For those who know what you look for, a visit to Walt Disney World can be the most fun you'll ever have learning about American history. From the Hall of Presidents to Pop Century, the story of America is writ large with pixie dust.
In this third volume of Andrew Kiste's best-selling Historical Tour series, he traces the history of the United States in the theme parks and resort hotels of Disney World, starting with the colonial era and continuing through the 1990s.
The Imagineers concealed a nearly infinite array of historical and cultural references to America just beneath the surface of the slick, shiny attractions, shows, and resorts that bring us back to Disney World again and again. Like "hidden Mickeys", this "hidden America" is overlooked by most guests.
Kiste provides the key to enriching your vacation with those invaluable "a-ha!" moments that will renew your appreciation for the genius of Walt Disney and his Imagineers.
It's the happiest history class on earth!
Part One: The First American Century
Part Two: The Second American Century
Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter Resorts
Part Three: The Third American Century
Disney's Pop Century Resort
On March 24, 2015, Theme Park Press published my first book, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 1, and then, just over a year later, my second book, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 2. On September 24, 2016, I began working on this book, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 3. However, I had one problem: while I wrote about attractions I was extremely familiar with in the first volume, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, I found that some of the topics that I planned on including in the third volume, such as Frontierland and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, were topics that I was less familiar with, historically speaking. For example, the last time I stayed at Port Orleans was almost twenty years ago (am I really that old?). As a result, I had a very important task: to convince my wife that our family needed to take a “research trip” to Walt Disney World so I could explore these topics from a more informed perspective.
In the twenty-five years that I’ve been traveling to Walt Disney World, I have visited there under many different circumstances: as a family excursion with my parents and brother, alone with just my dad for the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend (I ran the half marathon), with my wife for our two-year anniversary, and with my parents, brother, and wife for Thanksgiving in 2013. In fact, I have been to Walt Disney World so many times that for Christmas in 2014 my parents presented me with a photo book titled "Andrew’s Disney Dreams," highlighting the various trips we took. During these visits, we’d stayed at value resorts, such as Pop Century and the All-Stars; moderate resorts, like Coronado Springs and Port Orleans; and even deluxe resorts, such as Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Wilderness Lodge. We’d traveled to central Florida during Christmastime, Thanksgiving week, spring break, the dog days of summer, the days following 9/11, in the midst of Tropical Storm Irene, and we even experienced such Disney celebrations as the Millennium Celebration, 100 Years of Magic, and the Year(s) of a Million Dreams. However, this upcoming “research trip,” scheduled for August 2015, would be a special one for my wife and me: it would be the first time either of us had traveled to Walt Disney World with children. In March 2015, my wife and I added twin boys to our family, and in June, we added a daughter. None of the three had ever been to Walt Disney World before, so this trip would be a milestone.
We spent a total of four days at Walt Disney World, staying at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort: Riverside for the duration of our trip. Because our sons were so young and our time at Disney World so short, we visited only two parks: Animal Kingdom on Monday and the Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, with a pool day in between to recharge. On the evening of our last day at Walt Disney World, after returning to our resort from the Magic Kingdom, I quickly wrote about our trip, reflecting on our family’s experience as our kids slept in the dark:
Tonight I cried. I cried a lot this trip, actually. On Sunday, we went and visited the Art of Animation to show the boys the Radiator Springs section of the hotel. They both repeatedly jumped up and down, clapping their hands, excited to see fiberglass, static, life-size versions of their favorite characters from the Cars franchise. I lost it, simply because Disney meant so much to me as a child, that to see my own kids happy here made me weep like a baby. As we walked into the Magic Kingdom on our last day in the parks, my fifteen-year-old daughter instantly transformed into a five-year-old princess who was in her own personal Disney fairytale. As I walked out of the Magic Kingdom tonight, I wept, not as an immature man-child who is sad about leaving one of my favorite places on Earth, but as a man who, really for the first time, has felt like he finally has a family of his own. That night, as I walked to bus stop 28 to catch my ride back to Riverside, I wept with joy, having made happy memories with my wife and children, memories that I hope they cherish years from now as I cherish the decades of Disney memories I had with my parents. And maybe, someday, they will make meaningful memories of their own at Walt Disney World with their families, too.
I set out to visit the Vacation Kingdom to do research for my book. But instead I found joy. Watching my children’s sense of imagination and wonder flourish in this age of technology and instant gratification was magnificent. Experiencing their sense of wonder as they experienced all things Disney for the first time was priceless to me.
After this trip, I realized that the emotions I experienced from taking my family to Disney World meant that the parks had done exactly what Walt Disney intended for them to do: to create a place where children and adults, families of all ages, shapes, and sizes can experience fun together. While I usually take joy in the small details, immersive environments, and technological achievements of the Disney parks when we travel, what made this trip so special was the joy on my kids’ faces and that we got to experience everything together. So, while I did get some research done for the book you are now holding in your hands, that’s not what is important about this book. Rather, the memories and love that my family of five experienced on this trip will be something all of us will remember for the rest of our lives.
So why do I love Walt Disney World so much? Sure, I have nostalgic and fond memories of vacations past. I also have fond memories of traveling there with my family while growing up, like the time that my dad and I traveled and ran some races during the 2006 Marathon Weekend or the time that my wife and I traveled to Disney World over Thanksgiving to meet up with my brother and parents.
I also love Disney World because of the immersive experience that it is. I love how Imagineers developed new technology to help drive a story. I love how the use of architecture and landscaping put guests into the world being depicted. I love how the tiniest details help guests feel like they are in a haunted mansion or a paleontology research institute. But I also know that part of what I love about Disney World is the use of real history to tell stories.
Growing up, I was never really interested in history—which is kind of funny coming from someone who is a history teacher and is writing the history book that you are now holding. I remember one instance where I was curious about a historical event. I was at my grandparents’ house and was curious about the American Revolution so I took a volume of their World Book Encyclopedia off the shelf and paged through it until I found what I was looking for. But other than that event in late elementary school there doesn’t seem to be one seminal moment when I knew I wanted to study history for the rest of my life.
I think part of what made me want to become a historian and instill my love for history in young people was my trips over the years to Walt Disney World. As a toddler, I was invited into the home of the Carousel of Progress family and listened to father John discuss the different events happening in the decades of the 1890s, 1920s, and 1940s. As a boy, I was able to soar through the universe of time aboard Spaceship Earth and watch cavemen hunting mastodons, papyrus being invented, and the Phoenicians using their alphabet. As a pre-teen, I was able to journey into the movies while my ride vehicle was being hijacked by a gangster or a cowboy. As a teenager, I could sit in the service elevator of a dilapidated California hotel immersed in the culture of the 1930s before being terrorized by ghosts. So, while I never really seemed interested in “textbook history” as an adolescent, I was fascinated by “experiential history” every time I visited Disney World. I wasn’t just learning facts about “dead white guys,” but was, rather, experiencing it as though I truly had taken a time machine into the past and was walking down a main street in a Victorian-era town or floating through a seventeenth-century Caribbean town being ransacked by pirates.
And that was when it hit me: I wanted to make the past as vivid and fascinating for young people the same way that I felt when I was growing up. But there’s one little problem: history covers a lot of space and a lot of time. Where to begin? I started with the most accessible: American history. At the time I started my undergraduate studies, America had only been a nation for 230 years, and I had been alive for eighteen of those years. That meant I only had 212 years left to study! As I started investigating the two centuries (and some change) of America’s past, I vacationed a few times to Walt Disney World and realized that the parks represent the three centuries that have spanned American history. The first century, from 1776 to 1876, was one of birth and expansion—exemplified by Liberty Square and Frontierland. The second century of American history, from 1876 until 1976, and represented in part by Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, was a century of innovation, conflict, and change. And, finally, the third century of American history, beginning in 1976, has been portrayed by Walt Disney World as a century of cultural revolution, showcased by Disney’s Pop Century Resort. Collectively, these three centuries of American history, highlighted as a part of the Disney experience, show the motivation, tenacity, patience, individuality, creativity, and successes of America.
Andrew Kiste teaches high school history in Greensboro, North Carolina, and has loved both Disney World and writing for as long as he can remember. He was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and made many family trips to Walt Disney World over the years. Always interested in American and world history, he found himself gravitating to the rides and attractions that centered around historical topics, such as the Hall of Presidents, Pirates of the Caribbean, Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, Spaceship Earth, and The American Adventure.
After a lengthy trip to Walt Disney World while still in high school, Andrew began doing research online about the park and frequenting fan blogs, forums, and websites. Some time later, he published his first historical article about a Disney attraction, and then his first two books, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 1 and Volume 2. From there he has not looked back.
Of all the Disney resorts, Port Orleans has the most vivid backstory, featuring a cast of fictional historical characters and a multi-decade saga of historical events. Disney used to share this story with guests checking in to the resort, but now only a few old-time cast members remember it. Here's a snippet:
It is obvious that Disney Imagineers took inspiration from real history in fabricating the stories of Port Orleans and Dixie Landings when those resorts opened in 1991 and 1992, respectively. However, they also took many liberties in their storytelling in order to make history more palatable to guests, often resulting in some historical inaccuracies. While the Sassagoula Sentinel and the Sassagoula Times are no longer handed out to guests upon check-in, and the story of the resorts became less obvious when the two merged in 2001, many of the details telling the story of the resorts can still be spotted by astute observers.
The historical accuracy of the resorts’ backstory begins even before the founding of the cities of Port Orleans or Dixie Landings or the colony in which they are located, Louisiana. As we have seen, Louisiana had expanded as a result of French explorers, such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, spreading west the frontiers of New France in an effort to find the legendary Northwest Passage. As the colony expanded south and west, explorers reached the Mississippi River, claiming it as a worthy water-borne transportation system for the mother country, and establishing the colony of Louisiana in the name of King Louis XIV. All of this happened prior to the establishment of the fictional city of Port Orleans, and was likely omitted by the storytelling Imagineers, as it leant nothing significant to the backstory of the resort.
Guests do, however, learn that Estephan-Michele d’Orr and John Leane decide to establish the port on the Mississippi Delta in 1694, which, historically speaking, takes place twelve years after the establishment of the colony of Louisiana, centered around the Mississippi River. Notice that the story explains that the port city was established by private individuals rather than the crown. This is once again an accurate detail, as the France of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was focused on various wars and conflicts. It takes a number of years for the two financiers and their sons, Pierre and Philip, to officially establish the city, and while the date was never officially given by the Sassagoula Sentinel, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that Port Orleans was established as an official city in 1718. Of course, a number of colonists, mainly men, were likely in Port Orleans prior to the governmental administration of the region being established. While New Orleans was named after Philippe II, the Duc d’Orleans, Imagineers cleverly, in true Disney fashion, created a pun in naming the port city after the names of its founding fathers, d’Orr and Leane. Interestingly, John Leane’s name resembles that of one of the founders of the region that would one day become New Orleans, John Law. Both gentlemen were Scottish and were wealthy entrepreneurs. However, while John Law’s financial misdealing ultimately led to the Mississippi Bubble and the collapse of the Company of the Indies, the administration of his fictional counterpart was less disastrous, leading Leane’s son, Philip, to establish the commercial center.
The first settlers in the region that would one day become New Orleans were trappers engaged in the fur trade, who built elevated wooden shacks in the marshes and bayous of the area. This is the same scene that Colonel JC and Everette Peace spotted when they arrived in the area that would one day be Dixie Landings in 1835. However, recognizing the moist and fertile soil in the delta and north along the main branch of the Mississippi River, the colonel decided to invest in the cotton industry. Not only did he establish a cotton plantation and build himself a stately mansion on his land, he even constructed a cotton mill across the river from his property to make the fibers more desirable to northern and British textile manufacturers. While Colonel JC established his cotton kingdom in the land north of Port Orleans in 1835, numerous cotton plantations were established north of the real New Orleans more than one hundred years prior, in the early 1700s. One historical detail that Disney Imagineers left out, likely as a result of wanting to remain politically correct, was the fact that in an effort to make as much money off cotton production as possible, many of the plantation owners used African chattel slaves as free labor in the picking and production of cotton. Observers of the story of Colonel JC Peace never really find out whether he owned African slaves, but given his success at accruing wealth, it is likely he was a slave owner.
Because land along the Mississippi was so valuable due to the easy source of fresh water for crop irrigation and the importance that the flowing water held to transporting the cotton and other agricultural goods down to New Orleans, plantations often had narrow frontage along the river, while stretching many acres away from the river. As a result, it was likely that one would pass many plantations held by different owners while traveling only a mile downriver. This is accurately exemplified at Port Orleans: Riverside, as four plantation houses, which are the locations of resort guest rooms, all feature a narrow frontage along the Sassagoula River, yet stretch away from the river.
One interesting detail of the plantation houses along Riverside’s Magnolia Bend is the name of the first mansion, Acadian House. This is in reference to the Acadians, a group of settlers who migrated from the northeast provinces of New France to southern Louisiana between 1763 and 1776. Because New France had exchanged hands numerous times between the British and French throughout the seventeenth century, the Acadians were easily able assimilate to the changing political climate as the administration of Louisiana shifted from France to Spain and back to France before being purchased by America in 1803. Eventually becoming known as “Cajuns,” the Acadians adopted various lifestyles upon reaching the swampy banks of the Mississippi River. While many of the Acadians built stilted houses and shacks in the marshes and bayous of Louisiana, making it easier for them to hunt for furs and fish, others decided to take advantage of the fertile lands along the river, rejecting their second-class status as Cajuns for the upper-class social status of gentleman planter. There is little textual or detailed evidence that the Peace brothers were Acadian migrants to southern Louisiana, but it is possible that the colonel’s family, or even JC himself, were migrants from Acadia to Louisiana, as southern plantations were often named after the family or the regional geography. Because Acadia is several thousand miles from Port Orleans or Dixie Landings, it makes sense that the colonel and his wife Millie were nostalgic for their homeland and named their plantation after their place of origin and its people.
While the colonel started accruing his wealth through the growing of cotton in 1835, it was the building of the cotton mill that really thrust him to the top of Dixie Landings’ list of wealthiest men. Wanting to ensure that he was able to stay at the forefront of the latest textile technology, Peace enlisted the help of Whitney E. Lye, a famous inventor who specially designed a waterwheel and series of gears for his patron. Students of American history will instantly recognize the reference that is made here to a real-life inventor who had a significant impact on the cotton industry: Eli Whitney. One of Whitney’s most important inventions, and that which he is most known for, was the cotton gin. Patented in 1794, the cotton gin allowed the strands of up to fifty pounds of cotton to be quickly and easily cleaned every day, removing the seeds from the fibers of the cotton boll, and thus increasing the efficiency of cotton production. While Whitney’s original cotton gin was operated through the use of a hand crank, it was eventually powered through the use of a water wheel, similar to the one seen at the colonel’s cotton mill, which is where the Riverside Mill Food Court is now located. The amount of cotton that was able to be cleaned by Eli Whitney’s invention ultimately led to an increased demand for cotton, further increasing the number of slaves in the south and expanding the system of slavery into more southern and western territories.
Continued in "A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 3"!
Disney's Pop Century Resort is a pop culture treasure trove, from the fads of the 1950s to the innovations of the 1990s. When you're checking in, take the time to examine the many shadowboxes in the lobby, where you'll find artifacts from past decades sure to tickle your nostalgia bone.
Another silver pillar with an upholstered bench separates the 1960s shadowboxes from the next decade: the 1970s displays. This section of the lobby timeline features nine different shadowbox displays, as well as various artifacts perched on mounted shelves or simply hanging from the wall, all below the silver timeline that stretches near the joint where the wall meets the ceiling. As before, these shadowboxes display the icons, individuals, and artifacts that Imagineers deemed to be representative of the 1970s.
The first shadowbox showcases what likely pops into guests’ heads when they think of the decade: disco. A sequined blue shirt acts as the backdrop for the display, atop which sits a white fashionable scarf that would have been tied around an individual’s neck. White platform shoes representative of the decade sit below, while miniature disco balls are interspersed throughout. A number of record albums are on display, including DiscoMania 2 and albums recorded by the Village People (in both record and 8-track format) and Donna Summer. This is significant, as it shows that Disney not only recognizes the mainstream culture of white America during the decade, but also the important contributions that blacks made to music and the culture of the 1970s. There is also a framed photograph of John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney, stars of the 1977 film that is emblematic of the decade, Saturday Night Fever, as well as the film’s soundtrack album below the photo, which was recorded by the Bee Gees.
The disco movement is related to the counter-culture movements of the 1960s. While the counter-culture addressed the feelings and attitudes of blacks who felt their rights were not being taken seriously by white America, and the young people whose liberal, pacifist views opposed the conflict in Vietnam, there were other individuals and groups who felt left out of both mainstream and counter-culture America. As a result, these groups and individuals decided to create their own movement to express their distaste with the America of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This new cultural movement began as a result of a new genre of music and form of dance: disco. Emerging in New York on Valentine’s Day, 1970, the disco culture was a direct result of the opening of a club called The Loft by David Mansuco. It was originally a place where New York City’s gay community could party, dance, and spend time together without fear of oppression by the police or other community members. Over time, this unique gay culture, coupled with the sounds and moves of R&B, led to the vibrant, colorful, fashionable, and funky music and look of the disco genre.
Throughout the 1970s, disco became the dominant music and dance style for America’s youth, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, before it fizzled out in the early 1980s. This rejection of mainstream “proper” America, as well as the earlier counter-culture movement, allowed for the new “groovy” and “funky” culture of the disco generation who often felt left out of the era of hippies and Woodstock.
How does one reject both mainstream culture and counter-culture? While mainstream America was often clean cut and polished, and counter-culture America was the exact opposite, the disco generation rejected traditional styles while staying sophisticated. For example, rather than wearing a white shirt with a black suit and tie like mainstream America, or buckskin or tie-dye like the hippies, those in the disco generation might wear a powder blue suit or a shirt covered in sequins and flared pants. The style of the 1970s was a “fancy counter-culture.”
Disco culture was best exemplified by the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. This film told the story of a working-class Italian-American youth (played by Travolta) who could overcome his financial status, dress up in his leisure suit, and spend the evening at the disco. While there, he left the outside world behind and became surrounded by beautiful women, transcending the stigma of his status by becoming an excellent and respected dancer of disco. This film gave thousands of American youths the opportunity to do the same: to overcome their social status and to explore their own individuality regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or gender, breaking down the barriers against minorities, homosexuals, and women during a time of increasing social strife.
The next series of shadowboxes, organized in an upside-down triangle, deals with popular entertainment during the 1970s. The first shadowbox features images from the most popular films of the decade, such as a movie poster from Star Wars, the tagline from Shaft, the marquee from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a photograph from the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun, featuring Roger Moore, Britt Ekland, and Maud Adams.
Below this display is another, which features artifacts from mainstream rock-and-roll of the 1970s: a signed photograph of Rod Stewart, autographed record albums from bands like Kiss and Chicago, and a photograph of reggae singer Bob Marley. Possibly the most important artifact in the shadowbox is a 8-track player, as well as numerous 8-track tapes. Because of the prominence of 8-track cassettes in the 1970s section of the resort, Imagineers considered the music format to be a significant part of the decade.
The third shadowbox features toys and games from popular children’s and family television programs, including a children’s book and other objects that feature characters from Sesame Street and a board game based on Mork and Mindy. Other toys and games from the decade are featured, such as a Trolls doll, a rubber ducky, and the Pass the Pigs game, as well as ballet shoes and a yellow leotard with yellow tutu.
One again recognizing its history, Disney has included an entire large display of the opening and early years of the Walt Disney World Resort during the 1970s. This display features numerous magazine covers, such as those from Life and Look, as well as multiple souvenir guides, commemorative merchandise including a Mickey Mouse backscratcher, and location-specific matchbooks. Some of the more fascinating artifacts to Disney fans are located on the right side of the shadowbox near the middle: Disney World ticket coupon books (on which the Historical Tour of Walt Disney World book series covers are based). When the Magic Kingdom first opened in October 1971, adult guests paid $3.50 for park admission, while children paid $1.00. This admission price included getting into the park, access to all forms of resort transportation including the monorail and sidewheeler ferry boats, as well as the opportunity to experience all free shows and exhibits in the park, such as the various shops on Main Street, U.S.A. or the live entertainers who wandered through the park.
The coupon books displayed in the Pop Century lobby gave guests special access to the various attractions based on their popularity and thrill level. Adult guests could purchase a seven-coupon book for $4.75 or an eleven-coupon book for $5.75, giving them access to many different ride and entertainment experiences at varying levels. These books featured coupons at the A, B, C, D, and E levels. Take, for example, the seven-coupon book: guests who purchased this coupon book received one ticket each for A, B, and C-level attractions (which gained one admission into attractions such as the Main Street vehicles, the Swiss Family Treehouse, or Dumbo’s Flying Elephants, respectively), as well as two tickets each for D- and E-level attractions (whose tiers included the Country Bear Jamboree and the Jungle Cruise). Guests who wanted to experience more attractions could purchase additional coupons at kiosks located throughout the park for prices ranging from ten to ninety cents. The shadowbox not only features a Ten Adventure ticket book, but also a set of Magic Key Coupon books, which allowed guests who were a part of the Magic Kingdom Club (an exclusive program offered to members and employees of large corporations and their families that gave discounts to Walt Disney World and Disneyland vacations) to ride whatever they wanted in the Magic Kingdom. Both the Magic Key and Magic Kingdom coupon books were discontinued in 1982 in favor of a general admission fee that allowed guests to ride and see whatever they wanted in the park, as much as they wanted.
Continued in "A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 3"!