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The Walt Disney World Influencer of the Decade – The 1990s

As Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary approaches on October 1, 2021, this series will attempt to determine one addition per decade which drastically impacted Disney Parks vacations going forward. 

Like an enthusiastic college graduate, the “Most Magical Place on Earth” saw only possibilities as it entered the 1990s. In fact, only 15 days into the new decade, Disney CEO Michael Eisner announced development plans for Walt Disney World that included a fourth theme park, 29 new attractions, and an expansion of the hotel room supply to 21,000 units. Bolstered by these audacious Disney Decade designs, the central Florida property was prepared to spend its 20s thriving. 

After the trials of the 1980s, the late decade turnaround allowed for fresh-faced optimism like that of an individual just entering the workforce with the hope that their chosen career will be more than just the day-to-day work. Walt Disney World was ready to revive the “Vacation Kingdom of the World” once again and take risks on activities outside the main focus of attractions and resorts. 

In late 1993, Disney took a gamble by opening registration for guests to race through its three parks. At the time, the director of the New York City marathon suggested that the inaugural Walt Disney World Marathon could be considered a success if there were 1,000 participants. On Sunday, January 16, 1994, 8,200 people traversed 26.2 miles of the property’s many pathways and roads. The race’s success meant that following the appetite for something outside traditional attractions was not a folly but a proven success. As Orlando Sentinel writer Craig Dezern reported one week prior to the race, “the resort’s lodgings are booked solid next weekend. With half of the 8,000 entrants staying at Disney for two or more days, park attendance should get a boost during a historically slow time of year.”

But in America, athletics and recreation have always had very broad appeal. Could other interests achieve the same results?

The Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

Image of the Mary Poppins topiary on display at the Epcot '94 International Flower and Garden Festival

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time when EPCOT was not known as EPCOT, or Epcot, or EPCOT Center, but Epcot ’94. The temporary moniker brought with it a number of changes and additions that no longer exist today like the Epcot ’94 Teachers Pass, Innoventions, and the Magical World of Barbie stage show. However, one event not only remains but has become a much anticipated and beloved festival. 

The first Epcot ‘94 International Flower and Garden Festival debuted on Friday, April 29, 1994, and lasted 38 days. Presented by Better Homes and Gardens, the event included 250 garden beds; more than 100 types of flowers new to Epcot ‘94; topiaries; guest speakers such as Roger Swain of public television’s Victory Garden; and opportunities to witness demonstrations from Disney gardeners. More than 70 horticulturists brought a whole new beauty to the eleven countries of World Showcase. White blankets of geraniums and poinsettias brought the feeling of snow to the landscape of the Norway pavilion. Water lilies filled the ponds in the China pavilion. Slender annuals were selected to attract butterflies to the United Kingdom pavilion. The expertise of many individuals was on display across each nation as well as throughout World Showcase Lagoon and Future World.

To many, gardening is no more than a hobby or leisurely diversion, but for a large group of guests, it proved to be a major attractor. Epcot ‘94’s festival earned itself an encore at Epcot ’95. In those early years, many guests arrived at the entrance gates and were surprised by the existence of an occasion celebrating the somewhat niche topic, but it did not take long before green-thumbed patrons were purposefully planning a vacation to Walt Disney World to coincide with the festival.

As attendance grew, so did the event’s offerings. What began as outstanding displays of gardening prowess became expanded demonstrations and classes, unique dining opportunities, special guest appearances, a concert series and more. By taking another risk, Disney had proved that devoted fan bases of particular interests were just that – devoted. 

Images of the Winnie the Pooh topiaries at the 1997 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival versus those on display at the 2013 Festival

The success of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival created a ripple effect that spawned other interest-based events such as the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival in 1996, Super Soap Weekends in 1996, Star Wars Weekends in 1997, Epcot Holidays Around the World in 1996 (now the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays), and the Epcot International Festival of the Arts in 2017, as well as various other special events. Undoubtedly, each of these occasions served the purpose of bringing added value to the guest experience. Individuals who previously saw Walt Disney World as “just for kids” now found themselves attracted to these adult-targeted offerings. 

Initiating the wave of limited-time experiences that speak to the varied desires of guests is undoubtedly a lasting legacy of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, but its business impact over the years has proven to be even more immense. Each of these events, along with the aforementioned Walt Disney World Marathon, was strategically located at a time of year when attendance numbers were lagging such as January, late spring between spring break and summer break, post-Labor Day to pre-Thanksgiving, and the brief period in early December before Christmas. 

Purposefully choosing to schedule these events at times of the year when the largest segment of your customer base (families) is mostly unavailable due to school calendars was undoubtedly viewed as a risk. While the capital investment for such experiences is minute compared to the outlay required for a new attraction, they are by no means free. Luckily, the gamble paid out, and as the length and options of each special occasion expanded, the dips in crowd turnout across property leveled thus making the “slow season” a thing of the past.   

While on an individual guest basis, losing the quieter times of the year may feel like a negative, more business is always better for the resort, and thereby patrons, on the whole. Undeniably, the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival and all its special event contemporaries have and will continue to influence the resort by serving the purpose for which they were created: to speak to a previously unreached audience and continue to draw guests back year after year. 

At the age of only 22, Walt Disney World had leveraged its hopeful optimism in the face of what may have previously been seen as a longshot. Could it transform that same spirit into success as it entered its 30s?

All images from the author’s personal collection.

The Walt Disney World Influencer of the Decade – The 1980s

The Walt Disney World Influencer of the Decade – The 1970s