Movie Article

An Easy Ride for Disney?

"Indiana Jones" goes to Disneyland -- George Lucas and Michael Eisner have teamed up for a natural alliance

Mouseketeer roll call: Mickey! Minnie! Goofy! Indy!

Indy? Now wait just a whip-wielding minute there. What would make a gun-toting adventurer like Indiana Jones turn mascot for the Walt Disney Co., purveyor of ! all things warm and fuzzy? And how did Indiana, played by a sky diver from Ohio, wind up shamelessly flacking a new Disneyland ride at — of all places — the half-time show of Super Bowl XXIX?

If you ask George Lucas, executive producer of the Indy movies and controller of all rights to the character, the Disney-Indy alliance is a natural. ''I was at Disneyland the second day it opened (in 1955),'' he says, recalling that the mini-freeway Autopia ride was his favorite ''until I could drive.''

Lucas might not have had any Indy rights to peddle were it not for Disney CEO Michael Eisner. As president of Paramount, Eisner talked his boss Barry Diller into making 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark for the risky sum of $20 million. Yes, risky: Lucas had gone way over budget on The Empire Strikes Back, and Steven Spielberg was living down the costly 1941.

Two Jones sequels and $619 million in domestic box office later (for all three films), Eisner has anted up a reported $100 million to build the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the high-tech Indy ride opening on March 3 at Disney's flagship park in Anaheim, Calif. That's far more than the company spent on two earlier Indy-inspired attractions (one in Florida, the other in Paris), but competition for park guests is tougher now. With Euro Disney losses clipping revenues (by $110 million in 1994) and attendance off by as much as 10 percent at Disney's U.S. parks last year, Eisner needs to convince Wall Street that park income can once again expand handily, as it did in the '80s.

But can Indy — or any ride — really do that much for Disney's bottom line? You bet your fedora it could. ''It's not unrealistic to expect Forbidden Eye to boost Disneyland's attendance 5 percent for the year,'' says Tim O'Brien, an editor for the trade publication Amusement Business. That means an additional 515,000 visitors over 1994's 10.3 million, which translates into an admission-gross bonus, by conservative estimate, of $15 million — not to mention all those increased food and merchandise sales. And that's just for year one.

Housed in a three-story building as long and wide as a football field, Forbidden Eye easily equals Universal Studios' Back to the Future flight simulator — widely considered the current state of the thrill-ride art — for violent motion. The story line is a so-so pastiche of familiar elements — sacred treasure, an angry deity, a series of booby traps. But as Disney's Imagineers are eager to point out, there's never been a ''ride transport'' system like this one. Every 18 seconds, another 12-passenger World War II ''troop transport'' (they didn't call it a Jeep, since Chrysler owns that name) departs for a four-minute drive through a series of chambers. Riders don't just sit in front of a simulator screen — they're actually bronco-bucked through high-decibel assaults by snakes, darts, rats, skeletons, mummies, and ingeniously faked falling boulders.

The major innovation here derives from a computer system that controls each car as well as the lights, sounds, and actions around it. Programmed to randomly select one of at least three different scenarios at 11 points along the journey, Forbidden Eye's data banks allow more than 100 beginning-to-end shuffle-play combinations. So even riders who make dozens of go-rounds won't know which trademark asides Indy will utter (''Tourists! Why'd it have to be tourists?''), or which of three treasures (untold wealth, eternal youth, or knowledge of the future) they'll be pursuing. ''It's crucial that we appeal to kids used to Nintendo and Sega and all those games that constantly give you new choices,'' says Tony Baxter, a vice president at Disney Imagineering.

One audio component the ride computers won't be selecting, though, is a dialogue track recorded by Indy star Harrison Ford. Negotiations to use the actor's distinctive voice broke down in late December. According to Ford's agent, the talks foundered over creative input as well as money. A Disney source speculates, though, that the deal didn't materialize because Ford may have viewed the voice-over as a concession — he was reluctant to make while in salary negotiations (still ongoing) to star in a fourth Indy movie. (Pending script approval, the film will be directed next year by Spielberg and distributed by Paramount.)

So what will Forbidden Eye customers hear? A soundalike talking for the animatronic Indy figures — identical replicas of Ford —that are stationed throughout the ride. ''You won't be able to tell the difference,'' said attraction producer Susan Bonds.

With a new ride supporting (and supported by) a new movie, Lucas and Disney stand to make a mint in merchandising. So why did the National Football League pick up the roughly $1 million tab for mounting the Super Bowl Indy-mercial in Miami

''It's the same type of deal they've had with Disney before,'' says an industry producer, referring to the Disney-created half-time shows of 1984, 1987, and 1991. ''Yes, Disney got great exposure, but the NFL got great 'event' cachet, and the network didn't have a dip in half-time ratings.'' The difference this year is that the Disney spectacle is more blatantly promotional, and keyed to a single product. Says the producer: ''The NFL will tolerate a subliminal message, but they don't want Disney cramming the promotional angle down viewers' throats.'' Hmm. Anybody for a cough drop?

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Originally posted Feb 03, 1995 Published in issue #260 Feb 03, 1995 Order article reprints