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10/7/2010

The Arts

Deep Disney
ConGaloosh is for Adventurers like Jim Korkis

 

ConGaloosh
Friday-Sunday, 
Oct. 8-10 at 
Royal Plaza Hotel
Downtown Disney
www.congaloosh.org
Various prices

Plenty of popular Orlando attractions from the 1990s now have no one to mourn them but creditors, including (but not limited to) Splendid China, King Henry’s Feast, Kissimmee’s Haunted Mansion and Mystery Fun House. But the Adventurers Club, the eccentric, interactive comedy experience at Disney’s defunct Pleasure Island nightclub complex, refuses to stay dead, thanks to the devotion of its fervent fans. Despite being shuttered since 2008, the spirit of the Adventurers Club lives on at the second annual ConGaloosh gathering this weekend at Downtown Disney’s Royal Plaza resort. Participants pay up to $250 to attend a memorabilia market, panel discussions and performances by former Pleasure Island cast members (including the memorable Carol Stein and Karl Anthony). It’s all in an effort to relive the memory of the make-believe back story of the Adventurers Club, designed and outfitted as a haven for world travelers circa 1937. For the uninitiated, the made-up term “ConGaloosh” comes from “con” for convention and “galoosh” riffs off of the Adventurer’s Club official greeting and beverage, “Kungaloosh.”

Educator, entertainer and author Jim Korkis is someone who understands the importance of holding onto Disney history, however artificial. As the declared “unofficial historian” for the Adventurers Club, and an honored ConGaloosh guest, he’ll be giving a number of presentations over the weekend, including Saturday night’s feature lecture, “An Adventurer’s Guide to Adventure, Real and Imagined.” After three decades of documenting Disney, from his multiple perspectives as a follower, employee, ex-employee and critic, Korkis’ current unsanctioned post and the twisting path that led him there speaks volumes about Disney’s past legacy and present priorities.

In a surprise move several weeks ago, Korkis revealed that, since 2006, he’s been publishing some of his otherwise untold Disney histories on the popular MousePlanet.com website using the pseudonym “Wade Sampson” – a name derived from an obscure 1971 novel satirizing Walt Disney. While his true identity was an open secret among some insiders, Korkis deliberately unmasked himself Sept. 22 to his readers on the Disney fan site in advance of the publication of The Vault of Walt (Ayefour Publishing), his newly available collection of nonfiction essays. Korkis explains that the book isn’t about “scandals, rumors and false psychological assumptions,” but its stories are “unofficial [and] not filtered” through Disney’s legal department. 

The Vault of Walt covers everything from an FBI investigation of the Mickey Mouse Club to a rejected script for Alice in Wonderland by Aldous Huxley. Walt Disney’s oldest surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, gives her endorsement in the forward of the book, which reads, “Jim does not put my father on a pedestal, but he does like him, and I do not think that disqualifies him from having objectivity in his opinion.”

The same might be said of Korkis’ current relationship to the Disney company. As an ex-staffer, he is careful not to bad-mouth Disney, though he does share disturbing stories, like the time he was ordered to rewrite Walt’s biography, attributing all the boss’ personal achievements to “the Walt Disney Corp.” He continues to visit the parks as a paying guest, as he has since he was a kid, and says, “You can be a fan of the Disney brand and still be concerned with how the business is run.” 

Even more interesting than the attraction trivia he shares is Korkis’ own tale. Like many uber-fans, Korkis caught the “Disnerd” bug early. Growing up in Glendale, Calif., he discovered that his third-grade teacher was the wife of Herbert Disney, Walt’s mailman brother. He gave her a sketch of Jiminy Cricket with hopes “I’d be hired and wouldn’t have to learn my multiplication tables,” he recalls. An adolescent birthday gift of an animation kit from Disneyland’s Art Corner store – “probably all of 10 dollars,” he remembers – cemented his interest. Korkis wrote about Disney for his high school’s Glendale Press as well as movie fanzines, like Leonard Maltin’s Film Fan Monthly – “one of his models,” he reveals. Even after going into a teaching career, he continued writing and “just like Rip Van Winkle, I woke one morning and I was a Disney historian.” But it was strictly as an outsider; friends joked he was the “most Disney person they knew” who didn’t work for the Mouse.

In 1995, Korkis got that chance. After moving his aging parents from Southern California to Central Florida, he took a gig making balloon animals “for drunk college students” at the then hot Pleasure Island, which opened in 1989. Soon he was promoted to portraying Merlin in the Magic Kingdom’s now-extinct “Sword in the Stone” ceremony and “Prospector Pat” in Frontierland. 

Mouse managers soon realized Korkis’ educational and artistic backgrounds made him a good fit for the in-development Disney Institute, a pet project of then CEO Michael Eisner, inspired by his admiration for New York’s Chautauqua Institution. As a member of the opening team, Korkis developed and taught courses on traditional animation, CGI, voice acting and improvisational acting. The Disney Institute eventually failed under a financial model that measured success in occupied guest rooms, eventually “evolving” in 2003 into the Saratoga Springs timeshare. While it lasted, Korkis says the Disney Institute was a “cultural oasis” that attracted tourists and locals alike with performances and presentations from artists including John Lasseter, Ward Kimball and Marc Davis.

When Disney Institute was eliminated, Korkis moved to Epcot’s educational department, creating training classes and library resources for the College Program and international workers. He says his programs always emphasized that while Disneyland was “the park where Walt walked,” it was Walt Disney World that was “Walt’s final dream.” He found that the “tribute” angle resonated emotionally with employees, inspiring them to “internalize [and] live the story” that was once the source of Disney’s superior customer service.

In 2009, just five years after he received the prestigious Partners in Excellence award, Korkis’ position was eliminated in what he calls a “massive wave” of layoffs. Today, WDW’s historical training program has been almost entirely eliminated, given only to upper management, if ever. The resort’s vaunted three days of “Traditions” training for new employees has been cut to four hours and covers legally mandated topics like “blood-borne pathogens” and “sexual harassment.” There’s little time left to learn about Walt Disney’s expectations for guest service and corporate culture, much less an actual visit inside the parks – the very things that once set apart Disney’s so-called “cast members” from mere employees.

At this point in time, Korkis is too gracious – and cognizant of corporate politics – to make any well-deserved digs at his former bosses, as he’s been trying to get back in their employ on a part-time or consultant basis. What Korkis will do, however, is point out where the once-cherished story of Walt Disney World is receding. 

When Disney Institute closed, Korkis saw concept art tossed in dumpsters and documentation shredded to save storage space. That same disrespect for creative history can be seen elsewhere, like the clever signage in Disney Hollywood Studios that was removed because one manager didn’t understand the joke. Sadly, some Disney fans doggedly defend anything that Mickey’s management does: Korkis reports receiving hate mail after he critiqued the unnecessary and illogical re-christening of Cinderella’s Golden Carousel.

From the perspective of the bean counters, once Pleasure Island achieved its intended purpose of killing off attendance at downtown Orlando’s Church Street Station, the stories behind the Adventurers Club and Pleasure Island at large became irrelevant. As Pleasure Island staggered toward its death, Korkis located and documented the 26 plaques the Imagineers had hidden, scavenger-hunt-style, which recounted the intricate back story of fictional founder Merriweather Adam Pleasure. That elaborate mythology, which also integrated thematically with the Typhoon Lagoon water park, is now lost, outside the research Korkis will share with adoring ex-Adventurers this weekend. 

Korkis documents all this Disney ephemera for the same reason he interviews aging animators. “I became scared to death that these stories would be lost, [and] Disney wasn’t writing them down,” he explains. Asked about the future of the parks, Korkis quotes Walt Disney, who once said, “I want to be remembered as a storyteller,” before he shares his final observation. “The business challenges the Disney company faces now could all be resolved if they knew the story they were telling, and they told that story clearly.”

(The Vault of Walt is available at Create-Space.com and Amazon.com.)

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