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The Walt Disney World Wayback Machine – 1973 and The Walt Disney Story
Just got back from a research trip to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, I was really able to take my time in what is my favorite part of the whole resort. I spent much of my day on Main Street, USA and was taken back to my childhood, walking down the street, parents in tow, marveling at the sights, sounds and yes, Home Magic.
So on this install of my WayBack Machine, I wanted to focus on a time when the Magic Kingdom was still in its infancy and a wonderful, but extinct, attraction on Main Street, USA.
(Lou borrows four quarters from his dad, puts them in the WayBack Machine’s coin slot, and sets the dials for 1973).
The sounds of Tony Orlando and Dawn singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree” are quickly drowned out by children’s laughter, train whistles and a tune of ragtime played on a distant piano.
I am on Main Street, USA in the spring of 1973. There is no EPCOT center. No Blizzard Beach. Not even a Port Orleans or a Grand Floridian. The Magic Kingdom IS Walt Disney World. Well, for now, anyway.
What you CAN find here now is the ‘Wonderful World of Water’ ski show, a new attraction called ‘Tom Sawyer Island’, and even a ‘Country and Western Spectacular’ with stars like Anne Murray, Faron Young and Freddie Hart. These mini-concerts will take place in the evenings at Tomorrowland Terrace (you can now find Sonny Eclipse there), the Diamond Horseshoe (unfortunately, you can now find an empty building there) and the Fantasy Faire (where you can now play in the Ariel’s Cave).
You can also keep cruising along America’s rivers on one of Mike Fink’s keelboats, or for the person who doesn’t sweat enough in the Florida heat, you and your family can propel your own little one canoeing on the same body of water thanks to Davy Crockett’s Exploration Canoes. (no swimming, please). Don’t even get me started on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and the Skyway. (Lou wipes away a tear, blames the heat and moves on)
I would love to start with a breakfast with some of my favorite characters, but we won’t see something like that for a while now. Speaking of which, where is Holidayland? It’s supposed to be between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, but hey. And what about Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition? So wait – are you telling me we’re going to have the “Plaza Swan Boats” but NOT Thunder Mesa? Oh humanity.
Anyway, back to Main Street – that East Coast, model Victorian town, with architecture and elements found in the late 1800s.
I could literally spend hours (or should I say, “pages”) just talking about the stores, present and gone, architecture, storefronts, details and much more, but I’ll have to save that for a another trip. . However, what I want to focus on is something you might not remember very well. Let’s go to the Main Street Exposition Hall… I mean – The Gulf Hospitality House.
With Tom Sawyer Island, it is the new attraction of Walt Disney World. Located next to the Hospitality House, The Walt Disney Story depicted Walt’s life from his early childhood in Marceline, Missouri, to the creation of Mickey Mouse and the development of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
The attraction played in a theater built explicitly for this film. The film itself was a project that began in June 1969 and was not completed and shown until March 1973. In order to accurately tell the stories of Walt Disney’s life, a team of over 200 people at Walt Disney productions spent more than 75 hours. of interviews conducted with Walt prior to his untimely death on December 15, 1966, ten days after his 65th birthday. One of the main contributors was Bill Bosche, an artist and producer who worked for Disney for over 30 years. Taking excerpts from these interviews, Walt Disney posthumously recounted much of his own autobiography.
This 23-minute film would play simultaneously at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, with the WDW version opening in April 1973 and being dedicated on May 6 of the same year. It would eventually run until October 5, 1992. This attraction was initially unique in that it was, much like If You Had Wings, free (as Walt Disney World still used a ticket coupon system) and was sponsored by Gulf Oil, the same sponsor of the attraction building.
The theater was built on the southwest side of the hospitality house and even had a separate entrance built. Looking at the Main Street Exposition Hall today, the small staircase to the right of the building’s main entrance was originally created for the Walt Disney story.
Inside the building, the long hallway that made up the queue was filled with Disney memorabilia, including the Academy Award’s only Academy Award for the 1937 masterpiece Snow White. Unlike a traditional Oscar statue, this one had seven smaller Oscars by its side. You can also find a scale model of the Nautilus, used in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Until recently, you could have found this same model in the Living Seas queue. It’s unclear if it will remain after the nemo-ization of the pavilion is complete).
The hallway was filled with not only displays, but also the sounds of classic Disney movie songs. Down the hall were the entrances to two identical 300-seat theaters. Between the two sets of doors was a mural with 170 Disney characters. Until the mid-1980s, characters from new releases were added for every movie until The Great Mouse Detective. One of these theaters has been renovated and now shows classic Disney cartoons. The door to the other theater (now unused) is visible at the back of the room.
The film itself took guests on a moving journey through Walt’s personal and professional life, and concluded with his plans for Disneyland, eventually WDW, and most importantly, EPCOT the city. The film was shown on a specially designed screen to make guests feel like they were looking through a virtual scrapbook of Walt’s life. It was presented as a photo album, accompanied by rare photos and audio artwork.
The after-show area was always in a state of change. It showed everything from WDW expansion plans to the futuristic EPCOT center. Most notable was the brief display of the model from one of WDW’s most recent projects, the Western River Expedition. In addition to a working model, Hoot Gibson, an audio-animatronic owl, told guests he would be the star of the attraction. He also explained some of the processes of AA and came with an Animatronic storybook, which turned the pages as he told his story.
The Walt Disney Story closed from June 1981 to October 1982 to become the headquarters of the EPCOT Center Preview Center. The original film was replaced with one that more specifically depicted Walt’s dreams of his futuristic city. In October 1982, when the EPCOT center opened to the public, the preview center was removed and the original film returned.
Just six years later, however, The Walt Disney Story was deleted again, this time to preview Walt Disney World’s third theme park, Disney-MGM Studios. It has been appropriately renamed “The Disney-MGM Studios Preview Center”. Oh yes, our friend the owl was perked up once again, perched in a director’s chair, and told that too.
After studios opened in 1989, The Walt Disney Story returned once again, but closed permanently in October 1992. Disney said the original film had deteriorated so badly that it could no longer be shown in theaters .
The film’s original release took guests to the Disneyana Collectibles store, which sadly has long since disappeared. It’s safe to say that this store, with its wonderful collectibles, was the first in the trend to have themed shops at the end of attractions. It contained wonderful items such as commemorative plaques, original hand-painted animation cels, and various limited-edition reproductions. You can also make a reservation for a place at the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree during your stay.
To preserve the film and continue to make it available to guests in the future, it was released in a very abridged version on VHS tape in 1994. Unfortunately today, the video is not available on DVD, at except for the remaining copies of the 100 Year of Magic DVD, which had a much shorter pan-and-scan version, minus the original opening and ending.
In October 1996, the building that once housed The Walt Disney Story became the home of the Walt Disney World 25th Anniversary Welcome Center. Like previous “preview centers”, the building was filled with scale models and exhibits showcasing the Disney Cruise Line and other upcoming projects. The visitor center closed in 1997 and the exhibits were removed. It then hosted “Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcome Center”
Although the mural is still there at the back of the theater, most of the original exhibits are long gone. The others are photography-themed, as the building is now sponsored by Kodak.
(To get a very small sample of what this attraction was like, I highly recommend taking the time to browse the exhibits and film “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” at Disney-MGM Studios).
As we prepare to head home (damn this real work for me), we can see a few signs of things to come later this year, like the Plaza Swan Boats, which will be plying the waterways of the Magic Kingdom, the Fort Wilderness Railway (get on the boards fast, because it won’t last long), and a new attraction called “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Nah, that will never happen.
On a personal note, I often wander around the Town Square Exhibit Hall, to reminisce about the old attraction, view the exhibits, and see what I see on the horizon. It saddens me to see such a wonderful and personal tribute to Walt having passed away and the building remaining almost vacant for all intents and purposes. That being said, I’ve done a bit of poking around, and it looks like there’s something on the horizon for part of the building… Keep your eyes and ears peeled!
Anyway, I can see from the docks out front that… oh wait. Bad attraction.
Um… What I meant is that it will do for this installation of my Walt Disney World WayBack Machine. It’s time to return to the Magic Kingdom of 2006 and enjoy Stitch’s Grea…ah forget it.
So until our next trip together to Walt Disney World, I invite you to learn more about some of the secrets, history and fun facts about the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” at http://www. DisneyWorldTrivia.com and http://www.MouseTunes.com Disney Podcast, recently named Best Travel Podcast of 2006.
Thanks! Ssssssssseeeeee you!!!
The article first appeared in the August 29, 2006 issue of ALL EARS® Weekly Newsletter
For more trivia and fun facts about WDW, check out the Walt Disney World Trivia Book or Ask Lou, where the author answers your questions about Walt Disney World and posts weekly articles with more in-depth history, secrets, and tips. stories!
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