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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
Florida's Favorites: Then and Now

To mark Walt Disney World's 30th anniversary, a look at the Magic Kingdom's most popular attractions

Thirty years ago today, Walt Disney World opened its Magic Kingdom. Ever since, the Orlando resort hasn't stopped growing for a second. The Magic Kingdom is now just one of four Disney World theme parks, with countless other amusements both on the property as well as a short drive down the Interstate.

Ironically, 1971's centerpiece attraction—the Magic Kingdom—remains the biggest draw in town. What's most popular inside the Magic Kingdom, however, has changed dramatically.

Top Attractions – 1971

It's interesting to note the types of rides that were the biggest draws 30 years ago. Half of them were remakes of popular, highly publicized attractions at Disneyland. Half were located in Fantasyland, although none was strictly a kiddie ride; all six could be equally enjoyed by adults and children.

As well, most made heavy use of audio animatronics, a still-evolving technology which in the years ahead would decrease in use (due in part to their high cost) and, once the novelty wore off, in popularity (due in part to their low "repeatability;" animatronic presentations don't change from performance to performance).

6. Hall of Presidents. This show featuring every U.S. president was originally proposed for Disneyland in the late 1950s, but Anaheim would end up with only an animatronic Abe Lincoln. Disney World got all 37 presidents. Early visitors were awe-struck.

There was the rare detractor. Noted one critic from a Toronto newspaper: "If you're a Canadian, keep your distance from this one. It's a schmaltzy, drum-beating piece of nationalism which could only be stomached by flag-waving middle Americans."

Sadly, the attraction's popularity mirrored that of Disneyland's one- bot-show: after captivating audiences in their first years, attendance plummeted. Of all the original 35 attractions opened at the Magic Kingdom in 1971, the Hall of Presidents is the one still in existence that has suffered the largest decline in popularity.

5. Haunted Mansion. All the publicity for the opening of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, just two years before, was still fresh in everyone's mind.

The ride is both fun and spooky (but not too spooky), appealing to all audiences. Touted one 1971 reviewer: "This is a beaut of a ride, guaranteed to send shivers up the spine of adults and children alike, but not scare the wits out of you."

4. Mickey Mouse Revue. Most Disney World visitors probably don't remember this charming animatronic revue. It ran for less than 10 years and has been gone for more than 20 years. A cast of 87 Disney characters performed selections of classic Disney tunes, with the orchestra led by maestro Mickey.

An Opening Day newspaper columnist pegged its popularity: the attraction guaranteed that kids could see Mickey. "Mickey Mouse, after all, was the one who started all this extravagant nonsense, so a visit to Disney World without seeing Mickey himself is like a hamburger without French fries," he wrote.

Such wisdom makes you wonder why more Disney parks don't have Mickey Mouse rides. (Tokyo Disneyland has the most popular one: Disney World's transplanted Mickey Mouse Revue.)

3. It's a Small World. After opening at Disneyland five years before, this ride was a proven winner. "It's completely enchanting for both young and old," gushed one reviewer.

Interestingly, Disney World's attraction packs them in despite a rather ordinary entrance; Disneyland's eye-catching facade was recreated for the Tokyo and Paris versions.

2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Modest capacity didn't prevent the Magic Kingdom's submarine voyage from attracting long lines from opening till close. The ride remained popular for 23 years, until it was mothballed due to high operational and maintenance costs.

Although the subs arrived in Fantasyland several days before the park's grand opening, last minute mechanical problems kept them from surfacing for the public until two weeks later.

1. Country Bear Jamboree. It's difficult for the average fan to fathom that when the Magic began, this animatronic revue was the most popular attraction in the park. "Bear Band" proved to be the Magic Kingdom's first stand-out hit, becoming the first Disney World attraction to be copied at another park.

Disneyland, of course, was expecting a similar response, so rushed to open its version less than six months later. Disneyland even built two theaters instead of one to double capacity and gave the bears their own land, Bear Country. It was space that wasn't needed, since the show never really caught on out West, playing to half-full houses until it closed for good last month.

Top Attractions -2001

My, times have changed, and so have the Magic Kingdom's most popular rides. People today operate at a faster pace and have shorter attention spans. As such, today's faves are a much more thrilling bunch. Half of them, in fact, have minimum height requirements.

6. It's a Small World. The one holdover from the 1971 list may have become an object of derision over the years, but it remains a must-see attraction for first-time visitors. Its high capacity doesn't hurt, either.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean. Ironically, this is one of two star attractions in Anaheim that Disney was determined not to build in Orlando. They thought an old West version, called Western River Expedition, might prove more exotic to the Southeast. But visitors kept complaining, "Where are the pirates?" So, two years later, the pirates finally arrived.

Although it's animatronic, it remains popular for the same reasons that keep Small World humming: its classic status, wealth of detail, and its high capacity.

4. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Thunder Mesa, which was supposed to contain Western River Expedition, in time gave way to another copy from Disneyland, this Old West-themed roller coaster.

3. Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. It's fresh, it's based on a popular character, and it's a lot of fun. Most of all, its interactive nature keeps guests returning over and over again. The ultimate in a high repeatability attraction.

2. Splash Mountain. Technically, Splash Mountain might be considered an animatronic attraction, but that's not why it's so popular; at its heart is a swift flume ride with a stunning drop. Splash opened at Disney World three years to the day after opening at Disneyland.

1. Space Mountain. The unique roller coaster sends riders hurtling through star-lit darkness, not only simulating a wild ride through space, but also making it difficult for riders to anticipate turns and drops so they can brace themselves.

The other classic Disneyland attraction purposely omitted from the Magic Kingdom was the Matterhorn, since plans were already under way to build Space Mountain instead. Right out of the gate, Space Mountain became—and remains—the Magic Kingdom's most popular attraction and, of course, inspired Space Mountains in Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris.

Don't be surprised if it still tops the list of Top Attractions 30 years from now.

Note: inclusion and ranking of the attractions are not based on actual ridership figures, but on news accounts and the opinions of long-time employees.

You can write to David atthis link..


David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.


Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)


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