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The short, short life of Disney World's STOLport

The short, short life of Disney World's STOLport

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Maybe you've seen it. Just off to the right through the trees after you've come through the Magic Kingdom's toll plaza. That long strip of road that seems to go nowhere on the other side of the Epcot monorail beamway.

Sometimes you'll see buses out there idling near that long stretch of tarmac. "So that's what it is," you tell yourself as you drive off toward the Contemporary Resort and/or Wilderness Lodge. "It's a parking lot for buses."

Though -- when you think about it later -- it seems kind of odd that the Walt Disney Company would build a second parking lot just a few hundred yards away from the Magic Kingdom's main parking lot. Which already has room for 12,213 cars.

Your confusion deepens as you make your way to the Ticket & Transportation Center. Where you notice that the Magic Kingdom already has a designated bus parking area just to the right of the ticket booths. And a pretty sizable one at that.

"So what is the deal with that piece of asphalt?," you wonder. Which is why -- later that same day (as you're taking the monorail over Epcot) -- that you make a point of trying to check out this mystery "parking lot." As you look out the window through the trees, you notice that it isn't all that long. Maybe 2000 feet at best. It's also incredibly thin. Just two or three cars wide.

So you settle back in your seat and think: "That's a really odd shape for a bus parking lot."

Well, the reason that this stretch of tarmac is so oddly sized is that it wasn't originally designed to be a holding area for buses. Some 34 years ago, this was one of the more modern features at the then-still-young "Vacation Kingdom." This was Walt Disney World's STOLport.

"What's a STOLport?," you ask. STOL is actually an acronym for Short Take-Off and Landings. As in: This was Disney World's private airfield for small aircraft.

And -- believe it or not -- WDW's STOLport saw quite a bit of service 'way back in the early 1970s.

Shawnee Airlines (a private commuter service that was then based out of Orlando's McCoy Jetport) used to run seven flights daily in & out to Disney World. Using DeHavilland Twin Otters, they'd regularly take newly arrived tourists on the 15 minute trip over to the Lake Buena Vista STOLport. Then they'd turn right around and head back to their airfield of origin (Which -- in 1976 -- was renamed Orlando International Airport) to scoop up another group of guests.

Mind you, it wasn't just tourists with deep pockets that used WDW's private airfield. "Eyes and Ears" (I.E. Disney World's newspaper for cast members) from this period regularly featured shots of celebrities stepping out of Cessnas at the airstrip.

I recall one  black & white photograph of Jim Nabors arriving at the resort this way. This picture showed Nabors stepping out of a small plane & being greeted by a cast member dressed as Goofy. The caption of the photo (If I'm remembering correctly) was "Goofy greets Gomer."

"That sounds like a really fun way to arrive at Disney World," you say. "So why don't people get to use WDW's private airfield anymore?" To be honest ... I'm not sure.

I'm told that one of the main reason that many pilots didn't really like to fly into "Lake Buena Vista STOL" (as this single runway airfield was officially designated on both aircraft navigation charts as well as topographical maps) is that it had very few facilities. By that I mean: Disney never built any really-for-real hangars at the end of its runway. Which meant that your plane -- during its brief stopover at WDW -- was completely exposed to the elements. Which -- given the number of severe thunderstorms that regularly sweep through Orange County during the summer months -- wasn't exactly a good thing.

The other problem with WDW's private airport was that -- deliberately by design -- it was small. "How small?," you query. So small that "Lake Buena Vista STOL" only had parking spaces for 4 aircraft.

"But why didn't Disney expand this facility?," you continue. "Surely if the Mouse had added hangars and/or more landing strips, more people would have used Mickey's private airport."

But you see, that's the thing. Disney didn't really want a whole lot of people using WDW's STOLport. Why for? Because in the early 1970s, the Imagineers still had hopes of building a state-of-the-art international airport right there on Disney World property.

Don't believe me? Then take a gander at this image from the 1969 master plan for the Disney World resort. This is what WED hoped WDW would actually look like during the Florida project's 5th year of operation. And -- if you'll look down in the lower left-hand corner of that image (at the corner of State Road 530 and Route I-4) -- you'll see a lumpy triangle-shaped thing that's labeled "Jetport."



Copyright 1969 Walt Disney Productions

By 1976, the Imagineers hoped that 400 people would have jobs at WDW's airport. Of course, 15 years later (at full build-out of the Florida project), WED wanted the jetport to be doing much better than that. Disney envisioned that -- by 1991 -- the WDW airport would employ 2000 people. And that -- in the immediate area surrounding the jetport -- 500 motel units would provide rooms for travelers flying in & out of the Lake Buena Vista area.



Copyright 1969 Walt Disney Productions

"But this sounds like a really great idea," you sputter. "So why didn't the Disney Company opt to go forward with this aspect of the Florida project?" Again, I don't really know. Though I've heard a number of interesting theories over the years. These include:

  • After the oil embargo of 1973, Disney executives were so spooked at the idea of building anything that relied heavily on a steady stream of fuel in order to operate properly that they eventually abandoned all plans to build an international airport on property.
  • Though Delta Airlines came close to signing on the dotted line, Disney was never able to convince a major carrier to come join them as a financial partner in the WDW jetport project. Which is why an international airport at Disney World never really got off the ground.

Whatever the reason, by the mid-1970s, Disney executives had effectively abandoned their plans to build an international jetport and an industrial park and Epcot (the city) on site in Florida ... In its place came Disney's plan to build Epcot (the theme park). Which (to many Disney Company watchers) signaled that the executives who were then running the Mouse House had really lost their nerve.

Speaking of losing one's nerve ... Let's get back to WDW's STOLport and why this private airport eventually fell into disuse ... I've heard that -- due to all the insurance concerns involved here -- Disney eventually began discouraging pilots from using Lake Buena Vista STOL. Though longtime WDW employees have also told me that one too many Piper Cubs doing far-too-close fly-bys of Cinderella Castle may have also been a factor in this decision.

Anyway ... Once construction of the monorail extension to EPCOT Center got underway in the late 1970s / early 1980s, safe regular operation of the Lake Buena Vista STOLport became kind of a moot point.

Why for? Well, given the runway's physical orientation, planes attempting to land at Lake Buena Vista STOL always had to fly in from the southwest on a flight path that took them directly over the Epcot monorail beamway during their final approach. Well, this practice just terrified Disney's lawyers. They had nightmares of a freak downdraft sendng a private plane directly into a piece of the monorail's track. Or -- worse -- a trainload of tourists.

Which is why -- by the 1980s -- Disney no longer allowed anyone to land at the Lake Buena Vista STOLport. Even when Mickey Mouse One (I.E. Walt Disney's own private plane) was being flown in WDW so that it could then go on display in Disney-MGM's boneyard, this aircraft couldn't get clearance to land at WDW's private airfield.

Which is why Mickey Mouse One actually touched down out on World Drive (Which had been completely shut down to traffic just prior to the plane's arrival). Once the old Disney corporate plane was on the ground, it was then safely towed back to the studio theme park.

Mind you, just because Disney executives said that no one could use WDW's private airfield anymore didn't stop the FAA from continuing to list Lake Buena Vista STOL on its aircraft navigational charts. As recently as 1998, the Jacksonville Sectional Chart still showed this long out-of-use airstrip as being an active private airfield.

Though -- getting back to the start of our story -- by the time 1998 rolled around, the only thing that WDW's STOLport was being used for really was a holding area for the resort's buses. Though -- for a brief time in the 1990s -- the Imagineers also supposedly used this long strip of tarmac to conduct a very interesting sort of experiment.

"What sort of experiment?," you ask. Well, the guys at WDI reportedly discovered that -- if you set up different raised areas of asphalt along a roadway at very specific intervals -- as you drove a wheeled vehicle in the right direction over this specially treated section of road, the vibrations that would then resonate inside the vehicle would almost sound like music.

As the story goes, the Imagineers allegedly used the 2000 foot long airstrip at the old Lake Buena Vista STOLport to field test this musical-speed-bump idea. And -- to this day -- I've had WDW bus drivers swear to me that they actually took part in the field trials of this project. And that -- were you to begin rolling down that old runway at at least 20 MPH -- the vibrations that you heard inside your vehicle sounded just like the opening bars of "Zip a Dee Doo Dah."

Sadly, I myself never got the chance to drive down Lake Buena Vista STOL's old runway while that special road treatment was still in place. Though, a few years back, I did get the chance to accompany some WDW staffers on a quick inspection trip of the old airfield.

To be honest, during my visit, it looked like WDW's STOLport could re-open for business at a moment's notice. The ramp, runway and taxiways all appeared to be great shape. And -- since WDW's groundskeeping staff regularly mows the grassy areas that separates the old airfield from the surrounding woods -- the area didn't look overgrown. But -- rather -- neat & tidy. Ready for use.

But -- sadly -- that ain't gonna happen. In the wake of 9/11, the entire Walt Disney World resort officially became a "No Fly" zone. Which is why -- even though it still looks ready for Jim Nabor's return -- the FAA finally pulled Lake Buena Vista STOL off of its listing of active private airfields.

Which is why that airstrip is what it is today. Unused. An interesting relic of Disney World's past. A time when you could actually fly into WDW before you headed off for your trip on "Peter Pan's Flight."

P.S. ... If you'd like to see some actual aerial photos of the Lake Buena Vista STOLport, then I suggest you follow this link to Paul Freeman's excellent "Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields" webpage.

And -- speaking of flight-related Disney stories -- you'll find a really out-of-this-world one if you'll just follow this link over to o-meon.com.

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