You can have a magical time at Walt Disney World without really knowing anything about Walt Disney World. But the true magic is in the stories, the backstories, of everything around you, and they're all here, in this definitive guide.
You've packed your travel book and your trivia book, and you've loaded your phone with apps—ready for Disney World! Sure, if you want to experience the park like everyone else. But why miss out on half the fun? There's so much more to discover.
In this first book of a multi-volume set, and for the first time in print, Christopher Smith shares in comprehensive, definitive form the backstories of Walt Disney World, including storytelling elements, queues, and the "real histories" behind each ride, show, and building.
Exploring the rich history of your favorite Disney World attractions will give you fresh insight into the genius of the Disney Imagineers and the multi-layered magnificence of their theme parks.
Part One: Main, Street, U.S.A.
Chapter 1: Main Street, U.S.A.
Chapter 2: The Emporium / The Chapeau
Chapter 3: Casey’s Corner
Part Two: Liberty Square
Chapter 4: Liberty Square
Chapter 5: The Haunted Mansion
Chapter 6: Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe
Chapter 7: The Liberty Tree and the Liberty Tree Tavern
Part Three: Frontierland
Chapter 8: Frontierland
Chapter 9: Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe
Chapter 10: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Chapter 11: Splash Mountain
Chapter 12: Country Bear Jamboree
Walt Disney World is more than a mere collection of theme parks. It is more than resort hotels, golf courses, water parks, and restaurants. It is more than the sum of its wide-ranging parts. Disney World truly is a magical place where dreams can and do come true.
If you are taking the time to read this book, then you know all of that already. But have you ever asked yourself: what makes Disney World so special? What is it about this central Florida vacation destination that draws millions of guests each year from the four corners of the globe and from all walks of life? What makes Disney World different from every other non-Disney tourist destination? In other words, what makes The Most Magical Place on Earth so magical in the first place?
I imagine that after reading those questions you started thinking about all of the different things that you love about Disney World. For example, you may have thought about the cast members who go above and beyond to put a smile on the face of each and every guest who passes through the turnstiles. Or perhaps you thought about Disney’s resort hotels that allow guests to stay in exotic accommodations that are intricately themed to various geographic areas and time periods without ever having to leave Disney property. The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight, and other classic Disney attractions also may have come to mind, along with the opportunity (especially for children) to meet Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and countless other beloved Disney characters.
Are those the things that make Disney World so magical? Certainly, there is no such thing as a wrong answer because we all love Disney World for different reasons. But from my perspective, I think that all of the specific things that people love about Disney World (including those listed above) contribute to the real “magic” of the Disney parks: Disney provides guests with the rare opportunity to leave the stress and worries of the real world behind by literally stepping inside numerous immersive stories being told on a grand stage throughout the Disney parks.
I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in Speake, Alabama. My rural hometown roughly consists of a stop sign, a gas station, numerous farms, and a few hundred hard-working and kind-hearted people. As a child, I spent the majority of my days exploring forests, running through cow pastures, and wading through creeks, all while using my imagination to transform these already fun outdoor activities into true “adventures.” On any given day I could be exploring lush jungles, sailing the seven seas with notorious pirates, or flying through space in a rocket ship. More specifically, and thanks to being an enormous Disney fan even at a young age, I lived in a world of Robin Hood and Little John, Davy Crockett and Georgie Russell, Marry Poppins and Bert, and Ichabod and Mr. Toad. I lived in the wonderful world of Disney, where the only limitations were those imposed by the imagination (which for me, meant no limitation at all). Even writing about it today so many years later puts a smile on my face.
For a child with that kind of imagination, an actual trip to Walt Disney World was the ultimate dream. My parents were finally able to scrape together enough money to make that dream come true in 1984. I was seven years old at the time. Walt Disney World gave me the opportunity to step inside the fantastic adventures that I had only dreamed about. I remember distinctly the wonder and amazement that overwhelmed me while boarding a large green submarine on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage attraction in Fantasyland (which sadly closed long ago). At that moment, I actually was a member of Captain Nemo’s crew, ready to embark on a fantastic journey through the mysterious depths of the sea. I felt that same excitement when I climbed the steps of the Swiss Family Treehouse, when I boarded pirate ships in Peter Pan’s Flight and Pirates of the Caribbean, when I floated down exotic rivers on the Jungle Cruise, and when I witnessed grim grinning ghosts dancing in a grand ballroom in the Haunted Mansion.
During those precious moments, the boundary between my childhood imagination and real life vanished completely. Disney World was the only place where the things I dreamed about became real. While I technically “grew-up” in the years that followed (sorry, Peter Pan), the child-like wonder and amazement I experienced during my very first trip always returns each time I visit Disney World. As Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty explained, “Making the make-believe believable is the most important thing an Imagineer can do.” Disney accomplishes this seemingly impossible task by immersing guests in “stories” told throughout the Disney parks.
Everything at Walt Disney World tells a story. EVERYTHING. Every land, every attraction, every restaurant, and every shop. For example, did you know that a quaint Christmas shop in Liberty Square is actually home to three separate business proprietors, including a voice instructor from Sleepy Hollow named Ichabod Crane? Do you recognize the name of Barnabas T. Bullion, a ruthless East Coast mining magnate who believes that a once-in-a-lifetime gold strike is his ultimate destiny? Did you know that a quick-service dining location in Frontierland is actually a folk hero hall of fame, complete with numerous mementos including Paul Bunyan’s axe, Buffalo Bill’s boots, and Johnny Appleseed’s tin hat? If the answer to those questions is no, then you don’t know the whole story behind the Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, or the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe.
The above examples only scratch the surface of the immersive storytelling that Disney Imagineers painstakingly craft for guests in the Disney parks. In Walt Disney World: The First Decade (1982), the Disney company described this “storytelling” emphasis when discussing the creative thought process behind the predecessor to Disney World, Disneyland:
To help create his “Magic Kingdom,” Walt Disney had relied not on amusement park experts, but on filmmakers from his own Studio. In their hands, Disneyland was laid out like a gigantic outdoor stage, with sets dressed for comedy, drama and adventure. On each set, everything from architecture, landscaping and costumes, to food, music and sound-effects was orchestrated to the smallest detail, creating a totally “themed” environment.
The sets were “lands” to be entered and explored. Guests were not just spectators at a theatrical production, they were actual participants in the performance. When they strolled down Main Street, U.S.A., they relived hometown America at the turn of the century. When they boarded the “Jungle Cruise” in Adventureland, they journeyed to the outermost reaches of the world’s densest jungles. In Frontierland, they traveled into the days of pioneer America; in Fantasyland, into the timeless world of Disney cartoon classics; and in Tomorrowland, into a world that may await voyagers of the future.
From the time that you walk through the turnstiles you are immersed in a series of magnificent stories told on a grand stage throughout the Disney parks. This immersion is weaved into everything that you see, hear, smell, and touch inside Disney World. As a result of this storytelling emphasis, the Disney parks provide the rare opportunity for you to step into Neverland, Cinderella Castle, the Hundred Acre Wood, Andy’s Room, and a multitude of other stories…and actually live those adventures firsthand.
Imagineers use a variety of tools to immerse you into these fantastic stories, including the architecture of the structures located in the parks, intricate props, immersive backstories, enticing smells, music, carefully crafted and maintained vegetation, costumes, and both cutting-edge and age-old special effects. As Imagineer John Hench put it:
When we design any area of a Disney park, we transform space into a story place. Every element must work together to create an identity that supports the story of that place—structures, entrances and exits, walkways, landscaping, water elements, and modes of transportation. Every element must in its form and color engage the guests’ imagination and appeal to their emotions.
Not only must every space become a story place, but that place must be made special through its relationship to its surroundings.
Unfortunately, most guests who visit Disney World are unaware of the amazingly detailed stories being told all around them. They miss out on the full experience that Walt Disney intended. Given the importance of storytelling in the Disney theme parks, an approach that flows directly from Walt himself, there must be some sort of “Encyclopedia of Walt Disney World Backstories” that explains these stories to guests, or at the very least a “Great Big Book of Imagineering Tales”…right? Wrong! Although some story elements for the lands, attractions, shops, and restaurants in the Disney parks have been discussed piecemeal in other places, there was no complete resource devoted to those stories…until now.
This book is your definitive guide to Disney World backstories and magical secrets, beginning in this first volume with three lands from Magic Kingdom: Main Street, U.S.A., Liberty Square, and Frontierland. In the pages that follow, you will find:
Storytelling Elements. A description of the numerous details, props, set pieces, and storytelling elements found inside the attractions, shops, restaurants, and lands that are painstakingly created and chosen by Imagineers to help convey a particular story—including where you can find them. (As a general note, Disney is constantly adding, removing, and updating various storytelling props throughout the parks. The information contained herein is accurate at press time, but certainly things can and will change. Of course, this is part of what makes exploring Walt Disney World so exciting, as there is always something new to discover.)
In addition, a full description and walkthrough of the queues for some of the most popular attractions in the Magic Kingdom. For the uninitiated and for those who tend to skip the “definitions” sections of books (including this one), a “queue” is essentially the area where guests wait in line for an attraction. The queues for many attractions in Disney World are crucial to the immersive storytelling effect. They are extremely detailed and carefully planned to transport you into the story of that attraction. In fact, many queues are experiences in and of themselves that you should take the time to experience even if you are not interested in the actual attraction.
In short, this is your guidebook to the whole story (both real and fictional) behind your favorite lands, attractions, restaurants, and shops in Walt Disney World.
The famous plaque that hangs above the entranceway to the Magic Kingdom reads: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” That simple statement embodies what Walt wanted guests to experience when they entered the parks: to leave the stress and worry of the real world behind by entering a joyous, innocent, and fanciful world that he had created for them. My only hope for this book is that it will help you, by virtue of these stories, to enjoy the Disney parks in the way that Walt intended.
Christopher E. Smith is a lucky husband, a proud father, and a blessed son. He is also a corporate attorney practicing law in Huntsville, Alabama. Theme Park Press released his first book, The Walt Disney World That Never Was: Stories Behind the Amazing Imagineering Dreams That Never Came True, in 2016.
Chris graduated from the University of Alabama in 2001 with a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Alabama School of Law in 2004 where he was awarded the M. Leigh Harrison Award, the law school’s highest academic honor.
He first visited Walt Disney World in 1984 at the age of 7. That inaugural trip forever shaped his outlook on life. As a child growing up in rural Speake, Alabama, Chris was accustomed to seeing cow pastures, barns, and cornfields. He certainly did not know what to make of the “magic” of Cinderella Castle, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But that Disney magic did put a smile on his face that has been there ever since.
Chris has visited Walt Disney World countless times with family and friends over the course of the roughly thirty-four years since that initial trip. During that time, he has realized what so many other Disney fans already know, that Disney World is so much more than bricks and mortar, attractions and shows, and hamburgers and hotdogs. It is truly a magical place where dreams really can come true.
Chris lives with his wife, Alexis; his sons Dakota and Samuel; and his daughters Scarlett and Alice Anne in historic Mooresville, Alabama. When he is not spending time with his family, practicing law, or studying the history of Walt Disney World, he is cheering on his beloved alma mater, the University of Alabama. Roll Tide!
When you walk into Liberty Square's Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, it's not immediately apparent that you've entered three interconnected "shoppes", each from a different place and era, and each with a unique backstory.
The backstory for Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe begins from the moment you first enter Liberty Square. As you cross into the land from the central hub, you enter a new world of early Colonial America on the brink of the Revolutionary War. The atmosphere is breathtaking, with visually stunning representations of Federal and Georgian architecture featured throughout Liberty Square, the sounds of fife and drum music playing in the background, and the smell of freshly baked funnel cake from Sleepy Hollow Refreshments.
Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe sits to the left of the entrance walkway once you cross the bridge from the central hub into Liberty Square, across the street from Sleepy Hollow Refreshments and Hall of Presidents. It occupies a relatively large piece of real estate (essentially an entire Colonial square).
As described in the backstory, Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe appears from the outside to be three separate buildings, each of which is visually charming, cozy, and composed of brick, stone, and wood façades, respectively. The interiors include old wood floors and low hanging ceilings, further emphasizing the Colonial time period represented throughout Liberty Square. These interconnected “buildings” are portrayed as storefronts, with each telling a different story and having its own distinctive character. As the story goes, the business owners of each store live on the second floors of these buildings, with the businesses themselves conducted on the first floor. This portrayal also ties in nicely with Liberty Square, as many store owners during the time period represented would live in their respective stores or in adjacent living quarters.
The first storefront to the immediate left as you enter Liberty Square from the hub is a music teacher’s shop. This two-story structure has a dramatic red and orange brick façade and features two separate stone chimneys rising through its roof.
Pay close attention to the book-shaped sign hanging from the corner of the building from a wrought-iron hanger. It reads, “Music & Voice Lessons, by appointment, Ichabod Crane Instructor.” This is, of course, a tribute to the character Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It is also a tribute to one of my all-time favorite Disney animated features, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
The Imagineers described the music teacher’s shop as being “decorated with period instruments being prepared for the holiday season.” Inside this shop, amongst a wide variety of other Christmas selections, you will find many items supporting the music instructor theme, including fiddles, mandolins, and other vintage musical instruments. My favorite items that support both the music and Christmas themes, and which are actually described in the backstory, are the various sheet music displays that decorate the interior walls, including “Joy to the World” and “The Holly and Ivy.”
The second storefront is themed as a woodcarver’s shop. Its façade is also a two-story brick structure, though shorter and less imposing than that of the music teacher’s storefront. A gated courtyard in front of the building creates a welcoming entrance, and features a magnificent Christmas sleigh. A sign in the shape of a wooden rocking horse reads “Woodright, Fine Carving, Wood Working, Toy Making, Carpentry.” A wooden stairway rises directly above the main entrance to the woodcarver’s shop and leads to a second-story entrance to the store-owner’s living quarters.
The Imagineers described the woodcarver’s shop as having “a more casual, handmade quality—dressed with the tools and materials of the trade, ready to carve Christmas toys.”
Inside you will find many vintage woodworking tools of the trade spread throughout the establishment, including replica Colonial-era saws, drills, clamps, and other tools. You will also see many wooden toys and dolls, including on the fireplace mantle. You may even be lucky enough to find a carved Pinocchio doll sitting high atop a shelf. Could this in fact be the shop of Geppetto from the classic 1940 Disney animated film Pinocchio? Given the geographic location and historical setting of Liberty square…probably not. But it is still a fun connection to think about.
Don’t miss the cords of wood piled near the cash register, no doubt the raw materials needed by the woodcarver to create his fine products.
Continued in "The Backstories and Magical Secrets of Walt Disney World: Volume 1"!
Explosions, dead birds, and a plea for roommates who won't fart in the night: just a few elements of the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
One of the most interactive portions of the new Big Thunder queue is an area with several “Remote Distance Blasting Machines” that give prospectors the ability to participate in the explosive fun. You can spin a wheel to prime the explosive, and then press a button that actually causes interactive explosions in the Big Thunder Mountain landscape. This is one of the best effects in any Walt Disney World queue.You can also find “Ol’ Faithful blasting caps,” which come with a warning of “Do Not Store With Any Explosives.” As you probably guessed, the blasting caps are surrounded by dynamite and gunpowder.
Perhaps the most visually stunning aspect of the queue is the series of subterrascopes that line the walkways (we saw the patent applications earlier) and allow you to view a number of different scenes of miners…generally not working too hard!
A log by “G. Willikers,” foreman of the Big Thunder Mining Company, is adjacent to the subterrascopes. This log is filled with funny entries that expose the extremely suspicious nature of Willikers. His continuous “spying” on the miners reveals a multitude of discoveries, including:
Signage makes clear that Bullion, Willikers, and Big Thunder Mining Company have no tolerance for miners missing work, regardless of the circumstances. It notes that “wounds, illness or missing limbs are not acceptable excuses to miss a work shift.”
Another sign pays homage to noted cowboy folk hero and Frontierland neighbor Pecos Bill:
“All friends, come celebrate my marriage to the prettiest lady in Tumbleweed, my wife Sue, at the Gold Dust Saloon. Drinks are on you!”
The “Sue” in the note is of course Slue Foot Sue.
A primitive, yet ingenious mechanism lets you test the air quality in the mineshafts using canaries. By turning cranks, guests can see the air quality in the shafts by seeing how the canaries respond. If you look up, you’ll see empty birdcages above. These are either the current homes of canaries that are conducting tests … or the former homes of canaries who were in shafts with bad air quality. One birdcage pays homage to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, and is labeled “Rosita.” In the Tiki Room, a role call of “the girls” is taken, with Jose, the red, white, and green macaw, asking, “I wonder what happened to Rosita.” The Big Thunder queue finally answers this question. Rosita was used to test the air purity in the mine. Birdseed labeled “Cheep Cheep Cheep” can also be seen nearby, as well as a large metal trunk labeled “CANARY TROLEY.”
Other notes displayed in the queue read:
The Big Thunder Mining Company does not trust its miners, as a sign warns them to empty pockets, boots, and “so forth” prior to exiting the premises.
Working hard for an oppressive company and dealing with recurring natural disasters sure can work up an appetite. Therefore, it makes sense that we see an advertisement for the “Hard Times Cafe.” The sign’s references to “Quake City” and the specialty being apple dumplings are yet more tributes to The Apple Dumpling Gang. There is also a sign for the neighboring Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe, which includes a nostalgic reference to the “mile long bar.” The advertisement states that “Every order is a tall order!,” another not-so-subtle reference to the “Tall Tale Inn.” An advertisement for the Gold Dust Saloon says that it is open rain “ore” shine.
And finally, high above in the rafters is a painting of the proprietor of the camp, Barnabus T. Bullion. The likeness on the painting is actually that of Tony Baxter, the lead designer for the project. Baxter is also honored in a patent document that identifies the inventor of the train’s brake system as “T.W. Baxter.”
Continued in "The Backstories and Magical Secrets of Walt Disney World: Volume 1"!