Widen Your World is now active primarily on YouTube and Facebook
Below you can find information on topics, mostly focused on a 1969 - 1996 date range, arranged in the following order:
WDW Planning & Construction
The Magic Kingdom
WDW Hotels and Other Accommodations
Lake Buena Vista
Back to Disneyland
PREFACE / INTRODUCTION / WARNING
This site is basically decades worth of scattered paragraphs about early WDW - absolute facts, impolite opinions and speculative junk written at different times by someone who grew up with the resort in the 1970s, worked there in the 1980s and documented a lot of it in the 1990s. It's not well-suited for reading as a single piece, although of course you're at liberty to read it or not read it any way you like, and it only covers specific aspects of its subject matter (especially the weirder stuff, like dark rides and magic shops).
There are two basic premises behind this site:
1) From 1971 to 1996, this place that Walt Disney Productions built in the middle of Florida was the most amazing manmade attraction on the planet - the greatest amount of cool stuff in one physical place with the least amount of mediocrity mixed in.
2) Early WDW still doesn't get enough love from the company that spawned it, primarily because so many of the people who could provide the extra affection are on the opposite side of the country and simply don't know what early WDW actually felt like to guests who experienced it (any more than someone who grew up with WDW could truly understand how special Disneyland is without actually visiting Anaheim). Widen Your World is an attempt to communicate what that early WDW feeling was for visitors and cast members, and to provide context for those who wish they could have seen it firsthand.
Additionally, Widen Your World is the oldest website about Walt Disney World history and it has also been the most plagiarized site on that topic. Sometimes WYW is credited as a source when used, sometimes not, but if you read the same words here and some other place, they're from here.
The story of Walt Disney World mostly begins with Walt Disney and Disneyland, the theme park which he built in Anaheim California and opened on July 17th, 1955 opening. It was a big hit, capturing the imagination of the entire world, defining what it meant to be a theme park, revolutionizing the concept of rides, elevating customer service, creating a new set of cast member (employee) standards from the ground up and much more. It's still growing today and, as Disney himself said, will never be completed. I'm not recapping Disneyland's history because the world doesn't need more accounts of something so well-documented from someone who wasn't even alive when the place opened, but a few of my favorite pre-WDW-era Disneyland images are posted here, and a separate section for general Disneyland stuff will be added to this page later on. As for the earliest segments of WDW history, such as the Florida land purchases and the formation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, there have been entire books that cover this in great detail. So I'm sketching through the basics below on my way to my real areas of focus, but recommend via the bibliography near the bottom of this page certain titles that expand upon those pre-1971 topics.
Because of how great a success Disneyland became in just a few years, Walt Disney soon began thinking about the prospects for other physical entertainment environments in other places. In 1958, he hired Harrison "Buzz" Price's Economic Research Associates to begin evaluating locations for another Disney project in the eastern United States. Disney put substantial time and effort into a mid-1960s plan for a park in St. Louis called Riverfront Square, but before and during that time he was looking at Florida as a likely location for his next venture. He commissioned two additional reports in 1959 and another in 1961, the result of which was that Ocala would be the ideal site, with Orlando coming in second. After yet another report in 1963 elevated Orlando to the top of the locations, and immediately following a meeting in St. Louis where Walt was verbally insulted by the head of Anheuser-Busch over Disney's refusal to consider the sale of alcohol at Riverfront Square, Walt flew over Central Florida that November and set the wheels in motion for what would becomes Walt Disney World. At the same time, Walt and his WED Enterprises design team were hard at work on four new attractions for the 1964-1965 World's Fair in New York City, which would have a substantial impact on much of what ultimately was planned for, and transpired in, Florida.
By mid-1964, the exact location and plots of land that Disney would purchase (using fake company names and operatives with CIA and/or extensive legal backgrounds, chief among them William Donovan, Paul Helliwell and Phil Smith) had been decided upon, with the center of the site being about 15 miles southwest of Orlando. Three major parcels for the site were tied down by August and a year later there were less than 300 acres left to secure out of the final count of 27,443. Orlando had been a quiet citrus and cattle town for most of its history, with some tourism activity related to its location through which people headed south toward Miami, southwest toward Cypress Gardens, northwest toward Silver Springs or, at its own doorstep, Gatorland. But now it was ablaze with rumors regarding who was purchasing all that property. The names and theories thrown out for consideration ranged from the Hercules Powder Company, Ford Motor Company and Boeing. Why so much land, and why the secrecy? The guessing game was intense and often zany, with Orlando Sentinel columnist Charlie Wadsworth hot on the trail of any lead or source that might reveal the identity of his "mystery industry." Disney did make the list of potential buyers in the mix, but was not a prime suspect. Not until Emily Bavar got involved.
Paul Helliwell (1915-1976) was a US Colonel, OSS Officer, CIA Operative and Miami Attorney who helped Walt Disney Productions negotitate with Florida property owners in order to secure parcels for Walt Disney World when the company's identity was still being kept secret from the public and all but a handful of businesspeople, namely those involved with the land acquisitions. Prior to assisting Disney Helliwell had been instrumental in setting up offshore banks and shell companies to help the CIA with various projects deemed by his employers to be in the interest of national security. For Helliwell this also meant dealing with organized crime figures and foreign operatives that could advance US programs without an appearance of having been underwritten by the US government. His experience was key in Disney's secret land purchase operation and also the principles behind WDP setting up its own municipalities within the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
On October 17th, 1965, Bavar, an Orlando Sentinel reporter, printed her firm belief that Walt Disney Productions had purchased the land. She and other reporters from across the country had been invited to visit Disneyland on the occasion of that park's tenth anniversary. During a Q&A session with Walt, she asked if he was behind the Florida land purchases. She said he was shocked by the question and that his answer belied a detailed knowledge of the region's details such as annual rainfall and tourist visitation even as he told her Central Florida was not the kind of place he'd want to locate an attraction. Bavar, referring back to Walt's response years later, said "he wasn't a very good liar." Although few took her story seriously at first glance, within a couple days her editors decided to make her educated guess a front page headline. On October 24th, Florida Governor Haydon Burns confirmed in a public announcement that he'd received official word from Walt Disney: his company was in fact the owner of 43 square miles of land near Orlando.
Walt Disney might have chosen Central Florida not entirely as the result of research and intuition, but also out of a bit of sentimentality. His parents, Flora and Elias, had been married in Kismet, Florida in 1888. Kismet no longer exists but was located in north Lake County, in the Paisley area. Although their parents moved to Chicago before Walt and his brother Roy were born (respectively in 1901 and 1893), both sons visited relatives just north of Orlando periodically... decades before Disneyland itself was even built.
As far as history has recorded, however, the first and only time that Walt Disney actually set foot in the city of Orlando was November 16, 1965, when he, Roy and Burns held a press conference in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Plaza Hotel on the western shore of Lake Eola. While it seems from the standpoint of revelations that Walt and Roy hadn't expected to be attending this type of event at such an early date in the project's lifespan, Walt did make mention of plans to equal or top the amount of investment that he had made in California. But he also stressed that he had too many possible ideas for what might materialize in Florida for him to list them off, and that all of the prospects were preliminary. Between Governor Burns and the reporters, you can see in videos of the event that everyone just wanted to hear Walt say he was going to build another Disneyland (something they could wrap their heads around in terms of scope, size and concept), but Walt didn't cave to the pressure. No concept art was presented at the time and the best verbal indicator for what the thousands of interested parties could hope to see Walt Disney Productions develop in Florida was a unique, family attraction that might include a model community.
Try to imagine being the governor of Florida when all of this was happening and, immediately afterward, when the announcement has passed and Walt has returned to California to begin the long process of assigning form to what he will build in Florida, when all the heated speculation as to the owner of the land has concluded and when your entire state is recovering from the biggest announcement to be made there since the advent of television. And now, time for peaceful reflection? Nope, because now you're being deluged with all sorts of inquiries about every single possible aspect of Disney coming to Florida from every conceivable governmental or business interest from all corners of the state, wanting connections, influence, assurances or special insights when you are in fact in possession of not much more information on Walt Disney's plans than the average reporter was during that press conference. Inquiries ranging from the mundane to the borderline insane. That probably sucked. Anyway, among the images here you'll find some correspondence that speaks to exactly what Governor Burns was contending with during that time period (the one about legalized bullfights is a gem).
Meanwhile, Walt Disney, fresh off A) giving the world a consciously vague introduction to the biggest and most expensive project his company has ever planned to tackle and B) the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair... for which he had produced four original shows... coming to a close, had a lot on his mind regarding what would come next.
Of course there were ideas Walt had for Florida by November 1965 that he just wasn't ready to share with anyone outside his organization. Plenty of concepts that he had overseen for the development of not only Disneyland and the World's Fair, but also Riverboat Square in St. Louis and a proposed Mineral King ski resort in Sequoia Valley, California provided him with more than enough content to build two entire theme parks if he so desired without the need for a single "new" proposal. He had already made mention, however, in the Orlando press conference how his team was incredibly capable of coming up with concepts and executing them quickly (he cited It's A Small World, designed for Pepsi-Cola's and UNICEF's World's Fair presence, as an example of something that went from "gag sessions" to opening for the public in a mere eleven months). Some of the concepts that former Disney animator Marc Davis devised, in his then-recent reassignment to the position of Imagineer with WED Enterprises (Walt's self-acronymical theme park design firm), for Mineral King and Riverboat Square would find themselves marked for Florida quickly, primarily a musical show with animatronic bears and a Lewis & Clark Expedition boat ride. Walt really liked both concepts and had other Florida-specific elements in mind which he had his creative team working on full tilt.
As a practical matter, Walt had clear notions about creating a self-contained destination resort that existed apart from everything around it but would be served by major highways already in existence. One of the reasons he wanted 40 square miles was to ensure that when his guests were on Disney property, their eyes and ears would not be distracted by the sights and sounds of the outside world as they were for guests of Disneyland in Anaheim... where the freeways and billboards and high-rise hotels encroached upon the borders of his kingdom and worked against the illusory qualities inherent to the park's appeal. In Florida this would be entirely avoidable and every component of the project would complement the others. "Twice the size as the island of Manhattan," in Walt's words, and all of it to be orchestrated in full-scale harmony. There would be a theme park comparable to Disneyland, without question. It would contain attractions familiar to Disneyland guests and also some unique to Florida. Themed resorts connected to the park and other features of the resort by Alweg Monorail, Peoplemover lines or boat, golf courses, artificial waterways adjoining Bay Lake (with more islands within them), water activities such as swimming, skiing, nightly cruises and a "swamp ride." An industrial park, an entrance complex and day guest parking area, and an airport.
The number of things his company could do to entertain people was essentially limitless with that much acreage in their hands. Walt, however, was thinking about something much bigger than rides, hotels or even theme parks for his land. He was thinking about a city. By the way, this is the segueway to the section about EPCOT (the city).
Almost everyone who's familiar with Walt Disney World has heard about EPCOT (in all caps), as opposed to Epcot, the modern day theme park (which opened in 1982 with the name EPCOT Center), and that the acronym stood for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, Walt Disney's name for a futuristic city he wanted to build in Florida. But very few people know exactly why Walt Disney spent the last two years of his life increasingly focused on plans for a city, or how he caught that bug so feverishly so late in the game. I don't know either. I THINK I do, though, so this is where I restate my personal theory that the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, where Walt spent so much time, caused him to take a hard left turn from designing things with city-like aspects to them, like a studio campus or a theme park, to actually wanting to build a very specific type of city. More pointedly, I think when Walt Disney first rode General Motors' Futurama II at the fair in 1964, he stepped off the ride a changed man - inspired and on fire. His organization had put together four dynamic presentations for the Fair but had not really tackled the subject of the future there (beyond postscripts), and the future was something of immense interest to him. And here he saw it done by another company in a dramatic style that he himself might have used: bright, bold, colorful and underscored with a sweeping soundtrack. Even though he had visited Florida with John D. MacArthur to look at land for a possible joint venture that might include a model community, no specific plans were put together for what that might be. And even though the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland was about to undergo some major upgrades back in California, none of them were as amazing in scope as that General Motors show. That GM pavilion was the only World's Fair show, incidentally, to be more popular than Disney's four shows. It's weird to me that no one has even suggested this link in a book or published article (at least not before I first posted it on Widen Your World in 2014), because if you read Steve Mannheim's Walt Disney and the Quest for Community (2002), which is as detailed a work as you're going to find on Walt's urban intentions, you'll learn that Imagineer Richard Irvine remarked upon the strong impact Walt Disney felt the original (1939) Futurama exhibit had on the public. And here, decades later, Futurama's sequel ends with an extravagantly detailed, animated and fully lit model of a future metropolis, to which the Progress City model that Walt has his team building in 1966 (Progress City would become the post-show for the relocated Carousel of Progress that would open at Disneyland in 1967) bears so much resemblance that one could not rationally think of it as coincidental. Especially given that there is no actual record of Walt expressing any concrete desire to build a city with specific parameters, or even a scale model of a city, prior to the 1964 World's Fair. In fact, the one book on city planning that Walt's colleagues and his daughter Diane said he carried with him was Victor Gruen's The Heart Of Our Cities, which was published in 1964. Imagineer John Hench stated in Mannheim's book that Walt had been following Gruen's work for years, but there's no practical evidence of that sparking any drawings, plans or models. So I'm always going to believe that the primary credit for what Walt did next (and for his doing it in high gear) is due to Futurama II, because it is the most conspicuous missing link between the well-documented ends of a chain.
General Motors' Futurama II would also have a tremendous impact on a few rides that Walt Disney Productions created for EPCOT Center in 1982 and 1983. This influence, which could be conflated with plagiarism in some cases, was most obviously on display in one of my personal favorites, General Electric's Horizons (1983-1999). The specific links are discussed in more detail under the Horizons and Spaceship Earth headings.
It's fundamental to this matter, however, that Walt Disney is acknowledged not just for going beyond plans for a model community and then launching into the process of actually making such a city come into existence (as far as he could take it personally), but also for demonstrating throughout his life the kind of drive and passion for experimentation and risk-taking that is essential to human progress. And it was definitely a risk for him to stake his reputation on something that unprecedented after 40 years of defining and refining family entertainment... for him to mark EPCOT as the centerpiece of his entire Florida vision, which itself he must have known was going to be his final major project. At the time of its construction, Phase One of Walt Disney World was built around the notion of EPCOT rising up in the middle of the property a few years later. Of course, it didn't happen the way the company originally mapped it out. The dichotomous theme park that appropriated the EPCOT acronym in 1982 shared very few physical or conceptual qualities with the idea after which it was named and whose space on the property map it ended up occupying. And the explanations given for this over the years have been as varied as the range of rough drafts that broke EPCOT down into a bankable enterprise instead of the more far-reaching gamble originally envisioned by the "world's master showman."
Disney had been involved in matters of space planning, crowd flow and infrastructure for decades leading into the 1960s. The Disney Studios, the CarolWood Pacific Railroad, Disneyland and CalArts were some obvious examples where his hand could be seen in the development of real-life environments which would be inhabited, whether for a few hours or a full career, by real-world people. If you look at where Walt's attentions were in terms of his early 1960s project workload, he was literally into a little bit of everything (animated films, bobsled rides, live-action musicals, submarines, treehouses and World's Fair attractions - nearly all of which have become iconic). Even after the World's Fair and the November 1965 Florida press conference, he was involved in the development of many future attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, as well as films like The Jungle Book and The Happiest Millionaire. His top project, though, was given special attention and treatment. Walt had a group designers at the studio working on virtually nothing but the utopian guts of his Florida Project, to plan the conversion of WED artist Herb Ryman's paintings from canvas to blueprints to steel.
EPCOT's signature visual feature was its 30-story hotel structure placed in the dead center of the city's elliptical layout. This spatial configuration, a.k.a. "the radial plan," was basically an extension of the hub principle employed to success at Disneyland and was closely related to Victor Gruen's "cellular metropolis of tomorrow" and, according to a couple articles I've read, something called the "garden city" by a guy named Ebenezer Howard (you can look into that further if you want to) - a circular city with businesses and community gathering spots positioned with increased density toward the central point. Everything would radiate out from there like spokes on a wheel. Office buildings, convention centers, the hotel and recreational spaces would sit atop the city center's roof. Underneath that roof, completely enclosed and climate-controlled, were the transportation center, office space, storefronts and an international shopping area. Along the perimeter of this core would sit high-density apartment buildings, home to some of the city's workers. Just beyond these structures would be an expansive green belt where community buildings, schools, churches, sports and recreational complexes for EPCOT's residents would be located. Further out, surrounding the entire development, would lie the low-density neighborhood areas. Here houses would back up against broad parks where children could play safely, free from traffic.
The purpose of this city, in Walt's words, was to "build a living showcase that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world." It was designed for a population of 20,000 who would live, work, learn and play primarily within EPCOT or other parts of Walt Disney World. And the entire complex would be charged with the daunting task of continually forecasting American urban and home life 25 years into the future. American industries would be constantly updating the technologies in both the commercial buildings and the homes, and those industries would be heavily relied upon as financial partners in the venture.
EPCOT's transportation system would consist largely of two technologies that Disney had already been using or developing at the time: the monorail and the peoplemover. The monorail would run straight through the center of the city with a station directly below the hotel. In this "transportation lobby," there would be connecting service to all parts of the community via the peoplemover. This system would radiate from the central lobby on separate tracks to the outer points of the low-density residential areas, with intermittent stations (vs. stops, for the peoplemover never stops). It was projected that residents would only need their cars for making long trips, not for commuting or shopping. While EPCOT contained plenty of roadways, they were all set up to flow effortlessly in counter-clockwise circles, both large and small, as a result of master-planning. Industrial automotive vehicles would be relegated to streets and parking spaces below the center of the city to keep things practical and looking pretty. It was even predicted that "nowhere in Disney World will a signal light ever slow the constant flow of traffic." What fun would predictions be if they all came true?
As mentioned above, EPCOT was to be the key component of Walt Disney World, the crucial stop on an almost six-mile long stretch of monorail beam that would also visit the theme park area, a 1,000-acre industrial park and a massive entrance complex which in turn connected with a "Jet Airport of the Future." This was Walt Disney World as envisioned by its namesake. This was the plan he sketched out himself and supervised as it was taken further toward a master plan. But it was only about a year after he made the first announcement that Walt died, on December 15, 1966. This was the beginning of the end for the EPCOT and the "Florida Project" as he saw it.
Yet the public knew little about just how he saw it until February 2, 1967. This was when a film he made about EPCOT the previous October was first seen by anyone outside Walt Disney Productions. It premiered at the Park East Theater in Winter Park, FL, where it was screened for Florida business and government figures. It served as a fantastic pitch, something to not only confirm that the company would move ahead with Walt Disney World and whet the appetites of potential corporate sponsors, but to also pave the way for the Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation that the company would successfully seek to have passed later that year in Tallahassee. This legislation gave the company extensive governmental controls over its Florida property. The film served another purpose that the company would find less desirable in the long run: it cemented certain concepts in the public's collective consciousness, one of which was the image of EPCOT, this beautiful city Walt had obsessed over and that was not outlined in as vague a set of terms as some in the company would suggest about twelve years later.
In late 1967, a massive model of EPCOT debuted as the finale for Disneyland's Carousel of Progress. The Carousel of Progress was brought to Disneyland for the "whole new" Tomorrowland after a two-year run at the World's Fair. The model, pictured above and below, was called Progress City during its Disneyland years. When the Carousel of Progress was shipped to Walt Disney World for a 1975 opening, a section of the model came to Florida as well. It was installed as a part of the WEDway Peoplemover and as of 2017 could still be seen today by guests riding the attraction.
After the updated Carousel Of Progress and several other new attractions were unveiled at Disneyland in 1967, the primary concern at WED (the company's design & engineering arm) was master-planning the first phase of Walt Disney World. This would consist of a Disneyland-type theme park, several resort hotels, a wide array of recreational options, a transportation system linking all of those together and a support infrastructure that would service the same areas. Phase One's five-year development plan would provide the foundation upon which the company would build the remainder of the "Florida Project." As late as 1969, what would come behind beyond Phase One was still projected in basic accordance with Walt's outline. But it was off in the distance and nothing had been done to further define the plans or set any timetables. By 1970, with the opening of Walt Disney World just ahead, EPCOT, the industrial park, airport and entrance complex were firmly in the background.
Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 to rave reviews and, soon enough, great attendance figures. Plans for additions to, and the refinement of, the first phase of the project sprang up almost immediately to meet the demands of guests arriving in greater-than-expected numbers. This trend continued for a couple years as the company became comfortable with its Florida empire and reacted to its needs.
During this time, EPCOT was barely mentioned. Careful attention was also being given to the context surrounding the precious few EPCOT allusions that did make it into company publications. The planned development of land at Lake Buena Vista (townhouses, apartments and condominiums) was heralded in the company's 1972 annual report as a step toward the development of EPCOT - as was the demand for "WED Enterprises to do consulting work in transportation, recreational and city planning" in 1973. A section of the post-show exhibit space in the Magic Kingdom's Walt Disney Story attraction, which opened in May 1973, had EPCOT city renderings on one wall just as the Disney Story film showed the painting. How it would come to pass, however, was yet to be revealed. All the while, a corner was being turned slowly in Glendale. Around that corner there would be a frequent usage of one particular statement Walt had made: that EPCOT would be a "Community of Tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems."
On May 15, 1974, Card Walker (then President and chief operating officer of the company) announced to a meeting of the American Marketing Association that Walt Disney Productions would be moving ahead "in a phased program" with the development of Walt Disney's concept for EPCOT. The company reasoned that Phase One of Walt Disney World was essentially completed ahead of schedule and it was time to turn toward Phase Two. The idea for a World Showcase of nations was introduced - its likely genesis in the International Shopping area concept and of course past World's Fairs. More importantly, EPCOT was now being considered "from the point of view of economics, operations, technology, and market potential." While the future phases of EPCOT were left very hazy, Walker did state that the company was not seeking "the commitment of individuals and families to permanent residence." Rather the company was looking for "long-term commitments from industry and nations."
Or, in other words, there wasn't going to be a city. The process of taking Walt's EPCOT apart and concocting something different with the pieces had begun. WED Enterprises spent about six years tossing ideas around, scrapping many and fine-tuning others. Future World was conceived as the "introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems" part of the project. It was grafted onto World Showcase and EPCOT Center was born. Groundbreaking took place October 1, 1979.
The term "center" in the name of this new theme park, though no longer used today, was a crucial part of the company's philosophy at the time (the philosophy itself wouldn't turn out to be crucial at all). Here was the pitch: from the very beginning, Walt Disney World was built with EPCOT in mind, and even the development of Phase One had employed a variety of new systems and processes. From the modular construction techniques used in building the hotels to the water hyacinth waste treatment program, Walt Disney World was a sort of testing ground. And now the company purported that WDW was EPCOT and had been EPCOT all along, and EPCOT Center was where the "new materials and new systems" of WDW/EPCOT would be shown to the public. It was a nonsensical rationale to put forth to anyone who remembered Walt Disney's film or had seen the initial intended scope of Project Florida. But the company was doing just that, straight-faced and free of concessions.
The approach had an inherent flaw about which journalists failed to question Disney management during EPCOT Center's construction and opening. It was that while WDW had dabbled in a handful of experimental processes, none of the cornerstone precepts of EPCOT the city had really been applied to development of WDW in any meaningful ways since the early 1970s, and precious few were being built into EPCOT Center itself. On-property transit for employees from parking lots to their work locations was handled by fossil fuel-burning buses rather than clean, electric Peoplemover systems. The majority of connections for on-property resort guests was also handled by bus instead of monorail. The "pedestrian is king" concept never truly took hold. Traffic lights did, of course, catch on... exponentially since working roadways into a constant circular flow was apparently too costly or complicated or both (or, worse, not even a consideration as the resort expanded under the guidance of next-gen planners never versed in the resort's original goals). And the company's highly-touted utilidor concept was only employed one more time on property, in EPCOT Center, and only below a small portion of the park's Communicore area. The Magic Kingdom's AVAC trash-collection system was never replicated in another park. Solar panels made it to only one or two rooftops in EPCOT Center. In short, almost none of those forward-looking concepts that were integral to WDW Phase One and which formed the basis of the weak rationale that "all of WDW was EPCOT" were not carried forward past EPCOT Center's opening.
In 1990 ABC's Chris Wallace interviewed Walt Disney Attractions President Dick Nunis for a Prime Time Live segment on WDW. During their conversation, Wallace asked Nunis about EPCOT, the city that never materialized. Nunis, who had years earlier suggested to Orlando-Land magazine editor Edward L. Prizer that the EPCOT plans Walt left behind were sketchy at best, responded by asking Wallace, "Isn't this a city?" He offered by way of example the fact that thousands of guests spent the night on WDW property every evening, and they were real people. Using Nunis' logic, guests at WDW hotels had become the citizens of EPCOT, an extension of that earlier theory that WDW was EPCOT. Others within the company, such as Marty Sklar, have offered more straightforward accounts of EPCOT's end. They assert that Walt's successors really didn't know what to do with his city, or how to do it without him. He was the one consumed with the passion for the project, and without his hand in the process the only palatable option was to make something out of it that was in keeping with proven formulas; i.e., turn it into a theme park venture that wouldn't scare the stockholders too much. Not that EPCOT Center itself was without its own nail-biting observers. Anyone in the company nervous about the park's prospects for success was, really, justified in wondering if the $1 billion park was going to be successful.
That theme park, by the way, became Epcot instead of EPCOT Center in 1995. In dropping the "Center" from the title and changing the acronym to a name, the company exercised some sound judgment in allowing for the big difference between EPCOT the city and Epcot the park. In 1996, Disney's newly developed "town" of Celebration (Osceola County, FL) welcomed its first residents. This planned community has been compared to Walt's plans for EPCOT by many of the company's high-ranking officials. Some reasoned that the spirit of EPCOT was being fulfilled by Celebration, 30 years after Disney's city concept was first introduced. It was and is difficult, however, to reconcile that kind of reasoning with that 1966 painting, with that model or with Walt's EPCOT film. If Celebration was in any way intended to serve as a stand-in for EPCOT as a community, it didn't deliver on the basic experimental principles around which EPCOT originally conceived.
Some of those who worked with Walt doubted that even he could have pulled off the experimental city. Animator Ward Kimball for one, who was Walt Disney Productions' preeminent artist/lunatic-in-residence for decades, expressed uncharacteristic reservations about EPCOT's potential in an interview with my Disney research associate Ross Plesset. The sentiment that "you can't experiment with people's lives" has come up on more than one occasion in discussions with other WDP figures. This isn't true given that governments, corporations and doctors experiment with people's lives when they decided how much police protection to give a neighborhood, how much medicine to prescribe you or how much they pay you vs. how much fun they make your workplace, but the notion falters for a more specific reason: before Walt Disney died it was already established that anyone living in EPCOT would do so on a temporary basis, most likely for no more than two years. This doesn't change the fact that it would still have been an exercise in authority, control and human nature, but its intended long-range impact was not to be on individual families but the world at large.
One thing about EPCOT that persists in rearing its impossible head is the assertion that it was going to be a "domed city." Howard Means's article for the Orlando Sentinel (linked to above) is an example of this. After reading various newspieces from the past 25 years and comparing those to Walt Disney Productions actual plans for EPCOT, one would wonder how anyone might believe that WDP would cover a billion-dollar city of the future with a translucent dome that would, if built to truly span the city center, represent an engineering feat that shamed the Pantheon just so they could pit air-conditioning technology against the intense greenhouse effect that would result from a massive dome in one of the warmest climates in the USA. It doesn't make any sense. But there have also been references to this big dome in more scholarly works such as Mannheim's book. He wrote that Walt's EPCOT film contains animation depicting a hemispherical dome enclosing the city's 50-acre core. What the film actually depicts is a close-up ... concurrent with the narrator's reference to the enclosed, climate-controlled city center ... of a domed skylight structure built into the city center's flat roof. Depending on which EPCOT rendering you view, there were twelve to thirty of those around the central roof structure. EPCOT would have been full of domes, but none in the plans had a diameter exceeding about 75 feet. The mere fact that there were a series of these small domes shown on the city center roof makes the notion of a larger dome covering the whole of that roof ridiculous, since it would make the smaller ones superfluous. But this is typical of misinformation about Disney, such as Walt being frozen or John Hench being a vampire, that perpetuates itself indefinitely. And Walt Disney Imagineering's Marty Sklar (who worked closely with Walt, Hench and Nunis) did, in an interview conducted by my associate Ross Plessett in 2016, confirm that the dome was just a rumor.
In the end, combining all the rumors, drawings, interviews, rationales and facts of EPCOT yields a perplexing portrait of magnificent ambitions being tempered by cold corporate feet and a certain amount of aimlessness. It's unlikely that EPCOT will ever go full-scale in anything similar to its original form, but discussions surrounding just what it would have become if built will likely continue for decades. As for how much of a role Futurama II actually played in driving Walt to pursue the concept of a future city, no answer really diminishes the immensity of what he intended to build while at the same time no answer can unconnect the dots. The link is inescapable but to me it's mostly just funny that none of his associates ever said, "Oh, yeah, EPCOT pretty much started with that 1964 GM show." Because it almost certainly did.
It's hard not to feel bad for Florida Governor Haydon Burns. Here this poor guy is dealing with all of the bureaucratic and political workings of Disney coming to Florida when he gets defeated in the summer of 1966 for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by Robert High of Miami (who then goes on to lose the election against Claude Kirk in November). That's a pretty big kick in the pants for Burns, who was only elected to the office in 1964. So, licking his wounds and preparing to relinquish the governor's mansion to a Republican, he still has one bright spot in his short legacy - being the governor who announced the Disney project and sat with Walt Disney in that legendary press conference. And just a few weeks later, Walt Disney dies and the entire future of everything that you promised to bend over backwards to see accomplished is now totally uncertain. What a nightmare. But nothing, really, compared to the nightmare that was facing Roy O. Disney and the second echelon of Walt Disney Productions' leadership upon their loss of the company's namesake.
Not many people, even those close to Walt Disney, knew how bad his health was in 1966. Even in his final weeks, according to many of his WED Enterprises associates of the time, he wasn't revealing the severity of his condition. But it was obviously bad. Right up until the time of his passing on December 15th, however, he was focused on his plans for the Florida Project and reviewing maps of his property. This, with EPCOT figuring largely into the picture, was his last major point of focus.
Walt's death resounded across the world and was the subject of hundreds of headlines, but nowhere did it hit more heavily than it did with his family. They lost a husband, a father, a grandfather and a brother. Roy, who had worked side-by-side with Walt since 1923, went from being the largely silent partner in a two-man business empire to the face of the company with little warning. Roy was ready to retire by 1966 and could not have foreseen needing to take the helm of an organization that his younger sibling had run on intuition and creative genius. That prospect would have been daunting enough for anyone regardless of their background. But to inherit the top job with something as massive as Disney World (the second "official title" for the Florida Project before Roy added Walt's name to it in 1968) & EPCOT on the dividing line between concept and reality? Unprecedented.
Fortunately, Roy had a team of capable individuals who had contributed to the construction of many Disneyland attractions and World's Fair Exhibits, to assist him in moving forward. This included not only the WED Enterprises artists, designers and engineers but also experts in the field of construction and infrastructure. At the forefront were Admiral Joe Fowler and General Joe Potter, both former US military leaders with experience in a wide variety of fields prior to their tenure with Disney that enabled them to grasp the size and scope of something like the conversion of a swamp to a major family resort and break it down into workable phases with clear goals and parameters. Admiral Joe Fowler (1894- 1993) served in the US Navy and was first hired by Walt Disney to oversee construction of Disneyland in the mid-1950s. He continued to work for Disney until 1978, past which point he still did some consulting work with the company. General William Everett "Joe" Potter (1905-1988) was hired by Walt Disney after the two met at the 1964-1965 World's Fair, where Potter had overseen the construction of over a dozen pavilions. He served 38 years with the Army Corps of Engineers and was also a governor of the Panama Canal Zone.
In 1992, Before Paul F. Anderson ceased publication of his periodical Persistence of Vision, he told me a story that I promised not to share about how Roy Disney was so concerned about Walt Disney Productions' ability to bring Walt Disney World into existence immediately after Walt's death that he held separate meetings with Admiral Joe Fowler and General Joe Potter, and in each meeting said that Fowler and Potter respectively could basically pull the plug on the project simply by stating that it was too large or too difficult a task to undertake. Had either of them expressed serious doubts about the matter, Roy likely would have decided to sell all or most of the Florida land and Walt Disney World as we came to know it would not have existed. I'm finally posting the story (in 2018) because 25 years is long enough to sit on something that doesn't involve a Kennedy assassination. But I'm also hoping Paul has already published this account somewhere else by now.
This first image above links to a .pdf file I created of the 1967 Project Florida book that was distributed to Florida business and governmental figures in 1967.
So it's possible that a much smaller version of WDW, more akin to Disneyland in scope, could have easily manifested in view of Walt's vision being so huge and - once you factor in the absolute uncertainty of an airport, industrial park and future city providing a return on investment - a financial risk that could potentially sink Walt Disney Productions. Accordingly, it's difficult to overstate exactly how bold and seemingly uncharacteristic a move it was for Roy O. Disney to ultimately pursue his younger brother's last and most complicated dream. What's much easier to wrap one's head around is the practical approach that WDP took toward developing WDW in phases, starting with elements most likely to provide immediate revenue for the company: a theme park and hotels. Not that this was going to be simple, because in and of itself WDW Phase I would be the world's largest private construction project (in the middle of isolated and snake-infested wetlands no less) just a couple years later, but it was the most logical starting point.
Before the company would do anything physical, however, it came to Florida lawmakers and business leaders on February 2, 1967 with Walt's EPCOT film and the Reedy Creek Improvement District proposal discussed in the EPCOT section above. When the three related legislative proposals were passed on May 12th with final signings by Governor Claude Kirk, the "cities" of Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (renamed Lake Buena Vista three years later) were created. Therefore it was established both that Walt Disney Productions had governing powers over its Florida land and that there would then in fact be residents living on WDW property from the offset, but they wouldn't be living in EPCOT. They would be living in mobile home parks where their rent and utilities were paid by Disney and they would be voting on matters pertinent to the company's interests. I know, I know. Everyone knows. But remember that in 1967, right after Walt Disney died, the entire state of Florida had already bounced in response to the 1965 Disney announcement and then convulsed in anticipation of what would happen with the company's namesake deceased. If Disney needed special authority to build a city of the future for which codes did not even yet exist, and the choice was to either grant them this power or risk seeing them abandon the project - which was the unspoken premise - then who in the government was going to vote against Disney's request? Also, no one knew then, as we all do now, that EPCOT as a city would never materialize*.
* Once Disney announced that EPCOT Center would be a gated theme park, Florida should have repealed the RCID's authority and begun treating WDW as it would any other business instead of allowing one of the most profitable companies in the state to operate on land governed by a handful of people whose costs of living were underwritten by that same company. But by the 1980s, WDW's lobbying power was formidable and few in government had the desire (let alone the requisite influence) to undo the concessions. Only a few government officials in Orange County, such as County Commissioner Vera Carter, ever made the slightest bit of headway on the matter of the RCID's liberties being reviewed with new eyes, albeit not lasting, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
With autonomy in their back pockets, Roy Disney and his team continued developing their plans for the first phase of WDW throughout the remainder of 1967 and 1968. They also began reaching out to potential corporate sponsors to determine which companies would be interested in taking part in the development of attractions, shops, restaurants or other facilities... a key part of setting down early pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of a theme park empire. An overview of early models and concept drawings shows a rapid succession of master plans and smaller element layouts which varied significantly on the path to groundbreaking and beyond.
Water had played a huge role in Walt Disney's selection of a final site for WDW and Bay Lake was the anchor for the placement of key features. Water also dictated that all of WDW would need to be built with a strong consideration of how it affected water flow and vice versa. Florida's high water table would subject any significant excavation to flooding, so to counter this the Magic Kingdom and resort hotel foundations were built up from ground level with the earth removed from what became the Seven Seas Lagoon. This enabled the Magic Kingdom's "first floor" to sit below the park's street level and serve as transportation corridors, offices and utility workspaces (kind of like the subterranean areas that the company projected for EPCOT, the city, in the future) with the guest areas an average of fifteen feet higher from the foundation. At various points in the resort's planning, ideas for a lot more excavated water features than the Seven Seas Lagoon were drawn up but for Phase One construction the only other big water effort outside the Magic Kingdom borders was the canal system that provided control over water flow and drainage all across the northern third of Disney's property. Over 40 miles of canals twist around the Magic Kingdom, Fort Wilderness and other parts of Walt Disney World and usually aren't given a second glance, which is basically because they look pretty natural at first glance.
TEXT PLACEHOLDER (TEXT PLACEHOLDERS ABOUND BELOW, FAIR WARNING)
Fantasyland has always been my favorite land in any of the Disney parks, and even though Florida's Fantasyland was never as cool as the 1983 Disneyland version in terms of old school Disney detail and density, it's the one I grew up with. It's the one that commands my subconscious as if I were its Manchurian candidate and it probably always will.
When people write "seriously" about Walt Disney World history, especially people who were actually around during the resort's first 25 years, they often overlook or downplay Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and make their seriousness look less intelligent and more uninformed for failing to dwell on the attraction's unique stature within the world of theme parks. WDW's Toad wasn't just some weird dark ride that was shut down because no one rode it anymore, it was a very popular weird dark ride that took guests down unidentical twin tracks of brightly colored nonsense and unsettling patches of darkness built around the story of a filthy rich amphibian who loved motor cars that was shut down because it was "in the way" of other ideas. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in Florida stood apart from everything Disney had built before or since (including its same-named Disneyland predecessor) and continues to pick up dedicated fans long after its departure from this world. When its impending closure was announced, the public and media-reported calls for WDW to save Mr. Toad's Wild Ride from destruction may have fallen on the company's least sympathetic and least imaginative ears, but there's no chance that the mistake will ever be forgotten. To the contrary, the absence of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in the 21st century has only made more hearts that much fonder of what I seriously consider the best ride ever built.
MTWR's 1998 demise was a sad, clear signal that nothing was certain about original park attractions or their longevity, and also that devoted pleas wouldn't be enough to save other favorite rides from destruction. It also broadened the perceptible criteria for WDW management's justification of such action; an attraction didn't have to lose its sponsor, as had happened with If You Had Wings and Horizons, to find itself on the chopping block. Nor did it have to cost a ton of money to staff and maintain, like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea or suffer from chronically depressed hourly counts, like the Walt Disney Story or the Kitchen Kabaret in their later years. All it really had to be was a relatively easy give on the road to an alternate (somewhere in particular) destination. In the case of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, that end point was the Hundred Acre Wood. The company wanted to build a Winnie-the-Pooh ride in the Magic Kingdom - something to advertise, draw new visitors and move merchandise - and felt that the most economically apt starting point was within the walls of an aging, less tangibly valuable attraction. One of the unfortunate moments in life is the one where you realize that this is how many people at many companies think. It's rotten, but true: for a business-minded person who didn't grow up with the park, there's no metric for assigning something like Toad a value based on the artistry behind it, its inherent coolness or how many people stepped out of its motorcars forever 1% more puzzled about the universe. Instead, most of the time these decisions come down to things like 'return on investment' and 'value engineering' - terms that drive creative people insane. Most of the time it's just a sordid matter of the easiest way to save money, make money or make even more money.
So MTWR ended up being the oddball tenant on a piece of commercially desirable Kingdom real estate. Given the company's 1995 decision to do away with Main Street's charming but sinister House of Magic (in order to use the space as part of the new and infinitely less interesting Main Street Athletic Club sport clothing store), the prospects for quirky old-timers in the path of anything with busier cash registers was already grim. And in case you're unfamiliar, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was largest quirky old-timer in the park. For those fortunate enough to have experienced it in person, Toad's utter weirdness made it one of the key things that defined a trip to early WDW - one of the attractions that made the trip worthwhile. And it always had a line or, rather, two lines, which often grew so long that in 1993 they replaced the original vehicles with larger ones to increase its hourly ridership. In a park where capacity is a paramount concern and visitation helps to justify attractions' long-term prospects, how is a ride like that a candidate for replacement? When its replacement is expected to be (at least) equally popular and have a footprint that leaves room for a gift shop at the exit.
You could reason that, visitation aside, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride above most other MK attractions was in a precarious spot from the day it opened. Unlike Fantasyland's other opening-year dark rides, Peter Pan's Flight and Snow White's Scary Adventures, MTWR did not draw from "classic" Disney characters with a widespread popularity base. Mr. Toad, Ratty, Moley and MacBadger hailed from a 1949 Disney adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows , a book which was first published in 1908. It introduced those characters and others who dwelled along the river bank and the Wild Wood, and gave an accounting of how their daily life was disrupted by their neighbor Mr. Toad's insatiable thirst for motor cars. While the story grew to be treasured in its native England, it never enjoyed far-reaching stateside success. Disney's film treatment of the tale - while entertaining and in some ways magnificent - did little to change that.
The first Mr. Toad's Wild Ride opened at Disneyland in 1955. It was built when the film was only a few years old, and absorbed a motif that was perfect for a Disney incarnation of old amusement park dark rides: a manic spin in a motor car through Foggy London Town. The ride was put together on a modest budget but became a park favorite, no doubt due to its crazy singularity. Given the time period, everything about it made sense.
What's inexplicable in hindsight is that Disney chose to build an updated version of MTWR when construction on WDW began fourteen years later. In 1969, Winnie-the-Pooh had already made (three years prior) his screen debut, was a household name and a formidable merchandising presence. It was by then clear that Pooh's impact on American culture was to be infinitely more profound than that of Mr. Toad. As further evidence of this condition, none of the characters from The Wind In The Willows were given a spot in WDW's Mickey Mouse Revue , whereas Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit had places in the show's orchestra. So it's remarkable that Disney didn't choose to build on the hungry yellow bear's snowballing popularity by erecting a tie-in ride during Pooh's initial heyday...and even more so considering that Mr. Toad was, again, getting his own attraction. This doesn't even factor in the original three dark ride concepts that WED Enterprises planned for Florida, based on Mary Poppins, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Sleeping Beauty. Toad won out over those also. More than that, it wasn't even a copy of the Disneyland original, but rather a sprawling two-track version with numerous intricacies and details foreign to its predecessor and multiple scenes that could only viewed by riding each track separately. What other Disney ride ever offered that added dimension? Space Mountain, Mission To Mars, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion and the Grand Prix Raceway had either multiple lanes, tracks, theaters, queue or pre-show areas, but WDW's Toad ride presented different scenes and different rooms based on which queue you chose. It was the only time in Disney park history this has ever happened, and it happened for Mr. Toad.
Given these facts, it makes the ride's 27-year existence a happy accident filled with odd stuff not found elsewhere in the dark ride world: a truckload of bobbies shooting it out with a carful of armed weasels, a barmaid with pronounced cleavage holding enough foamy beer to paralyze a horse, a full-blown gypsy camp in the midst of a musical celebration, a perplexed farmer dropping a bale of hay on riders' heads, an elephant trophy head that trumpeted loudly from its wall-mounted plaque, a scandalous painting of a voluptuous nude woman and a suit of armor that toppled toward riders on cue. Toad Hall's first expansive chamber was both stately and bizarre - ceilings decked with banners of nonsense heraldry, oak paneling lined with priceless paintings (whose subjects bore more than a passing resemblance to the master of the estate) and as its focal point a teetering marble statue of Mr. Toad himself. Town Square, where previously divergent cars were reunited for a spin around the heart of a busy English village, was stocked with panicked citizens trying to avoid the motorized onslaught of vehicles circling another statue of Toad - this one spinning atop the upraised hoof of his horse friend Cyril. And the whole of the ride presented a constant uncertainty as to just how one's car would escape a particular environment: Would it be through the fireplace, a jail cell wall or a mountainous stack of barrels? No matter which way riders swerved or ducked, all roads ultimately led to a direct collision with a speeding locomotive in a pitch-black tunnel and an audience with Satan, surrounded by a horde of grinning red devils in the glowing volcanic bowels of hell.
Trying to quantify the beauty of all that lunacy is futile. Making sense of it is nearly as tough. According to the ride's own mythology (Disney has 'back stories' for every attraction, regardless of their simplicity), the action that takes place within is predicated on the conceit that it's all part of Toad's imagination, or in their words, Toad's "crazy dream." It sounds weak at first but has validity. Those who have seen Disney's film treatment of The Wind In The Willows could easily discern that only a fraction of the settings and characters that were present in the ride corresponded directly to the film - fewer still are mentioned in Grahame's book. The ride contained volumes of supplemental material in its depiction of scenes such as the gypsy camp - the origin point for Toad's canary-colored cart and Cyril - and also in Toad Hall's Trophy Room and Kitchen areas where the domestics and service workers (butler in the Trophy Room, ice delivery man and cook in the kitchen) were found in snapshots of Toad's home life that were never touched upon in Disney's 1949 animation. This was some rich territory being mined and much of it had to come from Toad's own, personal, sphere of reference. Under that premise, the ride has to be set sometime after Toad came into possession of his stolen motor car via the weasels he first met in Winky's Pub ... also after his ordeal with the law, imprisonment and escape involving a stolen locomotive. The telltale marks of his documented escapades are rearranged here in a loud, unreal melange, making the dream theory the only "rational" way to account for a motor car being driven down the river where Ratty's house is found, inside a prison cell or through Toad Hall itself. So, in point of fact, for two minutes you were wheeling around in the noise-drenched highlights of a rich frog's messed-up nightmare. But it's immaterial whether you can overlay any semblance of reason atop the ride. It is, after all, ultimately derived from a tale about anthropomorphic woodland creatures involved in human-like discussions and events. So at its heart, it's what more delicate people would call a trifle. But, of course, so is Pooh.
In both subject matter and setting, there are many common threads between The Wind In The Willows and the Pooh stories. The characters themselves invite direct comparisons, with Tigger sharing Toad's exuberance and bravado, Piglet possessing Mole's quiet good nature, Rabbit appropriating Ratty's fussiness and Owl borrowing a portion of MacBadger's grandfatherly wisdom. A.A. Milne was a great admirer of Grahame's work and produced a variation of it for the London stage in 1930, with Grahame attending the debut performance. So there is little chance that the similarities in the books are coincidental (the first Pooh book was published in 1926). Milne was reportedly anxious about Grahame's reaction to the show, fearing that it would disappoint the elderly author, which it did not. Imagine how Milne might have felt to learn that a ride based on his characters would one day uproot one based on those of Grahame. If, that is, he cared about rides.
Both authors might have been disconcerted had they known the extent to which their creations would one day be known largely across the globe for what someone else did with them - the same way P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins is recognized almost exclusively as the province of Disney due to the immensely popular 1964 film of the same name and a more recent Broadway show. Travers attended the film's premiere and was dissatisfied, in particular, with Dick Van Dyke's portrayal of Bert the chimney sweep. Yet the Van Dyke Bert was not changed to satisfy Travers and will endure as the real Bert in the general public's collective consciousness, as he already has for over 50 years. Mr. Toad escaped this fate to some extent and has enjoyed several quality, non-Disney retellings since 1949, much like Alice in Wonderland. The Disney versions, however, doggedly persist in at least appearing definitive... especially for those who grew up with them.
What's sad about the way things worked out between Toad and Pooh at WDW is how each of the literary properties couldn't end up with equal in-park representation. There's no question that a Winnie-the-Pooh ride was a sensible addition to the Kingdom. But the crowds that Mr. Toad's Wild Ride drew were sufficient proof demonstrating its value to park visitors. As mentioned above, the ride underwent a 1993 rehab to alleviate that situation; the 36 original ride vehicles, each of which could comfortably sit two adults, were replaced by new models which could accommodate four adults. The change only slightly reduced the average length of each queue because so many people wanted to go on this ride repeatedly. One outcome of the adulation was a spat of outbursts in 1998 from a group that had learned about the impending shutdown. They gathered in the park, some wearing shirts with Toad on them, carrying signs that read "Save Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." The Orlando Sentinel covered the "protests." WDW Employees got in on the act. It didn't matter - the ride closed for good on September 7 of that year.
Therefore the only remaining Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is at Disneyland, on the site of the original same-named attraction. It's not the same rudimentary Toad that opened there in 1955; that original attraction closed along with the rest of DL's old Fantasyland in 1981 and underwent a major renovation. The current version opened in 1983. While its exterior, the fully-dimensional Tudor-style Toad Hall, exceeds in presentation the original medieval tent entrance (and that of WDW's Toad), the Disneyland ride itself is a little compromised. I say that, of course, as someone who grew up with WDW's version. I'm sure people who grew up with the original DL Toad love the new one because it beats the socks off its predecessor. But WDW's Toad surpassed both DL versions in every manner except for the tent facade.
Not only was the WDW incarnation larger, with the aforementioned two tracks, but either half of the ride taken on its own was still a more involved and stylistically superior experience compared to the DL attraction. To a large extent, credit for this must be given to Disney artist Rolly Crump for his oddball, hyperchromatic design style. Crump's contributions to DL and WDW are well-documented, with his most enduring work having been many of the toys and kinetic elements of both parks' It's A Small World rides, his wild tiki designs and several key props for the Haunted Mansions*. Some of the character designs he came up for WDW's Toad evoke the character style seen in 1961's The Saga of Windwagon Smith. In that short film one sees the genesis of the some animals and people that came to populate Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in Florida. Molly Crum, who served drinks in the Star of the West Saloon, reminds me of the barmaid in Winky's Pub. The little dog that spazzed out when the windwagon rolled into town is a close cousin to the panic-stricken dog in MTWR's Town Square. And Mayor Crum shares nearly the same profile as the constable in the Jail scene. Only the characters that came straight from The Wind in the Willows film were not subjected to this treatment, and the blend of the two categories somehow worked.
* WDW's Toad ride was in fact the closest that any Disney attraction came to being a realization of Crump's "Museum of the Weird" concept. Although The Haunted Mansion saw a few of his prop designs come to life, MTWR was the first and only full-blown execution of Crump's 'Weird' color scheme married to architectural and design motifs on an serious scale.
Disneyland's 1983 Toad ride attempts to infuse its confined spaces with third-dimensionality through trompe l'oiel painting techniques and a few sculpted pieces added where space was available (it borrows the statue of Cyril and Toad that first appeared in WDW's Toad). But at Disneyland the scenic artwork overreaches in several scenes and the passageways often feel claustrophobic. WDW's Toad was much more open in terms of its floor plan, with larger rooms that enabled several twists and turns in any given space. Town Square alone was massive, with both tracks circling a grassy planter and leaving enough room on the outer perimeter for a wide range of townspeople caught up in the chaos.
The Florida ride's artwork was deceptively simple. Outside of the superb mural in the load area (with its warm, loving treatment of Toad Hall, the countryside and the ride's key characters), the ride was very much like driving through a psychedelic coloring book. Although there was plenty of detail, less effort went toward lending its flat plywood characters and scenery false shadows or extra dimension than was the case at Disneyland. At WDW a few key pieces were completely three-dimensional, but most of the ride achieved its depth by staggering flat pieces out closer to the track - a theatrical technique that worked amazingly well. Disneyland's Toad corridors are too narrow for this same effect to be given a chance to succeed. While some of the artwork inside is more detailed than was Florida's, it is unfortunately not as outrageous, fun and colorful as what Crump perpetrated in Florida. And Disneyland's generic human characters are missing the cohesive cartoon madness once found in the WDW version.
So unfortunately there's no longer a Disney attraction that truly matches the insanity WDW's Toad sublimely offered for just over a quarter-century. Without expecting to capture its glory in words, I'll try some further explanation of the ride's main aspects.
Approaching the attraction from any direction, guests could see past the entry facade and sheltered queue to the detailed Load area mural. At opposite ends of the mural were mirror image train tunnels from which emerged two neverending streams of motor cars, freshly returned from each track's satanic finale. Lining the bridge over each tunnel were the principal characters from the ride (Toad, Cyril, MacBadger, Ratty, Moley and Winky) along with some gypsies, weasels and bobbies. Leading away from the tunnels, past each track's Unload, Load and Dispatch points, was an idyllic depiction of the English countryside dotted with thatched-roof cottages and lush rolling hills. Throughout the Load area and queue echoed the lilting refrain of "The Merrily Song" (the only lyrical music from Disney's Toad film, written by Churchill, Gilbert, Morey & Wolcott) and the constant recorded instructions to "Step out to your right...when the car stops, step out to your right please." The focal point of the entire scene was stately Toad Hall, with its turrets, parapets and eleven (!) chimneys. Cars funneled into its central Tudor arch portal, where they separated and burst through the first of many walls in their catastrophe-bound journeys. Both tracks began in the Toad Hall scene, where they had their first of several near misses with both other cars and "obstacles" in their path. The marble statue of Toad swiveled toward the cars as if ready to crash, while opposite the statue the amicable Moley stood on a high-backed yellow chair and tipped his hat at riders.
From that point on the cars went their own way within the Hall and, as mentioned above, encountered unique situations along each route. Riders on Track A doubled back from the statue of Toad toward the doors leading to the Trophy Room and riders on Track B headed straight into the fireplace at the opposite of of the room, which gave way and allowed them into the Library. How the tracks played out scene by scene is charted above on either side of the ride map link.
A few of these areas, such as the two Blackouts and Train Tunnels on either track, were incredibly stark (the Blackouts were literally empty rooms with walls painted black). The Barn and One Way Tunnel scenes were also devoid of scenery save for, respectively, flying chickens and neon-colored warning signs. But most of the other rooms were rendered in full-circle, albeit cartoonish, detail. In the Kitchen, for example, there was a three-dimensional wood block table with a piece of steak and meat cleaver sitting on it...yet it was positioned in a spot that made it all but impossible for guests to see it. In the Jail scene, the walls were adorned with wanted posters for various Anglican rogues ... aside from Toad himself there were calls for "Liverpool Lill," "Picadilly Pete," "Malcolm the Mutilator" and others. The Town Square environment was stocked with storefronts that could scarcely be appreciated due to the speed and proximity of the passing cars.
Aside from the breakdown of separated scenes, there was a further curious dichotomy between the two tracks that may or may not have been planned. Track A, for example, was the only side with female human characters and it featured not one but five (six if you include the painting of Rapunzel on the north wall of Winky's Pub). Track B was the only side containing law enforcement figures. It was also the only side where MacBadger could be found, while Ratty only appeared along Track A (Moley appeared twice for Track A riders but only once - in Toad Hall - for those on Track B.)
Furthermore, Track A took riders through the Gypsy Camp before the Town Square scene, and right before Track A led out of Town Square into Winky's Pub there was a balloon vendor who looked just like one of those gypsies. Track B took riders across the Barnyard and Barn scenes - past a pig, bull and the aforementioned chickens - before Town Square, and the first building in Town Square that Track B riders passed by was a butcher's shop with a bull's head over the door, plus a suckling pig and chickens displayed in the front window. If those weren't deliberate echoes, it's a great set of coincidences. Rolly Crump stated in a 2003 interview that he had not engineered any sort of repeating motifs along those lines and thought that they may have been added later by other artists. The fact that the balloon vendor was an animated prop made out of metal, therefore not an easy addition as something would be if it were just painted in, suggests that it was an original design element. Crump may not have noticed the correlations, though, if they weren't done on purpose.
One thing he did intentionally, without question, was make sure that riders didn't have the same experience on both tracks. He said the reason for Toad's two tracks began with a dictate from Dick Nunis, then-director of park operations overseeing WDW's development, to build two Toad tracks side by side for Florida. Nunis requested this because Toad was the most popular dark ride at Disneyland (which helps to explain how it ended up in Florida) and he felt that double the capacity would be needed for WDW. Crump stated that he wasn't going to build two Toad rides but came up with the idea for one ride with two tracks that would provide guests with different scenery. If different members of the same family chose separate sides of the queue and compared notes later on what they saw, it wouldn't exactly match up. "I was playing with people's heads on it," Crump said, "that's why I wanted two different stories."
The most perplexing piece of minutiae for me, however, and surely one of the most fascinating things about the ride for anyone who knew about it, was found in the Library scene. On MacBadger's desk there sat two inkwells and a solitary spindle upon which were affixed a series of small note papers. Those who remember the first appearance of MacBadger in the film will recall that his time at the desk was spent tallying the various expenses that Toad's estate had incurred as a result of Toad's destructive countryside rampages in the gypsy cart with Cyril. In the ride, the top note on the spindle actually had a hand-lettered breakdown of one account that had to be settled in the amount of 100 pounds sterling. The damaged items were "1 Rowboat, 20 ft. clothesline, 1 Canary-colour Gypsy Cart and 6 Chickens." It would have been a stretch to have expected riders to notice the spindle in the first place, let alone ever detect that there was writing on one of the notes. But to actually have a straightforward listing of things Toad had demolished, in a place where no one could ever read it, was irrevocably brilliant. How did one find out about this kind of thing? You either A) walked through as an employee when the ride was shut down and took notice of it or B) jumped out of your car while the ride was open and ripped it off the spindle not expecting to find writing on it, but you did, and a few months later did it again when you were just as amazed to learn that the purloined note was replaced with another containing the exact same list of items. Either way, MacBadger's accounting process was immaculate!
The names of the cars, which repeated across the entire fleet, were Mr. Toad, Toady, Ratty, Moley, Mac Badger, Cyril, Winky and Weasel. The original cars were among the most visually appealing ride vehicles ever created: compact, clever and stylish one-seat roadsters that were perfect for whipping around tight corners and leaving chaos in their wake. The two-seater replacements that debuted in December of 1993 were, by comparison, oafish. All sense of delicate proportion and toylike charm was given over to boxy 'boats with wheels' that moved through the ride as if dragging anchors. In all probability the speed difference was negligible, but still noticeable to anyone who'd ridden the old cars ad nauseum. Not to mention the fact that it deprived the park of one more ride where you could be assured a modest amount of privacy with a companion for at least two minutes. Once the new vehicles arrived, your chances of getting paired with another couple or some unloved, sweaty single rider were virtually guaranteed if there was any type of line.
There were only a few other changes as a result of the 1993 rehab. Some of the three-dimensional animation didn't appear to function any longer: Moley in Toad Hall didn't tip his hat, the statue of Toad no longer swayed precariously on its pedestal and the smaller Toad statue on Cyril's hoof in Town Square had also ceased to spin. Many of the interior scenes were repainted to give off a more radiant black light glow. For a moment in time the cars bumped over "railroad ties" when first entering the train tunnels, but that effect was quickly retired. Finally, the ride's original entrance facade and sign were rebuilt with a slightly more elaborate appearance (a statue of Toad was added within the marquee) and in the year following the ride's reopening, decorative planters were added to both sides of the main entrance arcade. The last of the discernable modifications to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride took place in 1995 and 1996 when the background music tracks in the Load area and Toad Hall, respectively, were updated to match the Disneyland Toad song. If it weren't for the new vehicles, though, most people wouldn't have known the ride was altered in any respect from its original version.
That is to say, the ride was still criminally fun even in those bulky cars. Anyone who failed to appreciate the appeal of careening headlong through room after room of menacing ridiculousness, all whilst in the guise of an obsessed amphibian, needed a head check. And anyone who would willingly opt to see Mr. Toad's Wild Ride gutted to make room for Winnie-the-Pooh would be just as suspect. Yet someone made the horrible final decision and let the demolition commence.
When rumors of MTWR's impending demise made The Orlando Sentinel's pages in 1997, the letter-writing campaigns and other efforts of earnest fans seemed like bittersweet exercises in futility. It was reassuring to discover how many people cared about the ride, but sad to feel as if its number was up just the same and that protesting would be in vain. And in many respects the park no longer deserved such a wonderful thing as Toad, having long since begun the process of expunging itself of magnificent curiosities. Fortunately, however, with the rumors and warnings there was ample opportunity for those who loved the attraction to set about preserving it in sight and sound. This at least ensures that it will perpetuate itself in multitude forms as time passes, making certain that in thousands of minds the ride will thrive as a source of fascination despite its physical absence.
Contemplating the ride from this standpoint is maybe a matter of more gravity than recounting the features of a closed Caribbean Plaza game room, because it means coming to terms with the fact that WDW, which in 1978 was the absolute coolest place on the planet, had in the span of 20 years divested itself not just of some relatively minor oddities but also some of the most fantastic attractions ever built by man, of which Toad was certainly one.
Arguing for the supremacy of one theme park ride over another borders on foolishness (or epitomizes foolishness - you can decide that for yourself), but on a site dedicated to ex-WDW attractions there's nothing too far "out there" where Toad's concerned. I can't actually prove to anyone that Toad was better than The Jungle Cruise, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, If You Had Wings, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Horizons, World of Motion, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea or The Haunted Mansion. I loved all those rides, but for me Toad edges them out because its combination of Crump's wacky design elements, two distinct tracks, highly unlikely subject matter and lack of adherence to a rational script made the experience something one step beyond any other ride I've experienced and also made it ripe for riding again and again and again. As a kid it took me a short eternity to remember which line to get into if I wanted to ride through Winky's Pub, and if I chose correctly I got to see that barmaid. If I was wrong, no problem, I helped weasels bust out of jail. Florida's Toad was the end result of Crump pushing the dark ride envelope as far as possible within the parameters of a budget and Disney source material. He worked beautifully with the former, using inexpensive flats to their best possible effect, and just riffed loosely on the latter ... creating supplementary characters out of thin air and making Grahame's own cast accomplices to a zany black light mindfuck. One's head spins thinking of what Crump might have done had the Oriental Land Company challenged him to top Florida's Toad in Tokyo, and why the Japanese (never ones to resist the bizarre in their popular culture) missed out on that opportunity is a mystery for the ages.
Since Toad debuted in Florida, the Dr. Seuss Sky Trolley (Islands of Adventure, 2007-present) has been the only other Orlando ride to offer the kind of two-track duality first established by Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. But for as great as the Sky Trolley is - and I love it - as a 90% outdoor ride it can't throw the kind of intense curve balls that bounced through Toad Hall and the various chambers beyond. It's not THAT kind of ride.
Probably I've spent too much time thinking and writing about Toad. but whenever I find myself realizing that in the grand scheme of things there are far more important things than dark rides (which is, in point of fact, potentially true), there are also reminders that some rides just plain mattered to me and a bunch of like-minded others regardless of whether they should or not. Toad was as familiar to me by the age of thirteen as a family member, and its rapturous effect on my impressionable mind made for a constant in my life: I don't get people who don't get Toad. I've met people little more than half my age who, when they find out I like old Disney stuff, bring up Toad independently as one of their childhood favorites; I automatically know they are good people. Then I've met people older than me who, if I bring up Toad to gauge their interest, laugh the subject off as unworthy of discussion; I automatically know those people are jerks! Just the same, I'd rather hear people laugh it off than say, "Well, I liked it but I can kind of see why they got rid of it." Come on! If you actually got to ride it, if you got to take in that dark, twisted fantasy firsthand, can you rationalize its destruction without killing a part of your soul? Don't do it while you're around me, at least.
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride will persist online and in the memories of those who loved it. Its removal from WDW will remain a black mark on the karmic record of those who caused it to vanish. No matter how strange its existence or how basic its execution, its destruction was completely avoidable. How could the same company who built this amazing ride not see, 26 years later, protesters upset about its impending closure as a sign that opportunities were being overlooked? Where was the Toad merchandise that would have tested park visitors' true affinity for the ride back when it might have made a difference? Where was the "Save Toad Hall" campaign allowing guests to buy a piece of Toad's estate in exchange for having their name etched on a plaque in the Town Square scene? Where was the argument that reversing the decision would have generated good will, especially after so many 20K fans were let down by the weightless statements Disney made about Nemo's subs returning between 1994 and 1996? Where was the realization that a long-term win/win was infinitely more desireable than short-term cost savings? And where, seriously, was the slightest indication that the company did not in fact hold Toad fans in contempt by not even giving Winky ownership of the former Round Table and Lancer's Inn next door ... the same way Toad ran a restaurant in Paris? I mean, Gurgi from The Black Cauldron could underwrite a snack bar but Winky couldn't?
That inability to detect something bigger afoot is sad, but what's done is done. So when new hires at WDW are walked past Pooh during orientation and asked if they can name five characters from Wind In The Willows (Alison Matthews could!) and then asked if they can name five Winnie-the-Pooh characters, which anyone can do, they get a sense of the thought process that allowed all this to transpire. Again, it's one of the unfortunate moments in life when the company that got rid of a ride this cool comes up with some kind of snarky, posthumous rationales for why it had to go down that way.
"One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don't know. But it is you who are on trial."
A. A. Milne
"Man is on the move in Tomorrowland - across America, around our world and beyond the Earth into outer space. In its present and future adventures, Tomorrowland is an ongoing experience." - A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney World, 1972
You can build and open a theme park that's only really half-finished and still impress the public with what's there and the promise of what's yet to come. Still, early Tomorrowland at WDW was pushing the envelope. Counting the Skyway, which was an attraction shared with Fantasyland, Tomorrowland had just TWO attractions open on October 1st, 1971 and the other one was the Grand Prix Raceway. So there was nothing futuristic except the architecture, and even that was really only interesting at the entrance where two distinctive 100-ft. white towers blasted jets of water down into the hub canal on either side of the land's bridgeway and created a pleasant mist. So that early pictorial souvenir spoke to an evolving situation that was still really bleak in early 1972.
By that time, CircleVision 360 had opened with its America the Beautiful film, a revised version of a Disneyland Circarama film from 1955 which was in no way advanced or evocative of the future. Which left only Flight to the Moon, which was a carbon copy of the 1967 Disneyland version. It was entertaining enough for a 1970s audience but still corny and worthy of no real accolades when stacked up against a Jungle Cruise or a Haunted Mansion. Then in June, a ride built for Eastern Airlines called If You Had Wings opened on the "back side" of CircleVision and Tomorrowland could at least boast two actual rides and one with new technology (If You Had Wings' "Speed Room.") It was a little bit of everything... fun stuff, silly stuff and (by the time Space Mountain opened in 1974) thrilling stuff. As of 2018 that was still true, but a lot of the original Tomorrowland was gone by the start of the 21st century and it's the one land where that makes total sense. The future is where things change.
If You Had Wings opened to the public in June 1972, when Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was eight months old. It was the first new attraction that wasn't merely delayed from the October 1971 grand opening. Over the course of fifteen years, If You Had Wings hosted millions of Magic Kingdom visitors - spinning them through a loud and happening tour of various vacation spots serviced by Eastern Airlines, the attraction's sponsor and the official airline of WDW from 1970 to 1987. The ride accomplished its task free of charge (during an era when, until 1980, most Kingdom rides required separate admission tickets) and often with less than a minute's wait.
In June 1987, the last guests rode through If You Had Wings. Eastern had withdrawn its WDW sponsorship due to financial problems, which called for several changes to the attraction. Its next incarnation, called If You Could Fly, opened later that month. If You Could Fly was just an "alternate" version of its former self ... the ride was physically much the same but the old music and references to Eastern were missing. It lacked the magnetism of the original and invited disappointing comparisons. If You Could Fly hosted its last visitors in January of 1989. Upon its closure, almost everything visually inherent to If You Had Wings and its successor was destroyed and removed from the building's interior as trash. By the time Dreamflight (sponsored by Delta Airlines) opened there in June 1989, If You Had Wings was a memory with another attraction built around its track. A funhouse of excitement, warmth and innocence was lost to the unrelenting march of progress. If that sounds too melodramatic, read no further. Stop. Go back.
When the final version of If You Had Wings closed, I was an Operations host in the Magic Kingdom East department, working mostly at 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. During my breaks I would often go down into the tunnel below the park, walk a few hundred feet, ascend a stairwell and arrive in the middle of If You Could Fly. That's how I ended up walking through the attraction as it was being dismantled. On first witnessing that, I could hardly believe the sets and props were being hacked apart to expedite their removal. My If You Had Wings "collection" began at that time, thanks in part to some of the debris lying around on the floor. I also started writing about the attraction, tongue partly in cheek, and interviewing friends for their recollections of it while the memories were still fresh. 20 years later, the project was still ongoing and to my surprise I was still learning things about the ride and finding new photographs, audio recordings and home movies thanks to others who found the page and offered to help.
In the course of spending so much time on that, a truth surfaced: Nearly everyone who remembers If You Had Wings loved it, and even more people will at least tell you it was one of their favorites. My inconsequential point being that during its heyday, If You Had Wings was often derided as "second rate" by people with little appreciation for weirdness in general, and SOME of those people liked the ride more in hindsight. I'm not the judge of who loved If You Had Wings and who didn't, I'm just saying that it was dated from the offset and very silly but that's what made it great. It had a compromised track layout and its theme was basically "four-minute airline commercial" and it did amazing things in spite of both. It didn't overreach or ask its riders to buy into anything as unfathomable as being launched into space - as did its early neighbor, Flight To The Moon. It just invited you to pretend that you were visiting a few vacation spots not that far removed from Florida, encountering locals and tourists who were having a great time dancing, singing, fishing and all sorts of other stuff. Whether regarded as a classic or not, lots of people can still sing If You Had Wings' theme song as if they had just stepped off the ride, which no one has done for 25 years. By the 40th anniversary of the ride's debut, the Magic Kingdom had operated longer without If You Had Wings than it did with it. And whereas in the late 1980s its loss felt very personal, it eventually became one of many things I loved as a child that are revisited online with great affection by thousands of people.
This section of the WYW page collects most of my efforts to keep memories of If You Had Wings alive for those who miss it and to perpetuate an unofficial record of what it was all about for everyone else. It was the first WDW attraction for which I did a web page and that in turn was the first early/extinct WDW page on the internet. Do you know what that means? Nothing, actually. But hey.
If You Had Wings - A Basic History
Sponsorships had been a big part of the Disney theme park experience from the moment Disneyland opened its gates in July 1955. At that time, "lessees" (as the company alternately called them) were as varied as The Upjohn Company, Swift, and Kaiser Aluminum who sponsored, respectively, Main Street USA's Pharmacy and Market House and Tomorrowland's Hall of Aluminum Fame. Their financial contributions helped make the construction of the park possible, and their presence in the park's shops and exhibits put their corporate logos and/or services in plain view of millions of visitors every year.
By the time planning for Walt Disney World was underway in the late 1960s, Disneyland had developed a more mature and far-reaching "participation program" for its growing roster of major corporate sponsors. Concurrent with Walt Disney Productions' new relationship with 1964-1965 New York World's Fair partners (Ford Motor Co., General Electric and Pepsi-Cola), they had also in 1964 secured United Airlines as a ten-year sponsor of Disneyland's new Enchanted Tiki Room attraction. Six years later, there was little doubt that a major airline would be solicited for a similar relationship with Walt Disney World. In 1970, however, United was coming off a decade of diversification and, more importantly, its first year of multi-million-dollar net losses. Additionally, since WDW was under construction there was no opportunity for a company to merely assume the sponsorship of an "existing" attraction as United had done with the Tiki Room in California. Rather Disney was now seeking the commitment of a larger sum of money to bankroll the development of an as-yet-to-be-determined attraction. That sum was $10 million according to Robert Serling in his 1980 history of Eastern Airlines, From The Captain to the Colonel. By the time WDW opened in 1971, Eastern was a major nationwide air carrier that had dominated air traffic routes along the Atlantic coast since the 1930s and provided flight service to Orlando from 60 different cities. It was a perfect match for both companies. You can find an adjacent photo of Disney's vice president of Industry Sales Jack Sayers (at left) and Eastern's senior vice president Thomas B. McFadden at the time of contract signing.
WED Enterprises set out to develop an attraction that would suit the promotional needs of Eastern and the Magic Kingdom's capacity requirements. Eastern was invested in advertising a variety of exotic travel destinations to which it provided service - most of them in the American Southeast and the Caribbean. Disney wanted something to fill a vacant slot in WDW's Tomorrowland, which in 1971 was transitioning on paper from its earlier master plans to one that would not truly be completed until 1975, but they did not plan for this to be a major major attraction given its budget and allocated space.
This is where one of WED's brightest stars came into play. Claude Coats had been a key contributor to Disney's films and parks since 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His designs, color stylings and backdrops had shown up in many of Disneyland and WDW's key attractions (he is shown here during the construction of DL's Pirates of the Caribbean.) He pioneered the use of black light in three dimensional environments, making him a master of the dark ride format. In 1971, one of his more recent successes was a marriage of dark ride knowledge, creative setbuilding, filmed images and a new ride system called the Omnimover in an attraction called Adventure Thru Inner Space.
Adventure Thru Inner Space was designed by WED for Monsanto and debuted in 1967 as part of DL's new Tomorrowland (the ride closed in 1985 to make way for 1987's Star Tours). In near-countless ways, Inner Space served as the prototype for the ride that WED would create for Eastern. The similarities between the two are so numerous (see list below), few people could have experienced both and not noticed the fundamental common elements. Yet for all the crossover devices, the combinations yielded vastly different experiences. Whereas Adventure Thru Inner Space was cool and scientific (you entered the heart of a snowflake crystal after being "shrunk" inside an oversized microscope), If You Had Wings was bright and freaky. And although Inner Space served as the basic model for the new ride, the amount of effort that went into planning If You Had Wings was still considerable. The scope and spatial relationships of the ride's interior scenes were, despite their visual simplicity, no less sophisticated than those of many other rides that opened during WDW's first year.
When the Magic Kingdom opened, If You Had Wings was just a ride plan that would get built inside a framework that was already attached to a larger building that included Tomorrowland's CircleVision 360 Theater. The new ride's "show building," as Disney called the warehouse-sized structures that contained attractions, offered a fixed space of 28,000 square feet. Whatever got built could only extend a certain length to the east without upsetting the symmetry of Tomorrowland's main entry corridor - already anchored on the north side by Flight to the Moon and the Space Port gift shop. So the exterior boundary for If You Had Wings was defined to the north, east and west. Its walls, in fact, already supported portions of the WEDway Peoplemover track four years before that ride opened. Rather than explore the option of having the building and track trail way off to the south, Coats and his co-workers had to pack an experience into a finite space.
What they managed to fit in was a vibrant, kinetic and multi-dimensional experience culled together from an array of artistic disciplines that Disney had been employing for years. Flat set pieces, sculptures, props and film projections combined in the same physical space to depict various travel destinations serviced by Eastern, primarily: Mexico, the Caribbean and New Orleans. It also doubled as a type of simulator through the first use of a Disney-designed effect called the Speed Room (a.k.a. the Super Speed Tunnel) that projected high-speed 70mm images all around the ride vehicles. A similar but more low-key effect employed as the ride's finale was the box-shaped Mirror Room, which elicited a sensation of being lifted gently over mountain vistas and rolling deserts. When pieced together with lighting & sound effects, music and the versatility of the Omnimover ride system, the varied elements made for a compelling and memorable five-minute experience.
Arranging that experience in the odd-shaped building, and having all the film effects hit their targets without projectors cluttering up the scenery, was a daunting task. Above is a scanned portion of a page from the ride's blueprints - an overhead depiction of four separate projector & screen positions for the Caribbean Port scene. Click on the image for a better view of how intricately one small part of the ride was configured.
Consider that the speed and directed angle of the ride vehicles only allowed guests about ten seconds to view the entire Port scene - including the four films outlined above and the props and set pieces surrounding them - during a trip that lasted four and a half minutes. This gives you an idea of how much planning went into the ride as a whole. Additionally, the Caribbean Port scene was one of three settings within the ride that was also viewed by guests riding the WEDway Peoplemover. They viewed the port segment of If You Had Wings from a completely different vantage point - one that also worked on its own merits and showcased the neverending stream of Omnimover vehicles snaking through the port and straw market scenes.
Many of the films used in the ride were shot in real-life locations. Shooting took place in settings as diverse as Acapulco, Jamaica, New Orleans, California's Imperial Valley and Canada's Laurentian Mountains. Over two dozen staged production shots were put together as well. These ranged from a full-blown Mexican fiesta with authentically costumed dancers to a far more casual (and dated via polyester) round of limbo dancing on a false beach. To work the films into the ride, If You Had Wings would ultimately hold 41 16mm projectors, three 70mm projectors (one for the Speed Room and two for the Mirror Room), 40 special lighting effects projectors and one 35mm projector.
Above is a photo of room at Disney's MAPO division (where much of WED's engineering and assembling took place) that housed IYHW's battalion of 16mm projectors prior to their Florida move. The tall rectangular cabinets mounted to the side of each projector stand are the mechanisms that allowed the films to continuously spool through the projectors during a working day that could span up to sixteen hours in summer months. Looking at this picture it's easy to understand how the ride was filled with the sound of these machines running nonstop. This is one of the reasons why the attraction was so loud, because the music had to overcome the noise of so many projectors that was bouncing around inside the fully enclosed structure.
Music for the attraction was recorded under the supervision of Norman "Buddy" Baker, who composed the ride's title theme along with lyricist X. Atencio. A demo recording that revealed the intended range of song treatments tailored to each show scene was put together to offer a preview of how the ride would sound. Baker also adapted a piece of music - the "Airbus" theme - from Eastern Airlines commercials of that same time period. The instrumental he came up with provided the background for both IYHW's Holding Area and Mirror Room scenes.
WED's sound effects department provided additional audio for the attraction. The sounds of foot traffic in the Bahamas and of a jet takeoff were two of the most predominant recordings. Less overt effects, such as fireworks, seagull calls and native Aztec musical instruments were brought in for additional authenticity.
By late March, 1972 the blueprints for the ride's interior sets were completed and If You Had Wings was being pieced together at a frantic pace to be ready for the summer crowds. The show's set pieces were designed in California by WED and installed on site by another division of the company, PICO West. The majority of the sets were constructed of 1/4" plywood with 1" framing. When assembled they often formed simple three-dimensional structures or spaces such as the Aztec pyramid or the New Orleans courtyard. Props and artifacts typical of the locations depicted (Mexican pottery, Caribbean straw goods, fishing gear) were added to the sets as a final measure of third-dimensionality.
The ride opened to the public on June 5, 1972. Eastern Airlines and Walt Disney Productions officials formally unveiled the attraction during a dedication ceremony the following month, on July 2.
If You Had Wings would be the last Omnimover ride Disney would build for over ten years. The next would be General Motors' World of Motion attraction which opened with EPCOT Center in October 1982. That ride and its neighbor, El Rio del Tiempo at the World Showcase Mexico Pavilion, would both draw heavily from the same technologies used at length in If You Had Wings. The similarities will be outlined later in this text. In spite of the extensive borrowing by those latter attractions, If You Had Wings was largely overlooked in terms of receiving post-opening promotion from the company. Pictorial souvenirs produced between 1972 and 1987 only featured a photo of the ride once, in 1986. The attraction was not represented on postcards, view-master reels, 16mm films or even latter-day VHS tapes that offered Magic Kingdom overviews. Even the more outdated and less interesting Mission To Mars was accorded a higher level of coverage throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
But If You Had Wings persevered from the standpoint of popularity. Even after the A-E ticket system was disbanded in 1980, it remained one of the few rides in the park that people eagerly chose to visit repeatedly during the same day. If someone went through Mission To Mars more than once on the same day, it was probably a mistake. If You Had Wings, on the other hand, was just too fun to ride only once.
Most of the time a ride's successful ability to draw visitors ensures its long-term prospects, in other instances it has no bearing at all. In the case of a sponsor-dominated attraction like If You Had Wings, the solvency of Eastern Airlines became the governing factor in the ride's destiny. When Frank Lorenzo bought Eastern in 1986, the company was in dire financial straits. On the eve of bankruptcy and dissolution, Eastern opted not to renew its fifteen-year sponsorship of If You Had Wings and continue its status as the official airline of WDW. Disney was faced with the decision to either keep the attraction down for the busy summer season while developing a replacement or to come up with a temporary fix that would keep the ride running and buy time to court another sponsor. They went with the second option, which turned out to be the best choice given that the summer of 1987 saw record highs - both in Central Florida temperatures and in park attendance.
If You Had Wings closed on the first of June 1987. Five days later it reopened as If You Could Fly. On paper the changes look slight, but in practice they made for a genuinely a different attraction. In addition to the name change reflected in the exterior signage, the Eastern logo was replaced by the stylized image of a seagull. Seagulls already figured prominently in the attraction, so it was an easy icon to fall back on.
In the load area, the orchestral background music was replaced by an instrumental version of the new If You Could Fly song and the boarding announcements were silenced. The Eastern jet was, of course, pulled from the side of the globe. At the beginning of the ride, the change in music became even more apparent. Where the chorus of singers once intoned "If You Had Wings" there were new voices, reminiscent of the queue area duet at EPCOT Center's Horizons. The lyrics - "If you could fly on seabird wings, and feel the joy that freedom brings, those dreams you had when you could fly will soon be realized through seabird eyes..." were saccharine and the production value was fairly mundane i.e., it didn't fit the ride because it wasn't silly enough. Similarly, each successive scene's music had been replaced with something foreign and, contrasted with the original segments, lacking. In terms of audio, only the sound effects (voices of the couple in the straw market, bursting fireworks, etc.) were retained.
If You Could Fly was still a visually rich experience, but difficult to enjoy for anyone who loved If You Had Wings. Without the song, Eastern or the voice at the end of the ride ("You do have wings"), the soul of the original was gone and what remained felt hollow. This sad fact made the transition from If You Could Fly to Dreamflight just a little more tolerable.
If You Could Fly closed January 4, 1989. In the months that followed, just about everything surrounding the tracks was broken down into pieces small enough to be carted out of the ride in portable grey waste bins. As the summer approached, a new ride began taking shape where If You Had Wings once stood.
Dreamflight, sponsored by Delta Airlines as the new official airline of WDW, opened to the public on the 23rd of June. An overview of the changes:
The once open Holding and Load areas were subdivided into three different sections replicating a neon-laden airport boarding area with a plane section visible through the glass. The sections of the ride from the globe up to Mexico City became three-dimensional scenes rendered in pop-up book style referencing the early days of flight. The massive room that had once encompassed Mexico, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico was now sectioned off into three chambers, the first being the pop-up book cartoons. The second was literally just a big room with a single screen upon which was projected a film of a stuntman riding atop a biplane. The third was where the mannequin phase of the ride began. It started in San Francisco where a global clipper sat in the harbor. A couple on the dock looked out across the water and the plane's captain sat frozen at his dining table as if waiting for the strychnine to kick in. In what was once the Puerto Rican fort, large dioramas of a Japanese countryside and Paris held more mannequins, albeit with some attractive scenery. New Orleans was replaced by a jet engine through which the cars passed on their way to the held-over Speed Room. The seven original films were replaced by a computerized "future runway" scene that was shortly removed in favor of some flight-through-the clouds footage. The Mirror Room remained as well, but the mirrors were taken out. Now the cars faced off to the right where another movie screen showed even more computer-generated vistas. The Descending Flight scene was now where a huge pop-up book bounced back and forth between recreations of London and New York. All the music had changed as well, with a new theme song permeating the entire ride.
Dreamflight, in spite of its disjointedness, managed to draw plenty of visitors and operate until June 1996, six months after Delta dropped its sponsorship of the attraction. Then the name changed to Take Flight. It was exactly the same as Dreamflight save for the removal of some Delta logos and some extremely minor changes in two pieces of music. That would have been a replay of what happened with If You Had Wings and If You Could Fly if not for the fact that the changes to Dreamflight didn't actually make the ride worse.
In January 1998, Take Flight closed and the attraction was made over as Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, which opened in October of that same year. Buzz Lightyear used the same ride vehicles with some new additions (laser guns), the same track and the same overall room structure. Everything else was changed.
Although If You Had Wings evolved from Adventure Thru Inner Space, it did retain the distinction of having passed along a few new things to some other Disney attractions. Unfortunately most of those attractions have already gone the way of If You Had Wings. The first thing If You Had Wings loaned out was the Speed Room / Super Speed Tunnel idea, which landed on the second floor of Disneyland's America Sings in 1977 as an addition to the Peoplemover (which ran through the Carousel Theater building's second floor). This application went on to feature scenes from the company's 1982 film, TRON. The Peoplemover closed in 1995, however, and its replacement, the also-now-closed Rocket Rods, did not make use of the Speed Room.
When Epcot opened in 1982 (as EPCOT Center), many of its attractions could be likened to If You Had Wings in terms of their ride systems, pacing and sponsorship agreements. But two rides at Epcot Center borrowed directly and unapologetically from If You Had Wings - General Motors' World of Motion and Mexico's El Rio del Tiempo.
World of Motion began in a manner very similar to If You Had Wings: a large, open holding area leading to a load platform where guests boarded blue Omnimover cars that slowly approached a dark, semi-foreboding portal. World of Motion also had not one, not two, but THREE Speed Rooms near the end of the ride. The first was almost identical to If You Had Wings' version in that its films were extremely similar. For example, one World of Motion scene was of bobsleds shooting down an icy run. Another was a fast-paced underwater jaunt. The second Speed Room featured swirling light effects and a fiery inferno, the third was footage from TRON, just as in Disneyland's Peoplemover. If only Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin used some TRON images as a tribute to early computer-generated imagery, the circle would be complete.
World of Motion closed in January 1996 and its replacement, GM's Test Track, does not have the Speed Room components. Nor does it have the Omnimover cars. Or the great animatronics. Or a fun theme song. But it does have crash-test dummies and, let's be fair, a better ending.
The other Epcot attraction that pulled from If You Had Wings was the Mexico Pavilion's boat ride, El Rio del Tiempo, which operated in its original form until January 2007. It reopened in April 2007 as the Gran Fiesta Tour, which introduced the title characters from Disney The Three Cabelleros film to the ride. The ties to If You Had Wings here were more numerous before the ride's reinvention but several echoes remain. First, the boat ride incorporates a large early Mexican pyramid, as did If You Had Wings. Secondly, the floating gardens of Lake Xochilmilco are kind of recreated in El Rio del Tiempo, albeit somewhat distinctly from the If You Had Wings version (in that there's some real water in the boat ride). Both rides contain depictions of downtown Mexico City. And they both rely heavily on the use of projected images to achieve motion. Another strong connection was that If You Had Wings and El Rio del Tiempo both had infectious theme songs created for the rides that could easily echo in vistor's heads for hours after exiting. Gran Fiesta now uses the Three Caballeros theme to a similar effect.
What really tied the two rides together, though, were some of the original filmed scenes. Mexico's attraction had footage of people cavorting on beaches just as If You Had Wings did. Mexico had street merchants trying to pass off handcrafted wares to guests passing by, just as If You Had Wings had merchants pushing goods in the Caribbean Straw Market. And If You Had Wings had a projection of cliff divers plunging in Acapulco, just as Gran Fiesta still does in a modified form. The merchant footage in El Rio del Tiempo was removed when Gran Fiesta came in and the beach depictions are significantly changed. Because the ride is still operating, however, there still exists the opportunity for WDW visitors to get a small taste of what If You Had Wings was all about. That's a good thing.
If You Had Wings Ride Overview, Scene By Scene
If You Had Wings occupied the space in Tomorrowland that is now the home of Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. As with some of its neighbors from years past, CircleVision 360 and Mission To Mars, If You Had Wings had a relatively unremarkable exterior. It consisted of an identifying sign pylon, white concrete walls and a dark blue angular portal that framed the glass door entryway. Seen below to the left in a Spring 1972 photo, IYHW had a WEDway track above its entrance a full three years before the WEDway Peoplemover opened (July 1975). IYHW's doorway was flanked by a set of wall signs, dimensional letters and Eastern logos that changed slightly over the ride's years of operation. The entrance was usually staffed by a cast member known as a "greeter."
Once guests passed through the open doorway, they entered what Eastern Airlines described as "a spacious, modern airport passenger terminal." This vast room, also known as the Holding Area, had high ceilings, sparkling white walls and luxurious blue carpeting (orange for the ride's first couple of years, as shown in an adjacent photo). At the far side of the room was the Load area, where guests stepped onto a Speedramp and took a seat in one of 102 continuously-moving Omnimover vehicles. These ocean blue cars trailed off to the north side of the room, where they entered an oversized and elongated globe through a gaping hole. Attached to the side of the globe for much of the ride's lifespan was a model of an Eastern jet, heading west. The sight of the cars passing into this sphere was exciting and a little ominous, as what lie beyond the darkness of the globe's interior was anyone's guess. From the entrance to the load point, a twisting queue area was recessed into the center of the room. Guests passed by large backlit signs for arriving and departing flights, which blinked exotic destinations such as "Bahama's 100,000 Islands" and "The Magic Kingdom." Echoing throughout the holding area was a lush orchestral arrangement based on the main theme of Eastern's "Airbus" commercials. Periodically played over this theme was the voice of a man* announcing a series of arriving and departing flights..."Eastern Airlines announces the departure of flight 811, Whisperliner service to the underwater reefs of Bermuda."
A 1972 Eastern publication proudly proclaimed that Orson Welles, who had done voiceover work on the airline's TV ads, would also lend his voice to the queue area. While I have no recordings of this, multiple sources (people who either worked at the ride in its first years or visited as adults and trust their memories) have confirmed that Welles' voice did appear in the attraction in the beginning. By the mid-1970s, a new voice was being used and remained until the ride closed. That voice sounds like Disney Studios mainstay Peter Renoudet, who provided the voice-over on a "demo tape" of the ride as well as voices for several other Magic Kingdom attractions.
When guests reached the end of the queue, they were guided onto the Speedramp by a host or hostess and split into Omnimover-car sized groups, typically 2 adults per vehicle. From here on out they cruised forward at a rate of two feet per second, steadily approaching the big hole in the globe. This hole, incidentally, was situated just south of Florida, throwing guests smack into the middle of the Caribbean, which was the approximate center of Eastern's more celebrated vacation routes.
The ride began with guests disappearing into darkness. The black walls of the globe's interior came alive with the white silhouettes of seagulls in flight. The persistent whirr of the ride's 16 millimeter film projectors snuck up out of nowhere and the ride's theme was introduced by a gleeful chorus of unseen singers. This simple song, written by Buddy Baker and X. Atencio, became a favorite for many Magic Kingdom visitors - "If you had wings, you could do many things, you could widen your world, if you had wings...If you had wings, if you had wings, if you had wings, had wings, had wings, had wings..." Repetitive to the point of absurdity, making it all the more memorable.
As the ride vehicles spun inside the globe, the seagulls on the wall turned into jet airplanes racing off to exciting destinations. These silhouettes faded into the background as guests approached their first destination, Mexico. The cars faced off to the right of the ride's forward motion, and the track began a climb through the room. Spread out before the guests was a vision of old Mexico, brought to life by a series of two-and-three dimensional props, film projections, lighting and sound effects. Rising from a sea of geometric cloud formations was an Aztec pyramid basking in the rays of a blazing stylized sun. In the distance were the cliffs of Acapulco, where a series of divers took the breathtaking plunge every few seconds. Soon the cars swung over to the left. As they did, guests were confronted by a large stone dragon's head, a representation of the Aztec god Quexalcoatl.
To their left, guests faced a panorama of modern Mexico. Flower-laden boat drifted across the shimmering floating gardens of Xochilmilco, carrying dancers and a Mariachi band that blared the ride's theme from their trumpets. In the sky above, projections of pottery and other crafts rose from the horizon and flew through the sky. Further along was a main plaza of Mexico city, where the shadows of festival-goers frolicked in the distance. Closer to guests, through the open arches of a downtown building, dancers in fiesta regalia spun across the floor.
By this point in the ride, If You Had Wings' maddening acoustics could be fully appreciated. The first half of the ride took place in one large room divided into different areas by three-dimensional props. This resulted in a blending of all the scenes' musical tracks and created a nice messy din. So it was hard to pick apart the song lyrics for any given area. These lyrics are, however, included below in Part III. The music was a key element of the attraction, its one quick melody tying together many otherwise unrelated segments. In this essay, however, the music is only mentioned in brief. Suffice it to say that each area had its own background music whether guests could hear it or not. In Mexico, it was the sound of a Mariachi band.
All sense of motion in the attraction - beyond that of the actual ride vehicles - was achieved through the use of film and effects projectors. By and large the ride's backdrops served as framing for projected images. There were no moving props or animated figures, but the ride was still very "alive." This was due in large part to Claude Coats' gift for staging. His talents gave the ride a strong sense of atmospheric plausibility.
After passing below the dragon's head, the cars descended into a Caribbean seaport. To the right was an ocean liner, inventively dubbed the "Caribbean Cruiser," preparing to set sail. Passengers lined the railings of the boarding deck, waving and throwing streamers. A steel drum band played in their midst. In the harbor below, a slew of smaller watercraft dotted the horizon. The image of a dancing couple was silhouetted against the sail of small sloop. Down in the water, divers groped through the kelp for treasure.
At the water's edge, in a shack marked "Sport Fishing," a tourist posed proudly with his catch (a swordfish of indeterminate proportions) while his wife set up to snap a picture. As the man stood there beaming, the fish hanging next to him grew larger and smaller, evidently illustrating the vast difference between what he'd caught and his own biased impression of it.
The cars turned left again and entered a straw market. In a small building decorated with all manner of hand-woven goods was another couple, who tried to make a sale (in time with the music) to passing guests. "Wanna buy a sombrero," the man inquired, "made of real fine straw? How about a nice handbag, for pretty mama?" His wife sat beside him, eagerly trying to unload a hat. The straw market scene then gave way to Puerto Rico, as the cars swung back to the right and began another slow incline. Through tropical foliage guests viewed a group of young people doing the limbo. Then the battlements of San Juan's Castillo San Felipe del Morro rose around the track. Through archways guests had aerial views of the seacoast and the fort, with now-familiar seagulls passing by. In another arch was a musical group fronted by a cheerful lady playing the maracas and putting yet another twist on the ride's theme song.
The cars leveled off at the entrance to the fort, wherein another series of arches framed out scenes of the Bahamas. A marching band stormed by with their rendition of the song, and with every other line of music their image gave way to a street traffic traveling in the opposite direction. This motif was repeated in the next several archways, but now the street traffic alternated with a flurry of flamingos rushing down a shallow waterway. In a central arch, a Bahamian traffic cop in white knee socks and shorts had his hands full attempting to regulate this bizarre flow of events. With a whistle perched resolutely in his mouth, he pivoted to the left and right in a thankless pursuit of order.
Off to the right, a new vista unfolded. Here was a stunning view of Jamaica's Dunn's River Falls and the surrounding jungle vegetation, rife with butterflies. Making their way up to the top of the many-tiered waterfall was a large gathering of swimsuited young people. As they reached various plateaus on their climb, they would "dance" across the water in group formations - in reality holding on to each other so as not to slip. Further along was a window looking out across a twilight lagoon in Trinidad, where more flamingos flew by every few seconds.
The next scene was New Orleans' French Quarter during Mardi Gras. In an open courtyard to the guests' left, the shadows of a Dixieland quartet played their version of "If You Had Wings" on a vine-covered wall. On the right, the street was blocked-off for the parade that was passing just a little further down. Other Mardi Gras festivities (including the perplexing sight of a spiderweb lady holding hands with a man wearing a huge zebra head) were viewed through the corner of a nearby building laced with wrought iron balconies. Fireworks burst in the sky ahead, and guests moved toward them on their way into a cavernous space just around the corner.
This was the Speed Room, also known as the SuperSpeed Tunnel, and it was a part of If You Had Wings that no one forgot. Guests moved down the middle of this huge bullet-shaped room while 70mm projections of high-speed adventures played out on the walls around them. The ride vehicles tilted backward and large fans added to the sensation of motion created by "you are there" scenes, such as racing in a dune buggy across the desert, water-skiing on a busy lake and flying down a forest path in the engine of a speeding train. The Speed Room, of course, is an effect that went on to uses in other attractions such as Disneyland's Peoplemover and Epcot's World of Motion. Now that those two attractions are gone, the only Disney Speed Room left is the original, now a part of the Buzz Lightyear ride.
Moving through the small hole at the end of the Speed Room, guests entered the Mirror Room. The walls of this box-shaped space were covered with mirrors, against which the projections of snow-capped mountains and other placid ranges were reflected. Each scene was shot from an ascending angle, which created a gentle, lifting sensation. The holding area's orchestral theme was reprised here, adding to the already lush environment.
The final scene brought back the seagulls, which now breezed across a dark blue sky. Between the birds, an Eastern jet would come shooting past every few moments. The voice of the holding area's announcer came back with these parting words, "You do have wings, you can do all these things, you can widen your world, Eastern...we'll be your wings." Then the cars approached Unload, where guests gathered their belongings and stepped out to their right onto another moving belt. The poster above hung on the wall at the end of the Speedramp. A final version of the theme song played between here and the exit, "If You Had Wings" had become "You Do Have Wings." Just before stepping back out into Tomorrowland, guests had the opportunity to stop at an Eastern-staffed reservations desk, where they could make travel arrangements or other inquiries.
And that, more or less, was If You Had Wings. The true spirit of the ride cannot be conveyed by words, pictures or even video clips alone - the real thing was more happy, strange and worthy of praise than I can communicate. Maybe a more expansive simulation will crop up someday and allow those who missed the original to revisit it in highly-approximated terms. The world should be so lucky.
Conceived by Walt Disney's corporate successors as the viable alternative to EPCOT, the city, and pieced together from countless concept proposals over a six year period that preceded its construction, EPCOT Center (later, from the mid-1990s forward, just plain Epcot) opened its gates to Walt Disney World visitors on October 1, 1982.
Initially the project was going to be constructed in separate and non-adjacent phases, with the first version of World Showcase destined for a site near the Transportation & Ticket Center, and a later EPCOT (including an EPCOT institute and "Future World Theme Center") installation planned for a site closer to where the final, conjoined version was erected. The groundbreaking took place October 1, 1979. By that time the final iteration had been determined; visitors would be treated to both internationally-themed diversions and glimpses into the future across a sprawling figure-eight spatial arrangement.
Walt Disney's EPCOT was born of one man's drive, aided by a staff under his direct counsel. In stark contrast, EPCOT Center was in every sense the end result of the committee approach. Rather than being overtly unified in its general presentation, it spoke to a vaguely interlocked sense of brightness and optimism through pavilions that, as independent units, carried the diverse imprints of their respective designers. This approach worked more cohesively in settings such as New Orleans Square or Main Street, USA - where the separate attractions tied in more fluidly with the underlying themes of their "host" land, which in turn connected to each other in a nearly seamless manner. At EPCOT Center the stage was set more loosely. The pavilions of Future World and countries of World Showcase stood apart as self-contained entities which, in spite of efforts to make them complementary, could still look very detached from one another because they were divided by open plots of land where future pavilions were slated to rise. The same was true in the Future World area, which had all the coziness of a World's Fair. This should not have surprised anyone, because all of WED's principle designers were either contributors to or disciples of the 1964-1965 World's Fair in New York, for which Walt Disney Productions had provided four major attractions and from which it drew key inspiration that would lead to many of EPCOT Center's "new" attractions and exhibits. And, as noted in the section about EPCOT the City earlier on this page, nothing of EPCOT Center would have come to pass in the first place were it not for that same fair's impact on Walt Disney himself.
If the layout made EPCOT Center feel more impersonal than the Magic Kingdom, several of EC's main attractions managed to rise above that pervasive coolness and engage guests in genuinely fun and sometimes even educational experiences. Horizons, for one, fully embodied the spirit of the "family of man" looking forward to a bright and increasingly interconnected future in spite of physical distance. Even if you knew it was just an elaborate reimagining of General Motors' 1964 Futurama II ride, you had to appreciate its expert execution. When it opened in 1983, Horizons seemed to suggest the direction in which the park was headed. With Horizons now gone and Mission Space in its stead, we see that was not to be.
As unfortunate as the loss of Horizons was, the park's ultimate shortcoming has been its ineffectuality. Jokes about how the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland was always becoming "Todayland" had been told years before the company decided to set the future in concrete on an even larger scale with EPCOT Center's Future World. To lend it a sense of immediacy would have required constant revisions to its major pavilions - not just to the exhibits that revolved around corporate sponsors. By 2002 Future World had become a convenient place to build anything that might bring people into the park, even if the additions had nothing to with the future ... and increasingly they (Soarin', The Seas with Nemo and Friends) have not. An even greater effort would have been needed to have World Showcase serve as a modern reflection of the countries represented around its lagoon. So the entire park was kind of a time capsule with potential disconnects (after the massive 1989 oil spill from the Exxon tanker Valdez, the Universe of Energy's film footage of "Majestic Port Valdez" caused eye-rolling; after that same year's Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, Wonders of China's depiction of a peaceful Tiananmen Square - especially in 1989 and 1990, seemed gruesomely oblivious) that could only be eliminated with assiduous upkeep. That didn't happen in anything resembling a timely manner, and it hampered park's ability to truly fulfill any mission beyond that of providing entertainment (not the worst thing in the world for someplace that really didn't match up with the ideals of its genesis in the first place) and which ultimately became the park's only consistent goal.
In spite of its issues and general oddness as it evolved, no one could have loved EPCOT Center much more than my brother Brian and I did from our first visit on opening day up through the early 1990s, before a sweep of drastic changes began creating the park that visitors encounter today. The first three years, in particular, were genuinely captivating for us and many others who were fortunate enough to enjoy the park in its infancy. It is that sense of excitement that WYW seeks to honor.
The sight of Goofy, Donald or Pinocchio splashing their way across the Seven Seas Lagoon or Bay Lake on waterskis has been relatively familiar to WDW guests riding the ferryboat to or from the Magic Kingdom or spending leisure time near or on the water for many years. These antics hail back to the early 1970s, when the resort was in its infancy and a wide range of entertainment options were being tested. One of the more odd offerings from that time period flashed briefly along the surface of the lagoon and was titled the Wonderful World of Water ski show.*
A joint venture between WDW's Recreation and Entertainment departments, the show was viewed from a "special" vantage point (the grassy hillside between the Magic Kingdom monorail station and the lagoon) that was accessed by a special gate. During the show's first season, tickets cost 50 cents. In 1973, guests presented a "D" ticket or paid 75 cents to gain admission. There were five shows daily, some taking place as late as 11:00pm.
Among the acts in this aquatic spectacular were an eight-person, three-tiered pyramid, an exposition of flex-wing kite flying at 300 feet over the water and a series of jumps over a five and one-half foot ramp. The kite act, depicted below on the cover of Walt Disney World Vacationland's Spring 1973 issue, was relatively new to waterskiing at that time and was considered to be something of a fantastic feature. In this show, the kites were outfitted with flares, which created a dynamic effect when viewed in the evening hours.** The cast of costumed Disney characters employed in the production ranged from Goofy and Pluto to Dumbo and hippopotami from Fantasia. And while all indications are that The Wonderful World of Water ran for only two summer seasons (beginning in June 1972), its legacy of characters on skis continued on.***
Dick Pope (the "Dean of Florida Tourism" and founder of Cypress Gardens) was probably less than delighted when he learned of Disney's plans to stage this show. After all, waterskiing had been one of the Gardens' major draws for decades. And Pope, a friend of Roy O. Disney's since the 1940s, surely didn't anticipate this kind of head-on competition from WDW so overtly and so early on - especially with Roy's death occurring a mere six months prior to the show's debut. Furthermore it could be reasoned that at least a few of the 23 cast members in WDW's show must have "defected" from that old park down the road. In any event, the show's short life span might have yielded some consolation...and some out-of-work skiers, at least until Sea World opened in December 1973 and soon thereafter began its own daily waterski shows.
Later WDW Entertainment department productions, such as Epcot's Skyleidoscope, utilized water and air elements in a fashion not entire dissimilar from the early ski show, but none relied more heavily upon the raw physical skills of their performers. Still, the show's quick disappearance was truly not half as surprising as the fact that it even existed in the first place.
* The show was originally just called the WDW Water Ski Spectacular. It appears that between the show's first and second season an effort was made to upgrade the production by making it "more Disney" via an infusion of additional characters and more elaborate costumes.
** You can imagine what it would be like to ski at night dressed as Dumbo and take a spill ... spending what would feel like a really long time wondering if that was how you would die - drowning in total darkness wearing an elephant suit.
*** A lot of smart people worked at WDW in 1972, which is why I'm certain that someone must have suggested having Captain Hook skiing from one boat while right behind him the crocodile skied behind another boat, with Hook firing shots at him with a pistol. Why this never happened, I cannot explain.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (still being rebuilt from old site)
A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney World, 1972 Walt Disney Productions
Florida's Disney Decade, 1981TV Special produced by Walt Disney World for broadcast in Central Florida
From the Captain to the Colonel (An Informal History of Eastern Airlines) by Robert J. Serling, 1980
Married to the Mouse by Richard Foglesong, Yale University Press, 2001
Orlando-Land magazine articles by Edward L. Prizer (1978 through 1983)
Orlando Sentinel Articles by Kirsten Gallagher (December 6, 1988) and Howard Means (October 10, 1982)
Walt Disney and the Quest for Community by Steve Mannheim, 2002
Walt Disney Productions Annual Reports, 1970-1989
Walt Disney World Vacationland, various issues 1971-1976
CREDITS (still being rebuilt from old site)
WYW consists primarily of information collected by me, or photos taken by me, since I first started holding on to WDW souvenir guides and annual reports in 1976. My second main source of information is official Disney publications (per the bibliography above) and the images contained within those same editions. Beyond that, my ability to round out this site has been incredibly augmented by many individual contributors who, even if they didn't know it at the time, made a difference by providing hard-to-obtain information, photographs, audio or video.
Prior to even starting Widen Your World as a newsletter in 1994, I had met and/or corresponded with Paul F. Anderson, Michael Cozart, Dave Barker Jr., Jan & Donna Freitag, Mike Hiscano, Dave Hooper, Christopher Merritt, Ross Plesset, Dave Smith (of the Walt Disney Archives) and WDW cast member Gerald Walker. All of these individuals helped fill in blanks where my firsthand knowledge of WDW was concerned by sharing useful firsthand knowledge of the resort's first ten years, Disneyland's history or WED Enterprises. That made it more probable that I would want to pursue a project like this in the first place.
Either in 1994 or afterward I came into contact with other gracious individuals who have become significant contributors of content or source material contributors to this site whose assistance has been fundamental including Brandon Champlin, Jim Hill, Jerry Klatt, Foxx Nolte, Eric Paddon, Martin Smith and Michael Sweeney.
Many other people have provided supplemental information, audio, video or photographs to my general WDW collection or WYW specifically since the late 1980s including Sonny Anderson, Harry Applegate, Ed Barlow, Buddy Baker, Todd Becker, Reed Bickley, Johnny Blanco, Steve Boutet, Howard Bowers, Robert Boyd, Russell Brower, Steve Burns, Kira Chamberlain, Matt Comegys, Pat Connor, Spencer Cook, Tom Cook, Bill Cotter, Michael Crawford, Steve Dahlem, Alastair Dallas, Alice & Marc Davis, Rhodes Davis, Gian DiMauro, Jonathan Doucette, Linda & Phil Dowdy, Marty Dunne, Martha J. Earle, Ed Ellers, Dave Ensign, Ed Film, Steven M. Fjellman, Michael Flint, Laura Harper, Mike Herman, Kyoko Hikami, Scott Hoover, Suzanne Jones, Bob & Kathleen Kammerer, Chuck Keeler, Stewart Kennington, Michael Kingsley, David Koenig, Michael Kotler, John Kunzer, Jimmy Layle, Brian & Janelle Lee, Hugh & Vernice Lee, James Lee, Robert & Shari Lee, Brian Lewis, Peter LeZotte, Beth & Mike Lucas, Marc Marcuse, Randolph B. Mahoney, Greg Maletic, Timothy May, Tony McCarson, Dave McCormick, Christopher McElroy, Dave McFee, Jimmy McKinley, Cathy Moloney, Bill Moore, Jim Moore, Chuck Munson, Kiyomi Nakamura, Lee Nesler, Dale Nora, Frank Nora, Jim Ohrberg, Mitch Orben, Kathryn Overman, Danny Pressler, Holly J. Pluard, Mike Prendergast, Tracy Rhodes, Heather Saines, Greg Scott, Bob Shelley, Scott Smith, V. Anton Spraul, David Strebler, George Taylor, James Taylor-Goddard, Amy Vandenboogert, Larry Warmoth, Debbie Wills, Phil Zeller and Rose Zettler. Very little material provided by these individuals is used on the website - none at all for some of them - but since all made contributions of one form or another, I want to make sure they were named. Some contributors have asked to remain anonymous.
Widen Your World is not affiliated with The Walt Disney Company. Images of Disney parks & characters are copyrighted by The Walt Disney Company. Rest of site (non-attributed text) copyright 2018 by Mike Lee