With all of the changes happening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios currently, today we will focus on an attraction that never became a reality, despite its announcement. Copperfield’s Magic Underground was scheduled to open at the Disney/MGM Studios in the summer of 1998, but never even started construction. First, here is a little background on why this project was a big deal to me personally.
When I was six-years-old, my dad took me to see my very first stage show in Atlanta at the Fabulous Fox Theater: The Magic of David Copperfield. He had just made the Statue of Liberty disappear on Ellis Island in New York and after the show, we had Copperfield sign a poster with him vanishing Lady Liberty that is still framed and hanging in my childhood bedroom in Georgia. Since then, I have recorded every single David Copperfield television special (yes, I still have the VHS tapes) and have seen him perform over 15 times live.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Copperfield redefined magic the same way Walt Disney redefined movies and theme parks. Copperfield successfully combined groundbreaking new illusions with story in a way that no one had ever done before. He has won 21 Emmy Awards, was the first living magician to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and holds 11 Guinness World Records, including most tickets sold by a solo entertainer. Yes, he has sold more tickets than Madonna and Elvis.
When I heard the announcement about Copperfield’s Magic Underground, which combined Disney, magic and themed restaurants, I was over the moon. To understand how this idea came about, you have to take a step back and look at what was going on in the mid-‘90s.
Themed restaurants were all the rage. Hard Rock Cafes started popping up all over the world and still remain a strong brand to this day. Planet Hollywood had over 100 different locations worldwide and, as of this writing in 2015, seven still remain including one at Walt Disney World, which is soon to get a drastic remodeling.
An important part of this story is that a magic themed restaurant was not Copperfield’s idea. Rather, venture capitalists Glenn Tullman and Robert Compton propositioned him and would have meetings with him into the wee hours of the morning after the illusionist performed in various cities around the country. From these encounters, LateNite Magic was formed as their company name and once he agreed to let them use his name, license and serve as head creative consultant on the project, the company was formed and Copperfield’s Magic Underground moved forward.
The first location was slated to open in New York City’s Times Square. LateNite Magic leased a 30,000-square-foot location that would have contained enough seats for 430 diners and a 2,000-square-foot retail location which would have sold Copperfield merchandise branded to Copperfield Magic Underground.
Walt Disney World was to have the second eatery, with the entrance sitting just to the right of the main gate of the Disney/MGM Studios. Fantasmic! was being constructed for the park and the restaurant would have been wedged between the stadium and the front entrance. Much like how the Rainforest Cafe doesn’t require park admission at Disney’s Animal Kingdom for patrons to dine there, the same would have been true for CMU.
The retail store, however, was to be located to the right of the AMC Movie Multiplex at Downtown Disney Pleasure Island. Currently home to an Orlando Harley Davidson store, this location once had a sign in the window proclaiming that a Copperfield Magical Underground would be “coming soon.”
The restaurant in Times Square would have had a 45-foot statue of Copperfield with 18-foot tall gas torches on either side of him. Every hour, a 90-second light show presentation would take place that beckoned passersby inside.
Inside, diners would have found themselves inside a 70-foot tall atrium with gargoyles perched on the trusses above them. Located all around them would have been giant video screens featuring pre-recorded segments of David where he would suddenly have an entire table seem to levitate right in front of them. Another segment had a selection of diners disappear and a lucky volunteer would have the opportunity to be “cut in half” via Copperfield’s famous Death Saw illusion.
An initial investment of $20 million proved to be not enough as construction costs soared. Illusions needed to be tweaked or moved entirely, which was no easy task. They were made of steel and often drilled into cement, which required their own power supply. The problem? Construction started before the full concept had been laid out. Ultimately, some of the eye candy wasn’t doing what it was supposed to and Copperfield, being the professional he is, requested changes be made so the illusions remained consistent and unspoiled to anyone regardless of their vantage point.
This required more money and it is an important to know that David Copperfield was not a financial contributor to the restaurant, but a creative one. In the early stages, he owned a third of the business along with two other equal partners. However, when LateNite realized more capital would need to be raised, things got sticky. First, David wanted a 45% share in the company so he could control the board. Thus, the quality of the product would be to his standards and he had the power to make changes, if necessary. When a trick doesn’t work with your name on it at a restaurant you’re not even at, it not only damages your reputation, but your career.
This left the investors looking for more money to finish the Times Square location, which turned them to Prince Walid bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. If the name sounds familiar, Prince Talal owns a significant stake in Euro Disney, which ultimately operates the Disneyland Paris Resort.
In the end, investors couldn’t raise enough capital to get the restaurant up and running. Even if Copperfield’s Magic Underground got the cash injection it needed, in order for investors to get their money back they would have had to charge an enormous amount for food and drink. This might have made the restaurant collapse on itself. With no more funding and all parties involved at a standoff, LateNite Magic ultimately folded and walked away from the project. Copperfield’s Magic Underground in Times Square was reportedly 85% completed and cost investors $34 million by the time construction halted. So close, yet so far away.
Walt Disney World might have been home to the first Magic Underground, but possibly not the only within the Disney empire. Plans called for this concept to be duplicated in California, Tokyo and even Paris if the Orlando location was successful. Who knows? Maybe this was all for the best and everyone involved wouldn’t have been happy with the finished product considering how much it cost to build. Personally, I would have loved to see a David Copperfield restaurant at Walt Disney World. Your thoughts?
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Photos copyright: flickr, David Copperfield, Walt Disney World and Jeff Lange