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Monday, March 25, 2024

EPCOT Part Nine: Guest Complaints

After its initial attendance problems went away, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom park faced new capacity problems.
Roy had under built the park and it had less than half the number of attractions as Disneyland did at the time. While the park was larger in size than Disneyland, it had far fewer things to do. To resolve this issue, the park quickly began fast tracking new attractions. Roy felt that since the Magic Kingdom in Florida was so close to the actual Caribbean, the park could do without Pirates of the Caribbean. Guests felt otherwise, so a cut down version of the ride was shoehorned into Adventureland. 

Due to Florida’s less hospitable weather, it was determined that the Matterhorn would not work if built at the Magic Kingdom. Park management remembered that when Walt Disney originally came up with the idea for Space Mountain it was not technologically possible. Imagineering had floated an idea to just build the Matterhorn indoors and call it Space Mountain. Walt rejected this idea, but Florida management was desperate to add capacity so it was quickly approved. (Disneyland would later get the Space Mountain of Walt’s dreams in 1977.)

As the years wore on, it became apparent that Roy Disney’s conservatively built resort was not fully taking advantage of the resort’s allure and the same type of tawdry motels that sprung up around Disneyland opened up around Walt Disney World, just further away from the main gate. To fix this problem, Roy’s handpicked successor- Disney CEO Card Walker- asked Imagineering to come up with new ideas for a second theme park and new resorts to provide more on property activities for Disney World guests. There were two competing theme park ideas at the time- a theme park themed to other countries called World Showcase and another that was like a larger Tomorrowland called Future World. Neither idea seemed to get much traction with Disney leadership and plans for larger expansion projects at the resort had stalled.

Expansion plans would soon get on the fast track due to a misunderstanding about what EPCOT was supposed to be.
Guests remembered seeing Walt Disney speak about some sort of ‘EPCOT’, but they seemed to think it was supposed to be a theme park. Guest Relations was still getting questions and complaints from guests inquiring about EPCOT and wondering where it was. With the second theme park planning going nowhere, Card Walker gave Imagineering a new mandate- come up with a new project that the company could slap the EPCOT name on to satisfy guests. 

For anyone who has been to the place eventually called EPCOT, you’ve probably already figured out what Imagineering did to create “EPCOT” the theme park- they put their plans for “Future World” and “World Showcase” together. EPCOT Center would not be the futuristic, real city that Walt envisioned; it would be a massive theme park Frankenstein instead. While this compromise would resolve several problems for the resort, it would create new ones- the biggest one being its high price tag. Since each part of EPCOT Center was originally intended to be a theme park unto itself, building them together at the same time would be very expensive. While the company planned to extensively rely on outside sponsors, it was still making a sizable investment that would eventually cost more than the rest of the company was worth at the time. While the Magic Kingdom theme park had eventually become self sufficient, this huge new investment would place the company’s financial solvency at risk again. Would guests flock to this massively scaled down version of EPCOT? Only time would tell.

Monday, March 18, 2024

EPCOT Part Eight: Roy’s Folly

As the October 1st grand opening of Walt Disney World grew near, Roy Disney was riding high. He had canceled his brother’s plans for the experimental prototype community of tomorrow and was eager to open his vision of the Florida project, which consisted of just the parts that he deemed as being profitable- the Magic Kingdom theme park and three resorts. Eager to avoid the madness of Disneyland’s chaotic and overcrowded opening day, Roy strictly limited the number of tickets available for opening day and prepared for the onslaught that was sure to await the park on day two- when the real guests would finally experience his idea of a “Magic Kingdom.”

In an effort to get good press, Roy planned an opening day that would only host half the number of guests who visited Disneyland on an average day at the time. This would allow the media to comfortably experience the park and declare it to be more polished than Disneyland. Imagine his shock when less than a third of the expected crowd showed up. Magic Kingdom park set a dubious record that it continues to hold to this day- as the Disney theme park with the lowest opening day attendance. Initially, Roy blamed the lack of attendance on guests remembering Disneyland’s disastrous and overcrowded opening day. Truly day two would be better.

Except it wasn’t. The newly built theme park’s second day attendance was worse than the first day and a fraction of what Disneyland was attracting. As opening week continued, Roy reeled from the daily attendance reports. Magic Kingdom park was not attracting enough guests to justify the expense of building it. Weekend attendance wasn’t much better than weekday attendance. To the outside world, the company was confident that things would improve. Inside the company, however, was a different story. While Walt’s Imagineers smugly observed the disastrous attendance as Walt’s revenge for Roy disregarding his original plans, they also worried about their jobs. What would the rapidly growing Florida problem do to their job security and pensions?

Days of poor attendance became weeks of poor attendance. Magic Kingdom’s abysmal attendance was quickly becoming a crisis. While Disneyland had been forced to step aside to let its newer sibling take the limelight, it was now propping up the looming disaster in Florida. If Disneyland’s attendance had mirrored that of Florida’s Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney Productions would have gone bankrupt as many had predicted before the original park opened in 1955. Lucky for Roy, Disneyland’s profits would keep the company solvent- for now. As October switched to November with no improvement, everyone knew that Roy would soon have to make some tough decisions- and things didn’t look good for the company’s Florida property. Layoffs and cutbacks were on the horizon.

This period of time was said to be stressful for Roy Disney. He was beginning to fear that he had doomed Walt Disney Productions to bankruptcy. Was the Florida project DOA regardless of what was built or would building EPCOT as his brother had originally planned have improved its fortunes? As a second month of poor attendance lurched forward, Roy decided that despite the bad optics of doing layoffs during the Christmas season, he would have no choice if he wanted to stave off bankruptcy. He decided to wait until after the Thanksgiving weekend to begin cutbacks, layoffs and closures, but was sadly certain that he would have to actually do them.

If this situation doesn’t sound familiar to you, it was due to the miracle that awaited park staff on the day after Thanksgiving. As the resort prepared to open that morning, staff encountered a welcome sight- backed up traffic at the parking lot toll booths. The crowds had finally showed up. Florida’s Magic Kingdom finally had its first full capacity day. The crowds continued to show up in the days and weeks ahead. If Walt had cursed the park because of the cancellation of EPCOT, he must have felt that his point had been made after two months of poor attendance. Roy could finally rest easy and Walt Disney Productions would pretend that Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was always hugely successful.

Sadly, Roy wouldn’t get to enjoy the success of his version of the Florida project for too long; he would pass away a few weeks later on December 20, 1971. While he had been afraid that he had doomed the company a month earlier, he would enter his eternal rest knowing that the company he built with his brother would be on firm ground.

Monday, March 11, 2024

EPCOT Part Seven: The Dream Is Over

After Walt Disney’s shocking death, Roy Disney quickly took full control of the company. Dismissing talk of a sale, Roy insisted that the company would remain independent, Disneyland would stay open and he would personally see to it that his brother’s last dream- “Disney World” in Florida- would be built and open in five years. In fact, he officially started calling the Florida Project “Walt Disney World” to show the world that it was the fully realized dream of a real person- Walt Disney. Except- it wasn’t.

While Roy claimed he was making his brother’s final dream come true, his very first action as the sole leader of Walt Disney Productions was to permanently cancel Walt Disney’s plans for an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. EPCOT, as designed and dreamed up by Walt Disney would NEVER see the light of day. Even though Walt’s imagineers hadn’t been too enthusiastic about EPCOT when he first started the development and design process, they had grown to accept and embrace it. They weren’t happy when Roy pulled the plug on the project and ordered them to start working on the theme park. They became even more disenchanted with Roy’s vision for the park itself.

By 1971, Disneyland had 16 years to “grow up” into the fully developed theme park that it had become. Walt Disney had planned to build out “Disneyland East” to be a mostly carbon copy of Disneyland with the same number of attractions. Roy, on the other hand, figured that the newer park could open with much fewer attractions than Disneyland had and build itself up over time. His most controversial decision was to build a bigger castle with a taller Main Street. In his mind, this would show everyone that the company now had more money to spend and could afford to build a bigger castle than the one at Disneyland. Except, the castle at Disneyland was not built the way it was because of money issues- it was built the way it was because Walt Disney wanted a friendly, accessible castle. He felt that only tyrants built large castles to intimidate the peasants and purposely had his castle designed to be kid-friendly.

Even worse, Roy Disney chose to not fix the part of the park that Walt Disney was always self conscious about- Fantasyland. Walt had originally wanted Fantasyland to look like a European village. Budget cuts forced him to compromise and design what was referred to as a “Medieval Fair” look that featured brightly painted, flat decor. While Roy’s tyrannically sized castle loomed large, it concealed a Fantasyland that wasn’t all it could be. (Disneyland eventually fixed this issue in 1982. Florida’s Magic Kingdom has never bothered to fix it at all.) Rolly Crump, whose whimsical artwork inspired the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland left the company after he became disenchanted with the design of the Disney World project.

In 1971, Walt Disney World, which was more of Roy’s dream than Walt’s by this point, lurched towards its opening. Severely under-built, the resort only had two hotels and a campground in addition to its theme park with an underwhelming lineup of attractions. Would Roy’s EPCOT-less resort prove to be a successful draw? Only time would tell.

Monday, March 4, 2024

EPCOT Part Six: Walt vs. Roy

When Walt Disney first presented the idea of Disneyland to his brother Roy, Roy was firmly against it. Walt’s brother was certain that Disneyland would bankrupt the company and initially rejected the idea. Only after he realized that Walt was insistent on seeing his dream come true (and that the company had never gotten legal permission to use his brother’s name) did Roy reluctantly approve his brother’s plans. After Disneyland succeeded beyond Roy’s wildest dreams, he was eager to build a second park- but he didn’t want to build EPCOT. Roy allowed his brother to develop plans for EPCOT in the project’s early stages, but planned to put his foot down at some point to prevent the project from going forward. Veteran Disney employees braced for the upcoming battle.

While Roy thought that he could eventually convince his brother that EPCOT was not feasible, others within the company thought that he would eventually acquiesce to Walt as he typically did and allow some version of EPCOT to get built. Either way, Disney staff had hoped that the battle would not be as intense as it was when Walt Disney wanted to build the Matterhorn, Disneyland Monorail and the Submarine Voyage attractions and Roy wanted to coast on Disneyland’s success for a few more years without building new projects. The wild success of the expansion eventually made Roy see that he was wrong, but the fight between the two was bitter nonetheless.

The first sign of stress between Walt and Roy happened when Roy visited Imagineering. He was looking for some concept maps and artwork for Disneyland East and its associated hotels that he could show to potential investors and financiers. He discovered that none existed. Walt had no interest in working on the theme park at this point and had his imagineers busy designing EPCOT. Roy requested that they start working on the theme park, an idea shut down by Walt. He assumed that if Disneyland East was built first his brother would find a way to shut down EPCOT. Roy enlisted the help of his sister-in-law Lillian Disney to try to talk some sense into his brother. Lillian suspected that if EPCOT became reality her husband would want to move to Florida, and she was not fond of the idea. This entreaty didn’t really accomplish much; Walt wasn’t convinced to drop EPCOT and Lillian wasn’t convinced that a move to Florida would be a good idea. The EPCOT question remained unresolved.

As 1966 went on, Walt’s Imagineers felt that he seemed oddly insistent at getting EPCOT planned out ASAP. While he had been eager to get his dreams out into the world in the past, this time it felt like there was an air of desperation around his efforts. For the first time ever, it felt like Walt thought he was running out of time. Walt decided to introduce the world to his idea of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow on his television show as a way to force his brother’s hand- after all, if he clearly laid out what the “Florida Project” would be like, Roy would have no choice but to follow through with it, regardless of what the future held. 

Unfortunately, fate would intervene in the saddest of ways. On December 15, 1966 Walt Disney passed away. Even the people who worked with him were shocked. To them, Walt Disney was an immortal force to be reckoned with. That he would no longer be around to supervise his Magic Kingdom or see his latest dream of EPCOT become reality was unthinkable. With Roy Disney at the helm, would he see fit to make his brother’s final dream come true? The answer to that question would be complicated.