Widen Your World is primarily active on YouTube and Facebook, but the page is updated now and then
MOST RECENT UPDATES NOVEMBER 2019: 20K, Horizons, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride
Most of what's below is arranged under the following topics and focused on a 1969 - 1996 date range:
WDW Planning & Construction WDW Transportation The Magic Kingdom
WDW Hotels and Other Accommodations Lake Buena Vista EPCOT Center
Miscellaneous WDW Back to Disneyland WED Enterprises WYW
INTRODUCTION / WARNING
This site is 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 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 choose, and only covers specific aspects of its subject matter (especially long-gone attractions and the weirder stuff like dark rides and magic shops).
There are two premises behind all these words:
1) Walt Disney World was once 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 needs more nostalgic love from WDW itself. The situation has improved leading up to resort's 50th anniversary, yet has a long way to go when compared against how diverse the range of now-missing early elements actually were. Widen Your World is an attempt to communicate what the 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 so far has been the most frequently plagiarized site on the topic (and you can probably see why with the sheer volume of words below). Sometimes WYW is credited as a source when used, sometimes not, but if you read the same thing here and some other place, it's from here. The truth is I can write this stuff faster than I could copy it from another place and check someone else's writing for errors. If I quote text from a publication, it's attributed as such. All images are either my own, official company images or attributed to their original source. I watermarked a few images years ago when I thought it was worth the effort. It's honestly not worth the effort... it makes the images ugly and people will reuse them anyway.
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. After some brief uncertainty it proved to be a massive 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 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 actual 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 had become in just a few years, Walt Disney soon began thinking about 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 become 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.
* Price (1921-2010) had an MBA from Stanford and was working with the Stanford Research Institute when first contacted by Walt Disney in 1953 as part of an effort to pinpoint the best location for a Disneyland park.
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, Bob Foster, 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. Walt made at least one trip to his land once it had been purchased and met with his associates, having flown to kind-of-nearby Kissimmee under the pseudonym Bill Davis (a name that would be associated 50 years later with Orlando tourism in the form of Universal Orlando's president). Walt was almost recognized once or twice but not enough for word to travel. Very few people in Central Florida besides Disney's own operatives knew who was buying the land. A couple, such as Orlando Sentinel publisher Martin Andersen and Sun Bank president Billy Dial, had been clued in and sworn to secrecy. 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 editor and 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 (27,443 acres) of land near Orlando.
Emily Bavar Kelly (1915-2003) was born in El Paso, Texas and earned a Journalism degree from Texas Women's University in Denton. She joined the Orlando Sentinel writing staff in the 1950s and stayed with the paper until retiring in the 1980s. She continued to write for the Chicago Tribune after her retirement. It was revealed in the 1990s by Dave Smith of The Walt Disney Archives that Walt Disney sought to purchase Bavar's silence on the matter of Disney's land purchases and when she declined, he hired an assassin to kill her before she returned to work in Florida. Just kidding about the "Dave Smith" up through the "murder plot" parts. The rest is true, though.
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... 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 or city of the future.
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 was probably maddening. 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 something else).
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. 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 43 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. By 1965, however, Walt was thinking about something more than entertainment - something much bigger than rides, hotels or even theme parks - for his Florida 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 under the name EPCOT Center), and knows 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 think I've got the answer and 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 specifically, I think when Walt Disney first rode General Motors' Futurama II at the fair, he stepped off the ride a changed man - inspired and a little bit on fire. Hear me out on this one. You have Walt Disney in April 1964, overseeing the finishing touches on the soon-to-be four popular presentations for the Fair. None of the four, however, really tackle the subject of the future, at least not beyond postscripts framed by appliances (Medallion City), and the future was something of immense interest to Disney. Now as he visits some of the other big attractions at the Fair he sees the future "done" by another company in a dramatic style that he himself might have used: bright, bold, colorful and underscored with a sweeping soundtrack. It must have registered with him that this could have been his own project and any visitor to the Fair could have easily mistaken Futurama II for a Disney project given its level of polish and detail. 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. The truth was that no upcoming Disney project, as of early 1964, even hinted at the possibility of anything remotely like EPCOT and Walt Disney's major projects almost always came with a long paper trail documenting their incubation. There's nothing like that for his city.
Futurama II was the only World's Fair ride, incidentally, to be visited more often than Disney's rides. So it's been weird to me that no one has even suggested the link between GM's "City of Tomorrow" (yes, that's what it was named) and Walt Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (which Walt himself even inadvertently called "City of Tomorrow" in a 1966 film) 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 find that Imagineer Richard Irvine remarked upon the strong impact Walt Disney felt the original (1939) Futurama exhibit had on the public. And here, 25 years 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 (it would become the post-show for the relocated Carousel of Progress, at Disneyland, in 1967) bore so much resemblance that one could not rationally think of it as coincidental. Look at photographs and video of Futurama II's City of Tomorrow, with its gleaming towers atop a covered city center laden with green spaces and placing the roadways beneath the areas of public activity, and try not to see Disney's Progress City. You don't have to squint. Look at the parting image of GM's City of Tomorrow as viewed from above at nighttime, with its elliptical shape and radial plan center, that guests saw at the very end of Futurama II and try not to see EPCOT's general outline. This wasn't a coincidence. Rather, this is what drove Walt forward.
There's no practical way to disconnect the two city concepts, and GM's clearly had a two year jump on Disney's. Take the models out of consideration and you'll still find no actual record of Walt expressing any concrete desire to build a city or even a community-like development with specific parameters 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 demonstrable evidence of that and certainly no trace of Walt directing any drawings, plans or paintings prior to the World's Fair having opened. Even though he had reportedly visited south Florida with John D. MacArthur prior to 1964 to look at land for a possible joint venture that might include a model community, no plans were put together for what that might be i.e., no indication that it would be anything but a well-planned housing development. 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... and because it has been essentially impossible for me to disprove. I've been actively trying for years.
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. As for the similarities between the Futurama II model city and the Progress City model, compare photos of both.
It's probably fundamental to this matter that, inspiration aside, Walt Disney wanted to go beyond plans or models and launched into the first steps of actually making such a city come into full-scale existence (as far as he could take it personally). Throughout his life he had demonstrated a willingness, which could also be viewed as a desire, to take risks in pursuit of an idea. 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 had a layout that was symmetrical 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. There the 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 and visuals in the public's collective consciousness. One of those was the Herb Ryman EPCOT painting, this beautiful city Walt had obsessed over and which had been outlined in much greater detail than a key Disney leader would suggest about twelve years later.
In late 1967, the 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 but was for all intents and purposes EPCOT, as the film and later publications demonstrated. 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 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 Enterprises (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 to the public. 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."
According to Imagineer Rick Harper, a member of WED Enterprises' promising "second generation," there were numerous meetings convened by then-Walt Disney Productions President Card Walker in 1972 and 1973 where Walt's concept for EPCOT was discussed in great detail and the assembled personnel were tasked with brainstorming ways to deliver on the promise of Walt's 1966 EPCOT film. Harper said Walker felt, six year after Walt's death, that it was time for the company to move forward with his more expansive vision for the EPCOT project and demonstrate real progress on that concept. It was become increasingly clear, however, that a living, breathing community with residents was going to present many thorny issues related to politics, religion and crime - issues for which the company had no appetite (more on this further below in the EPCOT Center section).
On May 15, 1974, Walker 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 being 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 was no longer a plan to build a city as such. The process of taking Walt's EPCOT apart and concocting something different with the pieces had already 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 and in most respects was not even supported by sidewalks connecting distant parts of Phase One. 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 perhaps not even a consideration as the resort expanded under the guidance of a new generation of planners who weren't versed in the resort's original goals). And the company's much-discussed 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 (and by 2019 appeared to be headed back to EPCOT in caps). In 1996, Disney's newly developed "town" of Celebration - built on what was then WDW property in Osceola County - 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 a city. Animator Ward Kimball for one, who was Walt Disney Productions' preeminent lunatic animator for decades, expressed uncharacteristic reservations about EPCOT's potential in an interview with my Disney research associate Ross Plesset. John Hench, a WED artist who worked with Walt, voiced the sentiment that "you can't experiment with people's lives" in the early 1980s when discussing how EPCOT Center differed from the original city plan. That assertion isn't exactly true, given that governments, corporations and doctors experiment with people's lives when they decide 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 it does falter 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. Disney also wanted to make sure that EPCOT's occupants got to experience future living but not actual citizenship with voting rights. This doesn't change the fact that EPCOT 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. The experimenting would actually be with keeping a full-scale model city in a constant state of reinvention. By no means would it have been impossible, but it would have been phenomenally expensive.
One described feature about EPCOT that persisted in rearing its impossible head well into the 21st century was the assertion that it was going to be a "domed city." Howard Means' 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 at all. 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 to have been between twelve and thirty of those domes around the central roof structure. EPCOT could 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. 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 and was not certain of the source.
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 GM show."
It's so hard not to feel bad for Florida Governor Haydon Burns. Here this poor guy, who honestly seems like he's just a little slow anytime he's in front of a camera, 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 - the first governor elected after a change in the Florida election schedule was enacted to keep gubernatorial elections off the ballot in the same year as presidential elections. So, licking his wounds and preparing to relinquish the governor's mansion to a Republican, after serving the shortest term as Florida Governor who didn't die in office, Burns still has a bright spot in his 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.
News of 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 atypical a move it was for Roy O. Disney to ultimately pursue his younger brother's last and most complicated dream full tilt. 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. EPCOT itself would be pushed to Phase Two of the Walt Disney World project, giving the company time to establish the resort and fine tune their plans for a "community of tomorrow."
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. It's the sketchiest thing ever. 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*.
So if the only residents of Disney's two municipalities lived in Disney-underwritten homes and only voted in ways favorable to Disney's interests, what exactly would that mean for Walt Disney World? It would mean that Disney could forego the types of oversight and regulation to which other companies in Florida would find themselves subjected: approvals, inspections, restrictions, fees and permits from/on by local agencies that constitute "red tape." Disney didn't want to be hamstrung by the same types of processes, laws and local personalities it had dealt with when purchasing its Florida land. It could work far more efficiently if it governed itself, and that's what it has done for 50 years and counting. It draws up its own plans, approves them, builds and inspects it own structures and generates much of its own power. Its self-reliance is one reason that when Michael Eisner learned that Universal Studios was going to build a studio-themed park in Orlando in 1990, Disney was able to design, build and open its own studio park by 1989. As long as the company had the necessary money to build something at breakneck speed, no county or state agencies would slow Disney down with plan reviews, zoning requirements, changes to scopes or negotiated compromises. Disney deals with virtually none of those headaches from outside forces.
* 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 largely paid 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. There was a substantial early challenge to the validity of the Reedy Creek Improvement District's reach filed on behalf of the State in 1968, when the RCID planned to issue $12,000,000 in bonds which would help underwrite site preparation for WDW. Appellants for the state contended that the bonds would disproportionately benefit a private enterprise vs. the public and that this aspect of the RCID's powers were in violation of the State's constitution, but the Florida Supreme Court upheld on November 27th that no aspect of the RCID's establishing legislation infringed upon state law. That was the decision which essentially made future challenges to the RCID too formidable an undertaking.
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. And when groundbreaking for WDW took place on May 30, 1967, all of WDW needed to be built with a strong consideration of how it affected water flow and vice versa. Most of Disney's Florida land was marsh or swampland, which meant that significant excavation could easily lead to flooding depending on underlying conditions. Since the company was creating a lake with the Seven Seas Lagoon, however, it had lots of earth to put in other places it wanted to build up. 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 thanks to all that extra dirt. 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 efforts outside the Magic Kingdom borders were the 40-plus mile canal system that provided control over water flow and drainage all across the northern third of Disney's property and the drydock facility near Central Shops at the north end of Bay Lake.
Once the water concerns were addressed for the bulk of the land factoring into Phase One WDW development, the company began clearing land for the parks and hotels. Formal construction began in April of 1969 with the first building being the Walt Disney World Preview Center in the first portion of WDW that would welcome the public: Lake Buena Vista via Preview Boulevard.
Sparkling white concrete. Not the kind with sparkles in it, but concrete that was THAT white. Aluminum and steel. Glass and green grass. A lake and topiary sculptures. Costumed cast members, oval name tags, Disney characters and colorful souvenirs. The only thing that might have made the Walt Disney World Preview Center even more accurate in its encapsulation of what was yet to come at WDW would have been background music and the voice of Jack Wagner. And I suspect it probably had the music if not the voice as well.
On January 16th, 1970, the Walt Disney World Preview Center became the first building on WDW property* to be opened to the public. Near the intersection of Interstate 4 and State Road 535, the modern glass, concrete and steel structure was situated on the southern shoreline of Lake Buena Vista along the then-quiet Preview Boulevard. This roadway would later become Hotel Plaza Boulevard, a main artery serving traffic to the WDW Village and a gathering of hotels.
* This part of Lake Buena Vista, where the Preview Center was located, was originally named Motor Inn Plaza.
Inside the building, a small army of what the company designated as "lovely young hostesses" treated guests to a glimpse of what they could expect to see in the fall of 1971, when the $300 million Phase One of the "Vacation Kingdom of the World" debuted. The Preview Center was open daily from 9am to 5pm, and offered visitors a leisurely tour of artists' renderings, an aerial view of Phase One in the form of a huge model and a motion picture presentation that forecast what the first five years of the project would entail. Visitors could also make reservations for a stay at one of WDW's first two hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village, or purchase souvenirs at WDW's first gift counter.
Fourteen women were selected as the original representatives of Walt Disney World. They came from a pool of 400 applicants who were evaluated by two Disneyland hostesses, Valerie Watson and Holly Hoelscher, and chosen largely on the basis of physical characteristics. "We looked for that fresh, natural appearance that our organization tries to reflect," Watson told Orlando-Land editor Edward L. Prizer in 1970.
The Preview Center officially opened on January 16, but spent the week prior hosting state and local government and business figures by invitation only. When it opened to the public, it hosted 12,000 visitors in three days - twice as many as Disney had expected. Every fifteen minutes, visitors were escorted into a theater to see the film and 625-square foot model, portions of which would be lit from overhead in synchronization with the film's dialogue. 1971's Project Florida, a 21-minute film that aired as part of The Wonderful World of Disney TV program, featured the Preview Center along with footage of construction progress and attractions in development.
The Walt Disney World Preview Center was also the subject of articles in numerous magazines, newspapers and Disney publications. Below is a reprint of how Disney positioned it for their own employees in the April 1971 edition of Walt Disney World News, a pre-opening large-format newsletter that tracked the resort's construction:
WALT DISNEY WORLD - TOP TOURIST ATTRACTION EVEN BEFORE IT OPENS!
Walt Disney World's "Vacation Kingdon" won't open until October, but it is already a major tourist attraction ... and has been since early last year.
More than 800,000 visitors have toured Walt Disney World's Preview Center since it opened in mid-January of 1970, getting a sneak preview of central Florida's "Vacation Kingdom" for the world. At the same time, guests are being treated to Disney hospitality by the staff of lovely and charming Preview Center hostesses, a brand of friendly hospitality that has become synonymous with California's Disneyland and will likewise permeate the Florida "Vacation Kingdom" when it opens in October.
The $500,000 Preview Center is open without charge every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located on the shore of Lake Buena Vista at the intersection of Interstate-4 and State Route 535, 15 miles southwest of Orlando.
Guests can view construction progress photographs, see scale models, artist renderings and a colorful motion picture outlining the first five years of the mammoth project. The Preview Center also features beautifully landscaped grounds, picturesque Lake Buena Vista and a Topiary Zoo featuring sculptured animal-shaped shrubs being grown for the "Magic Kingdom" theme park.
Press information and convention service facilities, a souvenir gift shop, refreshments and executive reception areas also are included in the Preview Center. More than 600 letters are being received each day inquiring about accommodations and reservations and requesting information about Walt Disney World's "Vacation Kingdom."
Reservations for hotel rooms and camping facilities are being processed and should be directed to '"Reservations Office, P.O. Box 78, Orlando, Florida, 32802.
When the rest of Walt Disney World opened to the public on October 1st, 1971, the Preview Center was closed. Most of the hostesses moved on to new jobs at other parts of WDW. One of them, Debbie Dane, had by that time already been chosen as Walt Disney World's first ambassador.
While the Preview Center building still exists and looks little changed from the outside, its original interior elements were removed or destroyed in preparation for future uses. Since 1971, it has had several identities. For many years it was known as the Reception Center where guests staying at the Preview Boulevard hotels were directed to check in. It once housed a post office and most recently served as headquarters for the Amateur Athletic Union. So you can't walk in and see concept art, a scale model or WDW's original souvenir counter. But in a way it's nice that you can still drive into the same parking lot that met the very first WDW visitors and try to imagine that this building is all that exists - the first breath in a big balloon that would soon burst into pop culture and theme park history.
Phase One construction of Walt Disney World was a major undertaking. It was billed as the largest private construction project on the planet at that time, and probably was.
Cars and buses were never meant to serve as primary means of transportation at Walt Disney World, and during the first 15 years of the resort one could see that while both modes were present and not on the verge of replacement, a clear effort was made to provide viable alternatives. Alternatives which, in some cases, would be the only way to get from one place to another short of walking. That was another age and era, of course. And that's the only era of WDW transportation that WYW looks at because looking at cars and buses? No fun!
Subtopics: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom General Topics, Main Street USA & Tomorrowland
Once referred to by the company as the "crowning jewel" of Walt Disney World, the Magic Kingdom has remained the resort's most popular park since its opening date of October 1, 1971.
Based on Disneyland's winning arrangement of nostalgia, history, fantasy and futurism, Florida's Magic Kingdom did not face the same type of economic uncertainty that followed its older sibling's July, 1955 debut. Within two months of admitting its first guests, the park was drawing monstrous holiday crowds that tied traffic in knots from Winter Haven to Orlando. This successful visitation only dipped seriously once, during the energy crisis that began in 1973, but shortly rebounded with a ferocity that has continued, if not intensified, to the present day. Compare some video from the 1980s and 1990s to a modern-day trip to the park... there used to be days where you could walk through the lands at a casual pace without tripping into untamed hordes or finding seas of strollers around each corner, and the only "return time" you'd be concerned with would entail Diamond Horseshoe seating.
No one who has visited both Disneyland and WDW's Kingdoms denies that the former has the upper hand in terms of intimacy. The Florida version was designed to handle many more visitors than Disneyland and was built on a substantially larger scale. The results can be off-putting to people who grew up with the California park and, even after decades of tree growth, visitors to the WDW Magic Kingdom will sometimes notice how some of the buildings look like warehouses that need a little more trimming (and in some cases had trimming added long after they were built) to mask their volume. The closure of the Skyway, however, helped diminish that perception by making it harder to see the park's many big rooftops. The total rebuilding of California elements, like its Fantasyland in 1983, brought additional charm to DL that has rarely been achieve at WDW and today's Disneyland is so well-manicured and maintained compared to WDW's Magic Kingdom that one could believe they weren't run by the same company. Those disparities notwithstanding, Florida is where Disneyland's designers honed their craft - correcting many crowd flow issues and topping much of their previous work with improved versions of Disneyland attractions (making later renovations less crucial) or all-new creations. It's also where millions of people have their first exposure to a themed Disney experience and love it, even without the Matterhorn.
Growing up next to the Magic Kingdom and working there for years certainly made the park personally significant to me, but those were almost coincidental factors. What was of equal meaning is that within the park's 90-something acres once existed the most impressive combined applications of spatial design, functional harmony, architectural detail, color theory, thematic content and conceptual diversity that I could personally imagine. Between 1971 and 1986, no other place in my sphere of reference* did so much to entertain, so well, for such multitudes amongst so vast a selection of backdrops and motifs. Disneyland may have run a close second, but WDW's first theme park once represented a marriage of form, function and scope that made it supreme by implementing the lessons of Disneyland on more ambitious and cohesive levels.
* I hadn't traveled anywhere yet, so I based this assumption on the account of others who had traveled the world. No one ever said WDW was more amazing than Paris, and I suspect it never was, but the MK had to have been more amazing than any specific 90 acres of Paris just because the former had animatronic elephants, horrifying witches and a submarine ride.
As the park matured, some of its early attractions, shops and restaurants were closed, replaced or changed at an exponentially increasing pace. From the first losses (Adventureland's Safari Club arcade in 1972 and Frontierland's Westward Ho shop in 1973) to the ones that really began transforming the Kingdom's character (The Mickey Mouse Revue in 1980 and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1994), enough rides and other venues have closed to populate an entirely separate park - albeit one that will never get built. The same goes for a wide variety of plans that were considered for the Kingdom but came short of reaching the construction phase.
Widen Your World is committed to propagating recollections of those lost, forgotten or changed institutions. The Magic Kingdom content below shows a clear bias in favor of components related to the park's first 20 years, mainly in its absence of content related to most later time periods. It was those earliest years when WDW's crowning jewel sparkled with a radiance that was perhaps imperfect but still as brilliant a theme park as one had ever been.
Adventureland Subtopics: Adventureland Merchandise, Adventureland Veranda, Caribbean Plaza, Jungle Cruise, Sunshine Tree Terrace, Swiss Family Treehouse & Tropical Serenade
"Adventure" is a pretty common theme park noun. When I was a kid, adventure covered a lot of stuff but most of it had to do with going somewhere a little unfamiliar and doing something a little dangerous (something short of all-out war). It could have been outer space, and there were outer space adventures to be had on the other side of the Magic Kingdom, but in terms of where the word "adventure" was anchored by name at WDW it was Africa, India, Indonesia, Asia, the South Pacific, South America and the Caribbean. That's lots of territory... almost anywhere that a 1950s Hollywood film studio might regard as an exotic location, based on how different the people who lived there looked and behaved from the average 1950s American moviegoer. Even if the demographically average 1971 citizens of Nairobi or Shanghai had distinct languages and appearances from the demograpthically typical 1971 citizens of St. Louis or Chicago, by that time it was possible to expect that the meeting of all those cultures might yield as much understanding of what makes us all the same as it might an examination of how curious were our differences (as per It's A Small World). But that wasn't the most likely outcome, especially if the meeting took place in a park designed by people who'd spent decades developing the taste of your average 1950s American moviegoer.
So, as it had been at Disneyland in 1955, WDW's 1971 Adventureland was based largely in cinematic precepts. It was a Hollywood take on Tahiti, Bali, China and Trinidad in Orlando with touches of the Congo wherever an art director decided to add them. And the native population was mostly out of sight, with the majority of your guides, hostesses and hosts being young (and predominantly white) American kids. They were kids whose siblings, friends and former classmates might have been in Vietnam at the time, fighting a real war rooted in a tragic misunderstanding of, among other things, how different the Vietnamese were from the Chinese. Since MK construction began just a year after the Tet Offensive, there was no chance that anything in WDW's Adventureland would harken directly to Vietnam. Had construction begun in the late 1970s, I think there probably wouldn't have been anything that referenced Cambodian, Thai or Balinese architecture built in a Disney park for another quarter century. It was a sensitive time where our nation's collective consciousness surrounding Indonesia was concerned, but Adventureland's Jungle Cruise still took you to the Irrawaddy River (at Disneyland they'd been calling it the Mekong). Where Disney's concerned, even that could have been considered controversial.
Either way it's hard for many WDW visitors to pinpoint the exact origins of Adventureland's architecture, and in some cases difficult by design. Only a few key structures, such as the Jungle Cruise's Cambodian ruins, can be easily traced to their inspiration. But you clearly know you're not on Main Street anymore the second you glimpse the first few buildings and the more diverse vegetation. It's meant to evoke the aura of someplace new and exciting whereas Main Street and even the hub's sheltered pavilions are rooted in something far more familiar to the average American guest. As with most of the Magic Kingdom, not a great deal changed in terms of Adventureland's core "look" for many years after the park's opening. The personality of the land began to shift with alterations that began in the 1990s, leading to what guests experience in the 21st century - still Adventureland, but one that veers from the original plan in ways that no one at WED would have imagined in 1969.
Although the Columbia Harbour House always had the most enviable combination of possible factors (including location, compartmentalization, theming and massive second story coolness) working to make it the most enigmatic Magic Kingdom restaurant, it spent the first 22 years of its lifespan with the Adventureland Veranda nipping at its heels. Having occupied the space that would later be known as the Skipper Canteen, this patchwork cathedral of tropical tile patterns, hardwood latticework and French-colonial lighting fixtures was a wonderful place where guests could relax amidst the romanticized sounds of Hawaii and the acclimatized flavors of Asia - hovering over the Hub canal in one direction and a stone's throw from the Swiss Family Treehouse in the other.
Whereas Disneyland's Adventureland began abruptly beneath a thatched-roof portal just steps away from that park's riverless hub, with the Enchanted Tiki Room entrance actually positioned before its host land's borders, in Florida there was such a conscious implementation of pacing that the Adventureland entry bridge deposited visitors at the perimeter of this pleasant eatery (whose architecture spoke passively to the experience ahead), while the branches and boughs of the first attraction still lie many yards ahead down a winding path. With this structure to the right and the edges of a dense jungle to the left, it made for a gradual, enticing setup.
The Veranda building managed to look Caribbean, Chinese, African and Polynesian all at the same time - depending on one's vantage point and level of interest in observing the details. It's maybe as great an example as any other in the Magic Kingdom of Disney's ability to interpret popular conceptions of distant locales and, in turn, reinvent those same conceptions. Inside, the furnishings were also melded, with dark wooden paneling, earth-colored tile floors, high ceilings braced by ornate rafters and flowery brass chandeliers. It was a setting of oblique, half-tamed elegance that borrowed from a wider range of influences than I am probably aware even decades after first wondering on the topic.
To the east of the restaurant was an outdoor dining area, the real veranda more or less, that was largely built up on piers that adjoined the canal. In days of yore, a child dining on this side of the building could have easily chucked an egg roll smack into the middle of a passing Swan Boat with little chance of recrimination. To the west of the restaurant was another open-air dining area ensconced within the alcoves opposite the Swiss Family Treehouse, a space which by recent accounts had by late 2010 disappeared due to an expansion of the men's restroom adjoining the Adventureland/Frontierland breezeway. About midway between the Veranda's latitudinal boundaries was another patio, a high, glass-ceilinged decagonal space with a brick floor. Nearby, the Aloha Isle juice bar operated from an enclosed portion of the Veranda's facade. Sometime around 2015 Aloha Isle traded names with the tiki room-adjacent Sunshine Tree Terrace and what has happened since then I don't know.
The Adventureland Veranda opened with the park, at which time its menu was described simply as "Polynesian" in most print references. A first-year offering, as detailed in WDW News , was Chicken Fiji. A 1972 entry in that same publication listed the Veranda as serving chicken, ribs and shrimp. In 1976, the park's guide book read "Polynesian entrees, hot sandwiches and soft drinks in a South Seas setting."
In October 1977, Japanese soy sauce giant Kikkoman stepped in to fill what seemed like a custom-built sponsorship void. The guide books, however, do not reflect the menu veering off toward anything overtly Asian until 1986, at which time a mention of "oriental sandwiches" hints at the magnetic presence of what we already believe to have been there in 1980, if not sooner... the Teriyaki Burger! This was a piece of probably-not-beef sharing its bun with a slice of pineapple and corn-syrup-sticky teriyaki sauce, a concoction which Kikkoman had perfected in 1961. The Shrimp Fried Rice with Egg Roll or South Seas Fruit Salad were among the other choices for a discerning explorer's palate. Years before the park ever experimented with waffle fries, the Veranda served the thinnest, soggiest french fries in the world which, when that Teriyaki sauce got all over them, were just amazing. Also worth mentioning is a highly suspect staple of many a childhood Magic Kingdom visit - the Sweet and Sour Hot Dog. That delicacy, unfortunately, did not survive menu changes during the restaurant's later years.
Below is a representational overview of the Veranda menu from its last year of operation, 1994:
MICKEY'S VALUE MEAL
STIR FRY BEEF WITH BROCCOLI AND WHITE RICE Includes regular beverage $5.74
SHRIMP FRIED RICE AND EGG ROLL $4.59
SWEET AND SOUR CHICKEN WITH WHITE RICE $4.84
QUARTER POUND TERIYAKI BURGER with French Fries or fresh fruit $3.54
LO MEIN SALAD lo mein noodles served with garden vegetables and pineapple in an oriental dressing $3.79
A LA CARTE
FRENCH FRIES $1.19
EGG ROLLS $3.04
COCA-COLA, DIET COKE OR SPRITE $1.41 & $1.66
FRESH ORANGE JUICE $1.26
BOTTLED WATER $1.84
WHOLE, 1% OR CHOCOLATE MILK $.61
Cast members at the Veranda were bestowed with the double blessing of a relatively tranquil work environment and some of the best costumes in the park. From the mid-70s until April 1994, they wore the outrageous turquoise, green and black outfits that screamed "groovy" with a voice rooted firmly in 1969. It was virtually impossible to look bad in those getups, and for this and other reasons I lament never having worn one during my time as a Kingdom cast member. The costumes were enough to make one overlook the polyester reality, although former cast member Don Gillinger said the mens' version were not uncomfortable if compared to those just down the street at the Pecos Bill Cafe. The women's version, as shown in photos on this page, was almost as wild as the old Tropical Serenade dresses. Later Veranda costumes, such as those worn at Aloha Isle in the 2000s, did not exude the same wiggy flair.
Adding to the incomparable atmosphere of the Veranda was its criminally soothing loop of background music. Foremost in my childhood memories are the gentle strains of steel guitar, in songs like "Hawaiian Paradise" and "Blue Hawaii," that rolled through the dining areas and out onto the Adventureland streets like waves of enchantment. Those tracks and others, which were part of what I'm calling the "Kikkoman Loop" and are detailed further below, were the ones that played for the longest stretch of the Veranda's operating years.
Research conducted by Foxxfur of Passports to Dreams Old and New, however, revealed in 2008 that there was an earlier loop compiled by the late Jack Wagner (the highly revered "voice of Disneyland/WDW" for decades and the genius who prescribed for the parks so many esoteric compositions) in July 1973. This discovery suggests that the Veranda may have gone without a dedicated BGM track for its first 21 months of operation, but nobody can say for sure. It's also unlikely that more conclusive information on this point will surface*. Those earliest known tracks had a more oriental flair to them and included Percy Faith's "Shrangri-La."
As for the Kikkoman Loop, I was able to identify some of the tracks as being from conductor and longtime Disney musical collaborator George Bruns' kind-of-rare Moonlight Time In Old Hawaii LP. Michael Sweeney, a dedicated WDW music researcher and (thankfully) WYW supporter, identified all of the other tracks, and below is a listing of the eleven tracks:
Ua Haav Arve Are - South Sea Serenaders, Beachcomber Serenade: Mood Music of Tahiti and Hawaii
Blue Hawaii - George Bruns, Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii
Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii - George Bruns, Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii
Now is the Hour - Arthur Lyman, Pearly Shells
Harbor Lights - Duke Kamoku & His Islanders, Golden Hawaiian Hits
Song of the Islands - Duke Kamoku & His Islanders, Golden Hawaiian Hits
Moon of Manakoora - Duke Kamoku & His Islanders, Golden Hawaiian Hits
Lovely Hula Girl - Duke Kamoku & His Islanders, Golden Hawaiian Hits
Hawaiian Paradise - George Bruns, Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii
Moonlight and Shadows - George Bruns, Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii
Whispering Sea - Henry Mancini, The Versatile Henry Mancini
If you want to hear the live version, visit WYW's YouTube channel. These songs were not only easing to the senses, they also made the Veranda safer for diners (generally causing them to chew their food more slowly and thoroughly). The Kikkoman Loop was retired in early 1993. It was replaced by the then-current background track for the majority of Adventureland, a marimba-heavy selection of songs that were more upbeat and less romantic.
Here's a fun fact about the Veranda: One 1977 version of the Magic Kingdom guide book had, on its Adventureland page, only two pictures of Adventureland and BOTH of them were of the Veranda, which somehow managed to beat out hippos, pirates, tikis and all other manner of exotic imagery. Wow to that!
The Adventureland Veranda entered into a cyclical operating schedule in late 1993, which kept it closed two days out of the week except in peak seasons. Less than a year later, its doors were permanently closed. A similar approach was taken with Liberty Square's Columbia Harbour House the following year, but that decision was reversed due to apparent guest demands. In early 1998, the Veranda "reopened" in only the most base sense while Frontierland's Pecos Bill Cafe underwent a major rehab. The Veranda menu items at that time were entirely generic renditions of once-exotic plates, meaning hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries - all free of the embellishments this restaurant once foisted upon them. Beyond that, the Veranda has been used on occasion as a staging area for special events such as children's birthday party packages. One WYW follower subscriber said the restaurant reopened briefly during the Christmas 2010 season, but I have no extra information to that end.
Back in the 1990s, the Veranda presented one of the earlier Magic Kingdom case studies in are you serious? By closing up shop a few months ahead of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea's permanent closure in September and proceeding to sit empty (save for those occasional special events and a couple peak season stints) for the next 21 years, the one-time oasis of South Seas languor served as a nice poke in the eye to park visitors who missed both its atmospheric charm and its great menu items. Everyone working in the park in mid-1990s knew that the Veranda was closed as means of reducing labor costs - other high-capacity restaurants in the park could take up the slack for a fraction of the staffing demands necessary to keep a completely separate location running on a full schedule. But at what price to the park's environment? It's a constant reminder of how a WDW that once infused every possible corner with places to relax and discover unexpected details had set out in the mid-1990s to unceremoniously dismantle as many of those wonderful hideaways as possible**. That wouldn't have been so obvious if all the Veranda ever consisted of was quiet interior spaces, but the building's exterior constituted a quarter of Adventureland's exterior elevations. And for guests entering from the Hub, it was the first quarter. So whereas the average building on Main Street USA housed some ground-level approachability for those wanting to see what lies within, the ex-Veranda building offered nothing more than closed doors and shuttered windows for a seeming eternity.
This finally changed in December 2015 when The Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen opened in the former Veranda location. The exterior was virtually unchanged as a result but the inside once again had purpose and identity, which is all a restaurant really wants if you've ever spoken to one at length.
* There are plenty of archaeologists out there looking for dinosaur bones and mummies, yet so few trying to shake far more important park BGM information out of old WED recording engineers who might be able to clear this stuff up.
** Someone realized around 1995 that a lot of the park's interior spaces previously marked for merchandise or food sales would make great stockrooms, which they then became.
Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise, the best version of the ride ever built, has seen ZERO new scenes added between 1971 and 2018, when I last updated this paragraph, and would STILL better than the California, Tokyo and Hong Kong versions if it had been properly maintained. Disneyland's Jungle Cruise has seen so much new and renovated content since 1955 that, even knowing pretty much what the changes were, the thought of tracking them chronologically is exhausting to me. But in Florida we saw only seen queue upgrades, new boats and spiel changes. Not a single new animated figure was been introduced to the ride in over 40 years and some were actually removed. So for it to still be the best version means that it must have opened in a nearly perfect state of existence, built to impress for the long run, which was pretty much the case.
Aside from appearing to be more spread out over a larger area, not very much about Walt Disney World's Jungle Cruise would have tipped 1971 guests off to any big differences between itself and the Disneyland original as they first approached the entrance. The queue building and dock area looked similar to California's, just wider. As for the ride, a series of scene variations between DL and WDW appeared as the Florida boats drifted into the Amazon and the Congo rivers, but point-for-point there was a fairly balanced set of disparate vignettes. WDW had several new scenes designed specifically for its ride, but California's version still started off with a trip past picturesque Asian ruins that were conspicuously absent in Florida until the final third of the journey. That's when WDW played its ace with the flooded Cambodian temple and made DL's crumbling columns and ancient statuary seem pleasant in comparison. WDW took its Jungle Cruise riders right INTO the the ruins' inky black heart with no assurances as to what lie ahead and claimed the prize for mystique and drama with a Haunted Mansion-y, dark ride-y twist. Bravo, Marc Davis, bravo.
That temple comes out of this long-winded "tribute" covered in laurels since this site is all about seminal aspects of WDW that are (or at least once were) unique to Florida. Below you can also find a rundown of other WDW Jungle Cruise scenes that had not yet been discussed much, or at all, online prior to the first version of this page. Some appeared in the ride upon its opening in 1971 and remain, some were only ever realized in California during a 1976 rehab, one was adapted for use elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom and one only existed for a few months in Florida before being dismantled ... and never appeared elsewhere. And since JC was one of the WDW attractions I worked as an MK West 'Operations host' in the 1980s, there is also some sentimentality buried in the neverending paragraphs.
The first Jungle Cruise was an original component of Disneyland, which opened in July 1955. Culling thematic material from Disney's True-Life Adventures series (specifically The African Lion, which would be released in theaters that same year) and 1951's The African Queen, artist Harper Goff, landscaper Bill Evans and engineer Bob Mattey were key members of the team crafting a "Tropical Rivers of the World" ride. Goff was instrumental in persuading Walt Disney to abandon early plans to populate the river and its banks with live animals and turn to robotic substitutes.* While the ride's name changed, the basic concept - intrepid skippers chartering boats full of guests down the Mekong, Amazon, Congo and Nile for encounters with creatures both exotic and threatening - was in place at the offset and prevails to the present day.
Early WDW publicity materials and models show that the Jungle Cruise was part of the WDW Phase One Master Plan from the project's first iteration. The Magic Kingdom was intended to be an upgraded version of Disneyland that would also handle a larger number of visitors. The Florida Jungle Cruise added roughly one minute's worth of additional trip time over DL's nine-minute expedition and also included two more boats, in its fleet of sixteen, than the original. A more significant difference in WDW's version was that Marc Davis was the primary designer of the overall experience, while at Disneyland his influence did not set in on the ride until 1964, when figures fleshing out his comical touch were added in the form of the Indian elephant bathing pool, the rhinoceros and trapped safari and an expanded African Veldt. Those same scenes appeared in Florida but they were mixed in with a number of other all-new elements that included Inspiration Falls, giant butterflies, pygmy war canoes, gorillas ransacking a safari camp, a huge (really huge) python, a Bengal tiger, cobras guarding ancient treasure and a family of monkeys fooling around with the same artifacts. So it's a VERY Davis ride that Florida guests enjoyed from the start, along with a spiel that contained more levity than the DL original.
* This made Goff one of the first theme park geniuses to champion mechanical wildlife over the tedious real thing, which would often be sleeping out of guests' view and costing a fortune in food and veterinary care.
Here's an early description of the attraction from the April 1971 edition of a WDW pre-opening newsletter called Walt Disney World News:
JUNGLE CRUISE - Exciting Voyage On Twisting "Danger-Filled" Rivers
"Take a last look at civilization ... you may never see it again," smiles the youthful skipper of the Adventureland jungle launch, a slight ominous hint in his jocular words of caution. With that warning, passengers aboard the unique river launch will take their "final" look at the two-story riverfront building that hugs the shore in Adventureland, serving as the boarding station, and their boat will chug quietly away from the wharf. They are embarking on a high adventure in an exciting voyage along twisting and "danger-filled" rivers that wind through impenetrable and exotic jungles, the African veldt and ancient Cambodian ruins. Along the way they will be threatened by fearsome natives and charging hippos, watch members of a lion family gorge themselves on a fresh kill and delight to the antics of a talking parrot that takes disparaging issue with the crocodiles that surround his tenuous and tiny tree-top sanctuary.
This is the "Jungle Cruise" in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park, and, like its namesake at Disneyland in California, the attraction is expected to be one of the most popular in the Magic Kingdom. The cruise will feature many new and different scenes and situations, however, including the ruins. The Magic Kingdom, a park similar in design and concept to Disneyland, is the focal point of the 2,500 first phase of the Walt Disney World "Vacation Kingdom," due to open in central Florida in October. Guests aboard any of of sixteen 30-passenger jungle river launches will travel through jungles reminiscent of the tropical regions of Africa, South America and Asia, and through the grasslands of southern Africa's veldt. They will come face-to-face with a gigantic python, be menaced by trumpeting African elephants - their ears billowing as they prepare to charge the boat - and they will pass under the plunging, thundering waters of Albert Schweitzer Falls, so close - in fact - that passengers can reach out and feel the mist from the churning falls. In an exotic rain forest, guests will be treated to the croaking antics of giant frogs, as big as Boston bulldogs, and the fragile beauty of butterflies as large as seagulls, as their launches glide quietly past numerous waterfalls and through a foreboding fog that undulates across the river.
But the "Jungle Cruise" will have its moments of humor, too. Moments after their boat passes close to a hissing 25-foot python draped in the branches of a tree, guests will be treated to a scene of madcap merriment as a band of exuberant gorillas takes over a deserted safari camp. Farther along the river, as hosts of lifelike jungle animals watch from the terraced veldt, set among multi-hued rock formations, a frenzied rhinoceros keeps tenacious watch at the base of the tree where he has forced an entire safari party to seek refuge. As the boat passes through the center of a huge elephant pool, passengers will be entertained by the 'shower singing' of an Indian elephant as he sits and soaks in the waterfalls of his jungle spa. Nearby, a baby pachyderm is playfully squirting water into the opening mouth of a docile crocodile. Amid all the excitement, there are the sounds of the jungle animals, including the noisy but unseen claw and fang combat of two ferocious jungle cats. Nearby, natives rise from the undergrowth, threatening with spears poised, while back around the last bend painted warriors continue the ritual of their ceremonial dances near burning skulls, swaying to the mysterious throbbing of tribal drums.
A highlight of the "Jungle Cruise" will be a trip through the ancient Cambodian ruins, inhabited by giant spiders, a menacing tiger, prankster monkeys and larger-than-life king cobras that sway hypnotically in front of the treasure they guard. And waiting around the final bend to welcome guests back to civilization is "Salesman Sam," the South American headhunter, dangling his copious supply of shrunken heads, attempting to entice guests to either become a purchaser or a "purchase." "Sam," as well as most of the natives and animals in the "Jungle Cruise," are products of "Audio-Animatronics," a sophisticated Disney-patented system that gives lifelike actions to three-dimensional figures. "Audio-Animatronics" is a unique application of space-age electronics, combining and synchronizing voices, music and sound effects with the movement of animated objects.
The Jungle Cruise will be one of approximately 40 attractions awaiting guests in the Magic Kingdom when it opens in October."
Fantasyland has always been my favorite land in any of the Disney parks, and even though Florida's Fantasyland was never quite as dense with detail as the 1983 Disneyland version, WDW's is the one that commands my subconscious as if I were its Manchurian candidate. It probably always will.
The Mickey Mouse Revue was one of the initial attractions conceived by WED Enterprises to become a Walt Disney World "first." It was also the first major (ticketed) attraction to close at Walt Disney World. This show anchored the western portion of Fantasyland's main courtyard, in the theater that later housed Magic Journeys, Legend of the Lion King and Mickey's Philharmagic (which draws from the Mouse Revue's basic concept). The Mickey Mouse Revue played to guests for almost nine years in Florida before it was dismantled and shipped to Tokyo Disneyland for an April 1983 opening.
The idea for the attraction carries back to Walt Disney himself, who described such a show during a 1962 interview. When discussing his new audio-animatronic process and its applications in The Enchanted Tiki Room and an as-yet untitled haunted house attraction, Walt said he had similar plans for "all the Disney characters."
"I have in mind a theater," he said, "and the figures will not only put on the show but be sitting in the boxes with the visitors, heckling. I don't know just when I'll do that."
"Just when" turned out to be October, 1971 for Walt's successors. While the show didn't end up with programmed hecklers, it did provide a fantastic venue for 73 Disney characters with musical inclinations. Those characters were represented by 81 separate animated figures (8 of whom were alternate versions that appeared in different onstage locations.)
In the attraction's holding area, which was appointed in hues of rose and pink, the walls were lined with trompe l'oeil paintings of Mickey (and one with Minnie also) in costumes from several of his more famous roles, from Steamboat Willie to the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia. Guests waited here before a host or hostess signaled that it was time to enter the pre-show theater. At that time, they were ushered through a small portal on the east wall and into a room lined with several tiers of viewing platforms separated by lean rails (which will not support your weight or the weight of your children so please please please don't sit on them).
The pre-show was an eight minute film that traced Mickey's career and the use of sound in his films. The first portion of the film was narrated by an animated soundtrack that wiggled and jumped its way across the screen in time with the sounds it was making (an effect similar to one used in Disney's The Three Caballeros, in 1945, where Donald Duck gets mixed up in the soundtrack of a frantic song.) At the end of the pre-show film, the focus was shifted to Mickey's role as host in the theme parks. The final scene was live action footage of Disney characters pouring out through the front of the castle to a jazzed-up version (i.e., with a freaky bass guitar riff that typified most of Disney's early 1970s attempts to prove its hipness to the "younger generation" while simultaneously trying to demonstrate via cheesy Kurt Russell films that boys need not have shoulder-length hair to win the hearts of girls) of the Mickey Mouse March. Mickey came to the front of the scene and urged guests to follow him along into the theater on their right. "Come along folks, it's time for the Mickey Mouse Musical Revue!"*
* The working title for the attraction was The Mickey Mouse Musical Revue prior to its opening. The pre-show film had evidently been shot and overdubbed before the final name was decided upon.
Then guests entered the main theater through one of several pink automatic doors on their right. The room contained thirteen rows of seats facing an 86-foot long stage. The proscenium was draped with a huge red curtain and flanked by two smaller stages resembling box seats. Painted in the center of the curtain were the traditional theater icons, the comedy and tragedy masks - traditional aside from the similarities to Mickey, as both masks had mouse ears.
Once everyone was seated, a host or hostess got on the house microphone and reminded everyone not to eat, drink, smoke or use flash bulbs during the show. The room grew dark and the sound of an unseen orchestra tuning their instruments filled the room while the curtains separated and were pulled back toward the wings. In the center of the stage, the shadow of Mickey appeared against a secondary curtain. Then Mickey came into view on his bright red pedestal as it rose from the pit. The orchestra soon rose around him.
Spread out across 35 feet of stage space, the orchestra's members**, numbering 23, ranged from cartoon short stars such as Minnie, Goofy, Daisy and Pluto to earlier feature film personalities like Dumbo, Timothy Mouse, the Mad Hatter, March Hare, the Dormouse, Gus and Jaq all the way up to more recent (for 1971) film performers like Baloo, Kaa, King Louie, Winnie the Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit. Their instruments were varied: tubas, tympani and trumpets, ukuleles, kazoos and clarinets. Kaa played his own tail like a flute, which still seems as absolutely strange to me now as it did when I was six.
The orchestra played a medley of familiar Disney tunes, starting with "Heigh Ho," then moving on to "Whistle While You Work," "When You Wish Upon A Star" and "Hi Diddle Dee Dee."
At the conclusion of that brief overture, Dumbo's tuba intoned the first few notes of "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf" as the wolf's shadow snuck across the rear curtain toward center stage. Further right a section of the curtain rose to reveal the Three Little Pigs in a cross-section of Practical Pig's brick house. The pigs played and sang a few seconds of their signature song before the curtain closed over them and another section lifted to the left.
The next vignette featured Snow White and some forest animals sitting on a wooded hillside. She sang a version of "I'm Wishing," the same version that emanated from Snow White's Adventure's wishing well at WDW until 1994, while the animals listened in. As Snow White finished, an adjacent area of the hillside came into view from behind another section of rising curtain. Here the Seven Dwarfs stood in their cottage, playing "The Silly Song." The molds from which these dwarfs were cast were reused many years later to create the dwarfs that now inhabit the cottage scenes in both Disneyland and WDW's revamped Snow White rides, as well those in Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland...making the latter park home to two complete sets of dwarfs. In the Mickey Mouse Revue, the dwarfs sang part of the song with Snow White's help before the curtain lowered on their setting.
To the far right end of the stage the curtain rose on a scene from Alice In Wonderland, with Alice standing in the midst of fifteen oversized flowers. As Alice and the flowers swayed in time, she sang "All In The Golden Afternoon." Alice's stage voice, like that of most other characters in this production, was a marked departure from her film voice. Much like the Darlene Gillespie version that plays in Disneyland's Storybook Land, this Alice sounded more mature and polished than did a young Kathryn Beaumont. This scene was the best in the show visually - every inch of it looked like it was crafted of confectioner's sugar and the colors popped like fireworks.
The next scene was from "The Three Caballeros," the show's most animated and comical segment. As soon as Alice's song drew to a close, a flying carpet rose from the pit to the left of the orchestra. On the carpet were Donald, Panchito and Jose Carioca. They broke out into the main theme from "Three Caballeros" in a blaze of music and color, with Donald on maracas, Jose on guitar and Panchito firing two pistols. Each shot sent sparks of bright light streaking across the room. The three had barely begun their song when the lights went out on the carpet. Instantaneously, Panchito and Jose appeared (still singing) on the small side stage to the audience's right. Then Panchito fired a pistol and the glow of his bullet raced across the stage, illuminating Donald on the left side stage. Donald shook his maracas vigorously and continued the song like the frantic duck he is. With the sound of another ricocheting bullet, he disappeared and reappeared on the right side stage. Another shot and Panchito and Jose popped up where Donald had been just seconds prior. Moments later the three were reunited on the carpet, where they quickly finished the song and disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived. This was definitely a highlight of the show. The sight of Donald wiggling around so fast (in three dimensions, no less) was absolutely infectious.
The next vignette began with the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella, in her scullery maid outfit, standing at the far left side of the stage. The Fairy Godmother sang "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and waved her wand around. In a shower of twinkling lights, Cinderella was transformed into her princess incarnation. Then the rear curtain lowered as a projection of Cinderella and Prince Charming, as silhouettes, danced across it in a spotlight. They sang "So This Is Love" as they waltzed. Clusters of hearts framed them on the curtain. And, yes, this was the most boring part of the show.
When the projection faded out, the sound of the orchestra came rising up from the pit. To the right, Brer Fox, Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit rose into view and began singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." Fans of Splash Mountain and Song of the South might wonder how it came to pass that these three resolved to put aside their longstanding homicidal feuding and join each other onstage in song...but remember, Kaa played his tail like a flute! As they sang, the orchestra rose beside them. The Three Caballeros reappeared also, and then the rear curtain lifted to reveal all of the show's scenes at once. The houses of the Three Little Pigs and Seven Dwarfs were gone, leaving all the characters contrasted against a brightening sky in the background. Cinderella now stood with Prince Charming, and everyone joined in the song. A rainbow gleamed across the horizon as the voices and instruments of all the characters reached a crescendo.
At the close of the song, the entire stage fell dark save for a spotlight on Mickey. His pedestal spun to face the audience as the other characters sang the "Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater." Mickey, all choked up, spoke. "Well folks, that concludes our show, we hope you enjoyed it..." Then, as he let out a little mouse laugh, the main curtain was drawn and the show was over.
The total show time came out to only 9 minutes 30 seconds, which made it a relatively short Disney stage production. Yet it used far more characters than any of its predecessors or 1971 counterparts.
The specifics of why the Revue was removed from Florida are not well documented, but it's fairly easy to connect the dots. For one thing, the show opened in 1971 as an "E" ticket attraction, denoting that the company anticipated it to be a top draw...just like the Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland. But whereas the Country Bear show was so popular that its queue required the closure of a gift shop to keep the line out of the street (see Westward Ho), the Mouse Revue seldom drew a comparable crowd. In 1973 it was changed to a "D" ticket, which is the only time I've ever heard of an attraction dropping its admission rank. When representative of the Oriental Land Co. began touring Disneyland and WDW in the 1970s and choosing attractions that would be replicated for their new Tokyo Disneyland park, the Mickey Mouse Revue made their list. Given the production's massive cast, the least expensive means of satisfying that request would be to send the original overseas rather than create a duplicate version. Given that the show wasn't fully achieving its capacity aims in Florida, and possibly in view of Walt Disney Productions' cash-strapped position due to EPCOT Center construction costs, this particular show's relocation overseas turned out to be a sad concession. It was the only attraction at either DL or WDW that was shipped to Tokyo outright.
As mentioned above there were 81 different animated figures in the show. Eight were duplicates that either appeared in different spots (the Three Caballeros) or in different clothing (Cinderella) during the show. How did the project's head designer Bill Justice settle on the characters who would be represented? Early concept models do show that there were at least three characters slated for inclusion in the orchestra who didn't make it: Horace Horsecollar, Clara Cluck and the Big Bad Wolf.
In order of appearance, here are the players that made the final cut and, where applicable, their instruments:
1. Mickey Mouse - baton, 2. Mad Hatter - bass clarinet, 3. March Hare - same bass clarinet, 4. Dormouse, 5. Winnie the Pooh - kazoo, 6. Rabbit - slide whistle, 7. Piglet - harmonica, 8. Minnie Mouse - violin, 9. Daisy Duck - cello, 10. Uncle Scrooge - ukulele, 11. Monty (city mouse) - clarinet, 12. Abner (country mouse) - saxophone, 13. Pluto - high-hat cymbal, 14. Huey - trumpet, 15. Dewey - trumpet, 16. Louie - trumpet, 17. Gus - trombone, 18. Jaq - same trombone, 19. Goofy - bass viola, 20. Dumbo - tuba, 21. Timothy - helps with tuba, 22. Kaa - his own tail!, 23. King Louie - xylophone, timpani, etc., 24. Baloo - flute, 25. Practical Pig - brick organ, 26. Fifer Pig - accordion, 27. Fiddler Pig - fiddle, 28. Snow White, 29. Bluebird, 30. Doe, 31. Fawn, 32. & 33. Squirrels, 34 & 35. Quail, 36 through 40. Rabbits, 41. Raccoon, 42. Sneezy - oboe, 43. Dopey, flute, 44. Grumpy - pipe organ, 45. Doc - lute, 46. Bashful - accordion, 47. Happy - mandolin, 48. Sleepy - fiddle, 49. Alice, 50. through 52. Pansies, 53. Daffodil, 54. & 55. Tulips, 56. & 57. Shy Little Violets, 58. White Rose, 59. Red Rose, 60. Iris, 61. & 62. Morning Glories, 63. Dandelion, 64. Tiger Lily, 65. Donald Duck #1 - maracas, 66. Panchito #1 - pistols, 67. Jose Carioca #1 - guitar, 68. Donald #2, 69. Panchito #2, 70. Jose #2, 71. Donald #3, 72. Panchito #3, 73. Jose #3, 74. Fairy Godmother, 75. Cinderella #1 - workmaid, 76. Cinderella #2 - ballgown, 77. Cinderella #3 - ballgown, 78. Prince Charming, 79. Brer Fox, 80. Brer Rabbit, 81. Brer Bear
In Tokyo, the Mickey Mouse Revue played almost identically to its staging in Florida for another 26 years. The beautiful holding area art was faithfully reproduced, the pre-show film footage was the same except for the final live-action segment and the show scenes ran in the same order with the same music. The largest difference was that the voices were recorded in Japanese - which actually made it more entertaining. There were some minor changes in the set colors and a handful of modifications to the characters themselves (Kaa's eyes were in slightly more of a hypnotic trance mode in Japan than in Florida, but he still played his tail.) In 2008 news came out that Tokyo Disneyland would replace The Mickey Mouse Revue with its own version of Mickey's Philharmagic. The former production closed May 25, 2009 to make way for the 3-D movie. History will judge whether the switch from a one-of-a-kind show rooted in old-school Disney animatronics and classic film scores, handcrafted by WED Enterprises' best and brightest, for a projection-based show digitally crafted by WDI's 21st century regime was a stroke of genius or just another step along the road to all original WDW attractions vanishing. Or maybe history won't judge. Let's just judge it right now to be safe?
* The working title for the attraction was The Mickey Mouse Musical Revue prior to its opening. The pre-show film had evidently been shot and overdubbed before the final name was decided upon.
** The figures ranged in height from 12" (the Dormouse) to 6' (Baloo), not counting the long-stemmed Alice flowers. Mickey stood at 42" tall, and at the time of the show's opening was Disney's most complicated Audio-Animatronic figure. Mickey was capable of 33 functions, the same as the much taller (6'4") Lincoln figure housed in the nearby Hall of Presidents, but all of the mouse's mechanical grace had to be stowed in a much smaller frame, which was a considerable task.
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 uninformed for failing to call out 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 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. It didn't 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 clear by that time that Pooh's impact on American culture was heavier 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, while 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 legitimately 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 and sequel. 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 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 series of peaceful gatherings in 1998 by 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 a 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 with Ross Plesset (into which I inserted ridiculous questions) 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 love, or 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 always try to ride it when I'm in the park - 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 and then I know those people are jerks!
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, honestly, 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 snarky, posthumous rationales for why it had to go down that way. It didn't. The people making the decisions had not two sticks of wit to rub together. That's it.
"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
As Captain Nemo's famous metal-plated Nautilus submarines took their final voyages on September 5, 1994, a chapter of Walt Disney World history sank in their chlorinated wake. By that time the Magic Kingdom had already lost attractions unique to Florida (like The Mickey Mouse Revue, Plaza Swan Boats and If You Had Wings) but it hadn't yet lost such a high-profile and popular ride, a ride with such an immense scope and such undeniable appeal. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which had been synonymous with the park since 1971 and entertained millions of visitors annually, was the first WDW giant to fall.
20K (as the ride was called by, first, Disney cast members and later also by its fans) was a giant not just because it took up 20% of the real estate in Fantasyland, and did so prominently with a lagoon that contained 11.5 million gallons of water, but also because it reached far enough with its content to readily capture the imagination of its riders even when the special effects were not entirely believable. Most guests were enthralled to witness divers corralling sea turtles, an underwater volcano and a giant squid attack firsthand - no matter what the level of approximation. Furthermore, the attraction was a key facet of the Magic Kingdom's personality: an anchor component of the park that nearly all visitors would find themselves passing several times in the course of a day. Although based on Disneyland's Submarine Voyage, 20K surpassed its predecessor in theme, size, art direction and execution, making itself a WDW original in most respects.
20K had helped to define WDW from the offset of "Project Florida," one of the resort's early working names. It was on the original roster of proposed attractions and its concept art was a compelling teaser for the theme park portion of the resort. Additionally, the ride would go a long way toward distinguishing WDW Phase One - the Magic Kingdom in particular - from Disneyland in California.
Disneyland's Submarine Voyage attraction opened in 1959 (it closed in 1998 and reopened in 2007 with a Finding Nemo overlay). The eight-minute trip via nuclear-era submarine began in Tomorrowland's scenic lagoon (where frolicked animated lobsters, sea turtles and myriad species of fish), "descended" to the ocean floor for a look at sunken galleons, the wet side of the polar ice cap, giant squid and the lost city of Atlantis and concluded with a glimpse of a ridiculous-looking sea serpent. Bubble machines and lighting effects contributed to the illusion of depth. Guests may have easily fallen for the submersion hoax providing they didn't look for the water's surface, which could be seen about two feet above their viewing portholes. The eight submarines, each with a capacity of 36 passengers, never dove as much as an inch from their starting position. The sea life animation was limited and probably didn't pass for real with any guests over the age of twelve, but it was well staged... especially the scenery that was contained in a dark show building disguised as a waterfall grotto.
Submarine Voyage was popular enough to warrant a planned East Coast repeat of the attraction in 1967, when designing for WDW began in earnest. But WED (Disney's Design & Engineering firm) artists assigned the Florida version a glamorous new facet: guests would travel inside replicas of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, making the ride a better fit for a home in Fantasyland. From the offset it was clear that this would be one of WDW's cornerstone rides, capitalizing not only on the irresistible concept of an undersea voyage but also tying in directly with a classic work of literature and the company's highly successful 1954 film adaptation of the 1870 Jules Verne novel. This added dimension lent the ride a sense of mystery and romance that its predecessor lacked. It also provided a motif upon which to base the queue area, loading docks, lagoon and the caverns that hid half the show area: Nemo's home base of Vulcania. There was a minor back story issue to contend with, namely that Captain Nemo both in print and on celluloid was a genius, but also a homicidal madman. So why he would want to welcome thousands of strangers daily as "guests" aboard his submarines for a spin around the globe (one that launches from "secret" island headquarters no less) was pretty much unknown. WED dealt with this seeming disagreement by not explaining it all. The inference is simply that, somewhere along the line, Nemo must've had a Dickensian epiphany and decided to offer sightseeing rides.
The twelve submarines were built at the Tampa shipyards, 60 miles southwest of WDW. Never before or since has a Disney attraction been synonymous with such a fantastic ride vehicle. Above the waterline, the subs were strikingly faithful - down to the simulated rivets - to the Harper Goff-designed Nautilus from the film. At 61' in length they were 1/3 scale replicas of the full-size version. Below the surface, they were little less detailed, with either side of the hull lined by 20 small portholes rather than the large main salon window that would have appeared in a completely faithful recreation. To the front and rear of those small portholes was a floodlight for illuminating scenery in the ride's open lagoon at night. The submarines were equipped with drive wheel mechanisms that would ride atop an inverted-V elevated track, as opposed to a recessed trough like that of the Jungle Cruise. The interiors were rendered as Industrial Age function with some Victorian appointments - mainly the red leather cushions - giving it a little bit of form.
The job site in Florida required little excavation since the rest of the park was built up to an average of fifteen feet. Therefore the bottom of the 20K lagoon was able to conveniently rest below Fantasyland street level without breaking the topsoil - while the perimeter was either filled in or lined by the walls of the park's tunnels (directly to the west of the main lagoon were the Kingdom's subterranean employee locker rooms). The show building was erected over the northeast portion of the ride track and its southern facade was shrouded within false rock formations and waterfall pools. The sets were assembled on site with hundreds of scenic pieces fabricated at Disney's MAPO division in California and Florida's Staff Shop. From small bits of coral to immense giant squid, nearly everything was produced in duplicate form so riders on both sides of the submarine would see the 'exact same' scenery at the exact same time. The primary building materials for the set items were fiberglass, concrete and silicon rubber. Ice formations, ancient ruins and diving parties were installed along the floor of the lagoon or suspended from the ceiling of the main show building. Within that warehouse a series of catwalks and bridges permitted work crews access to the mechanisms that would animate many of the ride's effects.
In spite of the years spent on its planning and construction, 20K wasn't ready to open with the rest of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. According to some first-year cast members, problems with the lagoon's ability to hold water delayed the ride's debut - a delinquency noted frequently by journalists visiting the park during its first two weeks. On October 14, however, guests began pouring into Nemo's subs by the thousands, ready to embark on a trip unlike any they'd experienced before.
As the company expected, 20K was extremely popular from the offset. As a result, the permanently sheltered queue area constantly filled to capacity even on moderately busy days, flowing beyond the turnstiles and out into Fantasyland's main thoroughfare. The company's first response to this situation was to add a long green canopy structure that stretched east from the turnstiles down towards the Mad Tea Party (they added similar shade devices at the Haunted Mansion and the Hall of Presidents - all were in place by 1973). So guests approaching 20K often found that their wait began outside the coral wall of the proper queue area and underneath that canopy, where they would stand for up to ten minutes before reaching the entrance turnstiles. Above the turnstiles was a mast flying nautical signal flags which spelt out "20,000 Leagues" in semaphore. Just inside, the queue area was a maze of metal railings and switchbacks ensconced within volcanic rock outcroppings, throughout which were interspersed the vertical beams upon which the metal roof structure was supported. Several ceiling fans were mounted to the overhead ductwork.
From speakers in the ceiling, nautical songs such as "Blow The Man Down" and "Whale of a Tale," played for the waiting crowds. In the midst of the music, Captain Nemo (Disney's Peter Renoudet, whose voice appeared in other Magic Kingdom attractions such as Mission To Mars, The Walt Disney Story and Country Bear Jamboree, gave a marvelous James Mason-esque performance for 20K) provided occasional comments on the ride that guests were preparing to experience and discoursed on the sea, its majestic nature and other cool considerations. For example:
"Modern man's most compelling interest in the ocean lies in its great potential for renewable resources, not only in protein-rich food, but also the wealth of minerals, energy and drugs. Our recent explorations have revealed vast deposits of minerals that can be mined. At Vulcania, we have tapped the ebb and flow of the tides to produce clean and efficient electric power. One of the most promising areas of investigation is in the field of marine biomedicine. We're discovering many antibiotics and other useful drugs in ocean organisms. There are many, many other potentialities to be found in the earth's last frontier. But we must always keep in mind that the bounty of the sea is not limitless - man must be prudent in his exploration and utilization of this vast great storehouse of natural wealth."
Nemo was not only a welcoming presence now, it turned out he was also kind of an ecologist. As guests digested his ruminations (as best they could, because the din of the crowd mixed with the hum of the nearby submarine engines could make any sound from the speakers a muddle), the queue shelter afforded them a panoramic view of the ride's lagoon area without the sun in their eyes. Park visitors could also gaze upon the lagoon from three other vantage points: A) its western rim adjoining the Fantasy Faire tent and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, B) a small portion of its southern edge adjacent to the ride's eastern exit and C) from the Skyway. The lagoon was oblong and its perimeter formed by undulating coral formations broken up by a few sandy beaches with the occasional treasure chest lying about (Magic Kingdom visitors were able to view this body of water until summer of 2004, when the company finally decided to dismantle the lagoon wholesale). Across the liquid expanse was the show building, hidden within the volcanic rock walls and waterfall grottos, into which the submarines disappeared and from which they would reemerge at the conclusion of each ride cycle.
Some of the exact same seafaring song recordings that played in the 20K queue area, among them "The Sailor's Hornpipe" and "A-Roving," could also be heard in the Columbia Harbour House's (Liberty Square) original background music loop. One had to be unoccupied by more productive thoughts or activities to notice it, perhaps, but the fact of the overlap stands. Because of this I used to wonder why WED hadn't placed 20K at the western end of Fantasyland where it could have abutted the Harbour House restaurant and the Yankee Trader shop. Those establishments at the north end of Liberty Square were coastal in architecture, albeit 18th-century Bostonian vs. the 19th-century San Franciscan facades depicted in Disney's 20,000 Leagues film. Either way, it would have made compelling thematic sense to provide 20K riders with the opportunity to dine - just steps away from Nemo's Vulcania - in a restaurant full of old-world maritime decor. With Peter Pan's Flight also really close by, most of the park's nautical motifs (save for Pirates of the Caribbean) would have been pulled together into one corner. So what if the Fantasyland Skyway station had been built closer to the Pinocchio Village Haus, where all the Bavarian woodwork and yodeling could have been consolidated into one section of the park rather than separated by It's A Small World, which itself could have easily been positioned opposite Mr. Toad's Wild Ride? 20K could have sat where the Skyway station was actually erected and given the park an actual wharf district. If you're still not convinced, consider that this arrangement would have also put every attraction in the park with pipe organ music (Swiss Family Treehouse, Mickey Mouse Revue, Haunted Mansion and 20K) west of the castle...at least prior to Snow White's Adventures' 1994 rehab when Snow White's Adventures got a musical dwarfs scene. Maybe the park's designers felt that the open vista across the 20K lagoon would have made it difficult to conceal the Haunted Mansion's boxy show building (which the elevated Skyway station helped to accomplish). But the Hall of Presidents' massive, dull roofline was long visible to anyone on the streets of Frontierland, and the Skyway itself gave everyone the chance to see just how industrial the park appeared from above. Since there was nothing futuristic about 20K, its proximity to Tomorrowland could not have been deemed crucial. There must have been another reason. Maybe it was something to do with how West Fantasyland was once going to center around something called "Pinocchio Street" on early prints. Maybe it doesn't matter.
At about this point most guests would have picked up on the smell of the diesel fuel that powered the subs. The subs originally ran on natural gas, but were converted to Perkins diesel engines prior to the ride's tenth anniversary. For fans of the Disney film - or anyone who listened closely to the voiceovers while standing in line - the odor was a clear sign that Nemo's miraculous source of clean and efficient energy had since been co-opted by the trucking industry.
Nearing the end of the queue, guests were soon greeted by a ride host called the "grouper," possibly the first of Nemo's ambassadors that they would have encountered. 20K ride hosts wore blue and red uniforms that were faithful to those of Nemo's crew in the Disney film. The grouper's job was to direct guests to one of three holding areas (at either front dock, center dock or rear dock) immediately prior to their boarding a sub. Depending on daily attendance projections, 20K could run as many as nine and as few as three submarines at any given time. The number of subs online determined which holding areas were used by the grouper. On an average day 20K could be found running three convoys, or "packs," of two subs each that would typically load and unload from the front and center docks. The rear dock, which loaded from its own small island east of the queue, was typically unused except when the number of subs on line totaled seven or more. In addition to counting out two rows (each with twenty guests) per submarine and directing riders to holding areas, the grouper kept track of how many ride units were running and had to remember which docks to pre-load for each incoming pack of subs. To assist in keeping things straight, the grouper would sometimes use a chart like the one shown below.
Once properly sorted, guests watched as their submarine pulled into its load/unload station and was tethered in place with a thick rope tied to a metal cleat on the dock. Hatches to the front and rear of each sub slowly opened while crewmen waited to lower the hydraulic ramps that allowed guests to transition safely from the dock to the sub and vice versa. Exiting riders were directed out one end of the sub by their driver/helmsman while new riders were brought in the opposite end. Guests descending the narrow twin stairwells into the submarine would find before them a long, rivet-encrusted passage constituting the vehicle's sole passenger chamber.
The sound of Captain Nemo's pipe organ played throughout the cabin, the song being the title theme from the film as a short cycle of music which would repeat for the duration of the ride*. Over this recording guests would soon hear from their helmsman. He was positioned above them, two-thirds of the way toward the front of the cabin, on a platform that placed his upper torso in the submarine's "sail," from which he could look out the vehicle's two convex bubble windows as he piloted the vehicle. On a microphone he instructed incoming guests to continue all the way down the length of the passage before selecting their seat.
Note: Guests heard the voices of two different "helmsmen" during each ride. The first was that of their aforementioned driver, a real employee, who would address them at the beginning and end of the experience. The second was the recorded helmsman whose voice was part of the ride's narration tapes. The two seldom sounded anything alike, and only the latter exchanged words with Nemo as part of the storyline.
The "room" was divided by a partition which formed the seat backs, and to which the circular seat bottoms were hinged. Upon reaching their individual cushions, passengers lowered them into place and sat facing their own private 1' porthole, each equipped with its own air vent. Through the portholes guests would usually peer upward first, just to verify that they were indeed below water. The sight of the surface was always there to greet them. Those on the port side of the sub could view the rock wall below the dock structure, which was encrusted with barnacles and other minute bits of sea life. Guests facing starboard would see the iron and wood supports of the spur dock which separated the ride's loading & unloading lane from the spur line, where inactive subs were often docked. Beyond those support beams guests often faced the portholes of a parked submarine; they may have also glimpsed a member of Nemo's crew (taking his break in the solitude of an empty, opposing vessel) staring back at them.
Back in their own sub, the helmsman issued the standard requests (no eating, drinking, smoking or flash photography) as the loading ramps were lifted up and the hatches at both ends of the sub were lowered. This reduced the cabin's illumination to just a few white, overhead globes and whatever light filtered in through the portholes. At night this made for a mysterious, inky interior right from the beginning of the ride, which reduced the dramatic impact of the deep dive simulation (when subs entered the darkened show building) later in the ride. During daylight hours, the gradual dimming of the cabin made for a more measured and effective experience. Soon the cabin was filled with the sounds of the Nautilus being prepared for its next voyage, beginning with Nemo's directions to "secure ship for sea." As an unseen deck hand removed the holding rope from an exterior cleat on the surface, the submarine slowly began a forward roll out of the loading area.
Once each sub reached the end of the dock and entered the lagoon, Nemo ordered the crew to take the vessel three degrees down. Through the portholes guests saw a mass of bubbles generated by machines on the lagoon floor. This effect could work amazingly well if - as with the Disneyland original - guests didn't see the surface of the water above them. That depended entirely on how far they leaned into the window and, of course, whether they looked up. Regardless, the sight of bubbles going up was a convincing enough means of making people think they were going down for it to be employed again at Epcot's Living Seas pavilion in 1986 (the trick was used in the hydrolators leading to Seabase Alpha), where it was arguably the best part of a painfully lame pavilion. As the bubbles cleared away and the sounds of the sub's horns and mechanics died off, a placid aquatic vista, called the fish plains, came into view. Varied, colorful coral formations inhabited by a range of exotic - albeit nearly motionless - fish. One fish struggled in the grips of an anemone, many others floated amidst seas of kelp. Crabs and lobsters quarreled with each other atop rocks.
Nemo introduced himself over the speaker system, welcomed guests aboard the Nautilus and briefed them on the trip ahead ("We are proceeding on a course that will take us on a voyage 20,000 leagues under the sea. Enroute we will pass below the polar ice cap and then probe depths seldom seen by man"). He didn't explain that by 20,000 leagues he and Jules Verne meant a measurement of distance rather than depth.**
Soon the animal life increased in size with the appearance of great green sea turtles and grouper. Aside from assorted small fish dotting the lagoon, the animals all had some basic animation elements to them. Air lines caused them to rock, move their flippers or open their mouths. The giant clams that followed the grouper released streams of bubbles. It was obvious to most riders that the animals were mounted to either rock formations or the "sea floor," but there was still - as with many Disney attractions - a lingering desire to question whether any given creature might, somehow, be the real thing. Another consideration playing into the illusory effectiveness was the depth-of-field beyond the fish in the foreground. The further the submarines progressed into the lagoon, the greater the appearance of broad vistas in the distance. This was achieved with forced perspective and, inside the show building, aided by the designers' full control over the set lighting. Despite the chlorination, the main lagoon's more distant backdrops were often hard to discern because the natural light caused heavy diffusion.
After the clams, as guests absorbed the vacant expressions of moray eels poking their heads out of a reef, Nemo took the opportunity to promote his sonar hydrophone technology. He stated that this development proved that "fish actually talk." Riders were summarily treated to some sound effects that, while not being the least bit intelligible, certainly could have been talking fish...or ape chatter sped up on tape. The submarines then happened upon harvesting parties from one of the Nautilus' satellite ships. Divers in gear emulating suits from the film were seen tilling beds of seaweed (a necessary component of Nemo's "good as Cuban" cigars) and roping sea turtles that were exhibiting the good sense to seek a forceful escape. Pumps on the ocean floor provided the divers with a constantly replenished source of oxygen. In Nemo's words, his men were "harvesting the abundance that nature has sown here beneath the sea. Kelp beds are cultivated, sea creatures corralled and protected - just as terrestrial shepherds protect their flocks from ravenous wolves."
This was the first point in the attraction where the sequence of show scenes varied significantly from Disneyland's Submarine Voyage. In that original version, the divers - who were of course not under Nemo's employ - appeared slightly later in the ride and were seen salvaging treasures from shipwrecks. That subtext stood in sharp contrast to the agrarian undertakings represented in 20K. The depiction of Nemo's crew tending to aquatic gardens, rather than pursuing submerged wealth, helped reinforce the ride's already hinted-at underlying conceit: the Nautilus was being applied toward the latter-day end purpose of fostering an appreciation for the sea and its natural resources. It was like a well-funded underwater commune. Whether gold and silver gains were still used as ballast aboard ship, as in the film, was not addressed during the ride.
At this stage the recorded helmsman reported surface storms to Nemo, who ordered the vessel eight degrees down. The last thing guests saw before the dive was a shark caught in the grip of an octopus. From atop a rock, the octopus held the shark at tentacle's length" in a face-off. Guest may not have realized it, perhaps the ride's designers didn't either, but this vignette foreshadowed the attraction's climactic scene...four minutes ahead of time. More on that later.
The Nautilus "dove" again with the aid of more bubble machines. This time the effect was augmented, particularly in the daytime, by the submarine's penetration of the darkened show building. When the bubbles trailed off, guests were left staring into an inky blackness. The only sights were those lit by fixtures mounted above the waterline. Nemo commented on the Nautilus's ability to evade storm activity and reflected on the fate of roughly a dozen ocean floor shipwrecks, now visible to his passengers, that were "not so fortunate." Within this "graveyard of lost ships," sharks circled ominously among the broken masts and shattered hulls.
The sharks were the first creatures in the ride to actually be seen "swimming around," suspended from cables which hung from rotating wheels above the waterline. Unfortunately these cables tended to collect bits of fake seaweed that circulated through the lagoon, which - as you might imagine - went some distance toward deflating the illusion. Theoretically, an accumulation of that debris would be noted on any given morning during a show quality check performed by ride personnel, and a cleaning would immediately follow at the hands of the maintenance staff. Toward the latter years of the ride's lifespan, however, such attention to caretaking had become a rarity. So the sharks often swam with clusters of dark stringy crap hovering directly over their dorsal fins. Still, the eerie sight of the ocean floor strewn with the wreckage of so many once-proud galleons was staged so masterfully, the sharks hardly mattered at all.
This was another key difference between the California and Florida versions. While 20K's animation effects improved only slightly on the Disneyland original, and its illusion of diving was no more convincing, the art direction for 20K's sets was far more lush and delicate than it was in Submarine Voyage. As with the lagoon scenes, the depth-of-field in the Florida show building was greater than in California and provided a more substantial canvas for the forced perspective scenery.
As the submarine glided past the sunken ships, a member of the crew informed Captain Nemo that the vessel had "raised the polar ice cap" and that there was a clear channel at 40 fathoms. Sonar beeps began to echo through the cabin. The submerged sides of ice floes came into view of the portholes. A Viking ship protruded from one of the formations, oars frozen in place. All of this was beautifully lit by the rainbow incandescence of the Aurora Borealis, which Nemo lauded as a "rare visual phenomenon;" He had truly come into his own as a lover of not just the aquatic world, but of nature as a whole. No sooner did guests have a moment to reflect on the tranquility, though, than they were treated to the sound of the sub crunching against the icebergs. "Take her deep," Nemo ordered.
The Nautilus then descended - minus bubble effects - into a pitch-black abyss. Luminescent jellyfish, oar fish, viperfish, deep sea anglers and other glowing creatures were all that could be seen in what Nemo termed a "realm of eternal darkness." The trick was achieved via black light, an effect which several other Fantasyland attractions used more extensively. It was at this point in the ride that the helmsman piloting the sub could really contribute to the sense of drama. When the vehicle scraped the ice, he could make the white cabin lights flicker and then go out just as the sub was entering the black light area. Since that scene was bereft of illumination, guests would be left in complete inky nothingness. If the helmsman kept the lights out until Nemo's red alert two minutes later, and then actually turned on the red cabin lights, he scored extra points.
After the sub reached its maximum depth limit, Nemo pointed out that there were "limits beyond which man and his puny efforts cannot survive." He directed a return to 80 fathoms.
Upon reaching that more sensible depth, guests saw the remains of an ancient civilization coming into view. Collapsed pediments, broken walls and scattered pieces of classical statuary littered the ocean floor, among them the golden head (Zeus? Poseidon?) of a bearded god.
Nemo commented that the ruins "betrayed the hand of man," which - unless you subscribe to the antiquated notion that fish are adept at masonry and have mastered the corbelled arch - might have seemed obvious. He went on to surmise that this might well have been "the legendary lost continent of Atlantis."
The Atlantis scene was 20K's pièce de résistance. Painstakingly detailed and romantic to the point of sensuality, the landscape of fallen temples and toppled columns seemed to stretch on forever into the background. It was the sole part of the ride that I, as a 20K helmsman, would climb out of the sail to view when running a dead (devoid of riders) sub around the track - it was just that cool. As guests progressed through the sunken city, Nemo briefly explained the legend of a "remarkable" society that had been laid to waste by a volcano. He tempered this statement with the concession that the existence of Atlantis was held by some to be mere fantasy, along with "legends of sea serpents and mermaids."
Naturally, as soon as he uttered that phrase, the gyrating green tail of some unidentifiable creature came into view amongst the rubble. Its lengthy body snaked through the scenery as one of the crew, Mr. Baxter, asked Nemo to clarify that sea serpents were indeed relegated to the world of fantasy. Nemo, apparently forgetting that he'd just salivated over the prospect of discovering a fabled lost city, took the opportunity to chide his underling for suggesting anything sensational - "if you think you're seeing sea serpents, or mermaids, you've been submerged too long."
By this time guests were witnessing the visual punchline: that long, green scaly tail culminated in the upper torso of a googly-eyed sea serpent, sitting squarely between a trio of mermaids in a gold-strewn treasury. Two mermaids were swimming around the beast holding strands of pearls that wrapped around its neck, while the other sat atop an urn admiring herself in a mirror. A massive outpouring of gold coins, jewel-encrusted plates, vases and other artifacts had flowed from open vault doors on the scene's perimeter.
If you were to ask me what's strange, I would have an answer for you: It's strange that Fantasyland - home to so many rides that were ostensibly meant for children - once contained the Magic Kingdom's sole three attractions depicting exposed breasts.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (20K) was the most obvious and easily explained example, as the mermaids in the Atlantis scene were merely faithful to most mythological treatments of such creatures. Covering their chests might have been puritanical given the context.
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, directly across the street from 20K, not only had a barmaid in Winky's Pub with prominent cleavage but also a painting of a completely nude woman on the pub wall. Her breasts were partially obscured by her long, flowing hair (she was identified as Rapunzel), but she was clearly meant to be tantalizing. Given the pace of the ride, it's conceivable many guests never saw her. Just the same, it was an unexpected and deliberate element of the pub scene.
Still, it was Peter Pan's Flight ... surely the most child-oriented of the three rides in question ... that handled things in the most perplexing manner. The mermaids in Neverland, seen lounging atop rocks in their private lagoon, had bare chests from 1971 until 1990. In Disney's 1954 film version of Peter Pan, however, the mermaids wore seashells just like Ariel would in 1989's The Little Mermaid. Only after The Little Mermaid was released did the figures in the ride receive seashells. So why did they sit uncovered for nineteen years when their 1950s celluloid counterparts were decidedly more chaste? Figure it out if you can.
None of these situations was morally dubious unless you were offended by partial nudity (and granted, in the 1970s, the number of people in middle America who would think that was unacceptable was pretty high), but given this amount of nudity in Fantasyland you'd think the other Magic Kingdom lands would full of the stuff. But they weren't. Not a single Pirates of the Caribbean buccaneer had his full chest exposed, and the heavily-pursued town maidens kept their apparel on as well. None of the Jungle Cruise natives revealed their posteriors, and most of the Plains Indians along the Rivers of America and WDW Railroad were heavily dressed...even in summertime. Consider also the voyeuristic possibilities inherent to the Carousel of Progress, where guests were invited to gaze through the bedroom and bathroom walls of a robotic American family. The only skin therein, however, was Cousin Orville's shoulders and feet protruding from the bathtub. Even RCA's Home of Future Living, where walls were missing throughout the entire house, passed on the opportunity to show us people in their underwear. Such was the peculiar distribution of nakedness during the Kingdom's infancy.
Just beyond the treasury scene, poor Mr. Baxter brought to Nemo's attention a spat of "unusual turbulence," which came along with the amplified sound of bubbling. The source was quickly identified as the same volcano that had brought Atlantis crumbling to the ocean floor. A series of top-heavy columns, glowing red from a lava flow just out of sight, swayed precariously from the disturbance. As many of the columns were near the Nautilus and threatened against a safe passage, Nemo ordered his crew to a red alert.
The Nautilus avoided a collision with the ruins, but the next threat to its well-being was already on the horizon: another of Nemo's fleet was being attacked by a giant squid. "Good lord," Nemo exclaimed, "It's one of ours; its hull has been crushed like an eggshell." Indeed, a submarine marked XIII - streams of bubbles escaping from cracks in its metal plates - was locked in the grip of a monstrous, red architeuthis. This scenario echoed the previous ride scene where the octopus held the shark motionless. But whereas that octopus seemed comical, the squid and its single glaring eye were terrifying...certainly to me in early childhood. Comparing the scale of the creature to the submarine it held, and the size of a full-sized person to that of a 20K ride vehicle, this squid even made the one Captain Nemo battled in Disney's 20,000 Leagues film look playful.
Guests then heard one of the crew warn of another squid attacking their own submarine. Nemo immediately directed the use of "full repellent charge," which riders may have recalled from the film as an allusion to the Nautilus' electrical defense field - strong enough to ward off cannibals but not always effective on squid. Massive red tentacles appeared just outside the portholes, shifting up and down as they tried to wrap around the submarine. They were met, however, with the flash of an electric shock. Before they could ensnare the Nautilus completely, Nemo ordered the sub to the surface.
In another flurry of bubbles, the Nautilus quickly rose from the depths and guests were reacquainted with daylight (except at night). The sub had returned to the placid lagoon adjacent to Vulcania, where the ocean floor was populated by stingrays and ling cod. Nemo, apparently no longer the least bit shaken over the loss of life associated with a sister submarine's destruction, casually informed guests that they would soon be docking. He expressed his pleasure at having hosted everyone on a "memorable voyage," and thanked them for sailing with his crew. Guests were asked to remain seated until the cabin lights were switched on, at which point Nemo gave the "all ashore" call. And the pipe organ kept playing.
Guests would typically debark the submarine via the portal opposite from that through which they'd entered, as the submarines most often docked in the same position and another group of guests was likely waiting to step down into the sub right behind those leaving. It was difficult for anyone waiting for the rest of their party to exit 20K to know where exactly to camp out, since one could never state with certainty whether the sub they'd ride would exit from the west (opposite The Round Table ice cream shop) or the east (next to the Mad Tea Party). This made 20K one of the four Magic Kingdom attractions with exit points variable enough to keep separated parties looking for each other for a while, with the other three being Flight to the Moon / Mission to Mars, the Walt Disney World Railroad and the Liberty Square Riverboats.
Because of its experience with Disneyland Submarine Voyage, Walt Disney Productions knew what it was getting into, so to speak, when it built 20K: a ride with substantial intrigue that took a large staff to operate and maintain. It was also comparable to Adventureland's Jungle Cruise in many regards, being water-based and needing a dock crew in addition to boat pilots (the two attractions even squared off during the summer with friendly competitions to see which could move the greatest number of guests on a daily basis), plus a dedicated crew "behind the scenes" who tended to the upkeep of the vehicles and scenery. What seems phenomenal now is that rides of this description were ever built in the first place. Compare the number of people needed just to operate 20K on a normal off-season day, which would be no fewer than twenty, to that required to keep the four closest rides up and running (the Mad Tea Party, Mr. Toad, Snow White and Dumbo all ran from one pool of employees) on the same day, perhaps ten, and you get a sense of 20K's magnitude. Factoring in extended operating hours for the summer and holidays, the ride took a small army to run it smoothly. When theme park rides are designed now, a projected minimum staffing requirement of twenty operators would probably be enough to kill a project while it was still on paper...especially if it wasn't a thrill ride, and 20K was not.
The makeup of the 20K operating team was predominantly males between the ages of 17 and 25, many of whom were also in college at the time. They would be assigned one of four basic tasks or positions:
- Tickets / Greeter: From 1971 to 1980, when most MK attractions required a ticket for admission, 20K had someone manning the entry turnstiles to take guests' E tickets. After 1980, this position was absorbed into the pre-existing Greeter role. The Greeter was stationed out in front of the attraction where he would answer guest questions, park strollers and tend to the queue. Every hour on the hour he took a turnstile reading so the ride's capacity could be tracked.
- Grouper: As mentioned in the ride description above, this employee directed quests at the head of the line toward a holding area for incoming subs. The Grouper was responsible for making sure each sub had as close to 40 passengers as possible, and also for accommodating wheelchair guests who would be approaching the dock area via the ride's eastern exit.
- Dock: Each of the three submarine docking positions had two ramps control boxes, each of which had to be manned if a sub was loading or unloading at that station. Dock employees were responsible for communicating with sub drivers via hand signals, roping subs into place as they docked, lowering a ramp for guests entering or exiting the sub, directing guests into or out of the sub, raising the ramp again, signaling to the sub driver that it was clear to lower the hatch, removing the rope from the sub and then dispatching the sub via hand signal when all subs in the dock were ready to sail.
- Driver: Also called the helmsman, 20K drivers manned the sail of the submarine. They activated the submarine's forward and rear hatches, gave courtesy and warning spiels to guests at the beginning and end of each ride, then piloted the submarine along the 1,600-foot track. Along the way, they activated Nemo's narration tapes in conjunction with the show scenes that guests were viewing, adjusted the cabin lights and attempted to maintain ideal spacing between their sub and others in the "pack," or group of subs sailing in tandem.
All of these positions were overseen by a lead, who was responsible for keeping everything in check: tending to staff issues such as call-ins, lunch breaks and shift overlaps; monitoring the ride's hourly capacity via turnstile readings and surveys of the queue, dock and sub packs; bringing subs online from drydock or the spur line and taking subs offline; dealing with guest issues or complaints; and reporting to upper management on matters of imminent concern.
The lead also had to dispatch employees from 20K to do parade crowd control in the afternoons, usually from 2pm-3:30pm. This was a common occurrence in the Operations department, which provided the manpower for placing stanchions along the parade route, roping off the path and keeping guests clear of the parade itself once it kicked off. Due to the generally hot and disagreeable weather, however, the assignment was not a popular one for most 20K helmsmen.
Another function of the operations staff was the daily animation checklist, or show quality check, which - as mentioned above regarding the sharks - was intended to be the most consistent means of letting the maintenance staff know when basic animated features of the ride were not working properly. The checklist, one page of which is shown here, also referenced an element which never made it into the attraction: the "Dolphin Wheel." One could infer that this would have been the inverse of the shark wheels from the Graveyard of Lost Ships scene, with dolphins - attached to a rotating, floor-mounted disc - swimming in circles through the Fish Plains scene.
20K was a complex attraction to maintain; given its size it would have required a formidable amount of upkeep even if it was just a static built site. But with the underwater animation, behemoth ride vehicles and the element of water itself (which needed to be crystal clear if riders were to see anything through the portholes), it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a tremendous investment of time needed to keep the ride in top shape. From its opening until the day it closed, divers made regular visits to the lagoon for spot repairs to lobsters, and mechanics were constantly tending to its submarines. The attraction also underwent regular downtimes, or rehabs, to allow for renovations that could not be performed overnight or with water in the lagoon.
Rehabs generally took place with all Disney rides every three or four years. From the mid-1970s until 1993, 20K had at least five full-fledged rehabs. Next to paint jobs on Cinderella Castle and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, 20K's rehabs were the most visible in the entire park because of the vantage point of the lagoon as viewed from the Skyway; there was simply no way to hide such a huge undertaking. This gave park guests several opportunities over the years to look down into the drained lagoon and photograph workers repainting the coral reefs or replacing multicolored strands of kelp. As seen in the adjacent photo from 20K's 1987 rehab, from the collection of Robert Boyd, the hues adorning the rockwork are incredibly vivid. The reason for this was that the colors dropped out by about 50% when viewed underwater, so everything had to be exaggerated.
The most prominent 20K rehab ran from September 1975 through Spring of 1976. This shutdown was made not just to correct mechanical problems but also to improve the ride's animation and filtration systems, as well as to cosmetically embellish many of the main lagoon's rock formation and shoreline elements. This was one of the first projects personally overseen by then-upstart WED designer Tony Baxter (hence the ride narration's "Mr. Baxter"), who had collaborated with Claude Coats on this and several other WDW attractions in 1971 and would soon be masterminding huge changes to Disneyland and WDW. Baxter personally oversaw a large crew of craftspersons who - working from his scale models - sculpted entirely new reefs along the west side of the lagoon. Inside the show building, the ice caverns were also completely rebuilt and sections of Atlantis were reworked. On the rocky cliffs adjoining the show building's exterior waterfalls, a flock of seagulls was added - complete with head turn and wing flap animation, to augment the coastal illusion.
Baxter's team also added one thing to 20K that guests would never be able to enjoy...a nesting seagull tucked into a piece of volcanic rock above the ride's lead office. The bird could only be viewed from either the sail of one of the submarines or by someone standing on the side of the lagoon opposite from the dock. You couldn't glimpse it from the dock, the Fantasyland footpaths or the Skyway.
This photo, which I took through the dirty sail window of a sub in early 1989, gives a blurry indication of the gull's nesting spot. The bird was even animated with head rotation just like its counterparts on the show building's cavernous facade. As a teenage sub helmsman, this was to me little more than a passing curiosity. As an adult, the fact that the bird was there is a source of endless fascination. Well, not endless. It's a mild fascination, actually, but still more than simple curiosity. Kind of.
Aside from the lagoon and show scenes, rehabs were the ideal time for the maintenance division to give the submarines themselves an overhaul. Almost all repair work performed on the subs was conducted in the drydock area, which was positioned due north of the lagoon on the other side of the palm-laden hill. That's where the original natural gas engines were switched over to diesel engines, where the subs were repainted and where their air-conditioning and audio systems were serviced. Subs were constantly being worked on, whether there was a rehab taking place or not. Since no more than nine subs could be running the main track at any given time, the remaining three were available for maintenance around-the-clock.
Subs were transferred to drydock via a spur line track that joined the main track in the Black Light scene. In order to transfer a sub from the main line to dry dock, the driver had to pull forward of an unseen track switch within the show building, using lights mounted along the catwalk as a guide, and signal via radio that he had cleared the switch. Then the lead or another designated employee (who had hiked to drydock from the Lead Office by passing Dumbo and walking along a narrow footpath that took them behind the Fantasy Faire tent and over the forested berm) would activate the switch from drydock and raise a large solid metal gate that kept light from penetrating that darkest of all the ride's show scenes. The driver would see a light signal box, through his rear window, change from red to green along with (during daylight hours) the open gate. Then he would put the sub into reverse and pull back into one of three channels in drydock.
All other subs had to accommodate this process by giving the sub being taken offline a head start into the show building, otherwise they would end up going into a hold pattern and screwing up the experience for their passengers. On busy days, with nine subs cycling, a seamless transfer of a sub to or from drydock with no disruption of the show quality for guests was the ultimate and most elusive goal: achievable, but only with much experience and confidence. Once the sub in question was in drydock, the lead would then shut the metal door and reverse the switch, notifying the rest of the drivers that it was okay to proceed with normal cycling. Then the driver of the now-docked sub would climb out one of the hatches, join the lead and head back to the attraction (or go have a bad chicken sandwich in the nearby employee cafeteria). Only one of the channels in drydock was, in reality, a true "dry dock." The southernmost lane ended in a chamber from which all water could be pumped out, allowing maintenance workers full access to the vehicle's exterior. The other two channels were constantly filled with water outside of rehab periods, when the rest of the ride was also drained.
A similar process was followed when transferring subs to or from the spur line that ran parallel to the passenger-loading dock. That was the ideal location for storing any three subs that were simply going offline due to either light crowds or the end of the day's operation. It was also less complicated in the sense that the entire procedure could be handled from the dock, plus the spur line could be accessed from either side of the lagoon. Glass balls floating in the lagoon served as signals to let drivers know which position the spur line switches were in, and lights at the head of the spur line served as backups. Subs docked along the spur line were a great place for helmsmen to take a break in total solitude.
Here's something that nobody ever talks about: 20K and live mermaids. It's well known among Disneyland fans that live mermaids once swam through the Submarine Voyage lagoon in the 1960s, and simultaneously lament the fact that they were retired because the chlorine content of the water was bad for their hair and skin. But before those mermaids could lounge around and wave to guests on the mainland, they had to swim across the lagoon to a coral plateau in the center of the works. What if WDW's designers had found a way to incorporate the same concept but eliminated the need for the ladies to take a punishing chemical bath on their way to and from the job site? I think they did.
Look at this little inlet positioned to the south of 20K's Ling Cod scene, directly between where submarines exit the caverns and guests walked out of the attraction toward the Mad Tea Party. If it doesn't look custom-built for a mermaid or two, I don't know what would. Of course I haven't been able to ask anyone involved in the ride's conception whether this is just errant guesswork or, possibly, that something else was destined to sit atop that nice bit of rock; perhaps an animatronic sea lion could have sat there and barked madly into the sky?
But at least one early park blueprint alludes to something like this in an even more conspicuous configuration, with the inlet more pronounced and positioned where mermaids, were they in fact an intended element, could be seen very easily by Fantasyland guests along the main park pathway.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea - Extinct WDW Attraction - Location: Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom - Opened: October 14, 1971 - Closed: September 5, 1994 - Ticket Required: E (1971-1980) - Descendant of: Disneyland's Submarine Voyage - Space Later Became: Fantasyland Expansion / Under The Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid - Contributing Personnel: Tony Baxter, Claude Coats, Marc Davis, Bill Martin, Peter Renoudet, John Zovich
The only bears I met were singing bears. That was a little weird.
The only ghosts I met were friendly. Except maybe a couple. The presidents were very calm.
Oh, Haunted Mansion. How did I love thee? One, two, three, four... five ways or more!
Anyone who wants a history of The Haunted Mansion has books, entire blogs, websites and videos to provide that. SO MUCH MANSION. Which feels natural now. Sure, there was always room for another voice, but mine was never needed. Recapping just the most rudimentary information here seemed like a silly idea even before I typed it. I did it once in 2007 after Walt Disney Imagineering made a series of "big" changes to the attraction, and I couldn't really get into the process of writing much about it. In 2019 the inclination is further reduced. Still, WDW's Mansion is so in my bloodstream from childhood and my experiences as a cast member (it's the first ride I ever worked at, in 1986), there's no way to gloss over it completely either. Maybe the benefit I could bring was to just languish in a very specific type of nostalgia linked to the earliest version of a ride that was updated repeatedly over the years, focusing less on those many changes and trying to bring anyone who was interested waaaaay back into a composite of the Mansion's first fifteen years, where the variations between 1971 and 1986 were arguably minimal and when the ride was (in my opinion) at its uncomplicated best.
So if you're new to the topic and want to delve into the multiple concepts that were developed for Disneyland's original Haunted Mansion (1969), get a copy of Christopher Merritt's Marc Davis book or Jason Surrell's Haunted Mansion book. Or visit doombuggies.com. Or get over to Passport To Dreams Old and New for in-depth appraisals of what the WDW Mansion does best. And if you want to indulge me in a different approach, drop into the stuff below.
HAUNTED MANSION BASIC STUFF
Even before Disneyland opened in 1955 there were ideas for a haunted house sitting on a hill near the park's proposed Main Street area. Walt Disney had artist Ken Anderson working on ideas for a haunted attraction in the late 1950s. At that time Anderson envisioned it as a walk-through experience. In 1963, the facade of the original Haunted Mansion was built next to the Rivers of America (to the side of what would soon become New Orleans Square). Responsibility for the attraction that would be connected to that facade was then placed primarily with designers Claude Coats, Marc Davis and Yale Gracey. Some traces of Anderson's original concept remained in the plan, but for purposes of capacity and show integrity the plan was now to make the experience a ride using the newly-created Omnimover system, a WED Enterprises creation by Roger Broggie and Bert Brundage, that ran continuously and channeled riders' views toward whatever the ride vehicles were facing. Walt Disney oversaw much of the art and design that would prevail in the final version - a combination of creepy Coats atmosphere, elaborate Gracey practical effects and humorous Davis scenes evocative of Charles Addams - tied together with music and sound effects to provide park guests with a tour through a happy resting place for 999 ghosts from around the world. Walt died in December 1966 when the main rides in development were DL's Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland's Adventure Thru Inner Space (the world's first Omnimover ride), which would both open in 1967. Afterwards, The Haunted Mansion took its final form and officially opened on August 12th, 1969. By the time WED began building the animatronics and props for the ride, plans for Walt Disney World in Florida already included a second Haunted Mansion attraction so the elements for the California and Florida versions of the ride were created simultaneously.
* Inner Space was the first ride to use the newly-patented Omnimover ride system.
While Disneyland's Mansion facade was based on the Shipley-Lydecker house in Baltimore, that architecture worked well with the New Orleans Square theme due to its plantation house-style, temple face and wrought iron railings. For Florida the adjacent theme was Liberty Square, suggesting that the Mansion facade should complement Colonial American structures. A couple early treatments fit that bill and looked great but did not possess that common feature of "fun" haunted houses: a tower or turret. Coats then arrived at something that looked a little more like the retro-castles that wealthy northeastern families built along the Hudson River (where wood was often painted to look like stone, such as at Lyndhurst Mansion) in the 19th century, with a prominent tower. Then he pushed the design a little further out into something distinctly Tudor in flavor, based in part on an etching reproduced in Decorative Art of Victoria's Era by Frances Lichten. The Tudor elements made for a sense of grandeur that never felt inconsistent with its surroundings to me as a child who grew up with the park. It was only as an adult that I came to appreciate the more Colonial concepts (and the Disneyland exterior as well). The Florida facade is, nonetheless, distinctive and succeeds on its own merits.
Copies of the WDW Haunted Mansion maintenance manual pages originally came into my possession via Dave Ensign, who inherited them from Ed Barlow (who had removed the book from WDW in 1987), so you can thank them for having the book and me just for scanning the copies and cleaning them up. Or you can thank none of us. It's your choice. Until I ultimately gain control over your free will. Just kidding, I'm not trying to take over your mind. Just kidding, I'm DEFINITELY trying. Just kidding. Relax. Close your eyes. Count to ten.
As hard as it was to introduce new information about WDW's Haunted Mansion to the world, I was able to provide some information and/or images that accomplished that basic aim. The one that surprised me for not already being posted on the more conspicuous online Mansion forums was this Load area vignette of a cobweb-laden table, chair, lamp and dictionary that didn't make it past the 2007 rehab. They were removed from the area during at that time and never returned, their whereabouts unknown. The dictionary was open to the page where the words "ghost" and "ghoul" appeared... an incredibly cute detail. Most guests would never see that, of course. But as they waited to board their doom buggies and watched empty vehicles emerge toward them from a dark space which seemingly led nowhere, this table and chair helped make those guests see the space as a furnished (albeit barely) room. That small amount of furniture made a real difference. It was well-staged but subtle. It was as low-tech as a light bulb. It accomplished a great deal. And it's been gone for well over ten years. For all those reasons I think that vignette was a perfect metaphor for much of the original WDW Mansion's charm.
"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. WDW's Magic Kingdom was proof of that. 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 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 just 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 outdated (almost from the offset) and very silly but that's what made it loveable. It had a compromised track layout and its theme was basically "four-minute airline commercial" and it did some kind of 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 30 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 WYW 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. The pending sponsorship was announced September 23, 1970. 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 measurably less than its original self.
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 flew past every few seconds. 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.
The only hotels we stayed at had war canoes or water sprites.
Conceived by Walt Disney's corporate successors as the viable alternative to EPCOT, the city, and pieced together from many different proposals over the six-year period that preceded its construction, EPCOT Center (later, from the mid-1990s forward, just plain Epcot and to again be EPCOT as of 2020) 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 in what was structured to operate and collect admissions as a theme park.
Before outlining how EPCOT Center's earliest concepts evolved into what guests saw on opening day, I want to do my best to answer a question that has been asked many times of many former Disney administrators and WED personnel: What happened to EPCOT the city? Way, way above on this page you can read about the general time period during which the Walt Disney version of EPCOT was diminished. We can effectively determine that by 1974, no one at Walt Disney Productions foresaw the same city of the future that Walt described in 1966 being built on WDW property. But that doesn't mean that there weren't believers within the company after Walt died or that the decision to ultimately go in a different direction was made without difficulty. I raise the subject again here because the end of the city was the beginning of the theme park and there are several intertwined considerations.
In Karal Ann Marling's Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (Flammarion, 1998), the obituary of EPCOT as a city is laid kind of summarily at the feet of Roy O. Disney, Walt's older brother who shepherded the entertainment and recreational aspects of Walt Disney World that Walt outlined in October 1966 from paper to steel, right up to the grand opening of WDW on October 1, 1971. Marling recounts efforts by WED designer Bill Martin to get Roy's input on ideas for how to transform the concepts that Walt had overseen to an actual cityscape on the Florida land. Roy's response was, "Walt's dead, Bill." Where the narrative in that book is concerned, EPCOT ended there. But Roy O. Disney himself died in December, 1971, while the paint was still drying on WDW Phase One. Responsibility for leading the company then fell to Donn Tatum and Card Walker. Tatum was a former attorney who had worked for Disney since 1956 and had long held an administrative role within the company before ascending to the position of CEO after Roy's passing. Walker had also joined the company in 1956 but had a more diverse set of roles, having worked in the camera and story departments, then advertising, before taking on senior leadership duties. Walker in particular did not feel that EPCOT was definitely put to rest with either of the Disney brothers. In 1972, however, the company still had its hands full with responding to the overwhelming success that WDW was enjoying with visitors (too many visitors). So a more immediate task than wrangling with EPCOT was to determine which projects to get going on in Florida - additions that would round out Phase One with new attractions and restaurants that would boost capacity for both the Magic Kingdom and onsite accommodations. If anything major was definitively sidelined during that time period, it was the Western River Expedition boat ride in Frontierland. Even that, however, wasn't considered a closed door.
By late 1972, Walker felt that it was time to look further into the company's future. According to WED Enterprises Imagineer Rick Harper, Walker began a series of meetings that year with dozens of company administrators and artists for the express purpose of determining if, when and how the outline of a city that Walt had left behind could in fact be brought into being. After all, Walt had said in a very public manner that EPCOT would be the HEART of everything that Disney was doing in Florida. EPCOT had been a key reason for the company arguing, successfully, that self-governance was going to be crucial to Walt Disney Productions' decision to forge ahead with developing its Florida land. EPCOT had been Walt's obsession, his last project and in his mind the most ambitious and important thing his company would ever undertake. "Walt's dead" was neither a palatable rationale for leaving EPCOT unrealized nor was it the kind of thinking that Walker would have espoused even if it could have provided the company with a "way out."
The unfortunate reality underscoring Walker's quest for a path forward was not a scarcity of good intentions, workable concepts or even useful details that could guide the highly capable WED team in the physicality of EPCOT. Walt had left plenty of material behind in spite of what some of his associates would assert a decade later. The unfortunate reality was that Walt could not leave behind his particular flair for accomplishing what conventional wisdom deemed unlikely. That wasn't something that one could mimic or plot out on a map, whether it was Roy O., Card Walker or anyone else in a position of influence within the company. And if Walt Disney had been around in 1972 to meet with the heads of major American corporations to enlist their assistance with and participation in the building of a city of the future right next to the already-successful Phase One components of Walt Disney World, history suggests that he'd have come away confident in the support of at least half those companies and immediately set about shaping that city in further detail. Walker, on the other hand, wasn't the same kind of salesman that Walt was, and he did not pretend to be. Walker was a devoted company man with some advertising and creative know-how who wanted to do the right thing by Walt. And in 1972 he was just beginning to figure out what that might mean, because soliciting the participation of corporations was going to require specifics. Rick Harper said there had been early discussions with companies during that time period to gauge interest in having products tested by residents of a future Disney community, but that no commitments were reached.
Harper also drew an extremely well-reasoned parallel between the concept for EPCOT and another real-life vision of Walt Disney's that had come to pass: CALArts. If you were to take a 1972 glance at the turmoil surrounding the art school that Walt had supported and helped to shape during the last several years of his life, you'd immediately see why anyone in the Disney organization might be wary of the political headaches that would be inherent to "owning" a city with thousands of residents. CALArts began with construction delays in 1969 and within a couple years saw its oversight committees, students, administration and teachers in, to put it mildly, tumult. There were multiple leadership changes, mass firings and heated arguments as to what the school's purpose and direction should be. Counterculture elements, which by the early 1970s had become the bane of Disneyland's operational existence (see: yippies), came into play not just in the student body but also in the faculty. It was by most firsthand accounts a godawful mess. The company had experienced success with Disneyland as an entertainment-based theme park. It had also managed to secure far-reaching governmental control over its Florida land from an enthralled array of state leaders (largely pushovers) and used that control to build and open another successful entertainment-based enterprise. It had even established a small "township" where the residents of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista could live on Disney property and form the puppet government of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. But 20,000 people living in ultra-modern homes and apartments under a global microscope billed as the realization of Walt's greatest dream? All of them wrapped around a massive, functional and climate-controlled city center? While contemplating thousands of real-life people (and not just employees) in the mix as actual residents, everyone at WED could sense that EPCOT had both amazing possibilities and the requisite ingredients for a costly social experiment gone awry. There would be critics. There would be residents who disagreed with the rules and restrictions of a company-managed community. There would be accidents. There would be crime. And when something went wrong at EPCOT, it would be magnified greatly in the news media by anyone inclined to take shots at the perceived hubris of Walt Disney Productions for having thought they could build utopia.
So imagine you're Card Walker meeting with some of the most capable planners, designers and artists to ever bring projects to full realization in the 20th century in order to figure out the puzzle of EPCOT. Some of the people you respect the most in the business are telling you that Walt Disney had phenomenal ideas but that building a city was at best a gamble and at worst an invitation for troubles to take root at the company's doorstep in ways that were difficult to calculate. They're suggesting that Walt's last big idea would be best left as a dream rather than pursued in keeping with the original concept. Conversely, some of the other people you respect the most are creatively engaged in, even emotionally committed to, the challenge of bringing this beast of an undertaking all the way to full-scale reality. And you yourself want to make something happen, and want to do it soon, because the Disney brothers' deaths were a painful reminder that everyone's time is limited. And you feel that something like EPCOT would be best served by company leaders who were around when Walt laid out the vision. That dream isn't going to wither and perish on your watch. What are you going to do?
What Walker did was kept pushing his team to bring forward some concrete steps that could be taken to deliver on the promise of that Herb Ryman painting (which Walt Disney Attractions President Dick Nunis would say in 1982 had "haunted" the company's leaders along the pathway to EPCOT Center) and those principles that had helped to sell the state of Florida on the Reedy Creek Improvement District. No one, however, ultimately presented a strategy built around the notion of real-life residents occupying a city of the future on Disney property which convincingly appeared to surmount the perceived obstacles. All that Walker's persistence bought at that time was a general consensus that something could be done to address the broader intentions behind Walt's vision even if the next steps weren't that city. Everything that happened next was sufficient evidence that if the company's brass was haunted by a painting, all of the WED Enterprises veterans were haunted, in a more captivating way, by a World's Fair.
Many people reading this (if you read this far then god help you) already know what happened next - at least in the broad sense that these meetings led to the plans that led to EPCOT Center. Most of it is well-documented and looking back at it through blogs alone allows for a pretty thorough viewpoint. Even at times during the project's real-time 1970s evolution, the public would see references to it in print media. Orlando residents could read about it frequently in Orlando-land magazine and the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. I was an Orlando resident then but I viewed EPCOT Center through a slightly different prism than most people because my very first window into the world of WED Enterprises (vs. a view of WED's accomplishments in the form of the parks themselves) was a stack of Walt Disney Productions annual reports that my dad, as a holder of approximately four shares of WDP stock, got in the mail each year and had lying around at home. It was by reading those annual reports that I slowly became familiar with names and faces associated with the company, with the caretakers of Walt Disney's legacy. When I read the first late-1970s Orlando-Land articles about EPCOT Center, for example, I already knew who Card Walker was. I also knew the name Dick Nunis. These guys (along with Ron Miller, Roy E. Disney, John Hench & Marty Sklar) were the ones who pervaded the notes and captions. What I couldn't have known at that time was whose names were NOT included, and how in distant hindsight it would appear that some omissions were both intentional and wrong. If nothing else, the fact that you wouldn't see the names Claude Coats, Marc Davis or Blaine Gibson in those reports spoke to a totally real schism within WED that had divided the ranks of the Imagineers into the "serious ones" working on the "important," big-picture aspects of EPCOT Center and the "workmen/artists" working on smaller tasks or projects. But all of these people were part of a more unified WED ten years before Walker's 1972 meetings. And that unified WED was focused, feverishly, on attractions for the 1964 New York World's Fair.
The four shows this team brought to life for the Fair are a matter of public record and the stuff of Disney legends. To a similar degree, the process of incorporating the Disney-authored elements of the Fair into Disneyland has been well-documented. And to a point of near exclusion, the impact of the Fair on Walt Disney World's actual content (vs. its mere existence) has been covered only slightly. The reality is that the byproducts of Disney's involvement with the Fair informed nearly everything WED would work on right up until the Eisner era nearly as much as Disneyland itself did. From major themes and concepts to sculpted figures and musical cues, even some of the most minor components of their early 1960s work lived on for another 20 years in the minds of those artists. And what they saw other companies produce for the Fair lived on in their minds as well.
Accordingly, each step they took toward making EPCOT into something actionable enough to draw the commitments of sponsors and foreign governments was either consciously or unconsciously a step in the direction of a "100% Disney" take on a World's Fair. There would be plenty of new ideas brought to bear, and elements worked into the final version that were in no way derivative of prior exhibits seen by the public. There would also, however, be enough echoes of WED's existing catalog that when I, raised on WDW as a child and teen, learned more about the 1964 World's Fair as an adult I found myself constantly jarred by how much of EPCOT Center 1982 had its clear roots in something that once sat next to Corona Park's Unisphere. It wasn't just a few dinosaurs.
Rather than being overtly unified in its general presentation, EPCOT Center spoke to an 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, in a literal sense, 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. Thematic "connective tissue" was light. The same was true in the Future World area, which had all the coziness of a World's Fair save for beautiful landscaping and warmer colors. This arrangement shouldn't 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, I'm pretty sure 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 when weighed against its opening-year conceit had been been its ineffectuality in living up to the basic promise of staying current. 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 little or nothing to with the future ... and increasingly they (Soarin', The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Test Track) did 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 1982 film footage of "Majestic Port Valdez" caused eye-rolling; after that same year's Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, Wonders of China's 1982 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 the 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 really 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 five years, in particular, were genuinely captivating for us and many others who were fortunate enough to enjoy the park in its infancy. It's that version of EPCOT Center that WYW is trying to preserve.
As a fourteen-year-old in 1983, two dissimilar visions of the future shaded my perception of how the 21st century might look and feel. The first, which was actually from 1982 but only got to me through HBO the next year, was Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Dystopia, the term others have applied to the dark, dangerous and alluring physical film world Scott built for Philip K. Dick's 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, wasn't hard for me to accept as a likely outcome for humanity ... corporate dominance, rampant crime and moral ambiguity continuing along a societal trajectory that already felt pretty well established when the film was released. The second vision was EPCOT Center's Horizons pavilion, which projected a bright, clean and uplifting destiny for both those of us on earth and the ones moving "off-world." Its depiction of mankind working past lines of class, race and historically irreconcilable cultural differences toward sustainable, technologically advanced communities in space, in the deserts and under the seas may have appeared improbable to me even as a teenager, yet it was the future I wanted to believe in.
That's not to say Horizons lacked for corporate influence, because its original sponsor General Electric made its mark on the pavilion quite plain, as it had with the attraction's theoretical predecessor, Carousel of Progress. But that aspect of the ride's character ran a distant second to Horizons' masterful summarizing of every EPCOT Center theme and subject matter into a thoroughly entertaining crystal ball experience with both epic scope and a warm personality.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact Horizons had on an entire generation of WDW visitors. Many of us were still in the process of exploring EPCOT Center's original (1982) attractions when this amazing new pavilion showed up a year later and blew our minds. The internet attests to a vast swath of ardent admirers, some of whom have been sufficiently moved to erect awesome digital shrines to Horizons and carry its ambitious messages forward even if the current Future World does not. WED Enterprises got the art of attraction design so right with Horizons - a combination of dramatic exterior elevations, a high-capacity ride system, imaginative set designs, superb music, the smell of citrus, natural humor, redheads, robotic weather forecasting, jumpsuits and kelp* - that it made you wonder why the team behind it couldn't go on to invest other attractions in the park with some extra Horizonsness. EPCOT Center could not possibly have had too much of that aura about it.
In the end, however, Horizons was a singular entity that lasted a too-short sixteen years before joining the pantheon of WDW's magnificent and regrettably deceased. The structure in which it had resided was demolished in plain sight of park guests over an extended period of time - an unfortunate end for a great attraction, a conclusion that felt like the future we were fortunate enough to glimpse through Horizons' prism was slipping away along with EPCOT Center's original sense of identity. Symbolic or not, its loss will resonate in perpetuity for both the fans who enjoyed it in person and those who know they missed something special.
As referenced elsewhere on this site and in more reputable places, EPCOT Center as it was finally built (after a dozen years of conceptual stasis and fitful evolutions) was in essence Disney's version of a World's Fair. More grand in many ways, certainly more polished in most respects and surely less diverse in some regards ... by virtue of a more narrow set of guiding hands under the auspices of a family entertainment company ... but a World's Fair nonetheless, in spite of whatever titles and premises were ascribed to it, as envisioned by the undisputed masters of the theme park form. EPCOT Center was the direct output of the men and women who had helped Walt and Roy Disney erect the two most amazing parks in the world up to that point. The impact that World's Fairs had on Walt Disney himself is well-documented. EPCOT Center was sufficient evidence that his fascination had been passed on to the first and second generation of WED designers. Horizons itself was the proof that those WED veterans could take everything they had learned about, and from, theme park design and World's Fairs* and blend them into a modern classic ... an attraction rooted firmly in the company's traditions yet reaching beyond those foundations to assure those of us in an often-troubled world that the future could be an exciting and fun place for everyone.
* Much as they had done with all their filmed entertainment experience when creating 1964's Mary Poppins.
Horizons was a descendant not just of General Electric's Carousel of Progress and General Motors' Futurama (both from the 1964-1965 World's Fair), but also of RCA's Home of Future Living (1975), the original post-show exhibit for WDW's Space Mountain. Home of Future Living was the first case of Disney using audio-animatronics to depict a family unit several decades ahead of the present enjoying man's technological advances in their home. It was kind of like a Carousel of Progress "flash forward," but one that inadvertently suggested the omnipresence of video screens would play a divisive role. Rather than unify generations, screens here dictated that each family member would be in a separate living space watching separate monitors and only be aware of each other because cameras showed them what was going on around the house. Horizons applied a much broader scope to the idea of showing the impact of future technologies (beyond screens) and demonstrated that greater interconnectivity between the family members might be possible because of advances in electronic communication, even if some of those family members were in outer space and others were on the ocean floor.
Having predecessor attractions to draw from didn't mean that combining all those influences would result in a "hit." In a 1983 Interview with Orlando-Land magazine reporter Pam Parks, WED's Tom Fitzgerald and Marty Sklar spoke about some of the challenges inherent to the design process and, in particular, forecasting the future. "One of the problems we face is getting people to make predictions, particularly companies who don't want to show a product they'll have in ten years, for competitive reasons," said Sklar. "If we go too far, people will say it's just fantasy ... a balancing has to take place when you're talking about the future."
Concerns about tipping a corporation's research & development hand in a pavilion would seem to have applied less to General Electric at Horizons than it did to General Motors at the neighboring World of Motion (with prototype cars on display) or AT&T at Communicore's FutureCom exhibit (with the next generation of "phone tech" possibilities being heavily showcased). By looking so far ahead into the future as to be addressing daily domestic life on space colonies, there was no risk of nascent GE technology being unduly exposed in the 1980s. But how to depict future life still presented a multitude of options. Futurama at the 1964 World's Fair relied heavily on scale models of landscapes/seascapes and moving vehicles along with a declarative narration, one which Disney would have Vic Perrin heavily echo for the first iteration of Spaceship Earth in 1982. One can't watch a video of GM's Futurama without seeing in it the genesis of multiple Horizons elements and hearing the origins of Perrin's EPCOT Center voice work ... at times the parallels seem unreal. But while Disney reached for some of that epic overture feeling with Horizons, it rooted everything in warm midwestern family tones only a half-step removed from Rex Allen's Carousel of Progress narration.
Early "working names" for Horizons included Century 3 and Future Probe. Since one of those sounds like a real estate company and the other like ultramodern penetration (as opposed to Past Invasion), it's probably good that they were both left behind. One thing about Horizons that's not hyper-well-known: it wasn't on the original mid-1970s roster of proposed EPCOT Center attractions or even publicly projected at the time of the park's 1979 groundbreaking ceremony. Prior to 1980, references to Century 3 / Future Probe / Horizons were nonexistent in company literature. A Space pavilion was mentioned, along with concept artwork, by 1977 but its theme was mostly distinct from those explored in Horizons. Opening-year pavilions like Universe of Energy, The Land, Communicore, World of Motion and Spaceship Earth had been anchored for roughly five years (sometimes under different names) before General Electric and Disney got together and came up with the first Horizons ideas, which printed records suggest came together much more expediently than those for other Future World rides and with fewer revisions. The first name they assigned to the project was the Science and Invention pavilion. The first reference to the ride that I came across as a kid was in Walt Disney Productions' 1980 annual report, where a model of the Omnimax theater was depicted under the ride name Future Probe, and shortly thereafter references to the pavilion showed up in Orlando-Land magazine articles. By that time, ideas for a Space pavilion were on the way-back burner at WED.
When The Walt Disney Story on Main Street USA at WDW's Magic Kingdom was converted to the EPCOT Center Preview Center (what a name) in 1981, the film showed study models for an attraction called New Horizons. By the end of the year, the final name Horizons had been settled upon.
Horizons - Extinct WDW Attraction - Location: Future World, EPCOT Center - Opened: October 1, 1983 - Closed: January 9. 1999 - Descendant of: Carousel of Progress (1964-present), General Motors' Futurama II (1964-1965), RCA's Home of Future Living (Space Mountain, WDW, 1975-1985) - Space Later Became: Mission Space - Contributing Personnel: Tom Fitzgerald, Robert McCall, George McGinnis - Narrators: Dena Dietrich, Bob Holt
Eyes And Ears of WDW Cast Member Newsletter - Various Scans
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. But apparently it never happened.
Even people half my age who never wasted a moment thinking about it would still make the logical inference that much of what constituted Walt Disney World in 1971 had its roots in Disneyland simply because Disneyland was the original. What they might not grasp off the cuff is exactly how much of what WED Enterprises created specifically for Florida made its way back to California in one form or another, starting as early as 1972. Between Disneyland, WDW's Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center and their cousin, the 1964-1965 World's Fair, there are so many bonds and links that would be hard to trace them all. Some of them I'll cover here, along with other Disneyland stuff that happened after WDW debuted.
There's not much chance of this site ever covering more than a handful of key WDW cast members or WED artists, but in its original form this collection of stuff did contain images and information that weren't available elsewhere. I'm trying not to include personal details about people who were never profiled in print media or whose roles within the company were arguably private. Not because they're unimportant, but because I would want their permission to go beyond their names in a public resource like a website and the effort that would required to achieve this is beyond my level of interest.
Carlson, Joyce (1923 - 2008) - WED Enterprises designer and color stylist who contributed to Walt Disney Productions' animated films and attractions during a career that ran from 1944 to 2006 and saw her relocate from Los Angeles to Orlando in 1982. At WDW, Carlson oversaw the repainting of show elements in multiple parks, ensuring adherence to the original color schemes and design intent for everything from It's A Small World animated figures to Cinderella's Golden Carousel horses. She pulled no punches when it came to matching hues ... or as retired WDW craftsman Jimmy Layle put it, "that gal was a little hard to please." She wasn't a gal, Jimmy, she was a woman. But otherwise, good for her!
Davis, Marc (1913 - 2000) - Walt Disney Productions animator from 1935-1963, WED Enterprises illustrator and idea man from 1963-1978. Notoriously skilled and prolific, he "created" Brer Rabbit, Tinker Bell, Alice, Aurora, Maleficent and Cruella De Ville as we know them and originated core elements of major Disneyland and WDW attractions, including America Sings, Country Bear Jamboree, The Enchanted Tiki Room, It's A Small World, The Haunted Mansion, The Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and World of Motion. Davis also proposed several attractions that should have been built but weren't ... including The Enchanted Snow Palace, Garden of the Gods and the Western River Expedition. Walt Disney referred to precious few people as geniuses. Davis was one of them. He was married to Alice Estes Davis, a WED artist who developed and made costumes for multiple major animatronic casts.
Disney probably wasn't my first obsession. I think it was a Huckleberry Hound 45rpm record that my grandmother gave me when I was five... the first time I realized that I could make a song play as many times as I wanted. ALSO probably, obsessions aren't healthy (?) but I've had hundreds of them and as of 2019 I'm still not finished. Disney was the first one with real staying power in my life. It was multifacted: movies, television, comic books, product tie-ins and of course the largest vacation resort on the planet, which happened to sit at the end of the 50-yard-long dirt road I lived on as a kid.
In 1962, my dad bought a small piece of land on the shore of Lake Bryan* in southwest Orange County, Florida. Two years later, Walt Disney Productions purchased a bunch of property 1/8 mile to the north. My brother Brian, born in 1971 and I, born in 1969, grew up in a house our parents built on Walt Disney World's border and we never knew any other kind of "normal"... the closest playground, the closest post office and the closest convenience store were all on WDW land that we could walk to easily across a short stretch of sand, pines and shedded rattlesnake skins. My first visit to the Magic Kingdom was in October of 1971, Brian's was 1973. So from early on we became Magic Kingdom fanatics and spent LOTS of time debating which one of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride's tracks was best, riding If You Had Wings over and over again, then wondering just what exactly lurked beyond that musty dark Haunted Mansion load area portal that produced an endless flow of doom buggies.
As I grew older, my love for WDW sometimes even eclipsed my love of Star Wars. By 1980 it was a dead heat when, in fifth grade, I was lucky enough to attend a test run of the Wonders of WDW program and see some of the Magic Kingdom's backstage areas. Immediately afterward I wrote to WDW about the possibility of a future job. They sent me a handout outlining how one is "cast for a role in the WDW show." I flaunted that in front of Brian, who had only ever received mail from Ranger Rick, and he expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of one day being a costumed character. Unfortunately he said that in front of our father, who vehemently proclaimed no son of his was going to "dress up like a damned chipmunk" for a living. This upset Brian but they later reconciled and Dad made up for his condescension by taking us, reluctantly, to EPCOT Center on opening day, where he informed us (and an unhappy local radio host) that the park bore no resemblance to Walt Disney's original plans for a city of the future.**
Three years later, I'd already blown through a summer job at Mystery Fun House and thought I was way too goth to get a job at WDW. My first girlfriend, however, worked at Mickey's Mart in Tomorrowland and suggested her employer as a way of me not being broke. I thought about it. She was right. I drove down to the original WDW "Casting" trailer on Chase Road in late 1985 and was soon a Foods Host at the Magic Kingdom's Columbia Harbour House. It was a revelatory experience. Lots of childhood questions about how the park worked were answered in a matter of days. Being able to approach the park from the tunnel was well worth enduring its smell. And the fact that I could now access previously off-limits stuff like If You Had Wings' film projector platforms and rainy Tiki Room picture windows? An unexpected benefit.
At seventeen, I transfered to the Haunted Mansion and the Operations department. It was the first time something I'd always wanted to do lived up to my expectations*** and career-wise I felt that I had definitely peaked. When Brian turned sixteen he applied for a job at WDW too. Before long he was dressed like a Logan's Run extra, slinging cardboard-flavored pizza at the Plaza Pavilion and gazing with wonder upon the massive bank of Wometco vending machines in the Main Street Break Room. He never wore a chipmunk suit, at least not for Disney, but he had lots of fun and smoked a ton of pot****. Over the next several years I worked at many other attractions (including the Jungle Cruise, Diamond Horseshoe, 20,000 Leagues, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Snow White and Space Mountain) and took many friends on tours of backstage areas.
Back then, WDW still felt a lot like the place we knew as kids. All these years later, anyone familiar with WDW between 1971 and 1986 remembers it as a very different place than it had become by the mid-1990s. There was more to do at WDW by the time it turned 25, but its personality was undergoing a deliberate transformation under the direction of then-CEO Michael Eisner and a new Florida management team that felt they could improve upon the ideas and principles of those who came before them and increase profits dramatically. This led to a lot of cost-cutting and price increases. Also, a steady bunch of non-Disney brands began to show up on WDW property in 1988. The logos of corporate sponsors had always been present on many shop and attraction signs, but by the 1990s WDW began to fold so much outside content (Muppets, McDonald's, Star Wars...) into the parks that the line between Disney's creative legacy and that of others would perhaps be indistinguishable for its younger guests. This itself wasn't a matter of good/bad, right/wrong, but it was a matter of marked change in terms of the overall WDW experience. At the same time, new parks and hotels were being built while the old ones were maintained less admirably than they had been during the resort's first fifteen years. Many of the resort's original designers were also retired and Eisner's affinity for postmodern architecture led to new (and often huge) structures that broke dramatically from Phase One elevations and color schemes. Further extensions of the monorail line were nowhere to be seen or even expected after the doubling of WDW's bus fleet between 1989 and 1992. Topiary sculptures that once dotted the open greenscapes slowly became in-park only sights and once-pristine shorelines along the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake were overrun with weeds.
All of that was significant in terms of a shift, but the part of WDW's evolution that affected Brian and me the most was seeing things we loved disappear to make way for new stuff. When Fantasyland's Mickey Mouse Revue was sent to Tokyo in 1980, it didn't bother us too much because we thought it might come back someday (and because Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was right about to open). In 1985, Space Mountain's supercool Home of Future Living was replaced with RYCA-1, an oddly vacant follow-up, and it made WEDway rides less intriguing. Two years later, If You Had Wings was turned into an Eastern Airlines-less version of its former self called If You Could Fly. THAT felt really wrong; even though the ride's transition was logical (IYHW was, after all, tailor-made for a sponsor that didn't renew its contract), it didn't make the reality of it going away forever any less sad. It was like losing a fun grandparent, except you can't ride most grandparents through a Puerto Rican fortress full of marching bands and flamingos. If You Had Wings was my first meditative struggle with the concept of impermanence, which only got worse as more early WDW elements vanished or suffered perplexing overhauls with far greater frequency from that point forward. I mean, how could we have known as little kids that the place wasn't fixed in time? And who in their right mind comes along and changes a bunch of things that were perfect? That new Florida management team, that's who.
I had made some audio recordings in the parks and taken some photos as a kid, but when my favorite things started to seriously disappear I went a little crazy trying to build an audio, photo and video archive of things that hadn't been lost yet. Being a cast member helped in terms of access. It all led to a stupid newsletter (Jane Our Teenage Daughter), a list of things that had gone missing from WDW and lots of generous input from total strangers in the form of photographs, videos, and tapes of ex-attractions. Massive help came from specific individuals who shared the same obsession. "Miami Mike" Hiscano has been contributing to this project since its inception and is one of the most knowledgeable and generous WDW fans you could hope to find. Ross Plesset has gone out of his way countless times to arrange interviews and drive down bits of information that would have been lost were it not for his diligence. Others who provided useful and rare information can be found in the Credits section below.
One thing I learned during that time period, when I was REALLY spending time on this stuff, was that people in California who grew up with Disneyland were paying tribute to it in far more impressive ways than I could ever hope to ape for WDW, most notably Randy Bright's Disneyland: Inside Story and Jack and Leon Janzen's wonderful magazine, The "E" Ticket. Bright's book was cool because, while written by a Disney employee, it didn't feel like a company document. Bright was a WED Enterprises "imagineer" who worked at the park as a teenager and whose affinity for Disneyland was fully apparent in his text. He also compiled a fascinating appendix, entitled "Sequence of Disneyland Attractions," that traced all the major additions to the park since it opened. This was before the internet existed, so timelines like that were rare. As for the Janzen brothers, their massive grass-roots effort to dredge up arcane facts about Disneyland was at that time unsurpassed in the world of theme park fandom. Like Bright, they grew up with the place and were still infected as adults. They initiated a quest to produce a visual and written history of Disneyland's earliest years which brought forth scads of previously unseen images and stories from WED personnel who made it all happen.
Their work made anything I'd written about WDW look childish, but it also didn't seem like they were going to get around to covering Disney's Florida parks (and, as it turned out, they never did). So with the crucial help of my wife Amy, who also grew up with WDW and knew what secret Disney files lurked in the Florida State Archives, in 1994 I had another crummy newsletter called Widen Your World coming off my tiny home Xerox machine. Widen Your World was a term borrowed from the last scene of If You Had Wings, which kind of worked as an acronymical counterpoint to Walt Disney World. WYW became a website in 1996 and garnered more attention than was rational, but that at least proved to me how badly these old attractions were really missed. People still respond to the site with a kind of appreciation that would never have seemed possible to me as a twelve-year-old standing in the Big Thunder exit with a tape recorder over my shoulder to capture the sounds of the queue music and trains dispatching, feeling like the only person in the world who would ever want to listen to it. And every time someone has written to say that WYW jogged half-lost memories of treasured family vacations and/or brought tears to their eyes, I'm just amazed.
The site is obviously an easy way to share information, photos, audio and video. As the first and oldest website to address WDW's history and lost features, content from WYW was used by other parties from the beginning and not always credited. But even egregious plagiarism is generally not worth calling out (see the Credits page for more on that) but I bring it up so it's clear that everything presented on WYW as original writing or the product of my own "research" is my own stuff. Anything that wasn't is credited to proper sources either in bibliographies, footnotes or named sources in the text.
A secondary aim for WYW is to be the best reference source on WDW's earliest years, in context, for those who couldn't witness them. If people younger than me don't already know what If You Had Wings was or have never heard of the Adventureland Veranda, they aren't likely to learn about these things while they're in the parks. It doesn't matter to most people, but a few will always have a passion for old WDW stuff in their veins even if they didn't experience it firsthand. And while the company covered its Florida history at times, like in 1998's WDW Resort - A Magical Year-By-Year Journey , fully official accounts of WDW's past attractions are scarce compared to how cool those attractions were.
Eventually this could also be a good place to put stories about things like Luis Arias, Nicole Golden, Micah Harvey, Steve Hill and me getting away with really bad Magic Kingdom behavior in the late 1980s. Things I'm not entirely ready to confess in some cases! A lot of WDW stuff made my life a lot more fun than it would've been otherwise... I saw my first concert (Cheap Trick) on the castle stage, got heckling lessons from Bev Bergeron as a Diamond Horseshoe doorman, offered Dick Nunis and a bunch of Oriental Land Company execs a baked potato in Liberty Square, got beat to hell in the Tomorrowland Terrace when LA punk band X turned the place into a mosh pit, piloted Bret Michaels in a 20K sub, piloted Roger Ebert in a Jungle Cruise boat, viewed 1989 New Year's Eve fireworks with goth debutantes from the Grand Floridian's roof, walked through Splash Mountain as it was being built, walked through If You Had Wings as it was being torn down, proposed to my wife at Port Orleans, interviewed Alice & Marc Davis about WDW ride concepts with Ross Plesset, felt responsible (and was) for a co-worker falling through the ceiling of the MK women's locker room, took author David Koenig on his first "backstage" WDW tour, met singer Nancy Sinatra at Disney-MGM, met ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson at the WDW Village, etc. The whole list could fill a book, and at some point might.
Either way, I'll continue to put more of the old stuff I have on this site little by little, so it's "out there." By 2012, there were many other sites with a changing/changed Vacation Kingdom as their primary focus. Some of them (the ones with something new to offer and that don't plagiarize their content) are really amazing. Between the exponential proliferation of those online resources and WDW's own efforts to acknowledge its past, it seems like there will be no shortage of options for those seeking details of the resort's history. That's a good thing, because there can't really be too many accounts of what WDW was like back before so much of its original self faded into the past.
* They lived there for several years before Brian was born, so why they didn't spell my brother's name Bryan is inexplicable. A lot of stuff is inexplicable, actually.
** This was true. It did not, however, make Horizons or World of Motion any less amazing. Or the old Spaceship Earth paper boy any less annoying. Somebody put a cork in that kid's mouth!
*** I had not yet learned the secrets of invisibility.
**** In 1985 WDW had roughly 20,000 employees and half of them were constantly high. As Walt Disney often said, that's twice as high as the island of Manhattan.
***** WYW was 2.9 times more likely to anger or alienate a Disney fan than other sites, including Hidden Nikki's Mousekeblog and eharmagic.com
BIBLIOGRAPHY (still being rebuilt from old site)
A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney World, 1972 Walt Disney Productions
D23 - The Official Disney Fan Club
Daveland (davelandweb.com) website and blog by Dave DeCaro
Marc Davis - Interview by Ross Plesset & Mike Lee, November 1999
Designing Disney: The Architecture of Reassurance by Karal Ann Marling, 1998
Disney News editions published between 1971 and 1996
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
Rick Harper - Interview by Ross Plesset, June 3, 2003
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)
Passport to Dreams Old and New blog by Foxx Nolte
Retrowdw.com site by Todd McCartney (specifically as a source for images and video, noted where used)
Walt Disney and the Quest for Community by Steve Mannheim, 2002
The Walt Disney Archives, via correspondence between 1989 and 1996
Walt Disney Productions Annual Reports, 1971-1989
Walt Disney World Vacationland, various issues 1971-1976
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 (the latter given to me by my dad James Lee), in 1976. My dad also facilitated the very first photos I took at WDW by giving me an old-timey Polaroid camera to mess around with. By the late 1970s, my trips to WDW as a kid were made possible by my mom, Linda Dowdy, and grandparents Hugh & Vernice Lee. 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., Dave Ensign, Jan & Donna Freitag, Mike Hiscano, Dave Hooper, Christopher Merritt, Ross Plesset, Dave Smith (of the Walt Disney Archives) and WDW cast member Gerald Walker. These individuals either helped fill in specific blanks where my firsthand knowledge of WDW was concerned by A) sharing information they'd accumulated or B) joining me in trying to track down photos and information that would make for a more complete record of WDW's first ten years. 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, Alison Matthews, 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, Ed Film, Steven M. Fjellman, Michael Flint, Nomeus Gronovii, 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, 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, Bill Preston, 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.
And the site definitely wouldn't have happened and kept going without the constant support of my phenomenal better half, Amy Jones-Lee, who not only endured countless trips to WDW for purposes of seeing what the results of any given rehab were, but also pinpointed resources that I'd never have found without her help.
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 2019 by Mike Lee