housed in two enormous show buildings with a third, merely large show building connecting them. Each of these show buildings were comparable in size to the Pirates of the Caribbean main show room and likely would have felt very similar, only with rock work instead of a Caribbean town: open ceilings, walls covered in cloud projections and perspective effects, a whole little world with a roof on it.

After entering below the giant ore elevator, guests would walk through a mine shaft and exit into Show Building A, which represents a canyon at sunset.

Crossing over a natural arch, guests can look down to their left to see boats returning to the load area, and new boats loading down below them. The ride's soundtrack plays in a lush, Hollywood Western style as the queue winds slowly down to the attraction's loading dock amid trees and brush typical of the American southwest. A stream splashes down alongside the load area.

Casting off from a simple wooden loading dock, the boats drift placidly though a canyon as the sounds of nature overtake the boat.

What happens next depends on interpretation of available materials. We know for sure that the boats approach a cave. If you think Hoot Gibson appears in the ride it's likely at this spot, starting to narrate the scene and setting. Alternately, as we approach the cave we notice nestled in among the rocks are gigantic Western dime novels of adventure and cunning. This strikes me as a weirdly cartoonish concept to introduce at this point in the ride, but we have a beautiful Davis rendering of it and none others from this early part of the ride.

A close look at the model shows splotches of red, yellow and blue on the rocks to the left before the cave, suggesting a kind of indoor variation on the Devil's Paint Pots from Nature's Wonderland. You can look at the evidence and make up your own mind.

The boats pass into a darkened cavern filled with hundreds of stalactites.

A stalactite comes into view shaped like a rabbit. From inside this stalactite, echoing dimly in the cavern, a bit of music plays, imagine perhaps rhythmic drums.

The boats pass more stalactites that resemble increasingly familiar Old West shapes - a coyote, a cowboy, an old man. From inside each stalactite, a bit more of the melody emerges until the entire cavern feels filled with ethereal music and we notice ever more familiar shapes in the flowing rock work.

Exiting the cavern, the boats slip gently through a desert at dusk as they are followed by the Western River Expedition theme music summoned in the caverns. Slightly above the boats off to the left, a railroad track runs - and occasionally a full size train rumbles past, the Walt Disney World Railroad passing through.

Back outside in the simulated night air, the music has taken on a minor key. A chorus of singing voices may be heard, until the boats turn a corner and reveal a stagecoach holdup taking place on a bridge spanning the Western River:

The Bandits holding up the Stagecoach, complete with their own personal mariachi and theme song, seem too busy with their latest crime to stop and rob us too - but, the leader in a top hat menacingly suggests to us, all in song, that he may meet us again soon.

Amongst those who have researched Western River Expedition, my placement of the stagecoach holdup sequence is unusually early. Yet if what I'm seeing on the model is correct, this is where the scene was supposed to go, and to me the proof is the rendering above. The view above shows the scene as it would have appeared to the Walt Disney World Railroad, and we can clearly see from the model that the Railroad peeked into the ride at this point. Certainly the Railroad is what motivated the placement of the Stagecoach itself high up that bridge. This is why I choose this version of the scene, as opposed to the many variants Davis drew.

Passing underneath the Stagecoach, boats wind their way through the open prairie at nightfall. White clouds gently rake a periwinkle blue sky. All around, large shadowy buttes dot a landscape and open sky awash in twilight blue.

A group of Buffalo curiously investigate the home of some prairie dogs.

Nearby, a cowboy sings to calm his cattle under the night sky. His tune is a slow-step version of the Western River Expedition theme. The cattle join in, bellowing along with his tune.

Framed in natural rock arches, coyotes howls pick up the tune. The underscore music swells.

The cowboy's team rest nearby around a campfire, bringing another guitar and harmonica into the mix. Picking up the tune is the cook at the chuck wagon...

...and an entire chorus of cactus!

The placid strumming of the cowboy song transforms into a honky tonk piano. Raucous shouting may be heard, and gunfire.

Now, here comes the part where some interpretation is needed. The "Town of Dry Gulch" sequence coming up next is the sequence of the ride that Davis did an extraordinary volume of work for; it's also the one which he drew a lot of gags that did not end up in the final version of the show. Davisophiles have been circulating this work online for years, because it's brilliant stuff, but this has also given a bloated picture of how long this sequence was intended to be.

Davis also revised the scene at least once, in the process extending it out around the corner into the next scene. As far as I can tell in the 1971 version of the ride, the only one Disney got anywhere near actually building, the town was a simple two-sided affair, with clapboard buildings in both sides of the ride flume and the bridge over the river at the end:

So that's the shape of the town I'm going to be working with here. Also, to fully understand this scene we have to (finally) bring in discussion of Mary Blair's work on the ride.

It's well known that Marc wanted to use Mary Blair's art to color-style the ride. Unlike with It's A Small World, however, the ride wasn't necessarily going to end up looking like a piece of Mary Blair art. The fact that Davis would from time to time put out pieces of Western River art with similar Mary Blair bold colors has led to yet more confusion.

Western River Expedition was intended mostly to be made up of rock work and desert scenery, and it was going to be WED-style stylized naturalistic rocks and scenery, with Blair vivid colors. The "Night on the Town" sequence in Western River Expedition would be the height of the ride's intense color stylization.

The right side of the town set would be bathed in bright blue moonlight, the houses standing out against the hue with green clapboard and yellow windows.

This blue-toned side of the town would be filled entirely with Cowboys drinking and carousing, shouting and singing.

Surrounded by torches, a Snake Oil salesman at the end of the street demonstrates his wares with the help of a native chief, with music provided by a nearby brave and squaw on banjo and trombone.

The left side of the street is bathed in a fiery red by the setting sun. On this side, a bank robbery and gun battle is underway.

Robbers have pulled the entire safe out of the bank and are using it as a shield.

The sheriff hangs out of the Tonsorial Parlor, returning fire. (This gag is lifted almost directly from For A Few Dollars More, and I must admit I did not expect Davis to be a potential Sergio Leone fan)

His Calamity Jane-style deputy hides behind a building, taking an absurdly long time to choose her targets.

And, at the end of the street:

The Blue/Red split that mirrors the tone of the scenes found on either side of the river is the boldest stylization found on the ride, and even more remarkable for being conceived in the form of a sunset. I've done a watercolor interpretation of what this could have looked like in person. Because this will no doubt be misconstrued by somebody as authentic concept art, I've put a big, dumb watermark over it to hopefully prevent more misinformation being circulated about this ride.

Boats turn a corner towards the left and pass through a narrow canyon between two buttes. The sounds of the honk-tonk piano and gunfire fade as now pounding native drums take up the rhythm of the Western River Expedition theme.

The transition out of the Dry Gulch scene and into the next is made by passing under a bridge:

thanks to Jaime Maas

 We come across a group of plains Indians. They sway back and forth mysteriously to the pounding of their drums as a Shaman dances crazily, only slightly distracted by the shapely lass to his left. Far up above atop a butte, a rain dance is performed, and it's remarkably effective, sending cascading rain down... atop only the butte, at first. Water pours down the side of the butte, widening into flowing rivers and rushing towards the boats.

Storm clouds glower overhead and bolts of lightning tear the sky as rain can be seen falling on the distant plain. The little boats move slowly towards a dark canyon straight ahead.

Thunder and lightning rip the sky far above as we slip slowly into the narrow space. Flood water begins to pour into the canyon from the buttes above to the left and right, spattering on jagged rocks.

The boats turn another corner and begin chugging up a huge waterfall. The eyes of unknown animals flash in the dark around them.

Arriving at the top of the waterfall, the boats move slowly through a great forest at the top of the butte on the edges of the plain. The rain continues to fall, but the rain dance was too late - the lightning has already set the trees ablaze.

The tall trees have already begun to topple and the boats pass below several as they creak and groan, flames dancing atop each one when into view comes:

The bandits stop the boat and demand your money. After a moment's hesitation, the boats slip down a waterfall to escape, splashing down in a darkened cave.

The canyon at sunset  where we began comes back into view, and with it returns the triumphant, Hollywood version of the Western River Expedition theme. Boats return to the little wooden dock where they boarded and passengers disembark, back through a mine shaft, emerging at the base of the huge Thunder Mesa complex.


The Fall 1973 Oil Crisis killed off a lot of stuff at Walt Disney World that it shouldn't. Disney should have kept building hotels, but the Asian and Persian got axed. They should have built more rides, but following 1973 anything that wasn't a roller coaster had no hope of getting off the ground. Everything that wasn't being actively constructed as of Fall '73 got put on indefinite hold, and once the race towards EPCOT Center's starting pistol was fired in early '77, many projects were abandoned. Western River Expedition was one of them.

But it wasn't really until 1976 that the curtain was pulled over Western River Expedition for good. In that year, Walt Disney Productions changed their age of retirement, and perhaps sooner than he expected, Marc Davis was out. He did return for a time in 1977 to plan additional attractions, including designing nearly all of the sight gags for World of Motion, but when Marc left, Western Rive Expedition was without a mastermind and it faded quickly.

Now, most histories, including Disney's official history published in "The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at its Peak" strongly imply (or outright state) that the attraction's less-than-austere treatment of Native Americans is what killed it off, a suggestion I've done some work in this series to debunk. However, the fact remains that in the mid-70s, Marc did see fit to make a few changes. He removed nearly all of the Indians from his ride.

The first group to go were the three in the Medicine Show; Marc replaced the Chief with a generic Strong Man and lost the comedy of two Indians playing banjo and trombone:

The Medicine show gag was neither here nor there on the offense scale, but it was carefully placed to foreshadow the Rain Dance sequence, which was perhaps a bit more problematic with the short swarthy Medicine Man gawking at a tall, buxom Squaw. So Davis dropped the entire Rain Dance scene.

We do know he kept the lone Indian irritated on the bridge with the guns-blazing cowpoke, and it's because we can see it in the next piece, which shows an expanded version of the "Bank Robbery" tableau. This version would extend around the corner past the original Dry Gulch scene, and fill both sides of the river. I flipped it earlier in this article to give some notion of the original '71 Robbery scene, of which I have no good, wide view of.

Across the way, more sheriffs and townsfolk continue the shootout. "Calamity Jane" has been relocated here. This is where the oft-repeated tidbit of a gunfight on either side of the boats comes from, an idea repeated in Phantom Manor's "Ghost Town" sequence.

Notice the punctured water wagon at the end, obviously intended as a visual transition into the rainstorm / flood sequence to follow.

And, as far as changes made to purge the ride of politically incorrect content goes, that was it. The ride simply always was more "Cowboys" than "Indians". Once I finally got a better idea of the actual flow of the ride, I realized that not only this issue, but the entire Dry Gulch sequence has been greatly inflated in importance from years and years of retelling. The bulk of the ride would have been the same sort of stuff that the bulk of Pirates of the Caribbean in California is: rocks, special effects projections, music, and evocative atmosphere.

Amazingly enough, after being killed for good on the East Coast, Western River Expedition popped back up on a proposed 1978 expansion for Disneyland, the "Land of Legends", intended to connect Bear Country to Tony Baxter's Discovery Bay.

There's a tempting land if ever I've seen one... the idea of Western River sitting alongside dark rides for Ichabod Crane and Windwagon Smith is a daunting one. Much like Discovery Bay and Dumbo's Circus, ballooning costs on EPCOT Center killed off this obscure but delightful idea.

And then there's the rarely discussed plans for a small Old West-themed theme park at Walt Disney World, sometimes called Frontier Kingdom, located southwest of the Seven Seas Lagoon. practically no information about this exists, but Western River Expedition is usually cited as one of the major rides. However, as we know, it was all for naught and nobody has yet been able to get Western River into production since 1971.

Come back next week for a final discussion of Western River Expedition and Marc Davis' intentions with this ride.

Western River Expedition Series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three