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.