Hi. My name’s Paul and I’m a tour junkie. (Hi, Paul!)
Sad but true, folks. Some people have insatiable addictions to alcohol, drugs, or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. My insatiable addiction is for taking guided tours. Given the money and the opportunity, I’ll happily take any guided tour of a Disney theme park – never mind that I probably know the theme park I’m visiting like the back of my hand, or even that I’ve taken that same tour before. (How many times have I taken the Fab Tour now, Michelle?) I enjoy having the chance to walk around and learn the stories behind the Disney parks; reading about the parks’ history or about how an attraction is “imagineered” is always fun, but it adds something to the experience to be able to see what’s being discussed right in front of you.
Last January, I was on vacation at Walt Disney World with my fiancée. I was having fun visiting the parks, but I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just riding the attractions and seeing the shows. Nope, I knew Walt Disney World offered a variety of behind the scenes tours, and I was determined to take at least one. But which one? Keys to the Kingdom? Nope, done that. The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains?
I love trains almost as much as Walt did, but that starts at 7 a.m. — I’m on vacation here. Behind the Seeds? My fiancée, AKA the green thumb extraordinaire, loves that one, but I wasn’t sure. Then I saw the listing on the Internet.
Backstage Magic. A full day behind the scenes at three of the Disney theme parks. Ooh, that sounds intriguing — we have a winner. Let’s see, it costs … $199 per person?!? Ouch. Well, at least it included lunch. I called up the WDW Reservations line, even though I’d been told that you had to book this tour months in advance, and there’d be no way I could get on this tour on such short notice…
I got two slots on the tour for the following Wednesday. Folks, there are some definite advantages to visiting WDW during the slow season.
The adventure began just outside the entrance to Epcot, where our group of about 10 people met Bobbi, a retired schoolteacher who became a Disney Institute instructor and tour guide. Bobbi introduced herself and had everyone in the group do the same, then handed out our ID buttons – a picture of Mickey going “thru the mirror” to see what was on the other side (kinda like what we were doing!).
Once the administrative stuff was done, our group entered Epcot — but didn’t go very far. We went to a gate right next to Spaceship Earth, where Bobbi demonstrated the difference between “onstage ” and “backstage” by having us look at the ground. In the on-stage area we were in, the ground was painted red, symbolizing the “red carpet” treatment that Disney guests receive when they enter the parks. We walked through a door in the gate and looked at the ground again – it was still red, which had a couple of if wondering if Bobbi was pulling a fast one on us. Not so; since the area immediately behind the gate is visible to the public when the gate is fully open, it’s an onstage area, hence the pavement was still red. Once we walked away from the gate, the ground went from red to black; now that we were officially backstage, it was time to start exploring the magic.
We took a quick walk and boarded a waiting Disney Cruise Line bus, which would be the transportation for our tour, then the bus drove on an access road behind The Living Seas, The Land, and the Imagination pavilions. I was surprised by all the open space behind the Future World pavilions – I’ve been in the guest areas of Epcot and driven on the access roads outside, and you’d never know from looking at either that there was that much space back there! A short drive later, and we were behind a large, rectangular building, which turned out to be the back of the American Adventure pavilion.
Entering through the back door of the pavilion, we found ourselves looking at a very large structure that looked like a giant cage full of Audio-Animatronic figures. This “cage” is home to most of the AA scenes you see in The American Adventure (except for the Rosie the Riveter scene, which is lowered to the stage); the “cage” moves forward and backward under the auditorium and the scene to be played rises up onto the stage when it’s in the proper position.
Bobbi asked us to take a closer look into the cage at the AA figures. As it happened, Thomas Jefferson was being worked on by a couple of Imagineers, so we got to see him undressed! It’s not as kinky as it sounds, folks. Under their clothes, AA figures have a clear plastic shell in the rough shape of a human body; and under the shell are the actual pneumatics that move the figure.
Bobbi told us about the figures used in the show. She mentioned as the years have passed, the figures have become more and more sophisticated and the movements have been more and more refined. For example, Susan B. Anthony’s movements have become less exaggerated (and thus more lifelike); Mark Twain has gotten better at smoking his cigars! Bobbi asked us how we thought the AA figures “spoke” during the show – the voices don’t come from the figures themselves, and we couldn’t see any speakers on the sets. The secret is that there are speakers on the sets – they’re just disguised as props such as cabinets or boxes. Needless to say, making a speaker look like a cabinet can be a pretty good trick!
Bobbi directed our attention to a large area above and behind the “cage”. This area is where the slide and film projectors that show the scenes not involving the AAs are located, as is the lighting that creates the “sunset” effect you see at the end of the show. The film, slides, and “sunset” are rear-projected onto the screens lowered onto the stage instead of over the heads of the audience.
I was amazed by the sheer size of The American Adventure’s backstage area; it’s easily as large as the lobby and the seating area, and it’s full of equipment – the “cage”, the projectors and lighting effects, and all of the computers that run the figures. As big as the show building appears to be from the guests’ view, there’s a lot more that you don’t see.
As fascinating as The American Adventure’s backstage area was, it was time to move on. We hopped back on the bus, and as the bus drove down the access road to Future World, Bobbi showed us a video about… um, well to be honest, I don’t know what the video was about, because I was too busy looking out the window at what Epcot looked like backstage. I’m sure the video was nice. The bus stopped behind the Wonders of Life pavilion, and the group was ushered into a small foyer; the foyer contained a monitor showing the seating area of a Body Wars vehicle. This was the point where Bobbi told us she’d normally let us watch the guests on Body Wars get knocked around by the attraction, but as it happened there was nobody riding. Ah, well, that’s what happens when you go to WDW in the slow season.
Bobbi told us a little about the simulator technology used on Body Wars, explaining that the technology was developed from the flight simulators used to train military and commercial pilots; and motion of the vehicles is combined with a back-projected film shown on the front “window” of the vehicle. Once her explanation was done, Bobbi opened another set of doors and led us through a heavy curtain – put up to keep light from the foyer and outside from entering the simulator room and letting the guests have a look at the vehicles as they board – and into a Plexiglas cubicle. Once the boarding of the vehicle was complete, some of the lights of the simulator room were turned on and we watched one of the ride vehicles go through its ride cycle. Folks, if you think that the vehicles move around a lot during the show, you have no idea. That sucker looks even more violent when you’re watching it from outside that it feels when you’re riding it! This demonstration probably convinced several members of our tour group members never to ride Body Wars again!
Leaving Body Wars, it was time to get back on the bus and drive over to a nearby group of one-story buildings and trailers gaily decorated with lots of graphics representing the countries in the World Showcase. These buildings are Epcot’s main employee area; the trailers are the cast library and education center, used by Epcot’s international cast members. We entered the main building through a side corridor, also decorated with a series of murals done by Epcot cast members in tribute to their various work departments. We soon arrived at the central corridor, which was abuzz with cast members rushing between the locker rooms, break rooms, and the shuttles to the various pavilions. Bobbi told us more about what was going on in the various rooms off the main corridor; the rooms included break rooms, interactive learning (computer) centers, and scheduling offices.
After a brief explanation of the cast member scheduling system (which I won’t bore you with), Bobbi walked us into the cast locker room. That’s “locker room”, not “locker rooms;” it’s one large room with lots of rows of lockers. Before you get carried away with visions of scantily clad cast members, you should know that the locker rooms are intended for cast members’ storage of their personal effects only; there are gender-separated changing rooms off the main room for changing into costumes. In fact, there are signs posted all over reminding the cast members NOT to change clothes in the locker room!
Bobbi walked the group into the adjoining costume issue room. The room looked like a giant supermarket stocked with nothing but clothes — right down to the checkout stands manned by costuming cast members. Bobbi explained that when a cast member needs a costume, he or she goes to the appropriate rack (don’t ask me how they find the right one among all of the racks in there!), picks up whatever costume items they need in the appropriate sizes, then head for the checkout counter, where the scanner reads the cast member’s ID barcode and the barcode on each item. Cast members go through this every day, with two exceptions. If you’re a cast member on the “Fast Track” program, you get several days’ worth of costumes and check them out all at once, then take them home or put them in your locker and trade them in for clean ones when they’ve all been used. If you’re a cast member with an unusual figure, the costuming department gets your measurements, makes up special costumes for you, and places them on a special rack (at which point you hope that someone else doesn’t come in and take them before you do).
Bobbi told us about cast member appearance and behavior standards and explained that how these standards are in place because Disney considers the cast to be an important part in setting the stage for the theme park “show.” This brought an objection from a person on the tour, because she remembered seeing a “Wendy” face character at the Magic Kingdom that seemed to be acting very rude toward the guests; Bobbi argued that Wendy may have just have been “in character”, but asked to get information about where and when the person saw this, so she could pass it on and make sure that other guests’ experiences wouldn’t be ruined as this person’s experience had been.
We walked through the rest of the Epcot costuming building on our way back to the bus. One place we passed by and peeked into but didn’t get to enter was the “wig room”, where the beauticians prepare the various wigs worn by the face characters (yes, folks, it’s not their real hair — sorry to disappoint you); apparently, at one time, the wig rooms were on the backstage tours, but after a high muckety-muck read a description of the “wig room” and the “head room” (where the beauticians prepare the character heads) on the Internet and had a fit about how the “show” was destroyed, the wig room visits ended. (Well, folks, if a lot of what I tell you about is no longer on itinerary of the Backstage Magic tour when you take the tour, you know who to blame!)
From Epcot Costuming, we proceeded to the Disney -MGM Studios. We briefly stopped at the gate, where a WDW security officer boarded the bus and checked IDs — the only time any guard did so at any of the parks. Now, I understand why they have to do this – guest security and all that – but why we were only checked at the entrance to the Studios? Anyway, once we cleared security, we were dropped off at the Creative Costuming building. Creative Costuming is the place where all costumes used at WDW are designed and all the parade and character costumes are made (the parks have their own costuming departments where regular cast costumes are made and maintained). The first thing we had to do was to wait to be announced on the building PA system by the receptionist — not for security reasons or to hide anything, but to keep us from walking in on anybody who was improperly dressed while being fitted for a costume!
Once we got the OK, we visited the cubicles of one of the cast costume designers, who explained to us about how the design process for cast costumes worked. At least I think she did; I was too busy looking at the walls of the room, which were full of sketches of the various costumes these folks had designed for the attractions and parades. I was having a great time trying to guess which costumes went with which shows! Somebody should seriously consider putting a book of these sketches together for sale.
Our next stop was the office of the parade costume designers. They told us a little about how the process for designing parade costumes worked and showed the group a doll-sized model of a ball gown they were working on. Well, half of a ball gown, anyway. Parade costume designers create miniature models of half of the costume so they can see what it’ll look like when it’s done; they only make half because the other half is pretty much going to look like the half that they’re modeling. Just because there’s only half a costume, don’t think that it isn’t a faithful representation of the finished costume – the models are accurate down to every last detail you’ll see in the parades. The designers told us that they keep copies of all the patterns for the costumes they create, although these days the patterns are created and stored on computer instead of on paper; this makes costume patterns easier to find and easier to modify to fit the dimensions of a new performer.
Now that we’d heard about the design process, it was time to have a look at the production of the costumes. Anyone who’s been on the Backlot Tram Tour at the Studios would probably recognize the production area, since it’s one of the places you get to peek into on the tour; the difference is that while the folks on the Backlot Tram Tour got to look in on the room for about a minute, on the Backstage Magic tour, you get to spend some time finding out what exactly all those people are doing! The production area was a large room with a dozen or more seamstresses hard at work at individual tables. The room also contained what looked like a cross between a drafting table and an air hockey machine with a piece of fabric on it. This is the computer controlled cutting table, which can take the patterns stored on the computers and accurately cut the pattern in a matter of seconds using a cutting blade on a mobile arm. As to why it looks like an air hockey table, it kind of works like one in reverse; when fabric is placed on the table, a vacuum is created underneath that ensures the fabric is flat enough to ensure the most accurate cut. The table was pretty impressive, and it works really well, but if I worked there, I wouldn’t put my fingers anywhere near that thing! As for putting the costume together, there’s no fancy computer -controlled system for that — just a plain old-fashioned (but extremely talented) seamstress on a sewing machine.
From Creative Costuming, we took the bus to the other side of the Studios (have you figured out that you shouldn’t take this tour is you don’t like bus rides?), where we had lunch at Mama Melrose’s. Lunch was four or five items from the menu served family-style to the group; I loved this idea — it encourages you to talk to your fellow tour group members as well as sample several of the items from the restaurant. This is something that Disneyland might want to consider for tours that include lunch – after the tour, I was ready to go back to Mama Melrose’s and try everything that I sampled again! Once lunch was done, Bobbi took us through a door at the back of the restaurant – and we immediately found ourselves on the service road backstage. I’ve been to Mama Melrose’s a couple of times before, and I never would have suspected that there was a road ten feet away from back of the dining room!
Back on the bus again, we left the Studios and headed for the Magic Kingdom. Bobbi showed another video about the creation of Walt Disney World, featuring footage from Walt’s “Project Florida” film and film of construction of the parks. We entered the MK behind Frontierland and got to see the rear of the show buildings for Splash Mountain; if it weren’t for the swimming pool-like tank of water behind the building, you wouldn’t suspect that the attraction was on the other side! Nearby were the parade barn and the service canal, which was our next stop.
Once we were off the bus, we had a look at the Electrical Water Pageant barges, which were moored in the service canal. They’re not quite as impressive in daylight and up close as they are at night on the Seven Seas Lagoon – they’re basically pontoon floats with speakers and a tall chain link fence on them, and strung on the fence are the same kind of Christmas lights you probably have strung on your house during the holidays. Bobbi told us the story of how the Electrical Water Pageant came to be. The show was created not long after the Magic Kingdom opened and was intended as a temporary show to keep resort guests entertained until something better could be come up with. Well, it’s been thirty years, and a lot of people would argue that they couldn’t come up with anything better to put on the lagoon!
From there, Bobbi led the group into the parade barn. Our first stop was the performers practice studio, where the performers in the parades practice their moves on hardwood floors and in front of full-length mirrors. Something about this set up seems to inspire people to dance; five minutes in this room and I was trying to tap dance as Bobbi explained how the room was used! (If you’ve never seen me tap dance, consider yourself lucky.)
After leaving the practice studio, we passed the storage racks for the SpectroMagic costumes – which unlike the Electrical Water Pageant barges were pretty impressive even with the lights off! – and entered the main section of the barn, where the parade units are stored. We were able to take a look at the SpectroMagic floats from a distance, then Bobbi let us have a look inside the SpectroMagic Ursula float, so we could have a look at the driving controls of a typical parade unit. If you drive the Ursula float. you’d better be friends with whoever plays Ursula’s top half, because the performer is basically standing on the driver’s shoulder for the entire parade! The material the SpectroMagic floats are made of does allow for a little bit of a view out, but not much. My understanding is that there’s equipment in the vehicle that allows the driver to know where exactly he is on the route and lets the system that controls the music know the same thing. Either way, a parade float driver is not a job for the claustrophobic!
We left the fully enclosed section of the parade barn, which is home to the SpectroMagic floats, and went into a section of the barn covered only by a roof; this is where the units of the Share A Dream Come True Parade are parked. For those of you that have always wondered, yes, the snowglobes on the floats are air conditioned, although Bobbi mentioned that even with the AC it can get pretty hot in there. The performers basically have to crawl into the snowglobe from the inside of the float. In the tradition of the “hidden Mickeys” all over WDW, each float in the Share A Dream Come True Parade floats has a “hidden Walt”! Some of the “hidden Walts” are pretty obvious, others are less so. Sorry, but I’m not telling where they are – I’m going to leave it up to you to try and find them!
After leaving the parade barn, (Say it with me, folks) we got back on the bus again and left the MK and headed for an area behind the park. There are a number of buildings behind the Magic Kingdom; these buildings provide many of the support functions for all four parks. We left the bus at Central Shops, a cavernous building that’s home to just about anyone who does construction or maintenance on anything
in the parks; you name the building or repair specialty, they probably do it at Central Shops.
After getting a pair of safety goggles (which are required to enter the building), we went up to two balconies and got a bird’s eye view of the metalworking and electrical shops.
Did you ever take shop class in high school? Imagine that the entire student body of your high school took shop all at once in the same building and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the metalworking and electrical shops looked like from the balcony. I had a pretty good time trying to guess what everyone was working on; some of the stuff was obvious, like the guy who was working on a trash can, but some of things they were working on I’d never be able to identify. Guess I should have paid more attention in shop class.
From the balconies, the group went to a large central corridor; this was the work area for the larger equipment, such as ride vehicles. I saw a lot of vehicles from many different rides being worked on there – from Splash Mountain logs to Space Mountain rockets – but the things that held my attention the most were the ride vehicles being assembled for the (then still under construction) Mission: Space. As folks who have ridden the attraction can attest, the ride vehicles are cramped; if you think they look small on the inside, you should see them on the outside – they look like 4-person coffins. (Gee, there’s an image you want on your mind as you ride for the first time.)
A little farther down the corridor was the Wood Shop, where we got to see a naked carousel horse! The horse in question was from Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel, and it had been stripped down to the bare wood; even bereft of even a drop of paint, it was absolutely beautiful — you’ve never really appreciated the craftsmanship that went into creating these horses until you’ve seen one in this state. The shop worker, with obvious pride in his work (if I could do that kind of woodwork, I’d be proud, too), told us all about what he was doing. The horses on the Golden Carrousel are traded out regularly and are refurbished by the shop workers; stripping the horses down the bare wood doesn’t happen as often, but it was still done. If you ever hear someone telling you that all the Carrousel horses are just cheap copies made of Fiberglas, don’t you believe it; many of the horses on the Golden Carrousel are reproductions, but many others are the genuine article, and they deserve to be considered works of art. How often do you get to ride a work of art?
After a walk through the Fiberglas shop, where a couple of boats were being refurbished, we entered “Alligator Alley,” the shop for repair and construction of Audio-Animatronic figures. Bobbi explained the shop’s unusual name; in the early years of WDW, there was an incident where one non-Audio- Animatronic alligator wandered into Central Shops and temporarily took up residence until he was “convinced” that he might be happier back in the swamp! Fortunately, Alligator Alley’s current residents are a little less frightening (although many people who have ridden “it’s a small world” may disagree).
Bobbi brought the group over to a display featuring two AA figures — a seriously de-feathered Tiki Bird, representing the earliest versions of Audio-Animatronic figures, and Bonnie Appetit, formerly of Epcot’s “Kitchen Kabaret,” fitted with an arm that was too big for her petite figure but was otherwise none the worse for wear. Bobbi explained how the movements of AA figures are controlled by pneumatic lines and computer tapes, then gave a lucky volunteer (me) the opportunity to demonstrate how the pneumatics controlled the movements of the figures by having the volunteer press valves on a pneumatic control manifold. Press one valve, and the Tiki Bird’s beak opened; press another and Bonnie’s right arm moved to the right, press a third valve and it moved to the left, and so on. I can imagine how many lines it must take to control the Auctioneer!
On our way out of Alligator Alley, we saw the AA testing bench, with a row of figures from “it’s a small world” being tested. The figures were going through endurance tests in preparation for installation; this consists of repeating each motion the figure can do 10,000 times to ensure it won’t fail after it’s installed on the attraction. And if you’re one of those people that think these figures are creepy on the attraction, try watching them for several minutes doing the same movement over and over again. Heck, I like “it’s a small world”, and after a couple of minutes, they were freaking me out! Don’t ask me how the people who work in Alligator Alley can be in there with those figures without taking a baseball bat to them at the end of the day.
Leaving Alligator and Central Shops, our group walked across the street and into what appeared to be another nondescript warehouse. As soon as we walked in, we traveled back in time to Christmas! No time travel was involved in this feat; it turned out that the building we’d entered was the Holiday Shop, where all of the Christmas decorations for the Walt Disney World Resort, Vero Beach Resort, and the Disney Cruise Line are created, maintained, and stored.
Bobbi took us over to a small stand in from of the Holiday Shop administrative office and showed us a few examples of the many decorations that the shop is responsible for, then explained a little about how Disney Christmas decorations are made, lighted, and installed. Like everything else at the Disney parks, Christmas decorations are themed to the place where they’ll be located; the materials used, the colors used and even the lights used are selected to fit in with the theme. For example, if a decoration is being made for Animal Kingdom Lodge, the decoration will be made of wood and other natural materials; the lights on the decoration will normally be yellow and brown. Unlike your Christmas trees and lights at home, most WDW Christmas trees and wreaths have their decorative elements permanently attached and are stored intact after the holidays; with the number of decorations the Holiday Shop is responsible for, it’d be too labor-intensive to take things completely apart and put them back together every year!
Our group walked around the warehouse and looked at rows and rows of shelves full of Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands; all the items on the shelves were wrapped up in plastic and labeled with a code indicating the park or resort where they would be placed. I had a fun time trying to figure out the codes!
A lot of shelves were still empty, even though it was late January, confirming my suspicions that Disney was stretching out the time they took to remove the holiday decorations from the resorts. (For those of you that have never seen the transformation, the Disney parks and resorts normally put up Christmas decorations practically overnight in the theme parks and within a few days in the resorts; the decorations come down almost immediately in the parks and used to come down almost as quickly everywhere else -it certainly never used to take more than a month to take everything down!)
We walked into a room adjoining the warehouse full of workbenches; each workbench had lots of decorations on them. This was the repair and production facility, where new decorations are made and decorations coming back from the parks and resorts are repaired after they’re removed. Bobbi told us that decoration creation and repair is a year-round job. If you always wanted to live Christmas every day of the year and you make your own Christmas decorations, WDW may have the perfect job for you! (I know that I’ll never be working here. Last year, I was given the opportunity to make my own “Mickey Mouse wreath” at Disneyland, and poor Mickey came out with the droopiest ears you’ve ever seen.)
Now that we’d had one last chance to get in a little Christmas, we got back on the bus and left Central Shops for the Magic Kingdom. We passed the Monorail/ Railroad barn, where maintenance is done on the trains, and the Transportation area, where everything else on wheels that travels around the resort is maintained. The bus entered the MK at a gate near Space Mountain and stopped at a backstage area behind Town Square. Bobbi took the group through a door and down a flight of stairs into the Utilidors, the network of corridors under the MK used to provide support for the park. I could see how someone could get lost pretty easily down there – all the Utilidors looked pretty much the same to me. Bobbi pointed out how the cast members managed to find their way down there; the Utilidors have color schemes and logos placed to allow cast members to tell what part of the park they’re under at any given time.
We briefly walked through the Utilidors serving Main Street and Adventureland, then came out on-stage near Tony’s Town Square Cafe, so we could watch the Share a Dream Come True Parade and “see how everything we’ve seen comes together”, as Bobbi put it. I must admit that this is the only part of the tour that disappointed me. Don’t get me wrong — I love the parade, but I would have rather spent the time seeing more of the Utilidors or the MK backstage areas. A couple of years ago, on my first trip to WDW, I went on the Keys to the Kingdom tour and got to see the main entrance to the Utilidors, the door to the room housing the DACS computer system (that’s the system that runs the attractions), and the main cast areas. Apparently, most of this was dropped from the backstage tours due to security concerns after 9/11.
That’s a real shame. I’d be more than willing to go through a thorough security check to see more!
After the parade was done, Bobbi walked our group up Main Street and pointed out some of the windows on the second stories of the buildings. The names on the windows are the Magic Kingdom’s “credits”, paying tribute to the people who created WDW and kept it going. The professions of the folks listed on the windows are in-jokes reflecting their backgrounds, hobbies, or roles in WDW’s development (for example, Card Walker, President of the Company in the 1970s, is listed on his window as a psychologist – guess he had to counsel a few people who were having some issues!) Once we arrived at the Plaza, Bobbi took a few questions from the group, then took us backstage again and got us on the bus back to Epcot. On the way back, Bobbi handed each of us a gift – a pin of Mickey going “thru the mirror,” with the words “Backstage Magic” written in reverse! (Nice touch.)
The Backstage Magic Tour is a great overview of how Disney makes everything that you see in the parks happen; it’s a long tour – more than six hours – and it’s not cheap, but it’s as close as a person can get to seeing “the magic behind the magic” without getting a job with the Mouse! The guides are very personable and very knowledgeable – I think I found my new dream job. (Disney, if you’re ever hiring, I’m available…) It’s not perfect, of course. It’s an official Disney tour, so you’re not going to get to see and hear about everything that goes on behind the scenes — but see, after taking the tour, you to have to take one of Jim’s tours and get the rest of the story! (I solemnly swear that Jim had nothing to do with that plug.) The tour also doesn’t include a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom; I’m told that the American Zoological Association has some sort of requirement that prevents DAK from being part of the tour, but there is a separate backstage tour available. Overall, though, it’s a great tour. On your next visit to WDW, take a day and see for yourself if the view from behind the scenes isn’t as fascinating as the view from on-stage.
“House of the Future” – The Plastic House in Disneyland
Listen to the Article
I was down in Massachusetts the other day doing some shopping at the Target in Framingham. And as I completed that transaction, I was somewhat surprised to see my groceries being loaded into … Well, not the usual Target bags (i.e., those white plastic ones with the bright red circular Target symbol on the side). But – rather – some plain jane brown paper bags.
Of course, that was because the State of Massachusetts (along with California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont & Washington State) has banned the use of plastic bags within the borders of that state.
FYI: The State of New Jersey put its own statewide ban of plastic bags in place earlier this year. On May 4, 2022, to be exact.
Which – if you’re a child of the 1960s – this is kind of an ironic development. Given that – back when we were kids – the world-at-large seemed to be actively looking for even more ways to incorporate the use of plastic in our day-to-day lives.
Which reminds me of one of the odder walk-thru experiences that was ever built at Disneyland Park (Which – given that Happiest Place on Earth was once home to the Hollywood-Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop [This Main Street, U.S.A. store used to feature – no lie — a “Wonderful Wizard of Bras” show] – is really saying something). That was the “House of the Future,” a 1,280-square-foot structure that the Monsanto Corporation proudly proclaimed was made out of 14 different types of plastics.
Given that this Tomorrowland attraction wasn’t designed by the Imagineers … Well, how the “House of the Future” wind up being built right off Disneyland’s Hub to the left of the entrance of Disneyland?
Post World War II – Moving Out of the City
Well, to tell that story, we have to jump back in time to the years right after World War II. Where – thanks to the G.I. Bill – hundreds of thousands of veterans decided to pursue college degrees. Which then allowed these former fighting men to land positions that paid much, much better than the jobs that their parents had held years previous.
And since these newly affluent veterans could now afford to move out of the city … Well, that’s just what they did. Which we saw places like Levittown (i.e., America’s very first planned community. The prototypical suburb, if you will) get founded in New York State’s Nassau in 1947 and – in just six years time – become the home of more than 70,000 residents.
Mind you, the downside of this sort of building boom is that – by the mid-1950s – America began to experience sort of a shortage when it came to the supplies necessary to continue to build all these new homes for would-be surburbanites.
Monsanto and Plastic Homes
Which the Monsanto Corporation – which was actively looking for additional way to market the plastic that that company produced – saw as an opportunity. Which is when Monsanto executives reached out to Marvin Goody & Richard Hamilton, who were members of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that taught the principles of architecture to students attending that prestigious university. And those execs then asked Goody & Hamilton two intriguing questions:
- Would it be possible to build an affordable modular home entirely out of plastic?
- And – if so – what would that structure look like?
These two MIT professors then went off and considered this problem. And the concept that Goody & Hamilton eventually came up with was … Well, this prefabricated plastic structure that consisted of four cantilevered “wings” that would then rise up off of a concrete slab, which would then as the foundation for what Monsanto was now calling its “House of the Future.”
And the executives at Monsanto just loved what Goody & Hamilton had designed & developed. They knew that – if this prefabricated plastic home prototype were promoted properly and if enough consumers then indicated to home-builders that they’d be interested in purchasing & then living in this sort of modular structure – the “House of the Future” could turn into a significant new revenue stream for that corporation.
Which is when Monsanto then began casting about for a very prominent spot where they could then build a “House of the Future” prototype. Some place where thousands of people could then tour this prefabricated plastic home every single day.
Walt Disney and Problems with Tomorrowland
Which brings us to Walt Disney. Who – in the mid-1950s – has a few problems of his own. Chief among them being that his then-newly-built Disneyland Park desperately needed some new attractions. Especially in the Tomorrowland section of Walt’s family fun park.
What’s genuinely ironic here is that – in spite of the fact that “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond” (i.e., A trio of “Tomorrowland” themed episodes of the “Disneyland” TV show which then aired on that ABC anthology series between March of 1955 & December of 1957) were among the most popular episodes to air on this program … The Tomorrowland section of Disneyland Park was this under-developed hodge-podge of pseudo-futuristic elements.
I mean, sure. This side of Walt’s family fun park had the “Flight to the Moon” ride. Likewise “Space Station X-1.” But right next door to these two genuinely forward-looking attractions were shows that had absolutely nothing to do with the future. Walk-through exhibits like the Dutch Boy Color Gallery, Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum and Crane’s Bathroom of the Future.
Monsanto Corporation Partnership with Walt Disney Productions
Now it’s important to note here that the Monsanto Corporation and Walt Disney Productions already had a working relationship at this point. After all, Monsanto was already sponsoring an attraction at Disneyland, the Hall of Chemistry.
And it’s about this same time (we’re talking late 1956) that some enterprising executive at Monsanto thinks: “No wait a minute. Disneyland gets thousands of visitors every day. And if we build the prototype of our prefabricated plastic home there, our ‘House of the Future’ project would then virtually be guaranteed to get plenty of foot traffic.”
“House of the Future” in Disneyland
So they then reach out to Walt. And as the story goes, the executives at Monsanto hadn’t even finished their pitch for this prototype-prefabricated-plastic-home-to-be-displayed-at-Disneyland idea when Disney said “Yes.” In fact, according to what Disney Legend John Hench once told me, Walt was so enthusiastic about Monsanto’s “House of the Future” that he proposed that this prototype of a prefabricated plastic home not just be built in Tomorrowland but that it be built right at the entrance of Tomorrowland. As in: That the “House of the Future” would be one of the very first things Guests would see when they arrived at Disneyland’s Hub.
More importantly, that Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic house be built right across the way from the most photographed thing in Walt’s family fun park. Which was – of course – Sleeping Beauty Castle.
To say that this project was fast-tracked is an understatement. Within weeks of signing the deal with Monsanto, the folks at Disneyland were already pouring the concrete slab that this 1,280-square-foot house would then sit on.
By the way, to make sure that virtually every Disneyland Guest would be able to tour the “House of the Future” when they visited Walt’s family fun park, this new Tomorrowland attraction was heavily hyped as being a freebie. As was Monsanto’s Hall of Chemistry, by the way.
Opening Monsanto’s “House of the Future” at Disneyland
And Walt … Of the heels of construction of Monsanto’s “House of the Future” beginning, he decided to double down on expanding & upgrading Disneyland’s Tomorrowland section. Which is why — just two days before Monsanto’s prototype of a prefabricated plastic home opened to the public on June 12, 1957, Walt cut the ribbon on the Viewliner. Which was advertised as the “Train of Tomorrow.” Though –truth be told – WED’s resident mechanical genius Bob Gurr had cobbled together this futuristic-looking narrow gauge train out of parts he’d harvested off of various Oldsmobiles & Jeeps.
Anyway … Monsanto’s instincts when it came to building its “House of the Future” at Disneyland Park translating into lots of foot traffic for its prefabricated plastic home prototype turned out to be dead on. Within the first six weeks that this new Tomorrowland attraction was open to the public, over 435,000 people toured the “House of the Future.” That’s over 10,000 Guests per day.
And the Disneyland hosts & hostesses (That’s what Disneyland employees were called back in the late 1950s / early 1960s. Not Cast Members. But – rather – hosts & hostesses) who led tour groups through the prototype of Monsanto’s prefabricated home proudly talked about the 14 different types of plastic that had been used in its construction. They also pointed out the cutting edge tech that had been incorporated into this house’s design. Things like a microwave oven.
The Future of Plastic Homes
But while over 20 million people who trooped through Monsanto’s “House of the Future” during its decade-long stay in Tomorrowland (and then “Ooohed” & “Aaahed” at things like this home’s ultra sonic dishwasher. Which didn’t use any water to clean the all-plastic dishes & utensils that were used in its kitchen) … Unfortunately, Monsanto got very few takers for its prefabricated plastic homes.
Which is why – by the early 1960s – the Company had all but abandoned its original idea of making the manufacture of prefabricated plastic homes a new division for the Monsanto Corporation. Which is why – when Walt approached Monsanto around this same time and said “Hey, we’re thinking of redoing Disneyland’s Tomorrowland area. Do you want to stay on as a sponsor of something on this side of the Park?,” Monsanto’s response was “Yeah. But we want something new. Pull down the ‘House of the Future’ and close the’ Hall of Chemistry.’ This time around, we want some sort of Tomorrowland attraction that the Guests can ride on.”
And that’s exactly what the Imagineers did. They gutted Monsanto’s “Hall Of Chemistry” and then placed an Omnimover inside of that Tomorrowland show building. And that became the ride system which then took Disneyland visitors on an “Adventure Thru Inner Space.” Which first opened to the public on August 5, 1967.
What Happened to Disneylands “House of the Future”?
As for the “House of the Future” … Given that that structure was constructed out of 14 different types of plastics, pulling down this Tomorrowland attraction proved to be problematic. What was supposed to be completed in a single day eventually stretched out into a two week-long ordeal. Largely because this prefabricated plastic house stymied all of the usual methods that Disneyland employees used (i.e., wrecking balls, bulldozers, etc) when they were leveling a show building. In time, they had to go at this futuristic structure with hacksaws & chain pullers. Because that was the only way to reduce the “House of the Future” to small enough pieces that it could then be hauled away.
Mind you, the concrete slab that had served as the “House of the Future” ‘s foundation stayed in place. As did the vaguely futuristic-looking landscaping that Morgan “Bill” Evans and the rest of Disneyland’s horticultural team had planted around this Tomorrowland walk-thu.
Jump ahead a few years. And now that landscaping (which had been originally planted back in 1957 to give the “House of the Future” a lush, green frame) had grown up so much that this section of the Hub was then redubbed this theme park’s Alpine Garden. With the idea now being that this chunk of greenery would now serve as the forested foothills of Matterhorn Mountain.
That was done in the early 1970s. Nearly 15 years after that, someone else moved into the neighborhood: The Little Mermaid. Which is why – in 1996 – Disneyland’s Alpine Garden was renamed King Triton’s Garden. Then in 2008, this part of that theme park (which had been changed into a place where Guests could then meet & greet with Ariel) was reimagined as Pixie Hollow. Which then gave Disneyland visitors a place where they could go interact with Tinker Bell.
This meet & greet is still operational at the Happiest Place on Earth. That said, if you look off the right of that oversized teapot which Tink calls home … Well, you can still see that concrete slab which – over 50 years ago now – once served as the foundation for the “House of the Future.”
FYI: If you’d like to learn more about this Tomorrowland walk-thru, Dave Bossert – the author of “Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios” and “Claude Coats: Walt Disney’s Imagineer—The Making of Disneyland, From Toad Hall to the Haunted Mansion and Beyond” – is in the process of writing a brand-new book, “The House of the Future: Walt Disney, MIT, and Monsanto’s Vision of Tomorrow.” Which is due to be published sometime in 2023.
Fort Wilderness – What Might Have Been
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The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness Campground has been silent for 27 months. On June 23, 2022, Pioneer Hall will come roaring back to life with three nightly presentations of this beloved musical dinner show (4 p.m., 6:15 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.)
Building Fort Wilderness Campground
Just 9 months prior to the October 1971 opening of the WDW Resort – Dick Nunis (who had just been placed in charge of getting Disney World open on time) had just learned that little to no work had been done to date on the Disney’s Fort Wilderness resort’s campground.
Dick turned to Keith Kambak – a veteran Disneyland employee who had a degree in recreation – and effectively said “You’re coming to Florida with me. And you’re going to build a campground.”
When Keith pointed out that he had never built a campground before and began to ask questions like “What sort of budget am I working with?,” Dick growled “Don’t bother me with questions. Just go build that campground?”
Kambak gets on the ground in Orlando and then discovers why Nunis didn’t tell him what the budget was for Fort Wilderness.
There is no budget.
Disney World is so far over-budget at this point that there’s a real question – in the late Winter / early Spring of 1971 – whether the Resort will be able to find the funding necessary to complete construction of the Contemporary and/or the Polynesian Village Resorts. Let alone get started on building a new onsite campground.
But the PR material for Walt Disney World has been talking up camping at the Vacation Kingdom for over 5 years now. Saying things like …
People have already booked trips to Disney World because they wanted to go camping at that Resort. Go swimming in Bay Lake. So Disney now has to figure out how to deliver on what it said in all those press release.
Luckily, Keith Kambak is clever, resourceful and slightly dishonest. He becomes famous for waiting ‘til the construction workers go home at 5 and then sending trucks into the Magic Kingdom worksite to steal lumber & bags of cement. Which is what Keith then uses to build Fort Wilderness’ original reception center and the first 200 campsites.
Opening Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground
Mind you – Fort Wilderness isn’t ready for opening day.
Hell, this campground really isn’t ready when in finally throws open its doors on November 19, 1971 – seven weeks after the first group of Guests pushed through the turnstiles over at the Magic Kingdom.
But even if Fort Wilderness isn’t really ready for prime time, campers absolutely love the place right out of the gate. It initially costs $11 a night to stay there. And the people who stay there are really excited that – as part of that $11 fee – they get access to the entire WDW transportation system. The monorails, the launches, the motor coaches.
And given that demand for those 200 campsites far exceeds the available supply, Walt Disney World quickly begins to expand Fort Wilderness. In October of 1972 (just in time for the celebration of the Resort’s grand opening a year previous), it is announced that Disney World’s onsite campground will more than doubling in size. Adding an additional 300 sites.
By now, WDW managers have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Guests who are staying at the Contemporary & Polynesian Village will make a special trip over to Fort Wilderness over the course of their WDW vacation just to check the place out.
Mind you, there isn’t much to see at this point. A handful of campsites and a trading post. But the Imagineers make note of the steady stream of daily visitors that Fort Wilderness has been experiencing and then decides … Well, let’s give them something to see.
Fort Wilderness Railroad
So a plan is formed. First and foremost, the Imagineers decide to build a transportation system that will take Guests from Fort Wilderness’ reception area to the south all the way up to the campground’s recreation area along Bay Lake. This 3-mile-long round-trip narrow gauge rail line (which will be serviced by four steam trains with 5 cars each – capable of carrying 90 passengers at a time) will carry Guests from their campsites to the reception area and then down to the waterfront.
That rail line gets installed over the Summer of 1973. It’s field-tested in the Fall of that same year and finally fully operational just time for Christmas Week 1973 / 1st week of January 1974.
Tri-Circle D Ranch
There’s another reason that the Imagineers built that rail line. That’s because they’re looking to develop the middle-most section of Fort Wilderness. This area – known as the Settlement – initially holds just the Tri-Circle D Ranch (which is where the horses that pull the trolleys on Main Street over at the Magic Kingdom spend their days off. Likewise Fort Wilderness’ petting zoo).
But because so many Guests staying at the Contemporary & the Polynesian Village are making a special trip over to Fort Wilderness as part of their WDW vacation just to see what there is to see over there … the Imagineers give them something to see.
The first thing up out of the ground is Pioneer Hall, which is constructed out of 1,283 hand-fitted pine logs from Montana and 70 tons of stones from North Carolina. This venue first opens its doors on April 1, 1974. And initially there is absolutely no mention of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.”
Instead, Pioneer Hall is described as having “ … a 250-seat steak house where ranch-style barbecues will be offered, plus a 150-seat snack bar, theme shops and an arcade for after-hours recreation.”
Mind you, if you dig down in the original Pioneer Hall press release (which initially says that this complex will be up & running by February of 1974), there is mention that this “new service-oriented campground complex” would be fully equipped when it came to the presenting of musical stage shows.
But at this point (The Spring of 1974), there’s honestly no talk of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo.” There is – however – all sorts of talk of the other components of Fort Wilderness’ Settlement project. Which are supposed to begin construction shortly.
And a year or so after Western Town opened at Fort Wilderness opened, the Imagineers then wanted to build (this is from the Company’s 1973 annual report) …
The Roost and River Country
Wait. It gets better. WDW managers – at this point – were actually talking about building a fun house onsite at Fort Wilderness. One that would feature show scenes designed by Marc Davis and would be housed in an eccentric-looking mansion that would be called “The Roost.”
Once “The Roost” was opened (This project was projected to be completed by the Summer of 1977, with Fort Wilderness’ swimming hole – eventually called “River Country” – opening the previous year. Just in time for America’s bicentennial), WDW officials eventually envisioned selling visitors to their Florida vacation kingdom a special Fort Wilderness ticket book. Which would then give Guests a full day of fun at Fort Wilderness.
- Take the bus over to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
- Then take the train down to that campground’s settlement section
- Swim in the morning at River Country
- Spend the afternoon exploring the Roost, hiking Fort Wilderness’ nature trails, visiting the petting zoo and/or go horseback riding
- Catch a performance of the “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue” at Pioneer Hall
- Do some souvenir shopping in Frontier Town
- Walk down to the waterfront at Bay Lake after dusk and then catch a presentation of the “Electrical Water Pageant”
- Grab the train and head back up to Fort Wilderness’ reception area
- Take a motor coach back to your hotel
1973 Arab Oil Embargo Impacts Fort Wilderness Development
This was the plan as the Fall of 1973. Which then – of course – is when the Arab Oil Embargo got underway. And attendance levels at Walt Disney World suddenly fell off by 20% because of the odd / even gas rationing that was going on at that time. So many Guests were worried that – if they began driving down to Walt Disney World – that they then wouldn’t be able to find enough gasoline en route to complete their journey to the Resort.
The Arab Oil Embargo obviously had a huge impact on Fort Wilderness’ previously-stellar occupancy levels (Typically at 100% capacity from Christmas Week through Labor Day) because of the number of people who’d drive down to Disney World pulling a trailer. Occupancy levels dropped to 70% and managers there got scared.
The other components of the Fort Wilderness’ Settlement area – the Stockade and Western Town, to be specific – that were to follow Pioneer Hall got placed on hold. As did Marc Davis’ The Roost project.
As for “River Country” … I’m told that the only reason that project went forward is because the Company had already ordered the 2500 feet of flume that would eventually be used to build Whoop-n-Holler Hollow.
Fascinating to think what might have been around Pioneer Hall if the Arab Oil Embargo hadn’t tripped up WDW’s executives to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long destination for Disney World visitors to experience over their Florida vacation.
One final stat from a Disney annual report from 1974 that just fascinated me:
Just so you know: WDW didn’t entirely abandon its plans to turn Fort Wilderness into a day-long vacation destination.
Opening River Country at Fort Wilderness Campground
River Country opened at Fort Wilderness on June 19, 1976. This five-acre water park quickly started drawing – on average — 4,700 Guests per day during the Summer months of 1976. Interestingly enough, there is no drop in attendance levels over at the Magic Kingdom after the opening of River Country. Which means that this new water park is drawing an additional nearly 5000 people to the Resort every day. Which means that River Country immediately became a huge new profit center at WDW.
Downside … All of these additional people coming to Fort Wilderness every day needing to get down to the water park just as most people staying at WDW’s campsite want to get over to the Magic kingdom overwhelm the campground’s steam train line / eventually causing the system to fail.
Imagineers immediately begin looking for ways to expand Fort Wilderness. Company’s 1976 annual report mentions plans for “ … more water rides, an additional raft ride or a two-man boat ride.”
Likewise, to try and handle the crowds who are now pouring int Fort Wilderness each day, the Imagineers revisit the idea of building Frontiertown in the stretch of land that exists between Pioneer Hall and River Country.
But then the Company gets serious about going forward with construction of EPCOT Center. And all available funding for future expansion at the WDW Resort – including the funds that had been set aside for Fort Wilderness – gets funneled into WDW’s second gate.
Steam Trains & World’s Fair Attractions: Speed of Construction at Disneyland in the 1960s￼
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Steam train fans rejoiced in May 2022 when photos appeared online showing crews prepping the rail bed for the Walt Disney World Railroad. This Magic Kingdom favorite was temporarily shut down in early December of 2018 so that site prep could then begin for Tomorrowland’s next thrill ride, TRON Lightcycle Run.
Three years and 5 months later (which – let’s be honest here – is a pretty relaxed definition of “temporarily”), what with the rail bed being regraded … It’s only a matter of time before the ties that the rails sit on get put in place. Which means that we’re only months out from the Walt Disney World Railroad once again making a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom. 20-minute-long experience / rolling along 1.5 miles worth of track.
Early Disneyland Attraction Downtime and Maintenance
I have to say that Walt himself wouldn’t have tolerated the idea of Disney World’s steam train being out of commission for 3 & a ½ years while a single attraction was added to the Magic Kingdom. He could barely tolerate it back in late 1965 / early 1966 when Disneyland’s railroad had to be shut down for a few months so that FOUR new attractions could added to “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Mind you, Walt had an advantage in Anaheim back in the Fall of 1965 / Spring of 1966 that the folks who operate the Disney theme parks in Florida never got to enjoy. Which was — for much of the first 30 years Disneyland Park was in operation – that theme park was closed on Mondays & Tuesdays during the slow season. Which was the early Fall and late Winter months.
Which meant that – during those two-days-a-week the theme park-going public wasn’t wandering around the Happiest Place on Earth, getting underfoot – construction teams could get a crazy amount of work done.
More to the point: This was right after “Mary Poppins” had first opened in theaters (Its Hollywood premiere was held in late August of 1964, with the film itself going into wide release just three weeks later). And given that this Walt Disney Productions release would go on to be the highest grossing film of 1964 … Well, Walt now had a money fire hose in his hand and wasn’t afraid to use it.
World’s Fair Attractions Moved to Disneyland
So the first season of the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair ends on October 18, 1964. Walt immediately has the Lincoln animatronic pulled out of the Illinois pavilion and brought back to Glendale. Where the Imagineers not only build a brand-new version of Honest Abe (one that will then address all of the operational issues that this Audio Animatronic had during its first year in Flushing Meadow where it was then constantly dealing with the Fair’s flukey electrical system), they built a second animatronic Lincoln.
Which is how the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show was able to open in the Main Street Opera House on July 18, 1965 (just as Disneyland was celebrating its tencennial. As in: The 10th anniversary of the Park’s opening to the public).
Changing Disneyland’s Anniversary
Interesting side note: While Walt was still alive, Disney’s anniversary of Disneyland’s opening was always celebrated on July 18th (which was when the public was first allowed into that family fun park). After Walt died in December of 1966, the date of the celebration of the anniversary of the opening of Disneyland Park eventually got shifted one day forward to July 17th. Because – if the Company used that date instead of July 18th – it then became possible to reshow that 90 minute-long “Dateline: Disneyland” special that aired live on ABC. Not to mention share all of those pictures of celebrities who visited the Park on July 17, 1955.
Disney’s done the same thing in the past. Mickey Mouse’s birthday used to be October 1st. Walt Disney himself – back in 1933 – announced that was the Mouse’s birthdate. But in 1978, then-Disney archivist Dave Smith issued a correction. Given that Mickey’s first cartoon with synchronized sound – “Steamboat Willie” – debuted at New York City’s Colonial Theatre on November 18, 1928 … Well, from that point forward, November 18th would be considered Mickey’s birthday.
Long story short: To borrow a phrase from “Doctor Who,” when it comes to the timey-wimey aspects of Disney Company history, things can get a little slippy-slidey.
Moving “it’s a small world” to Disneyland
Getting back to Walt and his money fire hose … While the New York World’s Fair was shut down for the Winter between October 1964 and April of 1967, Walt had the 27 technicians that he’d sent out from Disney Studios out to New York to keep all of the shows that the Imagineers had built for the Fair up & running … Well, Walt first had these folks retool the load / unload area for “it’s a small world.”
That sponsored-by-Pepsi-Cola attraction was a people-eating machine. On average, 4500 people a hour were able to experience “The Happiest Voyage That Ever Sailed.” Which meant that 80% of the people who went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 & 1965 were able to experience “Small World.”
But Walt thought that they could do even better. Which is why – during the off-season – he had the Imagineers reworked that attraction’s load/ unload area so that it could be even more efficient. With the goal of getting an additional 500 people an hour through “it’s a small world.”
World’s Fair Closing and Final Move
Of course, once the New York World’s Fair closed for good on October 17, 1965, the race was on. The Imagineers partnered with the Mayflower Moving Company to get all of those sets & animatronic figures packed up as quickly as possible and then set back to Glendale for refurbishment. That’s what happened to the 32 animatronic figures in “General Electric’s Progressland” pavilion. Likewise all of the mechanical dinosaurs that used to menace fairgoers as they rolled through “Ford’s Magic Skyway.”
Now the genuinely crazy part of this story is that – just seven months later – the Disneyland versions of these New York World’s Fair shows began to open in Anaheim. “it’s a small world” opened on the West Coast on May 28, 1966. And this wasn’t just the exact same show that had played in Flushing Meadow for the past two years. Walt insisted that it be plussed & improved prior to installation. Which is how the Anaheim edition of “it’s a small world” wound up with two additional scenes – the Pacific Islands and the North Pole.
“The Primeval World” Diorama
And just a month or so after that, “The Primeval World” – which, at that time, the Company’s PR team described as “ … the world’s largest diorama featuring life-like recreations of some of the largest creatures to ever roam our planet” – opened on July 1, 1966.
Now what’s kind of intriguing about the “Primeval World” diorama is what’s to either side of this structure. Which is the old Disneyland administration building. This three story structure – which was also built in late 1965 / early 1966 as part of what was then supposed to be the biggest building program in Disneyland history – was built in such a way that half of this 450 foot-long structure was built on the outside of the berm and the other half of this 450 foot-long structure was built on the inside of the berm. With the structure that the Disneyland steam train passed through, that lengthy glassed-in room full of animatronic dinosaurs then serving as … Well, if you think of Disneyland’s new Admin building as an enormous Oreo, the “Primeval World” diorama then served as this 100,000 square foot structure’s creamy center.
Kind of a funny side story here. Everyone who worked in the 200 offices who were housed in Disneyland’s new Admin building would tell the same story. How – for the first few days you worked in this three story tall structure – you couldn’t help but notice how the Admin building would rumble as the steam train passed through the giant diorama in the middle of that structure. Or – for that matter – how the roar of the mechanical dinosaurs below would endlessly faintly echo center through the building as long as that ride was running.
Conversely though, after a few days of working in the Disneyland admin building, the rumble of the steam train and the roar of the dinosaurs just became white noise. That’s how you’d then know if you were dealing with a new hire at the Park. If someone who had just been assigned to the Admin building would then turn to you and say “What is that noise?” And – as a Company vet – you could then say “Oh, yeah. About that.”
“…a Disneyland without its steam trains just isn’t worth the full price of admission.”
Getting back to all of the construction that was going on at Disneyland in late 1965 / early 1966 … You have to remember that – if we’re talking about “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “it’s a small world” – we’re talking about two attractions with huge show buildings that were built outside of the theme park. Which meant – in order for these two boat-powered rides to take Guests under the berm and then out to their main show buildings and then back into the Park to their off-load areas … That meant digging a passage under the track bed of the Disneyland Railroad. Several passages, actually.
But again, because the steam train at Disneyland was Walt’s personal property at this time (along with the Mark Twain steamboat AND the Alweg Monorail), Walt just wouldn’t tolerate the idea that the steam train at the park would be shut down for a year or more to allow construction of these four new major attractions. As Disneyland’s tencennial celebration began to wind down in the late Summer / early Fall of 1965, Walt turned to the Imagineers and said “I’ll give you five months. Figure it out.”
Mind you, Walt reportedly got furious with the Imagineers when – due to the enormous construction challenges this $23 million project entailed — …
… That – by the way – is what it cost to building the Disneyland version of “it’s a small world,” New Orleans Square, Pirates of the Caribbean, Primeval World AND the Park’s new administration building. Just $23 million total .
… Anyway, Walt reportedly got furious when – due to a very wet Spring (By the way, that Albert Hammond song from 1972 – “It Never Rains in Southern California” – lies through its teeth) – work on getting the Disneyland Railroad fell behind schedule by one entire month.
John Hench once told me about how – when they had to tell Walt that the opening of Disneyland’s railroad would be delayed by a full month in the Spring of 1966 – he’d never seen his boss so mad. Walt reportedly went on & on about how a Disney theme park without a steam train wasn’t worth the price that they were then charging people to get into Disneyland (a then-whopping $5.00 for adults, $4.50 for juniors – ages 12 – 17 – and $4.00 for kids 3 – 11. That would have gotten you the park’s Deluxe 15 Ticket book). Walt reportedly turned to John and said “If people ask, we’re going to have to agree to issue them a refund. Because a Disneyland without its steam trains just isn’t worth the full price of admission.”
I wonder what would happen if someone today went into City Hall at WDW’s Magic Kingdom and shared that story from the Spring of 1966. What a Cast Member who was working in Guest Relations at that theme park would have to say in response.
Walt Disney World Railroad Downtime
I mean, I get that it’s not their fault that the Walt Disney World Railroad has been out of commission since December of 2018. And we also have to acknowledge that much of the Resort was shuttered for months in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic.
But even so, at a time when the Florida parks are continually struggling to keep the rides, shows & attractions that they already have up & running on a reliable, regular basis, to have a people eater like the Magic Kingdom’s steam trains shut down for 3 & a half years … That’s just inexcusable.
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