Discovery Bay concept art.

Disneyland’s Steampunk Land That Almost Was

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Discovery Bay Concept Art
An early concept drawing of Discovery Bay by Tony Baxter. © Disney

When you think of steampunk, Disneyland is probably not the first thing that comes to mind, but did you know that there were plans back in the 1970s for new land which would have incorporated steampunk themes and even an airship ride?

The project was the brainchild of imagineer Tony Baxter, who will be honored this Saturday as a Disney Legend at an award ceremony at the D23 Expo in Anaheim. Though Baxter was responsible for some of the most beloved Disney theme-park attractions (including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Journey Into Imagination, and Splash Mountain), one of his most imaginative and interesting visions never left the drawing board. A life-long fan of Jules Verne, Baxter incorporated the author’s sense of adventure, exploration, and forward-looking imagination into the designs for Disneyland’s Discovery Bay, an expansion to Frontierland that would have stood along the banks of the Rivers of America. He and fellow imagineer Tom Scherman were so enthusiastic about the idea they even produced a five-minute television pilot called “Discovery Bay Chronicles” and built a 1/20th scale model, which was put on display in the park.

Discovery Bay Model
This model was put on display at Disneyland while the project was in the planning stages. In the upper right corner you can see part of Dumbo’s Circusland, another proposed area that was never built. © Disney

Although the term “steampunk” wouldn’t be coined for another decade, the retro-futuristic aesthetic is recognizable in the designs and promotional material for Discovery Bay, much of which has survived and found new life on the internet. Set in a fantastical version of San Francisco during the post-gold rush era, the proposed new land would have included some seriously cool themed rides, food vendors, and retail locations. Imagine a Tesla coil, an animatronic collector of oddities, a time machine, a fireworks shooting gallery, and an underwater restaurant inside a submarine all existing within walking distance of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Space Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The concept went through several permutations, but the main showpiece was consistent throughout the development process–a massive hangar revealing the front end of an airship, the Hyperion, from the now-forgotten 1974 adventure film The Island at the Top of the World. The hangar would have housed a tie-in ride that would have taken guests on a simulated flight aboard the Hyperion above icy Arctic waters, with spectacular views of a frozen landscape, the northern lights, and the ruins of an ancient city. Contrary to popular belief, the fact that the movie flopped wasn’t the only reason the plans for the land were ultimately abandoned, but it certainly didn’t help.

Fireworks Factory Concept Art
The Fireworks Factory shooting gallery. © Disney

A Disney company memo dating back to 1976 proclaims that Discovery Bay would “bring to life a time and place that climaxed an age of discovery and expansion.” There was to be a Chinese settlement incorporating the aforementioned Fireworks Factory shooting gallery, an aerial tramway known as The Great Western Balloon Ascent, and an electro-magnetic roller coaster called The Spark Gap (also referred to at various stages as The Electric Loop, The Tower, and The Spiral). A model of the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would have been visible off the coast, partially submerged. At various points in the attraction’s development it would have contained a walk-through experience or possibly a Grand Salon, where guests could dine while taking in a colorful underwater view. There was also Professor Marvel’s Gallery, a revolving theater promising “a fascinating visit with the foremost collector of the exotic, weird, and whimsical from all over the world.” And did I mention the Lost River Rapids water ride that would have taken guests back in time to the prehistoric age? Dinosaurs, y’all. I mean, come on.

Which leads us to the obvious question: Why wasn’t this showcase of awesome ever built? The reasons given for this are many, but it all comes down to money and timing. At the same time the Disneyland team was busy putting together the proposal for Discovery Bay, two major ventures were coming down the pipeline which would ultimately take precedence–EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland. Between the two of them, they siphoned off most of the company’s creative and financial resources. By the time the dust had settled, Disneyland executives had moved on to hotter, more high-profile endeavors, including the production of the big-budget Captain EO film starring Michael Jackson, the launch of the kid-friendly Splash Mountain (prompting the transformation of Bear Country into Critter Country), and the acquisition of licenses for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties.

Discovery Bay Concept Art View 2
Another view of Discovery Bay. The tall crystal structure in the distance was to be a railroad station. © Disney

Fortunately, the creative concepts for Discovery Bay didn’t die on the vine. Baxter went on to incorporate some of the ideas into other Disney parks and, many years later, into Disneyland itself with the 1998 redesign of Tomorrowland. The animatronic host of Professor Marvel’s Gallery and his pet dragon would later reappear as the Dreamfinder and Figment in EPCOT’s Journey into Imagination, and Disneyland Paris would get its own variation on the Jules Verne theme in a section called Discoveryland. You’ll find a version of the Nautilus walk through there, as well as a model of the Hyperion hanging above a cafe with a decidedly steampunk aesthetic. Considered at one time to be the largest prop ever built for a theme park, the ship’s nose cone can be seen poking out of an open hangar in homage to the original concept drawings.

If you want a thrilling (if bittersweet) read, you can find the full text of that original company memo over at Jim Hill Media, a site devoted to all things Disney. Or check out Disney history site The Neverland Files for more on the various phases of the project and the reasons why we were denied this land of mechanical marvels.

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9 thoughts on “Disneyland’s Steampunk Land That Almost Was

  1. Nice write-up. I’m a big Jules Verne fan, but had never even *heard* of Discovery Bay. Now I have a new reason to go visit Disneyland Paris!

    Looking forward to reading more of your stuff… 🙂

  2. So much of Tony Baxter’s Fantastic concept has been adapted into existing Disney Projects all over the world. I was lucky to talk the Disney Gallery out of their Special Framed print of Tony’s Discovery Bay, and purchase it. His Fireworks Factory appeared on Pleasure Island. Discovery Mountain and the Nautilus gave birth in Paris Disneyland, as you mentioned. He has 4 Big Thunder Mountains to his credit shown in the model, with the Best being the last in Paris. Perhaps Walt Disney World has now taken his Circus concept in their New Fantasyland. His Land Pavillion Model supplied the Train Station concept with a glass domed city, and yet to be realized. I’m really looking forward to what Tony is able to achieve next.

  3. You should also check out “Port Discovery” and “Mysterious Island” at Tokyo DisneySea, both of which have incorporated that same feel. Thankfully, this great concept survived.

  4. I am glad Tony Baxter mentioned Tom Scherman in his remarks. Tom was very close to the immortal Harper Goff (Harper often said Tom was the son he never had), and importantly kept alive for years the concept of Discovery Bay. He had the whole plan in is brain, and could sketch the layout from any point of view. He did this serial times–on paper dinner napkins while he was having dinner. Some of the “napkin sketches” survived; and they are remarkable in quality, as a living testimony to Tom’s visionary skill as an artist. A true Imagineer. As for the film Tony mentioned, it still exists. It remains secluded in Bob Burns’ collections (although he says he doesn’t have it.)

    1. I was a close friend of Tom Scherman. We worked together for many years. I was the cinematographer and visual effects supervisor for the 5 minute tv pilot called “THE DISCOVERY BAY CHRONICLES”. I have the 1 inch tape master of the finished film, 35mm prints and many behind the scenes photos of the making of this promotional film. I worked on this project with Tom after hours and on week ends over a 3 year period.

      1. I would LOVE to see that!! Any chance you could upload it to youtube? I can’t be the only person to search the web for any DISCOVERY BAY CHRONICLES pilot footage.

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