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Remembering Circus World, the theme park that forced Disney World to step up its game in the early 1970s

Jim Hill

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Remembering Circus World, the theme park that forced Disney World to step up its game in the early 1970s

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How tall is Walt Disney World's Space Mountain?

Seems like a relatively straight forward question, don't you think? But the way that Company officials have answered that question has changed greatly over the past 37 years.

By that I mean: If you were to ask a spokesperson who works for the WDW Resort today about what the height of this Tomorrowland thrill ride is, they'd mostly likely tell you that -- were you factor in some of the spires which jut out of this immense show building -- this Magic Kingdom mainstay is over 180 feet tall.

Construction continues on the Space Mountain show building at WDW's Magic Kingdom
during the Winter of 1973 / 1974. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

On the other hand, were you to jump back 40 years and then ask a member of the Disney World PR staff about Space Mountain, they'd have told you that this "future project" (You gotta remember that this indoor coaster wasn't an opening day attraction at the Magic Kingdom. Though concept art & photos of the model for this futuristic thrill ride were regularly attached to press releases which hyped the October 1971 opening of the WDW Resort,  construction of this Tomorrowland attraction didn't actually get underway 'til late 1972 / early 1973. And given all of those 117 foot-long concrete beams that -- taking into account that they each weighed 74 tons -- had to be carefully hoisted into place to form that iconic cone-shaped structure ... Well, it would be a full two years before the first Disney World Guests officially got the chance to experience what "a high speed race through space" felt like) would be 20 stories tall.

"Why describe Space Mountain as being 20 stories tall instead of just saying that this show building was over 180 feet tall?," you ask. Because Disney World publicists wanted to be sure that everyone knew that the attraction which they'd soon be adding to Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom would be taller than that 19 story elephant-shaped hotel that Irvin Feld was planning on building out in Haines City to serve as the "weenie" for his soon-to-begin-construction Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus World theme park.

I'm serious, people. In the pre-opening press kit for this $50 million project, there are all sorts of images of Circus World's elephant-shaped hotel. With detailed descriptions of how this ...

My apologies for the quality of this illustration. But this is a copy of a
black-and-white newspaper photo showing a concept painting of
Circus World elephant-shaped hotel. To give some sense of
scale for this proposed structure, that's a full-sized Ferris
Wheel directly to the elephant's right.

.. huge bejeweled elephant, (Circus World's) symbol, will tower higher than a 19 story building, "the largest structure of its kind in the world."

Tourists will be able to sightsee and shop inside the giant pachyderm which will tower 350 feet above sea level. High speed elevators in the elephant's leg will whisk visitors to an observation platform shaped like a howdah atop the classic mastodon and from the top, visitors will be able to see the entire Circus World complex, as well as the surrounding countryside, as a vast panorama.

This giant structure was to have been particularly impressive at night. Given that that's when the hundreds of jewels which covered this enormous elephant-shaped hotel were to have been lit from within. Which would then -- Circus World's designers hoped -- have bathed the surrounding theme park in a cascade of colors.

This Circus World logo (which prominently features this theme park's
elephant-shaped hotel) should give you some idea the sort of
colorful structure Irvin Feld wanted to build

Add to this the elegant two-story luxury restaurant which was to have been one of the signature elements of what Circus World hoped would eventually become this theme park's equivalent of WDW's Cinderella Castle ... And you can perhaps understand why Disney was more than a little concerned about what was being built just up the street.

And when I say "street," I mean I-4. That interstate highway which ran from Florida's beaches on the East and the Gulf Coast to the west which then served as the feeder road for the Walt Disney World Resort. And you have to understand that -- in the early 1970s -- it wasn't just the Circus World project which was being built out in Haines City that had Mickey worried. Construction of  Sea World of Florida was already underway at this point (Phase One of that sealife-based theme park would open in December of 1973, while the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus World Advance Showcase -- which was, in essence, the preview center for this Circus-themed theme park -- wouldn't open 'til February of 1974).

So how did the Mouse respond to the Elephant & Killer Whale it saw encroaching on its theme park turf? Which was something that Disney took very seriously back in the early 1970s. Especially the Circus World project. You see, Mattel owned Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus at this point in that toy company's history. So it was Mattel's reportedly very-deep pockets which was supposed to fund the construction of this $60 million theme park that was going to be located just 12 miles down the road from the Magic Kingdom.

A concept painting of the Irvin Feld version of Ringling Brothers - Barnum and Bailey
Circus World theme park

So following the September 1972 announcement of the Circus World project, what did Disney World officials do? A few months later, they held a press conference of their own where Mouse House managers then revealed that the WDW Resort had an aggressive expansion plan in the works. One that would provide Central Florida visitors with more new entertainment offerings " ... than Sea World and Circus World combined."

Among the items that got greenlit during Disney's rush to deal with this perceived threat to its theme park supremacy in the Orlando area were:

  • "Pirates of the Caribbean," one of the most popular rides at Disneyland in California. About 4,300 guests will depart each hour of operation on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride, an animated recreation of buccaneers plundering on the Spanish Main.

Marc Davis working on the looting-the-treasury sequence. Which was created to
provide the WDW's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" with a suitable finale.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

  • "Big Thunder Railway," an exciting downhill race over the clattering tracks of a Wild West ironhouse roadway, around hairpin turns, over a deep valley, past teetering rocks and desert wildlife. A high-speed adventure in the Old West overlooking Frontierland's "Rivers of America," (this attraction) is the first step in construction of "Thunder Mesa."
  • Western Town. Near the Fort Wilderness camp store and Circle-D ranch, it will contain shops, theatres, dining and entertainment facilities.
  • Lake Wilderness -- brings back the old swimming hole, complete with white water for raft sliding.

Concept painting of Ben Gunn's Cave for WDW's never-completed Treasure Island.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

  • Treasure Island -- On that picturesque island out in Bay Lake, Disney planned on constructing some small lakes & waterfalls which could then be accessed by a series of walkways and trails. Once this infrastructure was in place, the Imagineers then planned on developing a themed adventure based on Walt Disney Productions' 1950 live-action version of "Treasure Island." Which was to have featured the wreck of the Hispaniola and Ben Gunn's cave to explore, a dining location fashioned after the Benbow Inn and even a peg-legged parrot to serve as the host of our tour.

Of course, not all of the proposed WDW additions described above actually got built. But that was because Mattel began having some very serious cash flow issues in the late Summer / early Fall of  1973. To the point that -- even before construction of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus World Advance Showcase had been completed -- this toy company was already trying to find a buyer for its Central Florida theme park. And though many were tempted (For a two week period in December of that year, Gulf Oil -- through its Venture Out recreational development arm -- toyed seriously with purchasing this project outright. Only to then get cold feet because of the continuing bad publicity associated with Gulf charging higher prices for gas  at its service stations due to the Arab Oil Embargo), no one actually bit. Which was why Mattel was then forced to go forward with construction of this circus-themed theme park all on its own.

But because Mattel wasn't willing or able to provide the $60 million necessary to construct the grandiose version of this theme park that Irvin Feld had originally wanted to build, a lot of Circus World's more spectacular features never ever made it off the drawing table. Including that 19 story-tall elephant-shaped hotel.

Irvin Feld (center of photograph, in light grey suit) presides over the ribbon cutting
 of the Ringling Brothers -- Barnum and Bailey Circus World Advance Showcase
on February 21, 1974

Which really was a shame. Especially given all the time & effort Feld had already poured into this particular element of his Circus World project. Irvin actually made this hotel's designers go measure the skeleton of Jumbo (i.e. P.T. Barnum's prize elephant. Which --  when he purchased this pachyderm for $10,000 back in 1881 -- was supposedly the largest animal of this species to have ever been put on display) just so the proportions of this immense elephant-shaped structure would be correct.

I'm told that Irvin met with computer engineers to discuss how the steel structure of this hotel should be built. Not to mention fretting about the proper placement of this building's elevators (He eventually settled on one elevator shaft being built inside of this elephant-shaped building's left front foreleg while the other elevator would be built in the rear right leg).

This 19 story-tall structure would have been quite the sight to see as you drove up I-4 toward Ringling Brothers - Barnum & Bailey Circus World. More to the point, would have certainly provided a Cinderella Castle-like "weenie" for this theme park.

Cover of the official Opening Day program

But given that Mattel never really had the money to properly execute Irvin's plan, this theme park -- which was funded in fits & starts by this toy company's board of directors -- never really delivered on the promise of its Advance Showcase. Which was one of the very first places on the planet where you could go and see a film shot in the IMAX format. Feld has commissioned this 25 minute-long cinematic valentine to circus life. Which -- when it was projected on a five story-tall screen -- was supposed to have given you a sense of how exciting & colorful an entire theme park which celebrated the world of the circus could be.

But that version -- Irvin Feld's vision of what the Ringling Brothers - Barnum & Bailey Circus World theme park should really have been like  -- never got built. The built-on-the-cheap version limped along 'til 1986 when Mattel finally sold the place off to Arizona real estate developer Jim Monaghan. Who -- in turn -- sold the property off to Harcourt Brace Jovanich, who then turned this circus-themed theme park in Boardwalk and Baseball. Which barely lasted three years before it then closed for good.

Don't get me wrong. Even the on-the-cheap version of Circus World had some pretty amazing attractions. Michael Jackson just loved this theme park's Roaring Tiger roller coaster. Whenever he was in Orlando, the King of Pop would always make a special trip out to Haines City so that he could then enjoy multiple trips aboard this old-fashioned woodie. In fact, when Boardwalk & Baseball suddenly closed down in January of 1990, I'm told that Jackson made repeated inquiries about this coaster. With the hope that he could then have what-was-then-known-as-the-Florida-Hurricane dismantled and then shipped back to the West Coast. So that this coaster could then become the centerpiece attraction of Michael's own private theme park at Neverland Ranch.

Michael Jackson and director John Landis riding Circus World's Roaring Tiger
roller coaster during a 1980s-era visit to this Haines City theme park

But for me ... Well, I'm always gonna wonder about what might have happen if Mattel hadn't had those cash flow problems back in the early 1970s. If Irvin Feld's version of Ringling Brothers - Barnum & Bailey Circus World had been built and then proved to be serious competition for the Walt Disney World Resort, what would the Mouse have then done in response? Would we seeing what's going on now between Disney and Universal. With the Imagineers responding to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and USF's Diagon Alley project by spending a rumored half a billion dollars on James Cameron's World of Avatar? Or would Disney have significantly stepped up its game back in the 1970s and -- in direct response to the Barnum City portion of the Circus World project (which was supposed to have been this state-of-the-art residential community that would have been built on 5000 acres directly adjacent to the theme park) -- would the Mouse have actually gone ahead with Walt Disney's last & greatest dream, Epcot (the futuristic city, not the theme park).

That's a lot to consider, I know. But as I keep telling Len Testa on those Unofficial Guide Disney Dish podcasts that he and I post on iTunes, the Mouse doesn't operate in a vacuum. It regularly responds to forces in the marketplace. And if Ringling Brothers - Barnum and Bailey Circus World theme park had followed Irvin Feld's original vision and then -- using Mattel's money -- emerged as this major player in the Central Florida tourism market ... Disney would have had to do something of size in response. Like -- say -- that giant Mouse-shaped hotel that Michael Eisner once talked about building.

But enough about the Circus World that never was. How many of you actually made the trip out to Haines City in the 1970s & 1980s. I have to admit that I myself never made it to this Central Florida theme park in any of its incarnations. So what was this place really like to visit?

The entrance to Circus World at the height of this theme park's popularity

Your thoughts?

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  • I love these blast from the past articles!

  • Circus World was gone way before I ever set foot in Orlando (heck, so was Boardwalk and Baseball), but its story was still fascinating. It's also kinda interesting to consider that a company that was the Mouse's rival in central Florida at one time is now one of its entertainment partners (Irvin Feld's company is the one who puts together the Disney arena shows and ice shows). Thanks for sharing, Jim!

  • I remember visiting Circus World when I was very young. The only ride that I remember was called Montazooma's Revenge (I think). It went down a hill, around a loop, up a hill, and then it repeated the maneuver backwards. I remember being scared to ride it because it went upside down and only had a lap bar. In the end I found it really fun.

    I later visited the park as Boardwalk and Baseball. It was a fun little amusement park but I remember it seeming very run down. It closed shortly afterward.

  • I did go in several occasions to Boardwalk & Baseball, so I'm surprised that it was only open for 3 years. I remember watching the Kansas City Royals in their Spring training. But, oddly what I remember the most is a Boardwalk & Baseball store inside SeaWorld with big ads to visit the site. Odd memories.

  • Visited in fall 1983...remember going to the main "circus" show which lasted about an hour, also the main entrance tent with the IMAX film and various other stuff going on inside.  The park was pleasant, though not particularly memorable...nothing like the very Disneyland-like concept in the article above.  Outside of the circus-related tents and such, the park was essentially a generic amusement park with a collection of coasters, flat rides, etc.

  • Great article. Never knew about the elephant hotel.

    I was about 12 when I visited Circus World with my Grandparents. In those days only the wealthy stayed on Disney property so we stayed at a very cheap motel between WDW and CW. I remember the park having at least two rollercoasters - the Roaring Tiger and a looping coaster. I did ride Roaring Tiger and while I know I liked it - it doesn't stick out in my memory much as being great. Sort of a standard wood coaster - but of course much more exciting than what WDW had to offer for pure thrills.

    The park was very clean. Lots of bright circus colors. The one part that stands out is their museum. It was a small building - maybe even in a rail car (memory fails on that) and featured lots of old photos of early circus life. My Grandfater worked as a cook for Ringling Bro's  so he had a lot of additional details to give.

    there wasn't much shade in the park. Sort of felt a bit like a carnival - with carnival rides and lots of circus themes. Was definitely fun, but nothing at all like the Magic Kingdom. Imagine Six Flags with a circus theme.

  • I visited Circus World two or three times, once as a school trip.  It was fun, and Michael Jackson was right about that coaster, it was great.  

    One thing that stood out, as a child, at least, was the feeling of being at THE CIRCUS.  The circuses I had been to were nothing like movies and television showed, there were no big tops or sideshows...it was held in the Miami Beach Convention Center!  But Circus World felt like a "real" circus.

  • Simply amazing and I had no idea Mattel owned Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey.

  • Had an annual when HBJ ran B&B.  I would go out once or twice a month to ride the wood roller coaster.  I remember it as an out and back with a good first hill and good speed.  Since it was in Florida it was pretty smooth.  I have been trying to rack my brain about any other memories and all I can remember is the Boardwalk, which was the entrance area and a character dressed up as a baseball.

  • The elephant hotel was based on the long-ago destroyed Elephant Hotel in Coney Island, NY en.wikipedia.org/.../Elephantine_Colossus. The similar Lucy the Margate Elephant (still standing in Margate, NJ) www.lucytheelephant.org was the inspiration for a large set piece in Main Street of Disneyland Paris, and one that made its way to Disneyland in CA as well.

  • Great article and in it's day, Circus World was a great place to go.

    I remember visiting there many times as a kid. The idea of always being able to go to a circus was fun. The rides were awesome and as already pointed out, the roller coaster was fantastic. The "feel" of the park was radically different than going to a Disney park...I remember it being more like a "Six Flags" experience.

    I also remember when the theme of the park shifted and they added the "baseball" wrinkle in the latter days of the theme park. Boardwalk and Baseball had a lot of charm, even though the days of the park were numbered and the crowds were beginning to disappear.

    Thank you again for this great trip down memory lane. I am a Central Florida native who not only remembers but misses Circus World.

  • I went to Circus World as a child. I can't remember much. A tent, animals & a lady clown putting makeup on me. My mom still has the picture buttons of my brother & I in our face paint. I wish I could remember more.

  • I was there when the place changed owners three times. Barnum, Mattel and the Condo Baron crook Monahand.

  • I worked at Circus World (1977-1981)...was the magician in the Thetare of Illusion show. My (now) wife rode and trained elephants at Circus World in the main show. You can see many photo's on my facebook photo's page. Four years ago we had a Circus World reunion and will have our second reunion next year (2015).

  • Our Family Was There 3 Different Trips.  Each Time They Had More Added.  The Park Was Very Clean And We Loved It. The IMAX Movie Was In The Big Tent Building.  They Had Circus Rail Cars On The Front Side And A lot Of Circus Wagons.. They Had A lot Of Elephants And Big Cat Shows. They Had A Tent Set Up For Your Kids To Walk The Rope Or Swing The Ropes With A lot Of Clowns. It Was Great!  We Loved It. When You Turned Into The Entrance, The Smell Was Great, They Had Miles Of Orange Groves Near .When It Went To A Baseball Park, We Never Went Back. To Be Sure If They Hadn't Changed From The Circus, It Would Still Be There. Back Them It Was Called The Gate Way To The Worlds.  Disney World, Sea World, Circus World

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