How Test Screenings Saved ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ (1983) 

Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) PHOTO CREDIT IMDB
Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) PHOTO CREDIT IMDB

By Joshua Hack 

Special to The Signal 

‘I think you’re all f’d in the head. We’re ten hours from the f’in fun park and you want to bail out. Well, I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun … We’re all gonna have so much f’n fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our g*ddamn smiles!’ 

— Clark W. Griswold 

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the release of “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” the iconic comedy directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes. The film introduced audiences to bumbling patriarch Clark W. Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) who embarks with his family on a disastrous cross-country road trip to a California theme park. 

Vacation’s blend of relatable family dysfunction, slapstick comedy, and satirical undercurrents was a hit with audiences. The film opened at number one, became the 10th highest grossing release of the year, and launched a franchise comprising three sequels, one spin-off and a 2015 reboot. 

A key ingredient of the original film’s success and enduring popularity is the Griswolds’ ultimate destination: Walley World, a fictionalized version of Disneyland. 

Indeed. The results of a new National Research Group poll, conducted among 2,000 Vacation viewers, reveal that the family’s final escapades in Walley World top the list of favorite moments from the film. 

Chevy Chase and Anthony Michael Hall at Walley World. PHOTO CREDIT IMDB
Chevy Chase and Anthony Michael Hall at Walley World. PHOTO CREDIT IMDB

But what if I told you that the most memorable part of Vacation almost didn’t make it into the film? It’s true — after screening a preview cut for audiences, the filmmakers were inspired to scrap the last 20 minutes and shoot an entirely new ending which Ramis said “saved the picture in a big way.” 

In this article, we’ll take a look in the rear-view mirror of the Griswold’s Family Truckster to understand the role that audience research played in rethinking the end of the film, and some lessons on how to nail an ending that are still relevant four decades later. 

Back to the beginning. 

Before we can unpack how the film ended, we have to know where it all began. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” started out as a short story called “Vacation ‘58” that John Hughes published in the National Lampoon magazine in 1979. 

In the ending to the short story, the Griswolds arrive at Disneyland only to find it closed for repairs. Clark snaps and drives to a sporting goods store to buy a gun. With the help of a Map to the Stars’ Homes, he tracks down Walt Disney’s mansion in Beverly Hills. 

After hopping the fence, Clark confronts Mr. Disney (“You closed your fantasy park and that was a mistake! You can run or I can blast your ass right here!”) and ultimately shoots Walt’s dog as well as Walt himself. 

The satirical story ends with Clark arrested for attempted murder and the rest of the family on a flight back home to Chicago. 

How did the film originally end? 

Since the original ending has never been released, there’s a lot of misinformation about what exactly transpired and how much it borrowed from the source material. To uncover the truth, I spoke with Dana Barron, who played daughter Audrey in the film and is one of the few people with a copy of the original shooting script. 

According to Barron, in the original ending they filmed, Clark buys a BB gun and goes with the family to the home of Roy Walley (the film’s fictionalized version of Walt Disney). 

Unlike the short story, Clark doesn’t shoot Roy but instead takes him and his executive’s hostage, forcing them to sing and dance for the family to get their taste of “family entertainment, Roy Walley style.” 

When a SWAT team arrives at the mansion to arrest the family, Roy has a change of heart. He realizes that Clark’s done this out of love for his family and agrees to take the Griswolds to Walley World. The film then cuts to the family on a plane headed back home with everyone wearing “moose” hats from the park. In a final unlucky twist, they realize they’re on the wrong flight. 

The test screenings that changed everything. 

The new ending involved a three-day shoot at Six Flags Magic Mountain. PHOTO BY DAN WATSON / THE SIGNAL
The new ending involved a three-day shoot at Six Flags Magic Mountain. PHOTO BY DAN WATSON / THE SIGNAL

According to Ramis, the ending with Clark taking Roy Walley hostage fell flat with test audiences. “The audience was hysterical watching the film in our test market screenings all the way up to that moment, and then they went strangely quiet and did not laugh again for the rest of the picture.” 

Beyond the humor of the final 20 minutes not landing, Ramis realized the film was also underdelivering on a key expectation from audiences. “It occurred to me that they’d now invested about 70-75 minutes on the way to Walley World, and they really expected to get to Walley World and here we were denying them the pay-off to the whole trip.” 

As a result, Ramis asked John Hughes to write a new ending where the family makes it into the park. “We had to end the movie a different way. We don’t have to hijack Roy Walley, we have to hijack Walley World.” 

Adventures in Walley World 

The cast and crew reassembled for three days of reshoots at Six Flags Magic Mountain, with the California theme park standing in for the inside of Walley World. A telltale sign of the new scenes is the sizable growth spurt exhibited by son Rusty. Anthony Michael Hall has said that, by the time they regrouped six months after wrapping production, “Puberty had kicked in, so I’m four inches taller.” 

In the new ending, Clark uses the BB gun to force a security guard (played memorably by John Candy) to let them into the closed park. They make their way across Walley World, enjoying ride after ride, and we get point-of-view shots of multiple thrilling roller coaster experiences. 

A SWAT team eventually arrives, along with Roy Walley, to arrest the family, but the park’s owner has a change of heart after empathizing with Clark’s desire for a perfect vacation. The film ends with the Griswolds (along with Roy and the SWAT team) riding a roller coaster together. 

According to Ramis, when they re-screened the film, the audience response was “through the roof.” Viewers got to vicariously experience Walley World and see the Griswolds finally win after more than 2,000 miles of travel tribulations. They had their new ending. 

Three lessons on how to nail an ending. 

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” is a powerful reminder that an ending can make or break a film. A strong ending can help compensate for a lackluster beginning or middle, while–as was the case with Vacation–a weak ending in a strong film can retroactively undermine the rest of the experience for viewers. 

Six Flags welcomes thrill seekers as they anticipate its opening for the day. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Six Flags welcomes thrill seekers as they anticipate its opening for the day. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

Audience expectations can differ for an adaptation. What works well as an ending in one medium (a short story, book, video game, graphic novel, etc.) may not have the same effect when adapted into a film or series. Don’t be surprised if audiences need an adaptation to deliver a somewhat different flavor of resolution than the source material. 

An ending shouldn’t necessarily give viewers exactly what they want, but it should provide the satisfaction that comes from delivering on the promise made at the beginning of the film. In the case of Vacation, this meant getting to experience the joys of Walley World. 

Carefully monitor the tone. Comedies need consistent laughs all the way up to the end and Vacation’s filmmakers went to great lengths to course correct on the amount of humor in the film, including paying John Candy $1 million for three days of work on the new ending. 

However, the success of the new conclusion did not come from simply delivering a “happy” or “funny” ending. Ramis and Hughes were careful to retain the edgy style of humor that permeated the rest of the film. Yes, the Griswolds make it to Walley World, but it’s at gunpoint and Clark ends up shooting Candy’s character in the backside with a BB gun. The filmmakers listened to audience feedback while still ensuring tonal consistency with what came before. 

Leave the audience exhilarated. The exact type of exhilaration will vary by genre but, for a broad comedy like Vacation, it was crucial to end on a fun and upbeat note. For Hughes, it was important that his films delivered a positive resolution, even when this wasn’t always true to life. His subsequent works were sometimes criticized for their sentimental endings, but Hughes was always adamant that this was by design. “There’s no way I’m ever going to end a movie on a negative note.” 

As for Dana Barron, she’s “glad that people walked away feeling rejuvenated” by the new ending. It’s that feeling that has undoubtedly contributed to the film’s longevity and legacy. 

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