Sketches of a Toon Theme Park
Universal Florida, when planning its second gate, originally developed a concept for Cartoon World. Among the proposed theme park’s many lands, one area was set to be based on the cartoon characters by animator and producer Jay Ward and Fleischer Studios. The land would have included water-based attractions and a live dinner show at Rough House Cafe from the Popeye the Sailor Man series. This sailor-themed show would have featured musical numbers, dancing, and acrobatic routines. However, the plans for the unbuilt theme park fell through in 1993, and, to take its place, Universal moved forward in designing a new concept: Islands of Adventure. Despite adjustments, the general idea to build a toon-themed land carried over to the new plans.
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Islands of Adventure Opens, The Circus Comes to Toon
Before the park’s grand opening, Islands of Adventure debuted to limited crowds during spring 1999 for park previews. For the first time, guests got to see the park’s many themed lands, including Toon Lagoon: a land based on over 150 characters from yesteryear’s cartoons and the Sunday funnies. This island brought comics to life; as Toon Lagoon show producer Chris Stapleton put it, "From the music to the special effects, we wanted you to feel like you're in the melodrama."
"From the music to the special effects, we wanted you to feel like you're in the melodrama." — Chris Stapleton, Toon Lagoon show producer
Many of Toon Lagoon’s attractions were still being developed and were not operating during the park’s preview days. Closures included its two landmark rides as well as a 2,000-seat, open-air venue named Toon Lagoon Amphitheater, though media outlets referred to it as Pandemonium Amphitheater. This was a venue that would be home to an upcoming stage show, but the cast at that time was still going through their months of rehearsals, which were held on the stage for The Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show at Universal Studios Florida.
In May 1999, The Rosie O'Donnell Show filmed in Islands of Adventure's newly opened Pandemonium Amphitheater— Storybook Amusement (@StorybookAmuse) May 29, 2021
Here's the intro from her show during that time, showing a lot of IOA characters and a little bit from inside the venue pic.twitter.com/8linqLj7hX
Once Islands of Adventure opened to the public, Toon Lagoon Amphitheater was the home of a continual live stage show called Pandemonium Cartoon Circus, which was produced by Tom Geraghty and Scott Helmstedter, with music by Andrew Lippa.
With a traditional ringmaster walking around on stilts, the theater’s entrance was marked with a large neon sign that read “Pandemonium Cartoon Circus” with a few of the show’s characters in addition to another sign displaying the show’s name, show times, and two of its characters: Rocky and Bullwinkle.
A new-to-me image of the Toon Lagoon Amphitheater in 2004 with Pandemonium Cartoon Circus signage four years after the show's closure. pic.twitter.com/7CejXnSOaY— Storybook Amusement (@StorybookAmuse) May 10, 2023
The amphitheater was decorated on the outside and alongside the venue’s bleachers with banners displaying characters from the show. Pandemonium Amphitheater had a large, multi-leveled plaza with a loop of original music specific to the area. The soundtrack had marching band circus songs that followed the same melody of the arrangements from Pandemonium Cartoon Circus.
Inside, the stage had an intricate, toon- and circus-inspired backdrop. It was decorated with large, cartoon character murals on either side. A marquee with the show’s name above the stage completed the venue’s aesthetic. The hand-crafted, colorful, circus-themed set was designed by Bob Harris and Piper Productions and matched the show’s quirkiness. The set was installed shortly before the park opened and touched up authentically to the licensed characters.
Images of Islands of Adventure's former Pandemonium Cartoon Circus are hard to come by, but here are a few shots of the stage!— Storybook Amusement (@StorybookAmuse) May 24, 2021
Image credit: Seamus Liam O'Brien, who worked as an artist on the set. You can find his work here: https://t.co/T8RAo8lkr1
The costumes worn were built by Custom Characters, John David Ridge, and USE Costume Shop. With only a brief time before the park officially opened to the public, the show’s cast had the opportunity to run through rehearsals on their main stage before debuting to park guests. Now having completed some circus training and months of rehearsals, the circus was officially ready to come to Toon. Pandemonium Cartoon Circus premiered on Islands of Adventure’s official opening day, May 28, 1999.
What Was the Show Like?
The show was performed five times per day. It was formatted in a series of circus acts starring the residents of Toon Lagoon. It started with a circus-inspired custodian, similar to that from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, who was cleaning up the venue and entertaining the audience as they filled the bleachers. The custodian would interact with guests, making gags and jokes while a circus overture played.
Over the loudspeakers, Bullwinkle announced that the show was starting soon. The lights flashed and the music swelled to a fanfare as the custodian pulled the curtains back—only, there was another curtain in the way; the custodian sucked up that curtain with their vacuum, revealing the grand circus set with many acts to follow.
The Circus is Coming to Toon
The show was formatted in a series of circus acts staring the residents of Toon Lagoon. It started with a circus-inspired custodian cleaning up the venue and entertaining the audience as they filled the bleachers. They would interact with guests, making gags and jokes while a circus overture played. Over the loudspeakers, Bullwinkle announced that the show was starting soon. The lights flashed and the music swelled to a fanfare as the custodian pulled the curtains back—only, there was another curtain in the way; the custodian sucked up that curtain with their vacuum, revealing the grand circus set.
The custodian set up the first number: The Circus is Coming to Toon, a showtunes-style song led by Popeye and Olive Oyl. The cartoons of Toon Lagoon made their grand entrance. The characters all joined in on the singing and dancing, but their fun would quickly be foiled as villains Boris, Natasha, Snidley Whiplash, and Bluto crashed the circus. They took the stage and sang along with Toon Lagoon’s characters, setting up a magic trick style reveal of Woody Woodpecker and the show’s ringmooster, Bullwinkle, soon accompanied by his assistant, Rocky.
Bury the Hatchet
Rocky and Bullwinkle were met by Boris and Natasha, who had a quote-unquote gift for them that they’d get a bang out of. As Bullwinkle was opening the box, there was a lull—no more sound of sparks. Boris opened the box to check it, and the bomb (and his devious plan) blew up in his face, leaving him dazed as Rocky and Bullwinkle laughed the villains off stage. Natasha left saying, “We’ll be back,” followed by the ringmooster introducing the first act: Dudley Do-Right in Bury the Hatchet.
Dudley Do-Right and Nell Fenwick, now in colorful circus outfits, marched out to a majestic soundtrack, setting up for an axe throwing stunt. After Nell blindfolded Dudley Do-Right, their nemesis Snidely Whiplash captured Nell against Dudley’s knowing and put her on a rotating table. Duped by his foe, Dudley Do-Right was fooled into throwing axes that came within inches of striking Nell, popping the balloons around her. Nell escaped from the rotating table and ran to do a dance routine with the still-blindfolded Dudley, but Snidley Whiplash hindered the act and took Nell hostage to tie her to a railroad track—a plot the show would follow through its end.
At this point, Rocky and Bullwinkle came out with a magic trick gag and announced the next number, a song called Funny Business sung by Toon Lagoon’s characters. At one point during the bit, Natasha deviously leaked helium, and all the singers squeaked with high-pitched voices until Broom-Hilda snapped them out of it.
Once the curtain closed, Snidley Whiplash dragged Nell Fenwick on stage while Dudley Do-Right came to her rescue on a hobby horse, bumping Bullwinkle along the way. The ringmooster, balancing plates on sticks, and Rocky set up Betty Boop’s song: Star Stuck. She balanced on a crescent moon descending from the rafters. In a soigne fashion, she acrobatically swung around while belting out the ballad. Down below, four Bimbo characters climbed lampposts and did gymnastics to accompany her. Bubbles speckled the air, and the elegant song transitioned to Snidley and the captured Nell being chased by Dudley Do-Right.
The Balancing Bumsteads
Again, Rocky and Bullwinkle gave an introduction to the next act: Blondie, Dagwood, Beetle Bailey, and Zero on rollerskates. Boris and Natasha ran out to catch Dagwood, and Boris struck him with a comically large boxing glove mechanism just before the skit ended.
Go, Popeye, Go
Led off by Rocky and Bullwinkle, Olive Oyl performed the next act: a tightrope stunt. The big, bad Bluto appeared on stage to resounding boos from the crowd. Popeye came to the rescue and confronted Bluto on the tightrope. Bluto lit a match and threw it underneath Popeye and the tightrope, causing a fire below , but Olive Oyl came just in time to give him a can of spinach to deliver the knockout punch that sent Bluto plummeting. Popeye rescued Olive Oyl from the flaming tightrope and celebrated to a chorus that sang “go, Popeye, go.”
The Last Laugh
Snidley Whiplash then ran on stage with the damsel in distress, Nell, laying down a railroad track to tie her to. Dudley Do-Right was able to save her from the tracks of the Woody Woodpecker conducted Toon Lagoon Special. In jubilee, the characters sang a song called The Last Laugh. They showcased circus tricks before the curtains opened unveiling the show’s grand finale.
The villains interrupted the performance, bringing an active bomb on the stage. The custodian, making their way to clean up the venue, some how, some way, was able to save the day with their vacuum. The song continued, soon hitting its final note, and the curtains closed on Pandemonium Cartoon Circus. The clumsy custodian, or the hero at this point, came out one last time to thank everyone for coming.
That’s a wrap. Guests had the opportunity after the show to take pictures with the characters.
Watch Pandemonium Cartoon Circus in Its Entirety
Canceled: Why the Circus Packed Up and Left Toon
Islands of Adventure as a whole upon opening in 1999 had an ambitious and auspicious lineup full of thrill-heavy attractions. Pandemonium Cartoon Circus was one of the few attractions tailored for families and guests of all ages; Universal Creative quickly addressed the lack of family-focused offerings in the park and began developing new opportunities for kid-friendly attractions.
Pandemonium Cartoon Circus, however, was not in the park’s future; it already seemed to be on borrowed time. Attendance for the show wasn’t strong, and the park was quick to move on.
The curtains closed on Pandemonium Cartoon Circus for the final time Feb. 29, 2000, only about nine months after first debuting to guests. According to those who worked on it, the show wasn’t planned to be temporary. As with many theme park shows, Pandemonium Cartoon Circus’ success depended on its popularity. Whether the show would continue was based on attendance and guest feedback.
Even at the turn of the new millennium, the show’s characters from days gone by weren’t highly relevant with younger audiences. Considering the family-oriented target demographic, this may have contributed to the show’s demise. The majority of kids at that time were tuned into Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network—not so much vintage comics.
Since its closure, Pandemonium Cartoon Circus hadn’t been seen by the general public in its entirety for over two decades. For the most part, the show was undocumented publicly. Only a few pictures surfaced online, and even fewer video clips. For years, the show was considered lost media in the theme park world.
Thankfully, in 2021, a former team member reached out to Storybook Amusement and was kind enough to get a video of the show fully digitized. The full show is now available to watch online—another chapter in theme park history has been preserved.
Listen to the Full Soundtrack
And Enjoy a Tribute Collaboration Project by 20-Plus Artists
The Amphitheater's Rotating Acts Since
Upon the show’s cancellation, Toon Lagoon Amphitheater was stripped its circus theming and did not receive a full-time replacement. Despite that, the amphitheater remained standing in the park. The venue was insipidly used on occasion for character meet-n-greets, and it was soon after rumored to receive a replacement production: a new X-Men stunt show to complement the nearby Marvel Super Hero Island. That never made its way into the park; instead, the stage would be used on and off for several short-lived shows through the years after losing its signature show.
In summer 2000, Universal debuted a different X-show—no, not that kind. Xtreme Xventure opened in Toon Lagoon Amphitheater. The stage that once had Blondie and Dagwood skating around now hosted an extreme sports stunt show including BMX bikers, in-line skaters, and skateboarders. The show tied loosely back to the Toon Lagoon theme with an appearance by Woody Woodpecker. Xtreme Xventure operated during the park’s peak seasons for 2000 and 2001 but did not return in 2002.
Freakin’ Crazy Stunt Show
Xtreme Xventure was completely revamped, now called Mat Hoffman’s Freakin’ Crazy Stunt Show. This show ran from 2002 to 2004, featuring action sport athletes performing BMX stunts on a large halfpipe.
Temporarily around 2003 while the main venue was being prepared for another production, Universal used the amphitheater’s entrance plaza as a stage for a street show called Toon Lagoon Beach Bash. This got the crowd in on the fun with engaging audience participation segments such as a hula hoop contest, dancing games, and a limbo competition—all to a surf soundtrack from long ago.
In regard to Pandemonium Cartoon Circus, this is probably the most prominent act since its closure. A small stage show called the Toon Party took place outside of the amphitheater in the mid-2000s. It featured a few of the characters from the defunct stage show and used condensed version of Funny Business, a song from Pandemonium Cartoon Circus.
Bill & Ted's
Through the same period of time, the amphitheater hosted a seasonal stage show for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights event. Different versions of Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure spooked and entertained guests every year in the amphitheater from 2002 until 2005.
From late 2006 until summer 2007, the amphitheater was the home studio for a weekday daytime NBC talk show called iVillage Live. The live audience was a combination of theme park guests and those who reserved seats for the show and were admitted through another entrance.
In the mid- to late-2000s, a band called The Outer Toons played on a small stage outside the amphitheater. Occasionally featuring Popeye, the group played timeless cartoon theme songs such as Popeye the Sailor Man, The Simpsons, The Flintsones, and The Jetsons.
The amphitheater got a new circus-inspired tenet in 2010—only this time, more extreme. Mat Hoffman's Aggro Circus was an extreme sports stunt show similar to previous versions, but this added a globe of death and other stunts while the performers wore colorful circus outfits. Operating only during peak seasons, this show lasted from 2010 to 2011.
Toon Lagoon Amphitheater from time to time is used for special events, private events, and other miscellaneous purposes. Take for example the Celebration of Harry Potter event held from 2014 to 2018, The Incredible Hulk Coaster VR preview in summer 2016, and a showing of an Impractical Jokers segment, among other occasions.
As of 2021, the amphitheater is not home to a permanent attraction and hasn’t been since opening in 1999, but Pandemonium Cartoon Circus still has a small presence in the park as seen on small banners outside the venue. One has Woody Woodpecker on it and text that reads, “Woody Woodpecker in Funny Business,” which was one of the songs heard in the now-defunct show. An instrumental version of the song can still be heard in this area of the park.
Other banners commemorate the Pandemonium Cartoon Circus acts from Dudley Do-Right, Boris and Natasha, and Popeye and Olive Oyl, among others. The banners have been in the park since opening in 1999 and are still on display as of 2023.
THE BANNERS AT THE TOON AMPHITHEATER ARE BACK/REFRESHED EVERYBODY CHEER!!!!!!!! LET'S GOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/bMKh1hRGUN— TwistSEJ Origins 🦑 (@TehSEJ101) August 4, 2023
A Funny Legacy
Because the show was not available to watch for years, Pandemonium Cartoon Circus started developing a reputation of being a mistake by the park—a blemish in its history. It was known as a disappointing experience, with many fans making comments like, "It was canceled for a reason," when talking about the show. This reputation grew as time went on. Once it was seen online, Pandemonium Cartoon Circus now has a small-yet-adoring fan base that can't get enough of the show despite its supposed shortcomings and limited run in Islands of Adventure.
Pandemonium Cartoon Circus captured the zany and whimsical style of Toon Lagoon. Though short-lived, the show had its fair share of characteristic humor and art design that added to the area’s comic strip feel. The amphitheater, willingly or not, stands as a reminder of the park’s history, and its future is wide open for potential new attractions. Too bad Universal turned the page on Pandemonium Cartoon Circus—but hey, that’s the funny business for ya.