Walt Disney World

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Walt Disney World, opened in 1971 near Orlando, Florida, was a dramatic extension of the amusement and fantasy theme park of Disneyland, built by animator and moviemaker Walt Disney in Anaheim, California, in 1955. Both parks were radical breaks from the tradition of the early-twentieth-century amusement parks at Coney Island and elsewhere in America. Situated in rural and suburban locations, both Disney sites relied on links to highways and private automobile access instead of streetcars and subways to attract crowds. Further, both Disney parks created entirely artificial fantasy environments, completely independent of natural attractions (like the seashore or forest). Finally, both Disneyland and Walt Disney World promised an experience free from the dirt and danger of the carnival world of freaks, barkers, and thrill rides common in the traditional amusement park. Both attracted a predominately white, middle-class crowd, often in family groups. However, while the original Disney theme park was limited to a site of 160 acres and was quickly hemmed in by cheap hotels and alternative amusements, Walt Disney World was built in central Florida, in the middle of land holdings the size of Manhattan Island, facilitating unimpeded expansion and freedom from outside competitors as well as allowing the Disney Company to develop with legal control over utilities and zoning regulations. Even though Walt Disney died in 1966, five years before his Florida park opened, Walt Disney World became the uncompromised and unfettered expression of the Disney vision.

Disney World became much more than an amusement park. From the beginning, it was conceived as a cluster of resorts that distant visitors would make a destination. Far more than ever was possible at the California site, Disney World was a national, indeed international, destination. Not only was it far from major cities (though Orlando eventually became a boom town), it was isolated from competing leisure sites, especially Florida's beaches and ocean. Thanks to air travel, the Disney Company was able to attract 28.4 million visitors by 1990, easily the biggest tourist draw in the United States, with out-of-town visitors spending an average of nearly a week at the site.

The Four Walt Disney World Theme Parks

Disney World's first project was the Magic Kingdom, basically a double of Disneyland, complete with "Main Street U.S.A.," a fantasy replica of an American small town in 1900, and four themed zones—Fantasyland (based largely on cartoon characters and fairy tales), Adventureland (attractions with a world travel theme), Frontierland (organized around a replica of Mark Twain stories and western themes), and Tomorrowland (with a technology, space, and science fiction motif). Before his death, Disney had intended to use part of his vast Florida real estate to create a model urban utopia: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (Epcot). Because of costs and other difficulties, Walt's successors, in 1982, opened instead a permanent World's Fair under the same name. They divided it into a cluster of futuristic exhibits (Future World) sponsored by major corporations, and international exhibits (World Showcase) in a semi-circle of idealized replicas of tourist sites.

The company drew upon Disney's earlier involvement with the New York World's Fair of 1964, building a classic icon to the future in a gigantic geodesic dome (Spaceship Earth). Within it was placed a leisurely ride that passed a series of mechanical figures and displays that told the story of human communications. Nearby were built the pavilions of Future World, which promised to teach the wonders of the imagination (sponsored by Kodak), motion (General Electric), energy (Exxon), and land (Kraft; from 1992, Nestlé) with entertaining stories of the history and future of technology. All of this was classic World's Fair material, harking back to a middle-class genteel tradition of uplifting tourism with no thrill rides. The equally important World Showcase, a semicircular area across an artificial lake from Future World, was a distant relative of the earlier World's Fair foreign villages. Ten, mostly European, countries were included at first. The French site featured a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, while an idealized version of an eighth-century pagoda marked the Japanese exhibits. Walking through the World Showcase was to be a quick and painless simulation of the global tour of the middle-class traveler.

In 1989 Disney World opened a third park: Disney-MGM Studios. The concept was borrowed from Universal Studio's park built near Hollywood in 1964, which combined movie-based rides with tours of stage sets for real movie and TV productions. While Main Street U.S.A. had originally been designed to appeal to adults born early in the twentieth century, Disney-MGM drew on somewhat younger Americans with fond memories of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood and the classical movies of that period. Disney MGM romanticized the Golden Age of movies with "charming," scaled-down reproductions of 1930s Hollywood Boulevard, ending at a reproduction of Grauman's Chinese Theater. This classic theater was the home of the park's flagship attraction, the Great Movie Ride, which featured exciting clippings from famous movies, seen from cars shaped like soundstage vehicles. For children, Disney bought the rights to Jim Henson's "Muppets," a collection of puppets that were familiar to American children (and most adults) through more than twenty years of TV and movie appearances. Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3-D was the first of a new wave of three-dimensional movies with in-theater special effects.

The fourth theme park, Animal Kingdom, was a marriage of theme park and zoo. Opened in 1998, this park was built on a site ten times as large as Disneyland. Its focal point, a 145-foot-tall concrete "Tree of Life," with an ancient, rugged look of nature, became the hub for the "lands" of Africa, Rafiki's Planet Watch (a themed nature and ecology center), Asia, DinoLand, U.S.A., and Camp Minnie Mouse (animated animals). Unique to Animal Kingdom was a stress on "authenticity" and conservation. The African and Asian buildings had purposively weathered walls with cracked and faded paint. The Animal Kingdom's Kilimanjaro Safari copied modern zoo design by creating ecosystems rather than simply displaying animals in cages, and placing gazelles, elands, ostriches, zebras, and many other animals in natural settings close to visitors (though behind hidden trenches). The Safari went further by turning the traditional viewing of animals into a ride and story during which guests travel in "authentic" African safari trucks on a twenty-minute voyage, chasing would-be "poachers." Other attractions, such as It's Tough to Be a Bug!, a 3-D film with special intheater effects like water jets and moving seats, appealed to children.

Resorts, Shopping, and Themed Hotels at Disney World

Following Walt Disney's plans, executives built a series of hotels, golf courses, campgrounds, and water parks, making Disney World a full-service, enveloping experience of destination tourism that the small California site never could be. In 1971, not only did Disney World open the Magic Kingdom, but also Fort Wilderness (a camping compound) and two hotels, the Polynesian Resort and Contemporary Resort. In the early 1970s, an open-air aviary (Discovery Island) and Lake Buena Vista Village and Community (a themed shopping center and cluster of hotels and a golf course) were opened, and, in 1976, a water park, River Country, was built. In 1986, the Disney Company added to its cluster of full-service hotel-resorts the Grand Floridian Beach Resort, designed to evoke "memory" of the days of the Gilded Age when the rich discovered the south Florida beach. Soon, somewhat less lavish Swan and Dolphin hotel resorts were built near Epcot. Beginning in 1988, a series of new hotels—the Caribbean Beach Resort, Port Orleans, and Coronado Springs—were built around the idea of simulated travel to exotic places and times. In 1994, Disney also opened a string of inexpensive family hotels themed around music, movies, and sports and featuring gigantic statues of cartoon characters, guitars, and sports equipment.

The Transformation of the Disney Concept

Changes in the American family and its culture led Disney World to modify its original focus on family togetherness, nostalgia, and the genteel values of the old World's Fairs. In 1984, when the company was experiencing a serious decline, it turned to Michael Eisner, a successful movie producer, to revamp the old Disney formula. Among other changes, Eisner began to appeal to the demands of older children and teens for more thrill rides, and to accommodate childless visitors and others with age-segmented entertainment. In 1989 Epcot modified its commitment to the genteel tradition of uplift in science and world travel by adding thrill rides such as Body Wars, an exciting simulation of rushing through the bloodstream in pursuit of bacteria. Similarly, Disney-MGM Studios introduced the Tower of Terror in 1994, a very elaborate version of a common vertical lift-and-drop ride built around a movie about a defective elevator in a ghostly hotel. Appealing to the ever-increasing demands of older children for thrill rides, Disney introduced the Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995, and an indoor Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in 1999 that catapulted riders from zero to sixty miles per hour in three seconds while 1950s rock music blared from speakers in each car.

Other indications of a shift toward the thrill ride can be seen in the evolution of Disney water parks. The first, River Country (1976), located in the rustic setting of Fort Wilderness, had a western appeal (featuring a campground, playground, and horseshoe tossing). Its rope swings, barrel bridge, and a water slide appealed to adult nostalgia for the old swimming holes of their youth. In sharp contrast was the modern and intense excitement of the Typhoon Lagoon of 1989, with its ninety-five-foot artificial mountain, nine water slides, snorkeling pool, rain forest, and especially its wave-making machines that overwhelmed fun seekers with waves up to seven feet high in a gigantic pool. The third water park, Blizzard Beach (1995), was both more exciting and more fantastic than the other two. Built on a "story" about a freak snowstorm in Florida that led some overenthusiastic entrepreneurs to construct a ski resort, the park was designed to look like an alpine resort with the snow "melted" into a tropical lagoon. It featured the 120-foot-high Mt. Gushmore, with a number of thrilling water slides. This trend away from appeals to uplifting gentility and nostalgia would continue as those values declined and Disney was forced to compete with the intense thrill rides of a new generation of amusement parks.

Another trend is the shift at Disney World toward accommodating childless visitors and families that seek age-segmented activities. In 1989 the company opened Pleasure Island, a sixteen-acre complex of restaurants and nightclubs, as well as a teen dance center and roller-rink disco for the evening entertainment of visitors who seek to be with their own age group. In 1996, Pleasure Island became part of an expanded Downtown Disney complex. That year, the Disney BoardWalk opened. This entertainment complex was modeled after historic Atlantic City and Coney Island, with a luxury inn and numerous shops and nightclubs. Disney World even provided a Sports Complex in 1997 with facilities for amateur and professional sports of all kinds.

By the end of the 1990s, Disney World had invested fully in the idea of total life-stage entertainment. In 1995 it opened a Wedding Chapel for couples willing to buy one of Disney's wedding packages. The chapel included many Disney touches: a glass-enclosed pavilion on its own island located on the Seven Seas Lagoon, with a backdrop of Magic Kingdom's Castle. Disney World also appealed to thousands as a honeymoon site. In 1996, the Disney Institute opened to offer short recreational-education courses in animation, orchestra conducting, golf, gardening, and sixty other activities. In 1998, Disney World took the concept of age-segmented, life-stage entertainment a step further with the launching of the Disney Magic Cruise Line, which brought families to a special "deserted island," the Castaway Cay. While the ship included a Mickey Mouse–shaped pool, it also featured a pool for adults where Disney music was never played. Staff kept children amused at their own club (featuring storytelling and Captain Hook décor), while teens and adults joined separate clubs for age-appropriate group activities. On the island, a beach designated for families with small children was separated from other beaches for teenagers and adults, all in an effort to accommodate the desire for leisure time with one's own age group.

While Walt Disney World remains the mecca of family tourism and, for many, an almost obligatory destination for children, it has also had to accommodate changing expectations of different age groups.

See also: Carnivals; Coney Island, Disneyland, Honeymooning, Theme and Amusement Parks, World's Fairs


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