Hidden Treasures of Walt Disney World

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney World is constantly changing, especially in recent years. It is easy to notice the bigger things like attractions, restaurants or landscaping, but there are many smaller things that disappeared without notice.

I miss the Metrophone booth and Robo-Vendor from Tomorrowland, the Cornelius Coot statue (that stood at Magic Kingdom from 1988 to 2011), Walt Disney's bust at Disney's Hollywood Studios and so much more. They can now only be enjoyed in memory or old photos.

I thought I would share some of the Hidden Treasures that remain. How many times have you walked by something and never stopped to ask "What is that and why is that there?"

Japan Pavilion Roy O. Disney Lantern

The Toro lantern presented to Roy Disney by Emperor Hirohito.

As Walt Disney's older brother Roy O. Disney stood on the marshy ground of Walt Disney World in the 1960s, all that could be seen were black water swamps often choked with decaying, tangled roots that would have to be removed, barren dunes of white sand, and an occasional grove of pine trees.

There were a handful of tethered gas balloons of different colors that also dotted the landscape to indicate the height and location of things to come like Cinderella Castle.

One week after Walt Disney's death, Roy spoke to a group of Disney Company executives and creative staff in a projection room at the Disney Studio. At the age of 73, he was going to postpone his retirement.

"We are going to finish this park [in Florida], and we're going to do it just the way Walt wanted it," Roy firmly stated. "Don't you ever forget it. I want every one of you to do just exactly what you were going to do when Walt was alive."

A tribute to Roy stands just as quietly and unobtrusively as the man himself in the Japan pavilion.

Emperor Hirohito of Japan was a huge fan of Mickey Mouse. He was given a Mickey Mouse watch as a gift during his special tour of Disneyland in 1975. For years, even on formal occasions, His Majesty was observed wearing the watch. In 1979, there was panic when the watch stopped ticking, and a concerned palace chamberlain rushed it to Tokyo experts specializing in American timepieces.

This situation was of such national concern to both Hirohito and the people of Japan that it was reported in Time magazine in its September 18, 1979 issue. Fortunately, the watch merely required a new battery.

When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, two Japanese companies were investigating the possibilities of having a Disneyland in Japan. Official formal talks with lawyers began in 1974 with a contract finally being signed in 1979.

To help cement the friendship between Japan and Disney, Emperor Hirohito personally presented to Roy O. Disney, for the dedication of the Magic Kingdom, a stone Japanese lantern known as a Toro to light the way to success and happiness.

A Toro is a stone lantern used to illuminate the grounds of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Japanese gardens and other locations that are steeped in tradition. The hollowed out top piece is where a candle or oil lamp is placed. The most famous of these lanterns are the several thousand lining the entry to Nara Prefecture's Kasuga Shrine.

For almost ten years, the gift was on display, without any placard, at the Polynesian Resort. However, with the opening of Epcot's World Showcase with a Japan Pavilion (as well as the construction of Tokyo Disneyland only a year from completion), the stone lantern was moved to the Japan Pavilion, right opposite the structure at the entrance that was inspired by the eighth-century pagoda found at Horyuji Temple in Nara.

The deer on the side of the lantern represents the famous Nara Deer Park adjacent to the Kasuga shrine.

Imagineers explain that there is no placard because "it is a story of the Disney parks, but not of the story of Japan we are trying to represent".

Thousands of guests pass the lantern every day without realizing its story, but now you won't be one of them.

Rosie's All American Café

A flight suit serves as a scarecrow at Rosie's Victory Garden.

During World War II, the term "Rosie the Riveter" was created by the government to represent the many patriotic women who took temporary jobs "making history working for victory" on the assembly lines of various industries to free up men needed in the military.

That image and distinctive name was portrayed in posters, magazine covers and even a popular 1942 song recorded by multiple artists.

Rosie's All American Café is an homage to this well-known feminist icon. Rosie is depicted on the sign as a smiling redheaded welder heating up a frying pan showing that she has expertise handling flames and is a good cook.

The interior of the quick serve location is decorated with some authentic World War II memorabilia alongside some "Imagineered" items relating to the fictional life of the woman owner.

Several signs including "Keep 'Em Flying", "V for Victory" and "Stay True to the Red, White and Blue" adorn the outside. Even the outside condiment bar is topped by a glass enclosed case featuring metal toy soldiers and other authentic artifacts from the 1940s.

Since it is "All American", it offers the traditional American food offerings of hamburgers, fries and a Coke.

Over the course of the war, the Disney Studio designed roughly twelve hundred different military insignia free of charge for all branches of the United States armed forces.

Under the supervision of artist Hank Porter, who did most of the designs, a team of five artists did the work. In October 1941, the Disney Studio created the famous insignia for General Chennault's legendary American Volunteer Group, Chinese Air Force, better known as the Flying Tigers.

The original rough design was done by Roy "Big Mooseketeer" Williams and finished by Porter. It featured a winged tiger springing upward against a background letter "V" standing for "Victory". That early insignia is displayed prominently on the outside wall of the building.

Additional Disney-created insignia including those featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and a Gremlin are displayed in the interior of the café.

Nearby is Rosie's Victory Garden, a familiar site during the war years when growing vegetables, fruits and herbs in a private garden for home use helped free up supplies so that the government could send more of these items from farms to feed men in the military.

Rosie uses her garden to supply some of the food for her service counter. Real items like cabbage, mustard, beans, peppers and corn grow in the garden and change out over the different seasons.

Imagineering was faced with the sensitive challenge of how to create an accurate depiction but avoid any derogatory references to specific nationalities that were involved in the war, just as they did in the American Adventure attraction at Epcot.

So instead of using Japanese or German stereotypes that were typical of the period, the scarecrow wears an old U.S. flight suit including goggles, helmet, oxygen mask and inflatable yellow life vest from Rosie's boyfriend who is still serving his country as a pilot overseas according to memorabilia inside the café. This figure was meant to scare off unpatriotic birds who might pillage the small garden of its bounty.

The sign proclaims "Victory With Vegetables" and above it are three dots and a dash, which were the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Five in Roman numerals is "V". At the bottom it declares "Rosie's Victory Garden".

In addition, there is an Uncle Sam wind spinner whose unpredictable movement is also meant to scare away pests. Rosie's garden tools are hanging along the side of the Catalina Eddie building right next to the garden.

The Kukui Nut Tree

The kukui nut tree at the Polynesian Village Resort.

The Polynesian Village Resort has a unique kukui nut tree. It is the only one of its kind in North America and the tree was brought here from its native Hawaii. It is often mentioned in Hawaiian literature and still flourishes on the islands in Polynesia.

Since 1959, the candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccana), known more commonly as "kukui", has been the official state tree of Hawaii. It can grow to over eighty feet tall. The kukui nut was used for many things, including a natural medicine remedy for a variety of ailments, different dyes, moisturizing cream, body oil and lotion, shampoo, polish, children's toy (a spinning top called a "hu"), food and light, among other functions.

Torches made from placing nuts in a hollow piece of bamboo or in leaves on top of a pole were used to light pathways and homes. Today, the kukui nut is more commonly used not as a source of illumination but in the making of various types of ornamentation like necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.

The kukui tree was brought to the islands more than a thousand years ago by migrating Polynesians and proved to be incredibly versatile. Canoes were carved from its buoyant trunks, and its oily seeds were strung together and burned as a sort of primitive candle. Each seed would burn about two to three minutes. Oil pressed from nuts could be burned in stone lamps, and the residual material, or "cake", was used to feed cattle and for crop fertilization.

Dyes produced by crushing the covering of the nuts were used in tattooing, and another type of dye made from the root became a black paint for canoes. The bark of the tree provided a red dye for clothing.

Two prominent ancient uses of the kukui continue today. First, a relish spice, popular at luaus and other celebrations, is made from the roasted and chopped nuts. Second, some of the festive leis that greet the many visitors to Hawaii every year are made of beaded kukui nuts.

Traditionally, the tree is regarded as a symbol of protection and peace and are given as a precious gift between friends.

An old Hawaiian belief was that a person should not plant a kukui tree near his own house, but it was all right for a stranger to plant it for him as a gift. That stranger could plant it in the back of the house or "hale" but not in the front.

At Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, the kukui tree is located behind the Great Ceremonial House just off to the right of the pathway. Following the dictates of the popular legend, it was planted by a hotel guest on April 25, 1997 to celebrate the 25th anniversary year of the resort that opened in October 1971.

Remarkably, the tree has survived a lightning strike, almost being uprooted by a hurricane and being frozen in an unseasonable Florida cold snap. A time capsule is located at the base of the tree.

The leadership team at the resort wears a lei of black kukui nuts to symbolize that they are lighting the way as a living torch for cast members to share the magic of Polynesian culture and the spirit of aloha to the guests.

Leis made of kukui nuts were considered to be highly prestigious and sacred and were only worn by the reigning kings of Hawaii. Unlike a flower lei that will disintegrate in time, a kukui nut lei was meant to last forever.

Wilson's Cave Inn

Wilson's Cave Inn lies along the Rivers of America.

Often interesting details at Walt Disney World are hidden within plain sight and often taken for granted by guests.

Only visible from a journey on the Liberty Square riverboat in Frontierland, along the north shore of Tom Sawyer Island is a hole-in-the wall labeled Wilson's Cave Inn meant to be reminiscent of the infamous Cave-In Rock on the shores of the Ohio River in southern Illinois.

The 55-foot wide one-room cave was also used as a meeting place for river pirates and staging area for raids on flatboats. Once pirates took over a flatboat the best victims could hope for was being put ashore with no possessions and no way to know where they were. Other times victims were killed and dumped in the river.

Cave-In Rock was used after the Revolutionary War as a haven for criminals who preyed upon travelers along the Ohio River. In the late 1700s, a fellow by the name of Jim Wilson stocked the cave with provisions and opened a business called Wilson's Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment.

Unsuspecting travelers stopped there for food and drink and illicit activities like gambling and the company of overly friendly women and would find themselves robbed and often killed. Samuel Mason took over the criminal enterprise after Wilson and renamed the location Cave-In Rock.

The illegal activities were at their peak from 1790 to around the 1870s. Imagineers blended both stories into Wilson's Cave Inn for the Rivers of America. The narration on board the Liberty Belle Sam tells guests that Cutthroat Corner is the most likely place to find river pirates.

Shortly afterwards, raucous noises can be heard coming from the mouth of Wilson's Cave. Guests are then told that they should be safe from the pirates because based on the sounds coming out of the cave, "their interests lie elsewhere" implying wild women and gambling.

That story of the riverside venue might seem familiar because not only was it documented in an episode on the History Channel, but it was used in the movie How the West Was Won (1962).

Why it appears at Walt Disney World is that it was also the basis for the Disneyland television episode "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" (1955) that was later released along with another television episode as a theatrical movie in 1956.

The Disney story included not only Sam Mason but the Harpe brothers who took over the location as a base of operations after Mason. Of course, in real life, Davy Crockett would have been just a teenager when Mason and the Harpes were doing their dirty deeds.

Scenes from the show were actually filmed at the Cave-In-Rock location, which at the time had become part of a 200 acre Illinois state park. Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen can be seen approaching the entrance to the cave just prior to the climactic battle.

As Davy Crockett and his companion Georgie Russell journey down the river on the keelboat commanded by Mike Fink, the men pick up a traveling minstrel who unknown to them is in league with local river bandits.

On their way to get horses from friendly Chickasaw tribesmen, Davy and Georgie are kidnapped by a group of Chickasaws because white men have been murdering members of their tribe. Crockett and Fink discover that the river pirates are masquerading as Native Americans as they loot passing freighters from a riverside cave.

The men find their way into the lair, and in the ensuing battle several kegs of gunpowder are exploded, sealing the cave. The victorious heroes escape safely with the captured villains.

Today WDW guests can enjoy not only a glimpse of vintage river history but also a tribute to Disney's Davy Crockett.

Crockett's Tavern

Crockett's Tavern at Fort Wilderness.

Speaking of Davy Crockett, he was a real 19th century American folk hero noted for his life as a frontiersman. In 1954, for his new weekly television show, Walt Disney dramatized the life of Crockett, played by actor Fess Parker. The Disney Archives has Parker's original coonskin cap that he wore while filming the television series but does not have the entire costume.

When Disneyland opened, a Davy Crockett Museum was prominent in Frontierland, with an Alamo exhibit, including life-size wax figures of Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen as a photo opportunity. Davy Crockett's Ranch (originally called Camp Davy Crockett) is a campground at Disneyland Paris and was the first resort to open for the new park.

Of course, Walt Disney World was also home to Davy Crockett-inspired items.

Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes debuted in Frontierland on opening day at Walt Disney World. The 35-foot long canoes traveled along the same path as other watercraft on the Rivers of America like the Mike Fink River Keel Boats from the Disney television show about Crockett.

That trip included a glimpse of Wilson's Cave Inn that was also inspired by Disney's Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955). Each canoe required two cast members, making the attraction expensive to operate in relation to its capacity, so it closed in 1994.

Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Café, that opened in Frontierland in 1998, includes as part of its many artifacts left in the restaurant by Bill's famous friends Davy Crockett's satchel and powder horn, as well as a hand-written version of Davy's encounter with Big Foot Mason written by Crockett's fictional companion from the television series, Georgie Russel.

Across Disney property, there are American Amusement Machine Association Non-Violent rated arcade games that use rechargeable play cards.

At Fort Wilderness Campground, Daniel Boone's Wilderness Arcade is located near the Meadow Swimmin' Pool while Davy Crockett's Wilderness Arcade is over by Pioneer Hall. Both feature a variety of classic and contemporary games.

The finale of the "Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue" at Pioneer Hall is a sketch accompanied by the famous Disney Davy Crockett theme song.

However, a hidden treasure missed by most guests is Crockett's Tavern. Opened in 1985, it is an extension of the Trail's End restaurant but is only open in the afternoon and early evening. It is a nostalgic full-service bar capturing the spirit of the untamed wilderness of the late 1880s and its famous namesake. It offers adult beverages like beer and wine as well as a variety of snacks like pizza, nachos, and chicken wings.

The tavern is made of natural wood and glass and, while it has indoor seating, many guests prefer the outside covered porch and the oversized rustic rocking chairs.

Dale Moore, Manager of Resort Design, who was given the job for creating the tavern, was a huge Davy Disney Crockett fan so included a lot of "Crockettana" for observant fans. A small replica of the Gully Whumper keel boat from the TV show, Davy's Old Betsy rifle and paintings of Fess Parker as Davy and Buddy Ebsen as Georgie can be found.

An imposingly terrifying stuffed grizzly bear (because Davy "kilt him a bar when he was only three") stands next to a glassed-in display featuring the classic 1843 portrait of the real Davy Crockett, a coonskin cap, letters and other items.

The portrait of Andrew Jackson, who Davy served under during the Creek Wars, was painted by Priscilla Russ, a Senior Artist at Walt Disney World Marketing. She wanted to do it in dark brown sepia tones to capture a sense of the era, but neither acrylics nor water colors would resist fading with time.

Even her attempts experimenting with Doc Martin dyes weren't satisfactory, so she ended up creating an ink that had a secret ingredient, coffee grounds, and the likeness of Old Hickory has stood the test of time.



  1. By Dave1313

    Fascinating list!

    I'm definitely in the group of people who've walked by most of this stuff many times, but not known the significance.

    I'm sure I've seen that Lantern, but now will make sure to take a better look at it next time I'm wandering around the Japan Pavilion.

    Rosie's Garden I will admit I had no idea was there. Aside from an occasional quick stop for some "puffy pizza" at Catalina Eddie's, I've not realized there was significant theming to speak of along with the various quick serve food locations in that area of DHS. It's on the list.

    So is the kukui nut tree located on the oval path sort of between Pineapple Lanai, the Volcano Pool, and the Samoa and Niue Buildings? I think combined with your picture that probably is what you meant by "just off to the right of the pathway".

    I know I've seen Wilson's Cave Inn many times while riding the Riverboat, but had no idea of the actual history, nor the allusion to it in the dialogue they recite on the Riverboat. I always just was looking for the Keel boat based on the parks' history from when that was an attraction at both WDW and DL.

    Crockett's Tavern I have never seen since I've still not made my way over to Fort Wilderness. One of these days, I will finally set foot over there to see the sights and I'll make sure to check this out.

    Thanks for the neat history lesson!

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