The Epcot International Airport

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

There has been a long connection between Disney theme parks and professional airline carriers that promoted trips to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Walt Disney sought to actively encourage guests from outside the local area to visit Disneyland and make it easy for them to do so.

When Disneyland opened, the iconic Moonliner, whose design was inspired by Werhner Von Braun's infamous V2 rocket that he had built in Nazi Germany that towered nearly 80-feet high on its landing legs, was sponsored by Trans World Airlines (TWA).

According to Disneyland publicity in 1955: "Towering high above all else in Tomorrowland, the TWA Moon Rocket symbolizes Trans World Airlines' interest in future air travel and planned scientific progress."

TWA also sponsored the Flight to the Moon attraction that simulated a trip around the moon, as well as advertising trips to Disneyland.

The sponsorship of both the Moonliner and the attraction shifted in 1962 to McDonnell Douglas when Howard Hughes sold his interest in TWA, and that company decided to end its sponsorship. McDonnell Douglas continued the sponsorship until September 1966, when the rocket was removed for the New Tomorrowland of 1967.

McDonnell Douglas continued sponsorship of the updated Flight to the Moon attraction.

The Disneyland Astro Jets that debuted in 1956 had its name and nothing else changed to the Tomorrowland Jets on August 1964 because American Airlines was using the term "Astro Jets" for their new fleet of passenger planes.

United Airlines who were spending quite a bit of money sponsoring the new Enchanted Tiki Room complained vocally that one of their competitors was receiving free publicity. Dick Irvine agreed and the name change took place.

In 1984, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) took over the sponsorship of CircleVision 360 at Disneyland and featured a new eight-minute animated short pre-show All Because Man Wanted to Fly devoted to the history of aviation and space exploration. Beginning in 1989, Delta Airlines sponsored the attraction until it closed in 1996.

In the early 1960s, Walt acquired a company airplane. Since, during this time, Walt seemed to be constantly flying all over the country on a variety of projects, it just made sense that a private plane would prove a valuable addition to allow for more flexibility and secrecy on these trips.

Walt contacted Harrison "Buzz" Price, the former Stanford Research Institute executive who had helped in the development of Disneyland, and who had since formed his own company, Economics Research Associates, to conduct a survey. The survey did show it was a sound business decision to purchase a company airplane.

However, Walt's brother, Roy thought it a bad idea and Walt countered by saying: "Well, I've got a little money; I'll do it myself."

Roy finally agreed to the purchase of a Queen Air Beechcraft.

Over the years, there were actually three company planes connected with Walt:

  1. Queen Air (Beechcraft) 2/63 - 7/65
  2. King Air (Beechcraft) 1965 - 1967
  3. Gulfstream (Grumman) bought 1963, in service 5/64, retired to WDW 10/8/92. (This is the plane you saw on the backstage tour and later behind the Lights, Motors, Action attraction. Yes, Walt did fly in it to search for a site for Walt Disney World. )

The FAA gave the plane special call letters: N234MM--the N denotes a plane, and the MM is short for Mickey Mouse. All three planes had the same designation.

Walt had his own seat on the Gulfstream, with an altimeter and air speed indicator on the wall next to the seat, and a telephone direct to the pilot. Walt used the planes for checking out the available acreage in Florida for a theme park. After construction began, it ferried Disney executives back and forth, and was later used for promotional tours for new Disney movies and for theme park promotions.

It was nicknamed "The Mouse." Walt contributed to the plane's interior design, and his wife, Lillian assisted in selecting materials and colors.

"Walt wanted to fly so bad," pilot Chuck Malone recalled. Although Walt never acquired a pilot's license, he often took over the plane's controls. Chuck felt confident that if he had been incapacitated, Walt could have successfully gotten the plane back on the ground.

In the book, Walt Disney: An American Original, author Bob Thomas wrote: "Walt took delight in planning each trip, plotting the itinerary on maps in his office over his evening Scotch. When passengers arrived at the plane's home base at Lockheed Airport, he loaded their luggage aboard. During the flight, he served the drinks and supervised the galley. For years, Walt had yearned to pilot a plane, and on occasion, the company pilot, Chuck Malone, allowed Walt to take over the controls."

But the Disney Company's insurance brokers took a dim view of Walt sitting up front. Especially since Walt always liked to fly as low as possible to study the landscape.

In an interview with his wife Lillian that I have from the 1980s, she commented, "[Walt's] mind was never inactive. I can remember one time when he was so interested in airplanes. We used to go to the airport and stand and watch planes land."

That fascination with airplanes only grew with his development of his Florida Project where he intended to build an international airport of tomorrow.

Most people take an airplane to come to Central Florida for a vacation trip at Walt Disney World (WDW). However, for many years after WDW first opened, the main form of transportation to get to The Most Magical Place on Earth, as early advertising described it to distinguish it from Disneyland's Happiest Place on Earth, was by driving a car.

In 1972, roughly six months after Walt Disney World opened, the traffic count at an Interstate 4 location between Gore Avenue and Anderson Street showed a 34% increase in the daily traffic count with roughly 82,460 cars whizzing by that stretch each 24 hours.

The first six months of 1972 clocked a nearly 23% increase in the use of the Florida Turnpike with toll revenues close to $30 million.

One of the reasons Walt Disney selected Florida for the location of his Florida Project was that it was already a popular tourist destination for millions of visitors who drove down there every year.

After World War II, tourists filled the many miles of open roads of the United States. Florida was the home to historical landmarks and many interesting roadside attractions, many with crocodiles and alligators, along the sides of the road that enticed visitors in their cars to stop and spend their money.

Short Take-Off and Landing Airport, or STOLport for short, at Walt Disney World, in the early 1970s, was used by many politicians, celebrities and Disney executives.

In 1970, only 19% of visitors came to Central Florida by airplane. The majority of people journeyed there by car, usually on their way to Miami. In fact, another reason Walt chose Central Florida was he hoped that tourists would stop at his venue on their way down to Miami or on their way back up.

Surprisingly, it didn't work out that way. Miami was hurt the most with the opening of WDW, with only 6.9% of tourists saying their destination was Miami whereas the months before WDW opened the count was 9.8% and looking to climb even higher.

Tourists stopped at WDW, often extending their stay for several days or a week and rarely ventured further south. However, while Miami kept feeling a significant drop in visitors, the other tourist attractions in Orlando saw sharp spikes in attendance.

Cypress Gardens reported that by June 1972, that business had increased 38% already with expectations for the summer months to be "something that Florida will long remember."

Cape Kennedy stated that visitors taking tours of the space facility increased more than 27% in just the first four months of 1972.

During that same time period, St. Augustine recorded a 29% increase in visitors. Even Silver Springs, with its gentle glass-bottomed boat tour, saw an increase of visitors of 28% within the first quarter of 1972.

It was obvious that in the years ahead, more tourists would be coming by plane. By 1995, more than 50% of WDW guests, especially international ones, came by plane rather than car. That year counted for more than 22 million visitors taking flights to Central Florida.

While Eastern Airlines, the official airline of Walt Disney World from 1970-1987, doubled its flights to Orlando from 40 to 80 at the beginning of 1972, nearly 80% of tourists still arrived to Florida in an automobile. Eastern offered service to Orlando from 60 different cities across the United States

That same year, Eastern Airlines sponsored a new and free attraction in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland: If You Had Wings.

For roughly 15 years, the new attraction took guests on a gentle omnimover roughly four minute visit to vacation destinations serviced by Eastern Airlines (primarily Mexico, the Caribbean and New Orleans, because they all seemed fairly exotic to Americans at that time). Millions of guests rode on it. It was a simple attraction with flat set pieces and projections.

Eastern withdrew sponsorship in 1987, but WDW still kept the attraction and removed all references to Eastern Airlines. Delta Airlines took over sponsorship of a similar attraction in the same location named Delta Dreamflight in 1989 that showcased the history of aviation until 1995. It reopened in 1996 as Take Flight with all references to Delta removed, and officially closed in 1998.

As stated, air travel was not as common in the early 1970s, but Walt Disney was a visionary and felt that the opening of Epcot would attract visitors from around the world who would need an international airport.

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, that area directly to the right between the entrance and the TTC was actually an operating airfield for smaller propeller planes known as the Short Take-Off and Landing Airport, or STOLport for short.

Walt Disney's original plan for the Florida property was to have an operating international airport of tomorrow with at least three parallel runways on the land that is now occupied by the city of Celebration. With the expected influx of visitors, many of them from other countries, it was going to be necessary to build an "airport of tomorrow" to accommodate them.

In 1971, there was no Orlando International Airport — that didn't come until 1976. There was just Orlando McCoy Jetport, which had limited capacity. (Orlando's "MCO" airport designation actually originates from the McCoy Jetport location.)

The plan was that the primary entrance to the Epcot project (the Main Gate) would be roughly across the street from Walt's airport. The nondescript 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.

Expectations were that more than 400 people would be working at the airport by the time Phase Two of the Florida property was completed in 1976. By then, there were to have been three new resorts near the Magic Kingdom and new attractions, like Thunder Mesa with the Western River Expedition, that would have been a Wild West version of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Disney projected that by 1991 the airport would employ more than 2,000 full-time workers and would be surrounded by hundreds of motels accommodating the many travelers flying in and out to visit the Epcot area.

Building such a facility would take several years, so a temporary area was built to handle guests who arrived at the existing Orlando airport and needed to get to the Magic Kingdom. Just as Disneyland had a heliport for many years behind Tomorrowland to shuttle guests to and from the main Los Angeles airport, Walt Disney World had STOLport.

Construction began during late 1970/early 1971 to create the sole northwest/southeast runway (approximately 2,000 feet), with a taxiway leading to a small office on the northwest side.

Though the WDW STOLport opened on October 17, 1971, the official dedication ceremony was a luncheon on October 22, attended by a group of local and state politicians, as well as executives from some airlines. Officials from the state of Florida presented the Walt Disney Company with STOLport license number 1, as it was the very first official United States STOLport.

Shawnee Airlines operated scheduled passenger service between the Lake Buena Vista STOLport (sometimes referred to as the Walt Disney World Airport or by the designation "DWS", Disney World STOLport, in its earliest days) and Orlando McCoy Jetport, as well as the Tampa International Airport. For these short hops, Shawnee used 19 deHavilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter turboprop planes. Though Shawnee operated other aircraft, the turbine Twin Otters were used solely to take tourists to Disney's STOLport.

From a flyer dated November 7, 1971:

"Shawnee Airlines… your magic carpet into Walt Disney World.

"A day, a week… how long do you have for some family fun? Shawnee Airlines can fly you to a Vacation Kingdom where you'll find miles of lakes and lagoons for swimming, skiing and boating, two championship golf courses and the Magic Kingdom Theme Park.

"There's something for every member of the family… even if you only have one day. Numerous daily flights in and out of Walt Disney World's STOLport can turn one day into a family vacation. Ask your travel agent or Shawnee Airlines about your magic carpet."

An updated version from 1972 stated:

"Shawnee Airlines… your magic carpet into Walt Disney World.

"Now Shawnee has nine daily shuttle flights from McCoy Jetport, Orlando to the Vacation Kingdom of the World. When you deplane from your STOL flight, you are within three minutes of the Walt Disney World hotels, Magic Kingdom theme park, and the Golf Resort.

"Only $7.00 per person — for more information, ask your travel agent or Eastern Airlines representative." [Eastern Airlines was the official airline of Walt Disney World at the time. Tourists landing at the McCoy Jetport on an Eastern Airlines flight could make an almost instant connection for the hop to STOLport and vice versa.]

During its existence, Shawnee flew to 14 Florida cities, including Daytona Beach, Ft. Myers, and Palm Beach, on a daily basis. Shawnee's intrastate flights were so popular that major airlines eventually moved into key Shawnee markets, prompting a shutdown of Shawnee on December 28, 1972. As a result, commercial service to STOLport was discontinued and never resumed.

WDW's STOLport was also used by celebrities, politicians, and Disney executives. Executive Airlines and Volusia Aviation Service also used STOLport on a limited basis for the first few months through January 1972 and then stopped operation.

One of the reasons for the WDW STOLport's eventual demise was that the airfield had very few facilities, like hangars to protect planes from the Florida weather. At most, the airport could only handle perhaps a maximum of four aircraft at a time, although it never had that many planes operating there.

There were never any plans for expansion because, after all, this was meant as a temporary facility until the big international airport was built.

The 1980 construction of the monorail extension to the new Epcot theme park also made using STOLport more difficult for pilots. The airport was still listed as a private airfield by the FAA through the end of the 1990s, but by the time Walt's famous corporate airplane (nicknamed "The Mouse") that he used to fly over the Florida property arrived on October 8, 1992, to take up residence at Disney-MGM Studios, STOLport was considered unsafe and too small to use.

The corporate plane landed instead on World Drive and was towed to the theme park.

By 2004, STOLport was no longer on the FAA's list of private airfields. Disney officials told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that the loss of airline service at the airport would have no significant effect on park attendance. It was considered a failed experiment.

As a side note, Disney could never get a major air carrier to partner with them in the costs for the larger airport, especially with the oil crisis in 1973, although Delta Airlines came close at one point to signing on.

Over the years, the STOLport area was used for parking, training bus drivers, special events and more. Eventually, trailers with the Sorcerer Mickey Imagineering logo took up residence and at one time track from the Magic Kingdom's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was in the lot for testing and adjustment.

The continuing expansion of Orlando International Airport, as well as drastic changes to the original plans for Epcot, resulted in the large airport of tomorrow project quietly disappearing as an unnecessary expense. Basically, when Disney abandoned the plans to build the Epcot city that Walt Disney had envisioned, the airport was abandoned, as well.