Within recent weeks, Walt Disney World has increased admission prices and parking rates, while simultaneously shuttering attractions and downsizing entertainment, once again prompting fans to wonder, "What would Walt think?"
Inspired by an icy urban legend, University of Central Florida film school grad Benjamin Lancaster has been answering exactly that question for the past four years, first through his hilarious "Walt's Frozen Head" Twitter feed (@WaltsFrzenHead), and now with his finished feature flick, The Further Adventures of Walt's Frozen Head. The locally shot production premiered early this month at the Santa Cruz Film Festival and made its Orlando debut Oct. 13 at the ME Theatre with a cast and crew Q&A attended by backers of the Kickstarter-funded comedy, including myself. (Full disclosure: I gave $42 and got a Tervis tumbler, which broke.)
Lancaster's film features Daniel Cooksley (named OW's "Best Young Actor" in 2005) as Pete Carter, a sad-sack separated dad whose biggest dreams are to find a Mickey doll for his mopey daughter, Molly (Kathryn Jenkins), and to someday be promoted to manager of the Magic Kingdom's Main Street Emporium. A detour in the park's infamous underground Utilidoors causes Pete to stumble upon Disney's darkest secret: Walt's cryogenically preserved cranium is awoken annually to approve major corporate decisions, but the frozen founder is fed up and just wants to watch the fireworks.
Like the 2013 film Escape From Tomorrow, The Further Adventures of Walt's Frozen Head was filmed on Disney property without the Mouse's knowledge or permission; unlike its predecessor, Walt's has likable characters, witty dialogue and a comprehensible plot. Amber D. Steele's sharp cinematography of the scenes shot inside the Most Magical Place on Earth doesn't betray its guerrilla origins, which makes one question how in the World Lancaster and company got away with it.
The answer, Lancaster says, was "a ton of planning. We shot on property for four days [and] every shot we had was logged in a 30-page document with the angle, the time, the order that we were getting it in, the contingency plans for different weather ... We pulled up the park in Minecraft, where it's been thoroughly documented, in addition to the scouting trips, just so we knew exactly every square foot that we were shooting on."
Also key to the in-park shoot's success was "avoiding people that we knew," producer Mickie Garcia says. That goal was nearly derailed when Cooksley was spotted during filming at the park entrance by an employee "who recognized him from a local theatrical production, and who would've loved to have a lengthy conversation with him, right then," Lancaster recalls. "So there were several near-misses, but no one actually catching us."
Perfectly cast as the titular Waltcicle is Ron Schneider, best known as Epcot Center's Dreamfinder, who didn't even audition for the role until after principal photography was complete. "A couple years ago I saw a trailer for this movie and went, 'Wow, sounds pretty good, I can't wait to see that,'" says Schneider. When Garcia emailed him months later requesting a screen test, he and his fiancé "started laughing so hard ... we laid there laughing all night." But Schneider liked the script, so he shaved off his beard and was surprised to find that he looked like Walt Disney.
In June 2016, Schneider's scenes were filmed in front of a green screen. Visual effects artist David Loomis later seamlessly integrated his face into the in-park footage.
"Ron was by himself for two days," Garcia says. "He didn't get to meet the other cast, and I feel like they played off each other so well despite never interacting with each other. Everyone who was on set before that got to hear me read all of Walt's lines, which is not the same kind of effect."
Beyond its satirical snark, which is sure to hit home with attraction obsessives, the film allows Schneider to deliver a couple of moving monologues questioning the value of manufactured fantasy in light of our faltering reality. "I love theme parks so much because they present me with a reality that is, at their best, cogent in a way that our reality isn't," Lancaster says. "Do theme parks represent this absurdity of glitz and fake reality? Or does it present you with a concept of reality that is hyperreal, because it is showing you the world as envisioned by one creator? I think Disneyland does that, I think Epcot does that, I think Animal Kingdom does that. We could argue about Hollywood Studios."
"Remember that whether it's real or not, what you're looking at is really a chemical reaction in the back of your brain, and you decide whether to buy into it or not," observes Schneider. "We're all there to be sucked into the story; otherwise, we'd be at Six Flags."