The 1971 Walt Disney World We Never Got

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World, it is interesting to ponder that the vacation destination that opened in 1971 was actually intended to be significantly different in many ways.

The late Roy Edward Disney, son of Walt's older brother Roy Oliver Disney, told me in an interview in 2004:

"I was always so proud of my dad. Walt wanted to build this futuristic city called EPCOT where people were going to live. My dad didn't know how that made us any money. He argued with Walt that we needed to build a Magic Kingdom and some hotels first to get money to afford to build Walt's Epcot.

"Walt kept insisting that EPCOT needed to be built first or it would never get built. Walt died while they were having those arguments. So Dad won by default and he regretted winning that way. Walt probably would have been surprised to see what it all is today. EPCOT, of course, was supposed to be a real town where people would live and the final thing was much different.

"My Dad literally put his heart and soul into building [Walt Disney World]. I've never been prouder of anybody in my life than seeing my dad up there at the dedication ceremony for Walt Disney World."

Walt's intention was not to build another theme park, even one that was better than Disneyland. His desire was to build a working community of the future that would include an entertainment venue like a theme park.

Walt felt that his Imagineers knew how to build a theme park, and didn't need his constant supervision—and told them so. He had a different team working on his concept for EPCOT at the same time.

"Walt had been asked, I'm sure begged, by people all over the world to repeat Disneyland in any number of different places," said Imagineer Marvin Davis to writer Howard Green. "He always steadfastly refused to do another Disneyland because he said he had done the best park he knew how to do and why would he want to repeat himself?"

With Walt's death in 1966, Roy O. Disney assumed control and shifted all the resources to building a theme park; resort hotels; and ancillary things like golf courses, water activities, horseback riding to support that vacation destination and increase the amount of time guests would stay.

Of course, when Walt Disney World opened on October 1, there were significant differences than what the park looks like today.

For instance, The Main Street Cinema actually showed movies, Liberty Square did not have a Liberty Bell replica, and the entrance to Tomorrowland was over a wide bridge that featured two majestic monolithic towers on the left and the right that had water cascading down a tile surface along the sides.

There were also attractions like the Mickey Mouse Revue, the Skyway, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Diamond Horseshoe Revue, and more that are vaguely but fondly remembered today.

However, the original plans for Walt Disney World were much different than what was actually there, starting with possible attractions.

When designing the Magic Kingdom, the Imagineers did not want to merely repeat what they had already done at Disneyland, but to create something entirely different.

The 1968 Annual Report to Disney stockholders stated: "Although many attractions will be familiar to the 76 million people who have already visited California's Disneyland, many more will be unique to the new theme park in Walt Disney World."

In particular, Fantasyland would have looked similar, but with different attractions based on classic Disney stories duplicating the same emotional experiences. Instead of a Snow White dark ride, Imagineers decided to use a different Disney princess. The story of Cinderella did not offer any dramatic confrontations.

However, Imagineers had seen how guests had enjoyed the Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through tableaus in California, and felt the 1959 classic animated film had definite possibilities.

The proposal was for a typical Disney dark ride showing scenes from the story of Sleeping Beauty where the guests would be being chased through different story segments from the film by Maleficent's goons, who were hiding in the scenery and peering ominously at the ride vehicles.

The big climax would be a confrontation with Maleficent herself who had transformed into a fire-breathing dragon and would be leaning in toward the riders who escaped her fiery breath at the last minute.

Instead of the popular Peter Pan's Flight attraction at Disneyland, the Imagineers proposed using the overhead monorail track to fly guests into an entirely different adventure inspired by the popular film Mary Poppins (1964), since guest surveys had shown Disney visitors would enjoy a ride based on those characters. The first proposal was to use overturned umbrellas as ride vehicles to soar over the rooftops of London to mimic Mary's own journeys with her umbrella. A version that was more seriously considered was to use the colorful carousel horses from the film as ride vehicles. Guests would find themselves leaping through the chalk paintings done by the street artist Bert, the friend of Mary Poppins, as the horses bounced along. Several possible tableaus would have included scenes inspired by the film, like the fox hunt and a horserace.

Instead of a Mr. Toad attraction, the Imagineers originally pitched the idea of an attraction based on the animated feature The Sword in the Stone (1963) since the character of Merlin fit in so appropriately with the theme of Fantasyland. The part of the film that offered the most options for dramatization was the famous wizard's duel between Merlin and the witch Mad Madam Mim, with them each getting zapped and transforming into different creatures. The finale would have had the ride vehicle circling around Mim after she had turned into a huge dragon just before she is defeated by Merlin.

With Fantasyland so close to Liberty Square, there was also discussion about having a dark ride based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) near the intersection of the two lands to act as a transition. Guests would have ridden in hollowed-out spinning jack-o-lanterns through a variety of scenes until the final confrontation with the headless horsemen.

Disney fans have thought that these attractions were never built in order to save money (as exemplified by the carnival-like entrance to "it's a small world" rather than the much more impressive structure at Disneyland), yet the repeated attractions were made longer and with additional details that cost just as much as building something new.

Roy O. Disney realized that many East Coast guests would never go to Disneyland, but wanted to see the attractions they had seen pictures of or read about so insisted there be a balance between the classic attractions and new unique ones.

Perhaps the most impressive new attraction would be in Frontierland.

Western River Expedition was an attraction that would have been built in the area that Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain occupies now. It was jokingly referred to by Imagineers as "Cowboys of the Caribbean" because of its superficial similarities to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland.

"For some reason, it was thought that because of Florida's close proximity to the Caribbean, a ride dealing with pirates wouldn't be as popular in Walt Disney World as it was in Disneyland," Imagineer Tony Baxter said.

Thunder Mesa Mountain would have featured a variety of attractions in addition to Western River Expedition including a runaway mine train ride, hiking trails, a canoe flume ride, a Pueblo Native American village and more.

To accommodate all of this, a four-story show building would have been decorated to look like the orange mesas of the American desert and Monument Valley. The WDW railroad would have gone through the building to offer guests a glimpse.

Imagineer Marc Davis spent five years creating a humorous 10- to 12-minute boat trip through a variety of Wild West scenes. It was based on a concept he had developed as early as 1963 about a Lewis and Clark River Expedition for the never built St. Louis indoor theme park Walt Disney was considering.

Guests would have entered through a cave that was actually a tunnel into the mountain and boarded boats that took them up a waterfall and then into the winding river.

Scenes would have featured comic Native American figures (including a rain dance with disastrous results), stagecoach robbers (where even their horses wore bandana masks), prairie dogs, antelopes, buffaloes, singing cowboys, and can-can dancing saloon girls.

It would have contained more than 100 Audio-Animatronics figures. A buffalo and prairie dogs were actually built for the attraction and later incorporated into the opening ranch house scene in the Living With the Land attraction at EPCOT.

Davis spent many long months working on the attraction and had the enthusiastic support of Roy O. Disney and Dick Irvine, who was president of Imagineering .

Detailed sketches were made and models were created. Imagineer Mitsou Natsume even built a detailed model of Thunder Mesa and the exterior of the Western River Shipping & Navigation Company that was displayed for many years in the pre-show area of The Walt Disney Story on Main Street USA.

At one point, color stylist Mary Blair, a good friend of Davis and his wife, was brought in to consult with the color choices including a Painted Desert backdrop. Composer Buddy Baker had the beginnings of a theme song that would repeat throughout the ride.

The attraction was publicized with concept art in the Magic Kingdom guidebooks for 1971 and 1972, and even a postcard—since the project was supposed to open with the park, but because of time and budget factors was relegated to Phase 2 that would be completed by 1975.

The project was eventually cancelled because of prohibitive costs (estimated at more than $120 million), the decrease in popularity in Western movies and TV shows, and other factors—including guests demanding the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

Even the resort hotels were going to be different.

In 1967, the Disney Company created a full-color map to indicate the various resort hotels that would surround the Magic Kingdom theme park.

The Disney Company wanted them to capture the same Disney magic and storytelling that was evident in the attractions.

That map showed a Cape Cod Village, a South Seas glass skyscraper in the shape of a pyramid, Yesterday Hotel (to theme in with Main Street U.S.A. and at one point was going to be located inside the park itself in the building that now houses the Town Square Theater), Frontier Village, Spanish Colonial Hotel, Oriental Motel, the Dutch hotel, and the African Hotel (to theme in with Adventureland).

The Walt Disney World map from 1971 looks very different from what eventually opened.

In addition, there were locations in the front of the Magic Kingdom earmarked for an ice rink and a roller skating dome.

By 1969, these possible resorts had been narrowed down to Disney Persian Palace, U.S.A. Disney (that would become briefly Tempo Bay Resort and finally the Contemporary Resort), Far East Disney, Venice Disney and Disney South Pacific. Frontier Village was renamed Diamond D (for Disney) Dude Ranch on its way to becoming Fort Wilderness Resort and Campgrounds.

Of course, these were not the final names but "placeholders" to give a sense of the type of resort that would be built. For example, the Contemporary Resort was indeed originally called "the Contemporary" but that was not intended to be its name, just a description of what the theme of the place should reflect.

When Imagineer John Hench and others pitched the name "Tempo Bay" for the resort and the name started appearing on marketing including a postcard, Walt's older brother Roy who was leading the company looked at them and said, "What's wrong with the name 'Contemporary'? I like it."

At one point, Imagineer Claude Coats created concept art for an attraction that would have been placed between The Contemporary Resort and the back of Tomorrowland and utilize the water of nearby Bay Lake. According to Imagineer Tony Baxter, Claude Coats always loved dinosaurs and helped design the ones for the 1964 New York World's Fair and so guests would have been able by a twisting water ride to journey into the prehistoric past to confront life-sized dinosaurs.

Of course, most Disney fans know that three other WDW resort hotels that were supposed to open with the park were still planned for the next few years.

The Asian resort hotel was scheduled to open by 1973. Land had been cleared and prepared where Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa stands today.

A square plot of land prominently jutted out into the Seven Seas Lagoon and the nearby road had been dubbed "Asian Way." The Asian's imminent completion was heralded on the official recorded monorail spiel and WDW literature like the Stockholders' Annual Report. There were also plans to have large meeting rooms under the guest area of the resort for conventions.

Located between The Contemporary Resort and the Transportation and Ticket Center near the water bridge on the Seven Seas Lagoon, the Venetian resort, an "enclosed small boat harbor and intricate system of waterways will recreate the old world charm of the famed Italian 'City of Canals'. Shopping will be a unique experience as guests travel by gondola along 'streets of water' and under ornate bridges linking various sections of the resort. The style is reminiscent of St. Mark's Square, complete with a 120-foot campanile that will toll the time. The entire lobby will be glass-topped, creating a brilliant, sunlit atrium effect indoors."

Located to the north and slightly east of the Contemporary Resort on Bay Lake, the Persian resort was to be reminiscent of the story of The Arabian Nights and would "reign like an exotic far-Eastern palace on the Northwest shore of the lake. Jewel-like mosques and columns will rise above landscaped courtyards, while terraced sundecks offer sculpted swimming pools and 'old Persian' dining facilities. Guest will practically be able to sail to their own rooms through a sheltered marina."

Financial challenges including the 1973 gas crisis prevented the building of more resorts for more than a decade including one called Cypress Point Lodge that later developed into Wilderness Lodge.

Walt Disney's original hand-drawn plans for the Florida property included many things that never were built for 1971, like a swamp ride.

However, that same drawing clearly showed that Walt intended the property in 1971 to have an operating international airport with at least three parallel runways on the land now roughly occupied by the city of Celebration.

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, there was no Orlando International Airport (not until 1976), just Orlando McCoy Jetport (which is why luggage tags for today's passengers still say "MCO" as the reference to that location) that had limited capacity.

With the expected influx of visitors, many of them from other countries, it was necessary to build an "airport of tomorrow" today to accommodate them.

Roughly across the street from Walt's airport would be the primary entrance to the EPCOT project or the Main Gate (which is why the non-descript building that houses Entertainment, Merchandising and Disney Design Group on Sherberth Road is known as "Main Gate", since that is where the planned entrance to the property was to be located).

Like Disneyland, Walt intended to control the crowds with just one entrance, whether the guests arrived by car or by plane. A Welcome Center staffed by cast members who spoke different languages would be there at the Entrance Complex to assist foreign visitors.

However, the continuing expansion of Orlando International Airport, as well as drastic changes to the original plans for EPCOT itself, resulted in the large airport project quietly disappearing as an unnecessary expense.

Basically, when the Disney Company abandoned the plans to build the EPCOT city that Walt Disney envisioned, the airport was abandoned, as well.

"It made great sense to Walt, but he didn't live long enough to get into the nitty gritty details of getting an idea to work," recalled Imagineer Marty Sklar. "There's a gigantic difference between the spark of a brilliant idea and the daily operation of an idea."

So the 1971 Walt Disney World offered to guests was much different than originally planned.



  1. By danyoung

    Thanks for a fascinating article. But shame on you for referring to the Ticket & Transportation Center, when all of us Disney pros know it's the Transportation and Ticket Center!

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Thanks for a fascinating article. But shame on you for referring to the Ticket & Transportation Center, when all of us Disney pros know it's the Transportation and Ticket Center!

    You are correct, sir! One of the challenges I have as a writer is that I scrupulously check and re-check the new, never before written, details to make sure they are right and then trip up over the most common nomenclature. To this day, I still refer to Disney's Hollywood Studios as "MGM". Thankfully, more astute eyes and comments like this, help keep me correct. Thanks.

  3. By davidgra

    This is indeed fascinating stuff. While I'm glad they included a number of "classic" attractions in the Magic Kingdom which are nearly identical to their California versions, it would have really great to have had a Magic Kingdom with different attractions. The Mary Poppins dark ride, for example, would have been phenomenal.

    I still wish there were more resorts in the Magic Kingdom area. That empty plot of land along the Seven Seas Lagoon between the Transportation & Ticket Center and the Contemporary really needs a big themed resort. I love the idea of a hotel themed to Main Street U.S.A., too. It's not too late; it's a big property!

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