Things That Disappeared at Walt Disney World

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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In October 2016, it was confirmed that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame courtyard at Disney's Hollywood Studios was being demolished. The area displayed busts of the many of the award inductees, including one of Walt Disney (inducted in 1986) that was sculpted in 1991 by Disney Legend Blaine Gibson.

The original Academy plaza courtyard (with some celebrities as full statues in addition to the bronze busts) surrounding a fountain with a large 15-foot tall re-creation of the iconic Emmy award still exists in North Hollywood, California, outside the front door of the main building of the organization.

A Disney spokesperson said the busts will be returned to the Academy of Television Sciences, so don't look for Walt's head to be relocated to the One Man's Dream attraction, which is also on the chopping block (once that area evolves into the new Toy Story Land).

The Hall of Fame courtyard is just one of the latest things to disappear from Walt Disney World (WDW) and, in particular, Disney's Hollywood Studios. Often when things disappear at WDW there is nothing comparable to replace it in that area.

Walt Disney's philosophy was that if you removed something from Disneyland, it was only to replace it with something better, not just to save money on maintenance and labor, or add in a new merchandise or food and beverage area to generate additional revenue at the expense of the story.

This coming holiday season, guests will not be able to view the Osborne Festival of Dancing Lights, the Main Street Electrical Parade and other traditions that have now joined extinct experiences like the Jolly Holidays stage show, the Lights of Winter archways at Epcot or the Glory and Pageantry of Christmas tableau at Downtown Disney. In fact, Downtown Disney itself no longer exists, but, in this case, has been replaced by Disney Springs, which is an attempt at a creating a more cohesive experience in that location.

Here are a few things that I took for granted during my time in Florida that were quietly removed. Perhaps you remember them as well and might have some other candidates for disappearing Disney.

While I am sad many things I loved at WDW are long gone, I try to take some joy and comfort that they existed at all, and that I should be more attentive and appreciative of what still exists…for now at least.

Who Was Cornelius Coot?

Mickey's Birthdayland at the Magic Kingdom opened on June 18, 1988, and was intended to be just a temporary new land. It became so popular that it evolved into Mickey's Starland on May 26, 1990. It was extensively refurbished to reopen as Mickey's Toontown Fair on October 1, 1996. It closed completely in February 2011 for the construction of New Fantasyland.

During all of these changes, except for the final one that resulted in the area becoming Fantasyland Storybook Circus, only one prominent element remained exactly the same, the statue of Cornelius Coot.

Cornelius was a character created by fabled comic book legend Carl Barks for the Donald Duck family stories he was doing for the Disney comic books being published by Dell.

In keeping with the background history that Barks had created for Duckburg, where the Disney ducks lived, there was a statue of Cornelius Coot, the founder of Duckburg. He was Donald Duck's great-great-grandfather and supposedly scared off Spanish soldiers who were attacking Fort Duckburg by popping corn to fool them into thinking reinforcements had arrived and were firing off their guns.

Coot also piped mountain water into the area that allowed corn crops to flourish and allowed the community of Duckburg to grow from that simple fort. So that is why Coot is proudly holding out an ear of corn and why the statue was in a water fountain.

The statue was an accurate re-creation of the one that first appeared in the comic book story "Statuesque Spendthrifts" by Carl Barks in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories No. 138. (March 1952). Afterward, Coot's statue became a recurring landmark in many comic stories taking place in Duckburg, both the ones done by Barks, as well as ones done by others.

The Cornelius Coot statue even made a cameo appearance in the November 1988 episode "Ducks on the Lam" in the DuckTales syndicated animated television series that was inspired by Barks' stories.

The statue depicted Cornelius wearing a pilgrim-like hat and fringed jacket. Both of his arms are outstretched together and hold ears of corn. The plaque below the statue reads, "This is Old Cornelius Coot, Who Turned His Corn Crop Into Loot, And Founded Mickey's Toontown Fair, To Him We Dedicate This Square."

Coots are small water birds commonly mistaken to be ducks although there are some significant physical differences.

Why was the statue in Mickey's Birthdayland? Because the land was supposed to be where the Disney toons lived…Duckburg! Duckburg was a town with a population of "bill'ions and still growing. A town that's everything it's quacked up to be!"

The animated syndicated television series DuckTales, featuring the adventures of Uncle Scrooge and the nephews in Duckburg had premiered to great success beginning in September 1987 and Disney was trying to leverage the concept of the Disney Afternoon syndicated package of original cartoon series at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Steve Hansen, show writer for the Mickey's Birthdayland project, was unfamiliar with the name of any city associated with Mickey Mouse, other than Burbank or Hollywood. However, he was a huge fan of Carl Barks' work on the Disney ducks and Barks' iconic Duck family stories that took place in Duckburg.

The popular film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that would make Toontown both the official home for all toons and a place that was readily embraced by the public, would not debut until June 22, 1988—after the land was built.

With the overwhelming success of the film, Roger Rabbit was quickly shoehorned into the new land as part of the show celebrating Mickey's birthday, and plans were discussed for a Toontown being built where Sunset Boulevard is today at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

That statue remained when the area became Toontown Fair, where Coot was retroactively also made the founder, especially since his corn crop fit in nicely with the Fair story of exhibiting prize produce and other blue ribbon winners in the merchandise tent. That tent was called Cornelius Coot's County Bounty.

What happened to the statue that survived for more than 20 years and whose heritage did not truly register with most guests? Supposedly, this iconic treasure is now kept safely in the Disney Archives.

Merlin's Sword in the Stone Ceremony

The great and clever wizard Merlin the magician is a main character in the 1963 Disney animated feature The Sword in the Stone, based on the novel by T.H. White.

The walk-around costumed "face character" of Merlin officiated the well-loved Sword in the Stone ceremony several times a day in front of the carousel at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, where a guest was selected to draw the fabled sword from the stone—just like the young Arthur who did so and became the King of England…at least temporarily until the next show.


Jim Korkis as a "friend of Merlin" in the Magic Kingdom's Sword in the Stone ceremony.

The show began at Disneyland in summer 1983, the same year Merlin's Magic Shop closed at that park and the new architectural redesign of Fantasyland opened. Disneyland Paris had the ceremony in the castle courtyard beginning in 1992, but it was canceled in 2001, and then later brought back for special holidays and the summer. Hong Kong Disneyland also had a Sword in the Stone ceremony when it opened in 2005.

The version at the Magic Kingdom officially opened in late 1993 (although many sources claim early 1994). The Florida version ended with a final performance on August 15, 2006.

At the Magic Kingdom, the Sword in the Stone was staged immediately in front of the Cinderella Golden Carrousel in a small raised area specifically designed for the show, featuring the stone in the shape of an anvil with the sword firmly imbedded. It required an electronic release from a technician who was located on top of Sir Mickey's shop during the show and who also operated the sound cues.

The premise of the 15-minute show was that since Good King Arthur was supposedly off on vacation, there was a need for new temporary royal ruler to "safeguard and protect" the realm in his absence.

Merlin uses his magic, including a "locator pigeon," to find the appropriate candidate with no success. Finally, Merlin would pick an adult who, despite his best struggles, was unable to pull the sword. He would make the volunteer the "royal bodyguard." Then Merlin would select a child who would magically raise the sword halfway and be crowned the temporary ruler. The sword only came up halfway because it was felt it was a bad idea for a child to have a dangerous sword to swing.

Unfortunately, it took so long to find the proper ruler that his reign is over by the end of the show, so Merlin gave the child a medallion and a certificate as compensation.

The text on the approximately 8-by10-inch colorful certificate read: "Walt Disney World. Temporary Ruler of the Realm. Official Certificate of Coronation. Let it be know to one and all that the bearer of this certificate has been duly selected, tested, appointed and has fulfilled their duties as an official temporary Ruler of the Realm. Ceremony presided over and authenticated by Merlin, Court Wizard."

It was signed by Merlin with a star instead of a dot over the letter 'i.' The certificate was rolled up with a purple ribbon holding it together.

For Walt Disney World, the medallion was roughly an inch and a half in diameter and less than one-fourth of an inch thick. The front of the medallion had a drawing of Wart (young Arthur) from the waist up with an extended left hand pulling the sword up from the rock anvil as he looked up. On the back is a small crown and in fancy script "Temporary Ruler of the Realm' Walt Disney World © Disney". It was attached to a purple ribbon lanyard.

After the ceremony, Merlin spent another 15 minutes signing autographs and greeting guests before he ran backstage to prepare for the next performance.

During the fall of 1995, I was, as they say, the "friend" of Merlin, and was surprised by the many guests who, despite all the dialogue identifying the famous wizard, thought they were getting the autograph of Father Time, The Pagemaster (a 1994 film that was popular at the time), or some generic magician. That misunderstanding did not prevent long lines for autographs and photos.

Disney claimed that Merlin's removal was not to save money (having a technician was the primary expense), but because the show caused disruption of the guests trying to get in to see the new Mickey's PhilharMagic attraction.

Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground

While we often notice things disappearing at the theme parks, Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground has been a major victim of a lot of things that have gone missing including the fabled Fort Wilderness Railroad that I wrote about previously.

Of course, there was the well-loved Lawnmower Tree located just off the sidewalk about 5 feet from the path, about halfway between Pioneer Hall and the marina about 100 feet off the lake.

The Disney Company hired an outside contractor to quietly remove it and destroy it in late October 2013 without alerting the guests. One day it was there and the next it was as if it had never been there at all. It had been there since before Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

Years before Walt Disney World ever opened someone who lived in the area had leaned an old, push-style blade lawnmower up against a tree and left it there.

When a tree is growing, and it encounters something that gets in the way of its growth, it can do three things: stop growing, grow away from it, or grow around it.

The tree grew through the tool, so it was absorbed and became part of the tree's gnarled roots above the ground with significant rusting parts sticking out prominently. I am sure Disney Legal was happy about its eventual removal and may have even instigated it.

The Imagineers even decided to create a back story to explain its existence and integrate it into the lore of the campground. They installed a sign next to it:

Too long did Bill Bowlegs

Park his reel slow mower

Alas, one warm and sunny day

Aside a real fast grower.

It was a popular landmark for returning guests over the years although, for whatever reason, it died and was just trimmed to about a 10-foot-tall stump.

However, the major disappearance was Disney's first water park.

Disney's River Country.

Walt Disney World defined the concept of a themed water park with the opening of Disney's River Country on June 20, 1976, as part of the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground on the shore of Bay Lake.

Originally, this water park was going to be called "Pop's Willow Grove" and was meant to be reminiscent of "an old fishing hole" from the time period of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, with items like rope swings enhancing that story.

River Country was about one-fourth the size of the later built Typhoon Lagoon, since the Disney Company had no idea whether such a then radical idea would be successful.

Attractions included a 330,000 gallon clear water pool called Upstream Plunge, Slippery Slide Falls, two 16-foot rock slides with faux rock work (scattered with pebbles from streambeds in Georgia and the Carolinas) created by Imagineer Fred Joerger, who did rock work on everything from the Jungle Cruise's Schweitzer Falls to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the mountains in the Canada pavilion at Epcot.

The Ol' Swimmin' Hole was dedicated by President Gerald Ford's daughter, Susan. It had Whoop-n-Holler Hollow, two long winding chutes that ended with a splashing entry into the water.

Water from nearby Bay Lake was pumped through the inside of River Country's artificial mountain to the top of the flumes and raft ride at the rate of 8,500 gallons a minute, and then eventually through the miracle of gravity spilled back into the lake.

There was a natural soft sand beach underfoot the massive pool rather than a concrete bottom, which was a unique innovation at the time that was later duplicated at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.

Even with the filtration system, the water from the lake was not completely purified, and that caused some red flags for Disney Legal.

The huge popularity of this water attraction resulted in many sold-out days, since it had limited capacity. It became apparent that a larger water park facility was needed but it took more than a decade for it to become a reality.

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon opened on June 1, 1989, just across the street from the newly built Pleasure Island, and was home to the world's largest outdoor surf pool (not just a wave pool). That new water park also proved wildly popular so, in 1995, Disney's Blizzard Beach was opened to accommodate the demand and offer the opportunity that one park could be closed while work was done on the other.

These new options led to a drop in attendance at the more difficult to access River Country. In 1998, the water park tried to compete with holding the "All-American Water Party" promotion where every day was celebrated as the Fourth of July with games, Disney characters in country costumes, live country music, and good old-fashioned barbeque. It was too little and too late.

In September 2001, River Country quietly closed at the end of the summer season and never re-opened. In 2002, Walt Disney World spokesman Bill Warren told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper that River Country could be reopened "if there's enough guest demand."

Supposedly, River Country could not claim the honor of being America's first water park, a designation given to Wet 'n Wild that opened in 1977, because it was considered an extension of the resort and not a separate park.

Even today, more than a decade later, the decaying ruins of the innovative water park remain, but are hidden behind walls and are off-limits to Disney guests.

It is always sad to say farewell to things we loved, and Disney always trots out the same old statement in its defense that Walt never intended his theme park to be a museum but constantly changing. I just think that sometimes people forget that just because something is new does not necessarily make it better, and that some changes have greater emotional impact than others.

What do you miss from Walt Disney World?

Comments

  1. By bochnikm

    I loved your article “Things That Disappeared at Walt Disney World” I faintly remember the statue of Cornelius Coot in Mickey's Toontown Fair. I will have to look through some of my old pictures to see if I can try to find it.

    I like your description of what a coot is, and that it’s not technically a duck. But wild American Coots can easily be found in Walt Disney World, with numbers increasing during the winter months. They are a very dark gray, basically black with a white beak. If you get close enough you may see their red eyes and reddish forehead, or red frontal shield.

    I maintain a website on common wild birds found at WDW. If anyone wants to know what a coot looks like, you can find it on the page, about halfway down at http://www.bochnik.com/disneybirds/disneybirds.htm

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