National Lampoon's Vacation was the 11th highest-grossing movie of 1983, earning $61.3 million at the North American box office. Aside from being a major success for former Saturday Night Live star Chevy Chase, it spawned four sequels. National Lampoon's European Vacation followed in 1985, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation in 1989, Vegas Vacation (without the Lampoon's affiliation) in 1997, and the back-to-basics reboot Vacation in 2015.
In each movie, family man Clark Griswold (or his grown-up son Rusty in the reboot) tries to give his clan a perfect, memorable vacation, only to have a series of comic complications foil his efforts. The humor comes from his increasing desperation when things inevitably go wrong. Though the movies are light-hearted comedies, their productions often reflected the series' core concept. Tons of problems sprang up and needed fixing. Cast and crew members found themselves feeling like real-life Clark Griswolds as they struggled to give audiences something special and unforgettable in the midst of chaos.
A peek behind the scenes of the Vacation movies reveals the many challenges that went into making them. These tales involve bad behavior, logistical nightmares, intense fears, and of course, crazy Chevy Chase stories. So gas up the Family Truckster and get ready for a wild ride.
Amy Heckerling - the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and later, Clueless - signed on to direct National Lampoon's European Vacation after original director Harold Ramis opted out of the sequel. Her experience making the movie was not entirely happy, as she and the film's star didn't see eye-to-eye during the production. She told Flavorwire that working with Chevy Chase “was not a marriage made in heaven.”
In fact, Heckerling apparently disliked Chase so much she was ready to bolt from the set at any moment. “I couldn’t go on the set unless I knew I had in my hand a physical ticket to New York so that I could just go at any time,” the director said. “I had to hold it in my hand, so I knew that I had a way out.”
When it came time to test National Lampoon's Vacation, preview audiences went wild. The only thing they didn't like was the ending, which they overwhelmingly hated. The original conclusion featured the Griswolds storming Roy Walley's home after discovering Walley World is closed, then forcing him to entertain them by singing and dancing.
Because of the poor reaction, a new ending was shot four months after formal production wrapped. The update, which finds Clark compelling a security guard to let his family ride the rides at gunpoint, went over much better with audiences.
Interestingly, Vacation's original ending was re-purposed for Christmas Vacation, where Cousin Eddie kidnaps Clark's boss and drags him to the Griswold home.
In National Lampoon's Vacation, the Griswold family travels from suburban Chicago to the fictional Walley World theme park in California. To make the movie, the cast and crew went on a grueling real-life road trip not dissimilar from the one the fictional family takes.
The bonus features on the special edition Blu-ray reveal that to get the necessary footage, the production traveled hundreds of miles, stopping to film in six different states. Aside from the Illinois and California locations, they shot at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where the Griswolds pause to briefly sight-see, and St. Louis, Missouri, where the Family Truckster passes the famous Gateway Arch.
Colorado and Monument Valley, UT, also provided locations for the exhausting summer-long trek. To combat the heat in desert locations, gigantic air conditioners helped keep the car cool for the actors.
While the rest of the family goes on to so many continued adventures, Dinky the dog doesn't make it through the first Vacation. Clark inadvertently leaves Aunt Edna's pooch tied to the car, leading to little more than a slap on the wrist from a cop over animal cruelty. The grim turn of events was inspired by urban legends of real life canine road trip mishaps, but according to director Harold Ramis, life very nearly imitated art.
In a 1983 Late Night With David Letterman interview, Ramis revealed that, while production was based in a Durango, Colorado hotel, "Sure enough, someone saw a station wagon pulling out of the Holiday Inn with a dog tied to the bumper," he said. "It was definitely a confirmed sighting." And don't worry, because the filmmaker assured everyone, "They saved that one."