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The Walt Disney World Wayback Machine – 1973 and The Walt Disney Story

Having just returned from a research trip to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I was able to really take my time in what is my favorite part of the entire resort. I spent a good part of my day on Main Street USA. and I was transported back to my childhood, walking down the street, parents together, taking in the sights, sounds, and yes, the House of Magic.

So, in this installment of my WayBack Machine, I wanted to focus on a time when the Magic Kingdom was still in its relative infancy, and a great but now-defunct Main Street USA attraction.

(Lou borrows four quarters from his dad, puts them in the WayBack Machine’s coin slot, and sets the dials for 1973).

The sounds of Tony Orlando and Dawn singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree” are quickly drowned out by the sounds of children laughing, train whistles and a ragtime tune played on a distant piano.

I’m on Main Street USA in the spring of 1973. There is no EPCOT Center. No Blizzard Beach. Not even a Port Orleans or Grand Floridian. The Magic Kingdom is Walt Disney World. Well, for now anyway.

What you can find here now is the “Wonderful World of Water” Ski Show, a new attraction called “Tom Sawyer Island” and even a “Country and Western Spectacular” show with stars like Anne Murray, Faron Young and Freddie Hart. These mini-concerts will take place in the evenings at Tomorrowland Terrace (you can now find Sonny Eclipse playing there), Diamond Horseshoe (unfortunately, you can now find an empty building there) and Fantasy Faire (where you can now play at Ariel’s Grotto).

You could also paddle along the rivers of America in one of Mike Fink’s Keel boats, or for the person who doesn’t sweat enough in the Florida heat, you and your family can power your own canoe on the same water thanks to Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes. (no swimming, please). Don’t even get me started on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Skyway. (Lou wipes away a tear, blames the heat, and moves on)

I’d love to start with a breakfast with some of my favorite characters, but we won’t be seeing that for a while now. Speaking of which, where is Holidayland? It’s supposed to be between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, but, oh well. And what about Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition? So wait – you’re telling me we get the “Plaza Swan Boats” but NOT the Thunder Mesa? Oh, the humanity.

Anyway, let’s get back to Main Street – this East Coast, Victorian model town, with architecture and elements found in the late 1800s.

I could literally spend hours (or should I say, “pages”) just talking about the shops, both current and gone, the architecture, windows, details and so much more, but I’ll have to save that for another journey . However, what I want to focus on is something you may not remember so well. Let’s go to the Main Street Exposition Hall… I mean – The Gulf Hospitality House.

Along with Tom Sawyer Island, it is the newest attraction at Walt Disney World. Located next to the Hospitality House, The Walt Disney Story depicted Walt’s life from his early childhood in Marceline, Missouri, to the creation of Mickey Mouse and the development of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

The attraction was played in a theater built expressly for this film. The film itself was a project that began in June 1969 and was not completed and previewed until March 1973. In order to accurately tell Walt Disney’s life stories, a staff of more than 200 people at Walt Disney Productions narrated over 75 hours of interviews conducted with Walt before his untimely death on December 15, 1966, ten days after his 65th birthday. One of the main contributors was Bill Bosche, an artist and producer who worked for Disney for more than 30 years. Taking excerpts from these interviews, Walt Disney posthumously narrated much of his own autobiography.

This 23-minute film would play simultaneously at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, with the WDW version opening in April 1973 and being dedicated on May 6 of that year. It would eventually run until October 5, 1992. This attraction was initially unique in that it was, like If You Had Wings, free (as Walt Disney World still used a ticketing coupon system) and sponsored by Gulf Oil, itself sponsor of the building of the attraction.

The theater was built on the southwest side of the Hospitality House and even had a separate entrance. Looking at the Main Street Exposition Hall today, the small staircase to the right of the building’s main entrance was originally created for the Walt Disney story.

Inside the building, the long hallway that made up the tailgate area was lined with Disney memorabilia, including the only Academy Award he was given for his 1937 masterpiece Snow White. Unlike a traditional Oscar statue, this one had seven smaller Oscar by his side. You could also find a scale model of the Nautilus used in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Until recently, you could find the same model in the Living Seas queue. It is unknown if it will remain when the Nemo-ization of the stand is complete.)

The hallway was filled not only with screens, but also with the sounds of classic Disney movie songs. At the end of the corridor were entrances to two identical 300-seat theaters. Between the two sets of doors was a mural of 170 Disney characters. By the mid-80s, characters were added from new releases for every film up until The Great Mouse Detective. One of these theaters was renovated and now shows classic Disney cartoons. The door to the other (now disused) theater can be seen at the back of the Hall.

The film itself took viewers on an emotional journey throughout Walt’s personal and professional life and culminated in his plans for Disneyland, eventually WDW and most importantly, EPCOT in the city. The film was shown on a specially designed screen, designed to give visitors the impression that they were looking through a virtual scrapbook of Walt’s life. It was presented as a photo album, with rare audio accompanying photos and illustrations.

The space after the show was always in a state of flux. It showed everything from plans for the WDW expansion to the futuristic EPCOT Center. Most notable was the brief presentation of the model of one of WDW’s newest projects, the Western River Expedition. In addition to a working model, Hoot Gibson, an audio-Animatronic owl, told visitors he would be the star of the attraction. He also explained some of his AA edits and was accompanied by an Animatronic storybook, which flipped pages as he told his story.

The Walt Disney Story was closed from June 1981 to October 1982 to become the home of the EPCOT Center Preview Center. The original film was replaced with one that more specifically described Walt’s dreams for his futuristic city. In October 1982, when EPCOT Center opened to the public, the Preview Center was removed and the original film returned.

Just six years later, however, The Walt Disney Story was pulled once again, this time to preview Walt Disney World’s third theme park, Disney-MGM Studios. It was renamed, aptly enough, “The Disney-MGM Studios Preview Center.” Oh yes, our friend the owl made amends once again, perched in the director’s chair and narrated this too.

After the studios opened in 1989, The Walt Disney Story returned once more, but closed for good in October 1992. Disney said the original film had deteriorated so much that it could no longer be shown in the theater.

The original exit from the movie led visitors to the Disneyana Collectibles store, which is sadly long gone. It can be argued that this store, with its wonderful collectibles, was the first of the trend of themed stores at the end of attractions. It had great items like commemorative plates, original hand drawn cartoons and various limited edition reproductions. You can also reserve a seat at the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree while you’re there.

In order to preserve the film and continue to be available to Guests in the future, it was released in a very abridged version on VHS tape in 1994. Unfortunately today, the video is not available on DVD, except for the remaining copies of 100 Years of Magic DVD, which had a much shorter, pan-and-scan version, minus the original opening and ending.

In October 1996, the building that once housed The Walt Disney Story became home to the Walt Disney World 25th Anniversary Welcome Center. Like previous “preview centers” before it, the building was filled with models and exhibits showcasing Disney’s cruise line and other upcoming projects. The Welcome Center closed in 1997 and the exhibits were removed. It later housed “Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcome Center”

While the mural is still there at the back of the theater, most of the original displays are long gone. The rest are photography-themed, as the building is now sponsored by Kodak.

(To get a very small taste of what this attraction was like, I highly recommend taking the time to see the exhibits and the movie “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream” at Disney-MGM Studios).

As we prepare to head home (damn this real job of mine), we can see some signs of things coming later this year, such as the Plaza Swan Boats, which will traverse the waterways of the Magic Kingdom, the Fort Wilderness Railway ( get on the boards quick as this one won’t be around for long) and some new attraction called “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Nah, that will never catch on.

On a personal note, I often walk through the exhibition center in the town square, to reminisce about the previous attraction, look at the exhibits and see what I have on the horizon. It saddens me to see such a wonderful, personal tribute to Walt gone by the wayside and the building remains almost empty for all intents and purposes. That said, I did a little snooping and it looks like there might be something new on the horizon for part of the building… Keep your eyes and ears peeled!

Anyway, I can see from the docks ahead that… oh wait. Wrong attraction.

Err… What I meant was that this will do it for this Walt Disney World WayBack Machine installation. Time to go back to the Magic Kingdom of 2006 and enjoy Stitch’s Grea… ah forget it.

So, until our next trip to Walt Disney World, I invite you to learn more about some of the secrets, history and fun facts about the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” at http://www.DisneyWorldTrivia.com and at http://www.MouseTunes.com Disney Podcast, recently named Best Travel Podcast of 2006.

Thanks! Ssssssssssssssssssssss!!!

This article first appeared in the August 29, 2006 issue of the ALL EARS® Weekly Newsletter

For more details and fun facts about WDW, check out the Walt Disney World Trivia Book or Ask Lou, where the author answers your questions about Walt Disney World and publishes weekly articles with more in-depth history, secrets and stories !

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