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 lot of property 1/8 mile to the north. My brother Brian and I 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 Empress Lilly were all on WDW land that we could walk to easily across a short stretch of sand, pines and shedded rattlesnake skins. From early on we became Magic Kingdom junkies 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 WDW obsession 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 a displeased 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 thought I was way too punk rock 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. By late 1985 I was a Foods Host at the Magic Kingdom's Columbia Harbour House. It was a revelatory experience. Lots of childhood questions about how the place worked were answered in a matter of days and the business of approaching the park from the tunnels was well worth enduring its rancid smells. Better yet, the opportunity to access off-limits stuff - like If You Had Wings film projector platforms and rainy Tiki Room picture windows - was insanely good fun.
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 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 friends on tours of off-limits 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 and 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 during that time period included Robert Boyd, Mike Cozart, Dave Hooper, Christopher Merritt, Dave Smith and Gerald Walker.
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 that 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 dirty roof, crawled through Splash Mountain as it was being built, crawled 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 who fell through a drop ceiling into the MK women's locker room, took author David Koenig on his first "backstage" WDW tour, met Nancy Sinatra at Disney-MGM, etc. The whole list could fill a book, and at some point probably will. Maybe.
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." I'm very lucky that along the way, WYW has picked up the much appreciated support and input of some phenomenal latter-day WDW fans, historians and researchers, including Chris Foxx, Nomeus Gronovii, Jeff Heimbuch, Jerry Klatt, Chuck Keeler, Eric Paddon, Spencer Cook, Michael Crawford, Steve Seifert, Martin Smith, Michael Sweeney and George Taylor. Assembling a complete list is impossible, but I tried on the "Credits" page. As noted there, I couldn't name everyone because some asked to remain anonymous.
By 2012 there were many other sites with a changing/changed Vacation Kingdom as their primary focus. Some of them were really amazing. At the time of WYW going into "advanced stasis," these were some of my favorites:
Passport to Dreams Old and New E82: The EPCOT Legacy
Imaginerding Walt Disney World - A History In Postcards
Between the exponential proliferation of online resources and WDW's own efforts, 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 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