In A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Andrew Kiste not only pulls back the pixie dust curtain on some of the most iconic rides in the Magic Kingdom, but also pulls back the next curtain, revealing the historical and cultural influences that inspired Walt Disney and his Imagineers.
Did you ever wonder why Walt wanted a Jungle Cruise? Or how closely his pirates were based on real pirates? Or why the original conception for Tomorrowland didn't work out? Or how the Crystal Palace is really the work of a forgotten Victorian architect?
Learn the history BEHIND the history of such popular Magic Kingdom locations and attractions as:
Find out where the Imagineers got THEIR ideas!
Part One: Main Street, U.S.A.
Chapter 1: The Victorian Main Street
Chapter 2: The Crystal Palace
Part Two: Adventureland
Chapter 3: Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room
Chapter 4: The Jungle Cruise
Chapter 5: Pirates of the Caribbean
Part Three: Tomorrowland
Chapter 6: Tomorrowland: A History of the Future
Chapter 7: Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress
n 1993, I took my first trip to Walt Disney World. As a five year old, I was convinced that I was really floating through a town being ransacked by pirates or touring a house haunted by ghosts and ghouls. I remember standing in line for what seemed endless minutes waiting to get an autograph from and my picture taken with Roger Rabbit, or eating Mickey Waffles while being visited by Pluto and Mickey himself.
As a teenager who struggled with hormones and attitude, I found myself getting lost in the story of the four Walt Disney World parks; as I once wrote in my journal:
I feel like I can forget about all my problems and the problems of the world while I’m here. The issues of high school and the drama of my friends seem to melt away while I’m exploring the Magic Kingdom; it’s almost like you are in a sheltered world where everything is always happy and crafted to immerse you in the world of the story being told, to the point where nothing else matters.
Already, as a high schooler, I was noticing the intricacy of the immersive environment that was crafted by the builders and Imagineers who created many of the rides and attractions that I fell in love with as a child.
My wife and I took a trip to Walt Disney World to celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary in June 2012; it was the first time she had been to Disney World in almost ten years, and a lot had changed over the decade since her last trip. Unfortunately, during the course of our vacation, we ended up spending a lot of time with Tropical Storm Irene, which meant that we rushed from ride to ride to try to stay out of the rain and wind.
We made a return trip in 2013 while visiting the parks with my parents and brother in Orlando over Thanksgiving weekend. Unfortunately, because my wife and I only got a few days off from our jobs teaching, we were not able to spend as much time as I would have liked in the parks, and because of the typical Thanksgiving crowds, even while we were in the parks we weren’t able to do much more than slog from one long line to another.
As a result, I decided to slow down and try to absorb the detail and story of the parks, to truly pay attention to the things that make Disney famous for immersive guest experiences. It is this attention to detail that makes me appreciate the Disney theme park experience the way that I do.
As a history teacher, much of my day is spent attempting to coax interest from students about historical world events, and more important, trying to make those events interesting enough, and relevant enough, that my students will perk up in their seats, pay attention, and remember. I stress that quite a lot of what happens in the world degree is the consequence of events that happened decades or centuries in the past, and that’s one reason why history is so important.
In a similar manner, Disney Imagineers use historical details when creating lands or attractions at Disney parks. These details often go unnoticed by park visitors, but for those who understand the historical implications of their favorite ride or show or even restaurant, the illusion of the immersive environment becomes even more complete.
As you read this book, I hope that you will discover and appreciate some of the historical details that the Imagineers considered as they created some of the most popular Magic Kingdom attractions and lands, and that this knowledge will make your next visit to Walt Disney World all the more enjoyable—and, dare I say it, educational, too.
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 from there has not looked back.
Even though the Main Street of the Magic Kingdom never existed outside the park, the Imagineers took great care to design it as if it could.
The Magic Kingdom’s representation of Main Street, U.S.A. is a pretty accurate depiction of what a turn-of-the-century small town might have looked like, albeit with the “Disney touch”. Because Walt Disney spent his childhood years in the small town of Marceline, Missouri, he was nostalgic for the charm that these small communities held. Disney believed that his parks should “be a world of Americans, past and present, seen through the eyes of my imagination—a place of warmth and nostalgia, of illusion and color and delight.” The re-creation of a small town decorated with red, white, and blue bunting makes guests feel not only nostalgic but patriotic, as well; the assumption is that the town is celebrating Independence Day. Main Street, U.S.A. is meant to be a prototypical example of Americana frozen in an era which Disney perceived as our golden age. Independence Day is also typically celebrated with parades and fireworks; even though the Magic Kingdom’s parades and fireworks shows are not patriotic in nature, they do still fit the theme of Main Street as a celebration of Americana and American patriotism.
Because he grew up in a railroad town, Disney loved trains; his love for locomotives was so great, he had a 1/8th scale railroad built in the backyard of his home in Holmby Hills, California, in the late 1940s. It was important to him that his parks include a steam engine locomotive to transport guests around the park. The railroad sits on one end of Main Street, U.S.A., rather than the middle of town. Near the railroad station is City Hall and the main shopping center, the Emporium. This would allow for city officials to be aware of who was entering town, as well as make the purchasing of goods by travelers or the delivery of goods being shipped by the train easier, due to the shop’s proximity to the station.
When my family and I visit the Magic Kingdom, the first thing we do is ride the train completely around the park, getting on at the Main Street station and riding the circumference of the park to disembark at the same place. The station itself is a good representation of those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After reaching the top of the stairs to the level of the train station, guests can pass through a set of doors, between which is a ticket booth where riders would be able to purchase tickets in the “real world” version of a railroad. Entering the train station, guests find brass chandeliers complete with gas fixtures (gas light fixtures have the glass bowls pointed upward rather than downward; downward-facing fixtures would cause the liquefied gas to drip out). The floor of the station is made of marble and features an intricate design with a compass rose in the middle of the floor indicating the cardinal directions. Wooden benches line the walls, with large picture windows facing down Main Street and either end of the train station. This allows riders to be aware of when the train is coming as they sit on the wooden benches. The station also features mutoscopes—iron machines with viewfinders on them; guests can pay a penny and turn a crank to watch images on individual cards move quickly to create a moving image. When the train arrives, guests exit through the back doors of the station and onto the train platform where they load onto a train, with a steam-powered locomotive pulling four passenger cars along a one-and-a-half mile narrow-gauge track around the Magic Kingdom.
Upon returning to the Main Street train terminal after the grand circle tour, guests walk back down the staircases into the part of Main Street known as Town Square. At the center of Town Square is an area that many small towns had, both those of the 1900s and those of the modern day: a patriotic memorial plaza. In small towns, this area was often used to commemorate members of the community who had fought and/or fallen while protecting our nation. At the Magic Kingdom, it’s home to the park’s flagpole, upon which flies an American flag that is raised every morning and lowered every evening as part of the Flag Retreat ceremony. Surrounding the flagpole is a series of planters and fenced-off flower gardens. This area of the Town Square serves as a meeting place for families, but also is often used for character meet-and-greets, where guests can line up to have their pictures taken by Disney’s PhotoPass photographers.
On the outskirts of this small plaza sit some of the town’s more important buildings: City Hall, the Fire Station, the Main Street Theater, and Tony’s Town Square Restaurant. Because City Hall and buildings like it were used for the day-to-day administration operation of small towns, they were often located at the center of town and near the railroad, as news, information, and economic resources typically pass through City Hall before reaching the rest of the town. It was also essential that the fire station be near the railroad, as accidents often happened, and firemen had to be ready at a moment’s notice.
While City Hall was the center of government and infrastructure for small towns around the turn of the century, the City Hall of the Magic Kingdom, housed in a large Victorian-style building, is also a first stop for guests entering the park. It’s the home of Guest Services, which provides visitors with park maps; complementary buttons for birthdays, weddings, and first visits; and other important services.
Next door to the City Hall is Engine Company 71 fire station. The name of the engine company is a nod to the year 1971, when the Magic Kingdom opened. Guests can enter Engine Company 71 through the open double doors to find one of the headquarters for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card game. Upon entering the room, guests find a series of horse stables that are roped off. Large bales of straw lay against the partitions of the stables, while horse collars hang on the back walls of each stall and firemen helmets and axes line the walls as decorations. Interestingly, the horse collars are not just merely decoration for completing the immersion that you are in a turn-of-the-century fire station, but also transform into screens to facilitate gameplay for Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.
Continued in "A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 1"!
Walt's pirates take delight in torturing Mayor Carlos by dunking him in the town well. Were real pirates equally eager to torture their victims?
Once guests in their bateaux pass El Castillo del Morro, they find themselves in the midst of an interrogation by a band of pirates attempting to torture information out of Carlos, the town mayor. Poor Carlos is tied up and dunked into the well, while other townsmen are awaiting their turn, frightened. After a few seconds of leaving the mayor underwater deep in the well, the leader of the attack party tells another pirate to “Pipe the lubber aloft” and Carlos is hoisted out of the well, where he spits out a small stream of water and refuses to respond to the pirates’ orders to tell them where the town’s treasure and Jack Sparrow are hidden. Carlos’ wife pokes her head out of the window above the well, encouraging him to not tell the pirate. “Don’t be cheekin!” she yells to her soaked husband before he is plunged deep into the well once again.
This scene can be looked at as either historically accurate or inaccurate, depending on what diaries and records you read. While pirates are usually portrayed as being ruthless, marauding, destructive, terrorizing menaces, and some historical records reinforce this view, there are also records of pirate crews being respectable and courteous to townspeople, merely participating in acts of thievery to sustain their livelihoods.
There were many different methods pirates employed to get what they wanted from prisoners. One form of torture was to withhold food and comfort from prisoners. For example, if a captain wanted information from a prisoner, he might withhold food from that prisoner or force him to stay awake until the captain was able to get the information he wanted. Pirates were also known to maim, torture, and kill prisoners out of pleasure.
Various records and historians have attributed this radical and arbitrary violence to the fact that many pirates had extreme bouts of fury and a lack of self-control. One theory for this violence and anger is that the pirates were isolated on islands and ships for long periods of time, and as a result, had to get rid of pent-up anger and emotions, thus behaving, as one historian has labeled, like a “caged tiger”. The theory goes on to explain that due to pirates having very little contact with “normal” humanity, they were severed from humanizing attachments and social conventions, and so acted ruthlessly and violently.
Another hypothesis for pirates’ violent behavior is that they were simply seeking revenge on the colonists for wrongs administered by the colonists to the natives and refugees previously living on the islands. Before European colonizers settled on the islands, some of the islands were inhabited by native peoples. Prior to the age of piracy, activities occurred in the Caribbean known as privateering, which was basically legalized piracy encouraged by one European nation against another. When privateering was made illegal, many of these men decided to settle on parts of the islands not inhabited by colonists, alongside the native peoples. Over time, these ex-privateers learned to live alongside the natives, adapting their lifestyles as their own, receiving the name “buccaneers”, which is French for “someone who makes smoke” (buccaneers smoked the meat they hunted before eating it). However, similar to those in the United States, many of the colonists in the Caribbean colonies decided to expand their territories, thus pushing the natives and buccaneers off their land and torturing any who refused to comply. The theory is that, furious about the awful treatment inflicted upon themselves and their native friends, the buccaneers took to the seas and began to terrorize the colonies and the people living in them in fits of revenge.
Historical records and journals also discuss that some pirate crews had the tendency to be benevolent to their prisoners. Many ships sailed under a series of rules or oaths, similar to a constitution, dictating what the crew could and could not do, as well as what the punishments for different trespasses would entail. These lists of rules were called Articles. Take, for example, the Articles for the crew that sailed aboard the Mars. Records indicate that these pirates were courteous to colonial citizens “as if they were Spanish”. Pirates also shared their spoils of treasure with those whom they deemed needy, similar to a Robin Hood role. After a prisoner had been captured, it was accepted practice that the prisoner be given the chance to escape imprisonment. Also, prisoners would not be tortured or punished unless they put up a fight, leaving a prisoner’s fate in their own hands. The Articles for the Mars dictate that “if any [crewmen]…do assault, strike, or insult any male prisoner, or behave rudely or indecently to any female prisoner, he or they shall be punished”. The crew of the Mars was expected to hold “certain operative principles of equity, justice, and protection”. Also, “if at any time [a pirate of the Mars crew] meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her, without her consent, shall suffer death”. Thus, the pirates that sailed on the Mars realized the value in respecting and sustaining their prisoners and the people they came into contact with, either for morality or for strategic reasons.
Continued in "A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 1"!