Soap opera fans are a singular bunch, willing to devote hours each week to endless, churning, patently unbelievable (yet totally gripping) tales of romance, adultery, murder, and skullduggery, often set in improbably glamorous Midwestern towns. The enjoyment of soap operas comes come from a kind of twist on the alienation effect--nobody in the audience really believes in these stories, with heroines who have been married ten times or more, multiple outbreaks of amnesia, good and evil twins, and other strange phenomena, yet once you're hooked, you don't want to miss an episode, if only to see what outlandish thing is going to happen next.

ABC Soap Opera Bistro, the new restaurant at Disney's California Adventure, capitalizes on this aspect of the soaps' mystique, to create a dining experience that gives guests the thrill of a close-up view of the world of daytime drama, while simultaneously spoofing the excesses of life in Port Charles and Llanview. (To read more about Disney's California Adventure, check out the May issue of Entertainment Design).

In ABC Soap Opera Bistro, guests enter a building designed to resemble the original ABC studio in Los Angeles. Inside, each room is themed to resemble the set of a different ABC soap opera. Restaurants don't come any campier than this and, even though Disney owns ABC, one wonders how eager network executives may have been to publicly spoof their afternoon program lineup. Interestingly, Neil Engel, the WDI production designer who headed the project says, "Working with ABC was like a dream come true. We did sketches and a model of the restaurant, then went to New York to see Angela Shapiro, then the marketing VP and now president of ABC's daytime division. We had no idea what to expect. We made the pitch and showed her the model, and she said, 'Where have you guys been? I've been waiting years to do this.' Overnight, we had the kind of cooperation that designers only dream of."

Engel and his team spent time in both New York, on the sets of One Life to Live and All My Children, and Los Angeles where General Hospital and Port Charles are shot. Finding the right sketches and technical drawings was not easy, he says, because most of the soaps have been running for decades. "Some of that scenery has been around for a long time and it's hard to find documentation for it," he says. Also, he worried about becoming a nuisance: "We couldn't take up too much of their time--they shoot six hours a day."

But thanks to the spirit of cooperation, the settings of various soaps have been recreated in remarkable detail. Guests enter the space through a lobby area called Soaplink, designed to look, says Engel, like "a miniscule version of ABC Studio headquarters New York." Here visitors can purchase various soap opera souvenirs and check out updates on their favorite shows via the Internet. The room is dominated by a 3 x 3 Electrosonic video wall, powered by a four-channel computer-controlled hard-drive system; the wall projects ongoing loops of scenes from the soaps, showing furious embraces, tender weddings, divas engaged in catfights, and other typical occurrences.

The basic conceit of ABC Soap Opera Bistro is that one is dining right on the set of a soap opera. The rooms are designed to look like sets, with wall treatments that go only so high, and realistic-looking studio lighting hanging just above one's view. The close juxtaposition of sets allows one to see several other locations from any vantage point. "It's supposed to look like sets that are smashed up against each other in a real soundstage," says Engel. Even the members of the waitstaff are themed, as hopeful actors auditioning for minor roles on the soaps, as, say, cops or wedding guests; dinner is occasionally interrupted as cast members in appropriate costumes (say doctor and nurse uniforms) take part in scenes of soap-style conflict.

The rooms in ABC Soap Opera Bistro include:

The Nurses Station, from General Hospital. This is the most utilitarian location. At first glance, it looks like a diner, then you look above the circular dining area and see backlit X-rays placed on the soffit. "We wanted to cap off each set with a ceiling treatment," says Engel. "The Nurses Station was an interesting one, because it's the most far removed from a dining facility."

The Chandler Mansion, from All My Children. This is a suitably grand living room space, dominated by a giant portrait of Adam Chandler, the show's long-running villain. There is also a huge Christmas tree. "It's always Christmas in there," says Engel. "Each set is tied to a season of the year. We put in many details; look at the Bombe chest near the window--there are photos of all the Chandlers. I painted the big portrait of Adam from a photograph, using a computer program. We took the holiday decorations from Christmas slides of the set taken years ago." Other details include two Versailles-sized chandeliers, two stairways, Oriental rugs, and faux-marble wall treatments.

The Wharf of Port Charles, from the soap of the same name. "The wharf is divided into two sections," says Engel. "There's the exterior of Kellys," a popular Port Charles hangout. "That leads into the wharf area," whose dominant feature is a Dayglo mural showing the local riverfront. "It's perpetual nighttime on this set. The wharf is designed to look romantic," says the designer, "but it gets darker and seedier at the other end. We built a silver service station that looks like a Sanitation Dept. dumpster. It says, 'Port Charles Sanitation. Dial 1-800-RUTRASH.' That was a challenge for the Foods Division at Disney, but they finally saw the humor in it."

The Port Charles wharf mural demonstrates the challenges of research for this project. "Matt Jacobs, the art director of Port Charles, said it came from Pacific Studios," says Engel. "I asked them for the negative, but they said, 'That old thing? We don't have that.'" Jacobs finally found the image in an old catalogue, and Xeroxed it. It was a daytime scene; Engel painted a nighttime version, blew it up, and hired professional painters to create it for the restaurant.

Kelly's--which Engel calls "the Irish dining hall of Port Charles--is a typical waterfront bar-restaurant, with rough-hewn wooden furniture, brickwork and embossed tin walls. "Again, we worked off of original photos of the set," says the designer, who adds that the windows don't have glass in them, to accommodate DPs who might want to shoot from outside. "It's a window, but it's a TV window," he adds.

Luke's Bar, from General Hospital. (Luke is, of course, half of the notorious Luke and Laura that have been part of GH for two decades)."This is the House of Blues look," says Engel of the interior, with its deep red-orange interior, in which the walls and bar have been painted with in a faux-naïve style. Actually, "bordello look," might be more appropriate, especially with the hanging lamps above the bar, which have pieces of colored glass hanging from the edge of each lampshade. Engel, a confirmed General Hospital fan, notes that he added little details from the soaps to thrill the fans: "We even put the shoe that Luke got at the Nurses' Ball over the pediment of the bar." The bar has no stools, because of ADA restrictions: "We couldn't have them, because it's a single-level bar. In every case, we tried be consistent [with the real soap opera set] but still keep it fun for everybody. We didn't want to provide specialized areas that not everyone could enjoy."

Llanview Country Club Exterior, One Life to Live. This is probably the nuttiest set in the restaurant, dominated by a gazebo dressed with flowers, garland, and twinkle lights for a springtime wedding. "It's constantly springtime. It's for Vicki [the soap's much-married heroine], who just got married to Ben Davidson, who's related to the Buchanans--but I don't think he knows that yet," says Engel, who clearly has spent a lot of time with these soaps.

The Stables, One Life to Live. "It's the stables where the Buchanans keep their horses," says Engel. "There are all sorts of tchotchkes here. Vicki was married to Asa Buchanan, and there are trophies from her past. There's a little loving cup, engraved, 'To Victoria Lord Riley Burke Carpenter Buchanan Buchanan." The primary interior outfitter for the restaurant's interiors was Daystar Industries; Walt Disney Imagineering provided the faux and antique finishes, as well as set decoration.

In keeping with the studio look of the restaurant, Michael Valentino, principal show lighting designer for the park, the choice was "to use a wide variety of fixtures in the studio style--6" fresnels, 8" fresnels, softlights, scoops, coda, and some theatre-style fixtures, such as ellipsoidals. Our big goal was to make each scene different; each is its own little world." (The lineup of products included includes Altman, Strand, ETC, LTM, and Colortran). In addition, Valentino's staff worked with designers from the themed lighting division to create decorative fixtures that fit in with each scene.

For example, the Nurses' Station is primarily lit with arc fixtures, with peppers and fresnels shooting through the grating built into the set. In other rooms, color is used to set the mood; on the Port Charles wharf blacklight used for the scenic drop, and ripple effects create the waterfront feeling. In the Llanview Country Club Exterior, a variety of arboreal patterns are used to set outdoor nuptial mood.

The building's exterior was a particular challenge, says Valentino. "At Disney we pack a lot of design into small areas. Out front, we wanted to band multiple layers of neon, lighted glass brick, and a big reader board out, to create high-impact graphics, all in a building that looks like the original ABC studio building." Colors had to be carefully chosen to stand out on the Hollywood Backlot street; for example, ABC Soap Opera Bistro is placed directly across from the hot dog stand Award-Winning Wieners, which features a façade with red and yellow neon. Thus, Valentino adds, "On the base of the two soffits is a blue band of neon. The glass brick at the top and bottom is glowing. It's a very rich look." All neon lighting was created for the venue by Architectural Cathode Lighting, with color filters (inside and out) developed by Special FX Lighting. Lighting for the restaurant is controlled through a node connection to the parkwide lighting system, developed by ETC.

ABC Soap Opera Bistro is a very tightly packed space, but Engel says, "We wanted that crazy contrast" between the various rooms. "That's how soundstages are set up," he adds," and we thought people would enjoy the contrast. Even if someone knows nothing about the soaps gets dragged in there, he or she can still have the best time."

Photo credit: Gary Krueger.