When Space Mountain debuted at Disneyland in 1977, there was a small, open-air amphitheater at its base. Cheesy cover bands and D-list pop stars played that stage for years, and the good times might have gone on forever if Michael Eisner hadn’t taken over Disney in 1984. In 1985, the amphitheater was roofed over and enclosed for the 3-D space musical “Captain EO,” starring a pre-vitiligo Michael Jackson and a bunch of puppets. (Produced by George Lucas! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola! It’s a good idea that we continually remind these men that they not only worked on this project, but put their names on it.)
This left Disneyland without a large performance space and dance floor, and at a time when kids were dancing to the new-wave and popular musics in large numbers. Fortunately, there was a sizable chunk of usable land in Fantasyland next to it’s a small world and Steve Wozniak had a enormous stage rig left over from his Us Festival two years before. Bringing the two elements together, Disney Imagineering created Videopolis. The whole process took just 105 days, from hasty napkin sketch to neon-accented reality.
I’d like to say I was there on opening night in June 1985, but I wasn’t. Actually, I’m not even sure that I want to say that I wish I could have been there. There was nothing in the print or radio advertising for Videopolis that made me want to abandon Orange County’s handful of 18-and-over dance joints—Nightscape, Jagg, Old World. Those places, with their black walls, booming sound systems and doorless toilets, were there own kind of theme park, where we could make out with each other, smoke red-box Marlboros, sit petulant-faced and, time permitting, dance to Dead Or Alive, Prince and Bauhaus.
Plus, Videopolis had a jingle, which was enough to make it uncool. The radio ad, also played as a kind of overture when the venue opened for the evening, was just plain awful:
Tonight’s the night, gonna do it right
Gonna use my very best moves, show what I can do
Dance till I drop, ’cause the music’s so hot
Goin to the top, Videopolis
Gonna make it rock
Bryan Adams didn’t write it. I checked.
My friends and I avoided Videopolis for nearly a year after it opened. Then, one May evening in 1986, we capped a day at Disneyland with a night at Videopolis—and there we stayed, well into autumn. Virtually every summer weekend, we’d go to Disneyland and Videopolis, sometimes bypassing the former in favor of the latter.
There were several reasons for our change of heart, chief among them our preferred 21-and-under clubs closing down. (Nightscape was demolished to make way for the Santa Ana Mainplace Mall, and Jagg later became a strip club called Captain Cream’s Tussling Tootsies.) The remaining clubs were becoming more violent, and we felt like the hippie all-of-us-together vibe had left the premises, if it had ever existed at all. These things drove us to a 5,000 square-foot dance floor flanked by 70 video screens, several rows of teal-colored bleachers and enough stage lighting to incinerate a herd of cattle … but it was the fireworks that kept us there.
At that time, Disneyland’s nightly fireworks show was launched from a backstage area where Toontown now stands. Most people watched the show from a remove. (“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls … please direct your attention to the sky.”) The fireworks exploded directly over Videopolis, so close you could feel the ground tremor as they blew, and get the powder smell in your clothes.
Disney played it up. At 9:35 every night, the tech crew would dim the lights and bring up “Two Tribes (Annihilation),” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. That big fucking siren noise would scare the hell out of us every time, but then the orchestra would kick in and a cheer would rise from the dance floor, diminishing to an awed sigh as the first skyrockets blew. We kept dancing even as colorful warfare was waged in the heavens.
Other Orange County clubs would give us minor skirmishes, turf wars. Videopolis gave us armageddon, which had a nice beat. You could dance to it.
There were other things worth remembering about Videopolis, but none as extraordinary as the fireworks. The Videopolis crowd was big-haired girls and bigger-haired boys, dancing tentatively awkward hip-hop steps to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.” The scenery was okay, but oftentimes we’d get bored with the crowd and we’d pine for the club kids we once knew, who were more geeky, wore more black and were generally more willing to be felt up in a dark corner. (On a related note, we once spotted staunch conservative radio host Wally George in the crowd. He was smiling, which was kind of disappointing; we had hoped he would at least pull a mild sneer and denounce us for a bunch of liberal perverts.)
Videopolis’ tech guys—Disney called them “VJs”—played videos by New Order, Eurythmics, Expose and the like, and they’d mix the videos with live footage of dancers in the crowd that was video-toastered almost beyond recognition. LED strips hung on the lighting rigs, and if you happened to glance past one quickly you’d get an afterimage of a fleeting shape of a dancing figure. There were massive video screens above the stage showing the action, and sometimes you were allowed to dance on the stage itself.
Videopolis was our reality TV. We stuck with it until gangs began to move in and tried to establish turf. As soon as the first colors were flashed, Disney management had no choice but to close the dance floor forever.
The venue is still there, though unrecognizable. It’s now called the Fantasyland Theater and has been roofed over with a two-posted tent that even the most pious of Disney geeks call “The Wonderbra.” Disneyland has no teen dance programming to speak of, unless you count the cover bands playing the Tomorrowland Terrace stage.
That seems right. No one really dances in straight dance clubs anymore—they’re too busy getting piss drunk from overpriced, bottle-service flavored vodka and trying not to look like every other idiot who’s wearing the exact same outfit. They don’t know what it’s like to move to the sound of World War 3, and they never will.