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Lou Mongello’s Walt Disney World Wayback Machine – 1973 and “The Walt Disney Story”

I spent a great portion of my day on Main Street, USA, and was brought back to my childhood, walking down the street, parents in tow, marveling at the sights, sounds, and yes, the House of Magic.

So, on this installation of my WayBack Machine, I wanted to focus on a time when the Magic Kingdom was still in its relative infancy, and a wonderful, yet extinct Main Street, USA attraction.

(Lou borrows four quarters from his dad, plunks them into 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 being 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 rootin’ tootin’ “Country and Western Spectacular” show with stars like Anne Murray, Faron Young and Freddie Hart. These mini-concerts will be taking place in the evenings at the Tomorrowland Terrace (you now can find Sonny Eclipse performing there), the Diamond Horseshoe (sadly, you can now find an empty building there), and the Fantasy Faire (where you can now play in Ariel’s Grotto).

You could also still ride along the Rivers of America on one of Mike Fink’s Keel Boats, or for the person who’s just not sweating enough in the Florida heat, you and your family can power your own little canoe on the same body of 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 off with a breakfast with some of my favorite characters, but we won’t see something like 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’re going to get the “Plaza Swan Boats” but NOT Thunder Mesa? Oh, the humanity.

Anyway, let’s get back to Main Street – this eastern seaboard, Victorian-era model town, with architecture and elements which were found in the late 1800’s.

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

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

The attraction played in a theater constructed explicitly for this film. The film itself was a project that began in June of 1969, and wasn’t completed and previewed until March of 1973. In order to accurately tell Walt Disney’s life stories, a staff of more than 200 people at Walt Disney productions pored over 75 hours of interviews conducted with Walt before his untimely death on Dec. 15, 1966, ten days after his 65th birthday. One of the principle 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 same year. It would eventually run until October 5, 1992. This attraction was unique initially in that it was, much like If You Had Wings, free (as Walt Disney World was still using a coupon system of ticketing), and was sponsored by Gulf Oil, the same sponsor of the attraction building.

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

Inside the building, the long hallway which made up the queue area was filled with Disney memorabilia, including the one of a kind Oscar given to him by the Academy for the 1937 masterpiece Snow White. Unlike a traditional Oscar statue, this one had seven smaller Oscars at 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 have found that same model in the Living Seas queue. It is unknown whether it will remain when the Nemo-ization of the pavilion is complete).

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

The film itself took Guests on a moving journey throughout Walt’s personal and professional life, and concluded with his plans for Disneyland, eventually WDW, and most importantly, EPCOT the city. The film was presented on a specially-designed screen, designed to give guests the impression 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 post-show area was always in a state of change. It showed everything from plans for the expansion of WDW, to the futuristic EPCOT Center. Most notable was the brief display 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 Guests he would be the star of the attraction. He also explained some of the processed of AA, and was accompanied by an Animatronic storybook, which flipped pages as he told his story.

The Walt Disney Story closed from June of 1981 until October, 1982 to become home to the EPCOT Center Preview Center. The original film was replaced with one that more specifically outlined Walt’s dreams of 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, though, The Walt Disney Story was removed once again, this time to preview Walt Disney World’s third theme park, the Disney-MGM Studios. It was renamed, aptly enough, “The Disney-MGM Studios Preview Center.” Oh yes, our friend the owl was redressed yet again, perched in a director’s chair, and narrated this as well.

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

The original exit from the film took Guests into the Disneyana Collectibles shop, which sadly is long gone. It can be argued that this store, with its wonderful collectibles, was the first of the trend towards having themed shops at the end of attractions. It had wonderful items such as commemorative plates, original hand painted animation cels, and various limited edition reproductions. You could also make a reservation for a seat at the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree while there.

To preserve the film and continue to make it available to Guests in the future, it was released in a much abbreviated version on VHS tape in 1994. Sadly today, the video is unavailable on DVD, other than any remaining copies of the 100 Year 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 the home of the Walt Disney World 25th Anniversary Welcome Center. Like the earlier “preview centers” before it, the building was filled with models and exhibits introducing the Disney Cruise Line and other upcoming projects. The Welcome Center closed in 1997, and the exhibits removed. It later hosted the “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 remaining ones are themed towards photography, as the building is now sponsored by Kodak.

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

As we get ready to head back home (darn this real job of mine), we can see some signs of things to come later this year, like the Plaza Swan Boats, which will ply the waterways of the Magic Kingdom, the Fort Wilderness Railway (hop on boards fast, as this won’t be around for long), and some new attraction called “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Nah, that’ll never catch on.

On a personal note, I often walk through the Town Square Exposition Hall, to reminisce about the former attraction, view the exhibits and see what me on the horizon. It saddens me to see such a wonderful, personal tribute to Walt having gone by the wayside, and the building remaining almost vacant for all intents and purposes. That being said, I did do a little snooping, and it looks like there may be something new on the horizon for part of the building… Keep your eyes and ears peeled!

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

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

So, until our next trip together 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 www.DisneyWorldTrivia.com and on the www.MouseTunes.com Disney podcast, recently named Best Travel Podcast of 2006.

Thanks! Sssssssssseeeeeee ya!!!

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