Beyond Those Trees: Pocahontas in Central Park

I’m starting to think that New Yorkers have former Mayor Ed Koch to blame for the lack of Disney events held in New York City. As I’ve looked back at two of the biggest Disney premieres this city has ever seen, both events were vehemently opposed by Mr. Koch. Reading some of his quotes from the Daily News and The New York Times, I really think this cranky old man just needs a vacation to Disney World.

At this point in time, Disney was basking in their incredible $800 million success with “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”. So how do you even top that?

Why, you invite 100,000 of your closest friends for a picnic and a movie!

In 1995, Pocahontas was Disney’s 33rd full length animated feature. I had just made it through the 5th grade and I found myself hating my classmate, Kate Davidson. This was because she had won the lottery — literally.  Advertisements had been placed in the newspapers a month before announcing the Pocahontas lottery as the only way to win a ticket (if that doesn’t make some people pick up a newspaper, I don’t know what will). On June 10th,  Kate and the rest of the lucky winners made their way to the Great Lawn at Central Park between 79 and 86th street. They came from all over expecting nothing short of spectacular and Disney as always, delivered.

The idea didn’t come from thin air however. The year before they had screened “Angels in the Outfield” (do the angel wings with your arms. Come on, I know you want to) at Pittsburgh’s  Three Rivers Stadium. It turned out to be quite a success and so for Pocahontas, a movie about an Indian Princess whose relationship with nature and animals borders on Shamanism, they wanted a venue that would connect man’s relationship with nature. In the middle of the hustle and bustle of New York City sits Central Park, which for some New Yorkers is about as close as they will get to the woodlands. (How sad.) The event promised all-day live activities for families with the movie showing at dusk on four 92-foot screens that covered the 13-acre viewing area on the Great Lawn. The sound system had over 150 speakers and more than 100,000 watts of sound. Can you say epic? I cannot imagine what it was like listening to the movie score, which in my opinion, is one of Alan Menken’s best ever instrumental score with all that power behind it.

Looking at this picture, I don’t think I would have survived this.

For the people who sadly didn’t get tickets and were home (ahem), there were news and media crews there to cover the event and film a television special that was ultimately played on repeat at my house all that summer. For a large number of families, Disney created the biggest film premiere in history and a unique experience that they will remember and talk about for years to come (trust me, once September hit, Kate wouldn’t shut-up about it).  Let’s not forget all the merchandise and food tables that were set up (because really, what is a Disney event without merchandise?). I could definitely see my father spending his entire paycheck very easily in one afternoon.

There was no end to the buzz that this event created and Michael Eisner was quoted as saying, “As a native New Yorker, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to use such a landmark location for this event. We consider this premiere to be a kind of `family Woodstock,’ — a safe and entertaining way to spend an afternoon and evening in one of the city’s truly great spots. This premiere is our way of thanking the people of New York for all they have done for us over the years and we are very grateful for the support of Mayor Giuliani and Parks & Recreation. I can think of no better place to introduce our 33rd animated feature than in one of our country’s most beautiful settings.”

Those words of gratitude were lost on my buddy Ed Koch and many other New Yorkers who believed that Disney had no right renting a public place for a private event. They also voiced complaints about the possibility of scalpers getting their hands on tickets and selling them for a ridiculous amount of money. That complaint I felt was a valid one, but seriously, this is New York and if I had a dollar for every time I had someone approach me at a show or concert asking if I wanted to buy a ticket, I could own Central Park by now. (Well, not really, but you get my point). In retrospect, Disney wasn’t too bright in distributing these tickets. There weren’t names assigned to them so you could easily hand them over to a cousin, a neighbor, a friend, a scalper….  There were some reports to the Daily News that some people were paying as much as $100 a ticket, but then again we were only one year away from the Tickle Me Elmo craze and I don’t even want to KNOW how much money some parents forked over for those…

Money hustlers aside, the argument of using a public space for a private event isn’t entirely unsound.  Central Park hosts all kinds of New Yorkers who flock to greener pastures for sports, exercise, or just to hang out and sunbathe. The Great Lawn had been off limits to these people as crews began bringing in equipment. Furthermore, the people who had been looking forward to seeing the Metropolitan Opera concerts scheduled there were now shuffled to different venues. It seems all very inconvenient, but being the leaders of guest recovery situations, the Disney Company tried to take care of all these people. They paid for the road work needed to allow trucks to move opera equipment to the North Meadow for performances. On top of bringing New York City some much needed family friendly publicity, they helped pay approximately $300,000 for the police, clean-up crews and other services required for the event. That is not even counting the six-figure contribution to the Central Park Conservancy and the Parks Foundation they made.

Some people may call that borderline bribery. I call it making magic.

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A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

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