June 29, 2013: Slovenly writer James Greene, Jr. visits EPCOT Center to make sure Captain EO is still in his words “goofy as yams.” Along the way Greene stops at Club Cool’s international soda fountain (above) where the Italian offering proves less than a taste sensation. Says Greene, “Ack!”
The following article originally ran on Radar magazine’s website, Radar.com, in the summer of 2008, before they were purchased by National Enquirer and transformed into something more TMZ-ish. I don’t remember the headline it ran under, but this is (more or less) the complete unedited version of the piece. A few sections have been updated with pertinent developments since the time of publication.
June 1, 2008, saw a devastating fire rip through Universal Studios Hollywood, destroying a number of iconic film sets and several thousand copies of Universal films / television shows themselves. Among the casualties of this monumental blaze was the King Kong portion of the famed Universal Studios backlot tour. Now the only animatronic animals left to terrorize tourists are Bruce, the grumpy shark from Jaws who’s been baring his teeth since 1976, and that dinky Jurassic Park dinosaur what sprayed its toxic juices in Wayne Knight’s face.
Kong is the latest of in a long line of tragic theme park deaths, a sobering reminder that the coasters, trolleys, trams, robots, and motion simulators we’ve come to know and love are susceptible to all manner of bizarre and unstoppable expirations. Sometimes entire parks fall, leaving nothing more than piles of brick, wood, and painful memories. Come with us now as we look back on the deceased theme park attractions of yesteryear…
King Kong: Studio Tour, Universal Studios Hollywood, 1986-2008
Inspired by the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 classic, work on this seven ton, thirty foot tall animatronic King Kong began in 1985. One year later, the furry bastard made his helicopter-smashing, bridge-shaking debut, the first of his kind anywhere. Kong’s hefty presence rejuvenated Universal Studios tourism and provided the inspiration for an entirely new Universal park in Orlando, FL, the heart of which was a similar Kong attraction (see below). Who knew it would take little more than a blowtorch to dethrone California’s most beloved simian? That’s supposedly what caused the fire on June 1, 2008, that reduced King Kong to cinders and ash. Fire fighters claim the blaze spread rapidly due to water pressure issues and the failure of certain fire protection features which were introduced after a similar fire in 1990. Despite the massive popularity of King Kong, Universal Studios has announced they will not be rebuilding the giant monkey (who originally cost a staggering $6.5 million to construct) and will replace the burnt area with a new attraction.
Kongfrontation!: Universal Studios Florida, 1990-2002
Universal was looking to open some kind of facility in the Sunshine State as early as 1982. Fear of competing with Disney for that state’s tourism dollars, however, kept the company from moving too far ahead. That all changed after King Kong’s L.A. debut in 1986; the ape’s unprecedented popularity spurned Universal to get things into gear for an all-new Orlando park. Opening in 1990, Universal Studios Florida boasted an impressive array of rides and attractions, including Kongfrontation!, a bigger, better version of the original robot monkeyshine. Florida Kong not only had a bigger fake New York to terrorize, but he also had a distinct odor about him (the famous “banana breath” that he exhaled on riders). Kongfrontation! was USF’s lynchpin attraction, anchoring years of excitement and thrills within the theme park’s walls. Its popularity was constant, which is why the ride’s closure sans explanation in September of 2002 confused legions of Kong fans. Some have speculated maintenance / repair costs ended Kong’s Florida run, but rumors persist that the building that housed Kongfrontation! was on the verge of collapsing (much like Disney, Universal is technically its own town, exempt from the architecture codes of Orange County, FL).
Back to the Future: The Ride: Universal Studios Florida / Hollywood, 1991-2007
Kongfrontation! may have been the heart of Universal Studios Florida, but the park’s real triumph was Back to the Future: the Ride. A near-perfect marriage of movie and live experience, BTTFTR plopped guests into the middle of a thrilling motion simulated time traveling adventure starring Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson. Rocketing from the prehistoric era to the year 2015 in the DeLorean was every movie fan’s dream. Universal had the ingenuity to bring that dream to life; unfortunately, they didn’t have the chutzpah to tell Steven Spielberg who was in charge. The director was reluctant to let anyone else manage one of his most enduring properties, so he worked out a deal that retained ownership of Back to the Future: the Ride for his own Amblin Entertainment and named him a specific creative consultant. This allegedly made it very hard to improve the popular attraction as technology changed over the years; Spielberg had final say over anything Universal proposed, and as you can imagine he’s always been a pretty busy guy. With 2015 rapidly approaching, both parties got together a couple of years ago and decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle anymore. BTTFTR was given a loving send-off at both Universal locations before making way for the more contemporary “Simpsons” ride.
A few years ago, I wrote a book of humorous essays revolving around Star Wars fan culture entitled Star Wars Ruined My Life. I came really close to getting the thing into book stores, but every interested publisher was upset I wasn’t already some famous dingus from the movies, TV, or the Internet. They all told me to go “build an audience” and come back when I was a profitable commodity. Instead, I bought a gun and tried to shoot the President.
No, I’m kidding. I tried to “build an audience” by not leaving my house and eating ice cream all day, but that didn’t work. Fast forward to 6/25/09. Michael Jackson dies, and I remember that one chapter in Star Wars Ruined My Life extensively covered Jacko’s 3-D EPCOT attraction Captain EO (1986). You all remember that one. It had singing, dancing, puppets, and Anjelica Huston. On the whole, far more entertaining than that crap inside the giant golf ball OR Ellen’s Energy Adventure.
Like Star Wars, but with more squealing and crotch-grabbing.
Captain EO was produced by George Lucas, who at the same time was burdened with the task of creating a separate Disney attraction based on his blockbuster Star Wars movies. Obviously EO, directed by George’s buddy Francis Ford Coppola, was of higher priority. That fact was punctuated sharply when the lackluster Star Wars ride, Star Tours, finally debuted at MGM Studios in 1987. The five minute zip around space with C-3PO, R2-D2, and some robot voiced by Pee Wee Herman was less exciting than some of the bathrooms in the park.
So I wrote this chapter that directly blamed the King of Pop for the suckiness of Star Tours. The whole EO project was his idea in the first place; since he was the almighty MJ, all he had to do was call a few people and that was enough to make everything else on the entire planet secondary. The original text I cobbled together makes it clear just how ridiculous Michael Jackson’s Seventeen Minute Intergalactic Third Tier Muppet Freak-Out was in terms of time and money:
Captain EO was one of the most expensive movies ever made, at one million dollars per minute of film. I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when you consider the fact that 1997’s Titanic cost about 12 jillion dollars per nanosecond, but in 1986 seventeen million dollars was a lot of money. The highest-grossing movie of that year, Top Gun, was budgeted at $15 million, and they used real fighter jets and aircraft carriers in that one. Captain EO cost two million dollars more, and the majority of the cast was foam rubber. Plus, Captain EO was ninety-three minutes shorter than Top Gun! It was the 1980s, though, a time when money was thrown around like Styrofoam packing material, especially by people like Michael Jackson.”
Aw, he did the same shit in “Thriller.”
Indeed, Captain EO was pricey. Yet, it was all up there on the screen, and the thing must have been popular. Disney didn’t remove EO from their parks entirely until 1997, long after MJ’s career had imploded and most people were afraid of leaving the guy alone with minors. That has to speak to the film’s quality, right? Tourists won’t put up with any ol’ kind of 3-D puppet-related crap, no matter HOW good that icy seventeen minutes of air conditioning feels. Then again, Disney replaced Captain EO with Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, a show based on a decade-old Rick Moranis franchise. Maybe they have no idea what they’re doing down there (and maybe all tourists are complete heat-exhausted idiots).
But I digress. I interviewed a handful of people who actually worked on EO for this chapter, but only one managed to provide me with the strange, funny, and sometimes sad background stories I craved as a gossip-hungry member of John Q. Public. That person was Terri Hardin, a Hollywood costume builder/sculptor who not only created creatures for EO but also portrayed two of its characters—Idy and Ody—and did stunts for Anjelica Huston. I didn’t include much of what Terri said in the original chapter because it didn’t seem all that relevant, but now her stories/insights prove to be most interesting (because, you know, Michael Jackson just died). Here now, some selected quotes from Terri about the Captain EO experience.
On working with Coppola:
“He always wears Bermuda shorts. He is so casual that the first time I met him I did not recognize him. This was good, because I handled myself well, instead of [acting like] a blubbering fan.
“Coppola had us improv. There I was, acting with Angelica Huston and Michael Jackson. In one scene we did, Angelica was the boss of a camp, Michael was the camp counselor, and we were the spoiled children. Francis [went] to Angelica and whispered, ‘you are going to fire Michael.’ And to Michael, he whispered, ‘You must get these kids to behave.’ And to the rest of us, the children, we were told not to behave under any circumstances.
“Well, Michael kept asking us to behave, and we just kept being brats. Then Angelica storms in, grabs Michael by the shirt, and literally lifts him off his feet and says, ‘You insignificant little worm – YOU’RE FIRED!’ She then throws him across the room. We rehearsed in large studio and the floors were slick; Michael slid a long way on his butt, and shuttered in fear. Real fear. After that, he would not go near Angelica. He was very frighted of her.”
“Where’s that little shit Prince? I wanna throw him around, too.”
On working with MJ:
“Working with Michael was quite interesting. So many people loved this guy in ’85. Not like today, where he is labeled as a freak. He had the mind of a twelve year old then, and I used to talk to him as I would a young boy. He loved to have grape fights in the morning. He would have a crate of grapes sent to his trailer every day just for this purpose.
“Michael also loved to play jokes on me, as I can be very gullible. His favorite was the rattlesnake egg joke. This is the one where you approach someone and tell them that you have just gotten some rattlesnake eggs sent to you and you hand your chosen victim the envelope. When they open it, there is a bobby pin with a rubber band and it makes a rattling sound and scares the crap out of your victim. I was always the victim. Michael would pull this prank again and again on me. As far as dancing or music, though, he was the master. Never had I seen such raw talent.
“[And he] could remember you name, no matter who you were. Once you had met him, he could call you by name from then on. Think of all the folks who have crossed his path. Amazing!”
On the kids from SpaceCamp being total dicks:
“On one occasion, the kids from that production walked over to Michael’s trailer and when he did not come out, they grabbed hold of it and began to shake it violently. Chucky, a security guard lent to Michael by Stevie Wonder, had to literally pull these assholes off the trailer. And these are supposed to be professionals.”
Every single one of these kids is an epic douchebag.
On Anjelica Huston’s star trip:
“When I first met Anjelica, she was an angry, demanding woman. She insisted she play the queen as well as the witch, and the girl who was to play the princess originally and be a love interest for Capt. EO was fired. You see, Angelica was up for an Academy Award, and the Disney folks really wanted her in the film.
“I thought that she could not really be this angry. So each day, I would open her trailer, say, ‘Morning, Angelica!’ and slam the door. I did this for about three days before she demanded I step inside. When she asked me what my problem was, I told her that I knew she could not be as angry as she seemed and that I felt she needed a smiling good morning to cheer her up. She laughed and we were friends from that day forward.
“It was Angelica who suggested me to stunt double her for the flying sequences as she would not do those.”
Interesting stuff, and nothing too freaky. Grape fights, LOL—way to waste food, you rich asshole. Guess that’s where all that money went. I wonder what Anjelica Huston has to say about her Captain EO experience. Would she own up to being such a mega-bitch at the start of the production? I don’t know, I’ve never even met her!
Just for the record, Terri also mentioned that no less than Sophia Loren and Babs Streisand were calling MJ on a daily basis during EO’s production and leaving him breathy, lovey-dovey messages. Also, Tony Cox (the little person from Bad Santa) played Hooter in EO, and there was apparently an incident one day where Cox almost passed out from heat exhaustion and no one did anything until Terri picked up Hooter’s head and threw it across the floor out of anger/disgust.
Lotta throwin’ on that movie! I guess that’s just how people communicate on film sets.
Another interesting note to end on: the kids from SpaceCamp got a karmic kick in the ass when their stupid little movie was forced to come out shortly after the Challenger explosion. The shuttle malfunction that befell Lea Thompson and wee Leaf Phoenix in the film was almost identical to the one that blew up the real rocket ship in January of 1986, claiming seven lives; moviegoers trying to forget the disaster stayed away in droves. So fuck you, Larry B. Scott and Kelly Preston, for fucking with Michael Jackson’s trailer!