For those taking the I-75 corridor in route to Walt Disney World, there might be nothing more daunting than the moment the Tennessee-Georgia line is reached. It is the point in the journey when several states may already have been crossed, and where travelers can easily be fooled into thinking they are close to the most magical place on earth simply because only one more state separates them from Florida. It is there that Tennessee exits 1A and 1B verify that the state of Georgia is very near. Cheers, or perhaps sighs of relief, quickly follow that realization. Unfortunately, they are short-lived as Georgia exit 353 appears defiantly declaring that there are more than 350 miles to the Georgia-Florida state line. Let’s be honest, for excited, eager travelers on their way to WDW that is definitely not a welcome sight.
Please know that no disrespect is intended to the great state of Georgia. It is a lovely place to call home as well as to visit. However, for those in transit to WDW, the road through The Peach State can seem endless. After all, when the magic of a WDW vacation awaits, time is of the essence, right? For road-weary travelers, there is no better sign along I-75 than the one reading, “Welcome to Florida – The Sunshine State.”
Since, in all actuality, there are three to four more hours to be logged before arriving at the Resort property even the Georgia-Florida line teases those bound for WDW. Eventually, north Florida is reached. It is easy to recognize because a myriad of billboards advertising all manner of Sunshine State tourism dot the landscape almost as soon as the state line is crossed. Once upon a time, very unique versions of the enormous murals captivated all those in route to WDW on I-75. You see, on them were Disney characters beckoning tourists to visit a magical place known as the Disney Welcome Center, which was later named the Disney Information Center.
The vibrant signs also encouraged travelers to tune their radios to a special AM station where various characters like Jiminy Cricket provided important information such as the fact that Florida law requires vehicle headlights to be on between sunset and sunrise as well as whenever windshield wipers are in use. The characters presented enthusiastic spiels regarding the latest attractions; and, most important of all, they encouraged motorists to stop at the Center for information, discounted room reservations, park tickets, merchandise, and restrooms, of course.
In addition, each of the seven dwarfs appeared on his own billboard along the way, and a challenge was issued to every child listening to the AM station. If they visited the Center and could recite the names of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs to a Cast Member, they would receive a special prize (a Mickey shoe keychain).
Located in Ocala, over halfway between the Florida state line and Orlando, the large Disney Information Center sign could be seen from I-75. Just a short distance from the exit ramp was a driveway that led to the parking lot that was surrounded by trees draped in Spanish moss, and lined by a number of Disney’s character topiaries. Either side of the entrance to the Center was flanked by large cutouts of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and each side of the exterior featured animated windows similar to those found outside The Emporium on Main Street, U.S.A.
As guests entered, they were presented with several choices. To the right was a small curtained theater that previewed all of the magic that waited at WDW. Beyond the theater was a gift shop selling general WDW-themed merchandise. To the left was an information desk with Cast Members available to answer questions, help with ticket purchases and to place dining and resort reservations. Also found on the left was a set of restrooms for all of the motorists needing a pit stop. Another interesting vignette in the Center was a small scale model of a little yellow camping trailer from the Mickey Mouse cartoon short “Mickey’s Trailer.” In the early days, the back of the Center was dedicated to large reprints of photos from around the parks, and screenshots from Disney animated features (like the one pictured below). Later, that area was converted into the information desk.
For some, every aspect of the Center (except perhaps the restrooms) served to amplify the anticipation of their imminent vacation. Meanwhile for others, it launched the beginning of plans for a future WDW visit. For this writer’s family it accomplished both. In 1991, what started as a family trip to Tennessee became an unplanned, first-time road trip to Florida and Walt Disney World. Talk about a thrill out of the blue. Even my parents were surprised.
When we reached north Florida, we read every single Disney billboard and listened intently to the radio station. In no time, we were approaching the Disney Information Center. We were so impressed and excited to be there. My parents were able to book a two-night stay at Disney’s Contemporary Resort at a deeply discounted price. Our first WDW vacation would happen thanks to the help we received from the courteous Cast Members at the Center.
Such was the case for many travelers who decided to “take their chances” on the Center. In order to keep rooms from sitting empty, Disney would allow the Center to offer resort stays for a fraction of the original price. As was our good fortune, countless hopeful tourists became WDW resort guests via the Center. However, there was an obvious risk of taking a chance as opposed to having a plan; resort rooms for the number of nights desired might not be available.
As the number of guests making resort reservations online began to increase, there were less and less travelers making use of the Center for the aforementioned purpose. Not only were guests crossing the state line with resort reservations and ticket purchases made, they also had a wealth of WDW knowledge available at the click of a mouse. Guests did not need the information desk anymore, and soon, it was no longer worthwhile for Disney to keep the Center open. On August 13, 2005, the Disney Information Center closed its doors after 18 years of operation. Less than a year later, the property was sold.
For many guests, the closing of the Center was a real loss. For families who drove to Walt Disney World on I-75, it was the first vacation tradition to be checked off the list of must-dos. It was part of an era of family road trips, all-night drives, crowded cars, and roadside pit stops. While those may not sound like fantastic things, they were moments that were made special by the people who shared them. They and the Center were all associated with Walt Disney World vacations and that fact alone makes them memorable.
(Photos from the author’s personal collection.)
Kendall is an editor and contributing writer for WDW Radio. She began visiting Walt Disney World in 1991 with her family and has continued to visit the resort with her husband. Her home-away-from-home is Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and she believes a perfect day at WDW includes a dip in the Lava Pool, a ride on Splash Mountain and a Pineapple Dole Whip. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.