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Disney Canned the Best Theme Park Concept it Ever Had. Here's Why.

Discovery Bay was officially announced via a memo in October 1976. A scale model of the park expansion was then built and displayed inside of the Preview Center on Main Street, U.S.A. that same year. It was official, and Tony Baxter’s Discovery Bay would become the eighth land at Disneyland Park in California.

As we all know, Discovery Bay never materialized on the shores of the Rivers of America. As with all forgotten projects at Disney Parks, the reasons are numerous. Here are a few of the major reasons.

1) Island at the Top of the World

Today, fans often express their frustration at Disney’s lack of originality. In the opinion of some fans, Walt Disney Imagineering seems to only green-light projects that are tied to a proven, box-office success. And they might have a point, as a vast majority of Disney’s creative endeavors in the parks today are (perhaps rightly) tied to film franchises that are easy to market and come with a built-in fan base (and merchandise sales).

Don’t misunderstand – that is not how Disney operated in the 1970s, the same decade that brought Country Bear Jamboree, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain. However, one major selling point for the Discovery Bay concept was the release of Disney’s Island at the Top of the World, a harrowing family adventure film that would’ve served as artistic inspiration for Discovery Bay and been the focus of the land’s E-ticket attraction.

The film’s abysmal performance at the box office and lukewarm reviews during its 1974 debut cooled executives’ reactions to Discovery Bay. While the land didn’t need a runaway box-office success to justify its construction like we might picture today, a very clear box office failure certainly weighed against Discovery Bay’s existence. While this alone might not have sealed the land’s fate, it was a strike that weakened Discovery Bay at its foundation.

 2) EPCOT Center & Tokyo Disneyland

Like we said, Discovery Bay was officially announced, with a scale model and concept art, just like Pandora – The World of Avatar or Cars Land. But as the 1970s carried on, priorities began to readjust.

 As the end of the decade neared, Disney diverted its attention to two massive projects: Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center and the brand-new Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. Manpower and creative talents were absorbed by the two projects, and after the box office failure of Island at the Top of the World, Discovery Bay was simply the easiest project to let fall through the cracks.

So maybe we ought to say that Discovery Bay was officially announced, just like WestCOT or DisneySea in Long Beach. Which is to say, an official announcement that never amounts to more than that.

3) Changing tastes

The failure of Island at the Top of the World might’ve changed filmmakers’ tastes, too, which consequently changed the kinds of movies that major studios filmed. Baxter commented to the Season Pass Podcast, “People are so skittish that instead of saying ‘We did a bad Jules Verne movie,’ they go ‘Well, people don’t want to see Jules Verne movies.’” As a result, fantasy movies became less frequent.

Luckily for filmmakers, something did come around to reinvigorate films. The year after Discovery Bay’s announcement saw the debut of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The era of adventure films, dinosaurs, submarine, and time travel was usurped by the Space Craze as gritty interstellar sci-fi became the taste of the public. (Consequently, Disney would begin major investment into that genre shortly thereafter. Upon Michael Eisner’s entry to the company from his post as CEO of Paramount Pictures, film – and particularly space films – would become a mainstay in the parks. We're talking about the fascinating story behind another Lost Legend: the original Star Tours.)

Ironically enough, the plot of land Discovery Bay would've been built on remained vacant for the better part of 40 years. That is, until now, as construction has begun on a full, new land based on – you guessed it – Star Wars. Make no mistake: fans have their hopes and fears about a Star Wars land at Disneyland. But it's certainly interesting that the premier of Star Wars in the 1970s made Discovery Bay obsolete, and that 40 years later, Star Wars will take its forfeited seat in Disneyland.   

Onward…

There’s no single defining reason why Discovery Bay was canned. But even if the land never materialized, that doesn’t mean that it disappeared forever. On the last page, we’ll discuss the legacy of Discovery Bay… where its pieces and parts were scattered to and what we hope to see of it in the future…

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There are 15 comments.

Bravo, Brian!

This was such a well researched and thought out article, fascinating to read. It gave me a much deeper appreciation of Tony Baxter.

Looking forward to more of your work.

Thanks Chris! On my profile you'll find quite a bit more that I've written on lost concepts and closed attractions that you might find interesting! But I'm a huge fan of Tony Baxter and it's hard not to be. He's responsible for so many of the modern attractions we love, and for so many more that fans beg for.

I know that Claude Coats was his mentor, but this is the first I've heard of Marc acting as such. In those days, Davis people and Coats people stayed in separate camps.

Coats was definitely his mentor more than anyone else out the gate, but Baxter benefited from both schools of thought, it seems. When you think about it, most any successful and "classic" Disney ride has elements of both designers (and obviously many more), and Baxter seemed to have registered that and incorporated a balance between them into his creative process!

Sometimes, Tony's projects leaned more toward Davis' style! Think of his Phantom Manor, which more or less conceded the Haunted Mansion debate to Davis' character-driven favor. Other times, he took Davis'-style concepts and made them a bit more abstract, as in Paris' Pirates. But altogether I think he simply learned that their two styles are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. Which has been a tremendous benefit for us as guests!

It would be a fantastic land to be added to the Disney Parks. The film "TomorrowLand" was an excellent film though I feel it had it's release dampened by its competition in the box office. It had Steampunk and Jules Verne elements tied with a theme of timeless optimism and development. Discoveryland could be just what the world needs, even if it doesn't know it.

If built I believe this lost concept would still be hit. I can see EPCOT's old Horizon pavilion fitting in there. I would like to see some of the rides mentioned added to Disney World. As far as Island at the Top of the World goes I loved that movie when I first saw it.

I think this concept would have worked perfectly in the Disney's America park had it been built.

Great article. I wonder if the town (San Fransokyo) in Big Hero 6 was inspired in any way by this back story?

Thank you again for yet another great article. A little late getting around to reading this one unfortunately.
Very excited to see you tackle the never built attractions/lands and also give a bit of insight into Tony Baxter's genius.
Can't wait to see what the subject of your next retrospective will be.
Cheers!

This would be a fantastic addition to walt disney world and would make a specal trip back just too see it.

I was at D23's Attraction Rewind where Tony did a presentation on Discovery Bay. When they announced the deal with Anaheim I hoped that perhaps they would go ahead and build it. Of course those hopes were dashed when they announced that Star Wars Land would go there. I am excited about Star Wars Land but sad about Discovery Bay. I am a big fan of Tony and hope he will be involved in future projects because he does things right.

Reading this now with the knowledge of the impending Star Wars expansions has me feeling disappointed that Discovery Bay will never be.

Nice article!!

I for one have dreamt about Disney building a third gate in Anaheim based upon alternate worlds of imagination.

I imagine a park layout based on Disney Sea, with a version of Discovery Bay at the entrance tied with Mysterious Island at the heart. And the rest of the lands being built around the Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar properties. And perhaps others as well....but alas, Star Wars is being shoehorned into Disneyland.

I agree with you and your article completely. Discovery Bay should have been put in its rightful place instead of Star Wars Land. I would love to have it here in Disneyland Anaheim.

Really appreciated your article. I truly love what could have been. I think with the creation of Star Wars Land, they could move Star Tours and transform the rest of the land into some concept of Discovery Sea while incorporating/transforming their iconic Matterhorn Mountain into the land. There are many things that could be altered or changed in order to make it work. Possibly change; Finding Nemo into 20,000 Leagues, rework Space Mountain fitted with the cannon launch, remove the Tomorrow Land Stage and change the walk path above and below to create a larger lagoon, maybe fit a Tron Cycle Coaster in. I am sure much more could "Imagineered".

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