Treasures of Americana in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

Previously, we looked at the treasures of Disney's Hollywood Studios and the treasures of Epcot. But Epcot's World Showcase has such a great concentration of gallery spaces that we only covered some of them in the previous article. Today, let's look at the American Heritage Gallery in the American Adventure lobby, as well as the lobby gallery found in the Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom.

The American Adventure attraction is worth seeing—but there's more inside this building that you should not miss. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Regardless of park, the Collections Management group within Walt Disney Imagineering is responsible for establishing and maintaing the displays and articles placed in these galleries. Like any museum or gallery, the group adheres to very strict standards of display protocol. Since many of these exhibits are on loan, reputation is everything—so the group focuses on mattters such as casework design, lighting, and moisture levels. Everything gets a white glove treatment. This is not merely a "we have a bunch of props so let's put them on display"; these pieces are valuable, and the word "treasure" cannot be over used.

The American Adventure

Step inside the American Heritage Gallery. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The American Heritae Gallery offered an exhibit titled National Treasures that opened back in 2007 and featured over 40 special artifacts on loan to Epcot. From Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat to inventions by Alexander Graham Bell, the exhibit represented the lives of Americans such as Jackie Robinson, Senator Daniel Inouye, Astronaut Gus Grissom, and Rosa Parks. 2013 welcomes a new exhibit. "Re-Discovering America: Family Treasures from the Kinsey Collection" represents over 400 years of African-American achievement and contribution, and includes some 40 artifacts. The Epcot exhibition includes a partial collection of art, documents and other treasures collected by philanthropists Bernard and Shirley Kinsey; the full collection is actually some 126 pieces and have toured seven cities.

The gallery includes paintings as well as museum-worthy pieces. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Khalil Kinsey is general manager of the Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts and Education and the Kinsey Collection. He has a little piece of his own heritage in the exhibit in the form of a letter. Written by his third cousin Carrie Kinsey to President Roosevelt, the letter appeals for help in finding her kidnapped brother. Stated Kinsley: "Most people do not know about African-Americans' contribution to America and their role in building this country. And we'd like to change that, so we're doing our part."

A display case showcases a schedule, or roster, of over 500 slaves, written back in 1820. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

That doesn't mean there isn't a layer of Disney magic. Interactive lanterns add a layer to the story through special effects and narration given by Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Sawyer, Chandra Wilson, James Pickens, Jr. and others.

A "magic" lantern adds a layer to the story through special effects and narration. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

There are five themes throughout the gallery: Courage, Belief, Hope, Imagination, and Heritage.

Some speculate that Matthew may have reached crossed back and forth over the North Pole trying to look for it before Peary reached it. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Some facts presented in the exhibition include:

  • Matthew Henson was an African-American explorer and a colleague of Commander Robert E. Peary in reaching the North Pole in 1909. Peary met Henson as a clerk in a men's clothing store when looking for a sun hat in his tour to the proposed Nicaragua Canal.
  • At a time when most slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write, the first African-American book of poetry was written in 1773 by 19-year-old Phillis Wheatley, who had been captured and taken from her home in West Africa 10 years earlier, when she was a child.
  • Only seven years after Emancipation, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African-American to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate (Mississippi only this year ratified the 13th Amendment, 148 years after slavery was abolished). Josiah Walls became the first African-American to represent Florida in the House of Representatives. After being unseated in his second term, there was not another Black Republican from Florida that would serve in the House until 2011.

When you enter the American Adventure, the Voices of Liberty will draw your attention, so make sure to seek out this exhibit specifically. There are a lot of great insights that portray how the African-American experience canvases our entire heritage.

Hall of Presidents

The Hall of Presidents is the cornerstone of Liberty Square. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The exhibits found in the Hall of Presidents is another wonderful gallery, and you won't miss it because you will go right through it to get to the show. The exhibits are a great way to occupy your attention as you wait for the show, and it gives you a greater appreciation for our heritage.

The lobby of the Hall of Presidents houses a gallery of presidential artifacts. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The lobby of this attraction was re-imagineered back in 2009 into an expanded gallery of presidential artifacts. This inaugural exhibit showcases women behind the presidents, and features dresses and personal objects worn by several First Ladies.

Not all dresses are authentic; some are simply replicas. This one, however, was worn by First Lady Laura Bush. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It's not a big gallery, but it will take you a few minutes to study it.

This hat was worn by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The gallery includes presidential portraits of Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and other chief executives. And there are two cases filled with personal artifacts of presidents including Gerald Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and George Washington. Again, it's a nice place to stop and look around before taking a seat inside the theater.

This protrait of Abraham Lincoln, part of The White House collection, is on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Where Else?

There are a lot of details in the parks that help tell the story of America, but only a few are actually authentic. One such example is an amazing display at Big Thunder Mountain. While it is not a museum gallery with titles and descriptions, the machinery and artifacts on display are the real deal, and we used in mining. Examples include an old ball mill used to extract gold from ore and a double-stamp ore crusher. There is real antique mining equipment sprinkled throughout the attraction's two and a half acres. Unlike the other displays in the galleries around the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, these items are owned by Disney, having been picked up at auctions all over the American Southwest.

Keep an eye out for these gems as you visit Big Thunder Mountain. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

We've covered treasures at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Magic Kingdom. You would be astonished how many treasures await you when you visit the resorts; Disney's Wilderness Lodge, Disney's Port Orleans Resort, and Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge are just a few. Disney's Boardwalk Resort has a few authentic pieces and was covered recently by Jim Korkis in a two-part series ("Treasures of Disney's Boardwalk Inn and Villas" parts one and two).

Simply put, the treasures of Walt Disney World are more than rides and attractions; they are valuable mementos of our culture, are available to those looking for substance beyond the fun. There's so much to be gleaned; just stop and take a look.