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How Well Do You Know the $17 Million Music Video That Changed Disney Parks Forever? Here's The Story.

The Beginning of the End

Image: Disney / ESPN

Beginning in 1993 – just a year after EO opened its fourth and final showing alongside Disneyland Paris – Michael Jackson was accused of some very serious crimes regarding his personal life. Though the case was dropped, the unusual events, media firestorm, and paparazzi-fueled circus set in motion followed Jackson, culminating in a second round of accusation in the mid-2000s. The King of Pop became embroiled in scandals, controversy, and question. He infamously hid himself away, becoming somewhat of a recluse behind the walls of his Neverland Ranch estate, emerging infrequently and rarely speaking.

Now, four Disney Parks featured expensive attractions whose entire marketing centered around an increasingly controversial figure accused of heinous crimes…

Image: Disney

All the while, the future envisioned by the ‘80s and incarnate in Captain EO was looking and sounding increasingly dated to audiences of the ‘90s. And given that – understandably – movie-based attractions tend to have less repeat appeal than rides do, audiences shrunk at each performance.

In 1994, Captain EO closed at Epcot’s Imagination pavilion. Admittedly, the curtain call was already overdue.

In its place opened Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. The new 3D attraction was based on the 1989 theatrical film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids which had become an unexpected hit for Disney, sparking a series of films, cartoons, and attractions. (The new 3D film in turn sparked a rather regrettable re-do of the neighboring dark ride, uniting the pavilion’s two attractions in an overarching “Imagination Institute” continuity. If you dare, you can read up on that unmitigated mess in its own feature, Disaster Files: Journey into YOUR Imagination.)

Image: Disney

The same switch took over California’s Captain EO, but four years later. There, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience debuted alongside the park’s equally infamous New Tomorrowland. Nevermind that the five-year-old 3D film based on a 10-year-old movie was already the stuff of “yesterday….” The infamous low-budget Tomorrowland “rebirth” that closed California’s EO was chronicled in its own Disaster File: Rocket Rods and New Tomorrowland 1998.

By 1999, Captain EO was gone from all four Disney resorts where it had once starred.

EO Rides Again

Michael Jackson died unexpectedly on June 25, 2009.

As can sometimes happen with scandalous celebrity figures, Jackson’s death seemed to overshadow much of the controversy his life had entailed. His music was viewed with more interest than it had been in decades, and – rightly or wrongly – many of the accusations that had helped tank Jackson’s public image and career were forgotten. (For the record, Jackson was never convicted on any charges, with all being either dropped or acquitted.)

Image: Disney

At once, fans began to speculate that EO could make a return as a temporary tribute.

(After all, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience had been playing for a decade or more itself, playing to even emptier theaters than EO had been at the end of its run… Though its 1989 source material film might’ve been a sleeper hit, it had been largely forgotten, and the 3D film was far from a fan-favorite. It seemed at least possible that EO could return…)

In September 2009, Disneyland’s Magic Eye Theater closed to the public for several days as Disney screened Captain EO in private for Michael’s family… but it was also a test to see if the 1986 film could reasonably retake its place in the theater.

It was announced on December 18, 2009 on the Disney Parks Blog: “We are excited to confirm that the classic musical spectacular that thrilled Disneyland park guests from 1986-1997, will return for an exclusive, limited engagement at Disneyland park beginning in February 2010!”

Image: Disney

Captain EO Tribute opened February 23, 2010. No one would’ve mistaken Captain EO as a genuine Tomorrowland installation in 2010. The restored 3D film wasn’t really a showcase of future cinematography, current music, or cutting edge special effects anymore; it was a celebration of a bygone musical era, a lost superstar, and a piece of cult classic 1980s filmmaking. Since many of the effects Captain EO had used (starfields, fog, and lasers) had been removed for Honey, the re-installed Captain EO Tribute instead made use of Honey’s bouncing theater floor to groove to the music.

3D Dies

To hear Werner Weiss of the wonderful Yesterland say it, the “exclusive, limited engagement” turned out to be not-so-exclusive, since the film was reinstated in Paris, Tokyo, and Orlando later that very summer.

Image: Disney

Turns out, it wasn’t very limited, either. It played until 2014 in Anaheim and Tokyo, and until 2015 in Orlando and Paris. Once the “tribute” to Jackson had sufficiently served its purpose, it was quietly closed.

Fans wondered what was next. After all, Disney likely has practically zero interest in creating a brand new 3D theme park film (given how remarkably unremarkable such an attraction would be to audiences of the 21st century). Not even a world-renowned star or a leading intellectual property would make a '4D' movie feel new, fresh, and like a must-see.

Image: Disney

At Disneyland, the renamed Tomorrowland Theater was recast as a showcase for theatrical previews for upcoming Disney (and Marvel and Pixar) films, showing exclusive, extended trailers using the in-theater effects. (The same unfortunate fate befell another of the resort's 3D films, since Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney California Adventure became the regrettable "Sunset Showcase Theater" in 2014.) At Disneyland Paris, EO's departure created the Discoveryland Theater with the same movie-preview purpose.

At Epcot, the theater was at least reformatted into the Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival – frankly, nothing more than an air-conditioned reprieve offering continuous showing of a selection of Disney and Pixar “shorts” (the short-form cartoons that play before Disney and Pixar theatrical releases – a revived art form beloved by fans), never mind that they’re available on Blu-Ray and DVD in their own dedicated collection.

Image: Tokyo Disney Resort

In the cleverest re-use, the large Captain EO theater in Tokyo was utilized for a new attraction, Stitch Encounter. The live, digitally puppeted show (similar in style and tone to Turtle Talk with Crush) is a massive hit with the Japanese audience (who adore Stitch and already feature him – controversy-free – in their Tiki Room).


Here’s the interesting thing about Captain EO...

Image: Disney

Never before had Disney so deliberately and defiantly chased pop culture. Under Michael Eisner’s new reign, EO marked an unprecedented (and perhaps unstoppable) directional shift for Disney Parks. From 1986 on, Disneyland would become a place where guests could “ride the movies” and see their favorite stars. In Eisner’s time, it was unexpected – even controversial – to imagine Disneyland as a place where Michael Jackson might star; to think of EPCOT Center as a place where George Lucas’ creations could showcase.

And yet, as we follow this thread through the Lost Legends that follow, we find ever more evidence that today, just the opposite is true! Sometimes it feels like no attraction will ever again be greenlit for a U.S. Disney Park unless it’s tied to a current, modern, trendy box office hit, long-term consideration be damned. Like its competitors at Universal, Disney now seems determined to build rides based on whatever’s hot, even if that means ride lifetimes are measured in seasons, not decades.

Image: Disney

Captain EO was the start.

Controversial as it may have been in later years, EO was a sincere wonder that jumpstarted interest in Disney Parks (and Disney as a brand) when hope seemed lost. Michael Jackson today may be remembered as many things, but thanks to Captain EO, he’ll always be remembered by Disney Parks fans as an intergalactic hero who was here to change the world… and changed Disney World along the way.

If you enjoyed your in-depth journey through the world of Captain EO, make the jump to our In-Depth Features Library and set course for another Lost Legend.

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There is 1 comment.

This really should be released on DVD or Blu-Ray


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