Fantasia Discontinued

by David Koenig, contributing writer

Ask about “Fantasia Gardens” and Disneylanders will point you to an out-of-the-way rest stop that took over the old Motor Boat Cruise dock 10 years ago. Inquire at Walt Disney World (WDW) and you’ll be directed to a Fantasia-inspired miniature golf course that opened near the Swan and Dolphin hotels in 1996.

But, question a veteran Imagineer and you might find yourself digging through beautifully detailed concept art at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) archives of never-built attractions. You see, Fantasia Gardens got its start in the mid-1980s as a full-scale, D-ticket attraction that would be severely pruned by the time it appeared as a forgettable backdrop for Disneyland’s Fantasyland.

The idea to fuse Fantasia with Gardens came from Claude Coats, the legendary artist who began as a background artist for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and provided much of the atmospheric concept art for the Mine Train’s Rainbow Caverns, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion. Coats initially envisioned guests walking through a colorful garden populated with dozens of flowering topiaries, fountains, waterfalls, and statues.

Walk-throughs, though, are typically less popular and lower in capacity than ride-throughs. But rides usually take up a lot more room. Where could WDI fit—physically and thematically—a ride-through garden? Thoughts soon turned to the Plaza Swan Boats, which used to sail the canal around the hub of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

The Swan Boats had been Orlando’s version of Anaheim’s Storybook Land Canal Boats – except for the storybook part. Passengers at WDW viewed no special scenery as their swan-shaped ships circled the Hub, took a quick detour into Adventureland by the Swiss Family Treehouse, and passed Cinderella’s Castle – just the general sights of the park itself.

For 11 summers, the Swan Boats plied the WDW waterways, until management finally decommissioned the fleet in August 1983. They cited the usual excuses: the ride had limited capacity. It was expensive to maintain and temperamental to operate. It wasn’t all that popular. It was only seasonal, anyway, so no one would really miss it. But, just as importantly, management thought the park looked better without a bunch of bird-headed boats.

Yet, by the mid-1980s, with Epcot Center firmly establishing WDW as a multi-day vacation destination, the Magic Kingdom—as the Resort’s top draw—needed all the attractions it could get. The now-empty Plaza canal seemed, at least to the Imagineers, to be the perfect spot for an all-new attraction.

So, Coats adapted his initial designs to the waterway at the end of Main Street. Coats, show producer and writer Mark Eades, and vice president of Concept Development Randy Bright divided the ride into six show scenes, each themed to a sequence of Fantasia. The first section, coming clockwise off the load area, was going to be a simple, beautiful, colorful garden based on “Toccata in Fugue.” There would also be sections devoted to the “Pastoral Symphony,” the “Rite of Spring,” the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and two for “Dance of the Hours.” The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section, for instance, would feature fountains shaped like giant broomsticks that dumped buckets of water in the path of the oncoming boats – drying up just as each vessel passed.

By today’s standards, the project wasn’t a gigantic investment – a dozen off-the-shelf boats, scenery, fountain equipment, a bubble machine. In all, about $20 million.

To pitch the ride to park management, WDI borrowed two rafts from the Seven Seas Lagoon and set up easels on board to hold Coats’ designs. That way, management could be pitched in “real time” as it puttered along the canal. Eades, who delivered the presentation, knew it would be an uphill battle. It was known that Bill Sullivan, then-head of the Magic Kingdom, didn’t want their ride or anything else going into the canal. “Sully liked his clear water, with no track,” Eades said.

The verdict returned: no go, unless you can find a sponsor willing to foot the bill. “At the end of the presentation, the marching orders were, build it if a sponsor could be found to fund it,” Eades said. “That said, Sully would have welcomed it, as long as the cost to the park was zero. He would have had no choice. Unfortunately, Pete Clark, the person in charge of obtaining sponsors at the time, only had one thought: National Car Rental.” A car company for a frilly boat ride – not a chance.

To this day, the Swan Boats’ canal remains “clear water, with no track.” One of the boats has been converted to a vacuum vehicle to keep the canal clean. The rest of the fleet has long vanished.

The loading dock, a green-roofed pavilion on the water’s edge between Cinderella Castle and Tomorrowland, does still stand – a lasting reminder of a ride that once was and another that never will be.

[For further details on the Swan Boats and other discards from Disney World, see Mike Lee’s great Widen Your World Web site.]