In 1962, my dad bought a 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. Because of those two facts, my brother Brian and I grew up on Walt Disney World's border and never knew any other kind of "normal"... the closest playground, the closest post office and the closest fake riverboat were all on WDW land that we could walk to easily across a short stretch of sand, pines, cactus and 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 and wondering just what exactly lurked back in 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 waaaayyyyyyy too punk rock to work at WDW. My first girlfriend, however, had a job 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 pretty revelatory experience. Lots of childhood questions about how WDW operated were answered in a matter of days and getting the chance to explore those nasty tunnels was well worth enduring the 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 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. We may have taken some stuff that wasn't ours and had some run-ins with Security... it's hard to remember all the details.
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 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 profit dramatically. This led to a lot of cost-cutting and price increases. 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, then somebody decided it was okay to put a race track next to the MK parking lot so Fort Wilderness campers could wake up to the sound of roaring engines. Some ponderous stuff, for sure.
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). Then in 1985, Space Mountain's supercool Home of Future Living was replaced with RYCA-1, an oddly vacant follow-up. 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 essentially perfect? The 1990s WDW 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. It led to a stupid Xeroxed newsletter called Jane Our Teenage Daughter, to lists 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 efforts to document the first 30 years of Disneyland were 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 tons of previously unseen images and stories from WED personnel who made it happen. The stuff was SO good, but it didn't look 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 Xerox machine. 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 hall 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.
As the first and oldest website to address WDW's history and lost features, even Disney (including their original archivist Dave Smith with whom I used to correspond) has used WYW and directed guests here for information. They also named a D23 seminar for the site, which was probably the pinnacle of surreality for me, since I'm not even a member of that secret society.
The original aim for WYW was to be the best reference source on WDW's earliest years, in context, for those who couldn't witness them. I still think that's a worthwhile goal, but WYW was only the 'solitary site' for this stuff from 1996 to 2001. After that, additional resources began to pop up online and took the theoretical/imaginary pressure off me to go it alone. By 2014 WYW was only one of many sites or blogs covering this topic and while I still had info that was unique, it felt less essential. But I'll keep the site up. 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 full detail. A lot of WDW stuff made my life 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 executives 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 New Year's Eve fireworks with goth debutantes from the Grand Floridian's dirty roof, snuck into Splash Mountain as it was being built, snuck into 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, indirectly caused a co-worker to fall through the ceiling above the MK women's locker room, took Mouse Tales author David Koenig on his first backstage WDW tour, etc. The whole list could fill a book, and at some point probably will.
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
* 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 is 2.9 times more likely to anger or alienate a Disney fan than other sites, including Hidden Nikki's Mousekeblog and eharmagic.com