Featured Attractions

Monday, April 29, 2024

it’s a small world Part One: Disneyland Goes To The World’s Fair

The mid-1960’s were hopping at Walt Disney Productions. The studio was producing future classics such as “Mary Poppins” and “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”, Imagineering was busy growing Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom and the company was ramping up to design EPCOT the city. With all this work happening at the same time, Walt Disney would have been excused if he had chosen to concentrate on just these projects. Instead, he embraced the upcoming 1964 World’s Fair, taking on several huge projects for the dazzling showcase that was springing up in Flushing Meadows, NYC.

Walt Disney saw the World’s Fair as an opportunity to prove that the magic of Disneyland would work on the east coast. That he could also do it with other people’s money was icing on the cake. Major companies lined up to work with Walt Disney Productions.

One of the first companies that signed on to work with Walt Disney was General Electric, who would sponsor Progressland, an entertaining look at progress through the years and, more importantly, the future. Featuring advanced animatronics and a unique circular theater that would seat hundreds of people every few minutes, the attraction proved to be a popular one. More importantly for Walt, he would also get access to General Electric’s technology. Technology that he might be able to use at EPCOT.

Another attraction that would greet World’s Fair guests would be Magic Skyway, presented by Ford. The attraction would use actual Ford vehicles to take guests into the past. Guests would encounter fierce dinosaurs, bumbling cave men and more in this traditional dark ride attraction. Other than requiring the use of Ford vehicles in the attraction, the Ford Motor Company had little involvement in the planning and construction of the ride.

Perhaps the attraction that had the most importance to Walt Disney was Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was Walt Disney’s favorite president, so the attraction had great importance for him. It would also prove to be the most complex of all the attractions planned for the World’s Fair. The attraction’s grand finale would feature a hyper-realistic Abraham Lincoln animatronic that would present snippets of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches.

These attractions would have been enough to keep anyone busy. Walt Disney’s team certainly thought they already had their hands full. But the biggest, most beloved attraction that came out of the World’s Fair would be the one that seemingly came out of nowhere, commissioned by the last person you’d imagine. Join us over the next few weeks as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the happiest cruise that ever sailed- it’s a small world!


Monday, April 22, 2024

Disney Company Believe It Or Not! - Forgotten Theme Parks

While Disney’s theme parks are the gold standard for themed entertainment, there are, obviously, other companies that have owned and operated theme parks. In a bizarre coincidence, two companies that were eventually purchased by The Walt Disney Company owned theme parks in California that had the word ‘Marine’ in their name.

After Disneyland’s initial success, various companies sought to enter the theme park industry. As an original investor in Disneyland, ABC was initially uninterested in owning part of a theme park. It just wanted a television show from Walt Disney. It only invested in the park when Walt Disney insisted that they wouldn’t get a show unless they became a partner in Disneyland. Even though the park was successful, ABC was desperate to cash out. Ten years later, however, it saw what a mistake it made as Disneyland became fully established and its investment would have been worth much more. This inspired the network to try out its own theme park. Not willing to invest the sort of capital that a ride based theme park would require, ABC decided that an animal theme park centered around the ocean would suffice. Thus ABC’s Marine World was born.

Located just south of San Francisco next to the San Francisco Bay, the park opened in 1968 and featured animal acts that claimed to teach its guests about conservation and preservation of the animals on display. While initially successful, the park fell victim to the one thing that most every theme park operator finds out- that guests require new attractions to keep coming out to the park. ABC had hoped that it could ride the park’s original success for at least a few years before it needed to invest in new attractions. It quickly lost interest in the park and sold it off to another area theme park- Africa U.S.A.- and left the theme park industry for good. It would only get involved with theme parks again after The Walt Disney Company acquired the network in 1995. Marine World Africa USA would eventually move to nearby Vallejo, CA and go through a succession of different owners until it became part of the Six Flags chain and renamed Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. It remains open today.

Marineland actually opened a year before Disneyland did- in 1954- but it would quickly become one of the many Southern California attractions that would take advantage of the millions of tourists attracted by Disneyland to carve out a place for itself. Coincidentally designed by the architect who worked on the Disneyland Hotel, the park saw ten years of increasing attendance in its Rancho Palos Verde location. After San Diego’s Sea World opened, however, it found a more challenging business environment. By the mid-1970’s, it eagerly accepted an offer from Twentieth Century Fox who would hand over design and event responsibilities to movie producer Irwin Allen, who was the “master of disaster” in the 1970’s.

Irwin Allen was responsible for the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea franchise which was the primary reason for the bizarre decision to put him in charge of a theme park. However he had also become a mega producer when Twentieth Century Fox handed the park’s reins over to him. The gigantic success of “The Poseidon Adventure” had given him an aura of infallibility and by the mid-1970’s, he was seen as someone who could help the faltering theme park stay afloat. Unfortunately, this was also around the same time that the disaster film bubble began to burst.

Allen’s inexperience with theme parks doomed the experiment. He overpromised and under delivered during the 1974 Christmas season, which led to an embarrassing class action lawsuit against the park. Twentieth Century Fox ended up unloading the park to Hanna Barbera. The park would eventually get sold to the owners of Sea World who originally claimed that they planned to keep both locations open. In the end, they reneged on that promise and closed the park in a manner that prevented anyone else from reopening it as an oceanarium. It was a distant memory by 2020 when Twentieth Century became a part of The Walt Disney Company.

Monday, April 15, 2024

EPCOT Part Twelve: In Conclusion

EPCOT never became the real life city that Walt Disney envisioned, nor did it remain the educational showcase that it was when it eventually opened as a theme park in 1982. When The Walt Disney Family Museum opened in 2009, EPCOT was featured, for the very first time in a high profile setting, as Walt Disney’s final, unrealized dream. The Magic Kingdom park for the very first time acknowledged that the futuristic model city displayed alongside the Peoplemover tracks was not, as the narrator previously insinuated, a generic model of a futuristic city, but was actually what EPCOT might have looked like if Walt Disney had lived to build it. It was a huge change from the company’s confusing insinuation that EPCOT as built was exactly what Walt Disney had envisioned.

While it seemed that the company was going to be more open about EPCOT’s development, a recent major construction project added a statue of Walt Disney sitting down and staring out at EPCOT as though he was enjoying the sights of the theme park he had designed. So it appears that going forward the company will still rely on the public’s murky belief that the EPCOT that Walt Disney spoke about in 1965 is similar to the EPCOT that opened in 1982 and remains open today. While the difference between EPCOT the city and EPCOT the theme park might not be something that the average guest even thinks about, the company’s continued insistence that the EPCOT of today has any ties to the EPCOT of Walt’s dreams is infuriating to Disney historians.

But the biggest question that comes to mind when thinking about EPCOT- would Walt Disney’s original vision of EPCOT have been successful? Would the public have embraced a town built and designed by American industry and Walt Disney Productions? The public’s view of large corporations and industrial development has dramatically changed since the mid 20th century. Historically, the titans of industry were seen as benevolent entities who could be trustworthy stewards. That had definitely changed by the late 1960’s. By 1982, when EPCOT Center opened as a theme park, the idea of a company town planned and operated by a private business had become an entirely foreign concept. While Disneyland had been an untested concept back when it opened in 1955, Walt Disney was only asking people to spend a few days in his Magic Kingdom. At EPCOT, he would have been asking people to spend their lives in his planned community- a much bigger feat than just asking them to spend their vacation time. 

While Walt Disney was always determined to see his dreams come true- he was also a practical person. Had he lived to build his version of the Florida project, he very well might have downsized his plans if he determined them to no longer be practical. Even if he had canceled EPCOT completely, however, he probably wouldn’t have used the same name for a lesser project. While the EPCOT we got was not the EPCOT of Walt’s dreams, it is a nice place to spend a day or two. If Disney fans want to see Walt Disney’s last fully realized dream come true they would still need to head to Anaheim- the home of Walt Disney’s One and Only Magic Kingdom.

Monday, April 8, 2024

EPCOT Part Eleven: Celebration

As the company expanded the Florida resort, it made several adjustments to EPCOT that were geared towards silencing the early complaints and filling the park. More traditional attractions replaced some of the exhibits and special events were planned to attract guests to EPCOT from Magic Kingdom. New hotel projects were announced in an effort to capture more of the money being spent by Disney’s guests. The company saw unprecedented revenue increases in Florida as it was not only convincing guests to stay on property but to also extend their stays. This led to the resort’s most successful theme park launch on a small parcel of land behind EPCOT- Disney MGM Studios.

Unlike the grand openings of both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, the opening of Disney MGM Studios was huge. Thousands of guests flocked to the park from day one, making it the most successful grand opening in the resort’s history. The park had been severely under built, sparking a massive construction boom as the company sought to improve capacity and offer more attractions. Star Tours, which had opened in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and was supposed to be located in the same location at Magic Kingdom was hurriedly shoehorned into the park. As the park’s closest neighbor, EPCOT became the beneficiary of its popularity; guests who arrived at an at capacity Disney MGM Studios were steered to EPCOT.

With this building boom going on, company executives sought to make better use of the company’s vast landholdings. New hotels were springing up from the swamp just about every year. The company was only constrained by its ability to finance these projects. Disney CEO Michael Eisner sought a project that would be easier to finance and wouldn’t eat up too much of the company’s revenue or credit lines. In the early 1990’s, he settled on a project that could be billed as a realization of Walt Disney’s original vision of EPCOT- the master planned community of Celebration, Florida.

Celebration, Florida would be an all new town built on land de-annexed from the Walt Disney World Resort. The master planned community was to be financed by the sale of houses and property within its borders. The company would be able to show Wall Street that it was making use of its surplus land without spending its own money. While the company was still suggesting to guests that EPCOT the theme park was the same EPCOT that Walt Disney spoke about on his show, it would now also suggest that Celebration would be a realization of Walt’s dream of a planned city. In actuality, neither of these suggestions were true.

While Celebration would be a nice subdivision, it was actually the antithesis of Walt Disney’s EPCOT. The EPCOT of Walt Disney’s dreams would have featured mixed use development where people would live near where they worked and played. A reliable, efficient transit system would eliminate the need for a car. Celebration, on the other hand, would be just like any other subdivision where people have to own several cars and commute long distances to go to work or shop. In the end, Celebration would look more like the subdivisions that surrounded Disneyland in Anaheim than the futuristic city of tomorrow that Walt Disney had envisioned.

Monday, April 1, 2024

EPCOT Part Ten: What If Nobody Showed Up?

In 1982, EPCOT neared completion and the company prepared to open its biggest, most ambitious theme park ever. Despite opening during a recession, the company was confident that EPCOT Center would fully establish Walt Disney World as the Vacation Kingdom that Roy Disney had envisioned. That it wasn’t the EPCOT that Walt Disney had envisioned was glossed over and ignored. While the company didn’t specifically say that this park had anything to do with Walt Disney’s original plans, it didn’t discourage anyone from thinking that it did.

The EPCOT that greeted guests on opening day was massively larger than even the Magic Kingdom, but despite its size it had fewer traditional attractions. The park featured mostly exhibits, shops and dining. The decision was also made to ban Disney characters from the park. Instead, guests found bizarre park specific characters that were supposed to represent the World Showcase countries. On October 1, 1982 the Walt Disney World resort finally opened something called EPCOT- the theme park that it hoped would stop the questions about where EPCOT was and turn the complex into the vacation kingdom that Roy Disney wanted.

The heavily hyped park was met with a yawn. While the park opened to larger crowds than the Magic Kingdom did, it still massively underperformed. The company panicked and quickly injected Disney characters into the park. The huge cost involved to build the park sent the company into a tailspin that attracted corporate raiders. Disney CEO Card Walker, who approved EPCOT, had retired at an opportune time right before the park opened its doors. His successor, Walt Disney’s son-in-law Ron Miller, would unfortunately get all the blame for the company’s financial problems. The lackluster reception received by EPCOT threatened to do what naysayers had believed would happen in 1955- take down Walt Disney Productions.

Two years after EPCOT’s disastrous opening, the company cleared the decks, installing a new management team championed by Roy E. Disney. At first the new team led by Michael Eisner had planned to sell off the theme parks and resorts, licensing the Disney trademarks to the new owners. After realizing that the theme parks (other than EPCOT) stabilized the company as a whole, the new team decided to invest heavily in fixing EPCOT and extending the company’s theme park holdings. As part of this new push to bolster the theme parks, the new regime decided to double down on pretending that EPCOT as built was exactly what Walt Disney wanted. Promotional materials often referred to EPCOT as Walt Disney’s final dream come true.

As part of its efforts to bolster the Florida property, The Walt Disney Company began an unprecedented era of construction at Walt Disney World. In Anaheim, the majority of the revenue generated by Disneyland went to non-Disney owned businesses. This bothered Walt Disney because if he had owned more of the enterprises that sprang up around Disneyland, he could use the revenue to improve his park. This was one of the reasons why he wanted to own more land in Florida. Unfortunately, Roy Disney underbuilt hotel rooms, so the same tawdry, low rent leeches still sprang up in Orlando, though farther away. The Walt Disney Compamy sought to fix this with a new building boom in the 1980’s and 90’s. Would the company ever build anything resembling Walt’s original dream? While the Disney company would claim they had- in actuality, they would not.