Shortly after Universal Studios Florida became a success, Jay Stein – former President of Universal’s theme parks, started to come up with ideas for a second theme park. Since the Universal Orlando was an expansion of their movie studio/theme park in Hollywood, it was a challenge to come up with a concept that didn’t revolve around a movie studio. In Jay’s mind, there was only one solution: Use well-known cartoon properties to compete in Orlando’s family-friendly tourist market.
Unofficially, along with “Project X,” the name of the second park became known as “Cartoon World” during the development phase. The origin of the name came from Jay wanting a place where all these cartoon characters that weren’t part of the Disney Universe could live in a theme park. The problem, of course, is Universal Studios didn’t have an animation division like Disney does, with a variety of animated characters to choose from to be represented in the new park. In the early ‘90s, Jay had a meeting with his executive team and devised a list of cartoon characters/properties that Universal could acquire the theme park rights to, like Jay Ward’s Dudley Do-Right.
In addition, Jay added King Features to that list of properties he wanted the rights to. King Features owns the rights to most of the major comic strips you could find in your Sunday newspaper back in the early 1990’s: Hagar, Beatle Bailey, Family Circus and most importantly, Popeye.
Out of all the comic book properties that came with King Features, Popeye is by far the best known thanks to cartoon shorts, live action movies and of course, his face being plastered on spinach cans. The need for water rides that actually got you wet in Orlando seemed like a no-brainer since, at this stage in development, Splash Mountain was the only true water ride in town that cooled riders off from the scorching Orlando summers.
Considering Popeye is a sailor, it made sense thematically to create a water attraction based around the fictional town of Sweet Haven, where Bluto, Olive Oil and Popeye live. In the story of the attraction, guests are going to take a voyage around Sweet Haven to do some sightseeing on Popeye’s sturdy sea-faring vessels. However, halfway through the queue, we are re-routed via detour signs to their rival boat company, which happens to be owned by Bluto. Now we are forced to take the same trip, but on one of Bluto’s barges instead, which are less than sturdy, not to mention he has set up some menacing surprises along the way.
While the basic concept and story outline of the original version of the attraction still can be seen in the final version, there are a few changes. In the original artist layout of Sweet Haven, pictured above, notice the fishing village that the rapids attraction revolves around is much larger. In the original concept, this section of the park had a much larger footprint in the park and was going to be home to a dinner show.
Gary Goddard and his team, who gave the initial pitch for Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges, also proposed a full-blown dinner show that could compete with any other dinner show in Orlando. What many people don’t realize is that Gary was heavily responsible for the Hoop-De-Doo Revue during his tenure at Disney. When Hoop opened in 1974, it was originally slated for a limited summer run and the cast was staffed with college kids who could commit to an eight-week run.
However, thanks in large part to Gary’s contribution in developing and writing the show, Hoop-De-Doo extended its summer run. Forty years later, and with very few changes to that original script and concept, it’s one of the longest running dinner shows in history. The Popeye dinner show would have followed essentially the same formula, with a different theme and on a much grander scale.
The host of the show would have been a salty sea dog who sailed into the harbor many years ago and had never left. Since his time there, he has seen some amazing performers come and go, so he was bringing them back to perform just for you. The show would also feature live musicians and can-can dancers to keep the momentum going between variety acts.
Much like the story of Davy Crockett, which has always been a hit at Hoop-De-Doo, this dinner show would have its own audience participation sketch called, “The Ballad of Popeye the Sailorman.” A younger (and preferably bald) man would be pulled from the crowd and given a sailor’s hat to portray the role of Popeye, while a portlier gentleman would be asked to represent Bluto. A lanky young lady with short hair would get to play Olive Oil, while the most adorable four-or-five-year-old would get cast as Sweet Pea. Just like the Davy Crockett sketch, the actors would keep things moving and would all be played for laughs.
The finale of the show would have featured a dance competition where everyone from the can-can dancers to the actors and even acrobats get into the act by completely surrounding the audience with performers. In the final number, dancers would have danced in place on spinning kegs that would have sprayed the audience with water. It would have been a hell of a show and in many ways, a kind of sister show to Hoop-De-Doo down the street at Walt Disney World. Personally? I think the Popeye dinner show could have been better.
What are your thoughts? Do you think Universal did the right thing by deciding not to put a dinner show in Islands of Adventure? Or would you have paid good money to see a show like this with a Popeye theme? Let me know in the comments section.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to The Goddard Group for permission to use the images in this article.