The case of the missing dragon

From the start, this dragon never seemed quite ready for prime time.

When Disneyland’s updated version of the Fantasmic show debuted in June of last year, it had to do so minus Maleficent, the mighty fire-breather from “Sleeping Beauty” that was supposed to be the star of the show.

At the time, rumors flew across the Web that Maleficent had been unable to make the debut because the dragon’s head had fallen off during rehearsal. Disney officials refused to confirm anything more than that there had been some mechanical trouble.

The 45-foot-tall, 18,000-pound dragon with glowing eyes finally debuted three months late, rising from the bank of Tom Sawyer’s Island and into the night sky last September.

But on Monday, Disney officials confirmed that the dragon was down for the count again, this time indefinitely. They described the ailment as some kind of “technical” problem during Saturday’s show.

Fans were a bit more precise. The beast had collapsed during the show, they reported on, a fan website. Or as one observer suggested, Maleficent pulled a “face plant.”

Photographer Rich Martin of Trabuco Canyon was visiting Disneyland with his wife and daughters Saturday night when he happened on the already ailing dragon, its neck slumped, its fire-breathing jaw slackened, its body sinking low.

It appeared to Martin that the image-conscious employees at the Happiest Place on Earth were attempting to obscure the creature by running the show’s massive water fountains. Nonetheless, he said, he managed to snap a picture that quickly made its way onto the Internet, where disappointed fans mourned the mythic beast, dubbed “Murphy” or “the reluctant dragon” by Disney faithful.

Even before its official debut last year, the elaborate dragon attracted a devoted following, said Al Lutz, editor of A few fans kept a “dragon watch” to track the creature’s troubles and triumphs while waiting patiently for the moment when it would emerge from its pit.

“People are just fascinated by this,” Lutz said. “It’s quite an elaborate piece of technology.... The effect is kind of cool when it works.

“But it’s never really been up to 100%,” he said.

Disney representatives had little to say about the incident, save to confirm a leave of absence for Maleficent.

“The dragon in Fantasmic experienced a technical issue last Saturday night,” wrote Disney spokeswoman Betsy Sanchez. “We are working to fix the problem. At this time we are not able to determine when the dragon will reappear in the show.”