Stepping Back in Time at Walt Disney World
Walt Disney, according to his own words, never wanted his parks to be “museums.” He believed in changing and updating things to keep everything fresh and interesting. While some attractions still exist at Walt Disney World from when the park first opened on October 1 1971, many of those original attractions have gone through changes over the years. A number are gone completely. It would be impossible to include all the changes that Disney World has undergone since 1971, so I have focused on just a few of the changes in this blog.
If you are young enough, you may never have experienced a number of these things; for others, it should be a blast from the past.
I am sure it comes as no surprise that the ticket prices have changed through the years. When the Magic Kingdom first opened, it was a nominal fee to enter, and then you bought ticket books to ride the attractions. The books had rides divided into A, B, C, D, and E tickets, with E tickets being for the most popular attractions. Eventually, this gave way to tickets that would get you on all rides once you paid the fee to enter the park. This system basically is the same today, although there are way more “tiers” of ticket types today than there were when they first implemented this system. Of course, the minimum wage has gone up through the years, but it is still kind of mind-boggling to see the old prices for tickets.
The park’s icon, Cinderella Castle, has undergone many changes throughout the years. Some of you remember (and not everyone remembers this fondly, while others loved it) the pink birthday cake Castle from 1996 to 1998, constructed as an overlay to celebrate Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary.
There were also temporary changes made to the Castle in 2006. At that time, Disney added beautiful gold figurines to the exterior to mark Disney’s 35th anniversary. The figurines were removed once the anniversary ended.
The color of the castle has varied slightly over the years, but (except for the temporary changes noted above), it didn’t vary much from the blue/white/grey/ castle that opened with the park in 1971.
However, in 2020 the colors changed dramatically. Now there is a large area painted pink towards the top and gold paint on top of the turrets, which are a much darker blue than before.
I wonder how many guests recall the first Nature Preserve on property, Discovery Island?
The island was originally known as Treasure Island when it opened on April 8, 1974. Discovery Island closed permanently on the exact same day in 1999. Before Animal Kingdom theme park opened, this was the only place on property to see and learn about live animals. In fact, many of the animals from the island were relocated to Animal Kingdom. There were mostly birds and reptiles; no large animals. The walk around the island was relaxing and enjoyable, as was the boat ride to get there and back. Additionally, there were many fun and informative shows/talks done by Cast Members, who would show off some of the animals that were there.
Let’s move on to some defunct attractions. A personal favorite was Cranium Command in what was then called the “Wonders of Life Building” in Future World at Epcot. The Wonders of Life closed when Met Life chose not to renew its sponsorship. If you don’t recognize the name, you still may know the building, as it was used as a festival center during the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival in the Spring and Food and the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in the Fall.
When experiencing Cranium Command, guests started out watching a short film starring General Knowledge, a rough and tough recruiter for brain pilots. Buzzy, our hero, is chosen to pilot one of the most difficult brains of all—that of an adolescent boy. Buzzy is rather “nerdy” and very nervous about this assignment.
We would move into the next room, and Buzzy appeared as a large audio-animatronic figure. The audience, seated theater–style, watched a movie screen that is shaped like a human body. At the same time, the animatronic Buzzy also watched and attempted to successfully do his job. We saw Buzzy guide the boy he was “assigned” to through his day by correctly sending brain signals to the right organs.
Many celebrities appeared as the boy’s “organs.” For example, George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) was the stomach, forever grumbling about being hungry; Charles Grodin was the logical half of the brain, cool, calm, and collected; Jon Lovitz the emotional half; freaking out at the slightest thing; and Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon (doing their “Pump you up” bit from Saturday Night Live, if you happen to recall that) was the heart.
Guests see the boy rushing to get to school, falling for a girl, getting into a food fight in the cafeteria, standing up to a bully, and more. All the while, the various parts argue about what to do next. It was up to Buzzy to get them all to work together successfully. It was funny and creative and was a fun way to learn about the different parts of the brain/body.
Figment, the purple dragon, is still around, but the current version is the third incarnation of the Imagination attraction. I was fortunate enough to have experienced all three versions, and my feeling is that undoubtedly the first one was superior. Figment played a much larger role, and instead of Niles Channing (aka Eric Idle), there was the Dreamfinder, a colorful and imaginative audio-animatronic character based on the ideas of Disney legend Ron Schneider. Ron also appeared in the role of Dreamfinder outside the attraction for a number of years.
Dreamfinder was there to help Figment discover how to use his imagination. Guests sat in ride vehicles and moved from scene to scene, discovering ways to use their creative sides. Figment imagines himself as, (and we see him dressed in appropriate costumes), a Pirate, a Superhero, a Cowboy, a Dancer, and more. There were wonderful songs, including the beautiful “One Little Spark,” written by the famous Sherman Brothers.
When Disney decided to change the attraction in 1999, the Dreamfinder, a favorite of many, was gone, and Figment was barely seen. The new version proved so unpopular that the ride was reimagined again in 2002 to add more Figment scenes, but alas, the Dreamfinder was gone for good.
The exterior of Spaceship Earth in Epcot has had a few changes. Over 20 years ago, in celebration of the new millennium, the geodesic dome of the attraction had a wand added above it, along with the numbers 2000. Both glowed brightly and colorfully at night. Eventually, the 2000 was taken down and replaced by the word “Epcot.” This was removed in 2007, and once again, the “big golf ball” looks the way it did when the park opened in 1982.
Although the theme of the attraction, a journey through recorded time, has stayed the same, some changes were made, including;
– taking away, changing, or adding scenes,
– switching narrators (first was actor Vic Perrin, followed by Walter Cronkite, Jeremy Irons, and the current narrator, Dame Judith Dench),
– adding a touch screen for guests to make choices that will “predict” your future and show you a movie of that future, along with the ability to send postcards from the “future” home.
Character sightings are much more organized now, but there was a time when they were random. Characters would walk freely through the parks, and if you happened upon one, it was a surprise.
Epcot had a double-decker character bus that stopped at a number of places around World Showcase. The bus had many characters, at least ten, often more. When the bus stopped, the characters would get off the bus, mingle with guests, sign autographs, pose for pics, etc., before getting back on the bus and going to the next stop.
Presently, characters can be seen in the parks through character cavalcades or waving and interacting with guests from socially distanced spaces.
From November 18 2003 (Mickey’s 75th birthday) until April 2004, there was a special exhibit in front of the Magic Kingdom. This consisted of large statues of Mickey painted and decorated in various ways, as well as named by different celebrities and organizations. For example, “Ellenland,” from Ellen DeGeneres, had Mickey holding a fishbowl with Dory inside. Elton John’s had large sunglasses on, with piano keys on its shirt. Most of the statues were very original and clever, and seeing them all out together in front of the Magic Kingdom was really cool. Once they left the Magic Kingdom, they toured many cities in the country, ending at Disneyland in California. I happened to see some of them again at a Disney Store in NYC a number of years later. They looked a little worn, but otherwise, it was a thrill to see them after all that time had passed.
Parades have certainly changed through the years, not only in the Magic Kingdom (where there have been so many parade changes it would take an entirely new blog to discuss) but in other parks as well. Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom have had a number of different parades through the years.
One parade many guests miss is Tapestry of Nations (later renamed Tapestry of Dreams) in Epcot. This parade began in 1999 and was removed in 2001. Tapestry of Nations was themed on World Peace and featured a number of huge puppets and very large rotating drum units.
When the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit first opened, there was a whole section devoted to Roger and Jessica Rabbit at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You could pose with a cardboard cut-out of Jessica or pretend you were being run over by a steamroller a la Doom from the movie. FUN FACT: If you look above Hollywood and Vine Restaurant in Hollywood Studios, you will see the office of Eddie Valiant (The detective from the Roger Rabbit movie). The big plate-glass window of the office appears to have had been smashed by someone running through it, and a silhouette of Roger Rabbit can be seen in the “broken” glass.
Just for the fun of it, I have also included a picture of the front of the Magic Kingdom from my first visit in 1976.
Although it basically looks the same, the Mickey head made of flowers, and the surrounding area changes color and design frequently. Changes are made according to seasons and to any special events (i.e., Mickey’s Not so Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party).
I hope you enjoyed this trip back in time! I really enjoy looking through old photos of Walt Disney World; so much has changed over the years. I have only touched on a small percentage in this blog. Walt Disney World is ever-changing, and although it can be sad to say goodbye to beloved attractions, it’s always wonderful to find brand new ones to love.