Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The " S.S Disney " , an incredible WDI project - Interview with Mark Hickson

Editor's Note: This is a new version of the S.S Disney article that i've posted six months ago in May. Thanks to Mark Hickson who found back recently old pictures of the S.S Disney model you'll be able to explore in details this fantastic project that never was...and will never be. Here we go with Mark's interview, Mark Hickson captions are in italics under each picture.

Above: Starboard view of the S.S Disney with shell on. Note the un-themed stern area with stack – we never worked up a plan for it in time for this model.

Today, you will discover an incredible Disney project. So incredible that even in my dreams i would never have thought that WDI could have designed something like this. Really fascinating, as you will see.

The project was called the “S.S Disney” and it’s Mark Hickson who managed the Imagineering development team 15 years ago. Mark started his career at WDI working on the Splash Mountain project for Disneyland, and then became part of the Tokyo Disneyland project office. Over a period of seven years Mark contributed to over 30 Disney projects that included TDL version of Splash Mountain, Toon Town, the new Spaceship Earth Show, the 3-D film "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience", EPCOT Interactive Fountain, Innoventions, etc. He also worked on other Disney projects like the Broadway Production of Beauty and the Beast, Disneyland's 35th Birthday and Tokyo Disneyland’s 5, 10 & 20 years Master Plan.

Mark who now lives in Hawaii is the Chief of Project Controls for the $5.4 Billion Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project. As a consultant to the City and County of Honolulu, his responsibilities are to provide leadership in defining and implementing a comprehensive project controls department for the light rail commuter project.

But back in 1993-1994, thanks to his shipbuilding and theme park master planning experience, Mark was asked to work on the “S.S Disney” project. The idea was to transform a super tanker - a huge ship that normally brings oil from the Middle East to other countries - into a “floating theme park”. No kidding! The idea seems unbelievable, a real floating “Disneyland”. I’m sure you’re dying to know more about it, so let’s begin Mark’s interview.

Alain Littaye: How did this incredible idea of transforming a super tanker in a floating theme park began at WDI?

Mark Hickson: Back in the early 1990’s, at a fund-raising dinner Jim Cora, Chairman of Disneyland International, was sitting next to a U.S Navy Admiral. They were joking and the Admiral said “You know, I have an extra aircraft carrier, you have to put a theme park on top of it!” He was just kidding, but the idea enchanted Jim. The next day he asked his staff if there was somebody at Disney who knew anything about ships. Larry Fink, who worked with me on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain knew about my thirteen years shipbuilding experience and told Jim about me. Later he called me about the aircraft carrier idea. I told him that it would be more feasible to build it on another kind of ship, like a cruise liner, cargo ship, or oil tanker. If I remember correctly he then met with Michael Eisner and they agreed to ask Marty Sklar at WDI to do a study feasibility on this unique idea. That’s how everything started. Since I was the only one that had extensive shipbuilding experience I was charged to be the project manager and technical director for the project. I worked with some really fantastic concept architects, show designers, script writers, concept artists and model makers and over the course of nine months we put together the floating theme park concept.

A.L: Were they enthusiastic at WDI on such an incredible idea?

M.H: Yes! You know, a lot of things we’ve done at WDI may seem a bit off the wall but I think it’s the real power of Imagineering is not being afraid to look at new ideas and to see if they are feasible.

A.L: As you say on your web site, this S.S Disney idea was to bring the Disney theme park experience to locations where they would never build a theme park. Is that right?

M.H: Yes, remember that all this was envisioned before they built Tokyo Disney Sea or Hong Kong Disneyland. The idea was to bring the Disney experience and promote the Disney brand in countries where the company would never consider building a theme park. We looked at a lot of different locations internationally, and gave a lot of thought about what kind of attractions we could put on a floating theme park that will make an experience that everybody will truly enjoy.

A.L: Do you have any idea of the destinations where the ship would have gone?

M.H: Actually, I initially came up with a world-wide listing of ports. We were looking at Europe, at South America, South East Asia, Australia, and the Mediterranean. Later we decided to focus on the West Pacific which included the port cities of Seoul, Beijing, Shanghaî, and Canton, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Manila, Djakarta, and Singapore. We also investigated ports in Australia like Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Dubai, Cape Town, and even Honolulu. We looked at various maps of the different ports to see if we could “park” a super tanker there, and if it was in an area where it was possible to get our guests to. We also had to make sure that the areas were not full of real super tankers!

The ship would have stay approximately two and a half months in each port and then travel for a week or two to the next destination. The ship would not return to the city for four or five years, so we would not over-saturate the market.

We also had a very innovative design for the entrance area. On the dock side we would create a “portable main gate” with a ticketing plaza using themed containers. They would arrive on a container ship and be assembled in port before the S.S. Disney’s arrival. Here guests could also buy souvenirs and food. When you think about it, the theme park experience would have started on the dock.

A.L: Technically, transforming a super tanker in a floating theme park would have been really feasible?

M.H: Yes, thanks to the super tanker’s architecture. The cavernous volume inside the ship gave us the opportunity to put four to five decks of attractions inside plus more attractions on the top deck.

Port side with shell removed showing the 5 major decks, 01, Main deck, 1st deck, 2nd deck, 3rd deck and Tank Top. In this view you can see the hub’s floor is at 2nd deck.

A.L: What kind of attractions would guests find on the S.S Disney?

M.H: On the top deck there was the Orbitron, Casey Jr. Train, a large Ferris Wheel, Alice in Wonderland’s spinning Tea Cups, Dumbo, and a Fantasyland Carousel under a glass dome! At the stern end of the top deck, there would be It’s a Small World. The center or “Hub” of the ship that receives our guests actually had a big glass canopy over the top of it. It was multiple decks deep, so when you entered the ship you had this beautiful giant caverness entry way. If you went to the right you would find Fantasyland themed attractions and to the left it was Tomorrowland themed attractions. We decided that Frontierland and Adventureland attractions were not needed.

Because of technical issues we decided that we not have any water rides inside the ship. For example “It’s a Small World” originally a water ride, would instead utilize a Omni-mover or bus-bar track vehicles like the ones you have on the Haunted Mansion or Pinocchio attractions.

Other attractions included an Aladdin and a Little Mermaid dark rides, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Toon Town area with Mickey house, Indiana Jones roller coaster, Star Tours, 20000 Leagues under the Sea, a 3D movie theatre, and more! The fact is the ship was so big and deep that we could actually put an iron roller coaster like Space Mountain inside down below the decks. The only difference is you would not see any mountain. Probably we would have to re-named the ride!

Ferris wheel had exterior armatures that would be stowed while sailing to the FTP’s next port. The Orbitron is seen on the bow.

The hub is shown mid-ship as a multi story glass canopy that divides the ships main themed areas, Tomorrowland/Adventureland and Fantasyland.

The Hub’s canopy removed. There were many vertical elements all around with one part reminisint of a future pipe organ, giant retro-telescope and a mini-castle.

Hub area with main deck and canopy removed. The model is showing a little wear from all the use it had being taken apart many times.

Casey Jr. Train loops around a glass enclosed Carousel ride (not shown in this model). Aft is the entrance to It’s a Small World.

Port side looking forward showing themed fast food area in center (at the crossed circle is). Note: those little red things are people to scale. Under the Orbitron, a futuristic multi-story restaurant on the 01 deck.

Main deck removed looking aft from the port side. This is the Toon Town area with Meet Mickey house, central fountain and the entrance to Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. On the left is a major fantasy themed theater with balcony. Shows propose for the theater ranged from The Muppet Show 3D to The Lion King. On the far right to the back you can see a grey disc. This is where the spinning tea cup ride was located.

Starboard side showing Toon Town area with a Treehouse and interactive areas. On the right you can see the theater. On the far left to the back where you can see a grey disc, this is where the spinning tea cup ride was located.

Port side looking forward with the main deck removed. Here you can see the 20,000 Leagues under the sea area - an interactive area and walk through exhibit - with Star Tours simulator (3 black doors on left), Captain Nemo’s laboratory with his submarine seen one deck below, and giant aquarium that divers inhabit (yellow cylinder). There is also a themed seafood dining area.

Opposite side of 20,000 Leagues area. Note access area to vertical circulation column on far side. Within this area are giant elevators and escalators bringing people up from below and down from above. These also contain emergency evacuation stairways. Note the 3 black exit doors for the simulator.

Port side looking aft with 1st deck removed. Here was the entry to Aladdin attraction. Note the carved rockwork as guests’ descend to the 3rd deck from a merchandise area. Eric’s village is the entrance area for the Little Mermaid ride. You can also see the ride maintenance area below on the Tank Top deck.

View from the port side just aft of the Eric’s village showing the theater adjacent to the hub.

Port side looking aft with 3rd deck removed shows the lower part of the Aladdin themed area with a rotating Dumbo style Magic Carpet ride for kids. Further aft you can see the Aladdin attraction.

Starboard side looking forward at the Aladdin attraction. Past that you can barely see the Little Mermaid suspended gondola ride.

Starboard side looking forward with the 2nd and portion of the 3rd deck removed showing the Indiana Jones runaway ore-car attraction (wild mouse roller coaster) on the left and the entrance queue on the right where you see the giant temple serpents. Actually, it was going to be Space Mountain or Indy coaster in this space. The model has Indy since Eisner was so hot for that ride.

M.H: Since the ship could hold about half the rides of a full Disney theme park we decided to divide the opening and closing of the park into two half days at 8 hours each. That would be 10,000 guests in the morning/early afternoon and another 10,000 guests in the late afternoon/evening.

The total number of attractions would have been around 16 to 18. We had a whole list of attractions that we would like to have, but the final choice depended of their capacity per hour, wait time, etc... We needed to make sure that there was a minimum of wait time so people could do and see everything in eight hours.

We had six restaurants. Most of them were fast food because we didn’t want people to sit and eat for an hour when they only had 8 hours to spend on the ship, but we did have one generic Disney themed table service restaurant. We also had Fantasyland and Tomorrowland themed retail shops, a Disney Store and a Disney gallery too. Most of the restaurants and retail would have been located around the entrance hub, under the glass dome. The ship was not only a box full of attractions, it was a completely integrated city with maintenance shops , a central kitchen, waste treatment plants storage areas!

Also on board was an entertainment division with singers, dancers, costuming, and the “zoo crew” - the people who dress up as Disney characters.

A.L: On the model pictures, the facade of It’s a Small World located in the back of the top deck seems to hide the view of the pilot house, also located at the back of the ship...

M.H: We had a clever idea to resolve this problem as the pilot house and the bridge wings would have been incorporated into a themed facade. The ship’s crew could see everything. Also, at the front end of the ship, in front of the Orbitron, we had a secondary pilot house specially designed for docking the ship.

It’s a Small World Omni-mover ride in from of the pilot house. Note the windmill themed bridge wings.

Port side showing the un-themed bridge wing, decks and vertical circulation columns.

A.L: About the cast members, you told me that some of them would have been hired in each location, but I suppose some of them would have been permanent “Disney” cast members?

M.H: Exactly. Let’s say that the “senior” staff would have been permanent and the “junior” staff would have been hired and trained in the location where the boat would have docked. We did some surveys at a few of the ports and found young people in would have a high interest to work for Disney. They would be hired for about three month’s that included two weeks of training before the arrival of the boat. We were looking pretty much at a 50/50 split with half of the cast members, maintenance and technical people “permanent” and the other 50% would have been local people who spoke the local language.

A.L: No parade was planned I suppose, but was a fireworks show envisioned in the evening?

M.H: Yes, but we soon realized that it was not safe to launch the firework from the ship, so we start to looking for an auxiliary ship or a barge that could be used to launch the firework in a safer location like in the middle of the harbor.

Because of safety issues we would not allowed our “permanent” cast members to travel at sea or sleep on board the super tanker so we looked at potentially buying a small used passenger ship to bring them from port to port and to give them a place to live. Otherwise all the “Disney” cast members would have to fly from city to city and reside in local hotels.

A.L: Well that means THREE ships, if my count is right!

M.H: Yes, our very own Disney navy!

A.L: So, finally, and unfortunately, the S.S Disney project was never realized. Do you know why?

M.H: Well, both Michael Eisner and Frank Wells both loved the project, but after Frank’s death, things changed. The strategic planning group at corporate didn’t want to do a floating theme park, they wanted to do a cruise ship. Eventually they convinced Michael that a cruise ship was easier to do. So this wonderful project was put “on the shelf.”

Frankly, now that Disney has a park in Hong Kong and soon another one in Shanghaî I think the time for this project has unfortunately passed. It was a wonderful concept and every Imagineer who worked on it did an excellent job.

A.L: One last question: do you think that the S.S Disney project inspired another project that was built some years later: Disney Quest?

M.H: One thing that Disney does is to use some great ideas from projects that were never done. Disney Quest was what they call a “location based entertainment” or LBE, and if my recollections is right Jan Sircus - who was the lead concept architect on the S.S Disney - next assignment was developing LBE projects. I think it is safe to say there was a synergy between the two projects.

A.L : Mark, thank you so much for this interview, this S.S Disney project was really fascinating!

I invite you to discover Mark Hickson’s web site HERE. On the site, click on "theme park", and then on "S.S Disney" to see others pictures of the model.

Thanks to leave a comment or discuss this interview on D&M english forum on Mice Chat

Pictures: Copyright 1994 The Walt Disney Company. Please do not upload these pictures on other websites or forums, thanks.

Interview: copyright Disney and more


Anonymous said...

OH MY GOD! This is beyond amazing. Thanks for this extensive article, Alain. Realy great. The Walt Disney Imagineers are truely one of a kind creators. Walt would be so proud. Unfortunately this will never be built.

Anonymous said...

Alain, you are, as usual, amazing ! Thank you SO much !

Juanpa said...

The more I know about this project, the more I miss it. They should have done it, definitely.

Mark said...


glass canopy said...

wow disney is just amazing

Anonymous said...

Does "it's a small world"'s omni-mover vehicles is gonna be themed like a boat on a fake flume cannal or it's just gonna be like general vehicles in a hidden track?

Anyways, ME HEARTZ DIS IDEAZ!!!!! =P