16 January 2008

You can’t hoot without an air hose

Fowl have a longstanding history with the Disney Company. One famously feathered friend even makes the cut for the Fab 5. But, of all the brethren of the beak, only one species tops the pecking order, the wise old owl. There have been stuffy teachers and know-it-alls, like Professor Owl from Adventures and Music and Owl from The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh respectively. We have also had our protectors in Big Mama, from Fox in the Hound, and Friend Owl, in Bambi. There are other owls in the Disney birdhouse, though the distant cousin of these stars, the accordion owl from Alice in Wonderland, is rarely invited to family reunions.

Inside today’s parks, owls are still present. From the true life variety, available for viewing inside of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, to Owl, of Winnie-the-Pooh fame, who has set up his nest in the Magic Kingdom. In fact, Owl has the distinction of possessing the deed to the land The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The deed was bestowed upon him by the previous resident, Mr. Toad, with photographic evidence of the event hanging upon the wall in Owl’s house. But there is one owl from the park, whose roots go back decades, which has not been seen, or heard from, in years.

Hoot Gibson, named after a silent film cowboy from the 1920s, was to have taken guests on a tour of the West on the permanently shelved attraction, the Western River Expedition (WRE). The Western River Expedition, part of what would have been called Thunder Mesa, in Frontierland, would have showcased rowdy cowboys, bandits, Native American rain dances, and even singing cacti. If this concept sounds vaguely like Pirates of the Caribbean, it should, as both were the brain children of Marc Davis, who set out to one up himself with the creation of Thunder Mesa. Yet, of all the designs for the project, only one ever saw the light of day, the tour guide of the West, Hoot Gibson.

When the Walt Disney Story attraction opened on Main Street U.S.A. in 1973, Hoot was there. He gave audiences who ventured through the post show a glimpse behind the scenes, a glimpse into the future, and a glimpse into his heritage by proclaiming, “My grandpa, for example, had one of the lead roles in Bambi.” Near the end of his dialogue he told guests to come back and visit him at the Western River Expedition, an expedition that never got underway. Hoot continued to proclaim the future of the western frontier until 1981, when the exhibit was covered over to make way for a preview of another coming attraction, EPCOT Center.

Hoot, along with the rest of Thunder Mesa, would have been a hoot. But though the feathered friends lost one of their own, I can’t imagine that we are too many years away from seeing another astute owl take wing.

For more information on Thunder Mesa, and the Western River Expedition, check out The Disney Mountains, by Jason Surrell, and Widen Your World.

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