Things You Probably Never Knew About Walt Disney Worldby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I sometimes get frustrated reading articles about Walt Disney World, because they all seem to cover the same familiar topics with the same well-worn information. I do realize that what may seem common knowledge to me after decades of research and study might be surprisingly new to others, so it is sometimes necessary to reiterate certain things.
However, I am frustrated that these articles offer no new perspective or original research and seem content to repeat previous information without checking to see if it is still correct. In the decades that WDW has been open, there is so much still left to be discovered and discussed that has been ignored in favor of writing yet another cursory glimpse of Spaceship Earth.
The Transportation Center
I was having dinner recently with Disney Legend Tom Nabbe, along with a few other friends, and the conversation turned to the guest transportation issues on Walt Disney World property. We all agreed that the Mears buses were not a "guest satisfier" for a number of reasons and we all expressed some concerns about the new gondola system being installed.
Nabbe pointed out that as a backup at the Magic Kingdom Skyway, there was a VW engine that could be easily started up if the system failed in order to get any buckets filled with guests moving to a safe unloading area.
I mentioned that Disney had always discussed expanding the Monorail system. When I worked for WDW, I was involved with two focus group meetings where guests were brought in and asked if Disney added a line going to Disney's Animal Kingdom Park whether they would be willing to purchase a "transportation pass" to help offset the cost. and, if they were willing to buy a pass, what would be the most they would be willing to pay.
I also pointed out that originally Disney had seriously wanted to expand the monorail system to the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (now Disney Springs) and had done some preliminary work including setting some foundations for pylons.
Yes, but it wasn't just the Monorail, there was going to be a PeopleMover going up and down what is now Hotel Plaza Boulevard," Nabbe added. "I was in meetings and one of the concerns was how to justify the cost in the 'off hours' when they would be little usage. I suggested that they redesign the cars so that they were more modular and then could be used to also deliver product, as well as people. Of course, they weren't interested in listening to me."
When I talked to Imagineer Tom K. Morris about it, he told me, "That Peoplemover plan that Nabbe told you about was part of the 'Satellite Community' idea in the early 70s that would have eventually linked up with Epcot (the real community).
"World Showcase was originally going to be the next satellite community after LBV," Morris said. "As the idea for Epcot morphed into a showplace, they still had plans to link it to LBV by PeopleMover until the idea for satellite communities went away. There is a booklet they published on the idea, and I've seen that booklet online but can't remember where. Wing Chao was in the middle of all this back in the day."
Morris is right that Disney's plans included expanding the Village to more than 300 percent of its initial size and create a community. However, it was so remote when it was first built in 1975 that, in the ticket books sold at Magic Kingdom, there was a ticket that was good for a complimentary round trip bus transport to the Village to get guests to visit it.
There would have been a transportation hub roughly where the Team Disney building exists today and that is where the Monorail station would have been. That would also have been the location of the main PeopleMover station so guests could have taken that transportation method to hook up with the Monorail and then go to the parks and the resorts near the parks.
Plans at Disney constantly change although this particular plan was still in serious discussion up to 1982. However, the cost overruns connected to the building of Epcot Center, as well as the uncertainly of the Disney Company's future at the time with the threats of hostile takeovers that eventually led to the installation of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, pretty much doomed this whole idea.
Of course, that is all ancient history, so I can understand why some Disney fans might not be that interested. However, Walt Disney World has many contemporary things that we all enjoy but take for granted and deserve some attention.
The Entrance Archways
The entrance archways to the park with images of Mickey and Minnie always spark a smile, but nobody ever talks about them, so I decided to do some research myself to see what I could find. Disney is notorious for poor documentation and, often, the people who were involved with a project have died or were shown the door.
The concept for Walt Disney World was that guests would unexpectedly discover the vacation destination, so there was only minimal signage along the highways to build anticipation as cars drove in what they hoped was the right direction.
As a kid, I certainly remember my brothers and I with our noses pressed to the window in the backseat to see which of us could catch the first glimpse of the peak of the Matterhorn so we knew we were near Disneyland. It did add to the excitement of the experience.
The WDW Ticket and Transportation Center was across a large body of water so that when guests finally arrived at the Magic Kingdom, they couldn't see the parking lot or any other references to the real world. The concept was that guests had entered an enchanted space and were immersed in everything Disney.
Surrounding the Magic Kingdom were "infinity roads" that twisted and turned seemingly forever without any evidence of fencing, signage, or trimmed landscaping that would encourage drivers to turn around and go in the other direction in search of civilization. Today, that area is fenced and well marked as not a location where guests should be.
By the time Michael Ovitz was hired as president in 1995 to take the role previously held by Frank Wells, the attendance at WDW had grown so large that these intriguing conceits were no longer effective.
When Ovitz and his wife visited the Walt Disney World property, Judy Ovitz complained that she couldn't tell where Disney property actually began. It all just seemed disorienting and frustrating rather than intriguing.
Michael Ovitz approached CEO Michael Eisner with the complaint and, as a gesture to show his willingness to work with the new president, authorized the building of three gateways on the perimeter of Walt Disney World property.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were in April 1996 for three large colorful gateways that would define when guests had arrived on WDW property. One gateway was planned for World Drive, another for Epcot Drive, and the final one at the beginning of Hotel Plaza Boulevard.
Ovitz had suggested that they be decorated by huge iconic smiling figures of Mickey and Minnie, because the primary audience was families with children and Mickey, of course, was the well-known symbol of the Disney organization and would also be instantly recognized by international visitors.
Those images were the work of artist Don "Ducky" Williams who was "forcibly" retired from WDW last November with no fanfare. Or as Tom Nabbe likes to describe it, "another victim of what Disney assumes is alien abduction where there is no trace of the person and no way to contact them. It is as if they never existed in the first place."
Ducky was always underappreciated by the Disney Company but not by the many Disney fans and cast members who have eagerly purchased his amazing limited-edition lithographs featuring Disney characters or have seen him do presentations on Disney cruises at Disney Vacation Club events where he could do a perfect drawing of a Disney character in two minutes. Check him doing it here.
He's currently in Scotland but was gracious to answer my questions about the archway. He became, quite literally, a "department of one" with an office at Celebration. Disney did not have him train a successor so since he has left, I guess Disney will outsource the work he did.
"My heritage is Scottish and I'm nearly as passionate about Scotland as I am about Disney. Even when I worked at WDW for nearly four decades I would come over to Scotland several times a year. I have five kilts.
"Yes, that is my artwork of Mickey and Minnie but I didn't do it specifically for those entranceways. I did a lot of work of the Disney characters in poses that could be used on material and it was in the Disney Design Group files.
"Imagineering just took it which they often did and never told me and used it. That was not a problem. It was part of my job to do things like that. I had to smile when I first saw it and recognized it as something I had done."
Disney artist Alex Maher told me, "The image of Goofy and Donald Duck were done by Darren Hunt who was working as an artist at Disney Design Group at the time. I know because I saw him do it."
The entranceways were officially completed in September 1996 and were each similar but with slight variations in size and positioning. Each gateway was roughly 30-feet high with 16-foot-high characters and a purposely bright color palette of red, yellow, purple and green to match already existing property signage.
Arches with colorful flags adorned the World Drive and Epcot Drive entrances, but there was no arch on the one at Hotel Plaza Boulevard because it might limit the height of trucks making deliveries.
According to Hal McIntyre, vice president of WDI Planning and Infrastructure in 1996, the goal of the collaboration between Imagineering (that designed the gateways) and Walt Disney World was to "create a first class, high quality image that marks the resort's boundaries. The gateways' message is simple: You have arrived at Walt Disney World!"
McIntyre pointed out that the idea of a prominent gateway to the property had continually been brought up over the years beginning as far back as 1988. At that time, gateways had been designed and were ready to move forward when, for undisclosed reasons, they were shelved at the next-to-last minute sometime in 1990.
Senior show designer Michale Warzocha emphasized that the gateways were meant to represent WDI's "tribute to the WDW Resort front door." He acknowledged the contribution and support of Ovitz to finally getting these gateways done.
It turned out to be one of the few contributions by Ovitz to WDW. Ovitz was let go in January 1997 after being very vocal about being frustrated with his interactions with Eisner and the vague definition of his authority.
Basically, Eisner wanted him to be like Wells and be quiet, publicity-shy and more of an adviser than an instigator or creator. Ovitz wanted to be like Eisner. There was no room for two Eisners.
A challenge quickly arose where the gateways were so distinctive and appealing that guests were stopping their cars in order to take their pictures next to the entryway. However, Imagineers had not created a space for this to happen, so it became a major safety issue.
Instead of designing an area where guests could do this activity, WDW put up warning signs, barriers and occasionally parked police cars to discourage this practice so guests are pretty much limited to trying to take a photo from a moving vehicle. Yes, Walt would have seen this as something guests wanted to do so would have made adjustments to satisfy that desire but Walt left the company quite awhile ago.
Another thing Disney guests really don't talk about is Crossroads.
If something is not physically in the theme parks or the resorts, it can be invisible to millions of Disney guests. I have had Disney friends who have absolutely refused to go there to eat because it is "not Disney".
Actually for over a decade, this shopping and dining area was a Disney owned location.
The Crossroads shopping center at Lake Buena Vista where State Road 535 intersects with Hotel Plaza Boulevard was developed by the Disney Company in late 1988 and then later sold off to GE Capital Realty Group in 2001.
The 155,000-square-foot plaza's more than 20 tenants include multiple restaurants, like Red Lobster, Pirate's Cove mini-golf (almost hidden in the back of the complex), and the region's last Gooding's supermarket.
When the complex opened in February 1989, the McDonalds had a colorful interior decorated with authentic Disney memorabilia, ranging from comic books to toys to lithographs and more. It was like a mini-museum.
Unfortunately, these items were displayed without any protection to light, heat and humidity and by the time the location was updated, those items had faded and deteriorated and were discarded.
Jungle Jim's was a popular family restaurant filled with unusual, amusing items, including a helicopter prop from the movie M*A*S*H (1970), amidst the jungle décor.
Unfortunately, by 2006, the quality of service and food had dropped drastically and the restaurant had become a hangout on Monday nights for young gang members from Kissimmee.
It escalated that same year with a stabbing of a young man named Cory Swift by John Feliciano over gang colors. The restaurant closed shortly thereafter and remained vacant for a long while. It was just an example of how the tone of the area had changed since its opening.
While originally, there were a handful of small gift shops, including some selling Disney souvenirs, today the complex is predominantly restaurant oriented and includes Buffalo Wild Wings, Quizno's, Fuddruckers, Flippers Pizza, Dakshin Indian Cuisine, Tom and Chee, T.G.I Fridays, Sweet Tomatoes, Chevy's Mexican Restaurant, McDonald's, Uno Pizzeria & Grill, Taco Bell, Red Lobster, Noodles & Company, Moe's, Johnnies Hideaway, and Perkins.
The location provided quick and inexpensive meals for WDW cast members on their way to and from work, as well as a nice variety of choices. It also provided a nearby 24 hour grocery, Goodings, within walking distance for vacationers staying in nearby hotels. Of course, some of the prices reflected the fact that they were the "only game in town" for some tourists.
In January 2017, it was announced that the entire area will be demolished in the next few years to make way for a reconfiguration of the area to improve the flow of traffic that often gets congested.
Traffic gets clogged on the I-4 as people try to exit onto 535. Studies show only about 20 percent of this traffic is headed toward the Disney property. Primarily, commuter traffic heading up 535 to the new residential developments north of Disney and south toward Kissimmee and Poinciana are causing much of the problem.
The project is set to begin sometime between 2018 and 2020. The interchange is not part of the I-4 expansion already underway, but would be part of the next phase.
Disney and Reedy Creek met several times with Florida Department of Transportation officials to discuss the project and associated I-4 improvements since 2014 and several different plans were proposed.
In January 2017, Tom Biggs, of Walt Disney Imagineering, met with transportation planners to discuss changes and was reported pleased with the proposal.
The project's current design includes a feature that will take some traffic on a loop ramp that connects with Hotel Plaza Boulevard, the road leading into Disney. That ramp, an exit and drainage ponds would go on the Crossroads land.
Ultimately the area provides a service of affordable restaurants near WDW property that Disney doesn't want.
Retail consultant David Marks, president of Marketplace Advisors, said some restaurants might be able to find another nearby place to relocate, even though it would be more expensive for them, but the plaza's shutdown could also generate more business for Disney Springs.
I believe this column shared some things that most WDW fans probably didn't know about WDW, and I hope it inspires some other writers to do the same before some of this history is forever forgotten.