Most of us who grew up in the late 1980’s, know of Ernest P Worrell in some form or another.
Originally conceived of as as commercial pitchman, the character was embodied by actor Jim Varney, into a well-meaning, if often accident-prone Southerner, often addressing the camera as if it was his good friend, Vern…whether Vern liked it or not.
In 1987, Ernest made his leap from television to the big-screen, with Ernest Goes To Camp, making him one of several commercial spokespersons to make the leap to film personality. Though receiving a drubbing from a number of critics, the positive reception to the film by the public, quickly pushed the character onward into more adventures.
Ernest would ride out the height of his popularity over the next 5 years, with several films, and even the television series, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! But unknown to some, Ernest also acted as a guinea pig/test pilot, for a brand-new Disneyland attraction, in the Summer of 1989.
Almost a decade after Disneyland opened its third mountainous attraction (aka Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, in 1979), a new mountain would rise up in the western section of the park near The Haunted Mansion. Billed as the world’s tallest flume-drop ride (at the time), Splash Mountain took the story of Brer Rabbit from Song of the South (before the world tried to forget the film was made), and interspersed it in an attraction that brought some relief from the southern California sun.
The cul-de-sac behind The Haunted Mansion was soon given the name of Critter Country, and was billed for awhile as a separate land of its own…albeit one that only had one attraction (for over 2 decades, anyways).
To tie in to the opening of the new attraction, The Disney Channel aired a network-only special, in which Ernest P Worrell would become America’s first “Splashtronaut,” and try out the ride. Just how Ernest got chosen? Well, those facts are lost to the annals of history.
The show starts with real-life news anchor Ralph Story in Splash Mountain News Central, our main eyes and ears on the mountain as Ernest prepares.
While the news team readies for Ernest’s arrival, the man himself is undergoing testing at his friend Vern’s Daredevil Training Camp (Vern is a man of all trades, isn’t he?). Needless to say, these sequences just last as small vignettes as Ernest seems to get into all sorts of trouble.
Interspersed within these little bits with Ernest, are news reports given by several different correspondents that Story talks to. Some of them act as little more than travelogue material to tell people what they’ll see if they go to Disneyland, but some do offer some behind-the-scenes material and facts about the attraction. In one scene, we see the water filtration area where the ride’s water is constantly pumped out and back into the attraction’s waterways. In another, a reporter (played by Sheryl Bernstein), interviews Walt Disney Imagineer Chris Gordon.
Unknown to many, Gordon was part of the next generation of Imagineers at the company, helping to orchestrate a number of new attractions and refurbishments, with Splash Mountain being one of his biggest projects. It is nice to see Gordon (who passed away in 2007) given some screen-time, even if the humor of the moment is that the reporter doesn’t let him get a word in edge-wise.
Eventually, Ernest makes his way to Disneyland, where he’s carried down Main Street USA, and into the ride. After some rather eye-rolling humor (“Someone call me a log!” “You’re a log!”), Ernest gets into one of the ride’s log-shaped vehicles, and starts on his way.
We’re treated to several interior shots of the the ride as Ernest eventually makes his way up the steep incline leading to the top of the ride’s flume drop. Of course, in typical Ernest-fashion, the plunge down the flume into the briar page lasts 3 times longer than normal, as Ernest freaks out in his typical over-exaggerated style.
Ernest soon returns to the station, seemingly in a state of shock, and at first, having a hard time getting any words out. It’s only when the reporter asks if he’d recommend Splash Mountain to the other park guests, does Ernest finally find his voice:
“I’d recommend Splash Mountain to anyone. Things like Splash Mountain keep you young…that and, blood transfusions, organ transplants, cosmetic surgery…I feel great.”
And with Ernest’s seal of approval, the ride officially opens.
Back in Splash Mountain News Central, Ralph Story concludes his news report, claiming that “Ernest P Worrell will certainly be written into the history of Disneyland, because he’s one for the books.”
The credits then roll, but not before we get a small bit with Ernest telling Vern how he is throwing a party after his victory over Splash Mountain. He also makes mention that he invited the guys from Walt Disney Imagineering over to his place, but they claimed they were busy.
Originally airing on The Disney Channel on July 7, 1989, Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain was almost like a members-only early look into up-and-coming attractions, for those lucky enough to have this new cable channel. The ride’s official opening would be on July 17, 1989, also the 34th Anniversary of the opening of Disneyland.
I will admit this special helped raise awareness for the new attraction, and several of my family and I went on it that very summer. I still recall the 2-hour wait time to get on the ride, and by the time we got on, the heat from the afternoon sun made us eager to ride. The ride definitely threw down the gauntlet to other theme parks, as almost 8 years later, Universal Studios Hollywood would try to outdo Splash Mountain with their bigger and more expensive, Jurassic Park The Ride.
One of my favorite moments in the special is when Ernest is on his way to the top of the flume drop. He’s leaning back calmly going, ‘Wish I’d brought a book.’ I always wanted to do that if I had a log to myself, but when that moment came in the Summer of 2010, the log seating had been re-designed, and one could not recline like Ernest had once did.
There are also some humorous little easter eggs. In one scene as Ernest is saying his lines, one can see Brer Rabbit in the background, almost miming along to the words. I don’t know if this was the result of the character-actor just getting tired of standing around or what, but it is one of the few funny moments. As well, one gets to see the often-never-seen costumes for Brer Fox and Brer Bear.
In my younger days, Ernest was pretty funny, but when one gets a little older, some of Varney’s humor at times get a little too cornball.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time Ernest would make a trip to Disneyland. The following year, he returned for a television special celebrating the park’s 35th Anniversary. Over the next decade, Varney would soon find himself ingrained further into the legacy of The Walt Disney Company.
In 1995, he was part of the world’s first computer-generated feature film, Toy Story, playing the role of the loyal Slinky Dog (a role he’d also reprise in 1999 for the sequel). And, in 2001, he voiced Cookie in the animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Though throughout the 1990’s, Varney’s role as Ernest became less mainstream, and soon, further “Ernest Goes To” adventures became relegated to the growing direct-to-video marketplace.
His role as Cookie in Atlantis would be one of his last roles, as Varney passed away from lung cancer, a year before the films release. A dedication was added to the end of Atlantis for him as well.
In the last few years, it was mentioned that Ernest could possibly make a return, albeit in the form of another person donning the persona and clothing. Of course to many of us, the only Ernest that matters or makes a difference, will always be Jim Varney: the man who saved Christmas, conquered Splash Mountain, and defeated a band of evil trolls. Not many people could put those claims on their tombstones.
*In August of 2013, I got the chance to attend my first D23 Expo: A convention about all things Disney. This article about the Convention Floor, turned out to be so big, that I have sectioned it off into three parts. I hope you will enjoy some of my thoughts and observations.*
“Where Else Can You Do A Hundred Million Things?” – Huey Lewis
Though that is a portion of lyrics from Huey Lewis’ song The Heart of Rock n’ Roll, I can’t help but feel that that line can also apply to conventions, whether it be Comic-Con, or The D23 Expo.
My first time attending the D23 Expo, reminded me a bit of my first year at Comic-Con when I was 15. The majority of my time was spent walking the floors of the Anaheim Convention Center. I only attended 3 of the major panels that were held in the D23 Arena, as a number of events on the floor captured most of my attention.
Over the course of my 3 days at the Expo, I made several trips to a couple of the big draws to the Disney brand name. I didn’t get a chance to peer into every booth, but thought I’d recount my time at several that tickled my fancy.
Walt Disney Animation Studios
This was one booth on the Expo floor that I figured I was going to be seeing a lot of once I went to it. Throughout the Expo, the booth would play host to some discussions, and even animation demonstrations.
Several discussed work done on Wreck-It-Ralph or even the upcoming Frozen, but I was intrigued by a few given by the crew who worked on last year’s animated short, Paperman.
I stood in during one session on Friday, where animator Patrick Osborne (above) explained about the different toolsets that they used to make the short come to life. During the question and answer session, I asked Patrick if he knew of any ‘easter eggs’ in Paperman. One he mentioned, had to do with the short’s poster. One can make out the silhouette of the girl in clouds above the guy’s head, as he tosses a paper airplane out the window.
I also inquired if there were any scenes he worked on that he really liked. He couldn’t name any that he felt were really great (one of those more modest artists out there), but Patrick did tell me that he animated on the opening scene of the short. Needless to say, I did explain how I loved the little nuances of that sequence, and how it set up the lead characters with a lot of the minute gestures they went through.
The Disney Animation booth would also play host to a number of signings by numerous producers and directors. One that I just had to get in on, was a signing by John Musker and Ron Clements (above, with Ron signing my Making of Aladdin book, from 1992!). These men had been the directors on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Treasure Planet. As well, Ron came from Iowa ( where I grew up!), and John from Chicago (where I am currently!). It had been a dream since I was 12 to say hi to these fellow Midwesterners, and I got the chance to do that at the Expo!
There were also drawings and myriad giveaways at the booth. It wasn’t uncommon to be given postcard-sized images from the film Frozen, or a little sticker of Wreck-It-Ralph’s 8-bit face.
When the Expo’s main floor opened on Friday, a large curtain hung around the booth next to the Disney Animation one. Though once Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof had given their presentation on the live-action Tomorrowland film at Saturday morning’s big arena event, the curtain came down, and visitors were allowed into the booth.
This was one of the only booths where no photography was allowed once inside. We were allowed to look at cases of various materials, that had been found in an old box at the Disney Studios. The box was a hodge-podge of numerous things, with the number ‘1952’ written on the outside of its casing.
The exhibit featured all sorts of things, from pictures of Walt that were found in the box, to sketches for automated robots, and a jetpack drawing or two. There was even a proposed script for the Disneyland television show, about Tomorrowland. However, almost everything typed on the script, was crossed out in black, with the word “NO!” written on the very last page.
Damon Lindelof was a writer on JJ Abrams’ television series Lost, and with the rather cryptic clues and information swirling around Tomorrowland at the Expo, it looks like they are still doing a decent job of keeping most of us in the dark, as the film heads into its final year of production.
I do give Disney props for putting so much into this booth about an upcoming feature. Compared to all the other live-action films coming out that we saw in their arena presentation, Tomorrowland was the only one given its own floor-space.
An iPhone app was also released to coincide with the booth. iPads were being rented out at the booth for those viewing the items, but if you had your own Apple product with the app downloaded, you could use your own device for the walk-through.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts: Journey Into Imagineering
The last few D23 Expos have had many crowing about the space given aside to talk about the live-action magicians for the Disney Theme Parks: Walt Disney Imagineering.
Early word on the internet was that this year, there would be no huge reveals. The past years of early views of Cars Land and New Fantasyland may have spoiled some, as there was a feeling that Imagineering was just gonna be ‘boring.’
This time around, Imagineering arranged for a pavilion-looking structure, that acted as an ‘open house’ to just what Imagineering does. Given that the Disney division was founded almost 60 years ago, it seemed like a good way to go.
After attending a small introductory show, the doors were thrown open, and we were allowed into the main floor.
Imagineering has been known over the years, for their work in making miniatures to show their visions in three-dimensions. There were plenty of them around the floor, but one that was rather historical, was this little piece from the never-realized, Western River Expedition. The stuff of Disney Legends, it would have been part of an indoor/outdoor rafting journey, and the enormous ride/attraction, would have been exclusive to Walt Disney World.
A number of smaller units were assembled, with each one telling a little bit about what Imagineering does.
One showcased construction information about Hong Kong Disneyland’s, Mystic Manor, which is the park’s version of The Haunted Mansion.
Naturally, I was fascinated by one showcase about developing ride vehicles. On hand was an Autopia car, similar to the ones I had driven in as a kid, complete with safety strap.
I also had to step into the one showcase dealing with animation, where a number of audio-animatronic figures were on display. There were even various examples of the different types of material used to create skin or texture for the different figures. A hands-on unit to control an animatronic parrot from Pirates of the Caribbean, also provided some fun.
However, the highlight of the animation showcase was a specially-crafted animatronic figure of The Hatbox Ghost. This ghoul was originally featured in The Haunted Mansion, holding a hatbox. As the riders watched, the ghost’s head would disappear from his shoulders, and appear within the hatbox he was holding! The effect didn’t quite work, and The Hatbox Ghost was removed shortly after the ride opened. However, he has become an unofficial part of the ride, even appearing on Haunted Mansion merchandise. There were a few people at the Expo telling Imagineering that they hoped this appearance would mean his eventual return to the mansion, but many were sadly informed that The Hatbox Ghost was just there for the Expo.
There was one area where we were not allowed to take pictures, and it was a small series of rooms, that showcased original artwork from the early development of Disneyland. Many of these I had only ever seen in black-and-white, so seeing them in color was quite a treat. From the early images of a small park across from the Burbank studios, the designs led into larger images. One of which was done in simple pen and ink, before the fully colored one, that Walt showcased on the Disneyland Television Series.
However, we were treated to a spectacular reveal. On the Television Series, the painting had appeared to fade away, showing regions of the park lit up by street lights, and interior lights. But, what many of us thought was an animated illusion, was anything but. Those lights were actually painted into the original painting, using florescent paint! As the lights were dimmed, and a blacklight was turned on, we got to see artist Peter Ellenshaw’s handiwork, in living color! A concept of Disneyland at night!
There were a few hints of things to come. We were told about an Avengers Training Academy that would appear on the Disney Cruise Lines. Here, young guests would be able to interact with the likes of Captain America.
There was also a small Imagineer’s cubicle, set up with plenty of imagery and concepts regarding the world of Pandora, from James Cameron’s Avatar. Disney is said to be trying to put this exotic land into Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom park, but most information on what they are doing, has been rather quiet.
A series of crates labeled Orange Harvest, had many persons intrigued, and with a rolling-and-beeping R2-D2 nearby, many hoped that we’d get some sort of hint as to future Star Wars-based attractions. Personally, I just felt this was an inside-joke. Return of the Jedi was originally made under the alternate title Blue Harvest. Orange Harvest could very well just be a gag, as the land we were standing on for the convention, was once the site of numerous orange groves.
Disney Consumer Products
We might as well face it: when we go to anything associated with Disney, we expect to find products. Lots and lots of products.
The Consumer Products booth on the Expo floor proved to have one of the largest footprints, next to the Imagineering booth.
There were numerous divisions there, showing off their wares, such as Mattel’s upcoming products for Frozen (above). Mattel also had two exclusive items offered for sale at the convention: a special Convoy Brothers 4-Pack from the PIXAR film Cars (see below), and a figure based around the miniature Buzz Lightyear from the Pixar short, Small Fry.
The Convoy Brothers set was limited to 1000 pieces, and the Small Fry set had a run of 2000 pieces. Many at the Mattel booth were surprised when numerous people were buying multiples of this $100 4-pack! Even with a limit of 8-per-person imposed after a few hours on Friday, all 1000 of the 4-packs ended up being sold out. As a collector of Cars die-cast, I got one on the first day.
I was a little saddened by the display for Disney properties such as The Muppets, Marvel, and Star Wars. There wasn’t any new merchandise I could find from Marvel, and The Muppets were also displaying currently-released merchandise, with only a large chalk activity wall and how-to-draw Muppet characters their big draw.
As for Star Wars, the only real traces were an exhibit area, showcasing various incarnations of Darth Vader. Many of these merchandise pieces I had seen over the years, though there was an interesting Samurai wardrobe made to resemble Vader.
The rest of the area offered booth space for Little Golden Books (can’t believe they’re still around!), as well as books from Chronicle Press, and the Walt Disney Animation Research Library. Even Sephora got into the game, with a preview of a fall makeup line, themed around The Little Mermaid (which is coming to Blu-Ray shelves soon!).
There was quite a bit of to-do about Mermaid, including a karaoke set up to Find Your Voice. One could sing along to one of 5 different songs. I found a lull in the line, and took the opportunity to sing Poor Unfortunate Souls, in the style of Howard Ashman (the song’s lyricist).
Right across from the Consumer Products booth, resided floor space for Disney’s digital offerings.
One of the biggest games being pushed at the Expo, was Disney Infinity. This game that also utilized plastic figures had lines all weekend long for people trying game demos.
There were also demos for other games, such as Ducktales: Remastered, and a new iPad app that delved into the art of Disney Animation.
One demo that intrigued me, was Fantasia: Music Evolved. Developed by the creators of Guitar Hero, Harmonix Studios attempts to put a modern-day spin on allowing one to conduct like Leopold Stokowski.
The game is scheduled for 2014, and will allow one to conduct classic and modern-day songs. However, the only classical piece Harmonix has announced so far, is Modern Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. It was strange that given we were in the heart of a Disney Expo, this piece was not available for demo’ing.
I and many people instead, found ourselves conducting Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, or Fun’s Some Nights. I went with Some Nights, for its driving rhythm. If one really applies themselves to the piece, Music Evolved can be a pretty decent workout game. I saw a number of people (like the girl above) being rather ‘tame’ in their conducting. I decided to be one of the few that was going to actually make an effort, and felt I got a pretty good workout on the arms.
Those of us who played the demo, were rewarded with a Music Evolved pin featuring Sorcerer Yen Sid, as well as a T-Shirt with the game’s logo.
Once upon a time, The Disney Channel was a place where myself any many other people once sought refuge from the loud frenzy of cable channels in the 1990’s. I was introduced to non-Disney cartoons like The Raccoons, new Disney Afternoon programming was often shown first here, and there were plenty of behind-the-scenes specials about Disney Animation and Theme Parks.
In the last decade, I had heard many people abandon ship as The Disney Channel seemed to target a younger tween/teen demographic, culminating in such shows as The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, as well as the wildly-successful High School Musical films.
So, what could possibly send me into this realm of which I seemed an over-aged outsider? One name: Craig McCracken.
I first heard Craig’s name back in the 1990’s, when he appeared on an episode of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. On that episode, they showed Craig’s student animation piece: The Powerpuff Girls: Meat Fuzy Lumpkins.
Shortly afterwards, The Powerpuff Girls became a hit series on Cartoon Network. Craig would then continue his imaginative streak with Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends in the last decade. And now, his imagination has brought him to The Disney Channel, with a new series titled, Wander Over Yonder.
Wander himself, is a strange, Muppet-looking fellow who rides a talking ‘steed’ named Silvia. While Wander is a happy-go-lucky fellow who just wants to make others happy, he has to contend with Lord Hater, one of the most evil beings in the Universe.
On Sunday, August 11th, Craig McCracken, Jack McBrayer (the voice of Wander), and April Winchell (the voice of Silvia), sat down for an autograph signing at the Disney Channel booth. I received a signed print of Wander hugging Lord Hater, and got to compliment Craig on the work I had seen him do since my teenage years.
If there was one disappointment, it was that I had hoped the three would have been allowed to talk to the assembled audience about Wander, and maybe treated the crowd at the booth to some unseen clips of upcoming episodes.
Disneyland Resort Attraction Display
Right next to the Tomorrowland booth, was a small display of various ride vehicles that one could find inside Disneyland. There was very little explanation give regarding why they were there, but one could see ride vehicles such as Lenny the Cab from Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Dumbo from his signature attraction, a carousel horse from the King Arthur Carousel, and even a motor car from Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.
D23 Silent Auction Display
Tucked into a little corner next to the Collector’s Forum, were a number of props that were part of a silent auction. Throughout the course of the Expo, one could write their name and a bid on a clipboard next to various items.
Some of them included:
This overgrown-Alice-in-house display, which once sat in the World of Disney store.
An original set of ‘retired’ Matterhorn Bobsleds, signed by Imagineer Bob Gurr.
An original art piece, painted and signed by vehicle artist, Chip Foose. The body on the vehicle in the painting, is from an Autopia ride vehicle, and is sporting a custom set of Foose wheels.
And that’s what I have in regards to going around some of the big-name areas. Next, we’ll venture into a den of Disneyana, and outsiders: The Collector’s Forum.