Saturday, January 28, 2012

Return to the Golf Resort

Golf is bound into Walt Disney World's bloodstream. No matter what you think of the sport, it's one of the things that importantly made up so much of the consideration of the early years of Walt Disney World that no amount of evasion is going to remove it. Walt Disney World opened with one theme park, two hotels.... and two golf courses. They were good courses, yes, and still are well-renowned. When Walt Disney World opened, not much in the Magic Kingdom was exactly "ready"... Flight to the Moon arrived at a delay of some months, as did Fantasyland's main "unique" attraction, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There was essentially nothing to see in Frontierland past Country Bear Jamboree until 1972. But both golf courses, they were ready to go on opening day. By mid 1973, the number was up to three and the Magic Kingdom hadn't even finished its initial build-out.

There were three big "events" in the first three months of Walt Disney World: the grand opening ceremonies on October 28, the first big Thanksgiving where traffic jammed up all of World Drive and onto I-4, and the first Walt Disney World Open on November 29-December 5. Jack Nicklaus won the gold. And despite all of the company's emphasis and pride in its well-rounded portfolio of recreation possibilities at Walt Disney World, the golf courses always seemed a little removed from all that. They were, basically, there to appeal to the whims of the Disney executives, and seeing the triumvirate of Dick Nunis, Card Walker, and Donn Tatum - the three principal administrative "architects" of Walt Disney World - tromping around the courses was not at all unusual. On October 1, 1971, as soon as the Magic Kingdom was open, Tatum and Walker made their first priority a round of golf on the Magnolia.

Now, in another world of consideration, Disney had opened two hotels with sixteen restaurants on a single day with no prior hotel experience, as sure a suicide gesture as can be imagined. They had bought out U.S. Steel in late 1971 to finish building the Contemporary, which a crane still loomed over on opening day. They were in the hotel business now, and they had a problem. Let's peek inside the 1972 Walt Disney Productions' Annual Report...
Since opening day, the demand for accommodations throughout central Florida has exceeded the supply. On site, our two theme resort-hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village, operated at near 100% capacity all year long. Our two hotels and Fort Wilderness Campgrounds together hosted 1,750,000 guests during the year.


Cumulative projections of hotel occupancy are compiled for only six months into the future. However, as of December 1, 1972, a total of 151,000 room-nights, or 79.2% of the total occupancy available at the Contemporary Resort-Hotel from December, 1972 through May, 1973, had already been sold. 75,700 room-nights, representing 84.8% of the total rooms available at the Polynesian Village, had been sold for the same period, and the months of April and May are considered to be the off-season. Reservation requests by the general public have been averaging 32,000 to 36,000 monthly by telephone and mail.


[...] Recognizing, however, that the public will always prefer to stay within the "Vacation Kingdom" site, the Company will soon begin architectural work on the third theme resort, the 500-room Asian Hotel. Construction is planned for 1974, with the formal opening date to take place that year.


The capacity of the campgrounds has already been expanded several times. A total of 717 campsites will be available for Walt Disney World guests by March, 1973.


Perhaps the greatest single challenge throughout 1972 was to conform operational planning to the emerging attendance patterns, and to adjust, as rapidly as possible, to the new visitation levels, which ultimately exceeded by more than 700,000 the Company's most optimistic estimates.

To paraphrase: Disney was sitting on a gold mine. The reference to only just starting on "architectural work" for the Asian Resort is telling, in that this indicates that the Asian, so familiar in our imaginations from art and models, was probably much farther behind the Polynesian and the Contemporary in actual design. The unreal scope of the building in comparison to the Contemporary and Polynesian was always staggering, and although the Asian seems to have actually come quite close to realization, it perhaps would have seemed quite different than those early models indicate.

But the Asian would never come to be. For almost fifteen years, the last hotel to be built in Walt Disney World proper would be-- The Golf Resort. From the same annual report, previewing the upcoming hotel:

 The Golf Resort Villas: Overlooking the finishing holes of the championship Palm and Magnolia golf courses, this new 153-room resort-hotel will connect with an expanded golf clubhouse and restaurant. Completion is expected during 1973.
That's perhaps significantly less ambitious than the planned Asian Resort. This, along with a number of other quick-hit fixes instituted over the next few years, is unfortunate. But the 1972 annual report was prepared in early 1973, and in just a few months, the Walt Disney World bubble would burst. Although the cause is well known, a 1981 article in Orlando Magazine tells the story memorably intimately:
"Ironically, the needle that pricked the bubble was not of local origin. It was unleashed halfway around the world, in the Mideast. There, in fall of 1973, war broke out and the Arabs slapped an oil embargo on the west.
Gasoline stocks dwindled. Filling stations stayed open only a few hours a day. Some closed permanently.
 

Cut off gasoline, the lifeblood of Florida tourism, and the Disney impact area would quickly become a disaster zone.
 

Bob Allen told me about the reaction to the energy crisis at Walt Disney World:
 

"When it was apparent that the number of visitors was dropping off," he said, "we realized we had to adjust our business. It's one of the few times we've had to do it. Our operations committee went into emergency sessions.
 

"We asked ourselves, 'can we penetrate the Florida market more? Can we reduce costs?' We made a chart that outlined our operations at various levels of attendance. We told management that's our game plan. We had to lay off employees, but we actually learned to operate our business better."
 The effects were immediate. The Asian never would materialize at Walt Disney World. A number of expansions not already in the midst of on-the-ground construction were delayed or deferred immediately; the only thing that probably saved Space Mountain and the rest of Tomorrowland was that it's foundation was already up. Big Thunder Railway, announced for construction in 1974, would have to wait 'till nearly the end of the decade and its companion, The Western River Expedition, would be left in the dust of the third-gear race to figure out what to do about Walt Disney's promise of a "city of tomorrow" to the Florida people back in 1966.

Many of these decisions are regrettable. As soon as the paint was dry on the Tomorrowland project, the full-on charge towards EPCOT... or maybe World Showcase... or maybe the Future World Theme Center... or maybe Frontier Kingdom... meant that the remaining holes in the fabric of the Vacation Kingdom and Lake Buena Vista were not filled in.

Spotlight Magazine, 1977


So in that way, the Golf Resort can be seen to represent the sort of thinking that eventually became a liability to Disney. A more conservative project could hardly be conceived to help fill the demand for more rooms and, after all, one of the chief mandates to Eisner was to build more hotels. But above all that, the Golf Resort was Card Walker's baby. To say the man was fixated on golf is an understatement. Cast Members were actually informed that he could be easily identified as "the short guy who's dressed like a professional golfer." Every year Card would come trundling out onto the green to hit off the first ball of the Walt Disney World Open with people like Glen Campbell, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer looking on. The Golf Resort is Card Walker in the same way that the Disney-MGM Studios is Michael Eisner.

Given it's low profile and vague stylistic mandate, the Golf Resort was a pleasant, quiet diversion quite unlike anything else at Walt Disney World. Once Walker and Miller had exited, Eisner didn't quite know what to do with the place - re-christening it The Disney Inn and eventually selling it off to the United States Military. I guess the logic is that military guys like golf? Despite its somewhat remote location and lack of a monorail stop, the Golf Resort was more centrally located than over half of the hotels which currently dot the Walt Disney World landscape. It was beloved by everyone I've managed to find who was fortunate enough to stay there during its twenty year tenure for its relaxed, easy pace and "away from it all" atmosphere. It was a true oddity, something that Disney would never let out of the gate today.

So, despite all of the things potentially wrong with the Golf Resort, it is not without its fascinations.

And yet despite its significance to early Walt Disney World as both a place and a signifier, the Golf Resort is a true obscurity. So let's take a trip back to the 70s and enjoy some of the images... and words... used to promote the Golf Resort, a unique early Walt Disney World phenomenon if there ever was one.

"Welcome Golfers ...to the finest tee-side accommodations ever...at the Golf Resort Hotel!"


The Golf Resort was graced with one of the most inexplicably awesome logos and signs ever, the golf club inscribed inside the distinctive Walt Disney World "D". 


This is the original Golf Clubhouse as it appeared in 1971. This is on the West side of the clubhouse looking East, towards the Polynesian Village. The glass windows directly facing the camera behind that sand trap are what was then known as the Palm Lounge, which wrapped around the Magnolia Room (the two golf courses are called the Palm and Magnolia, of course). The Magnolia Room is easily identifiable by its distinctive "topper" at the peak of its chalet-style roof. The Pro Shop was located beneath the Magnolia Room.
 
The hours of the Pro Shop were, in October 1971, 9 am to 6 pm. The Magnolia Room and Palm Lounge entertained from 11 am to dusk.


Here's the Golf Resort after expansion, from a similar, although elevated, angle. The T-shaped building abutting the Swimming Pool to our right is the 153-room expansion, which connected to the original structure via an elevated breezeway directly to the south of the Magnolia Room. Nearer the view of this elevated photograph, we can see a large kitchen and support facility has been built onto the side of the Magnolia Room. The lobby is directly connected to the breezeway that leads to the hotel rooms. The large port cohere can be seen behind the Magnolia Room, with a white car driving direct into it. The Golf Resort was approached from the long road that ran between the two courses, out of sight but to the left of this photograph.



It's the early 80s and Donald Duck is checking into the Golf Resort with his clubs in the lobby! To the right of this photograph is the breezeway leading to the guest rooms, and directly behind the photographer is the entrance to the Magnolia Room.



Another view of the lobby. This couple is standing more or less where Donald Duck was.
"Indoors are more family-styled activities... the Trophy Room for dining, the Player's Gallery lounge and convenient stores, including the Pro Shop carrying a full line of golf, tennis and swimming apparel and accessories. A golf professional is on hand for lessons or simple tips on improving your game." - 1973 check-in folder

The Pro Shop typifies the Golf Resort's contemporary styling... even more "contemporary" than the actual Contemporary Resort-Hotel! Yes, the drop ceilings and mirrored walls shouted "1971!", but the decorative embellishment around the ceiling was a nice, classy touch.


I call the woman on the left Amazing Pants Girl. Seriously, look at those pants! Mustard yellow? Watch her putt...

Hey! Almost a hole in one!

The decorative border also made an appearance in the Magnolia Room, re-dubbed the "Trophy Room" in 1973 with the opening of the resort concurrent with the Walt Disney World Open. The Trophy Room's memorable signature culinary concoction? French fried ice cream.


"For those guests who appreciate dining well in a quiet atmosphere, the Golf Resort Country Club dining room offers an excellent menu, superb service, and complimentary transportation from both resort hotels if you desire it." - Walt Disney World Vacationland, Summer 1973
"THE TROPHY ROOM allows you to tee off to superb dining any time of the day. A la carte or club breakfast served 6:30 - 11:30 am; buffet lunch, 11:30 am - 2:30 pm; waitress service dinner featuring tasty Pinch n' Putt and gourmet entrees 5:30 - 10 pm and atmosphere entertainment. Sandwiches and snacks also available 10 am - midnight. $1.25-$15.00" - Walt Disney World News, November 1974
"I'm not kidding, Janice... this time I'm going to get the Pinch n' Putt!!!"
"For a casual quiet night with the family, take the complimentary transportation to the Golf Resort's Magnolia Room or drive your own car. Enjoy a family dinner anytime from 6 to 9:30 pm with cocktails 'til 11. Either Sam Barnes or John Chen entertain nightly with a full repertoire of popular folk music." - Walt Disney World News, July 1972


Think that's Sam Barnes or John Chen back there?

"I heard that!"

Goofy folk music or not, the Magnolia Room / Trophy Room was a real culinary showplace for Walt Disney World, with its vaulted ceilings and heavy timbers. In 1976, six Disney chefs went to Tampa for a fine cook-off event and won almost every prize, including the Top Prize for the third year in a row, after which it was retired permanently. Walt Disney World took its upscale dining seriously.
"Then, [the Trophy Room] ...will roll out the fondue trays until midnight. Late-night diners (minimum of two persons per fondue) will be able to choose from three fondue selections: the Cheese Fondue (a blend of Gruyere and Swiss, spices and Sauternes wines); the Combination Fondue Dinner (cheese fondue appetizer, salad, beef and vegetable fondue); and the Fondue Dessert (a special chocolate fondue with fresh fruit and sponge cake)."

"Entertainment begins each evening at 6:30, and is usually provided by a versatile guitar playing and singing duo called Amos and Charles. Their show is a combination of soft rock, blue grass, country and folk music. Often inviting their audience to request a favorite tune, they seldom fail to come up with a rendition of the selected song."
Walt Disney World News, April 1976
The Player's Gallery lounge adjoining was a popular spot for Disney executives, due to its quiet atmosphere and unusual mixed drinks. It is no exaggeration to say that all manner of business deals - meaning, in this case, Walt Disney World history - was made in the Player's Lounge.


"THE PLAYERS' GALLERY offers specialty drinks and cocktails with a fairway view. Also sandwiches and beverages "to go". Open daily 11 am to 1 am. $0.60 - $2.50." Walt Disney World News November 1974

The 1982 Steve Birnbaum guidebook has memorably juicy details:
"The Player's Gallery, adjoining the Trophy Room, with a view over the Palm golf course, serves an assortment of specialty drinks and cocktails - Double Eagles (Kahula on the bottom and a tequila sour floating on top), Banana Bogeys (light rum, fresh bananas, cream, and vanilla), Unplayable Lies (champagne doused with Southern Comfort served over a whole frozen apricot), and Lateral Hazards (light rum and curacao blended with orange and lime nectar)."
A whole frozen apricot? How is that even physically possible?? It's worth pointing out that of all the lounges profiled in his book, Steve reported only the Trophy Room drink menu in total, which means it probably impressed him. Either that, or it's because Dick Nunis approved the book.

Let's move outside to the Golf Resort's memorable pool:

Also: Memorable pants
Compared to the austere Olympic pools at the Contemporary and Lake Buena Vista Villas, Golf Resort swimmers were treated to these water-spouting things:


...which I think are a pretty cool grace note for a very restrained hotel. I mean, I want to swim there right now. It's not the Polynesian Village's legendary grotto slide, but it was the first heated pool at Walt Disney World.



The Player's Gallery overlooking the new pool. At the bottom of the staircase, in the back, on the left, there is an entrance to the Pro Shop.

An almost identical view from before the expansion project.

"Guests wishing to strengthen their own golf games may take advantage of the Golf Resort's full-service Pro Shop. One of the services offered through the Pro Shop is the Golf Studio at the Magnolia driving range. This unique instructional program is conducted by pros for golfers of any age and at any playing level. As part of the Golf Studio experience, participants have their swings videotaped for replays and critiques in the Pro Shop." - Walt Disney World: The First Decade

"Golfers and fans who attended the PGA-sponsored Walt Disney World Classic late last year left cheering two winners: Jack Nicklaus and the newly-opened Walt Disney World Golf Resort Hotel.

Rising serenely above the sparkling lakes and rolling greens of the championship Palm and Magnolia courses, Walt Disney World's newest hotel is a wood-and-volcanic-stone study in earth tones, designed to blend into the lush, tropical atmosphere of the resort.

The accommodations are excellent. Golfers and their families can choose from 151 spacious rooms, all with balconies overlooking the courses and a fountain-splashed swimming pool. Autumnal hues of burnt-orange, gold, and brown carry out the "natural" feeling of the decor.

For early-bird golfers who rise with the sun, the Trophy Room offers a full breakfast menu as well as fast and efficient service. Along with ham and eggs served in a piping hot skillet, hosts and hostesses, when asked, can usually serve up tips on how a course is "playing" and how to avoid the traps.

The Trophy Room also serves a superb buffet luncheon and, in the evening, offers diners soft lights, live musical entertainment, and a menu which includes Cornish game hen and red snapper almondine.  The Hotel also has a gifts & sundries shop where everything from gruyere cheese to toothpaste can be found, and a "full fashion" Pro Shop which carries men and women's top-designer sports apparel, golfing equipment, novelty items, and even a full line of Mickey Mouse watches and Mickey Mouse golf balls. Created to provide the golfer with an ideal vacation situation, the new hotel also caters to the non-golfing member of the family. Lighted tennis courts and a heated swimming pool are only a step away from the rooms, and mini-buses depart the hotel every few minutes, providing hotel guests with free transportation to the Magic Kingdom theme part, Fort Wilderness Campground Resort, the Polynesian Village, and the Contemporary Resort.

The setting is beautiful, the atmosphere is serene, and whether you practice on the putting greens, challenge the courses, or just lie by the pool in the sun, your stay at the Golf Resort will be a "winning" one." - Walt Disney World Vacationland, Summer 1974.


Last year, Walt Disney World sold off the Palm and Magnolia courses to Arnold Palmer Group, officially ending the company's long involvement with golf as a central attraction at Walt Disney World. Card Walker and Donn Tatum are long gone now, their reigns over Disney gone even longer. Dick Nunis has drifted off to what one hopes is a sunny golfing retirement in Florida. The Golf Resort became the Disney Inn in 1986 and was sold to the military in 1994. And, after a quarter century of a slow fade to black, the sale of the golf courses last year finally ceased Disney's prospects in a once important little niche on property. Just one more piece of Walt Disney World's early identity carved off on the sale block.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Buena Vista Obscura: Johnny's Corner


"Kissimmee (pron. Kiss-SIMM-ee) is the cow capital of Florida. To get there one has to pass miles of cattle ranches. Stores in town have that false-front look, familiar in Western movies, and the natives wear aging, outsize Stetsons. The most popular hangout for old-timers is Brown's Cafe on Broadway, a modest dining room, in the back of which, through swinging doors, is a poolroom with eight tables. Women are not welcome. If the hot pork is ready, a waitress bangs on a shelf, calls out a name and passes the plate through a small window.

Oren Brown, a thin, weather-beaten man in his middle fifties, scion of one of Kissimmee's first families, presides here with inconspicuous authority. He and his friends reminisce about the old days, when the streets were all dirt and there was a livery stable on the corner, and when, if someone got married, you knew the names of all the guests in the paper. His eye wanders around the room, and every so often, he slides out of the conversation to collect a fee: 15 cents for a game with two people, 20 cents for a game with three or more, 60 cents an hour. This is the same Oren Brown who recently turned down $4,200,000 (somewhat less when he tells it) for his 6,750 acres abutting Disney. "What's money?" he asks. "It's only paper, most of it." He scans the room. "Excuse me", he says, and he slips off to collect 15 cents at table number four. He picks up where he left off: "I never could keep money. The land, it won't run off. Lots of people like money, but I don't care so much for it. I reckon I'm peculiar that way."

Time was when rangeland in Kissimmee went for $2 an acre. But new people have come to town. Taxes are already out of hand, and the retired elderly, no longer able to afford it, have moved away. Meanwhile, church attendance has skyrocketed."
That is the April 6, 1971 issue of Look Magazine, describing a March 1971 preview trip to Walt Disney World. The article everyone remembers is the one describing the upcoming sights at Walt Disney World, but the valuable one comes right after it, describing what life is like in the communities ringing Walt Disney World as the October opening looms overhead like a doom cloud. The start of Walt Disney World will be the end of "Old Florida", as it's called around here.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nobody talks much about central Florida before Walt Disney World, possibly because there wasn't much to it. Reading the above description it's easy to imagine Walt Disney circling in his helicopter in November 1963, passing miles and miles of flat scrub and rangeland, until the gleaming intersection of two brand new, high tech highways - The Florida Turnpike and Interstate 4 - shot out of the low, flat land like a rocket. "Build it there", he said, and when his helicopter landed in New Orleans some time later, Walt found out that President Kennedy had been shot. Walt Disney World always was a project with an atmosphere of predestination in the balance.

They built it there, and the nearest thing to Walt Disney World besides retirees and the interstate itself was a little old Country Store called Johnny's Corner. It was at the intersection of State Road 535, which borders the Disney lot to the north and east.

Johnny's Corner appears to have gotten its start as Jock's Happy Corner, opening in 1949 owned by a Mr. Jock Lowery and Fern Lowery. In an April 23, 2010 Orlando Sentinel article commemorating Fern Lowery (who lived to be 96), her daughter remembers:
"But it was nothing but orange groves back then," said Lowery's daughter, Audrey Arnold of Orlando. "Our house was built onto the back of the store, so if people needed gas or something at any hour of the night, Momma or Daddy would wake up to help them."

For nearly two decades, the family store barely broke even, but Lowery would extend credit to families struggling to make ends meet, daughter Susan Wagner of Orlando said. "Momma kept a little notebook and just marked it down if someone needed eggs, butter or milk. And they could pay what they could later."

[...]

"I came home from school one day, and Momma said, ‘You'll never guess who we waited on today — Walt Disney,'" Wagner said. "We couldn't believe it. We'd see him on TV every week, and Momma was starstruck."
Edward Prizer, a transplanted New York journalist who had bought out a local tourist magazine called The Orlando-Winter Park Attraction and made it over into Orlando-land Magazine (now Orlando Magazine), drove out to Apopka-Vineland in search of a scoop, recounted in this October 1976 article:
"Down at Jock's Corner, a run-down general store at the point where Route 535 hooks around the eastern edge of what is now Lake Buena Vista, there is an unusual amount of coming and going. It isn't just the chickens strutting around the place. Seems like the strangers are all from Southern California. On the trail of rumors, I stop in for a Coke. Jock Lowery looks harried. He can't rightly figure what it's all about, be he ain't got time to puzzle over it.

"Awful lot of nosey people comin' in here askin' questions," he snaps at a guy who's pulled up for gas.

Mrs. Lowery is less perturbed. Her egg business has picked up right nicely in the past few weeks."
 When the announcement came in 1965, it set off a land speculation in Orlando frankly only comparable to a gold rush. Local politicians and businesses celebrated, then panicked - crime would rise, their yearly budget for law and order would triple. They'd need to build a jail and courthouse on Disney's front door. Unwanted pregnancies would quadruple. Hippies were already lounging around in Lake Eola Park.

The Orlando Sentinel incorrectly claims that the land was bought by Disney, but the 535-Vineland corner has never been part of the Disney property package. Instead, Jock and Fern sent themselves off to an early retirement by selling the land to Johnny Speakman in 1967, who rechristened the old store Johnny's Corner.

Johnny's Corner was a local landmark, and it was especially important in that it was the nearest place to cash a paycheck and buy beer. Dick Nunis drove here on his fabled efforts to guilt the Union construction crews to build God-knows-how-many things at The Magic Kingdom. He, and thousands of others, probably stopped here to get one for themselves, too.

Jock's Happy Corner, January 28, 1957, taken by the USGS - found by Michael Crawford
It was quite a place. That's actually an understatement, as the November 17, 1970 issue of Palm Beach Daily News attests, here for your reading amusement:
"Close To But Not In Disney World -
Johnny's Corner, Everything From Snuff to Eggs

ORLANDO, Fla (UPI) - At Johnny's Corner a man can get pig knuckles with his beer, a fan belt for his car, a can of snuff, a pair of used socks, a Barlow knife, or a Hong Kong suit "made to measure" for $49.

He can cuss loud, peel eggs, play pin ball, argue about the Union, eat sardines out of the can and hand wrestle by the gas pumps.

If the late Walt Disney didn't stop by Johnny's Corner when he was staking out land for his vacation resort, he should have. You get the feeling that the old master of folk lore would have liked this dirty old country store.

It's thriving as a satellite to Walt Disney World, but it appears doomed by the same force that made it boom.

Things haven't changed much at Johnny's Corner since the old man, Johnny Speakman, got fed up with all the extra work and sold out. That was last winter.

But they put a new sign out front. Last month they washed the windows and today, a traffic spotter for an Orlando radio station uses Johnny's Corner as a check point.

"If we tried to fix this place up they'd quit coming." says Bill Waring, one of the new co-owners. "These construction workers come in here dirty and they want the place dirty."

Except for a few orange pickers in season, the customers at Johnny's Corner are brawny men with Mickey Mouse decals on their hard hats. They are the working men who are not allowed in the executive cafeteria at the Disney site about a "country mile" away.

At noon they bring their lunch boxes and sit at two big wooden tables. They buy milk in half-quart cartons, Gatorade in pop top cans, pies, hot sausages, potato chips and bean dip.

But at quitting time it's beer they're after. Lots of beer.

"On a pay day we'll such as much as 50 cases." said Bob Morgan, Waring's partner. "You can safely say it's one of the best beer accounts in Orange County."

That's of little surprise. More than 2,500 workers are already on the job at the "Magic Kingdom", a short distance down state road 535, and the number is growing. It's the largest private construction project underway in the United States.

Waren, 40, and Morgan, 55, sleep during the week at the rear of the store. They get up at 4 a.m. to start the coffee and after closing they boil and pickle eggs - "about 20 dozen a week."

"We spice them up with hot pepper and garlic sauce or anything else that we can find and man, you can't keep them on the counter, Waring says.

Straw hats, radiator hoses, flit guns, pocket combs, motor oil, watch bands, staple groceries and advertisements for mail order clothes clutter the walls.

"I sold a man a pair of my own pants last week." Waring said, "A man came in here not long ago who had forgot his socks. I don't know how he managed to do that but I went and got an old pair I had and sold that to him for a dollar."

Johnny's Corner also serves as a bank and filling station.

"We cash their checks for them." Waring says, "and the other day one guy came in here with his eye all busted up and I patched him up."

But the old Country Store, which has occupied the same spot on Vineland Road for three decades, is likely to vanish when Walt Disney World opens next October. With fancy new motels going up everywhere it's expected that a major oil company will replace it with a slick new service station.

You wonder if Walt Disney would have approved of that."
Probably the only view inside Johnny's that exists.

Of course Look also profiled Johnny's Corner in their article:
"In the next five years, 150 more service stations will be needed in the neighborhood - 330 by 1985 - and the number of restaurants should increase from 54 to 400. In February, an oil company bought a one-acre lot for a gas station near the entrance to Disney World for $300,000.

Already comfortably prosperous are Bill Waring and Bob Morgan, owners of Johnny's Corner, closest general store to Disney and a stop for construction workers on their way home. The previous owner, who used to take in $10 a day, sold out because business was getting too good - he couldn't keep up. The store carries frozen sandwiches, hats, garden hose, jars of pickled eggs and snuff. But Waring and Morgan have increased their take 40 times, mainly because they sell more beer than anyone else in Orange County."
This is the atmosphere Disney was dropping the Vacation Kingdom of the World into. Later in the same article, author Henry Ehrlich describes Windermere, currently home of everyone from Tiger Woods to Dick Nunis, circa 1970 as a high priced retirement club with eight roads, one of them paved. He writes: "'We have a nice sort of antebellum atmosphere," says Win Pendleton, a former newspaperman, a lecturer and the author of 2121 Funny Stories and How To Tell Them."



Walt Disney World was like a bomb going off in the fabric of the sleepy little hamlets south of Orlando, and it tore a lot of them down with it. There's no way Jock Lowery could have foreseen his tiny country store being remembered sixty years later when he opened it in the first years of the 1950s, but it became a focal point for the earliest years of Walt Disney World, before it was even really a thing that existed - piles of concrete, dirt, cement and steel framing. The prehistory, if you like. But Jock's/Johnny's Corner is so well remembered that the intersection of 535 and Vineland is still called Johnny's Corner - even if it barely made it to opening day. The June 1971 issue of "News From Walt Disney World", the company's official newsletter for the families of construction crews, simply stated:
"What happened to Johnny's Corner? Progress took its toll and that historic landmark was demolished to make way for a modern service station."

It isn't true.

Mike Lee, of Widen Your World, remembers going to Johnny's Corner to buy Star Wars trading cards, so it can't have closed in 1971 as News From Walt Disney World claims. I've also spoken to a number of people who remember it well into the late 80s, as the comments below also attest. From the Lowerys to Speakman to Bill and Bob and who knows who else, a ratty little country store survived many years to see New Florida boom and spread, leaving it behind.

Bill and Bob didn't make out too bad in the end. If a parcel of land a quarter mile away sold for $300,000, they must have seen the writing on the wall. Turning a business from a $10-a-day operation to a $400 one was just one of the first - and nearest - economic miracles Disney worked in the local economy. And, true to Disney form, a lot of local character got bulldozed in the process. Today the spot is occupied by a Circle K modern gas station and a strip mall which includes the Dragon Court Super Buffet.

Johnny may have packed it in on 535 and Vineland, but there is a good deal of evidence that he relocated his operation to Reams Road, on the north side of property. His second little corner store, Johnny's Oasis, vanished sometime in the last decade and the space has recently been converted into a church.

But, really, who cares? A dirty little corner shop got bulldozed, and the owners made a lot of money. It's hard to be too upset about all of this. But Johnny's Corner is just one of those things that keeps popping up over and over again in old materials, because it wasn't just a little store, it was their corner store back when a castle was rising out of a swamp surrounded by lots of nothing.  It is a minor mile marker on the map of Walt Disney World history, the last reminder before the dream state sinks in. It's also an obscure and strange delight. It's a bit of authentic weirdness in a history of manufactured and pre-measured charm.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same and it may only be a twist of fate that near where construction crews once drove to buy beer and eat lunch and drink that today, young employees of Walt Disney World flock to an Orlando Ale House. In nearly exactly the same spot, a forty-plus year tradition. I think Bill and Bob, and Jock and Johnny too, would've gotten a smile out of that.

Thanks to Michael Crawford and Jackie Steele for helping me gather material for this article. This article was updated on December 11, 2012, with new images and information. It was updated again on March 16, 2013, with new information about Jock and Fern Lowery.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Passport to Dreams Year End Report, 2011

I seem to recall, a year ago, sitting down to write an article much like this. If I recall, I said something like "every year can't be a banner year". I'm tempted to repeat that, but truthfully things change very quickly at Walt Disney world, so quickly that one can easily lose track from one month to the next even if she isn't limiting her general interest to just one park in the way I do. So while it's hard to describe 2011 as a "banner year" for Magic Kingdom, she truthfully hasn't fared too bad. There's been some mediocre, some good, and some bad tempering it all out.

From an aesthetic perspective, the Magic Kingdom has remained about as good as last year, which is indeed a significant step up from the pit of the late 90s/early 2000s when even banner attractions were going to pot. Thanks to dedicated individuals inside the company at a number of levels, almost every major attraction at the park in the last decade has been refurbished or plussed in some way. Amongst those not yet "upgraded" significantly: the animals on the Jungle Cruise are mostly accounted for and operational, a novelty I haven't enjoyed since at least the mid-90s. Peter Pan's Flight continues to tediously chug along towards obsolescence, long overdue for a total tear-out and rebuild similar to what It's A Small World, across the promenade, received in 2005. And Splash Mountain, a headline favorite of many, continues to prove how poorly built it was back in 1992 by needing constant attention and patches every 6-8 months. One of the reasons the Disneyland version is in much better shape is because those America Sings figures it uses were built by MAPO using the highest possible standards back in 1974. Such is the long-term consequence of corner cutting here and there.

Speaking of Disneyland, I took a trip there in early 2011 and had a generally good time, but not having been there in over five years with a lot of water (including this entire blog) under the bridge does change one's perception of the place. I've been thinking a lot about what I saw there, some of which has already made its way onto this blog, but it's enough to say that I believe the park's high standards have begun to slip while Magic Kingdom has improved, closing the significant gap between the two. Besides the always indifferent Cast Members and rampant local population, I saw plenty of broken figures and effects in major attractions and even the Tiki Room, which was so glorious in 2005, feels dustier and threadbare.

Worst of all is the Disneyland Haunted Mansion, which should be a fantastic show piece, is in deplorable condition. Audio tracks are scratchy, paint is smeared, their Seance Room Leota projection is not only badly out of synch but her floating effects are just plain off, and more. There is no excuse for an attraction which receives a refurbishment twice yearly to install and remove their (tacky) Nightmare Before Christmas overlay to be in such terrible shape. The worst offender of all, and a good indicator of just how far that attraction has fallen, is their Load Area. What used to be a strange, haunted blackness has been filled up with clutter on a J.C. Penny level of show quality. Blue lights leak everywhere, making it perfectly clear where the walls are and spoiling the entrance to their Endless Hall scene. Even in the worst days of the Florida version's negligence, the maintenance crew knew well enough not to shine blue lights all over the flat black interior walls.

Disneyland: step it up. I expect better of you.

Okay. So in the next section I'm going to speak some serious truths about Walt Disney World that some of you, dear readers, may not want to hear. If none of this is to your taste then please skip ahead to the section break. This is no rant, no ruse. It is absolutely true. I'm going to accept no complaining about this next section, so if you don't want to hear it, then don't.

I've noticed a general stirring discontentment online in recent months, spurred by a major announcement nobody really cared much about, an increasingly vague future for Pleasure Island, and Universal showing Disney how it's really done up the road. There have been a number of attempts to lash out at the perceived source of the problem, people like Bob Iger or Tom Staggs who really are mostly out of the loop in regards to Disney's little Florida outpost.

I've been ignoring all of this for years on this blog and tried to focus on things I do like, but it's time that the online discourse really start about Walt Disney World and ensuring she has another 40 years in front of her that involve more things than existing attraction overlays and time share sales. If not me, then who? For years the politics of Disneyland have been vented online, but solving Walt Disney World's problems will need more than a new President and a will and a way.

The Big Picture: What is Wrong with Walt Disney World
Back home in Florida, Team Disney Orlando continues to run the parks with a criminal lack of regard for show. Magic Kingdom and EPCOT are hugely busy parks, there's no doubt. On the busiest days at the end of the year, there may be as many as three times the number of people that can fit into Disneyland between The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. Despite a steady drift away from Disney towards Universal thanks to Harry Potter, it's not as if Disney is losing money here. But, even with the worst crowds and the best people-moving skills, Walt Disney World Operations is still prioritizing money over quality, and this goes beyond their refusal to hire outside of a minimum-wage starting salary.

Foods, for example, has lately gone on a rampage and removed the door handles from a number of alternative entrances and exits from original Magic Kingdom food courts, forcing all traffic through a single entrance where a phalanx of Cast Members are posted, ready to assault you with menus. This is exactly the sort of cheap aggressive grubbery that used to be associated with Universal.

It makes sense, in some ways, as major food outlets at Magic Kingdom can serve as many people an hour as can some attractions - in a park which can hold 80,000+ people and which is, five or six times a year, as full as that. Attractions are built around a unidirectional crowd flow as well, and I imagine that such methods manage to eek out just enough more customers served and dollars per hour to make it worthwhile to Food Operations, but they do so at the cost of making the meal process as harried as getting on an attraction and doing further thematic damage to the park in that these shops and food service locations no longer feel like real places; they're just one step closer to cavernous mess halls with funnels at the entrance. The days of entering a quiet side door of Columbia Harbour House are long gone; the handle's been replaced by a sign with an arrow. I guess we're lucky the door is still there at all.

But if we really want to get at what's wrong with Walt Disney World, we need look no further than the common stroller parking area for the perfect example.


These areas are badly needed at almost all times, and for over half the year resemble vast seas of plastic in a way that seems quite excessive. Nearly all of them are marked with cheap, wooden, folding A-frame signs:



In fact nearly every facility at Walt Disney World has at least one of these things:


I don't doubt that they are perceived as being needed, although every early Walt Disney World training guide I've ever seen clearly states that nobody will read signs anyway (every Cast Member will tell you this is so) and so the parks generally refrained from overloading them in common areas; Universal was and is especially bad about sign overload. What raises my ire is what these temporary signs look like. They look terrible.

There used to be an ironclad Walt Disney World rule that if any sign was going to be used for more than three weeks, it needed to be transferred off an A-frame and made a permanent fixture manufactured by the Walt Disney World sign shop. These digital printout A-frames do not count, and many of them have been in use for years and years.

I have no doubt that the business divisions which use these signs would love that have nice permanent ones, but the cost of manufacture and design for a really good, Disney-quality sign is quite high, and these divisions just don't have money to spend. They can hardly afford to staff attractions like Country Bear Jamboree, which closes early, or Swiss Family Treehouse, which is not staffed at all.

Now hold on there. Why should Magic Kingdom Frontierland Operations have to pay the Magic Kingdom Sign Shop money to make them a sign? Why can't that just be written off as an expense of operating the park? How many guests through the Main Entrance turnstile at $90/head does it take to pay for a simple stroller parking sign on a stick? And why is money circulating through all these sub-departments from one area to another when guests can't perceive the difference and it all ends up going to the same parent company anyway??

Walt Disney World is a vast and bewildering bureaucratic system where every theme park is set up like a self-sufficient business entity; for example: a strip mall. Magic Kingdom is one. Animal Kingdom is another. Transportation is another.  Each one of these has a "Vice President". They all ostensibly answer to Meg Crofton, but if you notice, she's also a "Vice President". There is no President. The next person on up the line is several levels of bureaucratic strata above them; an Al Weiss or a Tom Staggs.

Each one of these "strip mall" business entities not only are in competition with each other, but within each are individual departments, like shops in the mall, which are responsible for their own budgets, that money being parceled out amongst them using methods so obscure it can only be likened to Alchemy. So Frontierland Foods is in direct conflict with Main Street Operations, and so on and so on. All of them are in conflict with Imagineering, who often have to jump through hoops to placate any of them when it comes to designing anything. You liked the rocking chairs on Main Street? Too bad, Operations didn't. Certain areas, like Entertainment, have excessive amounts of money and regularly spend it on expensive free bees for their Cast Members like lovely jackets and shirts. Meanwhile, Operations hasn't got enough money to replace the microwave in their break rooms and they have to rely on cheap jack folding signs.

There is nobody piloting the ship. Nobody charting the course, nobody keeping things on the ball. Every area is being nickled and dimed to death and the people who ostensibly should be stopping them have no power or time to do so. That huge stage in Tomorrowland was built and paid for by Entertainment, who hardly even bothered to ask WDI if they should. It became a fiasco, just like the Adventureland stage across from Pirates, which causes huge traffic flow problems in front of the attraction and was built so quickly that the proper safety precautions were not taken to ensure that it was safe to perform on. I'll let you Google what the unhappy result of that carelessness was. There are standards in place with nobody to enforce them; an art director or supervisor can ask Operations to buy a better sign, but there's never money to do it. Magic Kingdom has to pressure Transportation to keep the monorails running so people can get to or from their theme park. It is an insane way to run a business and it is killing Walt Disney World.

That is what is wrong with Walt Disney World. Not just the signs, but the whole culture of spending and squabbling and cheapness and unaccountability it is an example of. In light of all this, asking for something like, say, a new parade, no matter how badly it is needed, is like complaining you can;t get a cup of sugar because the entire bakery is burning down. The good news is that there's lots of people in multiple levels of Walt Disney World who do still care, and who fight every day to maintain standards, but these voices are lost in the total storm of narrow minded apathy that governs. There needs to be wide sweeping change in every layer of the hundreds of levels of bureaucracy, and a concept of spending money to make money, and a concept of shared destiny before anything can happen. And it's because The Magic Kingdom isn't just the Haunted Mansion, it's also the merchandise shop at the exit, the restaurant across the way, and the attraction down the street, too. The Walt Disney World show is every gear moving and ticking away in harmony - not stuck in a deadlocked budgetary frame.

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2011 at The Magic Kingdom

Who is Buried Here Again?
The most controversial new arrival at the Magic Kingdom this year was the new interactive queue for the Haunted Mansion, which set off frenzied firestorms in some departments and relatively few, often half-hearted counter defenses in others. When established classics are messed with, we as fans often feel totally without defenses and intentionally cut out of the loop. Suffice to say that almost everything than can be said to damn this new addition, has been said, and many times at that. So I am not going to reiterate those arguments.

Let's address the single biggest best thing than can be said about the alterations, and it is a technical thing, so it has managed to escape the attention of a lot of online commentary, and that is that the incredibly inefficient and confusing wheelchair access system for the Haunted Mansion has finally been dealt with. This was in fact the primary goal of the entire effort, believe it or not, and it has been very successful. For the first time in the entire attraction's history in Florida, wheelchair parties may enter normally with the rest of the group before splitting off to the alternate access point, which has been rebuilt with a two-way access corridor in the former "Chicken Exit" / Control Tower area, complete with very nicely done thematics which blend the Mansion's Victorian parlor entrance areas and stone Gothic crypt exit areas as well as can be reasonably expected.

This means that many many people who otherwise have had very minimal needs are finally able to experience the entire attraction the way it is intended, from the opening of the front doors, on to the Foyer, Stretch Room, and so on. This is indeed a very big Win for a particular subset and it is no less important to them and indeed the operation of the entire attraction than everything that came with it.

Now. Everything that came with it. First we tackle the big one: the new queue.

Some people do love it. Others absolutely hate it. There has been an astonishing amount of digital ink spilled on this tiny area this year - some of it quite articulate, so I'm not going to go through and pick it apart bit by bit. I'd like to steer a course between the two poles and contextualize my thoughts. I don't believe that this queue means that the Mansion is ruined, nor do I think it's the end of the world, but I had a severely bad reaction to it at first. I've spent most of the year talking this out with various confederates and I believe I can finally offer a coherent take on it besides simply shouting an incredulous "why?"

There has been a lot of attention devoted to discussing what the queue compromises about the Florida Mansion, but comparatively little has been devoted to discussing what the new queue adds.

For the first twenty years of the operation of the Magic Kingdom, the Haunted Mansion felt truly remote from Liberty Square and situated on an expansive estate (right). In the next twenty years, the Mansion's "Operational Infrastructure" has crept its' "property" out further and further, yet much of this is truly "junk themeing" that only makes the area feel smaller, whether that be weeds that crowd away a once sweeping lawn, two of the worst placed trees at Walt Disney World, a totally superfluous gate, or the ill-advised and frankly hideous Fastpass structure from 2000. By opening up the area to the West of the house, taking down some overgrowth, and adding estate-like courtyards and landscape details, some of this lost territory has been regained. The West side of the Mansion facade can finally be appreciated again, and some sense of the house as a large, dimensional place has returned.

Indeed, the sweeping approach from the river and the winding path through the courtyard, with the forest seeming just barely held back beyond the westernmost wall, is fantastic textural stuff. Ever since the green 1972 canopy was expanded and replaced with the ludicrous red canopy, it's been incredibly difficult to even see the Mansion from underneath it, and the new extension offers wonderful views of the house and the river in ways which make me, for one, very thankful for small things. It's been a photographer's dream, like an entire new part of the house has just now been uncovered.

Furthermore, the landscaped hill and forced-perspective graveyard that seems to spill down its side is a thing of beauty. In our minds the large graveyard we see at the end of the ride has always been "behind" the house in some vague sense, but now it seems to be psychically connected to what we see at the front of the house in a very real way - even if the distinction between the "family plot" outside and the "public cemetery" out back, never fully well developed anyway, seems to now be blurred. Now that the weeds and flowers and bushes have grown in a bit, it's a very cool visual and it gets the Haunted Mansion attraction proper off to a terrific start. It also better hides the always incredibly prominent show building, which many will see as a very good thing.

I think the bulwark of the main queue is similarly aesthetically unobjectionable. Some of the tributes and references go a bit over the top, in my opinion, similar to what one would expect in a fanfic, although I see them as having undue prominence, perhaps, mostly because I am myself a fan and those nods are directed at me. Even if I'm not sure I approve of him being included outside the attraction, I touch the One-Eyed Black Cat every time I walk through the queue. Just a few steps later we come across one of the best tableau: a side gate that leads direct onto the lawn where a number of gravestones poke out of the grass, along with some rusted and vine-entwined shovels. It's a lovely thing, and the sort of moment one could linger by forever, and it feels like a real thing in a real world. Yet the fact that it's placed in direct proximity to an opportunity to touch a bass-relief of a cat and hear it yowl at you gets to the crux of the problem with the entire new expansion.

I'm going to use a single thing from the queue as a way of an example. Here we have the "Sea Captain Tomb", lovingly dubbed by fans/adversaries as "King Squirty":


Now, blot everything you know about what this thing does out of your mind for a moment and just look at it. It's sculpturally wonderful - recalling the gothic mansion interior attraction's use of mythical monsters in decorative details, is at least as sculpturally rich, and it's a pretty funny, morbid joke. Truthfully, I can't believe Disney let this one out the door - it's a very explicit representation of a corpse floating in a bathtub. In fact, the rest of the attraction doesn't get anywhere near that sort of direct death scene gag outside of the Ghost Host's skeleton dangling above the Stretch Room. Imagine finding such a monument in a real cemetery - you'd be shocked. Imagine if upon examining the monument closely, you discovered that water were running down the sides of it, apparently out of the tub.

It's a really morbid idea - delightfully so, and so it's perfect for the Haunted Mansion. There's just one problem. Instead of being creepy, instead of water trickling out of it the way it seems to be designed to do, this tomb is zanily squirting you with water!

 Wait, back that train up. Where did that come from??

And worse, there's a goofy voice coming from inside the tomb, which totally contradicts the visual of this corpse floating in the tub.


And there's bubbles! And sneezing! A ghost gravestone that sneezes on you outside the front door of the house. This is the thematic equivalent of going into the Haunted Mansion and visually defacing things with a Sharpie.

What happened? A visual worthy of a great ride has been compromised by an apparently unrelated agenda of somebody's idea of "interactivity". Two totally unrelated concepts have been joined at the hip. I cannot believe that those responsible for creating the visual appearance of that prop would've wanted it to be squirting water and blowing bubbles. Somewhere between the concept of the visual element of the queue and the physical one, there was a massive meltdown and all that careful work was radically compromised by silly and stupid elements. The baby, the bathwater, and the whole damn tub were thrown out with it.

What the Haunted Mansion Queue represents is a commendable effort which is mired in its own inconsistency. I cannot reconcile that the same group of people who put such work and care and love and detail into that queue also wanted there to be goofy ghost sneezes and a cloying interactive voice straight out of Dora the Explorer. But for what it is, the experience leaves very little impression on you. You walk through and still end up next to a closed set of double doors with just an echoing wolf howl and a graveyard to contemplate. And what a graveyard it is now. At least that still feels the same.

John Hench once said.... a lot of things, especially about consistency. The Haunted Mansion Queue is an inconsistent effort. Had they trusted the original designers and those people on the team who cared deeply enough to craft new visuals in the spirit of the original they would've ended up with a better product. They would've saved money, effort, and face. As it is the entire experience became sort of a very public fiasco.

Disney doesn't have a good track record of handling fiascoes well, whether that be inventing public relations fictions about why rides have closed (Pooh toys and sink holes, I'm looking at you), or simply throwing their collective hands in the air and abstaining all responsibility. But you know what? What's bad about that Haunted Mansion Queue can be fixed. Easily. Disconnecting a speaker, bubble machine, and ghost squirt gun can be done overnight. The "Poetess" lines can be re-recorded in an afternoon. Most of my objections could be corrected with very very minor, but meaningful, tweaks.

Let's be totally clear: these aren't just my objections, they're the objections of a significant portion of the specialist niche - the very people who are targeted by things like references to Captain Gore and the One-Eyed Black Cat. You can't give with one hand and slap with the other. I say let the people who clearly knew what they were doing give it another shot without those voices advocating for squirting tombstones and zany popping books in the room and see if we cannot see a radical change. It will take only a little effort to make this effort worthy of the effort that went into it. GRADE: C+

Following You Home 
Truthfully, a potentially more destructive element was added to the Mansion at the same time. What happens outside the attraction happens outside it, but once those doors open and we move inside there is a very definite "reset" button that gets hit in our subconsciousness. But the Hitch Hiking Ghosts are right in the flow of the attraction, and right at the tail end of it, where an obvious misstep will linger much longer in the memory. Part of the power of the original effect was in its simplicity; one could not be totally sure whether the hitch-hiking ghosts were menacing or comic.

The revamped version of the scene features floaty CGI ghosts pulling unusual tricks of varying degrees of effectiveness. The integration of the CGI projected ghoulies and the mirror illusion is pretty effective, even if the ghosts themselves can be said to be, accurately if flippantly, too Tex Avery and not enough Marc Davis.

Part of the associative power of the original scene was its riff on the American tradition of the phantom hitch-hiker tale; these ghosts were riding with you, exactly like in a car, and it was hard not to think of that ghost sitting in the back seat as you drove home that night. That stayed with you in a deep place. These new version don't quite ride with you; they're too busy being silly. They sort of float above you and remove your head, which is cartoonish and not quite as sinister as it sounds, almost like they're satirizing the equally ludicrous but much better aesthetically integrated "Black Widow Bride" scene that's dominated up in the Attic since 2007.

From a technical perspective, I think this effect is fine, and judging from verbal reactions of other passengers, seems to be successful. But I'm not so sure. At the very least these new ghosts are indeed digital projections, and unlike rod puppets, the projections can be changed easily and at any time. Perhaps some future enterprising Imagineer will restore a Haunted Mansion finale in a more dignified vein. GRADE: C-

Mice in the Hotel
For some time now,  Magic Kingdom has been shifting her character meet and greets about, taking here, moving there, sometimes even banishing a few characters to EPCOT. What on the outside perhaps looks like shuffleboard, is on the inside more akin to a game of chess - a very tight game of chess. In the past several years, many of the Magic Kingdom's "twilight spaces" - poorly utilized spaces, former food courts, shops, and attractions - have been rethought or filled in. With the closure of Mickey's Toontown in Feburary, many of the character meet and greets fled to other quarters - including a bizarre and hilarious period when as many as four Mickeys could be found around the Magic Kingdom at once, in such unexpected places as alongside Splash Mountain and inside the Hall of Presidents. One should not underestimate the mouse's ability to draw a crowd or cause Entertainment managers to sweat bullets.

The largest remaining "twilight space" in the Magic Kingdom was the Walt Disney Story show building, built behind the Main Street Hotel facade in 1972 and housing an attraction which ran for twenty years. For the last twenty years, the space has been poorly used. One attraction theater was converted to run cartoons and sell timeshares, the other boarded up and used for meeting space and Cast theatrical productions. In 2009 the entire Walt Disney Story show building was closed off and an elaborate tear-out procedure began. What opened there earlier this year can hardly be recognized. This by itself is an extraordinary relief. All too often "new" attractions seem to be little more than crumbling old attraction infrastructure with some new stickers and paint.

This Mural....
 ...once knew better days.

Now, I'm not opposed to character meet and greets, and I'm resigned to their continued presence in this and other theme parks. But I don't think it's an unreasonable demand to ask that, if said meet and greets must be conducted in their current state - with attendants, queues and timed interactions - that they be conducted in reasonably appropriate environs. This is all too rarely the case. Aladdin greets guests in Adventureland in front of a prop door (it once led to a shop) which junk has been scattered around. In his former digs, Mickey held court in the "Judge's Tent" (which made no sense) at "Mickey's Toontown Fair" (which made even less sense) amidst a roiling pit of puffy fiberglass "cartoon" props and the worst design choices in the entire park. He's now landed on Main Street, which could have been a disaster. It's become one of the best things to happen to the park in a long time.

Let's set aside the touchy issue of what he's doing on Main Street for the moment. If Goofy is permitted in Liberty Square then there's no real reason to object to Mickey on Main Street, and whatever slight aesthetic damage is done to the park with this choice is insignificant compared to the massive aesthetic triumph of tearing out Mickey's Toontown Fair. Since the Judge's Tent was due for demolition, Mickey had to be moved elsewhere, and a large, prominent, empty space at the very front of the park was probably operationally mandated before even a single sketch was drawn up. If we take all of that as givens, the resulting attraction is a triumph. It's probably the most texturally complex experience on Main Street.

Victorian Gingerbread and Mickey Mouse don't really go together, but this attraction makes it all seem to work. It accomplishes this primarily through including just enough visual texture and detail to make the Town Square Theater location seem credible, but enough that's just this side of fantastic enough to make Mickey's presence unobtrusive. He appears in a room too stacked with details to possibly take in all at once, and although many of these details are cute references or throwaway gags, they're done on a level of perceptibility which means they seem to exist for more reasons than their own sake. I often complain that current Imagineers substitute props for ideas. These props are ideas, and they greatly contribute to the excellence of the experience.

The Main Street Hotel facade - probably the most handsome on Main Street - has been totally refurbished and looks superb. Most importantly, the ugly Exposition Hall marquee has been scrapped, which fixed a long, wide horizontal sign across a facade which is designed in entirely vertical architectural expressions, from tall pillars to tall doors. The new sign, although not quite as nice as the original Hospitality House sign, actually harmonizes with the architecture and is quite pleasing and handsome. Vertical banners have been added as well which help clue guests in as to what may be found inside, and although some have decried these they are, to my eye, inoffensive. They harmonize with the rest of the building and add a pleasant kinetic element when there is a breeze.

 Seriously, who thought this sign was a good idea?

Moving inside, the attraction's crowd flow has been totally reversed. Rather than entering through the south veranda and exiting through the old Gulf Hospitality House lobby, guests now enter a totally reworked vestibule. Many of the original WED decorative and design elements have been retained, but the shop has been contained on one side of the entrance and the Town Square restaurant on the other, which greatly helps the attraction entrance feel like it has a reason for existing. Some very fine textural work here and in the new entrance area is on the nose without going too far - the attraction becomes increasingly visually richer the deeper one proceeds into it. The yellow, white, and gilt darkens to a suitably Victorian brown and red, then onwards to beige and bricks in the exit shop - an orchestrated use of color here really pays off. As one is shuffled through doors and corridors, the anticipation of meeting Mickey is more strongly felt here than in any other "Meet Mickey" attraction yet made.

Where the attraction fails it does so graciously. Some areas are still a little too bare and free of ornamentation, although this can be fixed. The rear theater space is a black void of nothing - currently used for Princess meetings, although they will be moved to Fantasyland before the year is out and the space can be properly finished (see what I meant about a chess game?). The queue space is ludicrously massive, as if in the planning stages the entire Napoleonic army was expected to descend to meet Magician Mickey. Since the Princess space isn't really designed to be anything, it moves very slowly, but a smart and efficient series of rooms on the Mickey side, plus an additional greeting room for Mickey (up to four), means that waits rarely stretch to the extremes this attraction entertained while in Toontown. It is not only better designed and pleasant to see, but it hosts more people in a better experience.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So do I. In a park as densely visited as the Magic Kingdom is, there should not be a square inch of wasted space. This new attraction fixes many longstanding problems - operationally and aesthetically - all at once and it does so very pleasantly in a way which does not contradict the rich theming around it and finally finds a purpose for a major Magic Kingdom facility which has not been under a lucky sign in over a generation. If there were more things happening like this at Walt Disney World, it would be a much better place. GRADE: B+

 "The Walt Disney Story" Theater B awaits demolition
after twenty years of neglect.


Likes To Be Seen and Loves To Be Heard -
The return of the Tiki Room was the big surprise of 2011, proving that Walt Disney World may still have some surprises in her even to bored, jaded commentators such as myself - even if said surprises came about through total freak, act-of-God, insurance bait calamities.  As I've said in my previous article, it's a very very commendable effort, what WDI has done with the show, although I must admit that I think I'm grading this a bit more leniently than I think it deserves. After all, what makes the "new" old show work is really nothing that was done for it in 2011 - it works for the same reason the Disneyland show never stopped working and never stopped playing. And I could be complaining that it took an act of God situation to put the real Tiki Room show back in Florida - truthfully they should've closed the offending Under New Management show immediately and let the Disney faithful run the people responsible out of town, tarred and feathered. I don't care. I'm just happy it came back at all.

And the Florida Tiki Room, it's a thing of beauty, even if the fountain in the middle of the room never did make a re-appearance - consider it a lingering scar to remind us of the price Under New Management came at. It's also nice to see such a fresh looking show regardless - with bright feathers, good lights and a robust sound system to back up the 1963 show, it works its wonders all over again. The recent attention has even brought out some nice surprises buried in the old Wathel Rogers animation from 1971, such as a very refined use of diagetic "sound" from the "Glee Club" during the show's signature number - beaks clack and clap and really seem to be clicking out the rhythm of the song, at least compared to the much vaguer movements seen at Disneyland earlier this year by this author.

But the real happy ending here isn't that I personally got what I wanted back, it's that it was done well and is a success. Instead of playing to a ghost house of bored parents, toddlers and others, the Tiki Room is packed nearly all day. During the Holiday peak season, reported estimated queues of 20 minutes made the rounds through the social networking circles. And when was the last time you saw a line for the Tiki Room? But that show is a birthright of the Magic Kingdom, it's one of the things that makes that park -  and Disneyland - what it is. Walt Disney was right and quality does last. But don't believe me. Ask Iago, last seen being carted out of the attraction as a charred hull on his way to a far too late retirement to the junkyard of metric tons of garbage Imagineering from his era. GRADE: A-

.....And The Other Stuff
Besides those big changes, 2011 saw a few other newsworthy items at the Magic Kingdom. To my eyes the biggest deal was the closure of Mickey's Toontown Fair in February, which finally ends nearly twenty-five years of garishly awful aesthetics  behind the Grand Prix Raceway. The immediate result of this was the rapid and belated movement of Mickey to Main Street, followed by an extended shuffling-about of character greeting locations, which at least for the moment has landed Tinkerbell in the Adventureland Veranda, which is a terrible choice but at least is using the space, and will eventually lead to the closure of Snow White's Scary Adventures which will become an elaborate complex to house all of the princess "girl interest" characters. I think it's unfortunate to lose the Snow White ride, which was always a favorite despite the fact that it simply hasn't been very good since the half-cooked 1994 'upgrade'. Yet getting the Princesses inside a controlled area of four walls and out of the rest of the park, where they loiter around like homeless persons in such unfortunate areas as Liberty Square and Adventureland, will be a large step forward in increasing the thematic unity of the park itself.

The Fantasyland Skyway structure, which in my mind was amongst the very best of WED's efforts at the Magic Kingdom in 1971, was demolished this year. It's site is slated to become a relocated bathrooms with a new, auxiliary path lading towards the Haunted Mansion around the previously-inaccessible area behind the Yankee Trader shop, directly through the plot of land originally reserved for a "Haunted Mansion Arcade". This will allow a northbound outlet for traffic leaving the Haunted Mansion - which is absolutely needed, as this area is a horrendous traffic snare on even medium attendance days - as well as clear the way for a reconfigured queue for Peter Pan's Flight.

As sad as it is to lose the Skyway chalet, this author is resigned to face facts that no guest has seen the interior of it since 1998 and without a chain of brightly-colored buckets chugging in and out of its handsome mouth, there was little reason to keep it around. Efforts to reutilize it as a restaurant or Meet and Greet area came to nought, and in the middle of 2011, all that beautiful wood was torn down to the slate foundation. I'm sure, with the passing of time, that the new path will come to seem normal, even natural, much like those bridges that skirt the northern boundary of Frontierland's riverfront. The path could even provide a pleasant new transition to Liberty Square, and since there appears to be no danger of filling in the original Harbour House breezeway, I will have little reason to complain on any further historical grounds. This is the sort of ambitious crowd flow plan that would've been axed out of pure cheapness ten years ago. Still, it hurts a little to know that all these years later I'll never again get to walk through the half round tunnel, past the trickling stream, and then up the narrow steps to the Skyway chalet while the Florida sun sinks low behind the Frontierland pines to the West. It was a blessed space but, much like the Fantasyland Submarine Lagoon which lived out a final shameful decade as nothing but a glorified retention pond / litter dump, I'd rather see the park use all of the space it's been allotted than let just another empty former attraction crumble away.

El Pirata Y El Perico, the mainstay taco bar across from the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean (because I typed this aloud, some Disneylander who's never been east of the Rockies just started writhing around in torment), underwent a number of aesthetic changes this year, reopening as Tortuga Tavern, which is themed to, or so I'm told, some of the, um, Junior Adult novels based around the films inspired by the attraction which sits across the street. I have no way to verify this, but it is of no relevance to me anyway, because it turned out pretty cool.

El Pirata was once only the most eastwardly of the establishments along the north side of Caribbean Plaza, which opened in mid 1974 along with two shops, the Golden Galleon and Princessa de Cristal, which shared a secluded courtyard. In 1998, concurrent with the expansion of Pecos Bill Cafe which similarly absorbed original Magic Kingdom themeing by the ton, El Pirata evicted both shops and remodeled both into dining rooms, then joined the complex's north wall to Pecos Bill's south wall by way of a huge ramp and some suspect theming. Of course, El Pirata immediately went to seasonal status, making it one of the best places to get away from the crowds at Magic Kingdom, as it's in operation for probably less than 40 aggregate hours a year. One wonders how much money Disney could be making with those dining rooms and courtyards if they were still shops, but that's just crazy talk.

I'm not one to go out of my way to praise movie tie-in theming, but ever since the Pecos Bill expansion robbed this area of so much character and identity, it's been a rather sad place, like the last person to leave the party. If you're going to do synergistic tie-ins, you should do them like this. Nearly everything that was added is well judged and does not overwhelm the original architecture, unlike many of WDI's ill-advised "enhancements" of the 90s. These are small touches but they mean a lot, and run the gauntlet from nice new tile trim on upper balconies around windows and doors that blends in perfectly with the original WED designs, to well-built, custom-made but unobtrusive "themeing". The former Golden Galleon space features dozens of melted candles in bowls and vases and much improved "tavern" decor. An upper level has an overturned table and empty bottles, perhaps the first reference to drunkenness out of Disney in a very long time. The courtyard has some new lights, bullet holes, and a nice little tableau on an upper balcony. Best of all, the new, pleasant nautical background music is the sort of thing Wagner would have compiled back in the 70s, sedate, calming, and in perfect theme and taste. It may still hardly be used, but there's a little more class and life in the Tavern now.

Adventureland got the lion's share of the change this year, with an all-new bridge which debuted in the Spring. There is one incredibly obvious thing about the bridge and one not so obvious thing about the bridge. The first is that its totally flat, which is pretty weird, if you ask me. But the new bridge is not only flat, it's also quite different, despite recycling almost all of the original props.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, the push for July 17th meant that most of the Adventureland pedestrian area was decorated with off the shelf stuff from Oceanic Arts. This being the era it was, this meant skulls. Lots of skulls. Skulls on sticks, animal skulls, etc. The 1971 Adventureland, due in part to the more subtle touch of Dorthea Redmond, was a more refined place and so a new, very simple, but handsome gate in a pop-tiki style was introduced. In fact, outside of the skulls in the headhunter's camp on the Jungle Cruise, there was no scattered evidence of cannibalism to be found anywhere in the Florida Adventureland.

Forty years later, this new bridge is more in line with the Disneyland original, with a prominent animal skull and even a pile of human skulls to welcome guests. One of the skulls even has a huge puncture hole in the top of it's cranium. So we traded a 100% decrease in bridge curvature for a 100% increase in skulls. You know what? I think it was a fair trade.

 ...but skulls!!!!

And finally, the Swiss Family Treehouse was lovingly rebuilt this year, and shockingly enough opened with absolutely no characters in it, except for confused guests. Railings everywhere have overall been made more idiot-proof, meaning studier and with more nets, and there's lots of wonderful new woods, props and textures all through the island. The lighting scheme has been repaired and indeed added to, so at night the attraction seems to beam bright welcoming light out in all directions, and more than once this party overheard confused guests drawn inside this "new" attraction by bright lanterns and the echoing strains of the Swisskapolka. It warmed my heart.

By the way, a long-gone prop was restored during the refurbishment: an elephant rifle once again hangs at the ready in the boys' room. Between the elephant gun, skulls on the bridge, drunkenness at Tortuga Tavern, and absurd ethnic accent comedy in the Enchanted Tiki Room, Adventureland has suffered a quadruple increase in political incorrectness. Maybe there's hope for the world yet. GRADE: A-


Foxxy's Grade: For all the huge improvements and not so huge improvements, Walt Disney World is falling behind in the long run even while they improve in the sort run. This cannot be ignored. Ludicrous interdepartmental politics, general cheapness, and poor long term planning means the spirit of Paul Pressler is still very much alive at Walt Disney World, and now there's thousands of Pauls, not just one. I'm going to call this category "Vision". It can also be thought of as the "Don't Be An Idiot" grade. Walt Disney World needs to shape up in many areas, from crumbling transportation infrastructure to management malaise. Things have gotten worse a whole lot faster than they've gotten better. I give Walt Disney World an F for Vision.


MAGIC KINGDOM REPORT CARD:
Haunted Mansion Interactive Queue: C+
Haunted Mansion Interactive Ghosts: C-
Meet Mickey on Main Street: B+
Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Bonfire: A-
Upkeep and Maintainence: A-
Not Being Idiots: F

AVERAGE: C+

Comments: We all know which grade is holding Miss Disney World back. It's time this was addressed. She can do everything else fine but she doesn't listen to her friends and ignores the advice of her peers. She has 40 more years ahead of her and they could be great, but the last 20 have been nothing but tiny steps forward and huge leaps backward. It's time she stop climbing this hill. - Foxxy, Jan 2012

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2011 at Passport to Dreams Old & New: (mostly old)
Snapshots:
Mysteries of the Second Floor
Marines Capture Coke Corner
Frap-Off at the Village

History and Esoterica:
The World Cruise
Palate Cleanser
Fireworks of the Universe
People I've Met in the Past: Part One
People I've Met in the Past: Part Two
Other Kingdoms to Conquer
The First Decade in Maps
Hanging at the STOLport

Commentary and Theory:
Rubber Spider Revue
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
Fire in the Night: The Pre-Eminent Attraction-as-Art
Start to Shriek and Harmonize


In the Spirit of Fairness: Walt Disney World Grades Me: "F-----!!!! ur a jerk!!!!! jeez"

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Passport to Dreams Year End Reports: 2011 2010 2009