Yesterday I gave you a brief history of how the American Adventure came into being. Today I’ll be discussing the actual presentation. But before I begin, I want to let you know that current rules prohibit flash photography and videotaping during the presentation. However, non-flash photography is acceptable.
Since I was writing an article about the American Adventure, I knew that I would be taking several hundred photographs during the show. I’m fully aware that this would be extremely annoying to anyone sitting nearby. So I made sure I attended the first showing of the day (11:15am) which I knew would be sparsely attended (maybe 30 guests). I purposely sat off to the side of the theater with no one around me so as not to disturb the others and the dignity of this wonderful show.
The American Adventure chronicles the history of the United States from its humble beginnings to the present. From the commencement of the project, the Imagineers decided not to sugarcoat history by only presenting positive moments in our country’s past. Instead, they decided to include such subjects as the American Civil War and the Great Depression, because it’s often challenging times like these that bring about great change and a better future.
Another challenge facing the Imagineers was how to condense 300 years into a show lasting less than 29 minutes. One basic test that each scene needed to pass before it was included was this: Does the event lead to some improvement – a new burst of creativity, a better understanding of ourselves as partners in the American experience?
Here are some basic facts about the technical aspects of the show?
• Six different show concepts were considered before the final method of presentation and demands of the story came together.
• The stage is almost half the size of a football field (130 feet long by 80 feet deep).
• The rear-projection screen is 28 feet high and 155 feet long.
• The rear-projection movie required the longest single loop of film ever employed for a Disney show. The film, some 3,330 feet long, snakes up and down through rollers in seven specially designed storage cabinets.
• Over 2 dozen computers are needed to coordinate the presentation.
• The show uses 35 Audio-Animatronics characters. A number of these are situated on the “war wagon,” a 175-ton steel framework measuring 65-by-35-by-14 feet. During the show, ten different sets slide into place horizontally on the war wagon and are raised to stage level by hydraulic telescoping supports.
• The show includes seven other lifts which bring sets from either side and above into view.
• A special lighting system was devised to shine on the sets that would not obscure the rear-screen projection behind the AA figures.
• For the first time, Audio-Animatronics characters were equipped with individual voices and speakers. Prior to the American Adventure, narrations were played over a theater speaker system.
• The show requires 319 speakers and 79 audio tracks.
The Imagineers wanted the American Adventure to have three hosts, one for each century. The first two selections were somewhat easy to agree upon. Benjamin Franklin was chosen as a spokesperson for the 18th century and Mark Twain was selected for the 19th century. But when it came to the 20th century, the task became more formidable. A number of names were thrown into the hat, but for a variety of reasons, there was always something controversial about each selection. It was finally decided that Will Rogers would fit the bill as he didn’t carry any problematic “baggage.” However, when the Imagineers conducted focus groups with potential audiences, the vast majority of the public did not know who Will Rogers was. It was finally decided to stick with just Franklin and Twain, and Rogers was relegated to a minor role.
The American Adventure opens with Franklin and Twain sitting on stage. Twain is dozing and Franklin is reading aloud from “America and Americans” by John Steinbeck. He quotes:
"America did not exist. Four centuries of work, bloodshed, loneliness, and fear created this land. We built America and the process made us Americans . . . a new breed, rooted in all races, stained and tinted with all colors, a seeming ethnic anarchy. Then, in a little time we became more alike than we were different—a new society, not great; but fitted by our very faults for greatness."
Franklin is voiced by Dallas McKennan and Twain is voiced by John Anderson.
As Franklin and Twain leave the stage, a series of paintings are projected depicting the Mayflower’s Atlantic crossing, the hardships the Pilgrim’s endured, and the tyranny of King George III. The song "New World Bound," which plays in the background, was written by Buddy Baker (music) and X. Atencio and Randy Bright (lyrics).
Next we see Franklin encouraging Thomas Jefferson’s endeavor to write the Declaration of Independence. This scene represents a milestone in Audio-Animatronics advancements. This was the first time an AA figure actually walked. During the scene, Franklin climbs the stairs and moves closer to Jefferson during their conversation. Jefferson is voiced by Alan Oppenheimer.
The war for independence is highlighted by two soldiers grousing about their deplorable conditions. The Imagineers felt this would better tell the story of Valley Forge than have Washington deliver an inspirational speech. Instead, Washington’s solitude paints a more vivid picture of the tremendous responsibility that he has undertaken. The two soldiers are voiced by Dallas McKennan and Frank Welker.
Meticulous attention to detail was executed during the planning of this attraction. Every one of the projected paintings accurately displays the style used in that era. Even cannon balls from the Revolutionary War were measured so they could be reproduced authentically.
As the country begins to move westward, Mark Twain takes over the narration. The next AA scene we see is that of Frederick Douglas. This individual escaped slavery in 1838 and was an outspoken abolitionist. Notice as his raft floats across the stage that the background painting moves accordingly. Douglas is voiced by Al Fan.
At the beginning of the American Civil War we’re introduced to a Missouri family with opposing views on slavery. Famed photographer Mathew Brady is on hand to capture their likeness.
It’s at this moment that another American Adventure detail comes to life. Up until this point in the story, all of the rear-screen projected pictures have been paintings and illustrations. This was done intentionally because the camera had not yet been invented. With Mathew Brady we start to see actual photographs of the Civil War.
The voices for this scene are as follows: Mother - Claudette Nivens; Father - Charles Aidman; Brothers - Billy Boles and Mark Taylor; Brady - Steve Cook
In most cases, the Civil War photographs are Brady’s, but when pictures were needed to capture current-day actors, the shots were taken on the Disney Studios back lot.
The scene that depicts the family’s son returning home in a coffin was shot at the New Orleans Square Train Station at Disneyland in California.
The haunting song, “Two Brothers” was written by Irving Gordon and sung by Ali Olmo.
After the Civil War, the United States resumes its western expansion. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe reminds us (in his own words) that this land once belonged to his people. The two feathers he wears on his head-gear symbolize peace. Chief Joseph was voiced by Dehl Berti.
At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition Mark Twain is joined by Susan B. Anthony, Alexander Graham Bell, and Andrew Carnegie. The Imagineers did painstaking research to recreate voices accurately. They contacted a number of historians for information and when actual recordings were not available, educated guesses were made. For example, Bell’s mother and wife were both deaf. He taught elocution and contemporary comments about his voice make reference to its clarity.
Bell was voiced by Joe Rohde, Carnegie by Walker Edmisten, and Anthony by Tricia Buttril.
New inventions began to invade the American lifestyle and things were changing so fast that it became necessary to start a preservation effort for the land itself. The next scene in the American Adventure is based on an actual event. In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt wrote John Muir and asked if they could meet at Yosemite. He said in his letter, “I do not want anyone with me but you. I want to drop politics absolutely and just be out in the open with you.”
Of course, the event was overrun with dignitaries and onlookers. On the first day hundreds of people joined TR and Muir and spent hours touring the mighty sequoias and taking pictures. That night, a grand dinner was planned for TR – a dinner that he had no intention of attending. As the entourage headed back to town, TR, Muir, and a handful of park employees stayed behind and set up camp for the night. This was a secret plan hatched by TR so he could spend time alone with Muir. That night they spent hours talking of nature and wildlife. Muir even asked TR, “When will you get over your infantile need to kill animals.” The next morning they set out on horseback for Yosemite Valley. They camped the next night at Glacier Point, the scene depicted in the American Adventure and continued to talk about setting land aside for preservation. The next day, when they returned to the valley floor, TR said, “This has been the grandest day of my life.”
TR was voiced by Robert Boyd and Muir by Bob Holt.
The Great War is depicted with a recreation of a dogfight between Eddie Rickenbacker in his Spad 3 and a German ace in a Fokker D-7. This is also the first time we see moving pictures as the movie camera had now been invented.
This scene transitions nicely to a newsreel montage of Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic in 1927.
The depression era scene of a rundown gas station/general store was based on a Life Magazine photograph. Architectural magazines of the 1930’s were consulted to make sure everything in the setting was portrayed accurately.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that it’s raining at the beginning of the scene, symbolizing the dire straits of the country. However, as time progresses, the storm begins to subside, indicating hope.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears on the left side of the stage and tries to quell our fears by telling us “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” An actual recording of his voice was used.
To create Will Rogers’ narration, pages of his quotes were collected, reviewed, edited, and finally narrowed down to a forty second clip. Will Rogers Jr. provided the voice for his father’s AA figure.
FDR can be heard a second time over the radio found on the front porch. He is addressing the nation about the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the radio broadcasts static just before he mentions the Empire of Japan. This was done intentionally as to not offend any Japanese tourist visiting Walt Disney World.
For WWI the Imagineers depicted an aerial encounter, but they chose a different approach for WWII. Instead of showing a battle of some sort, they opted to show a shipyard where Rosie the Riveter played an important part in the war effort. The sailor is voiced by Harvey Vernon and Wanda and Jane by B.J. Ward and Patricia Harris.
I can usually hold back the tears for most of the American Adventure, but when we reach this next portion of the show, I lose it. In a dreamlike sequence, the heroes of the last 65 years float across the screen while the stirring “Golden Dream” is sung. This is an emotional moment and many in the audience can be seen wiping away the tears.
This montage was most recently updated in mid-2007. The most notable change includes a brief footage of rescue crews after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. In addition, the World Trade Center, once visible behind the Statue of Liberty, was obscured by fireworks.
“Golden Dream” was written by Robert Moline (music) and Randy Bright (lyrics). Additional lyrics by Lynn Hart. The song is sung by Richard Page and Siedah Garrett.
The show ends with Franklin and Twain returning to the stage on the platform beneath the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Twain sounds a concerned warning, but Franklin predicts a glowing future. Franklin quotes Thomas Wolfe by saying, “To all people, regardless of their birth, the right to live, to work, to be themselves, and to become whatever their visions can combine to make them. This is the promise of America.”
The American Adventure is a quintessential Disney attraction. It combines everything the Imagineers do best into one outstanding experience. I believe that all too often, guests bypass this gem because they don’t want to invest the necessary time to experience it. Yet they’ll gladly wait in line for an hour to ride the four minute Test Track. If you’ve never seen the American Adventure, then by all means, you must put this on your “to do” list for your next visit. And if you haven’t experienced it in the last five years, then you’re long overdue for a refresher. For those of you who love this show like I do, you don’t need any encouragement. You know a trip to Epcot without seeing the American Adventure is unthinkable.
A number of years ago, video recording was not prohibited at the American Adventure. Below is an eleven minute video featuring the Audio Animatronics portion of the show. Enjoy.
The previous post in this blog was The American Adventure - Part 1.
The next post in this blog is Epcot's Mexico Pavilion in World Showcase.