3 Movies Clandestinely Shot at Disneyland Before ‘Escape From Tomorrow’

By  · Published on October 12th, 2013

Missing in the Mansion Hatbox Ghost

Films have been shot at Disney theme parks since before Disneyland even opened in 1955. The year before, Walt Disney personally offered a sneak peek of what was to come in the pilot episode of Disneyland. And specials made for TV and souvenir videos continued from there, whether it was to show the attraction on its opening day or offer virtual tours of the park or introduce new additions or to celebrate some anniversary or another. The same goes for Walt Disney World following its opening 16 years later.

Once in a while, though, something makes its way out of the parks that’s not made by Disney. Even then, it might be with permission, as in the 1962 Universal release 40 Pounds of Trouble, which features an extensive chase sequence through Disneyland (watch Tony Curtis and some Keystone-esque cops run around Main Street here). And the Matterhorn scene in That Thing You Do (directed by the guy who would later portray Disney). But there’s also Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow, a movie that shocked audiences at Sundance this year with its unauthorized guerrilla shoot at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Escape is hardly the first movie to get away with secretly capturing material on location at Disneyland, however. And now that it’s out in theaters and on VOD, this is a good time to highlight three such clandestine pieces of cinema.

Disneyland Dream (1956)

Not that it was really a stealth mission, this is pretty much just an innocent home movie from the 16mm camera of amateur filmmaker Robbins Barstow, whose family won a trip to the then year-old Disneyland courtesy of a Scotch tape-sponsored (and Song of the South-promoting) contest. But it’s far more polished and respected than any vacation videos you’d find on YouTube today. It’s even been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry because it remains “a fantastic historical snapshot of…Disneyland in mid-1956” providing “a priceless and authentic record of time and place.”

For decades it was only distributed around the neighborhood and eventually screened to social groups throughout the Barstows’ state of Connecticut. Again, hardly a subversive work. Still, one of the things it’s celebrated for is the way it depicts Disneyland from the perspective of a real average family versus the way Disney was itself presenting the park on its TV series at the same time. Compare the promotional narration and artificially planned scenes from Disneyland USA (1956) and especially Disneyland After Dark (1962) to Barstow’s more playful voiceover and natural moments (at the theme park, not in the definitely staged early bits) of the half-hour film below.

As a bonus, the unsuspicious lens of the Barstow family caught the film debut of an 10-year-old Steve Martin – spy him at 20:20 walking across the bottom of the screen in his magician garb.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

In one part of Banksy’s altogether bold Oscar-nominated documentary, he and co-subject Thierry Guetta go to Disneyland so that the director/street artist can provoke other park-goers with a Guantanamo Bay-inspired installation. Of course, the ever-elusive Banksy is able to slip in and out of prohibited areas to deposit his orange jumpsuit-clad blow-up detainee doll in perfect view of the Rocky Mountain Railroad ride. And not get caught. Guetta, however, is himself apprehended and detained by security for doing nothing more than taking pictures. He’s interrogated for what he might know of the prank, but unlike most Guantanamo Bay prisoners he was eventually let go due to lack of evidence against him.

Watch the sequence below, and/or catch the entire movie at iTunes or streaming on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Not surprisingly, by the way, Escape From Tomorrow is being put out by Producers Distribution Agency, which began three years ago with its inaugural release being Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Missing in the Mansion (2012)

This film is the most similar to Escape From Tomorrow in that it’s not a documentary but a fictional effort shot guerrilla-style on location in the park. It also shares the idea of replicating parts of Disneyland rides on a soundstage that are seamlessly fit into the movie to look like it’s actually violating more rules than it is (which in fact is none at all). The main difference is that this is a short film, but the production value is pretty impressive, especially the ghost effects. It’s in the quality’s favor that it’s a found footage horror flick meant to look like an amateur home movie of a trio’s visit to the park as two of them become engaged at Cinderalla’s Castle – note the real park-goers applauding the proposal.

The plot is of the Blair Witch variety. The characters reportedly went missing in the Haunted Mansion, and now the discovered video reveals that it was the ride’s long-retired Hatbox Ghost and the spirit of a little boy that got them. After watching the short, check out the making-of video to see how they got away with the shoot and all the terrific work they did off-site to pull it all off.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.