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1900 Park Fare and Big Bertha’s Encore

By: Kendall Foreman

A photo of the carousel organ called "Big Bertha" that can be found in 1900 Park Fare at Disney's Grand Floridan Resort
Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

Act I

When William Shakespeare wrote the words, “All the world’s a stage,” he meant so in a literary sense, but for Big Bertha, a 19th century carousel organ, the phrase is quite literal. Bertha’s first act began when she was built in the late 1800s by Limonaire in France. She was designed with 369 pipes, a bass drum, a snare drum, two bells, a tympani, castanets, a triangle, a cymbal, and another set of eighteen bells. Her career took off as she traveled across the sea to perform with all her instruments on a carousel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Over the decades, she had several costume changes as she was originally a barrel organ with a 90-key pinned cylinder, then was outfitted to play perforated cardboard books of music, next modified to run North Tonawanda endless rolls, then 82-key Artizan rolls, and finally Wurlitzer Military Band Organ rolls.

A photo of Big Bertha in a state of disrepair before undergoing restoration.  Pieces are missing and the paint has faded.
Big Bertha prior to restoration. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

It was in between those alterations that it seemed like Bertha’s performing days could have come to an end. She was sent to storage in Gulf Shores, Alabama, until a man named Paul R. Eakins purchased the organ. He spent 2500 hours between August 1963 and July 1966 restoring and making her stage-ready once again. The band director was all set to keep time with her baton, the bell-ringers were prepared to sound, and the intricate carvings were gleaming. In Mr. Eakins company, Big Bertha thrived at the Gay 90s Melody Museum, but Act I could not last forever, it was coming time for the intermission.

Intermission

Paul Eakins and his wife, Laura, had amassed an enormous collection of turn-of-the-century musical and arcade machines which they had spent years restoring, displaying, and taking on tours across the country, but by the mid-1970s Paul was ready to retire. He had already established a relationship with the Walt Disney Company when they used his band organ, Sadie Mae, to create the music for the bicentennial attraction, America On Parade. This connection led to Disney deciding to acquire the Eakins’ collection. More on this interesting bit of history can be read here.

A view of Big Bertha, open from the back, so that all of the inner workings including the pipes can be seen.
Big Bertha’s inner workings as seen from the back. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

Act II

By the late 1970s, Big Bertha and several of her mechanical siblings and cousins were headed to Walt Disney World in Florida. According to Issue #18 of the Carousel Organ Journal, Disney sent Big Bertha on tour to help promote the upcoming opening of EPCOT Center with stops in cities across the United States and Canada. After successful runs in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, Montreal, and others, Big Bertha was utilized in the park’s opening and other acts in World Showcase. By 1988, she was ready for her longest running show in residency at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.

Disney’s flagship resort was designed to emulate the great Florida railroad hotels built and frequented by the industry tycoons of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This concept was referenced in a 1988 Disney News Magazine article on the resort that stated, “It’s around the turn-of-the-century, say, somewhere between 1890 and 1910. America’s well-to-do, the corporate moguls, the shipping magnates, the famous and the infamous prepare for the annual winter migration to the land of endless sunshine.” That historic setting drove everything within Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa from its ornate birdcage elevator to the name of one of its original restaurants, Flagler’s, inspired by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil co-founder, Henry Morrison Flagler.

Flagler’s was located on the second floor, but another restaurant on the first floor was also inspired by the changing of the century. 1900 Park Fare referenced the advent of the 20th century in its name and featured an antique carousel theme. With such a focus, Big Bertha was a perfect addition to the interior of the dining room. The carousel organ was inset into the wall above diners where her pipes would ring out to the enjoyment of patrons. However, her sound was not quite the same as it had once been. During her installation, work was done to tone down her volume for the enclosed space.

Nonetheless, Big Bertha and her storied history made her an attractive feature of the restaurant, as did the characters chosen to accompany the meals. A carousel themed restaurant was “practically perfect in every way” for two of Disney’s most famous carousel riders, Mary Poppins and Bert (over the years, the character line-up would change including anyone from Alice to Winnie the Pooh to Cinderella).

A photo of Big Bertha on display in 1900 Park Fare at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort.  She has been repainted in pink, peach, white, blue and red tones.
Big Bertha inset at 1900 Park Fare at Disney’s Grand Floridan Resort. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

As time went by, guests reported that Big Bertha’s performances became less frequent and many questioned if she played anymore at all. Then in March 2020, all of Walt Disney World was shuttered and once resorts and restaurants began reopening, 1900 Park Fare stayed dark. It seemed like, perhaps, the curtain had closed on Big Bertha without her having the chance for a grand finale.

The Encore

Then, on February 8, 2024, Disney announced that 1900 Park Fare will be reopening on April 10, 2024, after almost four years waiting in the wings. They further stated that Big Bertha will be the “grand centerpiece” of the main dining room. The restaurant will maintain its carousel theme with the addition of a beautiful, period appropriate mural at the entrance. Bertha will also be surrounded by Impressionist style portraits befitting her French heritage. Disney has yet to say whether the organ will be playing. Guests who enjoyed her performances in the past can only hope that her presence will be more akin to an encore than just an appearance on stage. After all her travels and over a century of resounding tunes, it certainly seems like she should have a few more shows in her.

A Special Thank You

Big Bertha’s legacy lives on outside of 1900 Park Fare as well. Paul and Laura Eakins grandson, Chris Carlisle, continues on in the tradition of restoring these amazing musical machines. It is due to his kindness that this article has been completed. Thank you, Chris, for being so generous and willing to share your family’s history!

All photos from the personal collection of Chris Carlisle of Carlisle Music Co.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.